Science vs Religion?

June 16, 2010 § 6 Comments

… or “Can Science Have a Positive Effect on Religion and Culture to Help Answer Questions of Morality?”

My previous blog Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions brought as many questions to the table as it did bring facts. It has been pointed out to me that many people feel that Sam Harris was using the word “science” as a way to get a conversation going rather than actually making a true statement that in fact science can answer moral questions. I agree with these statements, and I do believe that the title of Harris’ talk missed the mark.

That is not to say however that the speech is useless, in fact far from it. He raises some critical ideas about culture and religion, about problems brought about by cultural systems, about the extremes of each end of the spectrum in cultures, and about where we draw the line between being respectful of other cultures and where we should speak up and say when something is wrong.

I have touched upon this idea myself in a previous blog, and the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that we must identify cultural practices that we consider morally reprehensible and label them as such, regardless of the cultural roots from whence they spring. For example another story in today’s paper, from Toronto. While the actual murder of Aqsa Parvez took place in 2007, the story is back in the papers because her father and brother this week pleaded guilty to murder and face up to 25 years in prison. The reason he gave for killing his own daughter? The article says:

When asked by his wife why he had killed their daughter, Ms. Parvez said her husband told her: “My community will say you have not been able to control your daughter. This is my insult. She is making me naked.”

This is just an indication that these cultural practices DO travel with people, and I would be remiss to expect individuals to leave behind their cultural backgrounds in their home countries. But we should not accept that practices such as this are accepted on the grounds of multiculturalism. The article goes on to say:

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said it’s a particularly pernicious form of murder to kill a member of one’s own family for cultural reasons.

“That’s one of the reasons we have been explicit in condemning what we call barbaric cultural practices such as honour killings,” Mr. Kenney said.

“We want to underscore that multiculturalism is not an excuse, or a moral or legal justification, for such barbaric practices. Multiculturalism does not equal cultural relativism.”

And I want to make that clear at this point. Just because it’s what people do or have always done in the name of their cultural heritage does not automatically make what people do morally acceptable. We have to make judgments on how a practice reflects on the individuals and the society at large, then make a judgment on how well that fits as a culture into a socially acceptable practice. If it does not fit, is unsuitable, unsustainable or harmful to an individual so as to cause pain, disfigurement or death, then they cannot be accepted. One man’s honour does not give him the right to kill his own family members.

Harris claimed in his talk that “Science can answer moral questions”. He touched on areas where science can inform our decisions on topics that we can then make moral judgments on, but I think he failed to  address the topic he set properly.

Given this, how does science fit into this equation?

As I said, science can help us inform our decisions on moral topics by outlining what affects certain actions can have on other beings. Science can help us look objectively at the impact cultures have on societies and the environment. Science can help us to gain a new perspective on the world, and make us think philosophically about what it means to be human. It can help us discover what it is that makes us work as individuals, and how we interact with others.

But science does not invoke morality and more than mathematics or geology invokes morality. The fact that science is by nature an objective field that strives to better itself does not make it a good sounding-board against which to make moral judgments.

What science can do is help us understand ourselves better, and give us groundings in our universe, ones which then can set us in good stead to see what the future might hold if we can get it right here and now.

In a past article I talked about the nature of morality, and how it is subjective to cultures and people. In the comments to that article, the idea was extrapolated to say that an enactment of what one believes to be justified morality but based on the prejudices, intuition and upbringing, people can be lead to make bad moral judgments.

Science cannot make us make the right moral judgments, but by studies of cultures, of societies and of the human mind and emotional impulses,  science (mostly social sciences) can draw us closer to an understanding of just why it is that humans can make such seemingly immoral decisions but still feel morally justified.

Some people have a fear that if we use science to make our actions seem like they are all products of brain chemistry that we will be stealing the innate “humanness” from humanity, making us the lose our “souls” to the mechanistic and deterministic principles of machines. But as I have said before, just because we know how something works, does it make it any less remarkable, or beautiful, or mysterious? The human mind is so amazing that even if we do eventually discover how morals work in our brains, I doubt we will all of a sudden be saying “Well that’s the last mystery solved, there’s nothing more.” This is because with every new discovery we find a new question, or several questions.

So science can’t answer moral questions, not directly anyway, but it can help us understand ourselves better.

EDIT: I do realise that I too failed to address the topic of this blog post in the blog, however I think that the wider ranging idea of morality in many contexts and for many people is intrinsically linked to their religious views. I hope to address this point further in subsequent blogs. I have given this blog a subtitle to help avoid confusion.


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§ 6 Responses to Science vs Religion?

  • CygnusX1 says:

    Excellent, succint, and spot on! Great blog. You may wish to checkout the Sam Harris and multiculturalism debates over at specifically articles by Russell Blackford.

    Regards.. CygnusX1

  • Michael says:

    I don’t believe that Harris is “using the word ‘science’ as a way to get a conversation going rather than actually making a true statement that in fact science can answer moral questions”.

    In fact in follow up articles he’s reiterated that science really is how we eventually set about measuring whatever we adjudge morality to be:

    The problems in defining what morality actually is and who gets to define it, shouldn’t be confused with how science can then set about quantifying it.

