Discussion: Can Science Answer Moral Questions?

Beginning of discussion:  Thomas was going to try and bring a couple who had recently deconverted from Christianity to tell their story.  If they are able to attend, we will spend the first part of the evening engaging with them on their experience.

Philosophy and Theology have long claimed to be the domain of moral discussion, but Sam Harris has a different idea.  He believes moral values are objective facts, and science deals in facts, therefore science can answer moral questions.  

In the below TED talk, Harris makes an interesting case.  He asks the question, "Does the Taliban have a point-of-view on physics that is worth considering?  How is their ignorance any less obvious on the subject of well-being?".  

http://www.ted.com/talks/sam_harris_science_can_show_what_s_right

William Lane Craig of course agrees that the Taliban is morally reprehensible but disagrees with Harris by claiming if God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.  

Has Harris successfully shown that objective moral values and duties can exist without God?  Does his conclusion avoid the Humean is/ought problem?  Are there any other potential moral systems that allow objectivity but don't need God to ground them?

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  • David M.

    the Meetup was great! See you next time.
    Larry: On the subject of future meetings, the "Emergent Church" is a possible interesting subject. It is kind of tricky to define, it clearly describes some known problems with Christendom, it is controversial-- sounds discussable! [Wikipedia under emergent church says "Members of the movement often place a high value on good works or social activism, including missional living.[29] ...Christendom values as: a commitment to hierarchy and the status quo; the loss of lay involvement; institutional values rather than community focus; church at the centre of society rather than the margins; the use of political power to bring in the Kingdom; religious compulsion; punitive rather than restorative justice; marginalisation of women, the poor, and dissident movements; inattentiveness to the criticisms ...; and a preoccupation with the rich and powerful.[31] ]

    March 31, 2014

    • Thomas L.

      I am familiar with this ... and I believe Nick has attended a few. To answer the question "Why did Christianity succeed?" I think the answer lies with the home meetings over meals where genuine communities were formed. I think THAT is what the 1st century church provided that made it so enduring ... and that very thing is much of what the emergent church is about.

      1 · March 31, 2014

    • Nicolas H.

      I don't think anyone can tell you what the emergent church is. I was a part of it for a few years (I only went to the one in greenville) and every time someone asked what it was, I would just smile as we all gave different answers which may have been the point.

      April 1, 2014

  • Nicolas H.

    Based upon what Ed stated, can we all agree that science can ,at least, posit a plausible explanation for the need for morality (society moving from tribal to city-dwelling structures)?

    Assuming so, then the original meetup question "Can Science Answer Moral Questions?" remains. I think another more specific and more interesting way of stating this question is "can science answer 'individual' moral questions?" IMO, this is not a trivial distinction because proving a need for morality in general appears not to be that hard. Apparently, Darwin (the father of evolution) proved the need for morality using evolutionary principles anecdotally (which was relatively soon after he came up with the idea). And even today zoologists, sociologists, neurologists, etc are adding to the empirical evidence using all sorts of experiments and novel animal behavior studies.

    Can anyone point to specific moral questions that science may be able to answer or has already answered?

    March 24, 2014

  • Debra W.

    I believe that a well developed sense of empathy is the basis to all of our moral laws. I believe that the social rules and moral laws of society serve as external strictures for those who have no empathy. Those who have the ability to empathize need very very little external strictures since those people are guided internally.

    March 19, 2014

    • Larry C.

      Hi Debra - this is a good insight and very relevant to our discussion Monday night. Empathy is a great way for us to come to KNOW moral values and/or duties, but is it what grounds them? Are your empathetic feelings closer to right than mine - and if so, where is the yardstick that allows us to measure it?

      March 20, 2014

  • Nikki T.

    Sorry. Boring question. How is parking? Where is the best place to find parking if one is directionally challenged?

    March 19, 2014

    • Bill C.

      It's immoral!!! Ok, bad joke. Sorry. I am usually able to find a spot off of Main within a couple of blocks. I may have to drive up and down Main a few times but a spot usually opens up. I parked on a side street once that was just a couple of blocks away. I don't know where everyone else parks.

      1 · March 19, 2014

  • Ed

    Christianity provides its own evidence that morality is an imperfect process, as one can see when you compare the fact that nowhere in the Bible is mass murder, slavery (which is never called a "sin," but slaves are to be duly disciplined even with physical punishment as even Jesus taught in a parable), polygamy, concubinage, the persecution of witches, homosexuals, heretics and blasphemers, and the stoning of adulterers and disobedient children, condemned, but each is divinely instituted and/or acceptable based on the era and circumstances.

