It is a cliché to say that science answers “how?” questions and religion answers “why?” This particular cliché has been trotted out many times in the newspapers over the last few days as we have witnessed the debate over whether Labour MPs should be given a free vote on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill now before Parliament. Thankfully, sense prevailed and the government will no longer try to force MPs to vote against their consciences.
Oliver Kamm attacks the how/why cliché in his blog but makes the common mistake of not realising that it represents a rather stronger argument than journalists either express or, in all likelihood, understand.
“How questions” are shorthand for things answerable in the objective domain of science. It is an extremely important strength of the scientific method that it is, in its ideal state, heroically objective. Needless to say, this ideal is rarely met and on a philosophical level, collides with the problem of under-determination (whereby it is impossible to say exactly which theory is being demonstrated by a particular set of facts).
“Why questions”, in the same shorthand, do not just stand for the meaning of life. Many atheists, Kamm probably among them, share the view of Douglas Adams’s on such matters. Adams famous answer of 42 for the meaning of life, the universe and everything means no more than he thought it was a silly question. But not all “why” questions are so easily dodged. In particular, atheists are in philosophical difficulty with ethics.
It used to be supposed that science might provide an objective basis for ethics in much the same way as it does for kinematics. These hopes, despite the discovery of a natural ethical architecture, have been dashed by even the latest research. Secular ethics in the West is essentially Christianity with a bit of free love tacked on the side, and it has to be admitted that the free love is causing some trouble. Arguments for embryonic stem cells and animal/human hybrids, which have dominated the discussion of the limits of scientific research, are essentially utilitarian. But no right-thinking person believes utilitarianism is an acceptable basis for ethics. Indeed, nowadays it is rarely brought out except in this rather special case. Interestingly, research by Marc Hauser and others shows that human beings appear to be naturally opposed to utilitarian solutions even if they are divorced from religious concerns.
This leaves the western atheist, whose ethics are Christian at one remove anyway, in rather an odd position when they start to whine about the Church having too much influence in a secular society. They have no alternative ethical system to the one proposed by the church and their historical make-up is largely determined by previous religious decisions anyway. This is why Kamm is wrong to dismiss the how/why dichotomy, at least until he can present an alternative system of ethics that does not rely of plundering religious thought and then claiming atheists thought it up first.
Incidentally, the case for animal/human hybrids has always been a bit sparse. Some scientists have made out that such things will allow them to cure Parkinsons and Alzheimer’s disease. Quite why these particular conditions are the ones mentioned is a bit of a mystery, of course. What said scientists really mean is that they would quite like to have a go at making hybrids and maybe some useful research will come out of it. Like my three year old daughter and her relationship with chocolate, they don’t seem to understand the difference between the words “would like to” and “need.” Given we were previously assured that embryonic stem cells were essential when it turns out they are nothing of the sort, we could have hoped that these people would not try and pull the same stunt twice.
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