Can Science Shape Human Values? And Should It?

Lawrence Krauss
foundation professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration and Physics Department
director, Origins Project
Arizona State University
Tempe, Arizona

Simon Blackburn
research professor, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Bertrand Russell professor of philosophy
University of Cambridge
Cambridge, England

Sam Harris
Author, "The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values" (Free Press, 2010)
Author, "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason" (W.W. Norton, 2005)
co-founder and CEO, Project Reason

Steven Pinker
Johnstone Family professor, department of psychology
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Ira Flatow talks with scientists and philosophers about the origins of human values, and the influence of modern scientific thought on human values. Even if science can shape human morals, should it? Or does science bring its own set of preconceptions and prejudices to moral questions?

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

Every time you read something in the news about embryonic stem cell research, it's like watching a battle that's never going to end. You've got scientific progress on one side, and those who think it's morally wrong on the other; both sides deep in their trenches.

Other times, we see examples of how the morals of our nation influence the science, with bans on public funding - as we've seen with stem cells -or just slamming the door shut on certain projects, like cloning a human.

But we don't often think about how things could go the other way. Can scientific research, by digging up new facts about the development of a baby or the origins of the universe - could science influence the very values we hold?

As scientists uncover more facts about the way the world works, could these facts make people rethink some of their moral stances? Could the science even determine, in some empirical way, what is right and what is wrong?

And where do we get our sense of right and wrong? Is it some innate sense that we've evolved - like our opposable thumbs - something that gave our species an edge, or more a product of our culture and our civilization?

And if all this thinking and morality is in our brains, could neuroscientists poke around inside there, and find some answers to moral questions by learning about the circuitry in the brain that controls the way we think?

These are just some of the things we'll be talking about this hour - a lot to chew on, if you'd like to join us. And we're being joined by scientists and philosophers from the great debate. Can science tell us right from wrong? That's an event happening this weekend at the Origins of Morality Conference at Arizona State University in Tempe.

What do you think? Do you think science can shape our human values? And even if it can, should it? Give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. And you can tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. You can also join the discussion at our website, at sciencefriday.com.

Let me introduce my guests. Lawrence Krauss is a foundation professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Physics Department at Arizona State University, also director of the Origins Project there.

Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Lawrence.

Professor LAWRENCE KRAUSS (Foundation Professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration, Physics Department, Arizona State University): It's always good to be back, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Simon Blackburn is a research professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and the Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge in England.

Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Blackburn.

Dr. SIMON BLACKBURN (Research Professor, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill): Thank you very much. Good to be here.

FLATOW: Thank you. Sam Harris is author of "The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values." He's co-founder and CEO of Project Reason.

Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Harris.

Dr. SAM HARRIS (Author, "The Moral Landscape"): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

FLATOW: Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard, and that's - of course - in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Steven.

Professor STEVEN PINKER (Johnstone Family Professor, Department of Psychology, Harvard University): Thank you.

FLATOW: Good to have you. Lawrence, let's begin right at the beginning. You're a cosmologist. You're a space guy. Why do you organize a debate on morality? What does science - where does that all fit together?

Prof. KRAUSS: Well, I think the Origins Project that I'm running is trying to understand everything about our origins. And certainly, our sense of morality is a key part of it, our understanding, our consciousness, and the role that science plays in our lives.

And we thought because it's such an important issue, not only did we want to have a meeting about it, but we thought it would be good to have a public event where people could hear exactly the issues by people who have thought a lot about them.

And the members of the panel here today are among those who are going to be there. And the key point is that science plays an important and vital role in our lives in many, many ways - in ways that many people don't realize, I think.

And when it comes to morality, people often say, well, science is sort of neutral and doesn't affect our morality. It's determined by other things. And I think you'll hear today that many of us think that that's not quite true.

FLATOW: Simon Blackburn, you're the philosopher in the crowd. Let me dub you that. And do you think science has anything to say about morality?

Dr. BLACKBURN: I think every sane moralist realizes that we have to craft our morality according to what we know about the world and about ourselves. So any moralist ought to be open to results which show something - or purport to show something about our capacities, our limitations, the way we think, the way we don't think.

