Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Scientists and Atheists Should be Moral Absolutists

  1. Dec 20, 2005 #1

    russ_watters

    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    A recent thread on moral absolutism/relativism got me thinking about the issue again, and rather than do the usual arguments, I'd like to take a slightly different angle at the issue.

    It seems to me that athiests are often athiests because their minds are dominated by logic - much like scientists (which is why a good fraction of scientists are athiests). But science is predicated on one primary/core article of faith/belief: that the universe obeys fixed laws and if we're smart enough, we can figure out what they are. Ie, scientists believe there are absolute physical laws that govern the universe. And yet, when it comes to morality, it seems a great many scientists and athiests are moral relativists. They don't believe that similar to (perhaps even part of) the laws of science, there exists a set of universal laws of morality.

    So my question is, why? Why do scientists/athiests not extend their belief in the existence absolute laws of science to the existence of absolute laws of morality?

    Or, better yet, why don't scientists consider absolute laws of morality to be part of the absolute laws of science? We've had many discussions on this board about such issues as 'what is beauty?' and 'does chemistry/biology negate freewill?'. And the answers to these questions lie in the universal laws of science. What I consider beautiful is mostly a matter of chemistry and biology, as are the "forces" governing my actions. It's chemistry and biology that make me like a tight butt and flat stomach, but it is also chemistry and biology that make me feel bad if I hurt someone. And that - your conscience - is a matter of biology dictating morality.

    In addition, a great deal of morality is straightforwardly logical - mathematical (ie, game theory). Critics tend to point to the more complex situations as evidence that logic alone can't be used, but the failure to pin down a precise answer to some questions - indeed, the nonexistence of a precise answer to some questions - hasn't stopped QM from being consdidered a highly successful scientific theory, and it shouldn't prevent the scientific analysis of morality.

    It is my perception that the unwillingness to take that jump comes from a fear that it implies a creator - which would make this the one main issue where scientists allow their belief in [the nonexistence of] God to interfere with their logical analysis of morality. But the issue of God does not even need to be in play here.

    So....opinions?
     
    Last edited: Dec 20, 2005
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 20, 2005 #2
    Some weeks ago we started ethics in philosophy class. I actually think it is more logical for scientists to be moral relativists. Why? Let's start with the opposite: believers. More specifically, Christianity. In christianity it is believed that Moses got down from mount Sinai with God's Ten Commandments. These are a rather excellent example of absolute rules. After all, I don't expect the Pope (especially the current one) to say the commandments aren't in effect for muslims, or native americans.

    If there is one group of people in the world that does not believe in absolute rules, I think it would be the scientists. After all, scientists need to constantly review their conclusions. Physicists had been working with Newton's gravitational laws for centuries when Einstein came up and showed them there was more.

    >Nazgjunk
     
  4. Dec 20, 2005 #3

    russ_watters

    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    Ok.....
    Ok, that's true, but so what? You stated a fact there, but didn't make an argument. What you seem to be implying is that because a religion has an absolute moral code, non-religious people must be relativists. So aren't you just applying the logical fallacy I cited in the last paragraph of my opening post?

    Can you try to remove religion from the issue and see if the logic holds? (as I was saying in the last paragraph of my post) Can you make a logical argument as to why moral absolutism fails to be compatible with science/logic?
    But that isn't what is meant by absolute rules - and scientists most certainly believe they exist for physical phenomena (as stated in the 1st postulate of Special Relativity). Theories are theories and are always subject to review - and moral theories are no different. But that does not mean both the scientific ones and the moral ones can't be our best approximations at the current moment of the absolute rules that scientists already believe exist for the realm of physics and chemistry.
     
    Last edited: Dec 20, 2005
  5. Dec 20, 2005 #4
    OK, good point.

    Allright, i give in. I usually think I'm pretty damn good at this stuff, but that's at school. I have only had philosophy for three months now, so i can hardly be ashamed.

    Oh wait, i got something.

    Logic is not always perfect. In fact, empirism is at least another half of science. It's great to know logic doesn't agree with moral relativism, but we can see moral rules are not the same everywhere.