  • Dawnne Gee says:

    That’s a good point, Michael. We have a tendency to quantify morality emotionally and based on anecdotal and rote “evidence”. Whereas Harris points out that better quantifications, and better qualification of such, is available through scientific research and study. That supports Martin’s position, too.

    Great post, Martin. Thank you for continuing on this topic.

  • Thanks Marty, good writing.

    I agree that “science can help us inform our decisions on moral topics by outlining what effects certain actions can have on other beings.” Here, as you’ve noted we’re probably talking more about the social sciences – psychology, sociology, anthropology. However, as with any human science, they’re not objective. In fact, sociologists have been debating ever since the founding of the discipline whether it is a science, with many arguing it isn’t. Philosophy of science has challenged many understandings of the nature of science too, notably Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper but I don’t want to stray too far off topic.

    Perhaps we’re saying that “good thinking” can tell us about morality, and that science can inform that thinking? That seems to be what you conclude.

    In which case, sorry to be pedantic but I disagree with Harris as I understand his position. If his position is that “science [alone] can answer moral questions” this would surprise me, given that he has a philosophy undergrad degree. I think that science can not solve our moral questions. Reason might be able to. (Coming up on my blog, a post asking ‘Am I a Rationalist?’)

    Science can give us tools to understand the world, but it’s reason that we attempt to use to make intellectual decisions about morality. In theory 😉 Philosophy, specifically ethics supposedly helps with this.

    I’ll be writing more about aspects of morality in the next couple of weeks. I don’t have all the answers, which I guess fits with being agnostic.

    Thanks once again, I enjoy your work and find it stimulates me to think 🙂

  • Sainter says:

    An excellent blog, Marty! Science can have a civilizing effect on any society. particularly those societies to which the logic and rationalism of science is foreign. It asks of us to consider all sides of an argument; the very process of scientific methodology requires us to reason a situation from all angles. A culture steeped in ignorant customs is blind to it’s injustices because it thinks inflexibly. That is what the science culture brings to the table, flexibility in thought and process. Ethics is not set in stone, it’s largely relative to the age. If cultures could progress hand in hand with the scientific culture we’d see far better adjusted societies socially AND morally.

    Again, excellent blog!

  • Md Santo says:


    As I mentioned recently (from Steven Pinker – How do you make sense of the unknown?, June 26, 2010), there are three pairs of key words used to describe how human choosing their life preferences in the universe. They are namely “Good or Bad”, “True or False” and “Right or Wrong”. Those three pairs of key words describing human life preferences in physical universe, inner universe and divine universe respectively.

    Below are the list of such pairs of words, evidence-based generated and describing physical universe, inner universe and divine universe (“the unknown”) respectively. I’d like to name them as “The Universal Trio Phenomenon”. By any mean, it is not intended as “Proof by intimidation”. It is intended as my contribution in the form of knowledge and/or information sharing purpose for the sake of our effort to make sense of the unknown

    The following list of three key words as an entity to describe the three universes arranged randomly :
    • Good or Bad – True or False – Right or Wrong
    • Body – Mind – Soul
    • Id – Ego – Super Ego
    • Physical Sensitivity – IQ and EQ – SQ
    • Science – Knowledge – Tasawwuf
    • Hypothesis – Intuition – Premonition/Physiognomy
    • Unity – Entity – Oneness
    • Pleasures – Happiness – Uns
    • Defense – Endurance – Supernatural Power
    • Physical Material – Biological Life – Human Conscious Life
    • Scientist – The Believers – Sufi
    • Physical Light (light, data, information) – Inner Light (knowledge ( in narrow meaning), wisdom) – Divine Light (marifa, divine light)
    • Rational (relative) truth – Heart (relative) truth – Real (absolute) truth
    • Rational solution – Wise decision – Miracle
    • Darwinian theory – Creationism (Intelligent Design) Theory – Causa Prima theory
    • Excitement – Ectasy – Uns
    • Physical treatment – Psychological treatment – Tasawwuf treatment
    • Well informed – Knowledgeable – Marifa
    • Blessing – Guidance – Endowment
    • Result mind – Fruit inspiration – Revelation
    • Physical – Mind – Spiritual
    • By reasonable mind – By heart – By Sirr
    • With oral prayer – Prayer with your heart – Prayer with Sirr
    • Senses to mind brain – Conscience – Throne (Arasy)
    • Cognitive to Psychomotor ability – Psychomotor to Affective ability – Maqamat ability
    • Space Time dependent – Time dependent – Absolutely independent
    • Truth based – Knowledge based – Belief based
    • Thought – Heart – Divine Inspiration
    • Universal based rational truth – Social based action and performance – Personal based experience beyond Knowledge domain
    • Thermodynamic law – Information theory – Mukasyafah
    • Physical communication – Communication with the heart – Divine communication with mukadatsah
    • Worship God – Headed God – Musyahadah
    • etc

    Because of my “unknown” orientation is Islamic sources, quite many of terminologies derived from Tasawwuf or Sufi as my Knowledge-base resources. Anyhow it is intended whatsoever to narrowing the gap between Science and Religion as living reality in human history

    Thank you

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