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:

    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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

  4. 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?)

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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)?

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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?

  16. 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? 😉

  17. 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.

  18. James Gallagher says:

    @Tyle Stelzig

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

  19. 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?

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. Doc C says:

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

  24. 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.

  25. 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.