May 08, 2009

Skyhooks and cranes-6: Why some atheist scientists support the morality skyhook

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

One can understand why the Pope and religious scientists want to promote the unsustainable idea that the world of morality and ethics lies in a separate domain outside the reach of scientific investigation and accessible only by religion. But what is puzzling is why so many nonbelievers, including scientists, also seem willing to give credence to religion the role of sole arbiter of morality and ethics

Stephen Jay Gould, who was not religious, was a strong advocate of this notion of separate domains for the physical and moral worlds and even gave this ridiculous idea the pompous title of NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria) and wrote an entire book Rocks of Ages (1999) to promote it.

Biologist Lewis Wolpert in his book Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The evolutionary origins of belief (2006) says quite emphatically at the beginning (twice on the same page) that he is a reductionist materialist atheist (p. x). And yet, towards the very end of the book, after saying (rightly) that however much science advances there will always be unanswered questions and that we "must have the intellectual courage to live with such unanswered questions rather than invent answers that have no basis other than in mystical experience", he proceeds in the very next sentence to make the extraordinary assertion that "we must also accept that science can tell us nothing about ethics or morality." (p. 215, my italics).

Even the august National Academy of Sciences weighs in with support for this dubious proposition. In a 2008 publication Science, Evolution, and Creationism in response to the question "Does science disprove religion?" it says:

Science can neither prove nor disprove religion. Scientific advances have called some religious beliefs into question, such as the ideas that the Earth was created very recently, that the Sun goes around the Earth, and that mental illness is due to possession by spirits or demons. But many religious beliefs involve entities or ideas that currently are not within the domain of science. Thus, it would be false to assume that all religious beliefs can be challenged by scientific findings. (my italics)
Many scientists have written eloquently about how their scientific studies have increased their awe and understanding of a creator…. The study of science need not lessen or compromise faith. (p. 54)

The NAS is flat-out wrong. The study of science does (or at least should) lessen and compromise faith because the two are fundamentally incompatible. What exactly are the 'entities or ideas' that are presumed to be outside the domain of science? One can only assume that the phrase was thrown in as a sop to soothe the delicate feelings of religious people, who desperately want to find a role for skyhooks.

The reason for this effort comes down again to the goals and ends political issue. Those scientists who seek to advance some secular goal for which they think they need the support of religious people need to find something to offer them in return, since there seems to be the feeling that the public will turn away from science and may oppose the teaching of evolution (or, even worse, stop funding science) if they feel that it is basically an atheistic enterprise.

So scientists may have seized upon the morals/ethics realm as the crumb to give religion, since that area is currently the farthest away from direct scientific investigation. This also allows them to keep in the fold those scientists who are still religious. In a way, the moral issue plays the role of Miss Congeniality in beauty contests, the consolation prize that is meant to pacify religious people and make them allies, by making them think that religion is not totally useless. Since scientists want to keep religion out of their research areas, they may think that giving them the vaguely defined moral sphere to ponder will keep them occupied.

I think this is short-sighted. Far from having nothing to say about morality and ethics and altruism, this is a very interesting area of research. The pioneering work on kinship altruism by W. D Hamilton and reciprocal altruism by Robert Trivers laid the foundations for understanding why natural selection can result in people evolving to have cooperative instincts even though a simplistic understanding of natural selection might suggest that we should always be looking out for ourselves.

(For the foundational papers in this area of research, see The Genetical Evolution of Social Behavior I and II by W. D. Hamilton (1964) Journal of Theoretical Biology, vol. 7, p. 1-52, The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism by Robert L. Trivers, (March 1971) The Quarterly Review of Biology, vol. 46, no. 1, p. 36-57), and The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod and William D. Hamilton, (March 27,1981), Science, vol. 211, p. 1390-1396. For a readable summary of the research on how evolution explains the origins or altruism and cooperative behavior, see Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene (1989).)

In fact, what is becoming increasingly clear is that far from being born as blank slates on which god imprints moral laws on our minds, much of what we call human nature has evolutionary origins. It would not be wrong to suggest that understanding the biological basis of human nature, how evolution has shaped the things we believe and value, will be one of the frontier areas of research, bringing psychology within the ambit of biology.

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Hello Mano -
This is not a comment on a recent blog. I was wondering if you had caught the tv 8 news feature on the boy at Heritage Christian School in Findlay who is being barred from his senior prom and graduation - he is going to his girlfriend's public school prom. Apparently he is breaking rules in the school handbook prohibiting rock muic and dancing. Even the stepfather who supports the rules for school behavior; is shocked that they're censoring and trying to control his outside activities.

I was hoping that it was in the Plain Dealer this AM for reference, but it was not.


Posted by kathy meyer on May 9, 2009 11:18 AM


I did not hear about this until you told me but found this news item about it.

Once you have people think that god exists and that they know what god wants, these kinds of situations are pretty much inevitable, since anyone can claim that their version of god's expectations is the correct one.

Posted by Mano on May 10, 2009 09:57 AM

Hello Mano,

Do you think that the arguemnt "science can tell us nothing about ethics or morality" is exactly what some religous people use when making the claim that atheists have no morals?

It seems amazing to me that an atheist would make this statement when, logically, you would have to infer that only a god, or something otherwise supernatural, can give morals.

On a side note, I was once argueing with a creationist about morals. He knew me well enough to know I have morals but also that I am an atheist. He got round this problem by saying that God was supplying my morals without me accepting where they came from.


Posted by Tim on May 11, 2009 07:51 AM

I can understand exactly where you are coming from, excellent blog post. I do support the morality skyhook even though I am an athiest!
Ben Little

Posted by Ben on May 11, 2009 05:19 PM

Im amazed that an atheist would make this statement! Great post though, im a keen reader of your blog!
John Drew

Posted by John Drew on June 15, 2009 09:20 AM

I kind of agree that if there were a law against cruelty to children at least it would stop abusive parents and protect the children more. That cant be a bad thing to come into force.

Posted by Khaled on July 13, 2009 04:21 AM