Can Science Answer Moral Questions?

This was the question of Sam Harris’s TED talk which was a sales pitch for his book “The Moral Landscape“.  I think science cannot answer moral questions.  Science can help creating a cure for cancer or design a better gas chamber with equal efficiency.  It is utterly incapable of telling if one is more ethical than the other.  There is no litmus test for morality.


Science is great at finding methods for making something.  Good decisions are not an exception.  Science can shed the light on how to make better decisions as this excellent video by Mariano Sigman and Dan Ariely shows.  It cannot tell what these decisions are.

Notice the difference between the two videos.  The second video is focused on the method.  It does not comment on the morality of a particular decision and does not mention religion or any social group at all.  Harris’s video, to the contrary, is full of anti-religious (Islamophobic, in particular) examples, and appeals to emotions rather than intellect while being completely unsound intellectually.  As a sales pitch, it worked great creating controversy and sparking heated discussions among scientists, philosophers, and religious people.  But it did nothing to make this world better.


Justice vs. Forgiveness and Mercy

Much of religion revolves around justice.  Christians believe in the final judgment day when the evildoers will be punished and the righteous will be rewarded.  At the same time, forgiveness and mercy are also at the very foundation of the Christian faith.  Justice and forgiveness seem to be incompatible with each other.  Atheists exploit this conflict to make a point that Christianity is immoral.

I think, the contradiction is in the reciprocity of these concepts.

An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.

This expression attributed to Gandhi, but, perhaps existing long before Gandhi, shows the flaw in the biblical concept of justice. “An eye for an eye” approach creates a vicious cycle of violence that can only be broken by forgiveness.  Forgiveness and mercy, on the other hand, are supposed to create forgiveness and mercy in return.  But sometimes they don’t.

Reciprocal relations have to start small and build on themselves.  When I don’t know if I can trust a stranger, I trust him with something small. Then I build my trust on my experience.  Trust builds on trust, but it starts unconditionally.  It justifies itself, like faith. Or, rather, it’s justified by the experience of practicing it. In the same way, we can find out if forgiveness is worthwhile.

Homosexuality is Unnatural

“Homosexuality is unnatural” is the first line of defense of gay marriage opponents.  I used to think so too, just because I’m straight. But what does “unnatural” mean?  “Unnatural” is the opposite of “natural”.  Depending on the context, “natural” can mean a number of things.

“Natural” can refer to something occurring in nature, without human participation.  “Unnatural” in this context means something man-made, something that can be seen only when humans are involved, something that would never develop without human participation.  If homosexuality is unnatural in this context, one would not observe it in wild animals.  A simple search on Wikipedia on “homosexual behavior in animals” reveals this.  Oh, My God!  Just a short list of “homosexual offenders” in the animal world:

Not the bed bugs! I was particularly impressed by the documented case of homosexual necrophilia in mallards.  Here is the link to the original paper PDF.  The author, Kees Moeliker, also made a TED talk about this interesting case with a few additional details, such as an example of a frog engaging in an oral sex with a live goldfish.  This paper and this video come to my mind each time someone uses the word “unnatural”.

Bed bugs, dragonflies, and lizards having homosexual affairs also destroy the myth that homosexual behavior is a choice unless we want to claim that dragonflies have consciousness and can choose what they do.  If God created dragonflies, he must have created homosexuality too.  Can dragonflies sin?

This video in Russian called “Homo sapiens – homosexuality in humans and animals” (you can turn on English subtitles) mentions that homosexual behavior is observed in over 1500 species!  It also shows many interesting examples of the contexts and reasons of it showing that the function of sex is not only reproduction, even in the animal world.

So, it’s not just a “fluke” of nature.  A random event with a negligible probability of observing.  Homosexuality in nature is very common. So, one cannot use “not observed in nature” definition to claim that homosexuality is unnatural.

