Can Science Answer The Big Moral Questions?

Defenders of religion argue that no matter how much information science gives us about the world, it can never answer fundamental questions such as “Why are we here?” and “What is good/evil?” — That’s what we have religion/spirituality for.

Speaking at the TED conference, Sam Harris lays out how he believes science can in fact provide us with the answers to basic moral questions (and give us better answers than the Bible).

14 Comments on "Can Science Answer The Big Moral Questions?"

  1. I am a 50 year old Muslim father of two daughters and two sons. I can honestly say that at no time in my position as father of my children that I ever fathomed throwing acid in the face of my daughters nor having contemplated the unthinkable act of rape that I would ever think of anything but compassion to my daughter and revenge against the animal who committed this crime.

    • Good for you. But in many parts of the world, you are not the rule, but the exception. And in some places you are the exception to the rule of law which mandates that women be treated like second class citizens with LITERALLY half as much value as a man.

      I respect that you as an individual have a compassionate perspective, but as Harris points out in his books, it is not because you are a Muslim that you have this rational perspective — indeed it is because unlike the fundies, you have chosen to WISELY and selectively IGNORE the more disturbing portions of your religious books. And you are not alone. Moderate Christians and Jews do the same thing, adhering to passages that make sense in the context of a modern world, post Age of Enlightenment, while actively ignoring the batcrap crazy passages which command them to stone their neighbors if they violate a “law” of God.

      If people of faith (which I differentiate from dogmatic religion) are to advance, this must be acknowledged. You can look to the Koran, or either testament with the Bible, or the Bhagavad Gita and find passages that are compassionate, honorable, noble, and just. But the truth is, Osama bin Jerkoff, or Mullah Omar, or Abu Nidal, or that nitwit who killed Dr. Tiller, or General Boykin, or Timothy McVeigh, or Fred Phelps, or Eric Rudolph, etc., ad nauseam can ALSO look into those same books and find encouragement to violence and hate.

      As long as those passages remain in those books, and the faithful themselves keep making excuses for them instead of confronting the fact of it, and eradicating them from their belief systems, idiocy is BOUND to follow.

      • You describe these passages as crazy. However, this is only one perspective. A fanatic's is another. Advancement, by modern standards, is not what they seek. They're not all simply making excuses. Some of them have as much conviction as you do in anything that you believe, perhaps more. Is there anything you believe in that you would willingly give your life simply to honor?

        I believe that in order for civilization to progress past the stage it is at currently, these old souls must die off, one way or another. Along with their fanatical fervor.

      • nalhamid | May 1, 2010 at 3:30 am |

        No where in the Koran is it mentioned to throw acid in your daughters face or murder her if she is raped. You are repeating what others say.

        Could you answer me this question
        If you had a daughter who wanted to experiment in various recreational drugs will you allow it? And Why?

        My answer would be of course not because I know it is bad for her. Now replace the word drugs with sex. What will be your answer and why?

        My answer is again of course not because I know that is bad for her and you only need to look at any societies view of promiscuous women, be it in the east or west, Muslim or not, to know that society as a whole look at these woman in an unfavorable light to say the least.

        We regard women in a position of honor and as such want to protect her from any harm. They are our mothers, daughters, sisters and wives.

        As per the National Organization for Women The Leading Cause of Death for Pregnant Women in the U.S. is murder (…). Has anyone asked why?

        Any sane man wants the best for his children. Some people, influenced by tribal customs, have done shameful acts. Some Muslim but also Hindus and many others. This isn't a reflection on the religion but on one's own view of what's right and wrong.

        This view that the west is more understanding and regards women with respect is rejected by the shear acts in the west of forcing women to expose themselves (France, Belgium etc) when they do not want to.

        I read an article in an Italian newspaper some time ago that a city was discussing banning Muslim women from wearing a veil. The mayor rejected the request and in his response noted that he has never seen Mary the mother of Jesus without one.

