Science, Morality, Possible Worlds, Scientism, and Ways of Knowing

The relationship between science and morality popped up again on some of the blogs I regularly read, but real life getting in the way has prevented me from responding until now. Here’s Michael Shermer, Eric MacDonald, Massimo Pigliucci, and Jerry Coyne. I’ve spoken about this stuff more than anyone wants to hear (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), but perhaps the wisdom that comes with advancing age has helped me boil the point down to the essence more effectively.

Morality will never be reduced to science, nor subsumed into the greater scientific project. It will increasingly make use of scientific discoveries, but it is fundamentally a separate endeavor; there will always be something necessary to get morality off the ground that simply isn’t part of science.

Here are some statements that are solidly part of science:

  • The universe is expanding.
  • Oxygen is delivered to the body by circulating blood.
  • The Sun will run out of nuclear fuel in several billion years.

What makes these statements scientific? I would say two things (admitting that we are glossing over many subtle points here, but trying to remain focused on the big picture).

  1. They could be false. That is, we can imagine possible worlds in which these statements were not true. We couldn’t decide on their truth just by thinking about them.
  2. They can, in principle if not in practice, be evaluated empirically — by doing the right experiments or collecting the right observations.

Of course we need to assume that all the appropriate definitions of the terms we are using have been established. Note that a statement doesn’t have to be true to be scientific; “The universe is contracting” is equally scientific as “The universe is expanding.” Finally, the “in principle if not in practice” is crucial. We can’t actually collect the data that shows directly that the Sun is out of nuclear fuel several billion years from now, at least not at the moment. But it is clear what form those data would take, and that’s all we really need. More realistically, the statement is implied by a theoretical superstructure that can itself be tested directly in the here-and-now.

Here are some statements that are not scientific.

  • 1+1=2.
  • Hamlet was really crazy, he wasn’t just faking it.
  • Chunky Monkey is the best possible ice cream.

The first statement kind of looks sciencey; it’s part of math. But you don’t need to do any experiments to evaluate whether it’s true. It can’t help but be true, once the terms are understood; there are no possible worlds out there in which 1+1=3, in the conventional definition of those symbols. So it’s math, or logic, or philosophy; but it’s not science.

The second statement is again not science because there is no data we could conceivably collect that would judge its truthfulness, but in a different way. You might think that we just need to collect more data about Hamlet’s mental state, but that’s going down the wrong path; there is no such data, because Hamlet is a fictional character. The words of the play are all the data that exist or ever will exist. You might also suggest that in principle we could collect data relevant to Shakespeare’s mental state, perhaps some notes of his establishing that he always thought Hamlet was just faking. But that only bears on the question “Did Shakespeare think of Hamlet as really crazy?” (which is scientific), not “Was Hamlet really crazy?” (not).

The ice cream question is the one that is closest to the issue of morality. Again, one might suggest that all we need to do is collect neurological data relevant to the functioning of pleasure centers in the brain when one eats different kinds of ice cream, and decide which does the best job. But that’s the question “What effect do different flavors of ice cream have on the brain?” (which is scientific), not “What flavor of ice cream is the best?” (not). To answer the latter question, we would have to know how to translate “the best ice cream” into specific actions in human brains. We can (and do) discuss how that might be done, but deciding which translation is right is — you guessed it — not a scientific question. If I like creamy New-England-style ice cream, and you prefer something more gelato-y, neither one of us is wrong in the sense that it is wrong to say that the universe is contracting. Even if you collect data and show beyond a reasonable doubt that New York Super Fudge Chunk lights up my brain more effectively in every conceivable way than Chunky Monkey does, I’m still not “wrong” to prefer the latter. It’s a judgment, not a statement about empirically measurable features of reality. We can talk about how we should relate such judgments to reality — and we do! — but that talk doesn’t itself lie within the purview of science. It’s aesthetics, or taste, or philosophy.

And that’s okay. There are many kinds of questions, moral ones among them, that have a scientific component but cannot ultimately be reduced to science. Consider a statement of the form

  • We should work to maximize the well-being of conscious creatures.

This is not a scientific statement. To convince me otherwise would be straightforward enough. Simply delineate what the worlds would be like in which that statement is true, and the worlds in which it is not true, and then tell me what data we need to collect to decide which kind of world we live in. Obviously this is absurd. Science is relevant to morality, and we should ground our moral conversations on correct ideas about the physical world rather than incorrect ones, but deciding the truth of moral claims is always going to involve something other than simply doing science.

I don’t like using the word “scientism” to label the unfortunate desire on the part of some people to hope that every interesting question can be reduced to science, because the folks who do like using it are often people whose side I’m really not on. Nevertheless, there is a real mistake that can be sensibly labeled “scientism.” Likewise, I generally take the phrase “ways of knowing” as a sign that I can stop listening and start checking Twitter on my iPhone, no matter which side of the debate the speaker is on. Are mathematics, literary criticism, aesthetics, and morality “other ways of knowing”? It would be hard for me to care less. They are different areas of thinking and judging than science is, that’s for sure. If you really want to call them “ways of knowing,” you should work hard to make the distinctions clear — they are not ways of making statements about what happens in the world, which is an empirical endeavor.