And so to that extent, yes, I'm very open-minded about what scientific results, or sometimes scientific speculations, can suggest to us about morality.

On the other hand, I think there is a good old-fashioned is-ought gap, which we'll no doubt hear lots more about later on. And I'll be defending it against some of its more strident critics.

FLATOW: Which gap is that?

Dr. BLACKBURN: Sorry. It's the gap between what is the case - that is, the nature of the environment we live in, the world we inhabit - and the policies that we ought to pursue in dealing with it, and in accommodating ourselves to it and to each other.

FLATOW: Let's talk a bit about that. Sam Harris, you write in your book: Science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want and therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible.

Dr. HARRIS: Yeah. Yeah, well, I think this gap between is and ought, or between facts and values, is imaginary. I think it's a myth. And we need not take it seriously.

The only thing we have to understand is that morality relates to conscious minds. I mean, without a universe of sentient creatures, there's no such thing as right and wrong, and good and evil. There's no value there.

And the moment you have creatures that can experience changes in the universe, well, then these changes can matter. And I think it's clear that because consciousness is arising out of the way the universe is, at some level, it's clearly dependent upon the laws of nature.

Then it's clear that there's going to be a science of right and wrong and good and evil. There are possibilities for extraordinary suffering in this world - to speak specifically of human beings - and there are possibilities for extraordinary happiness. And all of the variables that can affect our states of being in this world fall, potentially, into the various bins of science - from genetics to neurobiology to psychology to sociology to economics.

And this is we can't the truths here are not infinitely elastic. We can't just make them up. We have to discover the rudiments of that allow people to trust one another in a thriving civil society, and the causes for those very obvious failures.

FLATOW: Steven Pinker, you explore the brain. We poke through it. We watch it light up. We do experiments with people looking at objects and thinking. Is there some place in the brain that Simon Blackburn can point to, that says there's the morality center?

Prof. PINKER: No, there's isn't one center because, for one thing, our moral intuitions aren't unified. We're often at war with ourselves. Different intuitions pull in different directions, and they probably do involve different circuits in the brain.

There isn't a single one of them where the moral center is located. But we have every reason to believe that when someone is in the throes of moral deliberation - when they're thinking about whether cloning or stem cell research or capital punishment is justified or not - we have some inkling as to what parts of the brain are at war with each other during those moral deliberations.

FLATOW: Do you think that evidence can change the way people see or think about morality, to present them with evidence, scientific evidence?

Prof. PINKER: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think there are two ways in which a better understanding of the human nature and the human brain can affect moral judgments.

One of them is to the extent that we do accept that suffering and flourishing are what morality should be about and by the way, that's a big if, and maybe Simon will say that that's where the is-ought distinction comes back in, whether we really do want to say that suffering is what morality ultimately is about.

But to the extent that we agree on that, it's a scientific and empirical question: Who suffers under what circumstances? Does a conceptus, a fused egg and sperm, have the ability to suffer because it's conscious? Does a person who has a lack of brain activity? Those are questions in cognitive neuroscience, and the answer very much affects whether euthanasia or abortion or stem cell research is justified.

Another relevant aspect is whether we have reason to believe that some of our own moral intuitions might be contaminated by the way that they evolved as a part of human nature. It may be certain moral judgments feel utterly compelling from the inside, but when we put them under a microscope, we see that they are just like our sense of smell or our sense of color vision, and we should maybe think twice.

Just to give an example, evolutionary biology gives us a lot of reason to believe that people, like other animals, evolved with an aversion to incest. There's a sound genetic reason why we shouldn't want to have sex with our close blood relatives, because it could lead to deformed offspring.

But to what extent does our moral disapproval of incest, for example, just reflect this bit of evolutionary baggage that has come with our ancestry? And maybe our judgments about incest are harsher than they really would be if we could have it out on the table, and argue it in moral deliberation.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. But if people believe very strongly in something as being amoral or moral, or have a belief about stem cell research, do you think there's any amount of evidence you can show to somebody that says, you know, these embryonic stem cells are sitting frozen in a bottle someplace. If we use them for experimentation, they're going to make life better for a lot of other people.

