Friday, March 11, 2005

Humanist ethics, science, and religion

Our friend Philalethes is pretty upset by my comment that "the question of whether we proceed on the basis of faith or science has great implications for the future of humanity." Phila (who I was once pleased to defend as a lover of truth, not a stamp collector) seems to have two main objections:

  1. That the idea of such a choice is implausible because people will always have faith, so it is unrealistic even to propose a path without faith;
  2. Many scientists have behaved unethically, so we need (apparently) faith to make us good.
Phila offers no evidence for the first assertion, except for proposing that people cannot reliably distinguish truth and falsehood, by which he appears to mean to imply that scientific conclusions aren't really distinguishable from faith-based beliefs. I would note that a few centuries ago, no-one at all, as far as the historical record reveals, publicly claimed that God did not exist. Of course any European who did so would have been tortured to death by the Christian authorities, so we cannot be sure what some people may have believed in private. Today, however, I am one of a growing percentage of people in the United States and Europe -- including 60% of all scientists polled, by the way -- who do not believe in God and are willing to say so publicly. So there is a historical trend away from faith, at least in the so-called West.

As for our ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, it is obviously imperfect (or people would not hold such false beliefs as the existence of God!) but the whole purpose of the scientific enterprise is to improve it. Humanists, realists, free thinkers, whatever you want to call us, begin with an attitude of skepticism. We don't believe anything on faith, or simply because some authority said so. We have standards of evidence. Even the greatest authorities, the most august personages in the pantheon (irony duly noted) of reason have no claim on future belief if the evidence takes us elsewhere. Newton's picture of the universe, with a fixed frame of reference, we now know to have been mistaken. It accounted for observations within the precision available in his day, but we now know that Einstein's theory was more accurate. This in no way diminishes our respect for Newton, of course.

Here are some examples of clearly distinguishable truth and falsehood:

The earth is at the center of the universe and the sun, planets and stars revolve around the earth,


The sun is at the center of the solar system and the earth and other planets revolve around it, but the sun is just one of some 100,000,000 stars that orbit the center of our galaxy, which is one of a couple of hundred billion galaxies that we can observe.

In sexual intercourse, the man implants a tiny miniature human in the woman's womb which grows into a baby,


The man deposits thousands of sperm cells which swim toward an ovum cell that originated in the woman's body. One of them gets there first and fuses with the ovum, whereupon each cell supplies one set of chromosomes to make up a complete complement of human genes. The cell then divides, and redivides dozens of times, with various cells following disparate paths of differentiation to produce the structures and tissues of the body.

Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed all believed each of the first propositions. We now know them to have been mistaken. In other words, knowledge advances. Indeed we can distinguish between truth and falsehood, if we care to use the methods of structured observation, measurement, and testable prediction -- supported by replication and intersubjectivity. That means, when Galileo asked the church fathers to look through the telescope, they refused, because they realized that if they were to see what he had seen, they would be forced to change their beliefs. As people of faith, they could not do that. They condemned themselves to live in ignorance.

Phila says that I am in error in saying that solutions to problems must be arrived at rationally. "That assumption is objectively false. The only coherent criterion for judging problem-solving behavior is its ability to solve problems. Double-blind studies can solve problems, but so can an inspired guess. So can drawing lots or flipping a coin. So can dreams, and in the case of Kekule's 'discovery' of the benzene ring's structure." First I would ask, how can any assertion be called "objectively false" if we cannot reliably distinguish truth from falsehood, or rationality is not the only path to truth? Phila contradicts himself before he even gets started.

But let us proceed down his path anyway. An inspired guess or a dream can provide us with a hypothesis, but Kekule didn't decide that benzene consists of a 6 carbon ring because of his dream: he proclaimed the hypothesis to be correct because it accorded with observation and logic. The dream was just a way in which his brain operated on the problem. And we draw lots or flip coins not to answer questions about what is true, but to make decisions about what to do when we lack other sufficient criteria or when we wish to be surprised, as in a game. This is an irrelevancy.

Next, Philalethes proposes that scientists, such as Joseph Mengele and the perpetrators of the so-called Tuskeegee Syphillis Experiment, have proven themselves capable of atrocities. He also points out that science -- by which in this instance he seems to mean technological developments rather than simply knowledge -- "could, at this moment, be leading us over a cliff." I most certainly agree with him about this. However, I don't see how faith is of the least help here. Indeed, it is people of faith who appear to be the biggest problem. Some of them deny the reality of global warming, and of evolution, which is the source of dangerous emerging infections and drug resistant variants of already common pathogens. Many ministers today, including those with the largest individual followings such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, preach from the pulpit that Christianity exalts the individual rights of property owners over the collective interest of the community, or that God demands we invade and bomb other countries.

It is a fact that humanity's powers, as enhanced by technology, have run dangerously ahead of our ethical consensus and our social organization. But surely faith is the last place we should turn for an answer. As I have said many times, here and elsewhere, ethics are an attribute of humans. We have ethical impulses, ethical principles, feelings of right and wrong, not because God put them in us but because evolution did. Ethics are essential to our adaptation as social beings with culture. Without ethics, we could not have society and without society, we would not survive. Culture, language, the ability to construct a bewildering variety of societies, codes of law, ways of life -- these make us unique among the species of the earth. But to understand our situation, and secure our future, we must look to ourselves. God, a mythical human invention, is not going to do anything for us at all.

That does not mean that science is going to tell us what ideas or behaviors are morally right, and it certainly does not mean that scientists -- people with certain training or credentials -- have any monopoly on ethical belief or reasoning, or that scientists ought to rule the world. I believe the precise opposite, that the danger of technofascism is as alarming as the danger of theocracy. We must democratize rationality, democratize knowledge, and above all democratize social decision making. But democracy can only succeed if the great majority are equipped with critical thinking skills, and are liberated from the blinding and controlling strictures of faith.