Skeptical Medicine - Science and Morality (2022)

What other ideas “out there” are trivially true?

How about the concepts of “good” and “bad”. Let’s look at how a dictionary defines “good”.


1. Being positive or desirable in nature; not bad or poor

2. a. Having the qualities that are desirable or distinguishing in a particular thing

b. Serving the desired purpose or end; suitable

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Notice that each definition is dependent on words like “desirable” which may be considered synonymous with “good”. It also is defined as “not bad”.

Assuming that we desire happiness, then desirable things may be thought of as things that promote happiness. In other words, “good” is what promotes happiness. However, this is an assumption that we choose to make. Defining “good” in this way is a choice. We didn’t discover it. We defined it.

“Bad” has similar problems. The definitions are circular and trivial.

What about the definition of “Morality”?


1. The quality of being in accord with standards of right or good conduct.

2. A system of ideas of right and wrong conduct.

3. Virtuous conduct.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved

So, the first definition of “morality” concerns doing what is “good”. But how can we discover what is good without defining it first? In other words, is it possible to scientifically discover what is moral?

According to the entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “(m)oral realists are those who think that, in these respects, things should be taken at face value—moral claims do purport to report facts and are true if they get the facts right. Moreover, they hold, at least some moral claims actually are true. That much is the common (and more or less defining) ground of moral realism.”

Philosopher G.E. Moore pondered these issues. He noted that if morality is grounded in nature, then moral terms could be defined correctly using terms that refer to natural properties. He suggests that a moral realist may define “good” as something that is pleasant, or something that promotes the species. He then points out some of the definitional problems that we discussed above. For instance, if “good” equals “pleasant”, then we are just choosing a trivial definition for the word. In other words, “good” and “pleasant” are one-and-the-same.

Moore uses the analogy. The word “triangle” can be grounded by the naturalistic properties of a polygon with three sides. To not understand the idea of a three-sided polygon is to not understand what it is to be a triangle. But Moore then questions whether this analogy really applies to moral terms like “good”. He proposed his so-called “open-ended question”. Whenever we are faced with a question of a moral nature like “good”, we always have to ask why is it good? Why is pleasure “good”? Again, many moral realists may shrug this off as obvious. But to non-realists, it is fundamental.

The Stanford Encyclopedia states, “(w)hat this shows, Moore argued, was that moral terms did not refer to natural properties and so a proper account of moral claims would have to recognize that they purport to report non-natural facts.” ???

We should keep in mind that Sam Harris defined morality as relating to the well-being of conscious creatures.

With this in mind, we can imagine a dialogue between Pigliucci and Harris.

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Harris: We should do what is good.

Good is what promotes happiness.

Therefore, we should do what promotes happiness.

Pigliucci: Why should we do what is good?

Harris: Because it promotes happiness.

Pigliucci: Why should we value happiness?

Harris: Because we just do. That is a fact.

Pigliucci: No, I didn’t ask what we value. I asked why should we value happiness?

Harris: Because it is good!

Pigliucci: Isn’t that circular reasoning?

Harris: This is silly.

Moral Relativism?

Many would be quick to point out that if morality is not an actual thing that exists independent of our thoughts, then that would mean that morality is purely arbitrary (see Euthyphro). Basically, anything would go. Morality would be completely relative to the values of the culture or individuals that hold them.

Although this objection commits the logical fallacy of Argument from Final Consequences, it may also be a false dichotomy. Morality does not necessarily have to be all relativistic or universal.

Harris's book points out several examples of violations of human dignity that are the result of cultural tradition, such as the stoning of rape victims and genital mutilation of female "circumcision". These practices are accepted within cultures that exist in the modern world, yet we as rational beings cannot fathom them as being moral.

A.C. Grayling points out in his book, The God Argument, that morality may exist on a bit of a continuum. Ultimately, morality is concerned with the well-being of conscious beings, but there are many different customs that may lead to the same level of well-being.

Take etiquette for instance. In some cultures, it is considered polite for guests to burp after eating dinner as a sign to the host that the dinner was enjoyed. In other cultures, burping at the dinner table is considered extremely offensive. One could say that in the first culture, it is moral to burp after an enjoyable meal, but in others it is immoral. In other words, morality -- as it relates to etiquette and innocuous cultural traditions -- is relative. Of course these variations in morality may be lumped under a less relative heading of "be respectful of others' cultures, if doing so does not lead to harm".

