Science, Religion and the Quest for Secular Morality

Note: for the record, I’m not particularly interested in engaging in the great science versus religion debate. For me, the debate is over; it’s a non-starter; an albatross around the neck of reasonable discourse. My hope is that we might one day become unshackled from it, and on that day thousands of able minds might be directed towards more fruitful pursuits. And I’m not particularly interested in trying to bend the will of dogmatic religious folk to my views. Others engage in such pursuits with great vigour such that my contribution is unnecessary. However, I am ever enthusiastic to engage with rational individuals in productive dialogue on where we might venture after the debate has passed into memory. It is to that end that I offer the following post.

Can religion and science co-exist peacefully? Many wish they could. But alas, it isn’t so. So says Jerry A. Coyne, evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, in his review in The New Republic of two books that hope to find some conciliation between religion and science. The review is lengthy, but ably weaved and dense with insightful analysis and observation. Well worth a read.

And it represents another sign that the debate is ready to move on – to the Great Quest of finding a secular morality that can replace religion as our moral and values compass in the modern world. But before I get to that, the review, and why science and religion will never get along:


Right-thinking as a Moral Foundation

I’ve finally had an opportunity to read through the challenge to Jon Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory by Craig Anderson, of the University of Wisconsin, and I’ve found there are differences with my own similar challenge.

Craig suggests that truth/right-belief could be considered as a sixth moral foundation:

The central aspect of this morality is that people tend to moralize the beliefs that they hold to be true.  Not only do individuals care that they themselves have proper beliefs, but they further feel that others should share those same beliefs.

On the surface, this is similar to my claim that truth/honesty could be a sixth moral foundation. However, there is a significant difference that becomes apparent when you dig deeper into what Anderson is suggesting.

First of all, I’d disagree that “people tend to moralize the beliefs that they hold to be true.” That includes too much that isn’t moral. I believe it’s true that ‘in Australia we drive on the left-hand side of the road’. If someone thinks we drive on the right, I don’t experience moral outrage, although I may be prompted to correct them. Further, if they think we should drive on the right, again I don’t feel moral outrage in the same sense as if they’d said we should cheat on our friends or eat our children. We don’t moralise beliefs that we hold true, we do the opposite, which brings me to Anderson’s next point.

I think the key point that Anderson is making is encapsulated in the second sentence in the quote above, particularly that people “feel that others should share those same beliefs.” Anderson offers the following example:

A very clear example of this form of morality can be seen in the clash between religions, or even somewhat in the clash between the religious and the secular. People of each religious group see their own canon of beliefs as the truth, and that others are wrong, immoral, or sometimes even inhuman, just for not believing in the right god(s).

However, I would suggest that Anderson is not talking about a moral foundation as such, but he’s adroitly recognised an underlying characteristic of all moral discourse. What makes moral matters different to matters of convention is that morals feel categorical: they feel as though they should apply everywhere and to everyone.

Driving on the left or the right is a norm of convention. A relevant authority could overturn the norm and none of us would be left reeling in moral outrage. On the other hand, inflicting harm on others is a moral norm, and cannot be arbitrarily overturned by an authority. Morals are different in that we feel that they’re somehow universal, and that if they apply to me, they should also apply to everyone else. As a consequence, it’s fully expected that individuals would “feel that others should share those same beliefs.”

Why is this not a moral foundation? Haidt proposes there are “innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of ‘intuitive ethics’.” He’s talking about things like harm/care as one vector, in-group/loyalty as another, etc. But they are all categorical: if I believe it’s wrong to harm person X in situation Y, or to be disloyal to authority Z, then I believe it’s also wrong for others to behave the same way.

The categorical nature of moral norms cuts across all the moral foundations, and thus cannot be a discrete moral foundation in itself. Instead the categorical nature of moral norms is an underlying functional characteristic that defines them as moral norms.

