This is the first part in a series of posts exploring science as a method and process.
In this part, we examine why science is without morality, and why it should stay that way.
I want to talk to you about a TED talk, given in 2010 by the neuroscientist and philosopher, Sam Harris.
His topic? “Science can answer moral questions.”
I recommend that you watch the video. You can do that by clicking this link.
What Does Sam Harris Say?
If you couldn’t be bothered watching the video (you slacker) Harris essentially argues that the idea of science and morality as being distinct entities is false. Morality can be scientifically determined, because questions of moral values have an inherent good/right/bad/wrong quality which can be found.
Moral values are thus quantifiable and can be reduced to fact. In essence, if the outcome of something is determined to help humans flourish, then it is morally ‘right.’ Conversely, if we discover something negatively impacts overall well-being, then it is bad/wrong. (For the sake of simplicity, I have summarized Harris’ model into simple dichotomies, but the conclusion remains the same.)
Moral certainty may possibly exist and
“Science can serve as a moral authority.”
– Sam Harris
But Hang On A Second…
The biggest question raised (and not answered) is how Harris arrived at the conclusion that moral values have an inherent factual good/right/bad/wrong value.
As a scientist or science enthusiast, you would know that we don’t bandy the word ‘fact’ around without great reservation. After all, for something to be a ‘fact’, it has to have undergone rigorous, extensive testing and confirmation – to the point that any further testing and confirmation is simply a waste of time and resources.
Moral values simply do not meet this criteria for facts. Moral values can actually resist our efforts to test and confirm them – ironically based on moral grounds. We can, however, accept that moral values may be objective truths or empirical facts. However, objective truths and empirical facts cannot be equated with scientific facts (Pigliucci 2010.) Indeed, Professor Sean Carroll, in rebuttal to Harris, goes so far as to state that Harris’ approach of determining moral ‘facts’ is nothing more than an is-ought fallacy.
Let me be clear by stating that moral values are important. Let’s consider an example.
You might agree that is immoral for humans to significantly contribute to climate change.
Ignoring the probability that we cannot stop climate change even if we were to immediately stop all CO2 emissions (Frolicher et al 2013). Imagine a scenario where we could right this moral wrong by eliminating all of the people and industries within China; 20% of the global population who happen to be the biggest contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions.
Barring all other concerns, this idea should be immediately abhorrent to you. Why? Because you (hopefully) possess a moral certainty that genocide is wrong, even if you could scientifically justify it.
Having moral certainty and moral values can be….well… valuable.
Why Science is Amoral and Should Stay That Way
If morals are valuable, why should we support the concept that science is inherently amoral? Well, that’s simply because facts simply do exist without a moral context or judgement (Conscience 2009; University of California Museum of Paleontology 2016.)
For example, the process of nitrogen fixation exists as a scientific fact. The nitrogen fixation process does not exist to help us feed billions of people. Nitrogen fixation will not suddenly bugger off if we wanted to use it to create bombs to kill billions of people. The nitrogen fixation process will occur, no matter our intended uses of that fact.
And that is an important point – science cannot and does not make moral decisions or judgements. We do. When we decide to pursue certain avenues of science to the exclusion of others – how we choose to utilize whatever comes out in our pursuit of knowledge – all of it is based on our decisions.
Because science is amoral, we cannot blame science for moral wrongs or claim science as the basis for moral rights. We cannot use science as a moral authority. The onus of moral choices in relation to science – if and how animal testing should be conducted, whether or not we should we look for the gay gene, should we research embryonic stem cells, should we be using human-nonhuman chimeras as test subjects – belongs solely to us, not to science.
And it’s an absolutely terrifying responsibility.
As it should be.
1. Carroll, S 2010, The Moral Equivalent of the Parallel Postulate, retrieved 8 April 2016, < http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2010/03/24/the-moral-equivalent-of-the-parallel-postulate/#.Vw2F1mMj4lI>
2. Conscience, ED 2009, Is science ethically and morally neutral? retrieved 8 April 2016 <https://lacoscience.wordpress.com/2009/02/24/is-science-ethically-and-morally-neutral/>
6. Frolicher, TL, Winton, M & Sarmiento, JL 2014, ‘Continued Global Warming After CO2 emissions stoppage’, Nature Climate Change, Vol. 4, pp. 40 – 44
5. Pigliucci, M 2010, About Sam Harris’ claim that science can answer moral questions, retrieved 8 April 2016, <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/rationally-speaking/201004/about-sam-harris-claim-science-can-answer-moral-questions>
3. Science can answer moral questions 2010, streaming video, TED Talks, retrieved 8 April 2016, <https://www.ted.com/talks/sam_harris_science_can_show_what_s_right/transcript?language=en>
4. University of California Museum of Palaeontology 2016, Understanding Science retrieved 8 April 2016 <http://www.understandingscience.org>.
Blog Post by Jay Chan (BHSci) 2016