If they believe with every core - fiber in their body that this is morally wrong, do you think you can change someone's mind about that?

Dr. BLACKBURN: Sorry, I mean, it's...

Dr. KRAUSS: I'll jump in here, Ira. I think that we have, and we do. And I mean, this argument that somehow this is hypothetical, that science might affect morality, is in some sense ludicrous. It already has.

We wouldnt we'd be loathe to all of our morality, including in some sense our religious morality, has been affected by 400 years of science. What modern humans in Western society think of as right and wrong is very different than was done - than was thought of 400 years ago, before the development of science.

And we and while it's very difficult to change people's minds, education is perhaps the only way to do it. That's one of the reasons we by exposing to people their own misconceptions about the world, we can hope that they'll develop.

And, you know, there are many misconceptions people have related to stem cells, from many people don't even realize that the stem cells that are used are not going to be implanted and are not going to be viable humans. They're going to be discarded anyway. Many people think there's a moment of conception. So - the Catholic Church does. There's no single moment of conception.

If we try and expose some of those misconceptions, I think we can hope to affect people's morality. And science has been doing it for hundreds of years.

FLATOW: All right, we're going to take a break and talk lots more about what science has been doing, and about morality in science. Our number, 1-800-989-8255 is our number, talking with Lawrence Krauss, Simon Blackburn, Sam Harris and Steve Pinker. You can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. And give us that call at 1-800-989-8255 with your opinions. What do you think about science and morality? We'll be right back - stay with us - after this break.

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FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about science and morality, the origins of our sense of right and wrong. Is it something that evolved? How does science influence morality and vice versa? With my guests: Lawrence Krauss, Simon Blackburn, Sam Harris and Steven Pinker. Our number, 1-800-989-8255.

Let me see if I can get a reaction. Simon Blackburn, do you want to react to what you've heard so far?

Dr. BLACKBURN: Yes, I do. There are a number of things. One thing is Lawrence's last remark about progress, I think there has been progress. I think our moralities are much better now than they were 400 years ago. But I don't see any reason to think that science played a large part in that - or played a large part in that for Enlightenment values overtaking religious values.

And in turn, that was due to the cultural matrix, the end of the wars of the 17th century and the gradual increase in humanity across the board, culminating in utilitarianism and various socially progressive philosophies of the 19th century.

None of that was particularly due to science - although you can argue, of course, that the arrival of, say, the Newtonian world view helped science. The arrival of the Darwinian world view probably hindered morality because a lot of scientists started interpreting Darwin as showing that we're basically competitive, nasty animals, and you have to expect a condition of perpetual warfare.

So the interpretation of science is a very different thing from actual scientific results. And I think we have to be very careful that when scientists talk about increasing, you know, our moral standards, it's the science that's doing it, and not interpretations of the science.

The other thing is - about Sam Harris' point. I mean, every, every moral philosopher knows that moral philosophy is functionally about reducing suffering and increasing human flourishing. I don't think there's been any doubt about that since Aristotle, and that isn't a new scientific discovery.

And I still wait to see how a new scientific discovery about suffering and flourishing is actually going to settle moral issues which divide us - like, for example, the extent of the freedoms we enjoy, or the way we ought to treat civilian combatants in war, or many, many other moral problems which divide people very deeply.

Dr. HARRIS: Well, I would love to respond to that, Ira.

FLATOW: Go ahead, Sam.

Dr. HARRIS: I think well, first of all, there is an amazing diversity of opinion of just how we should cash out our talk of right and wrong, and good and evil. And it's quite remarkable how difficult it can be to get people to concede that human flourishing, and the flourishing of conscious creatures, generally is what we should what should concern us.

But the moment you admit that much, the moment you admit that a real conversation about morality relates to human well-being - to take our case specifically - then most of moral talk that defines our public policy immediately begins to fall by the wayside.

I mean, the Catholic Church is more concerned about preventing contraception than about preventing the rape of children. It's more concerned about preventing gay marriage than genocide.

Now these this is if you're concerned about human flourishing, this is clearly an inversion of priorities, to put it most charitably, and so the framework being offered here is not an alternate moral framework we have to take seriously.

This is a framework we can ignore in the same way we could ignore the Catholic Church if they were talking about physics and saying things like, well, we're interested in the physics of the transubstantiation - or the physics that allows the Holy Ghost to be here and there and everywhere at once.

There's not a physicist alive who would be forced to take those utterances seriously, and yet when we talk about morality, it seems that everyone's opinion has to count equally. But everyone's opinion is not actually constrained at this moment by an intelligent, or even intelligible, concern for human flourishing. And I think the moment we grant that human flourishing is the point, our moral discourse would change remarkably.

Prof. KRAUSS: Let me also jump in and disagree with Simon about something else. I cannot believe that I'm shocked to hear him say that he doesn't think science is it's not a coincidence that the Enlightenment occurred at the same time science began to flourish.

The very notion that experienced fact is the basis of truth, that's really, as Jacob Bronowski said, the mainspring which has moved our civilization since the Renaissance. The idea, the Aristotelian view that values like justice and honor, dignity, had - were inaccessible to experience was the Middle Ages. The whole notion of science was that the world is that effects have causes. Physical effects have physical causes.

Many people have argued it stopped the burning of witches because we began to realize that to understand the world around us, it wasn't some divine truth, necessarily, or some predetermined aspects of reality that should determine how we should act. It was the world around us.

So that very notion - that in order to know how to act, we had to learn how the world around us worked first - it seems to me is the basis of the Enlightenment and ultimately, the basis of all of those values you've been discussing.

Dr. BLACKBURN: Very, very great...

FLATOW: Simon, jump in, go ahead.

Dr. BLACKBURN: Well, very great historians have looked at the decline of witchcraft as the abandonment of belief in magic in Europe in the 17th and actually slightly earlier - centuries.

And, you know, it's a very detailed cultural and historical story, and I don't doubt that the rise of science had a part in it. So did the philosophy of empiricism - the rising empiricism, as Lawrence says.

But these are big-scale cultural changes, and I'm simply arguing that you can't simply factor out science and stick it in the saddle, and say that it was responsible for all of the changes that history shows.

Prof. PINKER: I'm sympathetic to what Simon said in that the minds that we're talking about in the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment probably didn't distinguish what we would now call philosophy from what we now call science.

Many of them made scientific contributions as well as doing what we would call philosophy today. What they do have in common, though, was a commitment to secular reason - that is, to arguing for the best way to run our affairs based on logical consistency, compatibility with the world, as opposed to tradition and dogma and authority.

I think that's what we all have in common, and where you draw the line between the part that you call science, and the part that you call history or philosophy or journalism or legal scholarship, is beside the point.

And it isn't obvious that morality it's not obvious to everyone, it's obvious to us, that morality is about human suffering and flourishing. There are alternative moralities that put a value on, say, harmony of nature, preservation of the species, glorification of the nation, following God's commandments.

I mean, when Winston Churchill said nothing is worse than war, dishonor is worse than war, by which he meant national dishonor. The fact that World War I was fought over people believing it was worthwhile to sacrifice their lives for the pre-eminence of their nation, those are values that do prick people to action that aren't about flourishing.

I would argue, though, that they're not defensible. But at least it is conceivable that there are moralities not based on flourishing and suffering.

Dr. HARRIS: Right. Well, I think the point there is that it's possible to not know what you're missing. It's possible to be wrong. It's possible to be seeking a better life, and to fail to find it. And I mean, I think we should not be eager to define well-being too narrowly because I think everything that really every legitimate concern that people have, like fairness and justice and having a clear conscience and even honor, to whatever degree it's a requisite of human well-being, this can a truly open-ended and searching discussion about well-being can absorb these things.

And well-being is clearly the point - not merely human well-being, but any creature that can possibly experience it to the degree that it can experience it. So we're more concerned about our fellow primates than we are about insects because we think there's much more to being a primate. And I think we're right to think that, based on everything we know about neurology at this point.

FLATOW: Well, let me take an example from your book. You say in your book that making women wear burqas or even veils doesn't lead to their well-being. Well, let's say that's the case. But how do you call that opinion scientific? How are we not measuring it? It sounds like a value judgment.

