Sep 14 2013

A radical break from religious conceptions of meaning and value

A month ago Steven Pinker had a long article in The New Republic in praise of ”scientism.” One part I particularly like:

In  which ways, then, does science illuminate human affairs? Let me start with the most ambitious: the deepest questions about who we are, where we came from, and how we define the meaning and purpose of our lives. This is the traditional territory of religion, and its defenders tend to be the most excitable critics of scientism. They are apt to endorse the partition plan proposed by Stephen Jay Gould in his worst book, Rocks of Ages, according to which the proper concerns of science and religion belong to “non-overlapping magisteria.” Science gets the empirical universe; religion gets the questions of moral meaning and value.

Unfortunately, this entente unravels as soon as you begin to examine it. The moral worldview of any scientifically literate person—one who is not blinkered by fundamentalism—requires a radical break from religious conceptions of meaning and value.

To begin with, the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies—are factually mistaken. We know, but our ancestors did not, that humans belong to a single species of African primate that developed agriculture, government, and writing late in its history. We know that our species is a tiny twig of a genealogical tree that embraces all living things and that emerged from prebiotic chemicals almost four billion years ago. We know that we live on a planet that revolves around one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, which is one of a hundred billion galaxies in a 13.8-billion-year-old universe, possibly one of a vast number of universes. We know that our intuitions about space, time, matter, and causation are incommensurable with the nature of reality on scales that are very large and very small. We know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well-being. There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers—though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are. And we know that we did not always know these things, that the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today.

And especially especially, We know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well-being. That’s a big one. It’s important to grasp it, in order to do our best to achieve goals that do pertain to human (and animal and planetary) well-being.


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  1. 1

    Scientism is generally a pretty overbloated charge, although I’m fairly conflicted at what stage the Sciences and Philosophy will merge into one, I just don’t think it will happen in the next hundred years; maybe in the next three hundred years I think is a real possibility though. I think Philosophy pretty much exists wherein Science hasn’t answered certain questions about how the world works/is perceived, and Theology is a discredited version of Philosophy that has no rigorous discipline. Usually when I hear Scientism I roll my eyes and think the person I’m talking to is maybe not so bright. =/

  2. 2

    Pinker’s got excellent points, but I’m not sure that means Gould is wrong. Sure he is if you define religion as “stupid stuff people believe.” Science can definitely help there.

    But it’s also true that science can’t pretend to be all-encompassing. It’s limited to addressing the measurable by its central methodology. When I’m trying to explain the limits in my basic bio classes, I frame it as, “Science could find the cure for AIDS, but it can’t tell you how to distribute it.”

    Call that other “magisterium” what you want — ethics, philosophy, or whatever — but it does seem to me to be a fundamentally different practice than what science does.

    Am I missing something obvious to the philosophers here?

  3. 3
    Brian M.


    Ethics can be found from rational principles. Empathy is a human emotion and therefore covered under science. For that matter, so is a lack of empathy, I suppose. Going by pure rational principles one could find any number of ways to distribute it that would match any method any random religion would find. But I’d bet the scientifically-determined methods wouldn’t have many strings attached to the cure.

  4. 4

    I think philosophy is at its most useful when it helps to define which questions are worth asking.

    “Science could find the cure for AIDS, but it can’t tell you how to distribute it.”

    Science can, however tell you the probable costs and results of the various distribution methods. This then allows philosophy to help frame the questions about what we should do and why we should do it. There should be coordination.

  5. 5

    As a scientist, I agree with quixote and machintelligence.

    Gould’s mistake was to use the term “non-overlapping.” It seems to me that religion serves several major functions, some of which overlap with science and some of which do not. I completely agree with Pinker and with Ophelia about the physical world. But it really worries me when people claim that science deals well with moral issues. It doesn’t. Although its history is much shorter than that of religion, there is no shortage of examples of the misuse of science to promote racism, sexism, classism, etc. Sure, we look back on phrenology and blatant forms of scientific racism as bad science. And, to be fair, those studies fail to meet reasonably objective standards for sound scientific conclusions. I suspect that liberal religious people would make a similar claim about the use of religion to justify slavery and other ills, but I can’t see that religion has objective standards by which to dismiss that justification.

    The examples I use for my classes are atomic bombs and antibiotics. Science can tell us whether we can make atomic bombs, but has little to say about whether or two of them should have been dropped in Japan in 1945. Similarly, science can tell us that we are fairly similar to bacteria at a biochemical level– we have DNA genomes, very accurate but nonetheless imperfect enzyme complexes that copy that information, etc. But science can’t tell us that using antibiotics is morally acceptable, whereas killing human beings is generally not.

    Another reason that people are often suspicious of science is that the established order has such a strong role in determining what kind of science gets done, in a way not so dissimilar to the way established interests decide which of the many conflicting points in scripture are most important. Science is a social enterprise requiring both human and material resources (the latter being a source of some consternation in these times of reduced funding), and it is clear that, even when scientists are left to decide what is most important to study, our biases and profit motives play a bigger role that we’d generally like to admit. As Ophelia can discuss much better than I, people sometimes mistake the social enterprise for science, leading to all the works we saw in the 80s that attacked science on feminist grounds. I remember reading some of these books as a young PhD student in the sciences, trying to understand their point. It seemed to me that although a very good argument can be made that the people doing science behave in ways that are sexist and racist, it is much harder to make the argument that science itself is sexist and racist.

    Nonetheless, we should remember that the scientific enterprise is carried out by human beings with confirmation biases. We need science to understand the physical world, to be sure. But we also need philosophy, social sciences, and the humanities to understand how we should behave in it.

  6. 6

    Interesting points of view. One of the things I struggle with is equating science with rationality. It isn’t the same. It’s a subset of rationality. Science is a method for studying measurable things and which requires testable, falsifiable predictions and repeatable results. That’s all. Logic, for instance, is rational but doesn’t fulfill those conditions.

    The thing I find repugnant, anti-rational perhaps?, is that Science has morphed into this big final authority thing in the popular imagination. To shut down a discussion for many people you just have to refer back to Science and everybody bows. That’s why I’m always trying to remind students that nothing about science is Science. It’s the opposite. It’s questioning — in a very specific way — not accepting.

    So, to Brian’s earlier point, I’d agree that science can certainly study empathy. We can do MRIs and track neurotransmitters and study game theory scenarios and get many useful insights. But, as Martha points out, science can never decide whether it’s okay to drop a bomb. It may help *inform* that decision, but it can never make the decision.

    In some cases, of course, the information it feeds in pretty much screams for a specific set of decisions. Global warming comes to mind. So there is that.

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