    Concerning claims of the "objectivity" of Christian morality, one can't help but notice how presumptuous it is to laud such "objectivity" when there remain plenty of disagreements over what a list of such "objective moral laws" might be, aside from the obvious ones to which even secularists assent.

    March 15, 2014

    • Larry C.

      Hi Ed,

      "when there remain plenty of disagreements over what a list of such "objective moral laws" might be, aside from the obvious ones to which even secularists assent."

      I agree with this, but this is an epistemological question not an ontological one. I'm as open-minded as I can be about how we might come to know moral values and duties - you've probably thought of ways that I have not and I'd enjoy hearing them. The problem is that Harris is making an ontological claim, he's saying there are objective moral facts/duties and science can show them. I'd like to discuss whether Harris' view is tenable, and if not, is there any other conceivable way science could potentially ground moral values/duties.

      March 17, 2014

  • Bill C.

    Ed - lots of thoughts to talk about there. Bring them to the meetup and we could have a good discussion.

    Your first statement "Rather than starting with God..." should not be an issue at the meetup since the topic is not about God but about whether or not Science can answer moral questions.

    The quick answer to your question about moral values and duties is, no, they are not the same thing.

    How do you define morality? What is the definition your are supposing in your comments? That is something that we will probably have to determine at the beginning of the meetup. It would be tough to have a productive discussion on morality if we aren't all working under the same definition.

    March 16, 2014

  • Ed

    Rather than starting with God let's start with people (people who are not judged by the majority to be either psychopaths or complete hermits). Regardless of one's "beliefs," the vast majority feels in a direct & universal way that having others to speak with who share a language, conversation, food, touch, is agreeable, and that joys shared are increased, while sorrows shared are diminished, and that having our lives or belongings taken from us at another person's whim (or at nature's whim) is disagreeable. These shared values led to regulations to help prevent the whims of other people (as well as whims of nature/natural disasters) from taking away our lives or belongings.

    Our brain-minds are constantly comparing things in a perpetual feedback loop, including lists of experiences we consider the best and the worst. Such lists overlap to a great extent among people, which seems to make them human-interaction-based.

    March 15, 2014

  • Ed

    CONTINUING MESSAGE BELOW When early tribes of humans became city dwellers they could no longer know everyone in their tribe at a glance since their tribe was now a whole city, so they could not know what kinds of behaviors they might expect or enjoy or fear from others, and neither could the whole tribe still be involved in ostracizing or ousting or reacting to unwelcome behaviors, so the creation of laws and their enforcement by the ruler seemed like a more impersonal and natural next step beyond tribalistic morality.

    But to continue to add a person tinge to such laws, plenty of ancient civilizations claimed such laws were handed down or inspired by a personal divinity

    March 15, 2014

  • Ed

    Children naturally tend to act in ways that annoy or harm others or harm themselves, therefore humans begin training/teaching other humans how to behave at a very young age. It's natural for large-brained mammalian parents to deliver lessons in behavior to their children. So morality evolved not only between adults but also as part of the human developmental process as directed by parents. Humans have been teaching other humans how to behave, generation after generation, ages before even a written language was developed. Large-brained mammalian species from apes and dolphins to elephants form tribal societies that involve teaching the young how to behave. In one case I read about, juvenile elephants moved to another territory by themselves started acting like "Lord of the Flies" children, rampaging and even trampling animals of other species, until some older elephants were added to the mix, who disciplined the adolescents and taught them lessons in how to act.

    March 15, 2014

  • Ed

    CONTINUING THE MESSAGE BELOW These [priority] systems are something far deeper than mere social contracts made for convenience. They are not optional. They are a profound attempt--though of course usually an unsuccessful one--to shape our conflict-ridden life in a way that gives priority to the things that we care about most.

    If this is right, then we are creatures whose evolved nature absolutely requires that we develop a morality. We need it in order to find our way in the world. The idea that we could live without any distinction between right and wrong is as strange as the idea that we--being creatures subject to gravitation--could live without any idea of up and down. That at least is Darwin’s idea and it seems to me to be one that deserves attention. [Mary Midgley, “Wickedness: An Open Debate,” The Philosopher’s Magazine, No. 14, Spring 2001]

    March 15, 2014

  • Ed

    Darwin proposed that creatures riven by strong emotional conflicts & the intelligence to be aware of them need to develop a morality because they need a priority system by which to resolve them. The need for morality is a corollary of conflicts plus intellect:

    Man, from the activity of his mental faculties, cannot avoid reflection… Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well-developed, or anything like as well-developed as in man.(Darwin, Descent of Man)

    That's why we have within us the rudiments of such a priority system and why we have also an intense need to develop those rudiments. We try to shape our moralities in accordance with our deepest wishes so that we can in some degree harmonize our muddled and conflict-ridden emotional constitution, thus finding ourselves a way of life that suits it so far as is possible.

