Thursday, June 22, 2017

What science can't do (because it isn't trying)

What science does is tell us how things work, and it is darn good at it. It doesn't tell us what we should do. We could  develop a virus to kill millions of people at a stroke through recombinant DNA. In that respect, science has great power. But can it tell us if we ought to do so or not? Science isn't capable of even asking that question, so it can't answer it one way or the other. If our human race is not a positive species, then, hey, maybe that might not be such a bad idea, get rid of a bunch of pestilent humans. Albert Camus said that the most significant question in philosophy is the question of suicide. What does science have to say to someone who is contemplating that drastic decision?

So while we can see the science is moving very fast, speed of motion does not tell us whether it is getting to the right place. If we want to know how the rocks got here, or what the makeup of the human cell is,  God did it won't give us any information that could possible make it easier to keep viruses out of our cells or how to manage our climate. But this is after we have decided that it is a good thing to keep viruses our of our cells or that we ought to combat global warming.

One one view, science answer the God question, negatively. On another view, science operates by setting aside questions like the God question. But it also sets aside the moral question. Scientific explanations essentially appeal to laws of nature, but this guarantees that science will never explain why laws of nature exist at all. Or why matter exists at all.

You can set these kinds of questions aside by saying with Bertrand Russell, "What science cannot discover, mankind cannot know." But then you need to tell me what scientific experiment demonstrated that what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know, otherwise, Russell's statement is, by his own reckoning, unknowable. And in order to answer the question of suicide, we need answers, at least for ourselves, to questions that science by definition cannot solve.

None of this is slamming science. Quite the contrary. I am not slamming Paul Goldschmidt if I say he probably can't shoot a basketball like Michael Jordan, nor do I slam Jordan if I point out that his foray into baseball was a failure.




9 comments:

John Moore said...

Science can indeed tell you what you should do in the case where you already know what you want to accomplish. For example, if you want the light bulb to turn on, science says you should connect the circuit.

The goals people want to achieve form a hierarchy. For example, you might want to turn on the light in order to find your car keys, in order to drive to the shop, in order to get food, in order to eat, in order to not starve to death. Etc.

Just observing living things in an objective manner, we can see that all living things strive to continue living, at least as a group or species. This is the root goal. Thus, science can tell us what we ought to do. This can be an entire scientific basis for morality.

Science cannot tell us why we should continue living, but given that we do want to live, science tells us what we should do.

John Moore said...

In fact, every moral system needs to start with some basic given. The Bible doesn't tell us why God exists, but given that God exists, the Bible tells us what we should do. This is just like science with its assumption that we should continue living.

grodrigues said...

"Science cannot tell us why we should continue living, but given that we do want to live, science tells us what we should do."

This is false, not only on a practical level (it is very easy to see this, the examples are innumerable), but on a theoretical level. Questions of means are as much moral as questions of ends, science does not answer moral questions, ergo science does not answer questions about means (or to be more precise with regards the scope of this particular argument, not completely).

John Moore said...

Sure, people's plans can go wrong and things turn out different than expected. I didn't say science always works. Theories are often wrong. But science is self-correcting too.

Maybe you're also referring to the idea that people can pursue their own selfish ends at the expense of others and get away with that in the long run. This is an unfounded assumption and a very superficial analysis.

Legion of Logic said...

John: "This can be an entire scientific basis for morality."

I don't believe there can be a scientific approach to morality, unless the definition of morality is changed from right/wrong, good/evil, etc. to "this works for X goal, this does not work for X goal". Which, of course, leads to chaos as a moral methodology unless one makes assumptions about "ought" that science cannot itself demonstrate.

Joe Hinman said...

John Moore said...
Science can indeed tell you what you should do in the case where you already know what you want to accomplish. For example, if you want the light bulb to turn on, science says you should connect the circuit.

The goals people want to achieve form a hierarchy. For example, you might want to turn on the light in order to find your car keys, in order to drive to the shop, in order to get food, in order to eat, in order to not starve to death. Etc.

That does not change the point made by theists who point out that science cant tell us what values to hold. Your poimt mainly applies to research priorities. Morality is not a research objective.

Just observing living things in an objective manner, we can see that all living things strive to continue living, at least as a group or species. This is the root goal. Thus, science can tell us what we ought to do. This can be an entire scientific basis for morality.

science cannot draw an ought from observations. No logical inference can be drawn that says because x seeks some goal therefore we should seek that goal.

Science cannot tell us why we should continue living, but given that we do want to live, science tells us what we should do.

Yet guys like Harris continue to assert that if we go that far we can go a step further and put science in place of irreligion in deciding values.

Joe Hinman said...

John Moore said...
In fact, every moral system needs to start with some basic given. The Bible doesn't tell us why God exists, but given that God exists, the Bible tells us what we should do. This is just like science with its assumption that we should continue living.

Not it's not. God has the right to make moral pronouncements and issue moral directives which we must follow,science does not.

Science is a tool used to enhance our knowledge of the physical world,God is the sovereign Lord of the universe, creator of all that is.

grodrigues said...

@John Moore:

"Maybe you're also referring to the idea that people can pursue their own selfish ends at the expense of others and get away with that in the long run. This is an unfounded assumption and a very superficial analysis."

If this is meant for me, not at all. In fact I am amazed on your inability to understand what is a very elementary, valid argument to substantiate an elementary point.

And by the way, the idea you mention (not me) is neither an "unfounded assumption" nor a "superficial analysis", but, depending on how it is worked out, can serve as basis for other, essentially unanswerable, objections.

Sam Harper said...

John, I think you are equivocating and the words, "should," and "ought." What you are describing is the pragmatic "should/ought," but then treating it as if it were the same thing as the moral "should/ought." Consider these two statements:

1. You ought to change the oil in your car regularly.
2. You ought to be kind to strangers.

Both of these statements use the word, "ought," but they mean different things by them. The first sentence uses "ought" in the pragmatic sense. Changing your oil is pragmatically a good idea because it keeps your car in good shape. If you don't change your oil, that doesn't mean you've shirked your duty or done anything immoral. It just means you're not being smart.

The second sentence uses "ought" in the moral sense. Being kind is an obligation we have. There may be cases where being kind has no practical advantage as all, but if you're cruel even when you can get away with it, then you've done something immoral. You've shirked your duty.

What I think Victor is saying is that science cannot give us a moral "ought." There is nothing in science that can tell you what your moral obligations and duties are.

There are other kinds of "oughts," too, like the rational "ought" that tells you what you should believe in certain circumstances.