Approaching morality scientifically

Yeah, right! So why leave morality to theologians?

In his recent criticism of Jerry Coyne’s* USA Today article As atheists know, you can be good without God, local theologian Matt Flannagan repeats his rather tiresome warning that scientists should not try to understand morality – “leave that to us theologians.” He says:

“Of course, like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and a host of other popular writers, Coyne has not bothered to actually read the literature on contemporary theological ethics before wading in. Instead he hopes that his stature as a biologist and his confident tone will convince many unfamiliar with the field that he has offered a devastating criticism.”

Yeah, right!

Well, my response is:

If scientists are not the people to investigate and develop an understanding of human morality, who are?

Certainly not theologians!

History show they have not been up to that task. Matt’s theological article demonstrates this – it is simply an attack on Coyne. His own explanation for human morality is “divine commands!” And he doesn’t supply any evidence either for “commands” or “divine agency.” Only faulty argument.

Two points in Matt’s article are worth expanding on.

1: Good without, or without knowing?

Basically Matt argues that Coyne is completely wrong with his assertion Clearly you can be good without God.”

Matt counters that “moral obligations are, in fact, commands issued by God.” (Isn’t it cute the way theologians use words like “fact”?). Without a god to issue commands there can be no human morality. However, one does not have to believe in a god to accept those obligations. Effectively, without a god there can be no morality, but one can be moral without believing in or knowing that god.

OK – I guess many Christians think they are cutting us godless heathens some slack when they stress this distinction. Why is it that such declarations often appear false. Perhaps its because empirical evidence suggests many Christians actually do think we godless are immoral - precisely because we don’t believe in their god!

Maybe many Christians do take their bible readings to heart – like Psalm 14 which reads:

“The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.

The LORD looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God.

They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one.

Have all the workers of iniquity no knowledge? who eat up my people as they eat bread, and call not upon the LORD.

There were they in great fear: for God is in the generation of the righteous.”

Yes – usually only the first sentence is quoted, but what comes after is often what is meant. And this is hardly surprising because one of the things introduced by Christianity is that belief in their god was the central moral issue. Belief, and not doing good, was required to enter the pearly gates. For Christianity the “them vs us” boundary was no longer between one ethnic group and another, or between the good and the bad, but between the believers and non-believers.

Here lies the origins of much of the Christian hostility to atheism.

2: Morality as a scientific issue?

It’s amusing that Matt effectively concedes ethics as a legitimate subject for scientific investigation when he draws the parallel with water. He uses this parallel a lot and it always irks me as I never see water simply in terms of its composition H2O. And he seems to create more confusion with the explanation than is necessary.

His point appears to be that:

1: Humans have used water for yonks without any understanding of its composition. Similarly we have existed as a moral species without any understanding of the sources and nature of morality.

2: Now we understand that water can be represented as H2O. (Actually – as a chemist I think that is a very naive understanding, but let’s press on). Water can still be used by people ignorant of that understanding.

OK, this illustrates Matt’s point “without a god there can be no morality, but one can be moral without believing in or knowing that god.” But notice the elephant in the room. Our discovery of the composition of water, its molecular structure and the electronic properties of its component atoms is a result of scientific investigation. It required many centuries of investigation, thinking, logic and empirical evidence. Investigation which proved most powerful when it was validated against reality. Science, not theology.

God of the gaps

Without his realising it, Matt’s use of the H2O parallel has raised the issue of proper investigation of natural phenomena. Yet what explanation does he provide for human morality – his god! And this is all! A god of the gaps!

Can’t he see the parallel – just imagine where humanity would be in its understanding of the nature of water if we had declared  some sort of story (oh, “water are the tears of our god”) and left it at that? If we had left understanding to the theologians?

Matt and his mates advocating “divine command” ethics are doing exactly that. They are declaring “moral obligations are, in fact, commands issued by God.” No evidence, no testing against reality, and faulty logic.** And now they want to leave it at that! They want to warn scientists not to encroach on “their area.”

Well, humanity being the inquisitive and imaginative species we are won’t leave it at that. We are not going to be satisfied with another tired old “god of the gaps” “explanation.” We will investigate this further – and we are.

There is a whole new literature on the scientific understanding of morality. And it’s fascinating.


*Jerry Coyne is the author of “Why Evolution Is True and writes the popular blog Why Evolution is True. He is a very clear and provocative writer and his blog and op-ed articles deal with interesting and important issues. I recommend you follow his blog.

** An example of this logic is Matt’s rejection of Coyne’s point that a simple declaration that what the Christian imagines as a “command” from her god must be good is actually an acknowledgement that our concepts of right and wrong are man-made, not god-made. After all a god could be commanding us to do evil things (doesn’t the evidence suggest that this god, if she exists, likes doing evil things?).

Matt thinks he has squirmed out of that trap by declaring that his god is “a loving and just god.” Therefore it is impossible for her to command evil things.

Problem is how does he know his god is “loving and just?” Oh, he has attributed properties of love and justice to his personal god when he imagined her. He knows he should do this because he is human and is using a human morality.

A circular argument. But that’s theology for you.

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6 responses to “Approaching morality scientifically

  1. Niow I am no sceintist – but I assume that when it was discovered that Water was H2O this meant that water could now be used for many purposes it was not previously used for – and that an understanding of its nature meant that although it is still used for its old purposes… drinking, washing, swimming etc, it is now used for new purposes too in various industries…. I wonder how this changes the analogy?

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  2. Sure Max – thats the usefuleness of good knowledge. It enables us to do more things.

    I think it’s the same with the human mind. I am sure our better (scientific) understanding of how human morality originated and evolved will open up avenues we didn’t ahve before before. I imagine our understanidng of the human mind is already helping us with psychological treatments, as well as (no doubt) enabling those bastards in politics and advertising to be more effective.

    On the other hand, just as the erly (dare I say theological) understanding of the nature of water must have held back our use of this material the current theological “divine command” understanding of the human mind must be very restrictive.

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  3. I am not sure Matthew is denying that scientific investigation can throw some light on human morality. Is he?

    What would be wrong with saying that we have a hardwired understanding of morality (from God/evolution does not matter) but at the same time we can expand on and improve this understanding as well.

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  4. Max – I don’t think we do have a “hardwired understanding of morality” – or anything else. And I certainly don’t think we evolved to understand things. We evolved to be laywers, not scientists. To reproduce and stay alive – not to understand. The scientific process does not come naturally to humans and requires certain sorts of social arrangements and processes to actually succeed.

    I think we have a moral sense, moral intuitions, resulting from our evolution as social animals. We have strong instincts of right and wrong – but we do not have an evolved understanding of how these arose. Just as we don’t have as hardwired evolved understandng of the electronic properties of H and O and their influence on the nature of water.

    Our morality operates largely at the subconscious, intuitional level. It couldn’t be otherwise. Just imagine how ineffective we would be if every moral and social situation required conscious deliberation. Evolutuon would have weeded out those individuals.

    However, we did evolve to have brains and these are capable of contemplation. Consequently we can apoply reasoning to hypothetical and new moral situations. We can reconsider old moral situations. Inevitably this rehearsed, conscious, approach to morality, or its results, becomes incoporated into our subconscious. It’s the old learning process. When we first learn to ride a bike it is conscious. After a while it becomes instinctive.

    Similarly some years back people had to consciously think about accepting that women and homosexuals had human rights – no most of us know that inuitively.

    But the contemplative reasoning ability does mean that we can reconsider and improve our moral attitudes. This dialectical realtionship between conscious mental consideration and contemplation (and importantly the social interactions involved in this) and the instinctive, subconscious nature of our moral responses does mean that our morality improves over time.

    Mind you, those stuck with a “divine command” approach have every incentive to not change, to stick with outdated moral reactions. I think this helps explain the conservative nature of most religious morality.

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  5. Not quite what I meant… I will reply at some length when my marking is out of the way…

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  6. Pingback: You CAN be good with God! | Open Parachute

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