    March 15, 2014

  • Ed

    Monkeys, apes, and humans all engage in reconciliation/forgiving behaviors (stretching out a hand, smiling, kissing, embracing, and so on) which means that it is probably over thirty million years old, preceding the evolutionary divergence of these primates... Reconciliation behavior [is] a shared heritage of the primate order… When social animals are involved... antagonists do more than estimate their chances of winning before they engage in a fight; they also take into account how much they need their opponent. The contested resource often is simply not worth putting a valuable relationship at risk. And if aggression does occur, both parties may hurry to repair the damage. Victory is rarely absolute among interdependent competitors, whether animal or human. [Frans De Waal, Peacemaking Among Primates]

    March 15, 2014

  • Ed

    The OT contains divinely inspired "moral" laws nobody but the most hard-nosed Calvinist adores, and even then they adore them from afar, knowing that they'd get arrested if they starting stoning homosexuals, witches, women-not-found-to-be-virgins on their wedding nights, and disobedient children in their mid-teens. In the NT, Jesus left a long list of commands to his followers in his sermons, including such things as "take no thought for the morrow, or what ye shall eat or drink" "sell all you have and give it to the poor," "give to all who ask, asking nothing in return," "love your enemies," but again, those are adored from afar, not to be confused with a "morally objective" list of laws to be enforced by government.

    March 15, 2014

  • Ed

    RECOGNITION OF UNFAIRNESS probably arrived with the evolution of new types of brains, and goes back before the arrival of humans on earth, even before the arrival of great apes. Monkeys sense when someone else is getting a better deal for the same token, and they complain about the unfairness by THROWING BACK the cucumber they were paid, once they see the other monkey is getting a more sought after food like a grape for the SAME token. This resembles in some ways the Wall Street Protests: http://youtu.be/gOtlN4pNArk

    March 15, 2014

  • Ed

    Hi Larry, Are moral values and moral duties the same thing? We all evaluate our experiences and find that we value some activities or things over others. Those evaluations also overlap with the evaluations of others. But nobody is forced to pursue such evaluations as a "duty," because even in a world WITH God, every type of behavior is possible. Probably because so many people reach the same general evaluations, and because we know that there are psychopaths and egomaniacs among us, we decided to create laws and police departments and courts and judges.

    March 15, 2014

  • Larry C.

    Sam has a good article in the Huffington Post where he answers some of his critics:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/a-response-to-critics_b_815742.html

    March 15, 2014

  • David M.

    I read the Sam Harris TED talk (there is an option for a transcript). Was disappointed Harris did not define his terms, like what he means by morality. Not to pick on the guy, but the paragraph marked 4:17 pretty much sums up his talk. He claims the personality of a suicide bomber is caused by his brain, but that is a vacuous statement, because the brain doesn't randomly decide a personality, but is a vehicle where ideas and experiences are stored and processed, which results in a personality. Then he admits culture changes us thru the instrument of the brain, that the brain is not the cause. Then he says "therefore" and concludes the opposite of his previous sentence. And finally he says psychology is a science of the mind, but everybody knows psychology is about human behavior. I think speaking authoritatively things that are not accurate or consistent is a sign of a weak position. Harris is right that economics and politics have a huge impact on human lives.

    March 13, 2014

  • Debra W.

    What about Buddhism? I believe Buddhism offers a good moral system.

    March 10, 2014

    • Debra W.

      Thanks, I would like to attend a meetup one day. I'm just a novice.

      March 11, 2014

    • Thomas L.

      We're ALL novices, Debra!

      March 11, 2014

  • Thomas L.

    I think science can be a useful TOOL in determining morality, where "morality" is vaguely defined as an amalgam of "flourishing" and "not harming". It, and statistical analysis, can determine the best (or better) actions to produce a desired effect. But it's still up to humankind to determine what "good" is. According to Islamic Revolutionaries, the highest good is total submission to Allah and His laws. The West would define "good" quite differently. Of course Hitler was VERY efficient at achieving some extraordinary goals (not the least being an economic miracle), but ... oh damn, did I bring up Hitler too soon??

    March 10, 2014

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