    I think the only way for me to explain myself right in this case is by writing a paper about it. I must admit, I have usually been a rather stubborn moral relativist, but I am beginning to think otherwise.

    >Nazgjunk
     
  6. Dec 20, 2005 #5
    Actually, this is in error. Scientists believe in absolute laws (QCD, QED, etc.); they just disagree on what some of those laws may be (the apparent incompatibility of QM with GR).
     
  7. Dec 20, 2005 #6
    QED usually is used in maths, especially algebra. Algebraic rules are essentially made up, i.e. they are no absolute truths in any way. People made them up and agreed upon them. I can hardly believe that to be the case in ethics.
     
  8. Dec 20, 2005 #7
    A great logical treatise about moral absolutism is Kant's Grounding for Metaphysics of Morality. It eliminated the need for a higher being (God, whatever) as the basis for morality. So (assuming Kant's basic conjectures are true) atheists should be moral absolutists.
     
  9. Dec 20, 2005 #8
    Funny, i just did a thing on Kant for school. Unfortunately, I do not fully agree with him. For the time being, my disagreement is mostly in the details (such as "one may never lie, whatever the circumstances may be").

    Ah, you are mean. You basically brought up the most famous abolutist ever, but I don't now a single famous relativist.
     
  10. Dec 20, 2005 #9

    russ_watters

    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    It's a start. Personally, I don't think enough logic and ethics is taught in schools (high school and college) these days.
    Well, that's something I didn't really address in my posts, but morality can certainly be tested. The reasoning behind an awful lot of laws (ie, the legal system) is experimental data and the test of a new law (or leader) comes from things like the change in poverty rate or crime rate resulting from the policies/laws.
    In my experience, that is a common position for moral relativists to be in. :wink:
    It's been a while and I should probably reread some of that - I rely on my own logic a little too often, when sometimes the experts have already weighed-in on the issue....
     
  11. Dec 20, 2005 #10

    turbo

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    How about we look at this as an issue of ethics, and not morality? Morality implies adherence to a set of laws imposed by an outside force, while ethical behavior comes from within. You do not need to be a religious person to be an honest, decent person.

    Please note that some people (including some prominent politicians) seem incapable of ethical behavior, then when they get caught, they cover themselves by saying that they didn't do anything wrong, or at least they broke no laws and shouldn't be punished. This illustrates the difference between ethics and morality.

    On another 'board (different subject entirely) my signature was:

    "The ethical mad does what is right.
    The moral man does what he thinks his God will let him get away with.
    God has a very warm place reserved for moral men."
     
  12. Dec 20, 2005 #11

    Tom Mattson

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Have you considered that the word "law" is frequently used in two completely different senses? When we say "scientific law" we are usually referring to descriptive laws that attempt to account for the way in which things actually do happen. But when we say "moral law" we are usually referring to prescriptive laws that dictate the way in which we believe things should happen.

    If you are using the word "law" as I am supposing then the argument by analogy at which your question seems to point falls prey to the fallacy of equivocation. In this case, the scientist would not be logically or rationally compelled to admit to an absolute set of moral laws.

    But maybe you don't mean to use the word "law" in the two different senses described above. Maybe you are referring to "laws of morality" as though they were descriptive (IOW, the way moral decisions are actually carried out as opposed to the way in which they should be carried out). If that is the case then I would put it to you that the task of finding such laws has been and is still undertaken by those in the field of psychology.
     
    Last edited: Dec 20, 2005
  13. Dec 20, 2005 #12

    ahrkron

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Gold Member

    If one starts with the assumption that there is a supreme being and a well-defined "universal order", then moral laws become descriptive laws.

    Scientists do not usually consider morality absolute because they do not assume the existence of a predefined set of "moral principles", but rather view morality as a result of cuture- and group- dependent sets of prescritive laws, and their interaction with individuals' motivation and behavior.
     
  14. Dec 20, 2005 #13

    Tom Mattson

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    That doesn't sound right at all. At least, not based on what I learned in my former religious days. We did believe in a supreme being whose moral laws are undeniably true (which would impose the universal order). But those laws were definitely prescriptive. They clearly do not describe the way moral decisions are actually carried out, but rather how they should be carried out.

