Monday, October 11, 2010

Science Can Answer Moral Questions

Scientific American has lent a perspective on Sam Harris' new book The Moral Landscape, where he argues that science is the best choice for answeing moral questions. Both surprisingly and sadly, the criticism is terrible.

The one point that the article touches on by proxy, via a link to an article in the New York Times, that is valid is Harris' actual moral statement: morals are a function of human suffering. This sounds like utilitarianism, which as you would expect, has some problems with it. But what's important is that this perspective is empirical and thus scientific. We can analyze and determine the best ways to get the best outcomes for the most people. It allows of a discussion, a dialectic, on the subject. Religious morals are not based on anything empirical! They're based on books, scriptures, and are, arguably, total nonsense.

He brings up the issue of scientists who did lots of damage in the past, but that misses the point entirely. Scientists did what they did while "rogue." It's like saying that scientists who falsify data negate all of science.

"Some will complain that it is unfair to hold science accountable for the misdeeds of a minority. It is not only fair, it is essential, especially when scientists as prominent as Harris are talking about creating a universal, scientifically validated morality. Moreover, Harris blames Islam and Catholicism for the actions of suicide bombers and pedophilic priests, so why should science be exempt from this same treatment?"

There is so much wrong with this I barely know where to begin. You can not hold a process accountable for what people do with it. You don't blame physics for the atomic bomb. Religion is a pre/proscriptive belief system, science is a process for achieving things. If we can all agree that morals are the rules defining right and wrong, and that wrong is wrong because it causes suffering, science applies! With morals as a function of suffering and happiness at the core, science is all we need.

Moreover, religion can be blamed where science cannot because science is a process to try and determine truth, religion is a system of posited statements. Moreover, we don't do things in the name of science, but truth and all of the good concepts that result from science. People do perform actions in the name of their religions. Finally, we don't blame religion, per se, for the pedophillic priests, we blame the system that claims to be moral and righteous that then hides them. What we do is mock the idea that the religion can have any weight or truth to it when the supposed arbiters of God are some of the biggest assholes on Earth.

Be wary of the righteous rationalist: We should reject Sam Harris's claim that science can be a moral guidepost (Scientific American)

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