THE REALITY CLUB



From: J. Doyne Farmer
Date: September 7, 2000

I heartily agree with almost everything I read in Helena Cronin's interview. How could she have expressed my own views in terms so much more articulate than my own? However, I would like to comment, and possibly disagree, on just one point: I am confused by her statement that it is fallacious to use science to go from facts to values. I suspect that I misunderstand what she means, but in any case this point deserves more discussion.

Certainly caution and conservatism are in order when translating science into moral views. However, I take issue with the statement that science has no ideological implications. It is quite proper that facts should influence morals. Scientific theories, which we use to organize facts, influence how we view the world, including our notions of right and wrong. The influence of knowledge on morality is inevitable.

To pick just one example, consider abortion. How sacred is a human fetus? The scientist naturally thinks in terms of functional complexity. How developed is the brain of the fetus? In what sense, if any, is a two month old fetus "conscious", or "alive"? The harm of ending an incipient life must be weighed against the consequences for society. In a world that is already over-populated, social science helps us assess these consequences. Does this child have a decent future, compared with another, more desired child, that could be born in its place? What difference does it make to measures of societal health, such as the crime rate? Science strongly influences our analysis of this very moral question, in informing us about each of its parts and their consequences, in our willingness to subject the question to rational analysis, and in making judgements when different moral views come into conflict. It is not a coincidence that there is a strong positive correlation between level of education and attitude toward abortion.

What are morals, after all, but a code of behavior that guides the actions of individuals within a society? Morals evolve much like genes. While the details are different, the basic features of the evolutionary process are the same. Indeed, one would hope that science will eventually help us understand all this in a more quantitative way, and give us some guidance on how to improve the effectiveness of society

 


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