Saturday, October 09, 2010

"Can There Be a Science of Good and Evil?"

Lookie here, another blog entry inspired by the Daily Show! It's such a great show though! I sure hope Jon Stewart can restore sanity to the world! Recently he had on a guest who had written a new book. It was one I was particularly interested in called "The Moral Landscape." It's written by the guy who also wrote "The End of Faith," Sam Harris. He was introduced by Jon Stewart as a professional atheist. His new book is an attempt to convince you and me that science is a source of moral values. Something a professional atheist will give a completely non-biased opinion of to be sure!

I haven't read the book but I have been thinking about this issue a lot lately. I actually brought it up in conversation a few times with people I socialize with here. It's a touchy issue. Even if people AGREE with you they will argue with you on this. It's really weird. I had a guy tell me he is a scientist AND a Christian and then after a litany of argumentative points that supported exactly the opinion I had stated, he said he didn't think there WERE any scientists who didn't believe in God. Because we had already monopolized conversation I didn't mention Harris, Richard Dawkins or most recently and famously Steven Hawking. But it was a good example of how science and morality have become such enemies. Harris is trying to help the world by showing them that the answers to our problems can be found in simple science and we need not stray to the slippery slope of morality to solve our problems and maximize our well being.

He's the same age as me and judging from his education and experience I'd definitely say he's got a LOT more knowledge on this than I do but he DOES say some silly, silly things! Child-like simplicity from such an educated man that is most likely the result of the training that keeps us from seeing the truth about this whole issue. So fascinating! Maybe he has spent too much time in the classroom and not enough time actually socializing because people just don't think like this. We can't create, or arguably even conceive of a sterile environment devoid of moral decisions. Plenty of great, SCIENCE FICTION has been written about such societies but they will never exist.

He makes some great points and has a knack for turning a phrase. For example when he talks about the culture war between secular liberals and Christian conservatives he says that "a shared beleif in the limitations of reason lies at the bottom of these cultural divides." I agree. And the word, "science," as it so often is, can be substituted here for "reason." Like the unscientific never use reason...

In his article, "Can There Be a Science of Good and Evil", he includes "mistrust of science" in a list of attributes such as "intolerance of diversity" that are generally agreed upon to be morally reprehensible and just assumes that the entire world would put it right there with him. It's so odd from a man who is a proponent of scientific skepticism to not apply his scientific skepticism to science itself! This is what I mean when I say he's fascinating. He has a degree in neuroscience. These guys have done some incredible mapping of the brain. But for some reason old Sam seems to think he's working with the mind. Trying to use the mind to explain the mind. A walking, writing fountain of irony this guy!

He lists gay marriage, stem cell research, anti-blasphemy laws, and abortion as issues that have unnecessarily distracted politicians that arise from conservative dogmatism and liberal doubt. As though conservatives have cornered the market on dogmatism and liberals on doubt. I have a strong conservative doubt that the mind will ever figure out the mind and quantify things like instinct, emotion, creativity, human nature and such. We can see it exists, even scientifically measure it, but we can't explain the first thing about why or how we do it. But liberal dogmatism consistently purports psychology, sociology, neuroscience and others as hard scientific studies of fact when all they really amount to is formulation of theories about what is going on in the mind. They preach not from the pulpit but the lectern and disguise theory as fact for the purposes of self-legitimization and to keep their courses from being offered under the faculty of arts.

Who but someone with an unshakeable faith in science could separate morality from issues like those listed above? Oh I know, a legalistic religious person. Here's a great little tidbit that ties things nicely together: a scientific study was done recently that shows most atheists know more about religion than religious people. I got that from the Daily Show too. It's all about faith. The atheist studies and finds out all he/she can about religion so he/she can scientifically disprove it in his/her mind. The legalistic religious person doesn't need to know all that stuff because he/she has God and a hard, fast list of rules. My point is, guys like old Sam Harris and all the faithful scientists are not that different from the legalistic fanatics they write off all spiritual people as. Indeed if a scientific study could be done on which of the two has MORE faith I have no doubt the scientists would win hands down.