Other moral questions concern issues that are universal to conscious beings. People (and animals) generally feel pain and do not wish to be harmed. In general, they certainly do not wish to be maimed or killed. Moral questions and decisions that are concerned with these universal issues are not relative. Moral agents with a rational outlook can never view acts such as the torture or killing of innocent beings as moral.

What’s the Meaning of Life?

This question gets asked a lot as kind of a surrogate for being philosophical. For that matter, what does it mean to mean something? Can we define “meaning” without referring to the word meaning (or a synonym like “purpose”)? It would seem that to answer the question “What is the meaning of life?” would be to beg the question regarding the meaning of the word meaning.

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Meaning and purpose seem only relevant with respect to one’s own thoughts about them. For something to have meaning, we have to give it meaning. Otherwise, it seems incoherent. We choose our meaning for ourselves to define our moral values. Once we do that, then we can use science to inform us in ways to achieve it.

Dr. Harris stated that he often encounters opposition to his position with statements like “Morals don’t exist because they are not scientific”. Some would consider this to be a straw-man.

It would be hard to find a rational person who denies that morals exist from the standpoint of looking inward. Morals obviously do exist. We inherit moral values through evolution and culture and we choose others. Even our inherited moral instincts are assigned moral value by individuals and collectively by cultures.

Morals exist, but not independent of our ideas about them. Similarly, our lives have meaning, but it is up to individuals to find their personal meaning.

French philosopher, Albert Camus, in his Myth of Sisyphus, proposed a litmus test for one's personal meaning of life. He proposed that one ask oneself, "Why not commit suicide?". One's answer to this question contains one's personal "meaning of life".

Paleontologist Steven Jay Gould distinguished between the 'why' and the 'how' of our existence:

"We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a ‘higher’ answer — but none exists. This explanation, though superficially troubling, if not terrifying, is ultimately liberating and exhilarating. We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers ourselves — from our own wisdom and ethical sense. There is no other way."

Most rational people value "well-being" and the “good life”. These concepts relate to “meaning” and “purpose”. “Well-being” and the “good life” are defined by those that aspire to them. We can accept that morality relates to well-being and the good life, but they cannot be discovered independant of our ideas about them.

Science Cannot Tell Us to Use Science

Hume’s problem of induction is a stickler if we accept that circular reasoning is not logically valid. This is the key to understanding this problem. Science is not logically justified. We accept it. We choose it. This is rational, but not science.

As explained on the Philosophy and Science page, the belief that we should use science is best described as a "basic belief". We may view it as the "unmoved mover" of this debate. The supposition is that the "proof" for using science and induction is that this belief is the necessary condition for the intelligibility of all other objective inquiry. In other words, one can appeal to the alleged necessity of the belief. This is the so-called Kantian "transcendental argument".

Some apparently feel that this is so trivial that it does not enter into the problem. To reject scientific reasoning is to forfeit any argument for alternative thinking (see You Can’t Have it Both Ways). To them, the problem of induction is a non-issue.

Sam Harris acknowledges this, but later in the book implies that it is a non-issue. “It would be impossible to prove that our definition of science is correct, because our standards of proof will be built into any proof we would offer. What evidence could prove that we should value evidence? What logic could demonstrate the importance of logic?

Then...”It is essential to see that the demand for radical justification leveled by the moral skeptic could not be met by any branch of science. Science is defined with reference to the goal of understanding the processes at work in the universe. Can we justify this goal scientifically? Of course not. Does this make science itself unscientific? If so, we appear to have pulled ourselves down by our bootstraps.” (page 37, The Moral Landscape)

By this he likely means that the problem of induction is trivial and to be concerned with it is unproductive. To others, it simply is not science. It simply is philosophy. In fact, the problem of induction is part of the foundation of the division between science and philosophy. The problem of induction, as trivial as it may seem, represents a choice that, in-and-of-itself, is not scientific. Once we recognize inductive reasoning and science for what it is, choosing to use it is a philosophical decision.