        • Gimme a break.

          Mohammed stated that the education of girls was a sacred duty. Mohammed decreed that sexual satisfaction was a woman's entitlement.

          Yet in the Islamic world girl's schools are blown up in Afghanistan, little girls are literally allowed to burn to death in a school rather than allow them to run out of the burning building not wearing a veil, and the World Health Organization estimates that as many as 140 million girls have been subjected to the hideous procedure of female genital mutilation as a way of supposedly “controlling women's sexual desires”.

          Who's getting “protected” by all that?

          Which brings me back to my original statement about the books. The Prophet may have said those first two very nice things, but elsewhere in the Koran, what can we find?

          Sura 2:282 states that a woman is worth one-half a man. From that point on, all other abuses are possible.

          Sura 4:34 says that men have “pre-eminence” and are “overseers” of women, and goes on to say that an insubordinate wife should first be admonished, then left to sleep alone, then beaten. Battering women in Egypt is so prevalent, that social workers actually have to spend time convincing an abused woman that their husband's violence is unacceptable.

          Under Muslim law, daughters can only inherit half as much as sons, a woman's testimony in court on financial matters in particular is worth half that of a man's, and most abhorrently, the compensation for murdering a woman is half that for murdering a man. Their lives are literally considered half as valuable. How is this just or honorable?

          And it should always be remembered that in Islamic law, the last thing written on any topic in the Hadith is considered preeminent. So while Mohammed may have said many generous things when Islam was just a small faith with few members trying to survive in a larger society, when it got powerful later, the language becomes far less fluffy, and conveniently enough – those passages take precedence.

          The point is, you point to the passages that are good, because I presume you are a good man. But many less good men have many other passages they can point to to justify evil actions.

          Furthermore, women do not require your protection. They require freedom, equality, and respect. Then they can take care of themselves.

          Even more broadly speaking, Muslim men should focus less on supposedly “protecting” women, and more on controlling themselves. Why should a woman have to change her behavior (ie. dress differently) simply because some dude can't control himself? It is HE who should be being restrained, not her.

          As to your loaded question about sex and drugs, why do you frame your question only to restrain your daughters use of either item. Why don't you simply say “your child” instead of “your daughter”? Or do boys get a pass to do whatever they like because they have a penis? Did it not occur to you that while there is only one person involved in the drug part of that equation, it takes two to tango in the sex department and boys are equally responsible? What about promiscuous men? Why are you not viewing them with equal disdain?

          You see even you, a man who probably wouldn't engage in the worst of the misogynistic behavior we've described here, STILL uses language that is anti-female biased, and you don't even realize it!

      • badjohnrox | May 1, 2010 at 4:45 am |

        I was with you until you got to the editing out of material that may inspire people to violence or activism or malfeasance of any sort. I also like how you slid the Bhaghavad Gita in there at the end; a book which was literally written to describe the closing moments of a dynastic war. The Age of Enlightenment was also no where near an age of peace. All of the major European powers were still actively enlarging there over seas empires during this time. Results of this are still visible today.

        I am not saying that you are wrong, I am saying that excising parts of a historical text because someone may find the content offensive smacks to me as the same thing we should all be fighting against.

        • I included the Bhagavad Gita mainly just to add a Hindu context to the mix (these conversations tend to confine themselves to Judeo-Christian-Muslim criticism, thereby neglecting billions in Asia from the discussion of what makes religion a source of violence worldwide), ad they've been just as violent as the Muslims in India at times.

          The Age of Enlightenment wasn't an age of peace, nor did I say it was. What it did do, was for the first time in the West, divorce the running of government from religion, and begin the marginalization of magical thinking through the advancement of the scientific method, while also advancing the notion of an autonomous man being able to actually think freely and speak his mind independent of authority. All these things weaken the stranglehold religion has on the minds of men.

    • It's a pity some don't get the fact that most muslims are sensible and decent people like you.