To test this, we could try to tease right-thinking/categoricalness from the other moral foundations. If we could find issues that triggered on the right-thinking/categoricalness scale that didn’t trigger the other moral foundations, then it could be a discrete moral foundation. For example, if there were issues where it was impermissible for person X to do Y but not person Z to do Y. But I’d expect it would be found that there are no moral issues that are categorical without also being related somehow to another moral foundation. Further, I expect it would be found that all other moral foundations would also trigger right-thinking categoricalness.

In contrast, my challenge suggests truth/honesty as a moral foundation, distinct from the other moral foundations. As I mention in my earlier post, an example might be that it’s judged wrong for person X to lie even if it has a positive outcome according to one of the other moral foundations.

Now, Anderson does mention truth and lying, so there is some crossover with my challenge, but truth is really contingent to Anderson’s main claim about right-thinking. It’s just that people promote right-thinking/categoricalness only about things they hold true, not that being truthful is morally obligatory in and of itself.

The Failure of Freedom: Clive Hamilton’s Freedom Paradox

“The secret of happiness is freedom. The secret of freedom is courage.” –  Thucydides

Why, after two centuries of unprecedented expansion of wealth and liberty in the Western world, are so many of us left feeling unfulfilled? Were not these liberties meant to unshackle us from oppressions of mind and body and allow us to flourish according to our own unique capacities?


At least, that was the idea. Yet people today are on average no happier than their parents or grandparents, despite possessing many times more wealth. Major depression is also on the rise in developed nations, peaking in the United States, the very paragon of a free society. Odd.

This conundrum is the topic of Clive Hamilton’s latest book, The Freedom Paradox (unmistakable in its shockingly Spartan red cover), which I finished, and thoroughly enjoyed, reading recently.

Hamilton seeks to establish a ‘post-secular ethics’ – an endeavour that deserves much more attention than it currently receives – care of a re-imagining of the metaphysics of Kant and Schopenhauer. But while his analysis of contemporary popular culture is insightful, and his perspective on metaphysics refreshing, I feel his attachment to Kant to be a hindrance to his ultimate end. In fact, were it not for the taint of Kant, his views are strikingly similar to my own.


Making Philosophy Relevant

fig3Where, once, philosophers were respected members of society, offering counsel to world leaders and shaping the tone of public discourse, these days we’re not even ridiculed, we’re just dismissed as irrelevant. As a philosopher, the natural question for me to ask is: why? And my sad conclusion is: because of the desperately sorry state of philosophy today.

I say with all sincerity, and no small amount of regret, that the vast majority of contemporary analytic philosophy is pointless, and the vast majority of contemporary continental philosophy is meaningless.


20th Century: Not a Great Century for Philosophy

The discussion started here, sparked from an article here, and then spread to here. An interesting discussion, and a worthy – if trivial – pursuit to idle away the hours: who was the best philosopher of the 20th century?

So far Wittgenstein is in the lead, with Russell and David Lewis hot on his heels.


As I mentioned on Evolving Thoughts, I think the question is tricky – but I would say that, as a philosopher myself. We’re never happy with the question. (Although note that it never stops us from just flagging the gross inadequacies of the question, or language and definitions, and just plowing on regardless.)

By ‘best’ do we mean the ‘most groundbreaking’? Or ‘most innovative’? Or ‘most influential at the time’? Or ‘most influential today’? Or perhaps my preferred definition: ‘contributed the most to our understanding of the truth’?

If we take the question to mean any of the former, contenders burst forth like zucchini’s tumbling from a split plastic bag. And landing with as dull a thump, in my opinion.

Wittgenstein was clearly brilliant, and he did make advances. Although these were arguably in a negative way by cautioning us against certain approaches to philosophy and warning us about the flaws and limitations of our tools. Sadly, these days he’s more debated than developed. And I fear he precipitated the disastrous and deeply unproductive split from logical, systemic (analytic) philosophy into the realm of ‘mapping the phenomenal/language space’ (continental) philosophy. Yet, besides his work on the tools of philosophy, I can’t see that Wittgenstein substantially advanced the content of philosophy.