It seems so intuitive and logical that we should use inductive reasoning (scientific reasoning) and that it may be taken as a priori, or discoverable and independant of our ideas about it. Those that hold this position may indeed feel that science can determine both moral questions and moral answers to those questions.

Should We Use Science in Moral Questions?

Both sides of this debate agree that science should be used to inform our moral decisions.

Let’s build an argument for the use of science in moral decision making and see where it takes us.

Arguments start with premises. Hopefully we can agree on these premises. If we do, then we should be able to come to an agreement regarding the conclusions.

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Argument 1:

1) We desire certain outcomes.

2) Moral decision-making is involved in choosing actions that may lead to desired outcomes.

3) If we desire certain outcomes, then we need to take certain actions.

4) If we are to take certain actions, then we need to make decisions to guide our actions.

5) Information is necessary to project outcomes from certain actions.

6) If we make decisions, then we need to use information.

Conclusion 1: Therefore, if we wish to make decisions that lead to actions in order to achieve certain outcomes (moral decision-making), then we need to use information.

Argument 2:

1) We value true information over false information.*

2) We do not have access to absolute Truth.

3) If we value true information over false information, then we should value our best estimate of the truth over other information.

4) Science is our best source of factual and theoretical information. Science provides us with our best estimate/ model of truth.

*We value true information over false information because we have been thinking scientifically in the first place (this begs the question).

Conclusion 2: Therefore, if we value truth, then we need to use science as our best source of information.

Conclusion 3: Therefore, if we wish to make decisions that lead to actions in order to achieve desired outcomes (moral decision-making), then we should use science as our source of information to guide our moral decision making.

Our moral decisions (informed by science) will guide us (hopefully) to our desired outcomes.

Therefore, we should use science to inform our decisions to guide us toward our philosophically determined goals. However, our desired outcomes are based on our philosophical positions (for instance, do we want democracy?).

The statement that science can determine our moral decisions can be a statement of fact just as the statement that religious doctrines can determine our moral decisions is also a statement of fact -- if certain presumptions are True.

Sam Harris states, “Morality must relate, at some level, to the well-being of conscious creatures”. This seems reasonable, but is it a priori True? Is it true by definition (is he simply defining morality?) or is it a discoverable fact that exists as it is - regardless of our thoughts about it?

This presumes that we begin from a starting point that implies that our goals are a priori, or that they exist independently of our thoughts about them. It implies that the concept of ‘good’ can be defined without circular reasoning. It implies that science can be justified by science without circular reasoning (just as it would imply that the use of religious doctrine is justified by religious doctrine without circular reasoning).

Cultural mores may have evolved through an evolution-like process, but we have shown that explanations for these values do not really fall under the realm of science in the strict sense. Like Freudian psychoanalysis and string theory, evolutionary psychology seems to be flexible enough to explain all observations - even conflicting ones - and therefore is not really scientific. We have yet to devise a system for testing these explanations. Although science may not truly be able to explain it, it may be able to differentiate which moral systems are more in line with our moral values. But it may never be able to help us articulate what our moral values should be.

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The statement that science should be used to determine our moral decisions is philosophical. The word “should” makes it philosophical by definition. We could try to scientifically show that scientific information leads to better outcomes by collecting data and measuring outcomes that result from different decisions. In fact, we do this all the time in medicine. However, this would be justifying science with science.

We accept science a priori. If we consider such an acceptance as a philosophical one, then science cannot determine moral decision-making without taking a philosophic position to begin with.

It may be that Harris considers the problem of induction so trivial as to not be worth worrying about. He does seem to feel that “good” and “bad” are obvious and observable. On page 19 of The Moral Landscape , he states, “Anyone who doesn’t see that the Good Life is preferable to the Bad Life is unlikely to have anything to contribute to a discussion about human well-being. Must we really argue that beneficence, trust, creativity, etc., enjoyed in the context of a prosperous civil society are better than the horrors of civil war endured in a steaming jungle filled with aggressive insects carrying dangerous pathogens? I don’t think so.”

Perhaps most of us would agree that there is a difference between extremes of “good” and “bad” living, but we still haven’t answered the question of whether “good” is discoverable outside of our thoughts about it.