    The religious person would say that the moral laws of his preferred code are prescriptive, and he would explain the failure of those laws to be descriptive by appealing to his belief in man's power to choose between right and wrong.
     
  15. Dec 21, 2005 #14

    Bystander

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member

    Minor nitpick here: do you mean the "areligious" rather than "atheist?" Buddhism is technically "atheist," and, to my understanding does include a morality that is uniform (sorta "absolute") to one degree or another.

    "What" about the existence of an "absolute morality" has failed to capture the interest of the scientific community?
    1) The "prescriptive-descriptive" question that's been mentioned.
    2) The failures of psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, economists, psychics, astrologers, philosophers, palmists, and all the other soothsayers to date in divining/describing such.

    I'll go along with this. You didn't use the word "absolute" here, and I'm presuming that wasn't an oversight. Did you want to look at individual morality or cultural morality? That is, are you willing to entertain the possibility that moralities are cultural constructs? "A house divided against itself...." vs. "You can't cheat an honest man" for example?

    So, hypothetically we look for characteristics of moralities, identify common properties, and discuss the possibility that there may exist some as yet unidentified absolute principles?
     
  16. Dec 21, 2005 #15

    russ_watters

    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    Yes! This is critical to my point. For some reason people think that stating that there are absolute laws of morality implies that those laws have been discovered, when the same is not true in science. This is another logical fallacy and aother reason I think people reject the idea of moral absolutism. People (correctly) are suspicious of those who think they have all the answers, but just being a moral absolutist does not imply that a person thinks they have all the answers.
    But my argument was that nothing truly comes from within. Ie, what you are saying comes from within is really just a consequence of your biology.
    On that, I am glad I have gotten some agreement.

    Tom - yours is going to take some more thought. I'll be back...
     
  17. Dec 21, 2005 #16

    turbo

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    You're going to run into some trouble, here, I fear. I am not religious in any way, nor do I feel any compulsion to follow any moral laws set out by any creed. I do, however, try to treat everybody as fairly and as well as I can, because I could not be happy with myself otherwise. I expect that a lot of other people feel this way, and are nice to others not because their religion tells them that they have to, but because they want to. Clearly, there is something from inside driving this behaviour.

    Could it be as simple as some aspect of brain chemistry? Perhaps, but it sure is internal.

    As for moral absolutism: A telling example of this comes from the life of Jesus. He was busy preaching that every man could have a relationship with God and that we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves (ethics) while his detractors tried to trip him up with moral absolutism (if an ox falls in the well on the sabbath, do you pull him out?). This is one of the most loaded questions that someone living in Palestine could face. One the one hand, you have a very large and valuable animal that needs help immediately, and if the ox dies and fouls the well, you will lose your source of the most precious commodity one could imagine (clean water). On the other hand, if you do something that is in the best interest of yourself and other people in the village (save the ox and preserve the well), you run afoul of the law forbidding work on the sabbath.

    The Judaic religious leaders of the day (who interpreted the laws) were intent on imposing their interpretation of these laws from the outside to regulate peoples' behaviour. Jesus wanted people to find the truth from the inside (ethics, not morality) - that's what made him dangerous to the establishment. Buddah was similarly a danger to India's ancient caste system, when he taught that all men are capable of enlightenment. The guys at the top of any government, religion, etc, are quite fearful of any attempt to "level the playing field" in this way, and traditionally downplay the importance of ethics as it relates to morality or lawfullness. Moral absolutism favors the powerful.

    When I was a sophomore in college, I heard that the head of the Philosophy department was going to offer a course on metaethics, and that much of the course would revolve around critiquing his ideas on the subject, since he had a book in development. I asked to attend the class and was told that since I had not yet having taken even one course in philosophy, I certainly wouldn't qualify - most of the participants would be grad students and seniors majoring in philosophy. Undaunted, I approached Prof. Skorpen and asked if I could have a few minutes of his time. He was between classes and said I could drop into his office during lunch hour and he'd give me a few minutes. I did so, and we spoke until late in the afternoon. I not only got to take the course for full credit, I was thereafter exempted from taking any of the "101" level courses in philosophy and only took advanced courses after that. That was the most exciting course I ever took, and I never missed one class. Every class, we proposed and debated questions like "is there an ethical good that exists absent morality?" "does ethics transcend race, ethnicity, language, and culture?" "how does one resolve conflicts between morality and ethics?" etc. I think you would have liked that course.
     