David Lewis – another clearly brilliant mind. Yet here, too, he made more progress on the tools of philosophy than the content of philosophy. And that whole modal realism guff – prime example of a reductio against the way we use ‘possible’ in every day language, if you ask me.

Some have suggested GE Moore should be higher in the list. But I wonder how someone who set back moral philosophy by a century could be considered to have advanced philosophy? It’s only now that people are reengaging with moral naturalism that we’re even asking interesting questions again.

Talking about ethics, we have Rawls. Interesting book, A Theory of Justice. And it has got people thinking about real world issues. Nice. But it’s so mired in Kantianism and so enamoured with reason and so detached from nature that it’s really just a good premise for a distopian novel. Even so, I’d at least consider Rawls for an honourable mention.

Then there’s Heidegger (with a respectable 9-10% of the vote). When someone can clearly articulate to me Heidegger’s great contribution to philosophy today, I’ll perhaps give him some more credit. Until then, as far as I can tell, all he did was reverse-engineer ‘being’ – or our use of the word and concept ‘being’ – and in doing so drove us down a winding cul-de-sac that goes nowhere.

Russell – well here’s someone I can vote for. He not only worked on the tools of philosophy, but the content. And not only philosophy, but other disciplines as well. He, in my opinion, was the last Great Philosopher. Since then have been great minds, but sadly, few have progressed philosophy significantly.

I remember a professor of mine in my undergrad years commenting – not without irony – that the two great philosophical developments of the 20th century were the Gettier problems and identifying ‘quantifying in’ as a problem. That’s it.

I think we should reflect on the 20th century and in all honesty admit it was a pretty abysmal one for philosophy. I do have opinions about how philosophy could reform, but I’ll save them for another time. But I do know that philosophy can’t afford to have another century like the 20th century.

Think about it. Are you happy with the state of philosophy today?

Honesty and the Moral Foundations

Further to yesterday’s post is a fascinating story that’s all over the news here in Australia – a story that illustrates my point that honesty is one of the pillars of morality, and is discrete from other Moral Foundations.

In January 2006, former Australian Federal Court judge Marcus Einfeld was speeding in his car. Normally, the penalty for such an offence, minor as it is, is $77. However, Enfield currently faces the prospect of going to jail for a considerable length of time – some have even called for life imprisonment.

Why? Not because of the trivial speeding offence. But because he deliberately mislead the court concerning his involvement in the incident, i.e. perjury.

So we’re faced with a situation where a prominent member of society (who is likely being punished more harshly because of his prominence as well as for hypocrisy) is facing an incredibly steep punishment over a trivial offence – all because he lied.

In this case, we can see that – legally, at least – dishonesty is treated to be a major transgression, while the original offence of speeding is negligible in comparison. Honesty, in and of itself, is morally significant – significant enough that I think it could comfortably qualify as a Moral Foundation distinct from the other five.

A Sixth Moral Foundation?

Here’s one way to make a buck in during the global economic downturn:

If anyone can demonstrate the existence of an additional [moral] foundation, or show that any of the current 5 foundations should be merged or eliminated, Jon Haidt will pay that person $1,000.

todd_oathThis comes from, the home of Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory. This posits that there are “five innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of ‘intuitive ethics.’ Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too.”


Vatican Takes a Stand on Intelligent Design

At last. In fact, the Vatican’s latest stance on ID is surprisingly enlightened:

“The committee agreed to consider ID as a phenomenon of an ideological and cultural nature, thus worthy of a historic examination, but certainly not to be discussed on scientific, philosophical or theological grounds,” said Saverio Forestiero, a conference organizer and professor of zoology at the University of Rome.

This is precisely the only way ID should be taught in school. Not as an alternative to evolution. Not as science. But as a “cultural phenomenon”.