Harris suggests that science is more than empiric investigation of the natural world. He suggests that we think of science as all of rational thought, which would include logic, mathematics and (one would conclude) the rest of philosophy. If this is so, then one could hardly argue that moral values and questions are not scientific, since they would flow from rational thought. Science may indeed justify itself.

The problem here rests in the definition of science. We have seen that, at its core, an idea is scientific if it is potentially falsifiable. Ironically, by Dr. Harris considering science to include all of rational thought, one cannot argue against it rationally. We therefore have to accept that morality flows from science (rational thought). To do otherwise would be irrational. Ironically, this renders his position unfalsifiable. It renders his position unscientific. This may be considered to be special pleading. We then get into a logical blind-loop of something being both science and not-science at the same time.

However charitable it may be to assume this position, we still have to decide on our ultimate goals and objectives.

To say that science will determine our goals for us is to assume that our goals can be discovered independently of us. If our moral goals and moral questions do not come from us, then science could be used to find them and answer them.

The whole debate hinges around this point. Harris supporters have to maintain that moral questions and goals are discoverable, like planets and laws of physics, or synthetic a priori like mathematics. Others, like Massimo Pigliucci, point out that moral goals and questions come from us. They are not discoverable outside of our ideas about them.

Hume’s Problem of Induction prevents us from using science to justify science. Even if this is perceived as being so trivial that it can be ignored, then Hume’s “Is-Ought” distinction prevents us from saying that we should use science to determine our moral values, questions and answers.

Beyond that, it seems that the two sides are actually in agreement. We should use science to inform our moral decision-making and to help answer our moral questions. Pigliucci states, “Let me first begin by making clear that there is much about which Harris and I agree. We are both moral realists, i.e. we believe that moral questions do have non-arbitrary answers, though our realism is...of a very different nature.”

At the core of this debate are the definitions of science and philosophy. Most will agree that science deals with measurable quantities, functions and objects in the world that we find ourselves in. Philosophy is informed by science but deals with concepts in logical space, which includes but is not limited to the physical world. Logical space encompasses all possible worlds. Scientific answers come from observation and experimentation. Philosophical answers come from thought experiments, logic and argumentation.

Each discipline demands that their prospective functions and concepts be coherent with each other. Theory must fit observations. Conclusions must follow from logical arguments. To hold ideas that are incoherent with observation and logic is to practice pseudoscience and pseudophilosophy.

If there is one unifying, a prior concept that underlies both science and philosophy, it is coherence. We reject the idea of a world with contradictory facts and “anything goes” logic.

No scientist ignores logic and no philosopher denies science (well, at least no “true” scientist or philosopher -- this is not a No True Scotsman Fallacy, these qualities are fundamental to scientists and philosophers).

As it is generally accepted, science provides tentative facts and theories that can potentially be confirmed or falsified through observation or experimentation. Philosophy provides guidance in constructing logical arguments to reveal what we should do or how we should live. Both realms are separated by the “Is-Ought Distinction” but both may be considered together to make up the set of all of rational thought. One might call this set “knowledge”.

We should remember the criteria for knowledge proposed by Hume::

"...let us ask,

Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No.

Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No.

Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion."

(from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding)

The first line concerns philosophy. The second science.

Harris and Pigliucci are great thinkers. Harris prefers to simply refer to the set of all rational thought as “science”. Pigliucci maintains the more limited definition of the word “science”, but refers to the set of all rational thought as “scientia” (in his book Answers for Aristotle).

No matter what one uses as the preferred term, moral questions and answers have to come from rationality (this concept is a basic belief -- it is not falsifiable). We have no real choice but to look to rationality for our questions and answers. To do otherwise would, by definition, be irrational.

Moral values and questions are defined through reason. Some moral concepts are relative to culture. Others are universal. Morality is concerned with the flourishing of conscious beings, as both Harris and Pigliucci have argued through their writings (as have other thinkers throughout history whose ongoing conversations have led us to our current understanding). Science is the best source of factual knowledge to inform our moral decisions.

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So the debate comes down to definitions. Both sides are arguing from the same position. Both sides lead to the single conclusion. Rational thought is the a priori realm from which all else must follow.

John Byrne, MD


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