More on the science of morality

I think we may be seeing the beginning of a new wave of popular science books on morality. Sam Harris‘s The Moral Landscape got wide coverage and sparked several high-profile debates on the subject (see The new science of morality, Is and ought, A scientific consensus on human morality, Waking up to morality, Can science shape human values?, Telling right from wrong?, Telling right from wrong?, and Craig brings some clarity to morality?).

Now we have Patricia Churchland‘s new book Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. This came out at the end of March and I got my copy the other day. I have just read Chapter 1 and feel this will be an important book. In many ways it will probably complement The Moral Landscape because it deals clearly with some of the critiques made of Sam’s approach. Particularly those made by scientists and non-religious philosophers.

I hope it sells well. Churchland doesn’t have the high public profile that Harris has. But she is eminently qualified to cover the subject as a philosopher with a special interest in neuroscience. And the time is ripe for this sort of coverage.

I just hope some fire and brimstone Christian apologists attack the book (as with Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design). That would help get it noticed!

It’s also very readable – always important in a popular science book.

A problem with philosophers

I have despaired at much of the current philosophical discussion of human morality. And the assumption that it is a subject exclusively for philosophy and not science. In fact one is often accused of “scientism” for daring to suggest a role for science.  But I think the philosophical discussion is often  artificial – precisely because it does not take note of modern scientific findings. Churchland makes a similar criticism:

“a lot of contemporary moral philosophy, though venerated in academic halls, was completely untethered to the “hard and fast”; that is, it had no strong connection to evolution or to the brain, and hence was in peril of floating on a sea of mere, albeit confident, opinion. And no doubt the medieval clerics were every bit as confident.”

So her stance is really welcome:

“The complaint that a scientific approach to understanding morality commits the sin of scientism does really exaggerate what science is up to, since the scientific enterprise does not aim to displace the arts or the humanities. . . . . On the other hand, it is true that philosophical claims about the nature of things, such as moral intuition, are vulnerable. Here, philosophy and science are working the same ground, and evidence should trump armchair reflection. In the present case, the claim is not that science will wade in and tell us for every dilemma what is right or wrong. Rather, the point is that a deeper understanding of what it is that makes humans and other animals social, and what it is that disposes us to care about others, may lead to greater understanding of how to cope with social problems. That cannot be a bad thing.”

The is-ought problem

She disposes of this problem in the introduction, thankfully. It seems such a hurdle for those who have criticised Harris’s book. Churchland describes the origin of the “is-ought” mantra in Hume’s’ writing and how this has been misunderstood and misinterpreted – partly intentionally. She describes the idea “you cannot derive an ought from an is” as a “smackdown of a naturalistic approach to morality.” And asks how it could acquire philosophical standing.

Partly this is because many moral philosophers objected to Hume’s naturalism and “so they hung naturalism by the heels on Hume’s is/ought observation.” And today’s philosophers of religion are of course playing that one as hard as they can.

But the other reason is semantic – again, very relevant today:

Deriving a proposition in deductive logic strictly speaking requires a formally valid argument; that is, the conclusion must deductively follow from the premises, with no leeway, no mere high probability (e.g., “All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, so Socrates is mortal”). Assuming the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. Strictly speaking, therefore, one cannot derive (in the sense of construct a formally valid argument for) a statement about what ought to be done from a set of facts about what is the case. “


“In a much broader sense of “infer” than derive you can infer (figure out) what you ought to do, drawing on knowledge, perception, emotions, and understanding, and balancing considerations against each other. We do it constantly, in both the physical and social worlds. . . . What gets us around the world is mainly not logical deduction (derivation). . . . In any case, that most problem-solving is not deduction is clear.”

Epistemologically the distinction between inference and deduction is important. In “Other ways of knowing” – some sense at last I pointed out that deductive logic:

“Produces the broadest, most complete and most consistent results. The methods are relatively simple and they involve few, precisely defined, predictions which are easily validated.”


“Logical claims are about the meaning of concepts, not details, and this limits the applicability of the method. It is also easily (and often) manipulated. For example logical arguments are presented as arbitrary lists (proving only that the “logician” can count) or based on shonky premises – chosen to produce the desired answer. This often happens with people arguing for strong ideological prejudices.”

A prime example is that presented by WL Craig and his constant use of “irrelevant syllogisms.” His fanboys in the Christian apologetic movement are caught up in the same approach in their attacks on “scientism” and the role of science on questions like morality, evolution and cosmology.

“Going Nuclear”

This putting all one’s eggs in the basket of deductive logic appears to be characteristic of the naive philosophy promoted by religious apologetics. How often do we hear them attack sceptics for not being able to “prove” that we are not a brain in a vat, that we even exist, that we aren’t electrons in a Matrix!

On the one hand this is just the logical fallacy of “going nuclear,” or trusting in Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Because if the sceptic’s arguments are restricted to the confines of deductive logic, so then must the protagonists. On the other hand they get around this withy the shonky logic and false premises I referred to above.

So, Churchland concludes:

“In sum, from the perspective of neuroscience and brain evolution, the routine rejection of scientific approaches to moral behavior based on Hume’s warning against deriving ought from is seems unfortunate, especially as the warning is limited to deductive inferences. The dictum can be set aside for a deeper, albeit programmatic, neurobiological perspective on what reasoning and problem-solving are, how social navigation works, how evaluation is accomplished by nervous systems, and how mammalian brains make decisions”

And that is what the book is about.

See also

A special The Pod Delusion podcast of a recent discussion at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford between Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris on Harris’ new book The Moral Landscape. [Direct MP3 Link]

Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins discuss the science of morality

Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality

Video of Pat Churchland’s contribution to the Great debate “Can Science tell us Right from Wrong?” (See Telling right from wrong? for more details of this debate and workshop).

A philosopher comments on science and morality

TSN: Patricia Smith Chuchland, posted with vodpod

Video of Pat Churchland’s Gillford Lecture: Morality and the Mammalian Brain

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3 responses to “More on the science of morality

  1. Thanks Ken.

    This will be an interesting one.

  2. Pingback: Weekly Links Roundup… April 18 | A biologist's view of science & religion

  3. Pingback: General Utility 2.0 « Poor Richard's Almanack 2010

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