Dr. HARRIS: Right, right.

FLATOW: Well, we could measure.

Dr. HARRIS: We could measure it. We could scan the brains of everyone involved. But there's no reason to do that. We know Ira, think of what it takes to doubt that we can know this from the point of view of science.

It's as though you're saying we have 150 years of neuroscience and sociology and psychology behind us, we've made very impressive gains in our treatment of women, but just maybe - maybe forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating them or killing them when they try to get out, is as good as anything we've come up with.

It's just not a it's not a position that can be honestly adopted. And we know enough to know, we know enough about human well-being at this moment to know that this is not a good practice - good as defined by all the correlates of human happiness.

FLATOW: Well, but the whole point of science.

Prof. PINKER: But Sam, we don't have to...

FLATOW: Wait, let me just jump in for a second. But the whole point of science is to create an experiment to prove what you think is true.

Prof. PINKER: Well, no, that's actually not the...

FLATOW: I mean, isn't it...?

Dr. HARRIS: Steven's point about secular reason being a larger footprint is very important to take on board because science is where we science generally, reason generally, is where we are committed to relying on honest observation and clear reasoning.

It's not that every single question is experimentally tractable next month. And there are some - there are many scientific truths, an infinite number of scientific truths that we will never be able to test because we can't get the data in hand. You know, how many birds are in flight over the surface of the Earth at this moment? We have no idea, and it just changed. And yet that's a very simple question about the nature of reality, which we know has an answer.

We know that questions of human flourishing, whether we can actually get people on - the lab and scan their brains, have answers - and some of the answers are so obvious, that we need not debate them. And in Afghanistan, throwing battery acid in the face of a little girl, for the crime of learning to read, is clearly not a mode of sanely pursuing human welfare.

Prof. KRAUSS: But Sam, you could - you don't - I don't think you have to scan brains. I mean, I think there - I agree with you. Obviously, there are many things we won't know about the universe simply because we can't do the testing. But there are lots of things we could test. And the only - I would argue the only way we can determine, ultimately, whether something is reasonable is by attempting to test it.

For example, with burqas, I don't know whether you have to scan the brains, but you could do studies to see whether women are, in fact, safer, less subject to sexual violence and intimidation. We could do -you could do psychological studies of their self-worth. Whether...

Dr. HARRIS: Sure, sure.

Prof. KRAUSS: ...they're better performing at tests as a result. You could imagine doing sociological and psychological testing to actually verify the presumption - which I agree with you, on the face of it, seems quite reasonable that burqas are not good. But you could certainly do those experiments. And you - if you did them, you would be better informed, and you would make more rational, moral decisions based on them.

Dr. HARRIS: Right. But certain questions are so easy, you need not get a grant from the NSF to seek the data. And I think the burqa is one of them.

FLATOW: Simon?

Dr. BLACKBURN: Well, exactly. You don't need a grant from the NSF. And -may I say something...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. BLACKBURN: ...about the idea which seems to be in the background, that a neurophysiological measure would be, in some sense, the gold-standard measure of well-being.

Dr. HARRIS: I actually didn't mean to suggest that, but I'm just saying that is one mode.

Dr. BLACKBURN: It came out as a suggestion.

Dr. HARRIS: Right.

Dr. BLACKBURN: And there's a well-known philosophical objection to that, which is that you can compare two people, each of whom believes themselves to be flourishing in the same way. They're each, you know, living the American life. They got a lovely wife or spouse and two children, and all the rest of it. And one of them's living in a fool's paradise because, in fact, his children hate him and his wife's unfaithful, and his job is about to go bust, and all the rest. And the other one isn't.

The neurophysiology may be exactly the same, but a whole tradition of moral philosophy since Aristotle would say that their well-being is not the same. One of them is actually living a good life, an enviable life, a life that we ought to encourage and is genuinely flourishing. The other one, being in a fool's paradise, is not. And books like "Brave New World" and "1984" explore exactly that fact about human flourishing.

