Saturday, September 20, 2014

Fear of Science

Many people react negatively to the idea that moral principles can be inferred entirely using scientific method. There is a general feeling that this is impossible. This seems to be partly why quite a lot of people view the decline of traditional sources of moral instruction as a serious threat. This is a major, double mistake.

In August last year, I attended an event, 'Answers in Science,' at Houston Museum of Natural Science, aimed at raising awareness of the way that a number of christian fundamentalists have been trying to sabotage the quality of scientific education in Texas schools. Among several that spoke there, two people raised points that struck me as highly significant, given the line of thought I've been pursuing for some time, with regard to the relationship between science and morality. They were Kathy Miller, from Texas Freedom Network, and Mike Aus, a former pastor.

Kathy spoke very informatively about the mechanisms and procedures of education review boards in Texas. She explained how a disturbing amount of what they do is protected from public scrutiny, and how a large proportion of the people on such boards are radically skeptical christian fundamentalists, who often believe in the literal truth of the bible, and aim to have topics such as biological evolution, one of the most important of scientific theories, removed from the school curriculum.

Teaching that the theory of evolution is false is not only factually wrong (and therefore a huge disservice to any student who wishes to pursue a scientific career, or just understand science), but also conveys a hideously distorted message concerning how knowledge and understanding are obtained,  giving a corrupted view of what constitutes evidence, and seriously undermining the pursuit of rationality. This hinders society's thriving in important ways.

What is interesting about these boards is that their members are publicly elected, and the science deniers who sit on them do so because they receive popular support. Kathy discussed briefly how this happens. She suggested that the people voting for these radical religious fanatics are themselves predominantly not religious fundamentalists, just culturally christian, and generally sympathetic to christian values.

It seemed from Miller's remarks that many who give support to those who would remove the theory of evolution from the school curriculum, and would teach that the Earth (indeed, the entire universe) is less than 10,000 years old, that dinosaurs and humans were contemporary, that global warming is not a problem, and so on, do so out of the simple desire for their children to learn to be good people.

When I heard this, I immediately drew parallels with the MORI poll, conducted in 2011 in the UK for the Richard Dawkins Foundation. Quoting from the linked press release:
"Asked why they had been recorded as Christian in the 2011 Census, only three in ten (31%) said it was because they genuinely try to follow the Christian religion, with four in ten (41%) saying it was because they try to be a good person and associate that with Christianity."
There seems to be a coherent message emerging: religious identification, and possibly support for radical religious teaching, may be associated more with a broad wish to retain moral integrity than with belief in specific religious doctrines.

But the tendency of many to rely on traditional religious teachings for provision of a moral foundation is a double mistake, as I mentioned. Firstly, such teachings are based on superstition and dogma, constructed to further the selfish aims of its authors - not healthy indicators. As issues such as evolution, the age of the universe, and countless other matters show, religious dogma has a terrible track record in the sphere of getting things right. And predictably so - there is absolutely nothing about the methodology of its construction to predispose it towards accuracy.

Even in the realm of morality, there is ample evidence for the poor track record of popular religions. Aficionados of these religions have been steadily accepting the continual erosion of their traditional teachings for centuries. Uncounted practices, once encouraged by popular religions, such as the keeping of slaves, persecution of other races, pursuit of holy wars, subjugation of women, proscription of homosexuality, and animal sacrifices, to name but a few, are now considered unacceptable in civilized society.

Secondly, by rejecting science in favor of religion for moral guidance, one is implicitly declaring that morality must be determined by irrational means, which is a clear absurdity (see for example Is Rationality Desirable?). Indeed, whatever there is to be discovered about morality can only be discovered efficiently and reliably by employing scientific method (see Scientific Morality). This applies not only to the methods of achieving our moral objectives, but also to the process of inferring what our core moral objectives are. In the quest to learn how best to behave, by turning one's nose up at scientific method, one is immediately taking on a serious and unnecessary handicap.

This is a mistake made not only by many sympathetic to religious teachings (and lets not forget that there are some good things about such value systems), but also by many in the scientific community. Popular misconceptions about the limitations of science are hardly blameworthy, when the intellectual consensus encourages belief in those same alleged limitations. Many scientists I've spoken to, and many more I've read on the internet, are repulsed by the idea that science can venture into the realm of human value, and consider it ridiculous. This is a traditional view, presumably owing much to thousands of years of religious dogma. Upon moderate reflection, however, it can be seen to be an obvious travesty (see Practical Morality, Part 2). It is now crucial for the scientific community as a whole to undertake that moderate reflection, and throw off the shackles of dogma (things that scientists are usually quite good at). One only needs to ponder how it can possibly be that something meaningful can be not measurable, or that something measurable can not be investigated scientifically, to realize that there is something seriously amiss with the traditional viewpoint.

Only after these issues are widely understood within the scientific and intellectual communities can we expect popular reliance on often harmful superstitions for moral guidance to be significantly diminished. This will not only reduce the skepticism and fear of scientific method, but will also enable the flourishing of a new (but long overdue) discipline of moral science, which in all reasonable expectation must lead to an enhanced understanding of ethics.

Mike Aus's point (the other speaker I noted at that Houston event), from his personal perspective as a non-scientist, was that the theory of evolution, when partially understood, can be damn scary. Success, in terms of natural selection, is highly dependent on one's ability to outmaneuver one's competitors. This seems to give the impression that if another person has a resource that I could benefit from, then it would be natural, and therefore (according to the theory) proper, for me to stab them in the back and take it. This suggests that some of the skepticism concerning the role of science in matters of morality comes from a feeling that science (in particular, the theory of biological evolution) entails immoral behaviour.

This comes down to another problem of the popular understanding of science. Again, a problem most easily solved after scientists themselves understand the issues more fully. I'm not claiming that biologists don't understand evolution, but as long as scientists don't grasp the origin of morality, they won't be able to explain the relationships between morality and biology, and they won't be able to identify the regions of overlap and non-overlap.

Broadly, there are two problems with this simplistic perception of evolutionary theory. Firstly, whether or not an organism is a rival, in terms of natural selection, depends on very many factors. In particular, for a species with a technology as sophisticated as ours, there are very strong reasons why cooperation usually works out far better for us than brutal, short-sighted bullying. We term this effect 'the social contract' (see Practical Morality, Part 1).

Secondly, whatever behavior maximizes our evolutionary fitness, this is not identical with what is morally optimal. 'Survival of the fittest' may prefer X, but we are not 'survival of the fittest,' we are humans. Chance effects in our evolution (e.g. 'unexpected' side effects of having brains like ours), together with systematic effects in our upbringing can equip us with values that conflict with the algorithm of natural selection (of genes, at least) in significant ways. There is no reason that propagation of my genes must be my ultimate source of value. 

Morality, as a discipline, is entirely contained within scientific method. Problems of moral decision demand decent estimates of 2 classes of facts: (i) what it is we want and (ii) what the outcomes of various actions are likely to be. Consequently, such problems can only be solved by analyzing real experiences in a coherent manner - something we call science. To get the best and most reliable solution to any decision problem, we need controlled data, and we need to analyze it using sound methodology. Anything else is just guess work. Scientists and decision makers need to consider these things, and overcome the cultural biases that so often stand in the way of the obvious. Once we reach widespread understanding in this sphere, we'll have gone a long way towards reducing the fear of science that presently holds back society. 


  1. Very good post! I'm sorry I didn't read it earlier.

    I think the existence of a rational theory of morality comes down to whether there exist a Normal human conscience - whether there is something like a fairly-sharp Normal distribution of fundamental human values in the moral sphere, that we can then advance scientifically. If there are no such fixed values, then morality becomes relativistic.

    An important point I don't recall seeing you make is the difference between Ethics and Politics. Ethics is the art of advancing your own values; or at least, the theory of advancing Normal values. Politics, on the other hand, is the art of advancing Normal values in society. This can be very different as your Normal values (such as seeing your family prosper) can clash with mine, which leads to a game-theoretic game where certain values can cancel out or strengthen or so on. Hume argued that the winner in the Politics game is Empathy, which ultimately drives the development of social morality (Politics) against the other tendencies (which tend to cancel out, on the very long historical timescale), hence leading to social advancement. I'm not sure it's that simple, but I do think that figuring out what your values are and how best to achieve them in a competitive environment is radically different from a society - even of such perfectly rational agents, and surely one incorporating many irrational ones - cooperating to advance certain values.

    One should also be careful to clarify well what one means in "morality". At the top level there is a theory that advances ALL Normal values, a theory every Normal person should rationally follow. But it might be wise, for example, to limit ourselves to PRESCRIPTIONS only, to things we want others to do or not to do; this is a smaller set of values than what we want in general. In making these sorts of distinctions, philosophy has a role. It isn't to prescribe what is moral, or even what the "right" distinctions are - but rather to make us aware of the various meanings and be careful to make sure it is clear what we are talking about when we say "morality".


    1. Thanks for your thoughts

      According to my investigations, a 'Normal human conscience' is not necessary for a rationally derived morality, though it is not far from the truth (depending on exactly what you meant by that) as we are all physically very similar, and we are a hi-tech species, meaning that the social contract entwines our individual values. Morality is relativistic, as I discuss in 'Practical Morality,' parts 1 and 2, but on a practical level, this isn't all that important.

      To my mind, politics (when done correctly!) is a subset of ethics. Again, because of the overwhelming force of the social contract, what is good for society ought to be good for me. There may be extreme cases where my rationally inferred goals conflict radically with those of society - but then I should stop playing politics (at least, stop trying to serve society). There are many interesting avenues of thought one can pursue here, though. E.g. society can seek to (and in fact does) implement deterrents and re-rehabilitation to reshape an individual's utility function such that it matches more closely one that society would desire. The difficult (but not impossible) trick is to re-shape the politician's utility function, so that he must better serve the common man!