Friday, January 12, 2007

Science and Value

My dog ate my homework.

Well, actually, I don’t have a dog. In fact, my laptop ate the posting I had planned for this evening.

I need a new laptop.

In the time remaining today, with my planned post destroyed, I decided that I would vent some steam about something that has been bothering me.

Will the idiot who came up with the idea that science and religion represent two separate and unrelated spheres of understanding, with science focusing on facts and religion the realm of values, please step forward so that I can pummel you for your stupidity.

Oh, don’t tell me. I know who it is. However, I don’t want to embarrass the Steven J. Gould by mentioning him in public. In many things he was a brilliant man, but he got this one thing – his idea of Nonoverlapping Magisteria, so horribly wrong!

The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).

Religion is exactly as poor a source of knowledge about value as it is about science. This is because the priest gets his knowledge of both religion and science from the same source - from the scribbling of people writing down the stories they heard from a bunch of illiterate goat herders who had died years, decades, or centuries earlier.

This Line of Demarcation between science and religion says that the scientist can go ahead and learn about how the physical world works - allowing him to make all sorts of wonderful devices such as bombs that can destroy cities and diseases that can kill millions. Yet, once the scientist invents these things he is supposed to show them to the illiterate goat herders and ask, "What do you want me to do with this? Because, clearly, as I scientist I cannot speak about the value of how this may be used."

Of course, since the illiterate goat herders are all dead (and have been dead for centuries or millennia) the scientist has to take his inventions to the imam, priest, or rabbi who says, "I will use my magic powers to determine what the dead goat herders would have wanted us to do with these devices." We might want to be a bit suspicious that the religious leader is more interested in telling us what he wants the scientist to do with these devices, and his 'magic' involves little more than reading his desires into the intentions of the dead goat herders.

Actually, I don't think that the dead goat herders, or the modern priests who claim to tell us what they wanted, had such a clear grasp of the concept of virtue as some people suggest. In fact, I think that they were as ignorant of the fine points of virtue as they were about atoms and galaxies.

As a result of this line of demarcation, our knowledge of the physical universe has grown considerably. Our understanding of value is locked in the bronze age. We could very much benefit from having scientists turn their considerable intellect to the question of value and, once this is done, use that knowledge to determine how we should be useing these inventions. The illiterate goat herders and the priests who claim to speak for them have nothing useful to tell us.

If we are going to talk about morality, we are going to be talking about intentional actions. If we are talking about intentional actions, then we are talking about the motion of matter through space. If we are talking about the motion of matter through space, then we are talking about something which scientists are particularly well equipped to give us information about.

I have based these writings on a theory of intentional actions that says that those actions follow the formula:

(beliefs + desires) -> intentions -> intentional actions.

Is this some grand and sophisticated theory of intentional actions?

Far from it. Actually, it is rather crude, with a lot of problems - some of which are known, and many of which are not yet known. However, it is the best theory of intentional action that we have today? Why is it the best theory we have today? Because scientists have substantially accepted that there is this prohibition on the study of value - that the subject of value must be left to the priests - and have substantially ignored all aspects of the question of intentional action having to do with value.

I would love to see a better theory of intentional action. If there were such a theory, and if that theory still made use of the concepts of 'belief' and 'desire', I would be more than happy to adjust the specifics of desire utilitarian theory accordingly. If that new and better theory made no use of the concepts of 'belief' and 'desire' - if these went the way of phlogiston and aether as scientific dead ends, then desire utilitarianism will have to die with it. That's fine. That happens. I (unlike the noble priest) am not going to declare that theories that contradict my claims represent heresy whose advocates are to be tortured and killed.

I am more than comfortable with the idea that this belief-desire theory of intentional action is a ‘newtonian’ theory – even a ‘ptolomaic’ theory – of intentional action, filled with holes and questions that are left unanswered. Yet, until Einstein came along, Newton’s theory was the best theory around, and the only theory a sensible person wanting to study the universe could really work with. They were stuck with it – as I am stuck with belief-desire theory.

It is going to take scientists and philosophers to come up with a better theory of intentional action, not priests. Anybody who begins his investigation into the workings of the human mind, expecting to find his scientific propositions empirically laid out and experimentally proven within the Bible itself, is starting off lost.

Recently, I have been spending my exercise time listening to the proceedings of a conference held in California late last year called, "Beyond Belief". I am going through all of the recordings (which should be somewhere near 15 hours worth when I am done). For the most part, it is a collection of scientists who are debating how to deal with the subject of religion - and, specifically, with the fact that because of religion we live in a world overflowing with idiocy - idiocy in control or seeking control of weapons of mass destruction.