What also interests me is the PR angle of all this. Here’s the Vatican, holding a conference on evolution on the anniversary of On The Origin Of Species, and its unambiguously renouncing ID (compared to previous somewhat ambiguous efforts). The Catholic church has actually long endorsed not only evolution, but the notion that religion and reason can coexist without contradiction (although that only extends so far).

It smacks of the Vatican acknowledging that it’s losing its grip on the faithful in the developed world and trying to modernise. Although not all of Pope Benedict’s new ventures have been winners.

Ultimately, it’s a valiant effort, but sadly all in vain. Religion and science will only ever be compatible when religion dismisses the supernatural. Then, and only then, will they be compatible. For science is more than just a body of content – it’s a method. And as a method, it cannot allow arbitrary barriers to investigation, such as those erected by the supernatural.

Certainly, a completed science might still leave room for religion in the regions where empirical investigation can’t penetrate, although I doubt it. But science can certainly leave room for acknowledging the human yearning for spiritual fulfillment, and it can do so without resorting to the metaphysical.

On an entirely unrelated note, I’ll be away for a spell, so there’ll be a lull in posts. I have a crazy couple of weeks ahead with two conferences and a trip to India squeezed in between. But when I’m back, I’m sure I’ll have a lot to comment on.

The Evolutionary Psychology of Bullying

Bullying is tragic. And evidently it’s not uncommon (although, surprisingly, the Internet doesn’t seem to know whether incidence of bullying in the schoolyard is on the up or down over the past several years – can anyone enlighten me?).

But are our anti-bullying programmes working to combat bullying? Apparently some are, but even the most effective programmes only marginally reduce bullying; none seem able to drive it out of the schoolyard altogether. Why?

Well, here’s one theory: some children are biologically predisposed to bullying because such behaviour lent their ancestors a selective advantage in our evolutionary past. (more…)

It’s Time for a Scientific Hippocratic Oath

Why on Earth don’t we have one yet? Well, I think it’s time…

In the wake of a decade horribilis for the science in the public arena – one with spectacular cases of scientific fraud; an outrageous, and popular, challenge to one of the most potent and most tested theories in science; a US administration that has actively undermined science; and an ongoing and ideologically charged debated about the science of climate – it’s time to actively work to re-establish science as something more than just another arbitrary perspective on the world.

The Hippocratic oath in the original Greek.

The Hippocratic oath in the original Greek.

Science is special, science is different, science demands more from its practitioners, and as a result, it has proven itself time and again the most powerful tool we have to understand the natural world. And I think it’s time scientists proclaimed this loudly.

Science also has an unparalleled impact on society, for good or ill, and this will only intensify over this century. As such, scientists wield great power to change – and as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility. If science is to maintain its high standing in society, we need to have confidence that scientists take this responsibility seriously.

Typically scientists don’t want to get involved in ethical debates – but it’s unavoidable that they will, from time to time, confront ethical dilemmas in the course of their research – and how many times have you heard in popular discourse, whether it’s about stem cells, genetically modified food, cloning, transhumanism etc that people just don’t trust scientists to put people before progress? In these situations, we need to know what principles science and scientists stand by – just like we have confidence that medical practitioners will intentionally do no harm.

This is not the first time a scientific oath has been suggested. In 1997 Nobel Laureate Sir Joseph Rotblat called for a scientific oath. In 1999 he repeated the call in Science, eliciting a number of positive responses from the scientific community. More recently, former UK chief boffin, Sir David King, made a renewed call for an oath. But, to date, it hasn’t achieved wide acceptance.

Components of the Oath

So, what would a scientific oath look like? Well, that should be the topic of spirited public debate by scientists, philosophers and members of the broader community. But here are a few thoughts to get the ball rolling.

An oath should express principles and values, not outline explicit practices or rules. It should guide thinking, and from that, guide practice. It should also be a public acknowledgment of responsibilities, and a public affirmation of the values expressed in the oath.

