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Science – Can it dictate Ethics?

Posted by Henric C. Jensen on July 29, 2007


Three opponents, three different results

This entire discussion is a very good example of how a respectful, friendly and fruitful discussion on heated topics should be conducted. It also proves that Scientific-Religious matters can be discussed without all the over and undertones that so often enter into matters that touches on personal experiences and matters of beliefs.

This is a very interesting discussion – I have excluded the arguments that were simple ad hominems and thus had to exclude one of the debaters – nevertheless the arguments deserve consideration and additional rebuttals 🙂 I do hope you do not mind, Dale.

Dale Husband: “Religion was the ONLY basis for ethics in most ancient societies because there was no conception of science or scientific methods in them back then. So religion served a good purpose then. My argument is that we need to go beyond that now.”

It is true that religion was the basis for ethics in ancient times, but I am not sure it was the only one – the Ancient Greeks would probably disagree with that statement. Stating that there was no conception of science or scientific method back then, while it might be a correct assertion by subjective standards today, it would be, IMO, incorrect from an objective standard – we do not know what kind of empirical data religious Laws were based on in those times.

One such example could be the Biblical prohibition against mixing different species of garments – something that has later shown to be a not so good idea, as garments made of animal products (wool and silk) have shown to be less durable if they are sewn or mixed together with plant products (flax and cotton) – it is fully possible, and probable that the Ancients through observation determined this to be true. That they then gave this empirical data divine origin doesn’t detract from the scientific method by which they arrived at the conclusion. Same with breeding different species of animals – the observation that the off-spring did not breed in turn (like mules and sheep goats) would have in the same manner given them empirical data to support the prohibition against cross species breeding. Again that they gave this a divine origin does not detract from their empirical scientific conclusion.

That we decide that decisions, prohibitions, ethics etc in Ancient times were based in religion, without any scientific data to back them up can be asserted if we at the same time judge Ancient times to be less evolved than our times – but what is our basis for such judgment? Each time and culture has its needs, each time and culture has its sociological structure for which it attempts to provide the best solutions to issues challenging that specific time, culture and structure.

CheWorks: “Maybe you are mixing up religion with spirituality, Dale. Science proves there are ethical standards such as recycling. Would God tell us to recycle? No.”

In the beginning of this Blog entry it is determined that CheWorks is a Marxist Atheist, which explains his disparaging comments about religion and G-d.

He asks a question: “Would G-d tell us to recycle?” He then answers his own question: “No“. Whether G-d tells us to recycle or not is actually a matter of debate. The concept of Tikkun Olam – “healing the world” and the various commandments in regards to how to treat animals, fertile land, how to dispose of various waste products certainly indicate that the authors of Torah had a natural cycling and care for natural resources in mind. There are several passages where we are warned about what will happen if we do not care for the Earth and it’s natural resources, and the consequences of misusing are stated as harsh indeed. So stating that G-d does not tell us to recycle is at best ignorant, at worst it’s an Atheist propagandist statement made for the effect and nothing else.

CheWorks:“Nowhere more than in the Judeo-Christian tradition do I see a pathetic God trying to gain respect. This has nothing to do with ethics. Nowadays religion supports wealth at any cost, which means enslaving 99% of the human population. This is hardly ethical.” (sic)

It is interesting that this debater chooses to attack Judaic and Xtian Traditions, but excludes Islamic Tradition, which from his point of view should be just as unethical. Note how he makes a statement about religion and wealth attaching to religion values that cannot be asserted objectively, without any supportive argument of his, and then makes the assertion that what he just said is unethical – that is a straw man, and I am surprised that it wasn’t caught by by the initiator of the debate.

CheWorks:“Can you please explain how science can help homophobes? Is it by showing that they are of the same chromosomes as heterosexuals?”

Interwoven comment by Dale: Interesting that he accepts my premise as valid and moves the discussion forward by bringing in an issue for which it would be a good demonstration of the truth of my idea.

Not really surprising – because Dale is, to CheWorks’ mind, attacking religion, and Judaic and Xtian Traditions in particular, it is only logical that he would accept Dale’s premise and move the discussion on to a subject where he can further attack those “loathesome” traditions. The problem is that the discussion doesn’t take the desired turn – no-one comes in and gets all worked up over what he says – in fact no-one even addresses the low points of his contribution. So he silently crawls back to his hole.

Dale Husband: “Science is still investigating the causes of homosexuality, but if a physical cause was indeed found, it would blow away forever the notion that gays follow a lifestyle that is their free choice, and then there would be no legal basis for them to be punished for expressing their true nature. Homosexuality could no longer rightfully be called a “sin”. But since so many people do not accept evolution as true for religious reasons, they won’t accept those findings either.”

I didn’t catch this the first time around: “But since so many people do not accept evolution as true for religious reasons, they won’t accept those findings either.

I am not sure accepting evolution would automatically imply acceptance of scientific findings that indicate homosexuality is not a choice – I know plenty of people who accept the premise that being homosexual is not at choice, but acting homosexual is, and who as a result of this, IMO, rather strained split of people’s personalities, demand celibacy as the only way to be homosexual. Now one can certainly debate the moral and ethic values of splitting people into beings and actions, but it is a solution that indicate that the people doing so have accepted the idea that homosexuality might not be a choice.

