Saturday, November 14, 2009

Discussion Question:
On Science and Morality

It seems rare for two intelligent folks with diametrically opposed views actually have a civilized, engaging conversation. It seems to me it is even rarer when one is an atheist and one is a follower of Christ who wrote a pretty scathing indictment of Dawkins, Hitchens and company.

The atheist is Luke at Common Sense Atheist and he wrote a post called "The Irrational Atheist (notes in the margin, part 2)". Vox Day wrote The Irrational Atheist and has a blog called Vox Popoli.

I am following both of them in Google Reader. On the Vox Day side, The Irrational Atheist provided most, if not all, the basis for a couple of my posts. I also posted the beginnings of an exchange of letters between Luke and Vox.

However, what has gotten my attention this time is this set of comments by Luke. First, he quotes VD from the chapter "The Case Against Science":

[One] question that none of the New Atheists dare to ask is whether science, having produced some genuinely positive results as well as some truly nightmarish evils over the course of the last century, has outlived its usefulness to Mankind. Man has survived millennia of religious faith, but if the prophets of over-population and global warming are correct, he may not survive a mere four centuries of science
Rather than go into defensive mode, Luke says:
This is an argument I have thought about advancing myself, long before I read The Irrational Atheist. And Vox is right; I cannot imagine one of the New Atheists considering it. Vox also handily dismantles 5 of the usual pro-science responses to this argument. I will give a 6th response below. But first let me elaborate the argument.

The idea goes like this. Perhaps it would have been better if Galileo, Locke, Hume, and Kant had never awakened us from our dogmatic slumbers. Neither science nor religion are inherently destructive – both have their Gandhis and their Muhammeds, their Borlaugs and their Oppenheimers – but at least religion kept mankind ineffective. We could only kill a few thousand people at a time and with great effort, and we certainly couldn’t destroy the atmosphere or oceans of the whole planet.

But since science is knowledge, science is power. Science made mankind effective. Effective for good, yes, but also effective in evil. So now we have the power to eradicate diseases and feed the whole world on relatively little land, but we also have the power – should we choose to use it – to make our planet uninhabitable or simply blow it to smithereens . . . I am very concerned about the effectiveness science has granted man, especially when I survey the moral character of those in power. But I think science was inevitable. So it is up to us to use science for good and not for evil. And that will be a hard battle. Perhaps the hardest of all, and the most important.

This is what I am interested in exploring here. What moral or ethical structure is necessary to, as Luke says:
. . . become a highly moral species very quickly so that we use our scientific effectiveness for good and not for evil?
I will posit as a starting point for the discussion that the system must recognize the intrinsic worth of humans and present this statement from David Gushee as my answer to the question:
. . . all human beings, at any and every stage of life, in any and every state of consciousness or self-awareness, of any and every race, color, ethnicity, level of intelligence, religion, language, gender, character, behavior, physical ability/disability, potential, class, social status, etc., of any and every particular quality of relationship to the viewing subject, are to be perceived as persons of equal and immeasurable worth and of inviolable dignity and therefore must be treated in a manner commensurate with this moral status.
Of course, Gushee's underlying foundation for our intrinsic value is that we are created imago dei - in the image of God. Luke would not agree with that; and I disagree with this statement by Luke:
. . . one aide to becoming a highly moral species very quickly is to leave behind our religions that are explicitly based on Scriptures written by the morally backward humans of several millennia ago.
It is not the age of the morality, but its effectiveness that matters -- and I think that religion (generally, not just Christianity) has served as a relatively (not perfectly) effective moral teacher and restraint -- certainly in relationship to any secular moral foundations that have been seen up to now. Also, while folks were scientifically backwards millennia ago, it is very much a part of this discussion whether they were morally backwards. IMO, modernity has not progressed humanity on a moral level - that is why we are having this discussion.

For many in this age, the first question would be: Why do we need some sort of "core moral foundation"? I think because humans need to have their moral reasoning reinforced. We are not perfect moral agents for a number of reasons (compare Aquinas's Summa Theologica, Prima Secundæ Partis, Question 94, Articles 4 and 6):
  1. insufficient experience: we do not know enough to reach sound conclusions;
  2. insufficient skill: we haven't learned the art of reasoning well;
  3. sloth: we are too lazy to reason;
  4. corrupt custom: it hasn't occurred to us to reason;
  5. passion: we are distracted by strong feeling from reasoning carefully;
  6. fear: we are afraid to reason because we might find out we are wrong;
  7. wishful thinking: we include in our reasoning what we are willing to notice;
  8. depraved ideology: we interpret known principles crookedly; and
  9. malice: we refuse to reason because we are determined to do what we want.
As Luke and Vox have pointed out, up to now humans have erred for all those reasons, and now due to advancing science some of those humans have incredible power to save or destroy at their fingertips. Humanity seems to need to re-anchor its moral foundations and moral reasoning in some way that will move it forward (and not horribly backwards) in the future.

So again, the question to discuss:

What ethical and/or moral principle, if generally accepted by society, would best encourage the good use of scientific progress, and discourage its bad use?

Keep in mind that this question only has a indirect relationship to politics - this is about the moral and ethical foundations of a society; and not it governance and laws (although that certainly should be impacted by the society's moral foundation)

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How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly