Thursday, October 14, 2010

Values and Science

Many would have us believe values either come from religion or are baseless. In this post, I have several quotes about the negative response of that view. In Motivation and Personality, A. H. Maslow, a humanist psychologist, wrote:
This chapter [Higher and Lower Needs] will demonstrate that there are real psychological and operational differences between those needs called "higher" and those called "lower." This is done in order to establish that the organism itself dictates hierarchies of values, which the scientific observer reports rather than creates. It is necessary to prove the obvious because to many still consider that values can never be more than the arbitrary imposition upon data of the writer's own tastes, prejudices, intuitions, or other unproved or unprovable assumptions. (146)
Malsow is still relevant today. David Foster Wallace mentioned Maslow's value theory in April 2001 edition of Harpers, saying:
A true Democratic Spirit is up there with religious faith and emotional maturity and all those other top-of-the-Maslow Pyramid-type qualities that people spend their whole lives working on. (41-42)
Democratic Spirit aside, Wallace mentions religious faith among qualities to which people dedicate their lives. Wallace is only half right in his description of Maslow's pyramid. On one hand, Maslow said:
The higher the need the less imperative is for sheer survival, the longer gratification can be postponed, and the easier it is for the need to disappear permanently. (147)
Religious faith does postpone gratification, supposedly until after death. It is not necessary for survival unless the culture threatens violence or death for heresy or apostasy. Under this light, Wallace may have correctly referenced Maslow with religious faith, but Maslow also said:
The casting out of values from psychology not only weakens it, and prevents it from reaching its full growth, but also abandons mankind either to supernaturalism or to ethical relativism. (146) 
Religious faith would be an appeal to supernatural ethics as a guide, while Maslow, a humanist, rejects that as abandoning mankind. 

Albert Camus in his Myth of Sisyphus claimed that the leap of faith is philosophical suicide. Not only suicide was a problem, but the leap of faith justifies human suffering and injustice through theodicy. Camus was on the side of humans against the human condition. The difference between Maslow and Camus is that Camus has self-realized ethics (e.g. "I choose to live; therefore, I place a value on living.") while Maslow finds them with science. In The Rebel, Camus wrote of his down-to-earth ethic:
“They [the early nihilists of Russian socialism] called themselves materialists; their bedside book was Buchner’s Force and Matter. But one of them confessed: ‘Every one of us was ready to go to the scaffold and to give his head for Moleschott and Darwin,’ thus putting doctrine well ahead of matter...Doctrine, taken seriously to this degree, has the air of religion and fanaticism” (155).
“Therefore they [the early nihilists of Russian socialism] do not value any idea above human life, though they kill for the sake of ideas. To be precise, they live on the plane of ideas. To justify it, finally, by incarnating it to the point of death...We are again confronted with a concept of rebellion which, if not religious, is at least metaphysical. Other men too, consumed with the same devouring faith as these, will find their methods sentimental and refuse to admit that any one life is equivalent of any other. They will then put an abstract idea above human life, even if they call it history, to which they themselves have submitted in advance and to which they will decide, quite arbitrarily, to submit everyone else. The problem of rebellion will no longer be solved by arithmetic, but by estimating probabilities. Confronted with the possibility that the idea may be realized in the future, human life can be everything or nothing. The greater the faith that the estimator places in this final realization, the less the value of human life. At the ultimate limit, it is no longer worth anything at all” (170). 

A debate that happen October 5th between Sam Harris and Mark Oppenheimer, they discussed whether religion was a force of good in society. Mark Oppenheimer took the positive and said in his opening statement:
Religion responds to a deep, satisfying human need for ritual. And it often organises the human quests for ethics and meaning. To think about the common good, the purpose of life and how to live, it has proven useful to use religious stories or theology.
 Later Oppenheimer ends his argument with:
Finally, religion is fun. As a philosopher might say, it generates utility. Not everyone will enjoy reading religious books, or singing hymns, or puzzling over theological puzzles, or hunting for Easter eggs, or hearing a great sermon. And in a free society—the best kind—nobody has to. But for people who do enjoy these things, religion is certainly a force for good.
Sam Harris took the negative and said in his opening statement:
The important question is whether religion is ever the best force for good at our disposal. And I think the answer to this question is clearly “no”—because religion gives people bad reasons for being good where good reasons are available.
Harris ended his speech with:
What a person believes about the nature of reality matters—even when he or she is engaged in so simple a task as feeding the hungry. And wherever one finds unjustified beliefs appearing to bring benefit to humanity, it is generally easy to think of a set of justified beliefs that would bring greater benefit still. This is not an accident. Staying in touch with reality is rather useful. Which of the world's faiths can honestly claim to be doing that in the year 2010? 
I have provided different opinions, and I am convinced that secular morality is the way to go. There is still debate what kind of secular morality should exist. Of course morality should be reality-based, but can science determine it? I like the existentialist self-realization model but I am open to the arguments of Maslow and Harris. What do you guys think?

1 comment:

  1. If you would like to read more about how science might be able to answer moral questions, consider looking into Sam Harris' new book: "The Moral Landscape-How Science can Determine Human Values"

    Read more about it here:
    and here: