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. Jack says:

    -While the statement “We should work to maximize the well-being of conscious creatures” is arguably not scientific, it’s only the tools of science which have a hope of measuring well-being and telling us in which direction we are moving.

    - The only way to increase well-being without science is if there is a correlation between increased “well-being” and genetic/memetic survival…then evolution will answer the question in its ruthless passively empirical way…

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  2. zoidberg says:

    I don’t see why gathering data about ‘well-being’ is ‘absurd’ considering how social sciences have quantized quality of life factors.

    Having that statement as a hypothesis for ensuring the continued function and growth of a complex organism like a city or country and then carrying out research isn’t absurd at all.

    Does it not count as ‘science’ if you’re part of the experiment, contributing to the growth of your community?

    As for Trolley’s, maybe once 10 year olds realize how awful these situations can be, we can teach them the tools to make sure to avoid getting into something like this in the future.

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  3. haig says:

    I used to be completely in agreement with you about this subject, but now I’m not so sure, I may be swayed to give more credence to the possibility that, at least a theory of meta-ethics, can fall under the purview of science. I’ll try to explain how a scientific meta-ethics is reasonable using your two point criteria for what a scientific theory should conform to, falsifiability and empirical verification.

    Firstly, I’ll grant you that morality is based on subjective experiences, but I’ll also argue that scientific reasoning is also based on subjective experiences, yet also argue that all these subjective experiences are objective features of the universe. There are specific brain states that correlate with specific subjective experiences, and those brain states are a result of specific physical structures and dynamics of the nervous system. Both scientific reasoning and moral reasoning are rooted in such subjective experiences. For example, scientists will converge on theories of nature because those theories ‘make sense’ to them. This cognitive process of ‘making sense’ is a subjective experience, even if the empirical data that science is based on is objective as so defined. Now, this ‘making sense’ subjective experience is also an objective feature of the universe because it is a result of organisms with brains which have co-evolved with a universe that features regular physical laws. Said organisms, through adaptation via feedback with the environment, developed brains that can form predictive models of their environment. These models are both falsifiable and empirical, in that you can prove they are wrong through more feedback with the environment (ie experimentation).

    Now on to moral reasoning. I’ll argue that true moral statements should, like scientific statements, be predictive models of the universe that are falsifiable and empirically verifiable. What moral theories model are the interactions of social organisms with the capacity to reason, how they behave amongst each other, but more importantly, how they ‘should’ behave. Subjective experiences, again, are the root of these interactions. It ‘feels right’ or ‘feels wrong’ to behave in certain ways. These feelings are evolved adaptations that make social species cooperate and increase their survival fitness. Some behaviors enhance the survivability of the species, and others detract from the survivability. In principle, if not in practice, we can model these behaviors mathematically, using game theory and multi-agent simulations, among other methods, and predict the survivability of the species based on which subjective experiences dominate the behaviors of the individual agents interacting with each other. For example, feelings of empathy and compassion will result in adaptive behaviors that result in the species being more fit for group cohesion and survival. These feelings are subjective experiences, but are the result of objective features of the universe like brain states and neurophysiology. This is, as I stated at the start, an attempt at grounding meta-ethics in science, but I don’t claim it will provide scientific answers to such philosophical thought experiments like the trolly problem. I think those instances of applied ethics are context dependent.

    Am I missing something? Where did I go wrong?

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  4. Sean Carroll says:

    The fact that anyone in the world could possibly think I said “gathering data about well-being is absurd” is the kind of thing that makes me despair for useful discourse on these issues.

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  5. Alice says:

    Really interesting blog post. I think that addressing morality as an atheist and naturalist is an important next step in addressing our society values, rights and wrongs. Given your comments here perhaps it’s time to redefine what morality means.

    We know that our capacity for moral reasoning is an evolved trait that has been selected for due to evolution – moral reasoning is an evolutionary advantage.

    It seems that people are all too quick to make judgements about right and wrong – rather than first looking at all the facts and evidence – and making sure to change our choices given new facts and evidence. We need to be less focused on gaining an absolute morality in terms of the right thing to do always, and more focused on using facts and evidence to support moral reasoning given exact circumstances and information available.

    So the emphasis on ‘moral reasoning’ rather than explicit ‘moral values’.

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  6. Dr. Morbius says:

    Where in the hierarchy from biology to consciousness to morality does science lose it’s ability to describe what’s going on? My opinion has always been that morality is a product of our evolutionary history and that at some point it should be possible to describe what’s going on using purely scientific methodologies. That time is not now because we barely have a reasonable explanation of what consciousness might be. We have a long way to go. Maybe when we are able to create true artificial intelligences we might be able understand more fully what’s going on.

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  7. Mark P says:

    I tried to comment earlier but somehow it got lost. What I said was that it ought to be possible to reframe “moral” issues in terms that can be considered scientific. The example might become something like, “maximizing the wellbeing of conscious creatures provides a net benefit for survival of the human race.” Or some such like. Then all that is needed is some kind of consensus on the reframing itself, which would, itself, be nonscientific.

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  8. Brian Rush says:

    Very nice post, and I agree with you completely. It’s not that all of the information pertinent to moral decisions can’t be gathered through scientific mans, but that the process of making a moral judgment is itself non-scientific. It’s the classic is/ought divide in philosophy. Science handles is questions, not ought questions. Ought questions are dependent upon but cannot be reduced to is questions.

    Referring to Sam Harris’ proposed “scientific” morality, there is no way of getting from facts about the well-being of humans and animals, to the proposition that we SHOULD value that well-being, purely by objective and scientific means. We must make an assertion of will, a non-scientific, non-rational (not IRrational) gut-sense oomph and feeling-based push.

    I agree with Harris’ proposed moral code, but disagree that he arrived at it (or that I arrived at my agreement with it) by means of science.

    As a final note, the question of whether one can have a scientific morality is also COMPLETELY separate from the question of whether morality is possible without it being handed to us by a religious authority. We all have the innate capacity to make moral judgments; nobody needs to do that for us. But we certainly don’t do it scientifically.

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  9. zoidberg says:

    I certainly did not mean to impune any motives, and I guess I could use some clarity on what the ‘this’ in the ‘Obviously this is absurd’ sentence refers to.

    I also think the main difference is that questions of “preference” cannot be reduced to science while questions of “morality” can make direct predictions about the course of future events, how the actors in the event feel, and what actions are preferable in a modern society.

    Efforts to move these towards “science” and away from the “sinning” of religion is the basis of modern social theory, and should be encouraged!

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  10. James Gallagher says:

    Hi Sean,

    You’re looking for absolute laws which don’t exist, none of your questions have a simple single answer. It’s puzzling to me that non-religious people think absolute answers might exist in the arena of human behaviour – they don’t.

    Every situation is different, every situation just requires an outcome which doesn’t raise too much shit.

    There are no absolute laws forhuman behaviour, piecemeal judgements are the only way to go, and we just hope that it makes things progress in some happy kind of way, for the large majority of people (otherwise the society gets destroyed)

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  11. Tony Rz says:

    Love your neighbor as yourself, don’t steal what doesn’t belong to you, unless your the US government or don’t kill unless Uncle Sam sends you to Iraq, Afghanistan or some other hated by the US, country. So, we can have morality by government edict or hopefully a less corrupt entity, meaning we have to be very careful who it is that we choose as our moral compass. Now, I’m not saying the US government is any more corrupt than any other country, and probably less so, but such institutions are not the best for fostering morality and fairness in this world, by a long shot. Love your neighbor as yourself means doing what is in the best interests of that neighbor from conception to his or her death and death should be the last and least and none of all possible solutions for a persons best interests, and science has the tools and obligation to use its knowledge and know how to search for that which can enhance human life and living. While religion can serve the human heart and soul, science needs to serve the mind and body.

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  12. Tony Rz says:

    While religion in its truest form serves the heart and soul, in much the same way, science must serve the mind and body.

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  13. Doc c says:

    Real moral questions deal with responses, not rational predictions. The trolley question has nothing to with morality because it starts with a disaster, and therefore no human action can change the outcome, only the details of what the outcome looks like. That is not morality, it is a game. Morality is about how we decide to exert energy to make real differences in outcomes, or it is about how we respond to the exigency or contingency of a situation we are presented with.

    For example, when is it moral to kill if death would not otherwise occur? Never? Hitler? Who judges who is evil enough to warrant killing? We need absolute values to ever have a moral basis for killing certain people, or for never killing anyone.

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  14. Bee says:

    How do you know there are questions that cannot ultimately be reduced to science? This isn’t a rhetoric question, I’d really like to know. I’ll agree that there are question that cannot *presently* be reduced to science, but what do you *ultimately* know?

