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.


Philosophy is “useful” to science no more than mycology is “useful” to fungi

Second, after David’s review came out, Lawrence took the regrettable tack of lashing out at “moronic philosophers” and the discipline as a whole, rather than taking the high road and sticking to a substantive discussion of the issues. In the Atlantic interview especially, he takes numerous potshots that are just kind of silly. Like most scientists, Lawrence doesn’t get a lot out of the philosophy of science. That’s okay; the point of philosophy is not to be “useful” to science, any more than the point of mycology is to be “useful” to fungi. Philosophers of science aren’t trying to do science, they are trying to understand how science works, and how it should work, and to tease out the logic and standards underlying scientific argumentation, and to situate scientific knowledge within a broader epistemological context, and a bunch of other things that can be perfectly interesting without pretending to be science itself. And if you’re not interested, that’s fine. But trying to undermine the legitimacy of the field through a series of wisecracks is kind of lame, and ultimately anti-intellectual — it represents exactly the kind of unwillingness to engage respectfully with careful scholarship in another discipline that we so rightly deplore when people feel that way about science. It’s a shame when smart people who agree about most important things can’t disagree about some other things without throwing around insults. We should strive to be better than that.

via A Universe from Nothing? : Cosmic Variance.

I’ve seen a lot of discussion about the relationship between science and philosophy. Some scientists refer to philosophers as “moronic” and believe that philosophers have no authority to define things for scientists.  Others go as far as to say that “philosophy is dead” (i.e. has been replaced by science).

I, personally, like Sean Carroll’s view on relationship between science and philosophy.  IMO, science cannot replace philosophy and science cannot replace religion much like one cannot use trousers instead of a jacket or a screwdriver to drive nails.  This, by the way, applies to relationship between science and religion.  Scientists who make claims about the existence of God, clearly, step out of their scientific shoes.

Edited 1/18/2014.  A quote from Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

What’s wrong with this story? Well, for starters it’s internally incoherent. You can’t argue for science making philosophy obsolete without indulging in philosophical arguments. You’re going to need to argue, for example, for a clear criterion for distinguishing between scientific and non-scientific theories of the world. When pressed for an answer to the so-called demarcation problem, scientists almost automatically reach for the notion of “falsifiability” first proposed by Karl Popper. His profession? Philosophy. But whatever criterion you offer, its defense is going to implicate you in philosophy.

Here is another good analogy about relationship between science and philosophy which I read on this site:

Philosophers do conceptual tidying up, among other things, but scientists are the ones making all the sawdust in the workshop, and they need not be so tidy. And no cleaner should tell any professional (other than cleaners) how it ought to be done. Creationists who say, “evolution is not like what Popper said science should be, so it isn’t science” are like the janitor who says that teachers don’t keep their classrooms clean enough, so they aren’t teachers.

Related links:

Time to ditch falsifiability?


SelfAwarePatterns made me aware of this essay by theoretical physicist Sean Carroll who expressed opinion that some scientific theories can still be called scientific, even though they are claimed to be unfalsifiable:

Modern physics stretches into realms far removed from everyday experience, and sometimes the connection to experiment becomes tenuous at best. String theory and other approaches to quantum gravity involve phenomena that are likely to manifest themselves only at energies enormously higher than anything we have access to here on Earth. The cosmological multiverse and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics posit other realms that are impossible for us to access directly. Some scientists, leaning on Popper, have suggested that these theories are non-scientific because they are not falsifiable.

The truth is the opposite. Whether or not we can observe them directly, the entities involved in these theories are either real or they are not. Refusing to contemplate their possible existence on the grounds of some a priori principle, even though they might play a crucial role in how the world works, is as non-scientific as it gets.

The falsifiability criterion gestures toward something true and important about science, but it is a blunt instrument in a situation that calls for subtlety and precision. It is better to emphasize two more central features of good scientific theories: they are definite, and they are empirical. By “definite” we simply mean that they say something clear and unambiguous about how reality functions. String theory says that, in certain regions of parameter space, ordinary particles behave as loops or segments of one-dimensional strings. The relevant parameter space might be inaccessible to us, but it is part of the theory that cannot be avoided. In the cosmological multiverse, regions unlike our own are unambiguously there, even if we can’t reach them. This is what distinguishes these theories from the approaches Popper was trying to classify as non-scientific. (Popper himself understood that theories should be falsifiable “in principle,” but that modifier is often forgotten in contemporary discussions.)


Carroll suggests to replace the requirement of falsifiability for a scientific theory with two requirements: being “definite” and being “empirical“.  IMO, it’s the same as falsifiability.  A few points:

  1. “Unfalsifiable with today’s technology” and “unfalsifiable in principle” are two different matters.  E.g., we may be able to observe some effect of the multiverse on our universe in the future.
  2. “Unfalsified” and “unfalsifiable” are different matters.  Just because a theory has not been proven false, does not mean that it cannot be proven false.
  3. “True” and “useful” are different matters.  Scientific models and theories are created to explain empirical data and make useful predictions.  If a theory does not do that, it can still be scientific, but it is rejected as useless (e.g. aether theories)  The concepts of electron or radio wave are not “true” or “false”.  The fact that we cannot “see” them does not seem to embarrass any scientist.  We imagine electrons to be particles and it helps to explain empirical data.  But electrons are not “particles” per se.  We imagine electrons to be waves and it helps to explain empirical data, but electrons are not exactly like the waves on the surface of an ocean, for example.   As long as these models and visualizations help explain empirical data, these models are empirical and falsifiable because if they fail to explain empirical data, they will be falsified.
  4. The question “can a theory be proven false?” is ambiguous.  It can mean two different things: (1) “Is the theory likely to be false?” or (2) “Can the theory be proven false, in principe?”  These questions are not to be confused.  E.g. Evolution appears to be falsifiable because, if we found human remains predating dinosaur fossils, evolution would be proven false, but it’s unlikely we ever will.  “The universe appeared from nothing” appears to be unfalsifiable theory because I cannot imagine what evidence of “nothing” might look like, even in theory.  I don’t even know what “nothing” is.  I don’t even know if I can say “nothing is” or “was“.

Regarding high energies, we don’t necessarily need to “have access” to them on Earth (e.g. build huge particle colliders).  We can observe phenomena happening at these high energies in the space.

Multiverse is just a concept or a model that is supposed to explain certain empirical data.  It’s completely possible to use this model to predict phenomena that we can observe.  If these predictions prove to be incorrect, we can say that we have falsified the multiverse as a useful scientific theory.  I think, the falsifiability principle still stands.  What do you think?

See also: “Evolution and Philosophy: Is Evolution Science?”

Update 1/21/2014: This video explains the different concepts of “multiverses” mentioning that there <em>can</em> be experimental evidence of them, in principle.  So, these hypotheses are not unfalsifiable.