  18. Dec 22, 2005 #17

    russ_watters

    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    You're right, but I don't think that has much of an impact on my idea here. Good to clarify it, though...

    To keep the logic consistent, the things I'm calling "moral laws" are really analogous to the physical setup of a scientific experiment. The "descriptive law" is the scientific theory you are looking for that predicts what will happen if people do/don't follow the "moral law". Ie, the effect of a national law against canabalism:

    A law against canabalism tells people how they should [not] act. But a scientific moral theory would be a description of what happens if people do or don't partake. It's easiest to describe what happens if everyone partakes: people kill and eat each other until few are left and society breaks down. That description/prediction would be what could qualify as a theory.

    Broader theories include things like "American capitalism causes prosperity" - and the experimental setup of such a theory lies in the national laws of the US that set up our economy. The data you use to evaluate the theory comes from history.
    Psychologist, political scientists, economists - yes, I agree. But I know a lot of physical scientists don't have a lot of respect for the idea that the bsocial sciences really can/should be investigated scientifically.
     
  19. Dec 22, 2005 #18

    russ_watters

    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    Ehh, I'm not real up on Buddhism.
    Well, that's just it: why would you say psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, economists, etc. (leave out the pseudoscientists....) have failed thus far? Has society not improved dramatically because of their contributions in the same way technology has improved society? [with Tom's clarification of prescriptive vs descriptive] Their contributions to progress can be summed up as setting up the conditions for the experiment, then accurately predicting what will happen.
    Individual moralities are, most certainly, cultural constructs. But have you considered why moralities contain so many cross-cultural similarities and what causes the downfall of cultures? Different cultures have come to similar conclusions about what works, because... it works. And moralities that work lead to nations that prosper. And cultural failures can often be traced to what I would call incorrect morality (and other social theories). Social Darwinism.
    Yes.
     
  20. Dec 25, 2005 #19

    Bystander

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member

    There are assertions of an "absolute morality," but no consistent descriptions of same.

    You've got a whole new set of threads here: I say "No;" a lot of people are going to say "Yes" conditionally; there may be unconditional agreement from others.

    Probably need to resolve this point in some way, shape, or form before proceeding too far.

    Samuelson: "Modern economic theory has accurately predicted seven of the last three recessions." I haven't got his exact words, but you get the gist.

    Didn't make myself clear here, obviously; I'm saying that individual moral codes are entirely different from cultural moral structures, and asking for, hopefully, you to pick the cultural case to discuss.

    The "seven deadlies" show up almost universally, and hearken back to an observation you made in the OP.
    Quote:
    (snip)In addition, a great deal of morality is straightforwardly logical - mathematical (ie, game theory). (snip)..., and it shouldn't prevent the scientific analysis of morality. "

    The wild differences between "working cultures" are what is interesting.


    I'm going to have to differ here re. "similar conclusions about what works." The clashes of cultures that constitute the majority of world history for the entire period for which we have written records, and presumably many thousands of years prior, argue that there are significant differences of opinions "about what works."

    At this point, I posit that there may be an "absolute cultural metamoral" principle, "Cultures lacking a moral structure, or with a moral structure so flexible as to be non-existent fail."

    Time for rebuttals.
     
  21. Dec 25, 2005 #20
    Why are you limiting it to scientists and atheists? Everyone should be a moral absolutist.

    Regardless, I think the reason why atheists are usually relative is because atheism and relativism are both just what society accepts more. People don't reason out their beliefs, they accept what society wants them to accept, and right now it's atheism and relativism.

    Both of which most people seem to give up if they start thinking about it, or studying it, in any more detail.

    That's just the majority though. At least in BC.
     
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Have something to add?



Similar Discussions: Scientists and Atheists Should be Moral Absolutists
  1. Morals (Replies: 45)

Loading...