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  15. Jim Sweeney says:

    We’re moral animals, like many other social animals, and like crows we take our moral convictions very seriously. The extent to which they’re part of our wiring or the result of acculturation is a less interesting question than exactly what they are, which makes experimental morality an interesting part of zoology.

    Recent history has made it clear that morality can progress, and often rather quickly. Democracy now seems an incontrovertibly good thing in much of the world, although 250 years ago it was nearly unknown; racism and sexism, which used to be uncontroversial, are now abhorred. Gay marriage went from a provocative suggestion to widespread practice in about a generation. Experimental morality is part of our history.

    It’s nice to think that we can grasp the entire subject with philosophical generalities like the golden rule, the silver rule, the categorical imperative or utilitarianism, but that isn’t the way it plays out, it seems. It’s a messy business of independent parties with their own interests contending with each other.

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  16. Doc C says:

    I would also like to ask if imagination is a way of “knowing”. I think that in developing a moral program, as in exploring scientific explanattions of the universe, imagination, as Einstein said, is more important than knowledge. If that is true, then moving a true multicultural moral program forward would require embracing all of the knowledge science can muster, along with all of the human imagination embodied in the arts, and in religious beliefs. Just because we are embedded in a natural universe does not mean we should limit our thinking to simply following natural laws. If we really believed that, then why would we believe in the imperative dignity of individual humans at all?

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  17. Gabe Czobel says:

    “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)….”

    Why restrict your focus only to “statements” as being scientific? Isn’t science really better described as an approach to gaining knowledge by using as rigorous a methodology as possible incorporating our best tools of systematic reasoning coupled with empirical methods to ensure that theories don’t stray into the realm of endless speculation?

    As such, any question, properly framed, may be approached in a scientific manner, even if to only conclude that we don’t have the tools or the knowledge at this time to work out a decisive answer, or perhaps that the question has not been properly framed.

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  18. Jeff Johnson says:

    With respect to the trolley problems, it seems that the dilemma between throwing a switch or throwing a big person off of a bridge to swap one life for five is, oddly upon reflection, a scientific question, or at least one whose resolution depends on solving some scientific questions.

    The point is that the reason for this dilemma seems to be a quirk of the human brain and its evolution. There seems to be no resolution based on reasoning a priori because rationally we can’t really get past the equivalent effects of saving four lives as a result of an action. Our reason cannot see a difference between the quantities (5 – 4) and 1.

    The difference between throwing a switch and throwing someone from a bridge is one of human gut feeling, one determined statistically by survey. We feel a difference, so we say their is a moral difference, but we can’t say why.
    For most moral attitudes and feelings we can construct rational systems of ethics that derive equivalent results from pure reasoning, so that the golden rule is expressed as the categorical imperative, and perhaps the idea of absolute divine decree yields to the idea of universality, for example. But the switch/bridge dilemma is one that does not yield to reason. Why there is a difference is really a scientific question about humans: why are humans the way they are? What accidental aspects of our evolutionary environment and our brain development created this preference for throwing the switch vs throwing the big person from the bridge? Answer that and the problem would evaporate.

    The difference probably has to do with the expenditure of energy involvedd, or the perceived difference of certainty in the efficacy of throwing a switch on a rail vs a very error prone toss from a height, or perhaps the intimate physical proximity to the fellow on the bridge. These are some possible reasons why our moral circuitry might have developed this distinction. It really may simply be a matter of how the brain has adapted to physics.

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  19. Uncle Al says:

    Morality is absolute, inerrant, eternal. Morality is blood, anguish , loss, and limitless managerial boons. One philosophy of government, one frame of reference, one virtue, one purpose, one grammar, one norm, one assessment, one answer, one adequacy, one approach, one skin color, one morality, one justice, one time of day. A trusted citizen is one whose sole possession is loyalty.

    A good life is ethical, not moral. Support evolution – shoot back.

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  20. Alex R says:

    Nice post, and I agree more or less completely.

    Here are two more statements which, IMNSHO, are also not scientific, for more-or-less the same reasons you give for your other unscientific statements:
    * God exists. (Or, if you prefer: There is a God.)
    * God does not exist. (Or, if you prefer: There is no God.)

    Why aren’t these scientific? Because any evidence you give for one or the other being true seems still consistent with either possibility. “Miracles!” says the theist attempting to show the first. But natural laws — not all of which we know — or bad reporting might explain them. “We can explain everything we observe without invoking God” says the atheist attempting to show the second. But theists may not be satisfied by the atheist’s explanations, or may believe in a “deist” God that does not meddle with the laws of nature.

    I’m *not* saying, by the way, that this means that one must therefore be agnostic. I’m just saying that invoking “Science” can not resolve the question, and that theism, atheism, and agnosticism are all — in principal, if not always in practice! — compatible with a scientific understanding of the world.

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  21. Neil says:

    Sorry to nitpick, but I believe 1+1=2 is a scientific statement. Generations of humans have taken one rock and added another rock to it and found they have two rocks. The same thing happens they do it with sticks, books, bits, atoms, etc so we are confident that when we take one of anything and add another of the same we have two of those things. We thus drop the “things”, leaving it understood, and simply say 1+1=2.

    And the statement is falsifiable. Perhaps someday an exotic entity will be found which has the property that when add one of them to another we end up with something other than two of them. Perhaps we will still have one of them. And when that happens we will no longer be able to simply say 1+1=2.

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  22. doc c says:

    Neil you remind me of a question I often ask, and have not had fully answered yet, so maybe Sean can answer it. If one of the multiverses that might be out there were configured in such a way that energy never became matter after its big bang, would mathematics be part of that universe?

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  23. Brett says:

    Well being is based on preference and perception. Our civilization works towards everyone having happy retirement years, yet it is proven that retirement reduces your lifespan. Female stunt drivers in Saudi Arabia prefer to live fast, die young, bad girls do it well.

    It is anything but moral to forcefully perform tests on unwilling human subjects (like in Nazi concentration camps) but it does advance your scientific agenda significantly by being able to treat those people as 100% disposable with no restrictions on what you are allowed to do to them.

    After reading some of these comments, I’d focus my attention elsewhere too.

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  24. My biggest problem with such discussions is that they almost always accept the idea that ‘science’ should be on the defensive, as if intruding where it doesn’t belong. Yet logic, religion, and philosophy have all had thousands of years to deal with moral behavior, and have no progress to show for it. At the very least, acquiring a dataset and doing experiments (like the trolley problems) gives us solid feedback on not just what’s working, but how logic seems to fail given a slight change in parameters.

    As others have said, we have a desire for morality, likely an evolved trait as a social species. We only have these discussions because we are trying to appease this desire – and, perhaps, recognize that it should somehow be more than just desire, and actually produce a dependable beneficial result. The “rule” of morality is already established in us as a species, and what we’re hoping to accomplish now is fulfilling it rationally.

    Those that believe science has no business in the matter seem to believe that science is the business of establishing and/or enforcing natural laws, rather than simply understanding how the world works. It’s not that we need to establish an overall moral code, but instead recognize where we have internal conflicts with, for instance, the perceived anti-social behavior of others, and how/why we draw dividing lines between “us” and “them.” And, what it actually takes to overcome the ‘kneejerk’ reactions to produce behavior that is moral, in as objective a manner as possible. A scientific approach is the only way I know of producing that usefully, even if the objective moral code is something that is established culturally (and I’m not terribly convinced of that – is it a moral code, or simply responding to desires of cultural cohesiveness?)

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  25. Brett says:

    1+1=2 is not scientific because it is beyond a doubt, 100% true. There is no possible way to disprove the statement. That’s why it is not scientific; because there is no hypothesis and there is nothing that can be proven about it. It is an absolute statement with no possible error; the probability of 1+1=2 is 1.000000_

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  26. doc c says:

    Brett, I differ on whether retirement is proven to reduce lifespan. I believe that there is an observed association between age at retirement and lifespan. That does not prove causation.

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  27. Paul Reiser says:

    I think science, specifically the theory of evolution, can inform us as to why we have formulated one particular moral code or another. That’s not the same as recommending one. I like Jack’s point of view that moral codes, even science itself, are memes, or ideas that rise and fall based on the fitness advantage they provide to “believers”. I think that as long as there is genetic diversity, there will be genetic competition, and competing moral codes which advance particular genetic groups. Same goes for the tools of these genes: social diversity, social competition, and social groups. Given that competition exists, every time you establish a moral code, there will be winners and losers. The winners will attempt to maintain their winnings and enforce the code, the losers will subvert the code, attempt to take the winnings, or remove themselves from its influence, in search of their own winnings. To be scientific, you have to look at these codes without judgement, understand who is the winner, who is the loser, and realize that ultimately your ethical code will just make your favorite evolutionary unit more fit. Rape is bad? Sterner says, sure just ask the victim. To be scientific lets ask the rapist. Probably someone without the ability to acquire power/money/fame and no seductive skills, or a soldier far from home faced with extinction in the next few months, you’re eliminating their only path to propagation. In my moral code, they should all be shot anyway, but then, my reproductive techniques are a bit more diverse, and I wouldn’t want those genes being forced on any of my family members, so, in other words, oddly enough, my code makes my favorite evolutionary unit more fit. The intellectually aware rapist and I can argue till the cows come home, there will be no consensus. This is an extreme case, but it one form or another it will always be the case in a genetically diverse society. The only way there can be a consensus is to eliminate genetic competition. To have a eusocial society of genetically identical (or very similar) individuals and a centralized process for maintaining that genetic identity. Like the eusocial insects, bees, ants, etc. But even these societies are eusocial in response to competition with each other and other life forms. One eusocial society has no competition, cannot respond to changing circumstances, and will die. So I think the best we can do is to develop a consensus on how to handle the competing moral codes based on common values, like “don’t destroy all life on earth”, for example.

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  28. Brett says:

    If you don’t like the studies on retirement, then there are a few more examples of the support for my argument that well-being is based on preference and perception. Farmers love what they do but could easily make more money doing something that requires far less physical labor. Members of the military would fall into that category as well. Yet they do what they do because it makes them feel better about their life. Most scientists will never make over $50K/year, but they wouldn’t consider doing anything else in life. Married couples tend to live shorter lives despite the idea that marriage is this blissful and happy thing, “finding your soul mate” and “living happily ever after”.

    What defines well-being? Eating a vegan diet for the rest of your life? Or eating whatever you want as long as it’s within the limits of reason?

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  29. Student says:

    You list two criteria for scientific statements, but doesn’t the second one imply the first? (How could you attempt to empirically evaluate a statement which could not be false in any possible world?)

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  30. Scott Johnson says:

    To play “Harris’ Advocate”…

    You wrote that “we should work to maximize the well-being of conscious creatures” is not a scientific statement. Getting at is/ought, etc.

    How would you describe the field of medicine? Is the research into medical biology scientific, but the valuing/application of that research non-scientific? What prevents a “science of morality” from being similar to the “science of healthcare”? Both require the same ought axiom.

    This seemed to me to be Sam Harris’ strongest point, but I almost never see it come up when discussing this topic.

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  31. Brett says:

    I think the statement “we should work to maximize the well-being of conscious creatures” has a wider bandwidth than just human beings or animals that you would take to a vet.

    but that’s getting away from the point that Sean was making. The statement is going to need something greater than just science to make it valid. There is no scientific reason that we shouldn’t use animals as test subjects. If anything, WE SHOULD. It’s extremely advantageous to use mice and apes as test subjects before we test something on humans. But the moral argument is something along the lines of; what if we were visited by alien beings from across the galaxy who were obviously more advanced than we were, so much so that we would be equivalent to mice matched up against them. How would we react to having people randomly taken and experimented on against their will? Why are we doing that to other conscious animals? Yes, it is an extremely helpful scientific process, but do we have the right to do so just because we have the power to do so? This is where the Trolley “paradox” comes into play.

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  32. BHH says:

    There’s at least one “consensus theory of secular moral philosophy that forms a basis for democratic discourse”- the Federalist Papers. Old, but never falsified.

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  33. Sebastien says:

    The way I like to put it is that science deals with the way the world is, while morality deals with the way it should be. Now, “should be” isn’t a fundamental category of reality. “System A should be in state X” isn’t, all by itself, a statement science can make. It can make all kinds of related statement (“to get system A in state X, you should do Y”, “all human beings agree that system A should be in state X”, etc.), but that’s not the same thing. To get to that get kind of prescriptive (as opposed to descriptive) statement, you need something more; a goal, or an assumption, or some preferred characteristics that you wish to optimize or maximize, and it’s precisely that choice that is forever out of the realm of science.

    A lot of the arguments tend to revolve around the fact that human well-being is hard to define rigorously, or to quantify, or to agree upon. That’s true as far as it goes, I guess, but to me it misses the point. Let’s imagine that well-being could be define precisely, down to whatever decimal place you wish. Let’s furthermore assume that all of humankind agreed that this definition of well-being is what should be maximize above all else, and what morality should be about. Then what? Well, in that case, a moral code would be developed — with the help of science! — that would get us closer and closer to our goal. But that we SHOULD do it would still remain only a global consensus, rather than a fundamental fact of the universe.

    In other words, it’s the difference between these two statements:

    - “It a scientific fact that all human beings agree that human well-being should be maximized”.
    - “It a scientific fact that human well-being should be maximized”.

    The first is true, the second is not. That human beings “should be” (as opposed to want to be) in any particular state is not, all by itself, a fact of nature. Nature doesn’t care what state it’s in.

    It’s a subtle distinction… and ultimately, perhaps not a very consequential one.

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  34. Doc C says:

    Wow. That is a beautifully clear explanation of the entire problem that plagues the discussion of natural morality. Even religious believers must apply their beliefs in a natural world, where God, by definition is separated. That is a contingency of being a truly loving creator. On the other hand, any loving creator would rejoice at its creation finding ways to take care of itself, or in the case of humans, to take care of each other and the creation they find themselves inhabiting. Whether you believe there is a final universal re-connection with a loving creator, or whether you believe you have special knowledge of what that creator wants based on signs left by it, if the creator is loving, we can use our imagination to understand what that love “should” look like, and come to a consensus on how to arrange the best ways to foster it. On the other hand, if you have no belief in a loving creator, what love should look like can still guide a moral program.
    And if you object to the use of the word “love”, substitute whatever highest process of interaction you like for it.

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  35. RBH says:

    Paul Reiser wrote

    I like Jack’s point of view that moral codes, even science itself, are memes, or ideas that rise and fall based on the fitness advantage they provide to “believers”.

    Um, the whole point of Dawkins’ meme hyothesis (conjecture?) is that meme-plexes (like, say, moral systems or principles) flourish or not depending on the fitness advantage they have over other meme-plexes, where “fitness advantage” refers to the relative reproductive success of the meme-plex, not that of the humans who “helieve” it. With reference to their human hosts, meme-plexes are parasites, ‘interested’ only in their own survival, not necessarily that of the hosts.

    Now, a meme-plex may obtain a fitness advantage by affecting the behavior of its human host(s) in such a way that it increases the host’s reproductive success relative to other humans, but that’s not at all necessary–see Dicrocoelium dendriticum’s affect on the behavior of its second intermediate hosts, ants. While that’s not an example of changing the reproductive fitness of the host (the worker ants are sterile), it is an example of a parasite influencing the behavior of a host that’s solely in the parasite’s best interests.

    To claim that a moral code survives and spreads because it contributes to the reproductive fitness of its hosts (“believers”), one must go well past mere assertion. ‘Because it’s adaptive’ explanations for traits have to first get the unit of analysis of selection right.

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  36. GleaD says:

    ” I look forward to the day when there is a consensus theory of secular moral philosophy.”

    Funny, because Sam Harris appears to have done the seminal work for a secular moral philosophy, and it’s called The Moral Landscape.

    In TML, Sam contends that we are all already using science to analyze our universe. Not the science of lab coats and test tubes, but the rough hewn, intuitive flux we humans use everyday.

    Sam’s idea is to employ our innate intuition and scientific tools WITHOUT the noise of religious metaphysics, and craft a truly secular morality.

    “Science” is just the word which describes what we already do anyway.

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  37. Peter Ozzie Jones says:

    Oxygen is delivered to the body by circulating blood.

    Not sure which “body” you meant.
    But insects deliver oxygen through diffusion and so does the human cornea. So maybe this is an incomplete statement?

    And doesn’t Dr Krauss have a T-shirt with 2+2=5 (for sufficiently large values of 2)?

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  38. Doc C says:

    Don’t many (most) people use much more than “moral philosophy”, secular or otherwise, to figure out how best to conduct their lives? The problem with defining these issues in predictive and prescriptive terms is that the universe adheres to none of our fine lines, and thus the most important element of faith or philosophy or whatever you wish to call the endeavor is that it enables a healthy response to the exigencies and contingencies that present themselves. Consider that most believers don’t even know the first thing about the deeper elements of the theology that the religious elites that define their faith create. It’s about the responses they acquire, not the arguments that swirl, unsticking, around them.