Dr. HARRIS: That's all quite true. I did not mean to suggest that the brain is the only source of data for - to define human flourishing, and precisely for the reasons you allude to there. Because the one person -the delusional person's state of happiness is vulnerable to all of the insults from reality that are soon to be coming. His relationships are not as he thinks they are. He has no money in the bank, etc.

So there are other aspects to human well-being, apart of the state of a human brain. But the state of a human brain is where it is registered, because our mind is emerging out of captivity.

FLATOW: Okay, let me jump in. I...

Prof. KRAUSS: But the way to determine what's real is - the way to determine the difference between delusion and reality is science. And I mean, by science, very broadly. I don't mean - I mean this - empiricism. I mean, the fact that you - the only way to determine what's real out there is science. And so if you're interested in determining the difference between delusion and reality - because you believe in the long run, it might lead to better behavior both for individuals and societies - then the empirical methods are the way to do that.

FLATOW: All right. Let me just jump in and say you're all listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

I'm Ira Flatow, here with Lawrence Krauss, Simon Blackburn, Sam Harris and Steven Pinker. Let me see if I can get a quick question in before the break - Nate in Kensington, California. Hi, Nate.

NATE (Caller): Hi. How are you guys doing?

FLATOW: Hi, there.

NATE: I took a class on evolutionary psychology down at UCSD under a guy named Don MacLeod, and we read a book called "The Moral Animal" by Robert Wright, which you guys have probably all read. Altruism was discussed in depth in that book. And the sort of sense with which I walked away with that, people possess a capacity for morality, but that morality, much like language - we possess a capacity for language, which doesn't necessarily develop in us if you missed out on what they call critical periods. And we know that language doesn't develop in individuals who are raised by wolves until age 12, for example, or doesn't develop fully.

I was wondering what your guests think about the idea that maybe, with respect to morality, there is a critical period. One illustration, maybe, would be children indoctrinated in, you know, to be child soldiers in times of conflict. And I'll take my answer off the air.

FLATOW: Okay. Thanks. Steven, do you want...

Prof. PINKER: Yes.

FLATOW: ...try to (unintelligible).

Prof. PINKER: It's a fascinating question, and I don't know if anyone who's really done the research that would address it. We have reason to believe that socialization or enculturation might have a kind of sensitive period effect. We all - our tastes in food, our tastes in music, our habits in dress are pretty much those of the peers that we grew up with until, probably, early adolescence. We know that people's internal moral standards - this is a separate question from whether they really deserve to be called moral - but what they think is moral certainly depends on the culture in which they've grown up.

And if the cultural morays show a sensitive period, and if people's moral psychology varies, to some extent, with a culture, you'd expect that it would also show this sensitive period effect. But it's an interesting idea. No one's tested it.

FLATOW: Is there a way to test it?

Prof. PINKER: Sure. If you looked at - if you did a systematic study of people who emigrated from one culture to another at different ages, and looked at the exposure to cultural information from their parents and their peers; if you did the equivalent of the feral children who, through some unusual circumstance, grew up in isolation from a culture, then you introduced them to the ethical mores of a culture, how intuitive would they become? So it is testable, but a challenge.

FLATOW: All right. Well, we're challenged to take a station break amidst this discussion; 1-800-989-8255 is our number. You can tweet us @scifri, at S-C-I-F-R-I. Talking with my guests: Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University; Simon Blackburn, University of North Carolina; Sam Harris, author of "The Moral Landscape;" and Steven Pinker, who is a professor at the department of psychology, at Harvard - 1-800-989-8255. Tweet us @scifri. Stay with us. We'll be right back, after this break.

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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

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FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about science and morality with Lawrence Krauss, Simon Blackburn, Sam Harris and Steven Pinker. Our number: 1-800-989-8255.

A tweet came in that says: Where does faith come to play in the - if -in the science-is-the-only-way-to-prove-anything-exists theory? Lawrence, you want to?

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Prof. KRAUSS: Well, I think that faith comes in, in the presumption - which has been demonstrated - that the world is accessible to experiment, and that the way to learn about that's the faith that scientists have, that you can learn about the world by testing it. And that's the only place I can see faith comes in. I think the it's clear that the only way to determine what is real is by external experimentation. There's a quote that I just learned the other day that I really liked...