Finally, my third opponent arrived. This one was known as Shadow Bear or Silly Old Bear. Unlike the first two, this one was a friend of mine. He is also Jewish.

To understand my comments below – we have to include the comments by Dale that I was responding to, it might have been excluded from the discussion in Dale’s Blog for whatever reason – in any case it needs repeating here, I hope Dale does not mind.

 

DH: “If you are referring to a criminal, that is a matter for testing as well, by comparing societies that have thedeath penalty with those that don’t. If you mean people like Terry Schivo, it was made clear after her death that she had no possibility of recovery. To keep her body alive would have been wasting resources that would have been better used on people that were more likely to recover.”

SOB:This has me a little concerned – because this reduces a person down to what he or she can produce in terms of what is beneficial to Society. It opens a whole lot of cans, I’d rather see kept closed. It raises the question “Who is to decide what is beneficial to Society?” That has been tried – it didn’t work from a Humane point of view – both the Nazis and the Fascists used this “touch stone” in their politics, and it destroyed a lot of knowledge, experience and human history. The idea that what is good for Society is what a human is worth only works if Society’s basic ethical and moral standards are such that they take into account that we do not always know what is good for Society. What then should be the scientific test to determine this? How do you scientifically measure that which cannot be measured?”

DH: “As I see it, the Nazis and fascists made a point of judging other races of people as inferior without any empirical justification. That was the opposite of scientific thinking and led to their downfall when they were proven wrong. It is true that we do not know the potential value of people and it cannot be measured empirically. But if we do not come up with an empirical reason to prohibit murder, what can we say to a person who rejects all religion and wants a reason to justify whatever he wishes to do, including murder? And keep in mind that many senseless killings have been done in the name of religion. There is the potential for corruption in all things, which is why free inquiry is so important. If we cannot question authority, it can destroy us.”

SOB: “That is not quite true – both the Fascists and the Nazis based their ideas about races of people, disabled – both mental and physical , homosexuals, political and religious beliefs on what they considered to be empirical evidence – such as homosexuals not being likely to reproduce, Jews being a genetic contamination, mental and physically disabled not being productive etc. All based on the science they had access to. Those empirical evidence might not be satisfactory to you and me, but that is only because you and I are measuring the evidence using another scale – based in what we consider ethical. Not because of the science as such.”

“Religion is not necessary for making sound ethical decisions or f.i not to murder. I have not always been a religious man – still I have always held the opinion that all people are equal with equal rights to life. This can be arrived at by simple logical deduction. Atheists and Secular Humanists are not unethical, murderous or amoral. It doesn’t exclude that there certainly do exist such atheists or secular humanists, just as there are unethical, murderous or amoral religious people. Let’s not make Science another religion, Dale – it is quite defendable without needing all the trimmings of religion. Simple logic is enough.”

I would like to here further address one of Dale’s Statements:

DH: “If we cannot question authority, it can destroy us”

As can be seen in many countries, democratic or not, where Freedom of Speech(as it was once created – to safeguard the People’s right to criticize their government without fear of reprisals) is in any way suppressed. Authority that goes unscrutinized will in the end lose all democratic resemblance and become the enemy of that which it was presumably once implemented to protect – the People.

Dale left out another portion, that to my mind is important:

DH: “No one individual should ever have that power[to decide what is beneficial to Society?], but a collective consensus can gradually be reached as a result of people performing observations and experimental tests repeatedly to establish a pattern of benefits among people as a result of following ethical codes.”

SOB: This assumes that

  1. all agree on what are the ethical codes that should be followed, and already you and I are disagreeing on whether science in itself holds ethical merit or not.

  2. scientific evolution always leads to a step higher than previously arrived at, and that is not always the case.

  3. the goals set for the scientific evolution are the same for all at all times. That is not always the case.

DH: “There are indeed limitations to what experimentation and empiricism can do, but the alternative is to do nothing and allow oppressive dogmas that people are so often made to follow to go unchallenged.”

SOB: I agree on the limitations, and that is where I choose to take a step beyond that which can be measured, and presuppose that with or without empirical data, the human mind is capable of creating ethical codes that do benefit the most people without putting a scientific “price-tag” on them. I agree on the oppressiveness of dogmas, if imposed on people without sound reasoning, and I do believe that such dogmas should be questioned. But that is a choice we make, not something that is necessarily scientific – it is still sound though.

Next comment is an example to illustrate the my point:

SOB: Example:“Scientifically it cannot be proven that Homosexuality is not a choice, so if all I had to go on was science I might be inclined to agree with the fundamentalists that homosexuality is indeed a sin according to Torah. There would be nothing to tell me otherwise. But because I do indeed choose what dogmas to incorporate in my ethics I have gone out of my way to find other ways to view homosexuality and Torah, so that the two do not contradict each other. Where there are no scientific data, we still have to make a choice as to how to act ethically.”

I truly enjoy discussing with Dale – he is fun, educated, well spoken and respectful of his opponents.

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9 Responses to “Science – Can it dictate Ethics?”