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  39. Tyle Stelzig says:

    I agree with everything Sean says here, but I think he misses the point.

    Sam Harris (for example) does not claim that we can get from ‘is’ to ‘ought’. Rather, he claims that we all agree on ‘ought’ already – we should maximize the well-being of conscious creatures – and the remaining work is therefore ‘is’.

    Science does not tell us what we should do. But it also does not tell us what we should believe. All it tells us is what there is evidence for, what is parsimonious, etc. To get from there to beliefs you need an additional premise, albeit one that is almost universally accepted. Harris’s claim is that the situation is the same for getting from science to morality.

    It is not a response to this argument to say that you can’t go from ‘is’ to ‘ought’; the point is that getting from science to ‘ought’ is just like getting from science to ‘is’. I’m not sure whether Harris is correct, but he’s not guilty of the category mistake he is so often accused of. (Cultural pundits aren’t always complete idiots?)

    How would one show that Harris is wrong? Simple. Come up with examples where the action people consider ‘moral’ is not the one that maximizes human and animal well-being.

    I personally haven’t been able to do this, but I’m probably just not creative enough.

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  40. Mete says:

    Dr. Carroll, it seems to me that your epistemological reflection is rather Popperian, and thus positivistic. Is this correct? Also, what do you think about the role of scientific community in determining what scientific knowledge is, and what science is, along the lines of Thomas Kuhn?

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  41. Ray says:

    Thanks for the awesome post Sean!

    That aside, Chunky Monkey the best ice cream?! Why do you give credence to crackpot theories like this? ;)

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  42. Tony Rz says:

    Unlike science faith has no possible way of proving that is true. The only way to believe it is true, is to have faith that it is and until you try to make an effort to believe it to be so, it will not make sense, a real effort that is, not half hearted. This is an experiment in the most basic sense of the word, an experiment of the mind.

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  43. James Gallagher says:

    @Tyle Stelzig

    But that’s circular – how do you define “Human and Animal Well-Being”?

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  44. James Gallagher says:

    Hi Sean,

    when I try to edit my posts (like make the capitals small in the above quote) I get “This is Spam” message – is that because you put me on your hate list or is it general?

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  45. Sean Carroll says:

    If you can post messages at all, you’re not on the spam list. Not sure why you wouldn’t be able to edit.

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  46. Daniel Lehnberg (@Doddyswe) says:

    Very interesting post, and I agree that morality might not be science. But just as engineering (for the purpose of optimising the function of a system) – it can and should build on top of sciences.
    But that’s just an argument from analogy – treat it as such.

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  47. Meh says:

    I believe that the real threat to the continued existence of the human race comes from a problem involving morality. That problem is maximum population density, when we reach the point that we have maxed out how many people the earth can provide resources for. At that point, there is either the moral problem of deciding how to stop population growth given a world with ever increasing medical technology designed to allow people to live longer; or the only other possible solution being the colonization of other planets/moons. I bring it up because that’s the point where science trumps morality.

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  48. Doc C says:

    Meh, I’m not sure how science trumps morality. How would decisions be made about who stays and who goes?

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  49. Platohagel says:

    IN a sense the question about reason and logic being cold and austere to me, was more the idea that a certain disconnect prefers to eradicate the emotion based, as neurological functions contained within the brain. I do not believe science would want to eject something that is normal and functional still with such a connect. It has a biologic presence.

    If one was to imagine the brain scan regarding psychopathy, and the individual who was to make a trolley decision, about a fat man and the five people, the presence of emotive functioning would not be present in such a decision? So morality requires some kind of conscience and a quest for truth, just as reason and logic do.

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  50. meh says:

    exactly. How do we decide? have a certain I.Q. or you’re shuttled off to live on a colony? make a certain amount of money? be of a certain genetic “purity”. I can’t think of a way to decide who goes and who stays that wouldn’t be considered immoral.

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  51. 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?

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  52. 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.

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  53. Doc C says:

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

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  54. 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.

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  55. 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.

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  56. James Gallagher says:

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

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  57. MKS says:


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

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  58. Doc C says:

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

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  59. 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.

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  60. 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.

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  61. Meh says:

    sorry, can’t edit muh post.

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  62. 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.

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  63. 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).

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  64. 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.

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  65. 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.

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  66. 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.

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  67. 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.

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  68. Bruce Sather says:

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

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  69. 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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  71. 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!

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  72. 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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