Morals, values and the limits of science

We often hear the argument that science has limits – that there are questions science cannot answer, problems science cannot solve. Most scientists agree. They acknowledge that science cannot, for example, solve ethical questions. The definition of right and wrong is not a scientific task (although science may help us understand how we make that decision).

However, this argument is often accompanied by the claim that such questions are really the province of religion. I believe this claim is unjustified because there is no evidence that religion is capable of solving such problems. The claim is also basically anti-human because it denies any rights to participation of the non-religious in solving ethical and moral problems.

Non-Overlapping Magisteria

Stephen Jay Gould proposed a system of non-overlapping magisteria (or NOMA) as a way of avoiding conflict between science and religion. In his book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life he said:

“Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meaning and values – subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve. Similarly, while science must operate with ethical principles, some specific to the practice, the validity of these questions can never be inferred from the factual discoveries of science.”

Few people would object to Gould’s description of the role and limits of science and few scientists would claim a sole right to solving ethical questions. Modern science is more and more raising ethical questions about application of new technologies and even the research protocols themselves. Ethical problems related to introduction of genetically modified organisms into the environment and the harvesting of stem cells are only two recent examples. These question cannot be left to the researchers involved (how can they be objective) but should also involve an informed public.

Moral and ethical questions

So yes, let’s acknowledge the limits of science and agree that when it comes to morality and ethics there is no straightforward way of deciding what is “right.” There are no absolutes in such areas. Resolution depends on the prevailing ethics of the specific society and times, as well as the empirical indication of consequences. Consequently, society as a whole must decide such matters. Full information will assist such decisions. But, also essential, is a democratic process enabling involvement of all sections of society.

And this is where I have a problem with Gould’s presentation of NOMA. It is basically undemocratic because it grants religion (and only religion) a special role in moral and ethical questions. It defines morals and ethics as the special domain of religion (and only religion). It says we should hand these problem over to religion. It denies any role for those of us with non-religious ethical and spiritual beliefs. Surely, as humans we non-religious are as equally qualified (or as equally at a loss) on such questions. It is undemocratic to hand these problems to one section of society and deny a role to the rest of society.

No special role for religion

Let’s face it, experience surely shows that religion has no special skills in solving ethical and moral problems. Consider the history of religious opposition to issues such as artificial birth control, anesthetics for women in childbirth, autopsy of dead bodies, acknowledgment of homosexual gender orientation, women’s rights and many other social issues. Rather than providing leadership on such issues religion tends to be conservative, very often opting for the non-humane answers and justifying these by reference to bronze-age scriptures.

So let’s accept that we all have a right to be involved in the solution of ethical and moral problems. Let’s not allow a simplistic argument about the “limits of science” to be used as a way of claiming a special privilege for religion.

Related Articles:
Religious Diversity Statement
Religious diversity includes “non-believers”
Destiny of Christian privilege?
Common values, common action?
Special rights for religion?
Limits of science or religious “fog”?
Questions science cannot answer?
Humility of science and the arrogance of religion
Limits of science, limits of religion
Family planning and the inhumanity of religion
Theology of the Emperor’s New Clothes
Is religion the source of morality?
Religion and violence

9 responses to “Morals, values and the limits of science

  1. I think the most important and basic idea when thinking about religion and morality is to be clear that morality is logically prior to religion. Religion cannot provide a foundation for morality; it can only provide rules,and punishment or reward for actions.


  2. I agree. But further, religion is no longer the sole way of codifying values and morals, providing rules, punishments, etc. There are other ideological, social and state institutions for this. And, in particularly, we shouldn’t allow religions to present themselves as the “experts’ in these fields.

    An interesting aspect to your comment – in our society values and morals are often described as “Christian.” However, these values are shared by wider, and quite different, world views. As such, Christians who talk this way are being chauvinistic.


  3. Right you are; and much of the “morality” that the religions push are really matters of fad and fashion: covered, uncovered, special diets, postures for worship – I don’t see how any of those have anything to do with morality.


  4. It would seem then that if religion can provide rules and punishment or reward for moral or non-moral actions, then it would also be in the business of defining what those are. In a society where there are religious members and non-religious members, religion is about appealing to a supernatural power to direct the conduct of one’s life. It is an irrational appeal since human behavior is quite earthbound and human in origin and execution. This would be unacceptable to the non-religious segment of that society. How one treats others and accepting responsibility for one’s own actions is at bottom the nature of morality. The modular societies in the world decide what is or is not moral within those societies. Negotiation between societies then becomes paramount when rules of morality are at odds. If in a society those moral codes or rules are acquired from the belief that they were granted from some all-powerful, omniscient supernatural being, then other societies not of that persuasion would continue to not have completely peaceful relations with the former society. How it has been worked out in these cases is the history of the world.


  5. I’m not sure if science is the best to argue for morality. However, I don’t think religion is the best source for it. In general, religious doctrine is rigid and not to be questioned. However, I think morality should be discussed and should change with the times.

    In the past, it may have been ok to not give woman choices beyond housewife, own slaves, treat minorities worse, etc. However, obviously this is not suitable anymore. I don’t believe in any “set” of rules that cannot be argued. Even today, society only deems 7 or 8 of the 10 Commandments as relevant to everyday living. Killing, Stealing and bearing false witness (legal). What is acceptable 2000 years ago is not always useful today. Which is why I dislike any idea of moral absolutes and deriving them from religion.


  6. I agree Moosicle that “science” itself can’t argue for specific morality. But individual scientists are in no worse a position than anyone else to discuss what is right and wrong morally. That is, there is no special quality of religion to argue for specific morality either. One could see Gould’s NOMA as being either an attempt to give religion a special role – or a patronising throwing an unimportant bone to religion, a group we don’t really take seriously but “let’s give them a few insoluble problems to keep them busy and out of our hair.”

    However, I think science can investigate the question of why we are moral and why we may have developed specific moral instincts. Some idea of this cane be seen in Pinker’s article The Moral Instinct; Pascal Boyer’s books; Jonathan Haidt’s paper The New Synthesis in Moral Psychology and Edge article Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion.


  7. Ken, thank you for the resources you mentioned in your last post on morals. I am involved in a research paper on the ethics and morals of all of the countries in the world and I am grateful for your information. I have already visited all of the sites and found a wealth of information for my project. At the least there are copious bibliographies for further inquiry. It is a big project to say the least but one I think is needed given the shrunken nature of the world’s societies today. With the advent of the Internet, the world is much closer and values need to be rethought in order to learn true tolerance and be able to construct a livable world.


  8. Hi Shenonymous. Your research paper sounds fascinating.
    I recently read Pascal Boyer’s book Religion Explained which deals also with morality. It was an eye-opener to me so I can highly recommend it.
    It will be interesting to look at how things like the internet, international travel, TV, etc., influences moral trends.


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