Science and the Good (Book review wrt deriving morality from science)

(Christy Hemphill) #1

CT published an interesting review of the book Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality by James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedilisky.

The book endeavors to examine four hundred years of of attempts to discover the source and meaning of morality through science, in particular the reignited interest fueled by the advances in neuroscience, psychology, and evolutionary theory of the late 20th century and the work of “moral scientists” who attempt to frame altruism as an evolutionary advantage.

Since the topic of evolving moral consciousness is brought up repeatedly, I thought some people might be interested in the book, or the review.

(RiderOnTheClouds) #2

Anyone trying to derive morality from science commits a naturalistic fallacy. I am pleasantly surprised to see some atheists (such as Peter Singer) express a belief in ethical non-naturalism, but I do wonder how they know what our duty is without God.

(Christy Hemphill) #3

I think most humanists believe our duty is decided by community consensus. Hence the need for relative moralities.

(RiderOnTheClouds) #4

Is that not an Argumentum AD Populum?

(Christy Hemphill) #5

Logical fallacies only apply to logical arguments. Our duty is decided by community consensus is a belief.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #6

@Reggie_O_Donoghue and @Christy,

If nature has a purpose, and it does, then science would be moral in fulfilling that purpose.

(Christy Hemphill) #7

Science is a collection of observations, it is not an entity with agency and volition. Scientists can be moral but science and nature are and always will be amoral.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #8

Nature is created by God Who is Moral and Good, and therefore Nature is Good and Moral.

Science is the study of how Nature, which is moral and good, works. Therefore Science is good, although scientists and others who use or abuse science can be moral or immoral.

(Christy Hemphill) #9

Rocks are created by God, so are rocks good and moral?

Geology is by definition a moral enterprise?

Rhetorical questions, you don’t have to answer them. I basically reject your reasoning here. Science is amoral. The findings of science can be applied by people (moral agents) in moral or immoral ways.

(Dillon) #10

I’m an atheist and a non-naturalist. As I see it, so long as one thinks that goodness can refer to something objective, then he/she can use that to form a basis for morality. I suppose believers might have an easier task in that regard, as they have a belief in some sort of fundamental force of good (God).

Plato relied on a similar concept, but his theory was not rooted in theology. He tried to demonstrate it logically with his theory of Forms. The theory of Forms is rather problematic when you start scrutinizing it, but I nonetheless think that Plato was on to something. It’s as if he knew about the naturalistic fallacy (centuries ahead of everyone else), but he didn’t have a way to articulate it because moral naturalism itself was undeveloped.

(Christy Hemphill) #11

You don’t even need objective standards as a basis for morality. (As a Christian) I think it is lame when Christians say things that imply atheists or subscribers to other belief systems “have no basis for morality.” It’s pretty clear that beauty is subjective, relative, and cultural, but that doesn’t stop anyone from recognizing and responding to beauty. It also doesn’t mean that the relative standards of beauty are completely arbitrary and unpredictable either. I don’t see why morality is different, unless God is somehow intrinsic to a person’s concept of goodness.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #12

Science is not amoral. Science requires that a scientist is honest or moral. that a scientist does not cheat in preparing his/her findiongs.

I would agree that rocks are not moral agents, but they are still good and that are not amoral. Rocks provide all of the minerals and elements that humans need for life. Rocks provide the foundation for our world. Rocks are good.

Anything that is done properly is a moral enterprise. God allowed for a record of the past to be written in the rocks. Exploring that history is a moral enterprise. To think that some people have theorized that God faked the theological record to tempted Christians to believe in science rather than the Bible.

First of all Christians do not have an “objective” basis for morality, we have a relational basis for morality, which is God’s Love. John 3:16. The problem with materialism and physicalism is that it is not relative or relational, because Love the basis for morality is not physical and thus is outside the objective Reality of Atheism. Also of course most atheists maintain that they do not have faith or a belief system, which if true would mean that they “have no basis for morality.”

(Christy Hemphill) #13

No that just means the data is true or false. An SAT score is not moral or immoral depending on the character of the person who took it.

Usefulness does not equate to morality.

I can tie my shoe properly without any morality coming into the process. Morality depends on there being moral choices and moral agents. Geologists can be moral. Geologists are the moral agents who do the exploring and presenting. The body of information collectively known as geology is amoral. It contains true or false information, good and bad explanations not moral and immoral information and explanations.

Once again Roger, you are using an idiosyncratic definition of a word that no one else uses. You can’t have a productive conversation if you insist words mean something they don’t mean to anyone else in the population of users. So, I’m done with this topic with you.

Agreed, if Love with a capital is the same as your Word with a capital and means Jesus.

It is not atheism that says there is no reality beyond the natural world, it’s naturalism. We should not conflate the two. One can certainly have a moral foundation without Jesus and be a moral person without God. As Christians we would just argue that the morality produced would not be capable of reconciling a person to God.

(Mitchell W McKain) #14

Incorrect. One is perfectly able to derive morality from the findings of science without committing such a fallacy. Science proves that things like smoking cigarettes and not wearing seat belts have a very high probability in leading you to serious physical harm or death. The conclusion that one ought not to do these things is perfectly logical and there is no such confusion between is and ought, there is only the simple and most obvious assumption that, of course, people ought to avoid serious physical harm or death. That makes an irrefutable connection between between is and ought. To be sure those making a refutation try to attack this assumption but frankly it sounds extremely hollow and like you are making lame excuses – grasping at straws to prop up an unreasonable ideology.

Sounds like very poor reasoning to me. It is demonstrable that morality has both elements which are relative (a matter of convention) and absolute (a matter of good reasons).

Science is not about morality any more than it is about the other issues of religion, but this doesn’t mean that it has no bearing on morality or religion. You can also say that science is amoral in the sense that it can be used for either good or evil. But then the same thing can be said of either Christianity or religion in general, which not only can but HAS been used for great evil as well as good.

Thus we should consider the challenge of how can Christianity be considered good? Wouldn’t that have to come from an evaluation of its overall impact on mankind? Has the sum total effect been a positive, creative force or a destructive force? But then that should also be the way we make this evaluation of science. So despite the fact that all these have been used for terrible things… life is good, science good, and Christianity is good. These are all GOOD THINGS!

Yes. Founded on a commitment to accuracy and honesty as well as adding to the knowledge of mankind, it certainly is a moral enterprise.

There is a fallacy here in equating science with a tool like a gun, because science is defined by a methodology without which it is nothing at all rather than simply a piece of shaped metal like the gun is. The gun is a gun quite apart from how it is used. But if you don’t follow the methodology of science, which includes honesty, then it just isn’t science at all.


Science is neither moral nor amoral. It simply tells us how the natural world works. But with technology, which is applied science, we get into morals. We can build bombs, but is that the right thing to do? We can control conception, but is that the right thing to do? We can prolong a person’s life, but is that the right thing to do? These are decisions that scientists alone cannot answer, although they certainly have opinions.

Remember that de-extinction discussion/debate I posted that nobody watched? The panel included scientsts, yes, but also ethicists, philosophers, etc.

(Christy Hemphill) #16

But isn’t the evaluation of “good” reasons inherently subjective, if it isn’t in reference to some standard that is claimed to be absolute?

Agreed. Because the findings of science affect the actions and decisions of moral agents.

I was speaking of science as a collection of information. You are speaking of science as an activity. I agree that any human activity can be conducted in moral or immoral ways.

(Mitchell W McKain) #17

No. The evaluation of good reasons cover the whole spectrum from subjective to objective. If something is in reference to a standard then it is relative to the standard selected. The only thing that makes something absolute rather than relative is the fact that it is founded on good reasons rather than the arbitrary dictates of some culture, society, religion, god, authority, or standard. Of course sometimes it is both and there is a presumption that an authority or God dictates something because they have a good reason and we just don’t know what it is. But until the good reasons are actually shown then the absolute character of it also has not been shown.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #18

Can you provide an example of any instance of science-based morality?

(Mitchell W McKain) #19

I built an entire system of morality when I was 13 years old based on the principles of psychology I learned from my parents. Is that the kind of example you are talking about?

I already gave specific examples above and explained. To be sure, a link must be made between “is” and “ought” but the premises which do this, like “one ought to avoid that which is likely to do you harm” are so reasonable, that quibbling with them does not sound reasonable.

There are frankly many ways of deriving moral principles from scientific findings. For another example, social experiments can demonstrate negative effects of some things on a groups ability to function. That would provide a scientific basis for prohibiting them as unacceptable. Quibbling that these are not the same thing as morality is nothing but empty semantics, for one can easily respond that difference can be put down to the aspects of morality which should be discarded as something rather akin to prejudice.

But in this I am primarily focusing on the absolute aspects of morality – things which are wrong for a reason. There are also elements of morality which are a matter of convention and we have them because it is often more important to have a rule than what rule is – having to draw a line somewhere. Scientific findings are unlikely to tell you where to draw such lines. Does it really matter which side of the street we drive on? It only matters that we all follow the same arbitrarily decided rule. Though a scientific experiment will rather quickly show that having rule in such cases is rather important.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #20

No - I was looking for an example of some specific moral principle E.g. “It is wrong to kill people and we can build this objective principle entirely on scientific x, y, and z…”. While you might respond that such principles are so obvious as to be beyond question, there are trillions of dollars of investment that say otherwise: ‘investments’ in infrastructures that exist entirely for the purpose of killing people (war, abortion, capital punishment, weapons industries --Oh and those are just from the ‘civilized’ nations…) So we see that it is anything but obvious to nearly everyone that this should be a standing objective principle. Sure - we can still respond that 99.? percent of us agree that we shouldn’t go around killing our neighbors and friends. But as Jesus might say today: “Even the Nazis you rightly find most despicable would agree to something like that …that’s not ‘morality’ but just naked self-interest.” In short, history takes the “this is obviously true” approach to erecting moral principles and blows it clean out of the water.