A modest proposal
An odd fact about the Bible and many other religious texts is that they combine advice about how to live well (ethics) with a theory of how the Universe came into being, and how it operates (cosmology).
What makes this odd is that out of the enormous number of books written about ethics or cosmology, very few are concerned with both subjects.
Before going on, I ought to clarify my use of the term “cosmology”, since I’m using it in a slightly non-standard way. In modern science cosmology is an academic discipline that studies the structure, history and formation of the Universe. I’m using cosmology in a broader sense to mean the big principles of science. This includes ideas that are part of the academic discipline of cosmology, like the big bang theory, but also includes ideas like the theory of evolution by natural selection that are not part of the academic discipline of cosmology.
It is a striking fact that, outside of religious texts, most writing about ethics doesn’t involve cosmology. I recently read Alain de Botton’s “The Consolations of Philosophy”, a popular book surveying the history of philosophical thought about ethics. Cosmology was conspicuous mostly by its absence. While many of the great philosophers wrote about both cosmology and ethics, it seems that they rarely attempted to link the two.
Conversely, through most of history science has not concerned itself directly with ethics. While the consequences of human action have been a frequent subject of investigation, the intrinsic merit, or otherwise, of a particular action is not something science usually concerns itself with. Scientists are more interested in being able to say “If X then Y”, rather than “X is bad”.
Returning to religion, I believe much of the attraction the Bible holds for many people derives from its combination of ethics and cosmology. Whose advice on living seems more compelling: the Son of God, the Creator and Supreme Being of the Universe; or some crusty old philosopher? People hunger to understand their role in the Universe in the most vivid possible terms. The Bible offers an extremely comforting story connecting our personal ethics with cosmology in a way that provides meaning to our behaviour, good or bad.
The caveat is that you have to buy into the cosmology portrayed in the Bible. And that cosmology is very hard to buy into for an educated person in modern times. It’s obviously incorrect or inaccurate in so many ways that it’s difficult to credit on issues like whether Jesus really was the Son of God.
What I’d like is a text synthesizing our best thinking on ethics with our best understanding of science and cosmology.
Stephen Pinker’s recent book The Blank Slate is a prototype for what I have in mind. In The Blank Slate Pinker starts out by discussing the science of evolutionary psychology, looking at how evolutionary pressures can help explain human behaviour. He talks about questions like why men tend to be more polygamous than women, or why men tend to be more violent than women, offering explanations of these facts grounded in our biological history.
Many people protest that such explanations undermine ethics. Discoveries like that of a gene linked to violent behaviour, for example, routinely lead to outraged denunciations claiming that such work undermines the concept of personal responsibility.
The difficulty with this attitude is that the scientists making these discoveries aren’t getting up in the morning and saying “I wonder how I can undermine society today?” They’re simply trying to figure out what the facts are; either a gene can cause violent behaviour, or it can’t, but insisting a priori that this is impossible is absurd. If ethical ideas like personal responsibility can’t face reality, it’s the ethical ideas that need revision, not reality.
What is remarkable about The Blank Slate is that Pinker goes beyond the science, and addresses ethics. He tries to redefine and reinterpret concepts like personal responsibility in a way that can withstand genetic realities. I won’t comment on the extent to which he succeeds; I haven’t yet read the book deeply enough to have an opinion.
What I’d like is a text that goes beyond Pinker’s in two ways.
First, it’d contain an ethics that incorporates in a compelling fashion all the big ideas of modern science. It would relate those ideas, insofar as possible, to our individual lives, and explain the implications for our behaviour. It would describe in rich detail humanity’s place in the Universe, and why our personal behaviour matters. I expect that insights from evolutionary psychology, economics, political science, and the academic discipline of cosmology would be particularly important.
Second, the text would be compelling and accessible, probably a collection of stories, perhaps biographical or historical in nature.
Writing such a text wouldn’t be easy. It’d require an amazing combination of talents, not to mention supreme chutzpah. But I think it’d be both incredibly valuable, and a heck of a lot of fun to write.