  2. Good talk. Has Harris admitted he was objectively wrong about the morality of torture yet?

  3. razzlebathbone | Apr 30, 2010 at 4:13 pm |

    String theory is too complex for the layperson to understand. This is no big deal, because we don't need to make decisions that depend upon our understanding of string theory on a daily basis. So it's okay for us to trust to the experts and let them make the big calls on string theory.

    More importantly, string theory can be tested and falsified under controlled conditions. This is the basis of the scientific method. Morality cannot be falsified, because anyone can claim that the evil they cause in the short term will be somehow mitigated by a greater long-term good. Anyone can claim to be an expert in morality and nobody can falsify their claims.

    Scientific authority arises from evidence in this way. With no way of obtaining falsifiable evidence, moral authority will never arise from anything other than unverifiable dogma and mushy instinct. Our struggle to live moral lives won't be fixed by scientific progress; it will always be a unique challenge to every conscious being.

  4. Science that divorces itself from supernatural possibilities will support the moral agendas of “this world.” Take the quandry of adversity, for instance.

    In this world, one's trusty revolver (or that of public servants or security contractors) is an effective approach to neutralizing potential physical threats. Like wolves or terrorists. Crackheads, competitors for natural resources, or unruly children.

    Forced social indoctrination–or at least clever manipulation–is another time-tested method of maintaining material security.

    Moral teachings such as “turn the other cheek” and “love thy neighbor as thyself” are poor survival strategies to a strict Darwinian thinker. (Unless, of course, one turns the other cheek, gains the good graces of his opponent, and then goes on to impregnate his opponent's wife… and his sister… and his secretary… But I'm pretty sure that misses the point somehow.)

    It's not that the adoption of a scientific worldview will inevitably lead to harsh moral codes. As Dawkins and Hitchens are quick to point out, religion is pretty good at cooking those up too. But the gentlest of the religious memes–total altruism, pacifism, and self-sacrifice–seem rather pointless through the material lens of science. Those impulses are most often the domain of those with eyes on another world.

    Which generally keeps them out of the way of the rich and powerful, so does that mean everybody wins?

  5. InannaWhimsey | May 2, 2010 at 3:04 pm |

    “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
    Albert Einstein, “Science, Philosophy and Religion: a Symposium”, 1941

    Religion, simply, tries to get us above being beasts.

    G_d, simply, is that which we hold to be true regardless of what our caustic rationality tries to dissolve.

    Not all beliefs and religions are equal or worth it, in this sense: just because something is a religion does it mean that it is 'good'. That is where science can come in, to discern.

    Western science is valueless, it is good at finding out 'facts'. Then we can determine what we value, and make it 'religion' per se.

    It is certainly an exciting time to be alive.

  6. Anonymous | May 5, 2010 at 12:08 am |

    I like the bit about the Muslim and Western views of women, I think he was wrong to try to claim that so called “Honour” Killings only happen in the Islamic culture.
    “In countries where Islam is practiced, they’re called honor killings, but dowry deaths and so-called crimes of passion have a similar dynamic in that the women are killed by male family members and the crimes are perceived as excusable or understandable,” said Widney Brown, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.

    The practice, she said, “goes across cultures and across religions.”

    I’m not too bothered about eating healthily or living to 150 eschewing beer and other immoral unhealthy practises. I’m only human. Isn’t he just talking about philosophy anyway?

  7. I like the bit about the Muslim and Western views of women, I think he was wrong to try to claim that so called “Honour” Killings only happen in the Islamic culture.
    “In countries where Islam is practiced, they're called honor killings, but dowry deaths and so-called crimes of passion have a similar dynamic in that the women are killed by male family members and the crimes are perceived as excusable or understandable,” said Widney Brown, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.

    The practice, she said, “goes across cultures and across religions.”

    I'm not too bothered about eating healthily or living to 150 eschewing beer and other immoral unhealthy practises. I'm only human. Isn't he just talking about philosophy anyway?

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