But back to Sam Harris's reasoning. He puts forth a charming little pre-school argument in which there are only two people on the earth. He mockingly names them Adam and Eve and asks the scientific questions, "How can they flourish?" Answer: do things that have been found to be scientifically beneficial. "How can they fail?" He gives the example that they could both punch each other in the face. The answers to all questions, he posits, will come from facts that can be scientifically understood. He goes on to ask how would the difference between right and wrong disappear when we add 6.7 billion more people to the experiment? What a very well trained, and absurdly out of touch with reality, scientist he is! No need to use morality, just do the things we can agree to be for our best interests. Indeed, this may have been the way things were BEFORE Eve ate the apple, but it just ain't that way any more.

Let's just think of one of a gozillion different wrenches that can be thrown into this simplistic little piece of scientific, escapist dogma. Let's say Adam, (this time), were to wander off one day and find a tree full of delicious fruit that neither he nor Eve had ever tried before. Will he share the fruit or keep it all for himself. BOTH could be argued to be beneficial. First let's look at the results with the extra 6.7 billion people. Scientifically speaking, we have already done this experiment and the scientific evidence gleaned from the acquisitive, competitive and just plain selfish ideals that are instilled in the overwhelming majority of the 6.7 billion people of Earth indicates that Adam should keep the tree a secret. That's science.

But if it were just Adam and Eve why wouldn't Adam double the happiness or "well being" and halve the fruit? In fact the happiness he gets from the joy of sharing may outweigh the half of the fruit he lost. The fruit is renewable. And future benefits can be derived from the generous nature Eve sees in the action of sharing. Also, what if Eve discovers the secret? Adam may have to lie or change his actions to maintain the secret. He may carry some guilt about hogging all the fruit. Eve could bust him and bring to an abrupt end their peaceful coexistence. So why does Adam keep the tree a secret? You know he would if science is any indication. We can only postulate that it's greed. Maybe greed is more instinctive than sharing.

Or maybe Adam will just understand that sharing is the right thing to do and it made him feel good. This in my estimation, and those of most intellectual moralists, (who Sammy and most of his ilk seem to forget about in their teachings), is the only REAL way to make Adam and Eve thrive and maximize their well being in this instance. But there is absolutely nothing scientific about it. It is in Harris' own words, "positive change in the experience of sentient creatures" and it is brought about by psychological, moral and therefore absolutely unquantifiable and unscientific decision.

And the thousands of other moral decisions Adam and Eve would have to make every single day should not be the result of a bunch of rules derived from thousands of replicated scientific studies, or a bunch of rules derived from thousands of years of religious tradition. We can not say that a newly discovered tribe in the Amazon is wrong for sacrificing their first born children to imaginary gods, nor can we say that a woman is wrong for aborting a fetus. We can only try to do the right thing. And I think if we can just separate the good teaching from the proselytization and be honest with ourselves, (that's the hard part), just about everybody has it in themselves to make the right decisions.

Who even knows if what's wrong for me might be the right thing to do for someone else? I think maybe one of the most important moral decisions we can ever make is not to be judgemental. As you can see, I have yet to gain the spiritual maturity to become comfortable with that one. I should just let Sam Harrison believe his scientific legalism and say a salut! Good for you. Do what makes you happy. We all really should, shouldn't we? Unless what makes you happy is bad for somebody else, like fighting wars, or making a billion dollars a year through slave labour, or depleting the world's resources for personal financial gain, or participating in corrupt governments, or...

Why are the rich depressed and the poor so happy? At what stage of development does a person become a person so that killing them is wrong? How much does a person have to bug me before I can morally commit post natal abortion? Is euthenasia okay? When should I allow my daughter to date? How old do I have to be before dating a 20-year-old becomes creepy, and how much oldER do I have to be before it becomes cute again? Is suicide bombing a meeting of the richest 100 people in the world an immoral fantasy? I certainly don't want to trust any of these decisions to science. I can't even see how science could be very much help. There will always be a need for moral decisions to be made and there will always be those who disagree and worse, those who disagree and want to force you to agree with them. The trick is to try to take joy in the trials of existence. If we could all live a life of moral relativism where every behaviour was mandated by rules, life would be a stone cold drag and I think it would be purposeless.

So the best answer to your question, Sammy boy, is NOPE.

But that's just my opinion.

1 comment:

Robert Hagedorn said...

Anal sodomy? For a really big surprise, google The First Scandal Adam and Eve. Then click once or twice to get the surprise.