But there are other meanings of “natural” and “unnatural”.  For example, people may say that “it is natural for the sun to rise in the morning and set in the evening”.  This simply means something commonly observed.   It’s a synonym of “normal”.  So, something not commonly observed or regularly done is identified as “unnatural” or “abnormal”.  “It is unnatural for me to wake up at 3 am” simply means that I normally do not do it. Perhaps, this is what most straight people mean when they say that homosexuality is unnatural.  First of all, other people can regularly do things that I would never do and it would be natural for them.  What is commonly observed in one area or culture can be very uncommon in another.  Even the sun does not rise and set every day in summer or in winter in areas close to the poles.  “Water boils at 100C” is only true at the sea level and on Earth.  On Mars, water does not normally boil at all.  It’s too cold.  This means, we only call homosexuality “unnatural” or “abnormal” because we don’t observe it too often.  But is it a good reason to oppose homosexual marriages?  We don’t see redheads too often as well.  Shall we call red hair a “genetic abnormality” and ban them from marriage also?  Claiming that homosexuality is “abnormal”, that it’s a “genetic deviation”, a “disease” of some sort, seems bogus.  When “unnatural” is used in the sense of an uncommon behavior, opposition to gay marriage is based in mere tradition.  “It has always been this way” (followed by the quotes from Genesis).

Sometimes, “unnatural” means “immoral”.  E.g. “It is unnatural to steal and kill.”  But declaring homosexuality unnatural because it is immoral and immoral because it is unnatural does not make a lot of sense.  One of the two has to be defined using different terms to avoid circular reasoning.

Sometimes, “unnatural” means “disgusting” or “repulsive”.  In this sense, “unnatural” means something a person would not normally do (see notes about “normal” – “abnormal” above).

Bottom line.  Some definitions of “unnatural” do not hold water with respect to homosexuality.  Others lead to circular reasoning.  Those that cannot be refuted, are reduced to 1) physical disgust or 2) tradition, often based in religion.

What other meanings of “natural” and “unnatural” have you seen?  My advice: avoid using words “natural” and “unnatural” in any debates.  In my experience, the most common source of misunderstanding in discussions comes from using different, unclear, or too broad contexts for common words.  Some people claim all we see around us is nature, therefore everything is natural.  Some people believe in supernatural.  If the supernatural is not natural, i.e. unnatural, then God is unnatural too.  “Careful the things you say, children will listen.

Saving Others

I think, Christianity is a great idea.  All people are inadequate in one sense or another.  All have imperfections.  All make mistakes.  All make bad decisions once in a while.  All are “sinners”, not in a sense “evil-doers”, but in a sense of lacking perfection in their thoughts, words, and deeds.  All need “salvation” from this inadequacy and imperfection.  I think, it’s important to realize this about myself. If I don’t realize and acknowledge my own mistakes, errors, and imperfections, I will persist in these errors with arrogance and pride.

Naturally, when we realize our own mistakes and errors, moved by love, we would also want to “save” our neighbor from repeating these mistakes…  And this is where the whole idea gets upside down.  Our neighbor is merrily going about his own business, enjoying life, and here I come as a “loving Christian”, bringing “the good news” that the wide road he is following is the high way to hell and that he needs to pick his cross and follow the narrow path.

But I am not my neighbor.  How do I know that the things that I consider “bad” for myself are “bad” for my neighbor?  Some like it hot, some like it cold, some like it in a pot nine days old.  If my grand-grand-grandfather died after eating a bad shellfish, and, forever since then, my tribal rule book says “shellfish is detestable”, should I really take this message to the other tribe that has been happily living on shellfish for generations?

All Christians want to “be like Jesus” who is perfect.  The problem with this aspiration is that, at some point, people start to believe that they have achieved some state of moral perfection and superiority and are in a position to go around and teach others, righteously turning over tables in other people’s temples and saying “woe to you, hypocrites!”, not seeing the plank in their own eye.

The situaion becomes even worse when this desire to “save” others is made into a state policy.  This is where the whole doctrine of “salvation” creates hell.  When one nation takes on a mission of “saving” other nations – “liberating” them from whatever is considered “oppression”, “sin”, “immorality” – this doctrine leads to rivers of blood.

These words are prompted by the current events in Ukraine, my home country.  Some Russian leaders somewhere got an idea that Russia represents a unique culture, “civilization”, if you will, somehow “distinct” from the rest of the world and has a “special” mission – to save other “brother” nations from corruption, immorality, and oppression of the West.  On the other side of the ocean, U.S.A. poses as a world policeman and believes that all countries should have “the right” form of government to be “happy” and “free”.  As a result, there is an unprecedented surge of hatred between people in Ukraine fueled by media.  People are kidnapped, tortured and killed, civilians die from bullets and shells.  Each side accuses the other in “state-sponsored terrorism”, “fascism”, “genocide”, and what not.  The same scenario is played in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria.

So, is it right to “save” my neighbor or is it right to watch my neighbor suffer what I consider to be oppression, depravity, pain, or sin? Should I not “do unto others as I would have others do unto me?”    Should I not fulfill what I consider to be my moral and, often, patriotic duty? But how do others know how I want to be treated and how do I know how they want to be treated? I may consider my suffering real.  But is my neighbor’s suffering real or is it only in my head?  These are not easy questions, are they?

Here is an interesting picture regarding “saving Muslim women”.

In this picture, both women think that the other needs to be “saved”. Do Muslim or Western women really need to be “saved”? Perhaps, Sam Harris can devise a clever science experiment and save me from facing this choice.  But, on the other hand, shall we tolerate beating, torturing and killing women in other countries for not complying with some tribal rule books and sexual discrimination in our own?

There are words of wisdom in the Bible:

“I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. — Romans 14:14”

Shakespeare adds:

“Nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Go figure who thinks what.

To save or not to save? That is the question. This dilemma seems to be at the very heart of Christianity.  But I can see how this post may outrage some Christians as “unchristian”.  I can be accused of advocating moral relativism.  I will be pointed to the numerous commands in the NT to “go and spread the word”, to the quotes about “the lamp on a lamp stand”, etc.

It’s interesting that becoming an atheist and rejecting the whole idea of “salvation” will not rid me of this dilemma.  I see a lot of atheists going out of their way trying to save others from what they perceive to be opression of religion.

Is there a way of this “spiritual darkness” and blindness?


Hypocrisy of Tolerance

I was in search of a good illustration for my point when I found this As usual, Gandhi cuts it to the core.  I have a problem with the concept of tolerance because tolerance implies hate.  Without hate, tolerance is simply meaningless, there is nothing to “tolerate”.  Perhaps, instead of striving to be tolerant, we […]

Does religion cause harm?

After choosing to believe in God for personal reasons, I had interesting conversations with people who passionately oppose religion and faith.   Their main argument is, of course, the lack of evidence for God which I’m going to address separately.  The other argument which is hard to dismiss is that religion causes harm because it makes humans […]

My experience with religion: Part 3

As I described earlier, I grew up as an atheist, I described my early experiences with religion, and why I finally chose to believe in God.  I’d like to reflect on some interesting side-effects.

Shortly after I chose to believe in God, I came across the Atheist Experience video podcast.  I have been an atheist for the most of my life.  It wasn’t a big deal for me.  I did not have to “break the spell”, break relationships with my family or face judgment from my friends for being an atheist.  I did not realize that people could be very passionate about their atheism and even confrontational with believers.  That was an interesting discovery for me.

To be honest, I did not like the tone of the show.  The hosts of the show ridiculed religion, religious beliefs, and religious callers.  There was a general overtone of arrogance and superiority.  I visited a few atheist forums.  What I saw there was even more shocking.  Once I identified myself as a believer, I was treated with scorn and contempt.  For some reason, people in these forums were prepared to refute my “stupid claims” even though I did not make any.  I was assumed to be a right-wing conservative who rejects evolution and supports YEC.  Now I realize that this, perhaps, was the kind of believers these people were used to deal with.  But I found it a bit narrow-minded for people who claimed to be “rational” to treat all believers according to their own stereotype.   I was bombarded with dogmatic cliche statements which sounded rational on their face, but did not stand a simple analysis.  For instance,

  • “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” (Hitchens)
  • Burden of proof principle (even though I did not make any statements)
  • “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” (“Clifford’s Credo”)

I thought about these statements.  I read Clifford’s essay “Ethics of Belief” and William James’s response “The Will to Believe”.  I have a notebook full of notes on these essays which I hope to share some time later.  I read about epistemology, empiricism, solipsism, rationalism.  I read about cognitive dissonance.  I read Karl Popper to understand scientific method.  I thought I may be making a huge mistake believing in God.  But I concluded that there are as many reasons to believe in God as reasons not to believe in God.   The question of God’s existence is not scientific because it is unfalsifiable.  People who know how science works, know this.  People who are confused about science, try to present “evidence” for God or claim that science “proves” that God does not exist.  Some people know that existence of God is not a scientific question, but deliberately require “evidence” from naive believers just to get them entangled in their own arguments.  It was a good experience.  Most notably, I learned what not to say in online discussions.  I tried to understand why we believe, how we make decisions in uncertain situations.  I concluded that all people have unjustified beliefs.  So, the lack of evidence for God is not a sufficient reason to reject belief in God.  After a lot of thought, I did not find any epistemological reasons to reject belief in God.

Another hard claim I was confronted with was the claim that “religion causes harm”.  I was presented with countless historical facts of religious wars, crusades, witch-burning, Inquisition, antisemitism, Holocaust, honor killings, acts of terrorism, allegedly caused by religious beliefs.  In other words, I was confronted with moral reasons to reject belief in God.  I think, being skeptical about my prior beliefs is a good habit.  But for me, it has a different meaning than for most atheists in those forums: I have to be skeptical about atheism, not religion.  That religion is “opium for the masses”, I know quite well from my Soviet schooling.  After reading about causality, I have concluded that religion is not the cause of the atrocities associated with it.  So, there are no sufficient moral reasons to reject belief in God.  I think, religion is very powerful.  And, as any power, it has many dangers.  But these dangers can be avoided and are not sufficient to disregard the power of religion which exists independently of what we think of it.   I’m going to write about it soon.

I was told that science tells us where morality comes from and that it can help us answer moral questions.  At that time, I have not heard of Sam Harris, but a short internet search lead me to this pivotal TED talk where Harris tried to suggest that science can help us solve moral issues.  Essentially, it was a promotion of Harris’s book “The Moral Landscape” which was going to be published at that time.  It was the first TED talk I watched.  Something did not sound right in this talk.  I smelled too much agenda.  It lead me to discover Sean Carroll’s response to Sam Harris which lead me to read Hume on the topics of beliefs, empiricism, “ought vs. is”, etc.  Watching TED videos and participating in TED online discussions opened a new chapter in my learning.  TED folks are a lot more diverse and open-minded than folks from atheist forums.  I found a lot more understanding there.  A lot of topics discussed are thought-provoking. I spent a lot of time participating in TED discussions.  These days however,  I find too many Utopian ideas discussed in TED conversations and too many idealistic discussions.

In atheist forums, I was also confronted with scientific theories of the origins of the universe and with claims that the universe started from “nothing”, according to the laws of physics.  And that the whole thing was started by a random fluctuation (of what?).  There is so much nonsense in this belief that it may take a few posts to cover them.  I even have heard that “there was time when there was no time” (regarding the “time” prior to the big bang).  That was a quote from an atheist forum that I thought is worth remembering.  I won’t go too far here as Sean Carroll has done a fairly good job already.  By Lawernce Krauss’s own admission, the title of his book “A Universe from Nothing” is only intended to stir up a controversy and get people thinking and talking about it.  It’s the same tactics Sam Harris employs with his claims regarding science and morality, free will, etc. which deliberately contradict centuries of philosophical thought on these issues.  This tactic may stimulate thought on these topics, but I find it a bit cheap and self-promoting.  It sells well, but it’s alike the cheap “popularity” gained by Internet forum trolls and Miley Cyrus antics.

So, science fanatics, sorry.  Science does not tell us how the universe came about and does not help much to answer moral questions.  Which, again, leaves me with freedom to believe what I want to believe.  The result of this investigation was reading a few books by Stephen Hawkins and Roger Penrose, articles by Andrei Linde and Alex Vilenkin, lectures on cosmology and vacuum physics which was a fun refreshment of my college education in physics.

All in all, my experience with religion is very positive.  I learned a lot about myself, science, politics, and philosophy with its many branches — epistemology, ethics, etc.   It’s been an interesting journey which I hope to continue.

Our Narrow Definition of “Science” : My Response to the 2014 Edge Question : : Sam Harris

Search your mind, or pay attention to the conversations you have with other people, and you will discover that there are no real boundaries between science and philosophy—or between those disciplines and any other that attempts to make valid claims about the world on the basis of evidence and logic. When such claims and their methods of verification admit of experiment and/or mathematical description, we tend to say that our concerns are “scientific”; when they relate to matters more abstract, or to the consistency of our thinking itself, we often say that we are being “philosophical”; when we merely want to know how people behaved in the past, we dub our interests “historical” or “journalistic”; and when a person’s commitment to evidence and logic grows dangerously thin or simply snaps under the burden of fear, wishful thinking, tribalism, or ecstasy, we recognize that he is being “religious.”

via Our Narrow Definition of “Science” : My Response to the 2014 Edge Question : : Sam Harris.

