Monday, May 16, 2005

Michael: Science is a source of Morality

I believe that those who claim that science cannot determine morality fundamentally misunderstand morality. When you unpack the concept of morality it is really nothing more than culturally encoded rules for how to deal with the world, most specifically how to deal with social interactions. Those rules are not inchoate in some Aristotealian sense, they are invented by people over time to deal with issues of survival and social cohesion. In a sense they are a very rough analogy to the scientific method as applied to vastly complex problems over time. Richard Dawkins popularized the concept of memes; that is what morals are, culturally trasmitted solutions to complex social problems collected and competing across time. Morals are based on rank conjecture, superstition, and lucky, or unlucky, chance, but they are also based on observation and determining what works in a society that is trying to survive in the real world. I contend that as our knowledge of the world grows, including our knowledge of our own extremely complex biology, behavior, social interactions, and role in the world grows, so too does our morality grow and change.

A few examples of where we go wrong, and where we go right. There have long been cultural taboos about homosexuality in many western cultures. There have also been cultures in which homosexuality is tolerated, and even celebrated. At some point, the meme that homosexuality is bad got encoded (perhaps the writing of Levitcus is a source of the meme) and worked for the cuture or cultures involved. To this day we have a strong meme of condemnation of homosexuality as a result. But now that we are learning more about ourselves, sexuality in other species, and have developed memes which stress privacy in sexual affairs, some of which derives from science, the anti-homosexuality meme is being challenged by other moral viewpoints. Science is changing morality. It may be slow and painful, but it is happening in much of the Western world.

Now for an example of science creating a moral meme. Don’t pollute the environment. Until we began to see the health effects, the effects of destruction of bio-diversity and habitats, and the many economic costs of pollution, there was no moral aspect to disposal of waste. Now that we are gaining an ever greater scientific knowledge of the effect that man-made pollutants can have, more and more people see preserving the environment as a moral good, and harming it as a moral negative. Even many evangelical churches, just to name a fairly unexpected extreme, are starting to talk about stewardship of creation as a moral duty. This set of environmental moral values did not exist widely in the population just a few decades ago. Science has given us new ways to see the world and our effect in it, and virthed a new morality.

I contend that as science uncovers more and more of the delicate workings of human societies, economies, and psyches that this new knowledge will create or overturn memes that tell us how we should behave. In fact, a new moral values are constantly birthing, but only the most important and strong will tend to survive. Science can give us moral values, and better ones than we had before.


At 6:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great job Michael. Love to read your views, and your post to Blogcritics about Amway is exceptional. Thank you for your patriotism!

Bennett Dawson

At 6:38 AM, Anonymous gailonline said...

An excellent writeup about our insane drug war.


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