  1. neiladams said

    Did SOB say, “Simple logic is enough”?
    The trouble with SOB’s ‘simple logic’ is that it may be quite different to someone else’s ‘simple logic.’ Who does know all the facts? I suggest that all of us view life through a different set of glasses – our perceptions – and for us those perceptions are what we live by. Our perceptions colour all of our arguements and discussions and rants.

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  2. So Neil Adams, are you saying that we need to make Science a Religion, because that was what “Simple logic is enough” was referring to? As in Let’s not make Science another religion…

    That is of course an opinion – but not a very fruitful one, as it puts Science in a realm where it really doesn’t belong, and will eventually make it’s proponents into the same kind of dogmatic and fundamentalist nut-cases as those proponents of religion that claims everything and everyone out-side of the Xtian Bible are of the devil.

    That would be a sad state of affairs indeed, as it would completely stop any kind of true scientific discovery.

    As for the rest of your comment – I believe I said exactly that – just with other words:

    “Where there are no scientific data, we still have to make a choice as to how to act ethically.”

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  3. Our “different set of lenses” comprise our worldviews. We all have one. Science can not be separated from the scientist’s worldview without risking his or her integrity. For example: If a scientist is a Christian, it follows that his scientific methods would follow a worldview based on scripture and acknowledging a first cause or God. If he is an athiest, he would begin his theories with the assumption that there is no god.

    Science cannot, however, become a religion unto itself, but must be an integral part of life/religious belief. Science when completely boiled down still must begin with a kernel of faith somewhere as a starting point.

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  4. “Our “different set of lenses” comprise our worldviews. We all have one. Science can not be separated from the scientist’s worldview without risking his or her integrity.”

    I would question the scientific integrity of a scientist who went into an experiment or interpreted data from a religious or a-religious worldview, specifically.

    Science, the approach to Science and Scientific Method needs to be agnostic – no assumptions about G-d whatsoever.

    “For example: If a scientist is a Christian, it follows that his scientific methods would follow a worldview based on scripture and acknowledging a first cause or God.”

    No, it actually doesn’t follow – in fact those two are separate things, and mixing them is bad science as well as religion.

    “If he is an atheist, he would begin his theories with the assumption that there is no god.”

    Same thing here – it doesn’t logically follow, and it would make dreadfully bad science and atheism.

    I don’t have to assume that there is a G-d or that there isn’t to study the platypus or use scientific data to establish the size of the galaxy we live in or even to study the origin of the Universe. Science in and of itself is a-religious, simply because it cannot prove or disprove the existence of G-d.

    “Science cannot, however, become a religion unto itself, but must be an integral part of life/religious belief. Science when completely boiled down still must begin with a kernel of faith somewhere as a starting point.”

    I agree that Science cannot, in fact I would say must not become a religion unto itself, but I disagree with the statement that it has to be an integral part of life/religious belief.

    All theory starts with an assumption about that which one is about to scientifically study – if nothing else, the assumption that there is in fact something to study or scrutinize through scientific method. However this should just be an assumption about what is right in front of one’s eyes – the subject of study.

    Now Science, and the results or Scientific discoveries made using Scientific methods might indeed lead to conclusions that there is a First Cause or G-d, or that there isn’t – but it has to be in that order – not the other way around.

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  5. dalehusband said

    Silly Old Bear, you said: “Note how [CheWorks] makes a statement about religion and wealth attaching to religion values that cannot be asserted objectively, without any supportive argument of his, and then makes the assertion that what he just said is unethical – that is a straw man, and I am surprised that it wasn’t caught by by the initiator of the debate.”

    Actually, I did notice it, and stated that matter clearly in my own blog. I said there: “…CheWorks was a Communist, who thus regards all religion as serving the upper classes at the expense of the lower classes and thus unethical. Of course, people like Dr Martin Luther King and Mohandas Ghandi might strongly disagree with that simplistic view. I’m always amazed that Communists regard all religion as irrational, yet they themselves are so dogmatic about what Karl Marx wrote.

    I didn’t address that exact point of CheWorks in the original discussion because I didn’t want to risk getting dragged off-topic into attacking religion itself rather than criticising the ethical issues related to religion. That would have been a red herring. In the Care2 group I host called Evolution Education, I also sternly suppress direct attacks on religion for that same reason.

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  6. You are right, you did address it – and in my mind you didn’t address it strongly enough – but I now understand why – thank you for the correction. I apologize.

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  7. My argument is that a scientist cannot separate his faith from his work. No matter what form that faith takes. To do so is to live in dualism which brings personal integrity into question.

    Science does not need to be based in a religion or lack of one, but each individual person approaches life and work from a basic worldview. Scientific minds included.

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  8. divinescribble – Ok, I see your point. I think that we might have approached the “question” from slightly different angles.

    Me coming from the angle of “letting a worldview influence the method or the result” rather than it just being a basic outlook – which to me is actually self-evident – which is most likely why I missed your point. It seems that we agree then.

    S(o)B

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  9. […] Earlier, he made this:  https://dovaryeh.wordpress.com/2007/07/29/science-can-it-dictate-ethics/ […]

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