Harris seems to rant that people interpret science too narrowly.   While at it, he reduces religion to a mere lack of commitment to evidence and logic, wishful thinking, tribalism, extacy, and inability to think coherently under fear.  But these are not defining attributes of religiosity.  Many people exhibit these attributes, religious or not (as we will see below).  Mr. Harris seems to attack a “straw man”.  It’s very unlikely that Harris is unfamiliar with this common fallacy implying that he uses it deliberately.  Twisting definitions to conform to one’s beliefs seems to be the very practice Sam Harris appears to criticize.

Confusion on this point has spawned many strange ideas about the nature of human knowledge and the limits of “science.” People who fear the encroachment of the scientific attitude—especially those who insist upon the dignity of believing in one or another Iron Age god—will often make derogatory use of words such as materialism, neo-Darwinism, and reductionism, as if those doctrines had some necessary connection to science itself.
This is the first time I hear that “materialism”, “neo-Darwinism”, and “reductionism” are “derogatory terms”.  Why does anybody need to be insulted when things are called what they are?
I, personally, do fear the encroachment of science into politics and morality, but not for religious reasons.  I am fairly convinced that moral rules cannot be established by scientific experiment, in principle.  Such view would be in gross contradiction with Harris’ own views.  If we admit that there are absolute, objective, undeniable, universal moral values, then we must admit that the physical universe has a purpose and can impose moral judgement on humans.  Essentially, such belief is belief in a weird “scientific” version of God and give scientists the status of high priests to declare moral values as “scientific truths proven with evidence”.
If we allow morality to be established by scientific experiment, we can easily demonstrate that killing sick and elderly eliminates the need and expenses for healthcare and social benefits, thus making society much healthier and wealthier (of course, if we agree that health and wealth constitute “wellbeing”, otherwise we will need to find scientific evidence that they do).
What’s the evidence for “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,…”?  It’s an obvious falsity.  The evidence shows that some men are tall and some are short, some are black  and some are white, some are wise and some believe that science can prove moral values.
Regarding reductionism:
If there were evidence that complex systems produced phenomena that cannot be understood in terms of their constituent parts, it would be possible to be a neo-Darwinist without being a reductionist. For all practical purposes, that is where most scientists find themselves, because every branch of science beyond physics must resort to concepts that cannot be understood merely in terms of particles and fields. Many of us have had “philosophical” debates about what to make of this explanatory impasse. Does the fact that we cannot predict the behavior of chickens or fledgling democracies on the basis of quantum mechanics mean that those higher-level phenomena are something other than their underlying physics? I would vote “no” here, but that doesn’t mean I envision a time when we will use only the nouns and verbs of physics to describe the world.

Perhaps, trying and failing to explain large systems based on properties of constituents can be construed as evidence that reductionism is not all-powerful.  It may be useful in some cases, but not in others.  Why not expand scientific method beyond reductionism instead of trying to fit square pegs into round holes?

Can quantum mechanics predict processes in society?  May be, having some facts and examples would be beneficial to establish a belief that quantum mechanics can predict fledging democracies lest we engage in “wishful thinking” and show “lack of commitment to evidence”.  A person adhering to “the highest standards of logic and evidence” might also avoid using arguments from ignorance in his reasoning.

The remedy for all this confusion is simple: We must abandon the idea that science is distinct from the rest of human rationality.
In other words, we need to abandon the  definition of science and opt for some fuzzy “highest standards of logic and reasoning” whatever it might mean.  One can use logic to explain something other than logic.  Using logic to explain logic and define the “highest standards of logic” seems to include circular reasoning and is, therefore, unreasonable.  There is a similar problem with being conscious of one’s own consciousness and thinking about one’s own thoughts.  But it’s a fine philosophical point which seems to escape the grasp of Mr. Harris’s titanic intellect.
It occurs to me that “highest standards” would require some definition.  Otherwise, it’s hard to “adhere” to them.  Usually, standards benefit from being specific.  “Highest standards” are, usually, “strict standards”, i.e. narrowly defined.
When you are adhering to the highest standards of logic and evidence, you are thinking scientifically. And when you’re not, you’re not.