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A modest proposal

by Michael Nielsen on April 10, 2004

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.

7 Comments
  1. Mary Messall permalink

    I find myself in almost perfect disagreement. I think people who try to use science as a basis for ethics end up with bad science and bad ethics. Godwin’s law says someone will eventually bring up the Nazis, so I will. But not just them. There are any number of “scientific” proofs that this race or gender or subgroup is inherently feeble-minded, or weak willed, or what have you, shoring up the ethical foundations for slavery or the “treatment” of women for pretend diseases like “hysteria.” Not to mention the abuses justified based on pseudo-sciences such as phrenology and IQ tests.

    The ethics of scientists themselves are not very impressive. Human experimentation has an ugly history, for instance (and animal experimentation as well.) Weapons research often has a mercenary logic behind it.

    The fact is, science can only say “there is”. Moral arguments require axioms beginning “you should.” There is no way to reason from “There is” to “you should” without an implicit “should” assumption. Besides, science is always changing.

    On Chad Orzel’s blog, I’ve been arguing that the only way we’re going to convince people in my home state (Kansas, US) to teach evolution for real, is to thoroughly divorce the concept from morality, from ideology. It’s because they’re convinced that it *does* have moral implications that they reject it. There are grounds on which one can resolve a dispute about a physical theory, but no way for one side to objectively prove the other wrong in an ideological debate.

    I think the Bible as such is appealing because it is great literature. Powerful, subtle, moving stories, poetry, history, drama and action. Christianity is appealing because of the central message of forgiveness. Religion in general is appealing because it imbues the actions of ordinary people with meaning, importance, implications for eternity. The cosmology is almost completely incidental. It’s really just a sort of poetical flourish — the earth stands still, God rolls up the firmament…

    So what basis would I recommend for morality, if we can’t accept divine revelation and science can’t have anything to say on the subject? I’m gonna go with “tradition.” Not perfect, since there’s more than one, but they overlap to a remarkable extent. And the principles that have survived have been tested over thousands of generations.

    They’re experimentally verified, if you like…

  2. Mary: “I find myself in almost perfect disagreement. I think people who try to use science as a basis for ethics end up with bad science and bad ethics.”

    I rather specifically did not suggest using science as a _basis_ for ethics, as you characterize my post as suggesting. I don’t think it can be.

    I am, in fact, largely in agreement with your comments about science being used to say “There is”, as opposed to “you ought”.

    There is, of course, also a subsidiary mode in which science can help in ethical reasoning. If science says “X implies Y”, and you say “Y is bad”, then science may help us arrive at the conclusion that X is bad, also. Incidentallyk, Pinker does a fair amount of this kind of reasoning in his book.

    My basic assumption is not that science can be used as the basis for ethics, but rather that that a convincing ethics ought to be consistent with a sound understanding of reality. One reason Christianity is so unappealing to people like myself is that it is built on a very poor understanding of how the world works. This is not surprising given the time the Bible was put together, but it’s also not very convincing in the third millenium.

    Indeed, my main disagreement with you your post is on the subsidiary issue of why the Bible is appealing to so many people. Yes, I agree it’s appealing because it’s great literature. Yet you also deny that the link to cosmology matters much. In every Christian mass or service I’ve ever seen the priest / pastor / whatever makes multiple references to how Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came into this world, and died to save humanity from it’s sins. Concepts like Heaven and Hell, purgatory, the Second Coming, the creation of the world in seven days, etc, all seem like cosmology to me. Admittedly, not very convincing cosmology nowadays, but cosmology nonetheless, and I find it very hard to believe that they did not play a significant role in the spread and continuing popularity of Christianity.

  3. Mary Messall permalink

    I apologize. I’m interested in the relationships between science and religion, so I get involved in these debates. Some of the things you said sound like things other people have said… It’s a little too easy to assume that everyone I argue with actually has the same position. But see, I think that Pinker *does* believe science can be a basis for ethics, and you said that the the “big ideas of modern science” have “implications for our behavior.” Of course, you’re right that it can have these “If X then Y, therefore if Y is bad then so is X” implications, but I’d say any kind of logic and knowledge can have those effects, not just scientific logic and knowledge. Why make it about science specifically?

    If you include heaven and hell and so on under “cosmology” then I suppose it does have a bigger role in attracting followers — and in repelling me — than I attributed to it. But you know, there are quite a few religions without all that apparatus (Judaism has little mention of an afterlife; Therevada Buddhism has none; ancient Greek mythology had a pretty depressing ghostly existence in store for you regardless of your virtue; Hinduism has a cycle of re-incarnation, but the goal is to escape it) and within any religion it’s sometimes emphasized and sometimes downplayed. I’d say it repells as many people as it attracts in general, in fact. But many people who are rather put off by it, find ways to believe anyway. It’s fun for me to read apologists (I like Dorothy Sayers and C.S. Lewis) and hyper-logical theologians, rationalize these ideas.

    If all you want is an ethical system and inspirational text *consistent* with scientific knowledge, well, you can always subscribe to one of the more moderate interpretations of Christianity, which show that the Bible can be just such a text. Or you can become a Buddhist…

  4. tim permalink

    The reason you aren’t finding the books that combine cosmology with ethics is because you are looking in the wrong places. You are probably looking on the shelves where one would expect to find serious philosophy or physics. Next time you go into a Barnes and Nobles or a Borders, go to the Self-Help or the Metaphysics sections and you will find hundreds of books combining how to live life with how the universe came into being. (Consider, for example, Deepak Chopra, or all the other books in the cottage industry built around misunderstanding quantum mechanics.)

  5. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Mary.

    Mary: “But see, I think that Pinker *does* believe science can be a basis for ethics”

    I wonder about that, too. If I recall correctly,
    he disavows that position several times, but I’m not sure he doesn’t believe it at some level. I’d need to reread to be sure, though.

    Mary: “…but I’d say any kind of logic and knowledge can have those effects, not just scientific logic and knowledge. Why make it about science specifically?”

    I used science because it has rather a lot to say about many issues discussed at length in books like the Bible. I don’t mean to imply that I’m stuck on only using science!

    Mary: “If all you want is an ethical system and inspirational text *consistent* with scientific knowledge, well, you can always subscribe to one of the more moderate interpretations of Christianity, which show that the Bible can be just such a text. Or you can become a Buddhist…”

    The difficulty I have with the more moderate versions of Christianity is their ad hoc character. They rely on making rather detailed decisions about which parts of the Bible are to be read literally, which figuratively, and which parts should simply be ignored. (The story of Lot’s daughters comes to mind as especially repulsive.) Some of these decisions are clearly in keeping with the original intent of the writers of the text. Many, however, are clearly not in keeping with that intent.

    I guess that one variant of what I’m proposing is simply to strip out or rewrite all the rubbish in the Bible, and see what you’re left with. I suspect it’d be an extremely interesting and worthwhile book.

  6. Tim: “The reason you aren’t finding the books that combine cosmology with ethics is because you are looking in the wrong places. ”

    I have, in fact, looked extensively in many different places, including the self-help sections. Books like that of Chopra are completely unrelated to my suggestion, since they aren’t based on science at all, only pseudoscience, so far as I can see. There are plenty of self-help books which incorporate some science, usually psychology, but those books don’t incorporate the sort of big picture stuff I was talking about.

  7. Mary Messall permalink

    “The difficulty I have with the more moderate versions of Christianity is their ad hoc character.”

    Well, yes, I have that problem too. On the other hand, any new text you created from scratch would be completely ad hoc.

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