It can also serve as the conditions of membership to an exclusive community – and grounds for expulsion from that community should a clause in the oath be broken. This already happens, as in the case of Hwang Woo-suk, but an oath would make such events more transparent to the public: a la “we, the scientific community, no longer endorse Dr X because they knowingly and deliberately contravened condition Y of the scientific oath.”

In terms of specifics, I think a scientific oath should cover, at the very least, the following:

1) An explicit commitment to the scientific method

Not the content of any particular scientific theory, but the method itself. This could have addressed one of the common failures of science to combat intelligent design – many scientists refused to engage in the debate, believing ID didn’t present a serious challenge to the robust theory of evolution. But what they didn’t realise was that ID was doing much more than just challenging evolution – it was challenging the entire scientific method. Scientists also said they didn’t support suppressing of alternative theories in the classroom, but what they should have been saying is they support alternative scientific theories, not the promotion of non-scientific theories in science class.

Scientists are implicitly advocates of the scientific method. This condition of the oath would make them explicit advocates. So should another ID arise, they could say they support the teaching of various scientific theories, but they unequivocally dismiss any theories that don’t pass muster with the scientific method. For while theories are negotiable, the scientific method is absolutely not.

2) A commitment to present evidence faithfully

This covers both fraud as well as self censorship when evidence contradicts accepted notions or impinges on politically sensitive issues. The interpretations can vary, but the evidence itself is sacred. The only exception to this would be clause 7), where a scientist could choose to withhold (never to misrepresent) evidence for ethical reasons.

3) A commitment to quality independent peer review

Peer review is one of the mightiest pillars of the way science is conducted. It helps scrutinise research before it’s made public and provides a barrier for unsubstantiated claims or personal observations from being regarded as scientific. What kind of peer review system and how it operates should be left out of the oath.

4) A commitment to challenge accepted ideas and theories, and be open to challenge oneself

Unlike other disciplines, science is fundamentally open to self scrutiny, self criticism and self correction. This must be encouraged, for it’s all too easy to let mainstream ideas become entrenched. And far from undermining science, it will only make it stronger – despite the claims that challenging the popular theories in one’s own field is detrimental to one’s authority.

5) A commitment to never engage in arguments ad hominem

Criticism in science must always be directed at the results and their interpretations, never at the authors.

6) A commitment to conduct research according to the ethical guidelines established by ethics committees in the country where the research is to be undertaken

This reinforces that scientists will adhere to the ethical standards of the day, set not only by scientists but by ethics committees made up of elected public officials, community leaders and the public. The specifics of the ethical guidelines should be left out of the oath.

7) A commitment to put ethics before science

This is deliberately vague, and serves more as a public acknowledgment that in some circumstances, what can be done and what should be done don’t always coincide – and won’t be covered by pre-established ethical guidelines. It should be left up to the individual scientists’ conscience and discretion. But their decisions should be respected by public and private institutions, and no scientist should lose their job for refusing to undertake or announce research for ethical reasons. Scientists should also not put money before science, which could conceivably be a separate clause of the oath.

8) That this code itself be regularly scrutinised and revised by a committee including representatives from the sciences, and be supervised and debated by philosophers

It’s time philosophers got out of their towers and had a real, practical task to perform. And this can be one of them. This oath should be regularly debated and revised – a process mediated by philosophers, but involving input from all the sciences as well as other interest groups. After all, what could be more appropriate than a scientific oath that itself is subject to the self scrutiny, self criticism and pursuit of truth that science (and philosophy) embodies.

Where to from here? I very much hope that the scientific community – and the scientific blogging community – begins debating the merits of a scientific oath, and the merits of specific measures within the oath. Then, perhaps some time soon, we might see graduating (and practising) scientists around the world making a commitment to the values and ideals that they already intrinsically embody, but doing so in a way that encourages the world to see what science is all about, and have confidence that it is conducted well, and in the best interests of all humanity.

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