28 December 2011

Morality and Science, some musings

After reading Brian Greene's The Hidden Reality, I ordered another book on cosmology by a guy who turns out to be a militant (but not nasty) atheist, name of Lawrence Krauss (physicist at ASU in Tempe). Haven't received it yet, it's forthcoming next month; title is A Universe from Nothing). Krauss rejects string theory, but not necessarily the multiverse; he also embraces the idea that from nothing can come nonzero canceling opposites, which are something (think of, for example, the net electric charge of the universe, which is zero; but there isn't no charge, there's just net zero charge).

Anyway, one thing leading to another, and via Youtube, I watched some Atheist discussions and what not and stumbled upon a book by Sam Harris, who wrote Letter to a Christian Nation, called The Moral Landscape. This is about the idea that human suffering can actually be measured through the miracles or modern neuroscience, and that, at least to a "Better than Nothing" approximation, it might be possible to scientifically evaluate morality, if you define what is moral as that which tends to minimize suffering (plural, not just in any one person; you could even include para-human intelligences such as chimps and dolphins, or even all sentient beings, at least in principle).

Perhaps a bit of a stretch, but it is an answer to those who would claim that science is morally neutral: actually, it isn't. It is irrational to cause harm to the Earth, or to others, without some counterbalancing benefit, and if you accept the idea of society as having any value, as opposed to pure narcissism, the only rational goal is the old saw, the greatest good for the greatest number. That is a quantity, at least in principle, which can be determined, and used a measure of morality. Therefore, although the results scientific investigation can be used by immoral persons, their conduct is irrational, and not supported by scientific conclusions. In just the same way that mental techniques discovered by spiritual practitioners can be used by misguided persons to cause harm, but that does not mean that the spiritual practice is morally neutral, or worse, evil, just that it is capable of being subverted. The same for scientific knowledge and technique: if applied consistently, it is moral, but if subverted, it can be used by irrational persons to do harm.

After I get the book (ordered it used) and read it, I'll let you know what I think about all that.

It occurs to me that there may be value in this, irrespective of whether one chooses the reductionist viewpoint that is atheism.* A person can choose to hold beliefs, and still embrace the idea that science is not, or need not be, morally neutral, and that its methodologies can aid in determination of moral courses of action.

* I think this can be summed up thus: The evidence so far claimed for anything supernatural is unverifiable. The rational course in face of unverifiable evidence is to reject premises based on any assumption of the existence of the claimed phenomena (Occam's Razor). Therefore, the rational mind rejects the supernatural, which includes the existence of God, gods, fairies, ghosts, etc.
Whether this is too narrow a viewpoint, or there is a flaw in the logic, I leave for your own particular preferred interpretation. I think it's best not to argue religion with people, because religion and the questions it addresses are inherently emotional.

Obviously, there are some subtleties here. Why would one, for example, more or less categorically reject fairies and ghosts, but have a predisposition to accept extraterrestrial intelligence? I can think of several reasons, but I just throw that out there, except to say, the first category is not only unverifiable, but there is no reasonable chain of assumptions that lead to the conclusion that there is a plausible theoretical basis for the existence of these things, whereas, one actually would have to do a bit of special pleading to conclude that other intelligent beings do not exist somewhere other than Earth, notwithstanding the current state of evidence (i.e., none).

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