As brilliant as these people are, I am struck by the sheer lunacy of some of the claims they make about value.

For the most part, they are still buying into this nonsense that scientists can tell us nothing about value. On the question of homosexuality, one of the speakers said that science could only demonstrate that homosexuality exists in the natural world, and seemed to suggest that (1) this was morally relevant, and (2) its moral relevance was such that it implied that homosexuality was not wrong. This 'not wrongness' of that which is natural, however, was outside of science.

It's outside of science, not because it belongs to some priestly realm of understanding. It is outside of science because it is completely nuts to associate what occurs naturally with right and wrong.

At the same time that those scientists are informing us that homosexuality exists in nature and, thus, is not ‘unnatural’, they can also be telling us that male lions, when they take over a pride, kill their stepchildren. This, too, exists in nature.

Also, I assume (and I think that scientists can demonstrate within a certain degree of certainty), that there is not a single animal in nature that is clicking on and reading this blog that I write each day, and that no animal in nature engages in the activity of writing a blog.

All of this suggests that scientists have the capacity to demonstrate that any priest who says that there is some sort of relationship between activities that can be found in nature and what is morally permissible or impermissible is as daft as the priest who says that the Earth is 6,000 years old.

Yet, when the priest says that the morality of an act can be judged by its representation in nature, that homosexuality is not represented, so it is immoral, the scientist gives the first part of this claim a pass, and moves directly to the second. The scientist even goes so far as to promote the idea that the absurdity that begins this claim cannot be challenged and must be accepted as is because it comes from the priest, who is he who declares all truth about value. I wanted to grab the guy I was listening to around the neck and scream, "You have a brain! Use it!" Yet, he was not the only one who embraced and refused to challenge this absurdity. It seemed to be the consensus of the whole group.

These scientists are supposed to be smart people. Yet, they blinded themselves to this clear piece of nonsense that even a casual look at the natural world would prove to be nonsense – because it had to do with values.

The idea that we can apply reason to moral questions means that a person can say intelligent things about value without consulting a priest. It is not ‘wisdom beyond the grasp of science’ that makes the claims of the priest seem so strange. It is the insanity of absurd reasoning that gives priestly ethics this flavor.

Scientists need to start thinking about what makes sense and say to the priests, "We no longer see any reason to trust your authority on these matters."

Scientists will be starting largely from scratch. Their contemporary theories of value are bound to be as crude as the physical theories of the seventeenth century. Hopefully, they can progress much faster. They have a lot of experience in the realm of physical science that they can apply to the moral sciences.

At least we have reason to hope that they can come up with something at least a little better than the hate- and fear-riddled rantings of a group of illiterate goat herders and the priests who think that they represent the model of moral perfection.


Anonymous said...

These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry. Cconsider the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty.

The magisterium of art can, and is, studied scientifically – form evolutionary disposition to certain body types, the physics of sight and hearing or kitchen chemistry, to the biological response to rhythm or the psychological 'true-ness' of the hero's journey story form. We know why we find things beutifull.

Ranter said...

I don't believe science can comment on value and morality, but I certainly don't think religion can. There is no logical reason for assuming anything moral or immoral. We will have to make assumptions, science and rationality may lead us to a logical course of action to achiece these assumptions.
Every one has there own set of values I believe largely derived from the society they grew up in and influenced by evolutionary tendencies in societies and individuals. The religious will pick parts of the bible which support they're views, while ignoring others. The non-religious will just say it's obvious or logical.
As an amoral atheist I can think of no explanation for my actions than what makes me feel best. Sometimes this is avoiding guilt, this makes me act 'morally'. I can't logically explain my guilt, and even if I could I can't convince myself not to feel it. But I don't think I am some intelligent logically moral being.
I strongly agree on opposing religious indoctrination of morals, and especially a belief that a certain modern person's interpretation of an old book has any more moral value than my guilt. But I challenge you or any one to logically justify (not just explain) from first principles a moral position.

Kristopher said...

scientific minds have been trying to find the answer to moral questions for a long time. we call them philosophers and they have been constantly upgrading their theories just as science has been doing the same. from hobbes to lock, from decartes to spinoza to hume, each building on or knocking down the theory of the ones that came before, from kant to mill to fyfe.

the majority of the population ignores these breakthroughs and just rely on the general gyst of things. like "we discovered slavery was bad"

just like the majority of the population ignores scientific breakthrough and just rely on the general gyst of the outcome like "oooh we can sometimes go 200 mph, crash, and not die" or "this new TV is flat!"

but progress has been made and morality has been studied by able minded people just as science has. and their conclusions have been accpeted by large portions of the population. there is just less of them cuase it doesnt pay any money... and thus makes it difficult for them to eat. ;p