Grumbling aside, it’s always a long-term good when smart people come from very different perspectives to hash out difficult issues in a changing intellectual landscape. There are real moral questions that confront us every day, and as a society we’re still burdened with a slapdash pre-rational way of answering them. I look forward to the day when there is a consensus theory of secular moral philosophy that forms a basis for democratic discourse, and we’re teaching fifth-graders how to cope with trolley problems.

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73 Responses to Science, Morality, Possible Worlds, Scientism, and Ways of Knowing

  1. Doc C says:

    Meh, What is the empiric way to chose? Should it be random? Should we measure some traits that suggest likelihood of success. Should individual autonomy play a role? Would it even matter, since political power would flow in uncontrollable ways?

  2. Meh says:

    Morally we would choose at random. But scientifically it would be smarter to give the smartest, least diseased, and most powerful members of society whichever astronomical body is the most habitable with the best resources so that they could continue to increase our control of nature and then pass that knowledge/technology to other colonies.

  3. Doc C says:

    Not sure I agree with the distinction. Is it empiric to send the group you have designated, or group value driven?

  4. Meh says:

    It is always a choice as to who goes and who stays, regardless of the fact that it would be wiser to send (or keep) the more productive of the population to (in) the most habitable location.

    The reason that science trumps morality in this particular instance is that smarter and less diseased individuals tend to outperform the inverse, given a person believes in the current theory of evolution. It’s immoral to say someone should die or be shipped to (what is assumed to be) a difficult life on an inhospitable colony simply because they don’t meet a particular standard.

    You are left with somewhat of a Trolley problem because you can either let everyone stay in the most desirable location with a more comfortable life resulting in the rapid collapse of civilization (due to a faster deterioration than production of resources), or you can ensure the continued existence of the human race by segregating the population and forcing the least valuable to try and colonize another world under extreme conditions guaranteeing a very difficult and likely miserable life.

    So I guess my answer is that based on the evidence we’ve gathered about how we evolved to the intelligent creatures we are, it would be wiser to keep the “best” of the population at the location with the best “stats” because they would be able to better utilize that location. Though if a gamma ray burst unexpectedly vaporized that location after doing so; it would not. We may also be too poorly governed, united, technologically advanced, or educated, to pull off such a task. This all rests on the assumption that the movie ‘idiocracy’ is accurate.

  5. Doc C says:

    @Meh, i will venture that Morality deals equally with our response to situations where we lack control or when we have control. Science can only show us how to better keep control. We can’t always keep control.

  6. James Gallagher says:

    “moral” behaviour doesn’t have to mean the species survive.

  7. MKS says:


    nice riff, as always. and nice to see some of my memes percolating in your memeplex :3

  8. Doc C says:

    JG, No, it does not, which is why science cannot trump morality. Moral questions are by definition axiomatic.

  9. Doc C says:

    To clarify my last post, what empiric evidence tells us that the human species should survive? Humanism is axiomatic, just as morality, and religion are. Science helps us achieve humanistic goals, but alone, it cannot help us to set them.

  10. Meh says:

    I don’t think the survival or lack of survival has anything to do with morality. You are taking extending morality to an area in which it is meaningless. Morality is something that is completely unnecessary for existence.

    I don’t think morality is a universal phenomenon, which is why (I believe) science trumps morality. Science is something that extends to all living creatures and really any information exchange or field. Morality is not restricted to the category of living creatures, but the restricted category of intelligent living creatures. No predatory animal stops to think about the consequences of eating its prey or competing for a mate or depleting its food supply. It stems from the benefits of working together rather than working alone; a mutation of the hive approach which is extremely beneficial in defeating problems that far outweigh the abilities of an individual.

  11. Meh says:

    sorry, can’t edit muh post.

  12. Meh says:

    I should also clarify. I agree that both are axiomatic, but morality is restricted to perception. While science is initially restricted to perception, you must go one step further find some sort of evidence to support that perception. It could be claimed that black holes are really just “grey stars” (there is someone actually claiming that), but it is a scientifically meaningless statement without evidence. Just as you could say to kill a person is immoral, yet most of nature does not experience morality.

  13. In a billion years, people will feel morally obligated to continuing feeding hydrogen to the Sun because it was the birth place of man (and biggest tourist trap this side of the Virgo Supercluster).

  14. James Gallagher says:

    Don’t want to sound like I’m preaching soundbites, but “morality” is just the accumulated wisdom of zillions of piecemeal judgements and the observation of the outcomes (of those judgements)

    I mean, we’re not stupid, we see that by being generally “caring” the society seems to work a bit better, although there are and will be forever many grey areas.

  15. James Thomson says:

    WV Quine put it very nicely:
    1. Philosophy is continuous with science
    2. Moral Philosophy is to Philosophy as Engineering is to Science.
    Those two statements make a great basis to START thinking about the world, its phenomena and – most importantly – coming up with solutions to the real problems facing planet Earth, which are ALL moral problems. Curing cancer isn’t a problem, it’s an aspiration. Earthquakes, tsunamis and droughts aren’t problems, they’re natural phenomena.
    Maximally reducing suffering across all species, creating globally fair socio-economic conditions, halting or, better, reversing the exponential rise in the human population and the catastrophic consequences thereof – they’re problems.
    I find that I can’t make any progress in moral philosophy without resorting (if that’s the right word) to axioms. That’s actually OK by me. I’m a mathematician, and I have no bigotry towards axioms. So let’s forget about philosophical niceties that are now surely a distraction, and concentrate on the engineering aspect of philosophy, which is solving moral philosophical outrages. How you do that in a democracy is the really big problem facing this planet.

  16. Doc C says:

    Your logic is excellent. Morality is axiomatic. But your process is incomplete. Moral philosophy as engineering does not solve moral philosophical outrages. It creates a set of ideas that people can use to solve them, and to guide the way they conduct their daily lives. Delineating a moral philosophy (engineering) is only the first step. To be useful a moral philsophy must be accompanied by a user manual, FAQs, and a help line, all of which are accessible to a vast variety of people.

    My single biggest issue with the academy trying to shift the basis of morality toward a purely empiric rational basis is that it ignores the diversity of everyday experiences of everyday people. Its arguments fail to give people all of what they need. As Blaise Pascal, one of the giants of hydraulic engineering and mathematics said, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” The academy points to art and literature as ways to integrate “the heart” into a scientific approach to life, while failing to see that religion is just as valid a way of integrating “the heart”.

    Example, how is the moral axiom, “we hold these truths self evident, that all men are created equal…” Homologous with natural empiric facts? The equality referred to is not based on natural biological equality, it is an equality of essence that humans imagine and value. The basis of that axiom, and its useful guidance, arise from agreed upon principles that are not empiric, and could not be fully realized until a large number of diverse people came to agree upon practicing them fully. It took several violent upheavals for that to happen because people don’t respond uniformly to any arguments. That is human nature, and assuming that eliminating emotional responses will be better is not empiric either. Until we better understand the integration of brain, body, and microbiome, (and maybe more) we have limited engineering capability.

  17. Pavils Jurjans says:

    Ironically, our decision to trust the reliability of scientific method (ie, of gathering empirical evidence and applying mathematical analysis), and practice reasonable doubt on facts that lack such evidence, is of the same nature as preference for certain ice cream. I wish it was different one, ie more fundamental, but that would be wishful thinking. So every human being born in this world is stuck with task to guess how to think about this world.

  18. Bruce Sather says:

    I like the idea that math is not scientific; that implies it is an unbiased tool for evaluating scientific ideas.

  19. rickflick says:

    One way to analyze the question of morality is too suggest that it does not exits. Or perhaps we can ask if the definition of morality is clear enough to be useful. This allows us to consider afresh, what is the case. If morality does not exist, then perhaps we only have, for better or worse, instances of human judgement. Ethics becomes the study of different ways humans devise to organize behavior, and constitutions and legal systems codify these different ways. None are good or bad in any absolute sense. The shape of a given societies laws is determined by power. A dictator may be a philosopher king or a tyrant. A democracy reflects the will of the majority, which varies through time. Science is a method by which we discover and verify reality. In this sense the interface between science and behavior is social science. It can report on the degree of success of policy or make predictions about the effect of suggested policy. This can be seen as a a-moral process, in which the source of “moral” right and wrong does not appear. What am I missing?

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  21. Dazza Hoo says:

    I realise I’m late to the party here but just to say that I think, Sean, your analogy is misjudged.

    “We should work to maximize the well-being of conscious creatures” is indeed an unscientific statement, but it is one akin to “We should work to maximise our understanding of physics”. There is no scientific reason to study physics. It’s just something we choose to do, because we want to increase our understanding of the world. We happen to use science for that task, because it’s the best tool available.

    Likewise, the choice to work towards maximising the well-being of concious creatures is just that – an aesthetic choice. Having made that choice, what is the best tool available? Science. For EXACTLY the same reason that science is the best tool for studying physics.

    If you aren’t interested in morality as a scientific endeavour, then fine – don’t do it. But you don’t get to write-off the whole enterprise, simply because you aren’t interested in it!

  22. Doc C says:

    @ Dazza, please explain how science could be the best tool for maximizing the well being of conscious creatures if science is unable to help them make the aesthetic choices that conscious creatures need to make in order to maximize their well being.

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