Can science explain morality? Can it tell us right from wrong?


(chandra kishore sardar) #1

Science is advancing at a much faster rate than ever before and seems to be answering most of the questions of human life.
Sam Harris is one such author who believes that science can tell us wrong from right and he dishes out couple of illustrations and examples to do so in one of his talks at Ted. “Values are certain kind of facts, they are facts about the wellbeing of conscious beings. There’s no notion, no version of human morality and human values that I’ve ever come across that is not at some point reducible to a concern about conscious experience and its possible changes,” says Sam in the video below:


(SeanO) #2

@chandrakishore The simple answer is no, science cannot tell us the difference between right and wrong because science can only tell us what is and not what ought to be. Morality is all about what you ‘ought’ to do. If we evict God from the picture we get:

1 - Collectivism - whatever is best for the greater society goes - this can lead to harming vulnerable or marginalized populations
2 - Pragmatism - do whatever works - again, this is dangerous because sometimes what works leads to exploitation or cruelty
3 - Natural selection - the strong dominate the weak

This list is not exhaustive, but do you notice anything these philosophies all have in common? There is not ‘ought’ in any of them, because you cannot have an ‘ought’ without God. You can only have a ‘what is’ and ‘what is not’. Let’s take pragmatism as an example of why having no ‘ought’ is fine whenever everyone is fat and happy but leads to badness when things are hard.

A thought: Pragmatism is effective while we all live in a country where we mostly have enough to eat and a place to live. But when things get tough - in war or famine or hunger - pragmatism leads to killing and eating one’s neighbor rather than loving them. Are you not even willing to consider that Christ Himself might be the answer to living a happy & compassionate life that is rooted in reality rather than in mere pragmatism?

Someone may object that atheists have behaved selflessly in such situations. In that case, they are not living out their beliefs consistently - they are actually obeying the deeper ‘ought’ that God has placed in our hearts. They are a walking contradiction and evidence that God does, indeed, exist and has written the moral law on the heart of man.

Here are some great summaries of C. S. Lewis’ arguments on morality from Mere Christianity and some additional threads to consider:

Christ grant you wisdom :slight_smile:


(Kathleen) #3

Thanks for posting this video and question to ponder this morning, @chandrakishore! I am always interested in how atheists argue for objective morality, and I still have of yet to fully understand their arguments, but I think I’m getting a little clearer.

I’m trying to understand how and discern if Harris did answer that question (Can science answer moral questions?). Apologies if this is a bit convoluted! Just trying to process some thoughts…

By science, I am assuming he is referring to the fields of psychology and neurobiology being the most informative on this question…since he mentions the importance of conscious experience in questions of morality. And with that in mind, he also seems to think of right and wrong in terms of flourishing and suffering. So, at the basic level…

good/right/should be = that which leads to flourishing
bad/wrong/should not be = that which leads to suffering

This, of course, is all predicated on whatever your definition is of flourishing and suffering. And I suppose he would argue that certain scientific fields can help us develop a definition of these two concepts, thereby helping us (humanity) answer moral questions and/or find that elusive objective notion/value behind the concept of ‘well-being’.

And I would probably agree with him to an extent. However, what we’re seeing in the culture clashes so prevalent in our world today is that each one has different or nuanced version of what it means to flourish. That, I don’t believe, will ever be able to be unraveled. He seems to place undue and greatly idealistic faith in humanity and in our ability to not just know, but to then put the knowledge to work for ‘flourishing’.

Not that I am anti-human by any means. I try to exist in the grey area between cynicism and naivety as a sort of idealistic realist: one who sees my own as well as others potential both for good and ill. Hopefully, I succeed at that, but who knows!

Though, another thought I would like to consider (and wonder if he’s addressed it in other writings) is the overlap between suffering and flourishing. Because I do not see these concepts as separate, like black and white. I mean, sometimes they are obvious, but at other times they seem to be intricately intertwined. How would he explain those who seem to flourish while they experience intense suffering? (I think of the remarkable stories that come out of times of persecution of the Christian church.) Also the reverse. It could be argued that we, in the West, live in one of the most flourishing societies in the history of humanity, yet the new sufferings of ‘affluenza’ plague us in numbers that rival disease epidemics of other ages. So, really, in this earthly life, is flourishing devoid of suffering?


