24 January 2013

Science, philosophy and morality

One of the things that I enjoy about discussions and debates on ideas is when my views are changed by good arguments. Cogent arguments have almost the same visceral effect on me as seeing well-landed hits in a kickboxing match; I am impressed by the skillfully executed maneuver that demolishes, or at least weakens, an opponent. Of course, I prefer being a spectator of intellectual bouts rather than physical ones. The former are usually more enlightening, especially when they cause me to reexamine my position on some subject matter, perhaps even abandon it.

I’ve had my mind changed on the subject of whether science can, and should, determine moral values. When I read Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape, I was convinced by his well-articulated thesis that science can determine our ethical values. I agreed with his argument that empirical facts about what contributes to human well-being (and what doesn’t) can be used to inform, even improve, our existing moral codes. And yes, I confess that I was inspired by Harris’s bold claim that a future where moral relativism was a relic of a more ignorant time can be achieved by ever-expanding scientific knowledge of human nature.

Then I read what his critics had to say.

Massimo Pigliucci had one of the more trenchant responses to The Moral Landscape. There were other equally sharp critics, but I’ll stick to just Pigliucci for now because recently he had to school another Harris-like ideologue who believes that “most scientists have conceded the high ground of determining human values, morals, and ethics to philosophers, agreeing that science can only describe the way things are but never tell us how they ought to be,” which apparently is a “mistake”. Sam Harris’s fellow traveler is the skeptic and writer Michael Shermer, who is actually one of my intellectual heroes for his role in promoting science, rational thought and skepticism. Alas, Shermer’s enthusiasm for science has caused him to set greater store in it than it warrants, at least as far as morality is concerned.

Pigliucci’s dissection of Shermer’s arguments is worth reading in full, but here are the main points that I have taken from it:

First, Shermer attacks a straw man when he claims that scientists and philosophers do not believe that science can determine moral values. No reasonable scientist or philosopher would deny that morality can be informed by scientific discoveries in psychology, neuroscience and sociology (for example). But to the extent that such knowledge can ‘determine’ moral values, there is still a need for philosophical reasoning. Science can tell us what factors increase or decrease human well-being, but we still need philosophy to interrogate the assumptions we have about concepts like ‘well-being’ or ‘happiness’. Science is ill-equipped for this crucial task.

Second, Shermer’s assertions are often presumptuous. For instance, his claim that “moral values must be based on the way things are in order to establish the best conditions for human flourishing”, or using the term “human flourishing” itself, presumes a clean-cut definition or solution that doesn’t exist. He takes his particular conception of “the way things are” and “human flourishing” as given premises, when it’s really a bit more complicated than that, and not as uncontroversial as he seems to think. People like Shermer and Sam Harris fail to show philosophical rigour (because one shouldn’t make axiomatic claims on a priori grounds that haven’t been justified) in their haste to make their points. That’s just poor form in argumentation.

Third, no reasonable person, certainly not philosophers, will argue that philosophy is better than science at discovering facts about the world and human nature. As Pigliucci puts it, “That would be like arguing that chemistry is better than history at figuring out things about the Roman empire.” But no amount of fact-finding and data-accumulating by science will obviate the need for a value judgment on certain matters. And here is where moral philosophy is required for us to reason about what the right, or ethical, choice should be. But this isn’t to say that scientific knowledge shouldn’t influence our moral reasoning. It certainly should. It just can’t supplant moral reasoning/philosophising.

The ‘science, philosophy and morality’ issue has been an illuminating one to follow. I definitely think that Massimo Pigliucci has wiped the floor with Michael Shermer in this bout, thereby demonstrating the important role of philosophy in making sure that advocates for a (mostly) science-based morality tighten up their arguments. And start showing philosophy a little bit more respect.



  1. I might be missing some subtlety to the argument. To my knowledge, Philosophy has been responsible for 'discovering' many facts that Science has gone on to prove.

    Somewhat ironically the analogy to chemistry still works, as I'd think it reasonable to believe that carbon dating and other material studies have been useful for determining things about the Roman empire that might have been obscured by myths or human perceptions at the time.

  2. Well, the modern conception of science was known as 'natural philosophy' before the 19th century, but since then science has established itself as the best methodology to discover facts about nature because of its emphasis on empirical observation, experimentation with reproducible results and checks-and-balances like the peer review system. Modern philosophy is now distinct from science because it deals with subjects that don't necessarily concern the natural world (epistemology, logic, ethics, politics) using different methods that generally don't involve empirical observation, experiments and forming hypotheses. So *modern* science is better suited to discovering facts about nature and forming theories, but philosophy is better at meta-analysis and critical study of concepts, beliefs and ideas, including scientific ones.

    With the Roman empire analogy, sure, chemistry is useful to discover facts about the Romans, but without historians to put those facts into context and connect them to other facts (that aren't derived from chemistry), we wouldn't have the big picture, just a collection of scattered chemical facts. This reminds me of something the psychologist Steven Pinker wrote, about how even though World War I can be described in purely physical terms (it was a mass movement of atoms), such a description adds very little to our understanding of this period of human history. A historian, not a physicist, would be a better interpreter in this case.