Question Four: Does Science have anything to offer in discussions concerning ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right and ‘wrong’?

Hello everybody! Well, just to let you all know that there is a new Question on the Facebook page.

http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/pages/International-Science-Education-Partnerships-Project/265638800073

It’s quite a different type of question this time around and asks you to consider if science has anything to offer in discussions about ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Traditionally science has kept away from more abstract concepts such as this, but recently there has been something of a debate taking place.

Watch the video and have a discussion with your partners or, if you have problems contacting eachother, I would still be very interested in reading any comments you personally might like to make on the blog. I will write a transcript for the blog, so if you have problems watching it, you should still be able to understand the argument.

Please feel to email me (or Skype if I’m on-line).

I hope you enjoy thinking about this issue and genuinely look forward to reading/hearing your responses.

Many thanks,

Roger

Transcript of the Question:

The Good, Bad and Science

This question starts by considering the type of questions we ask in science. Generally speaking, in experimental science,  we tend tend to set up hypotheses. An hypothesis is a question, or sometimes a statement, that can be proved or disproved through experimentation. So, a question might be ‘how many leaves are there on a that tree?’ or ‘how many pebbles are there on that beach?’ These would give a definitive  answer (in this case a number). A hypothesis would be ‘does the area of each leaf decrease with height up the tree?’ or ‘do the pebbles get smaller in size along the beach?’ The questions we ask and the hypotheses we formulate are of vital importance and are (and have been for over 100 years) one of the central features of modern science. We have come a long way using such an approach, but it has necessarily limited the type of question we ask. We tend to only ask questions that we stand a chance of being able to answer. Broader more conceptual concerns, such as what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’, or what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ tend to have been the preserve of theologians and philosophers.

However, recently there has been the emergence of a view that in fact science may have much to add to such debates and in fact the divide between science and philosophy and religion is artificial and meaningless. The primary argument is that our sense of what is right and wrong is based on empathetic  projection. If we see someone who needs help, we go to their aid because we see ourselves in that situation. The argument is further enhanced by the view that such altruism stems from the evolutionary advantage of social groups (i.e. looking after each other helps the whole group). If this is the case what is ‘right’ is part of a psychological and physiological response and thereby can be better understood by bio-medical science than philosophers. In the extreme, whole moral constructs may have a biological and evolutionary origin and the argument goes that science is better placed to understand this than theologians.

This is highly controversial and will, no doubt, cause significant debate. What do you think? Can we understand morals and concepts such as right and wrong through science? Or can we only understand such concepts at deeper levels of thought and even spiritual engagement that science cannot provide.

It’s a really difficult question this time around and I hope you enjoy thinking and talking about it. If you wish to email me or contact me through Skype, please do so.

You’ll find the video at

http://www.facebook.com/pages/International-Science-Education-Partnerships-Project/265638800073

Or click on the Project Facebook Page link on the right hand side.

4 thoughts on “Question Four: Does Science have anything to offer in discussions concerning ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right and ‘wrong’?

  1. I will respond outside of my group on this one…and may I say the question got my attention.

    I will play devil’s advocate by saying that the question itself, “… Or can we only understand such concepts at deeper levels of thought and even spiritual engagement that science cannot provide?” only serves to reinforce the divide between philosophy, religion and science, when, i would argue at a profound level, they can be used collaboratively. I suppose I have to colour within the lines of the current conceptualization of what each of these disciplines can offer, and so, I will say, “Yes, science can help us to understand moral cocepts such as ‘good’ and ‘evil”‘

    Hypotheses, being merely testable questions, are on the outskirts of being able to inform us scientifically about “right” and “wrong” because we do not have a good experimental system or ruler for that yet. However, science is moving in that direction. Take Shermer’s work, “The Science of Good and Evil” and Sam Harris’s “Moral Landscape”as an update on where science is leading us in terms of, for lack of a better word, quantifiying our morality.

    Science is currenlty shedding light onto our moral actions as perhaps being rooted in neurobiology and evolutionary theory. Neurocience, psycholgy, biology, genetics, engineeing, anthropology, medicine and even political science can contribute important information.

    We may be able to test some of our ideas experimentally. We may be able to show significant p-values in children who are faced with situation A over situation B and ‘prove’ that in situation A, children seem to decide action X. But, we should also accept that all human action, including scientific experiments and moral decision-making, are grounded in context. We are relational beings and thus our environent, our context may be inadvertantly injected into the experiment or some aspect of the research or the thesis. My point is is that science can inform us, but it is not without bias.

    Although currently, religion and philosophy (which was, in the 16th century considered synonymous with science…) seem to be the primary sources to which to turn when explaining ‘right’ from ‘wrong,’ science has its place too. The question is, will the findings be mutual across diciplines?

  2. A really interesting response Emily thanks very much I really enjoyed reading it. I do sometimes wonder if we may be attempting to define morality via popular vote in that if enough people say it’s good, then it is. This might be a slippery slope, as many things perceived as acceptable in the past, have subsequently become unacceptable. Perhaps what science has to offer is in de-contextualising views. Thereby removing the confines on thought that come with certain world views. Science allows us to look and think freely. Even if it has nothing to offer, the debate is worthwhile in itself.
    Thanks again for your comment.

  3. I was watching youtube lecture by professor Michael Sandel and wanted to comment:

    I think it would be difficult to determine right and wrong through science. If we are looking at which surgery technique has less side effects, then we can determine a better way to perform surgery using science. However, in cases such as understanding morals and concepts, science cannot help because we are looking for specific answers to a question. If we want to understand morals and concepts, we have to know what kind of framework we are using at a deeper level such as the utilitarian theory where the right thing to do is to produce the greatest good for the greatest number. For example, there was a famous legal case in 19th century England involving shipwrecked crew of four. The crew was starving for several days and finally the weakest and the youngest cabin boy, Parker, was killed so that the rest can feed on his body. When the crew was saved and returned to their homeland, the captain justified his actions as a necessity by using the utilitarian theory and argued that it was better that one should die so the rest can survive. How would using science determine whether the crews’ action was the right or wrong thing to do? If we are using utilitarian theory, sacrificing the boy to save the rest would be right. However, if we are using moral absolutism, killing by itself would be morally wrong.

  4. Interesting comments, and it would be good to hear some of our African students thoughts on this, as this seems to open up more questions than answers!

    It would seem that there are two aspects to Roger’s question:

    a) should scientists have more of a say in what is considered right or wrong, and

    b) Can science be value free, and if it isn’t can it be used to justify particular politically motivated practices?

    Regards
    Bernie

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