Monday, March 31, 2008

Hows and Whys

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.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.


Martinbg said...

Religion and ethics has been on my mind for a while, as well.

I'm not sure whether I, as an atheist, have philosophical difficulties with ethics, because, well, I'm not that good a philosopher. But I do know that I have a strong sense of ethics, which I do my best to live by.

And I'd like to know how this can be, if atheism makes such a poor foundation for ethics. Of course, one explanation would be that I'm really a believer, I just won't admit it... But that's not really a satisfiyng answer, is it?

- Martinbg

None said...

Your post reminded me of an article printed in the New York Times that found "Damage to an area of the brain behind the forehead, inches behind the eyes, transforms the way people make moral judgments in life-or-death situations...In a new study, people with this rare injury expressed increased willingness to kill or harm another person if doing so would save others’ lives." In other words, people with normal brains do not think like utilitarianist. It appears that damage to this area of the brain impedes normal human emotions.

James said...

Martin, there is no reason that atheists should not have a strong sense of ethics. But I think you will find that much of what you believe is right you share with Christians. That's no surprise if you were brought up in a culture that has Christian roots.

Epiphenom said...

I'm an atheist. My ethics are quite similar to friends who are modern, leberal christians. They have little in common with the christians of 500 years ago, or with christians in the mid west of the USA. This suggests strongly that the source of our common ethics has nothing to do with christianity. Furthermore, the ethics of christianity owes mudch to its greek heritage.

Steven Carr said...

'But no right-thinking person believes utilitarianism is an acceptable basis for ethics.'

No right-thinking person thinks an innocent person should die to save humanity.

Steven Carr said...

You will find that a lot of Christian ethics comes from Judaism , which is a false religion.

None said...

You will find that a lot of Christian ethics comes from Judaism , which is a false religion.

I do not think this is a mystery to Christians as the Torah is part of the Christian Bible. Marcionism is the heresy that rejects the Hebrew Bible. The idea that Christianity is in opposition to the Jewish text has no part in the tradition of Christianity. Much of Christian ethics also comes from Aristotle (natural law).

Humphrey said...

Hi James. Pinker was included in a discussion on science vs religion on the Templeton site in case you are interested in his views.

James said...

Thanks Humphrey. I'll take a look.