Dummies on Ethics?

In Ethics, In the News by Steve WilkinsonLeave a Comment

I probably know what you are thinking . . . after reading the title, you believe that I am not following my own apologetics tips. You probably also believe that I should start asking for forgiveness, even as I type.

You may be correct on that last point as I could not help but be angered while listening to Friday’s Science Friday program with Ira Flatow. (1)“Science and Morality” – November 5, 2010 – http://www.sciencefriday.com/program/archives/201011055 – Guests: Lawrence Krauss, Simon Blackburn, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker – Host: Ira Flatow – (Listen in the upper-left under the header.)  (righteous anger? I’ll let you decide) However, I want to ensure you that I AM NOT inferring that these people are dummies (as in, lack of intelligence). They are some of the smartest people on the planet. That is what is so scary about what they end up saying!

The ‘Dummies’ image helps make two points about this discussion. First, that such a reductionist view ultimately turns us into dummies; living dummies, but certainly not real cognizant, moral beings. Second, it demonstrates how an error in worldview can drive a conversation between extremely smart people to embarrassingly poor conclusions.

In this panel discussion, Lawrence Krauss, Simon Blackburn, Sam Harris, and Steven Pinker, along with host Ira Flatow discuss the relationship between science and ethics or morality. The first problem that should be apparent (but may not be for many people) is the category error being committed here. Science is a description of what is, not what ought to be. It is kind of like consulting rocks as to what happiness is, or like listening to a show on the culinary arts by a panel of people from the Society of People Lacking Taste-buds.

The basic idea being expressed is that ethics and morality come into being through the process of evolution, and that there is no need for anything but science to explain it, especially not religion. It was noted in the discussion that science can inform religion and faith, but that it is a one-way street. Faith has nothing to say to science. This becomes highly problematic and future articles on this site will delve into the details of why this is the case.

What I mainly want you to recognize is that this is a prime example of where such a line of thinking leads. After a great deal of discussion, the consequences began to emerge. They say that humans are not responsible for their actions. As a society we might have to lock some people up to protect others, but we need to drop retributive justice.

Sam Harris then made this telling comment:

“It’s all basically a matter of brain tumors. We are not the author of our own causes. We don’t create our genomes, we don’t create our environments. And everyone on death row at this moment has either bad genes, bad parents, or bad ideas. They are not really responsible in the usual sense for any of them.”

I was, quite frankly, shocked! No, it was not because I have not heard this kind of thing before. I have read books on the topic and have been involved in discussions on this topic. What surprised me is hearing this position so blatantly stated in such a public science medium. You don’t have to listen to Science Friday for too long to realize Ira Flatow is no friend of religion, but to assemble such a biased panel for such a discussion is a bold move.

I know that in the general scientific community there is more balance, but this is a very popular public face of science. A couple of these people work quite intentionally in the area of interfacing the scientific community to the public and have received awards for doing so. They were also not shy in attacking the place of religion in the public square.

Your assignment:

Go listen to the show on Science Friday’s web site linked above. Listen carefully and look for the holes in their reasoning. How would you respond if you had been invited to the discussion? This is a good practice that I point out in my apologetic tips mentioned above. Listening directly to people you disagree with, understanding their arguments, and being able to respond is great training.

Update: Friday, January 14, 2011

For a bit more reasonable discussion related to this topic, see The Evolving Minds Of Humans – Sci Fri – 11/12/2010 – Self Comes To Mind by  neurologist Antonio Damasio. Dr. Damasio talks about the origin of consciousness from a materialistic evolutionary viewpoint. Of course, on this view consciousness would necessarily seem to precede morality, so this is taking a step back from the discussion referenced above. While an interesting discussion, I noted gaping holes in the steps Dr. Damasio presents to Ira during the interview. Maybe this was due to the limitations of such a radio program. I have purchased his book (2)Antonio Damasio. Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2010) , and will be reviewing it here at some future point. Stay tuned . . .

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