(Robert Anderson) #4

It seems Sam’s whole argument is that “right” is what promotes human flourishing and “wrong” is anything that promotes suffering. My question to Sam would be, “Why is it good for humans to flourish and wrong for humans to suffer?”

As Christians we believe that life has inherent worth and it is therefore wrong to violate that worth. It seems Harris also believes human life has value. Why else would he be arguing for it’s flourishing and against its suffering? But I’m curious as to why he believes human life has value. An object such as an impersonal universe cannot bestow value, only a person can. So who gives humans value? If the answer is that we give ourselves value, then why is it not equally valid for us to de-value ourselves? What if in 1000 years, people all decided that human life is a virus on the world that should be eradicated? Would they be morally right? Or what if today I took the exact opposite position of Sam and argued that it was right to promote suffering and wrong to promote flourishing? What would be the moral arbiter?


(Warner Joseph Miller) #5

Thanks, so much, for your question, Chandra! It got me to thinking if maybe the proper response was less an “either/or” and more “both, and” approach. Please humor me for a sec.

Okay, so science proves mechanism, not purpose. There are things that we accept as true that a lab or science cannot prove. For example, something like aesthetic can’t be proven using the scientific method yet we acknowledge, intuitively, the existence of beauty. However….even with that acknowledgment of science’s limitations, I do not subscribe to the notion that science and faith/God are adversaries…even with regard to morality. There are instances of overlap, perhaps even complement.

Ravi Zacharias has often said that enough has been put in this world to make faith a most reasonable thing. However, there’s also enough that has been left out to make it impossible to live by sheer reason (or science), alone. Science and faith answer different things about life, the universe and everything in between.

I heard an anecdote from scientist, theologian and Oxford professor, Allistair McGrath years ago that sort of illustrates this.

A gentleman decides to make a pot of tea and puts a kettle on his gas stove. An observer might see this kettle of water on the stove and ask, “Why is the water in the kettle boiling?” At one level, the answer can actually be framed, scientifically. The observer could respond, “burning gas generates heat, which is transferred to the water, and thus raises the temperature of the water to its boiling point.” And voila! That is an accurate answer to why the kettle is boiling. The observer’s detailed observation would be 100% true! However, the question can – and should – also be answered at another level. The kettle is boiling because the man wanted to make a pot of tea.

BOTH responses are each valid and grounded in reality and truth. They are different yet not in competition with or contradictory of each other. The two explanations complement each other, providing a more complete picture of the whole tea-making enterprise! :grin: They are BOTH equally true.

So why am I making this point and why so important? I think that many atheists take a strongly positivist view of science, holding that it explains (or has the potential to explain) everything, including matters traditionally regarded as lying within the religious realm. That would include morality. Similarly, the religious mind would posit the opposite…that science has little to no usefulness with regard to matters historically left to the spiritually minded. The belief is that science and religion offer competing explanations; that there cannot be multiple, non-contradictory explanations of the same things. Only one explanation can be valid.

However, I think there can be room for the possibility of a “both/and” with regard to morality…to an extent:

Again…my point is that these two accounts (the “religious” and the scientific) can potentially complement each other, rather than fully and outright contradict each other…yes, even with regard to morality. They are not in competition. The goal, where possible AND where it doesn’t diminsh the source material is an integrated, holistic picture of the way the world is - and that sometimes means weaving together different levels of explanation to provide a rich and comprehensive whole.

Just a thought. I hope that made sense. Thanks so much for the question. What are YOUR thoughts?


(Omar Rushlive Lozada Arellano) #6

Hi Chandra (@chandrakishore). This is indeed a good question. Sam Harris talked about his views in detail in his book, The Moral Landscape. People like him want to affirm objective moral values and duties without ever having the need for God as a foundation. This view is called humanism. I’ll talk about this first, then talk about why it’s reasonable to believe that science can’t explain morality.

They will say that whatever contributes to the flourishing of humanity is good, and whatever does not is bad. This is not convincing because of the metaphysical assumptions of atheism. Why is human flourishing better compared with the flourishing of other species?

There are others who attach moral values to natural state of affairs. The analogy is the property of wetness of water. Neither hydrogen nor oxygen are wet, but if you combine them as H2O, then the property of wetness necessarily attaches to the substance. In the same way, the property of goodness automatically attaches to a mother taking care of her baby. The philosopher William Lane Craig does not see any good reason how natural properties in a specific situation would determine moral properties, which is non-natural.

Now that we have discussed humanism, let me talk about science explaining morality. I’ll share insights, which I learned from John Lennox, in his book entitled, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?.

First, I would go about the quote from Sir Peter Medawar, which is an affirmation of the limits of science:

"The existence of a limit to science is, however, made clear by its inability to answer childlike elementary questions having to do with first and last things - questions such as “How did everything begin?”; “What are we all here for?”; “What is the point of living?”

Second, I would talk about John Lennox’s aunt Matilda analogy:

So aunt Matilda baked a beautiful cake, and it was analyzed by the world’s greatest scientists. The scientists were asked about the explanation for the cake. The nutrition scientist talked about the number of calories in the cake and its nutritional effect, the biochemist will talk about the proteins and fats, the chemist about the elements involved and their bonding, and the physicist about the fundamental particles, and the mathematician will offer equations to describe the behavior of the particles.

Though the scientists had given an exhaustive explanation of the cake, it was not completely explained. If they were asked about why the cake were made, of course, the one who is able to answer it is aunt Matilda who made the cake. And we will know for sure why aunt Matilda made the cake if she reveals it to us.

In light of this, when we talk about the cake in terms of science and morality, if you put poison in the cake, scientists can tell you about how it will affect the organism that will eat it. But when they tell you that it’s evil to do it, they have transcended their scientific discipline already.


(chandra kishore sardar) #7

Thank you @SeanO @KMac @rla9316 @WarnerMiller @omnarchy for your brainstorming and profound answers. I am very much satisfied and convinced by all of your answers. I certainly dont have follow-up questions as of now since your replies are so heavy and will definitiely take me days to process or also maybe because i am not that intellect a person. But if i ever do get one i shall not hesitate to come back again . :grin:
I am grateful to each one of you for your replies.:blush:


(Warner Joseph Miller) #8

No problem, at all, my sister! I’m glad you gained some clarity from all the answers you received. Also…the ability to ask poignant, thoughtful questions is certainly a marker of great intellect. You may be way smarter than you think.:wink: God’s every blessing to you, Chandra! Peace​:v:t6:


(chandra kishore sardar) #9

Thank you @WarnerMiller for those kind words. I really appreciate it. And btw you can call me brother. :grin: i understand asian names can be tricky !!! :grin::grin::grin:


(Harris Ratnayake) #10

I wrote to Sam Harris after his book first came out. I have enclosed my letter here. It is 3 pages long but the gist of it is morality has to do with how we ought to live by. So my question to him was however he likes to define morality why ought other people live by his definition.

Dear Dr. Harris:

I really enjoyed reading your book the “The Moral Landscape.” I was a Christian theist before reading your book and have interacted with many an atheist including members of my own family who are strong atheists. One of my strongest objections to atheism was the moral argument. It seemed to me that if we all evolved into existence by a naturalistic evolutionary pathway then it is meaningless to talk about a way we ought to live by and a way we ought not to live by. How can we have oughtness if we are basically matter governed by the four fundamental forces of nature? But assuming we somehow developed a capability to choose between alternative courses of action what ought we to choose other than our own happiness. When I look at books written by atheists such as Dawkins, Hitchins etc I always look at the index and check out the sections that deal with morality. They simply do not address the fundamental problem, namely, is there a way we ought to live by. So when I saw that you had written a whole book on the subject and then to see Dawkins praise saying “I was one of those who had unthinkingly bought into the hectoring myth that science can say nothing about morals” and that “The Moral Landscape changed all that” I was very eager to read your book.

If I understand your thesis you are saying that morality has peaks and valleys (The Landscape) and we should live our lives to take us toward the peaks. The peaks are defined as the “Well-being of living things and these well-being peaks should be related to brain states.” This is surely an interesting concept. However, I do have some questions:

Firstly, what happens when an action causes the well-being of some living things and bad-being (not sure what the opposite of well-being is) in others, ex in wars or even in competitive sports? Do we take the sum total of well-beings into account? Also, what happens if an action causes a little well-being of some humans but an enormous harm to millions of other living things such as mosquitoes and bacteria?

