The present volume is a product of an international research program 'Foundations of Science and Ethics', launched in by the Inter University Centre of Post-Graduate Studies, Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, with the financial support of the V olkswagen Foundation.
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Generous financial support from the Volkswagen Foundation made it possible to plan four annual conferences, the first of which was held in Dubrovnik on March , This volume contains the majority of the papers presented in the first Dubrovnik conference; the main theme of this conference was 'Rationality in Science and Ethics' Some of the papers appear here in a thoroughly revised form.
Further results of the research program will be discussed in three other conferences, to be held in Dubrovnik in ; the papers presented in these conferences will be published separately. Professor Rudolf Haller of the University of Graz assumed the burden of the practical planning and organization of the first conference as well as that of the other three conferences. I wish to thank Professor Haller on behalf of all participants for carrying out this demanding and time-consuming task.
Read more Read less. Just the same, what evolutionary psychology was about, we were told, was something quite different than Social Darwinism. It avoided the political and focused on the personal. The tacit assumption seems to be that merely reciting the story somehow renders it factual. There often even seems to be a sort of relish with which these stories are elaborated — the more so the more thoroughly caddish the behavior.
This deploring is often accompanied by a pious invocation of the fact-value distinction even though typically no facts at all have made an appearance — merely speculations. There seems to be a thirst for this kind of explanation, but the pop evolutionary psychologists generally pay little attention to the philosophical issues raised by their evolutionary scenarios. What basis do we have for saying that anything is wrong at all if our behaviors are no more than the consequence of past natural selection?
And if we desire to be morally better than our ancestors were, are we even free to do so? Or are we programmed to behave in a certain way that we now, for some reason, have come to deplore? Unfortunately, much of this literature consists of still more storytelling — scenarios whereby natural selection might have favored a generalized moral sense or the tendency to approve of certain behaviors such as cooperation.
There is nothing inherently implausible about such scenarios, but they remain in the realm of pure speculation and are essentially impossible to test in any rigorous way.
Still, these ideas have gained wide influence. Part of this evolutionary approach to ethics tends toward a debunking of morality. Since our standards of morality result from natural selection for traits that were useful to our ancestors, the debunkers argue, these moral standards must not refer to any objective ethical truths.
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But just because certain beliefs about morality were useful for our ancestors does not make them necessarily false. It would be hard to make a similar case, for example, against the accuracy of our visual perception based on its usefulness to our ancestors, or against the truth of arithmetic based on the same.
True ethical statements — if indeed they exist — are of a very different sort from true statements of arithmetic or observational science. One might argue that our ancestors evolved the ability to understand human nature and, therefore, they could derive true ethical statements from an understanding of that nature. But this is hardly a novel discovery of modern science: Aristotle made the latter point in the Nicomachean Ethics.
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A parallel argument could be made about Kantian ethics. Not all advocates of scientism fall for the problems of reducing ethics to evolution. Sam Harris, in his book The Moral Landscape , is one advocate of scientism who takes issue with the whole project of evolutionary ethics. Yet he wishes to substitute an offshoot of scientism that is perhaps even more problematic, and certainly more well-worn: utilitarianism.
As utilitarians have for some time, Harris purports to challenge the fact-value distinction, or rather, to sidestep the tricky question of values entirely by just focusing on facts. But, as has also been true of utilitarians for some time, this move ends up being a way to advance certain values over others without arguing for them, and to leave large questions about those values unresolved. Harris does not, for example, address the time-bound nature of such evaluations: Do we consider only the well-being of creatures that are conscious at the precise moment of our analysis? If yes, why should we accept such a bias?
What of creatures that are going to possess consciousness in the near future — or would without human intervention — such as human embryos, whose destruction Harris staunchly advocates for the purposes of stem cell research? What of comatose patients, whose consciousness, and prospects for future consciousness, are uncertain? Harris might respond that he is only concerned with the well-being of creatures now experiencing consciousness, not any potentially future conscious creatures. Yet Harris claims to be a conservationist. Surely the best justification for resource conservation on the basis of his ethics would be that it enhances the well-being of future generations of conscious creatures.
If those potential future creatures merit our consideration, why should we not extend the same consideration to creatures already in existence, whose potential future involves consciousness? Moreover, the factual analysis Harris touts cannot nearly bear the weight of the ethical inquiry he claims it does. Harris himself has been involved in research that examines the brain states of human subjects engaged in a variety of tasks. Although there has been much overhyping of brain imaging, the limitations of this sort of research are becoming increasingly obvious.
Even on their own terms, these studies at best provide evidence of correlation, not of causation, and of correlations mixed in with the unfathomably complex interplay of cause and effect that are the brain and the mind. These studies inherently claim to get around the problems of understanding subjective consciousness by examining the brain, but the basic unlikeness of first-person qualitative experience and third-person events that can be examined by anyone places fundamental limits on the usual reductive techniques of empirical science. Even so, there would be limitations on how much this knowledge would advance human happiness.
For comparison, we know a quite a lot about the physiology of digestion, and we are able to describe in great detail the physiological differences between the digestive system of a person who is starving and that of a person who has just eaten a satisfying and nutritionally balanced meal. But this knowledge contributes little to solving world hunger. This is because the factor that makes the difference — that is, the meal — comes from outside the person.
Rationality in Science
Harris is aware that external circumstances play a vital role in our sense of well-being, and he summarizes some research that addresses these factors. But most of this research is soft science of the very softest sort — questionnaire surveys that ask people in a variety of circumstances about their feelings of happiness. As Harris himself notes, most of the results tell us nothing we did not already know.
Unsurprisingly, Harris, an atheist polemicist, fails to acknowledge any studies that have supported a spiritual or religious component in happiness. Harris is right that new scientific information can guide our decisions by enlightening our application of moral principles — a conclusion that would not have been troubling to Kant or Aquinas.
But this is a far cry from scientific information shaping or determining our moral principles themselves, an idea for which Harris is unable to make a case. This is a tension widely evident in pop sociobiology. Harris seems to think that free will is an illusion but also that our decisions are really driven by thoughts that arise unbidden in our brains. He does not explain the origin of these thoughts nor how their origin relates to moral choices.
This view undermines the possibility of happiness and moral behavior for those who are dealt a bad hand, and so does more to degrade than uplift at the individual level. But worse, it does little to advance the well-being of society as a whole. The importance of good circumstances, and guaranteeing these for as many as possible, is one that is already widely understood and appreciated. But the question remains how to bring about these circumstances for everyone, and no economic system has yet been devised to ensure this.
Short of this, difficult discussions of philosophy, justice, politics, and all of the other fields concerned with public life will be required to understand what the good life is and how to provide it to many given the limitations and inequalities of what circumstance brings to each of us.
On these points, as with so many others, scientism tends to present as bold, novel solutions what are really just the beginning terms of the problem as it is already widely understood.
T he positivist tradition in philosophy gave scientism a strong impetus by denying validity to any area of human knowledge outside of natural science. More recent advocates of scientism have taken the ironic but logical next step of denying any useful role for philosophy whatsoever, even the subservient philosophy of the positivist sort.
But the last laugh, it seems, remains with the philosophers — for the advocates of scientism reveal conceptual confusions that are obvious upon philosophical reflection. Rather than rendering philosophy obsolete, scientism is setting the stage for its much-needed revival. Advocates of scientism today claim the sole mantle of rationality, frequently equating science with reason itself.
Yet it seems the very antithesis of reason to insist that science can do what it cannot, or even that it has done what it demonstrably has not. As a scientist, I would never deny that scientific discoveries can have important implications for metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and that everyone interested in these topics needs to be scientifically literate. But the claim that science and science alone can answer longstanding questions in these fields gives rise to countless problems. In contrast to reason, a defining characteristic of superstition is the stubborn insistence that something — a fetish, an amulet, a pack of Tarot cards — has powers which no evidence supports.
From this perspective, scientism appears to have as much in common with superstition as it does with properly conducted scientific research. Scientism claims that science has already resolved questions that are inherently beyond its ability to answer.