Ultimately though what is the incentive for anyone to do anything that will not, according to their thinking, increase their own well-being regardless of what it would do to other humans or other living things? On page 32 you have attempted to answer the question “Why the well-being of conscious beings ought to matter to us?” by saying that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. But why should the well-being of other conscious beings matter to us? I can understand you saying that society should pass laws that will increase the well-being of conscious beings and not a particular individual but that is politics not morality. Morality has to do with how an individual ought to live.

In this connection you said religious conceptions of moral law rests on God’s law but when the religious people are asked why is it important to follow God’s law many people will cannily say “for its own sake.” I take exception to this. I say that it is important to follow God’s law because it is beneficial for all of us. In the atheistic world however, it is entirely possible and indeed it is our experience that happiness to an individual in this world does not always equate to happiness to all living things or even to humans.

Also in this connection you bring up the Danish Cartoonist, Kurt Westergaard and the attempts of some Muslims to kill peaceful people over cartoons. You correctly say that we know enough about the human conditions to know that killing cartoonists for blasphemy does not lead anywhere worth going on the moral landscape. Presumably this means that these Muslims should not be doing this as it does not enhance the well-being of people. But does this not apply to Westergaard himself? Why couldn’t it be said that putting cartoons that would enrage a particular group of people – for whatever reason – does not lead anywhere worth going on the moral landscape? Is it not the case that in an atheistic world Westergaard will do whatever that makes him happy regardless of whether it reduces the happiness of someone else and the Muslims will do the same?

Finally, your position on free will completely puzzles me. You deny the existence of free will but you accept that we have choices. But you say a person’s “choices” merely appear in his mental stream as though sprung from the void. Then you say that we are no more responsible for the next thing we think (and therefore do) than we are for the fact that we were born into this world (p104). Then you ask the question “If everything is determined, why should I do anything? Why not just sit back and see what happens?” But then you say that the fact that our choices depend on prior causes does not mean that they do not matter. If everything is determined we don’t have a choice regarding doing anything or not doing anything. We cannot decide on our own to sit back and see what happens. If we sat back and watched what happens it is because our brain state made us do so. Where then is choice? At the end of the paragraph you say “just try staying in bed all day waiting for something to happen.” How can we even try to do that if we don’t have a free will?

You distinguish between voluntary and involuntary actions but you say it does nothing to support the common idea of free will because you say the former are associated with felt intentions while the latter are not. But how does a person’s felt intentions make them responsible for their actions? You may be able to maintain “the premeditated actions of a sniper” but how can you hold him or her responsible for what they did if felt intentions simply arise in a person’s brain because of movements in neurons. You may argue that regardless of whether they are responsible for their actions or not we as a society should incarcerate them and not allow them to roam around on the streets. But if individuals don’t have free will then society does not have free will either (as society is made up simply of individuals) and we don’t have a say in the matter of incarcerating them or not!

If I move my hand to hold a mug I send a signal to my brain which in turn sends signals to the muscles in my hand to contract to hold the mug. Either this signal originated in my soul that somehow interacts with the brain to start the process or matter is all that exists and this signal can be traced back all the way to the big bang. If the latter is the case it seems to me there is no free will, no choice and above all no way we ought to live by. So I still remain a Christian theist after reading your book.

I would be very happy (greater well-being!) to get a response from you.


(Warner Joseph Miller) #11

My goodness! :man_facepalming:t6:Foot placed firmly in my mouth. So sorry for my mistake Chandra. Truly. Thank YOU, so much, for being so gracious and patient with me, BROTHER. Much love. Much respect.:blush:


(chandra kishore sardar) #12

Thank you @harrisrat for enclosing your letter to Sam Harris here. Your arguments are incredible and thoroughly thought. I myself havent read that book but if i am not mistaken the peaks and valleys system of defining morality is one of his main ideas and must have elaborated vastly on that in his book.
Did you ever receive his email with answers to your questions ? Just curious !


(Harris Ratnayake) #13

I believe I received a standard response - this was in 2011 - that thanked me for the letter but because of so many letters that he regrets not being able to said a personal response, which is understandable. Incidentally, he had a contest for the best response for his book and a committee decided the best response, which ran into a number of pages. He gave a response to the best critique. I don’t remember the critique or the response now - again this was 7 years ago. Tried searching for it on the web but couldn’t find it.