Dr. HARRIS: I'm no longer here, Lawrence. I'm...

Prof. KRAUSS: ...by Philip Dick, the science fiction writer, who said: Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, is still there.

FLATOW: Was that you who was jumping in there? Who wanted to jump in?

Dr. HARRIS: Actually, I think we should - took - continuing from the caller's question about altruism and its evolution, I think we can distinguish two different scientific projects with regard to morality, because they are quite different. One is simply to understand how we got the way we are. We can look at what people do in the name of, quote, morality. We can look at the kinds of morally salient emotions like disgust, or social emotions like empathy, and behaviors like altruism. And we can look at all of this as it appears in diverse cultures, and tell a story about how we got to this place. And it's an evolutionary story, in general. And in particular, we can in each individual, we can look at the states of the human brain, and just how moral reasoning has arisen in real time in the human brain.

That is very different from a second project, which is the project I'm advocating, which is to the moment we admit that we should be concerned, in the moral domain, about human and animal well-being, then everything we can learn about how human beings flourish, and what it takes to be happy in this world, then science can give us right answers to the question of how we should live.

So, for instance, how once we recognize that compassion is good for us, in that it - in a wide variety of circumstances, it leads to human flourishing, how is it that we can encourage children to be compassionate? How is it that we can encourage them to be aware of the emotions of others, to care about the experience of others, to feel empathy? There, clearly, are going to be right and wrong ways to do that.

And insofar as a maturing psychology, developmental psychology can tell us how to teach compassion, this is something that - this will be a moment where science can really have strong recommendations about a very core area of values - how you should raise your child.

FLATOW: Simon, do you believe you can draw a simple line between these measures of well-being that Sam is talking about, in practical applications and...

Dr. BLACKBURN: Well, one of the more important contributions to views about well-being, I think, was Hegel's, who pointed out the large component of well-being that depends on our beliefs about how we stand in the eyes of others, the bases of self-respect. And any society in which people can live lives in which they garner the respect of other people is not going to get by just saying, let's avoid suffering and let's have flourishing. It's got to lay down things like, for example, the Bill of Rights of the American Constitution, which determines the rights and duties and the - as it were - the playing field, the nature of the political constitution within which civil society can then go its way.

Now, of course, once it goes its way, a large part of what we like from people are things like compassion and benevolence and charity as a virtue, and so on. But these things are not the only virtues. Things like gratitude, loyalty, which are backward-looking...

Dr. HARRIS: These are states of the human brain and...

Dr. BLACKBURN: virtues -

Dr. HARRIS: ...they're stuff of which relationships are made.

Dr. BLACKBURN: They're states of a human being, I'm sorry.

Dr. HARRIS: Of course. But that's what you this is not actually a counterpoint to what I'm arguing for, because the Bill of Rights is so useful. And all of these social structures that allow strangers to trust one another, and collaborate peacefully, are so useful. And their utility can be described in terms of human well-being, in terms of the effect on human beings and their brains. That's it's not it's actually it's not a different basis for resolving questions of right and wrong.

FLATOW: Mary in San Francisco, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Hi, Mary. Mary, are you there? Mary, line two? Well, she's gone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: She'd been on the line a long time. She wanted to know what how science and religion can inform and help each other.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. HARRIS: Where would you like to pitch that, Ira?

Prof. PINKER: Science definitely informs - well, I'll start, and I'm sure Sam will expand. But science needs to inform - at least theology. You can't make - unless you understand how the world works, you can't even begin to wonder why, if that's what your interest is. It - but it's a one-way street. Religion has no impact on science whatsoever.

Dr. HARRIS: Yeah. And I would take the word faith, that was used earlier. I think either Lawrence quite rightly purified it of its irrational components in the service of science. But faith - I'm - to hear most people talk about it, and certainly in a religious context, is the permission that people give one another to believe things - to believe things for bad reasons. And when they have good reasons, they immediately rely on the good reasons. I mean, everyone craves good reasons for their core beliefs. And the moment prayer actually seems to work, the moment you actually run an experiment and, you know, pray for a sick child and the child gets better, all of a sudden that becomes the reason why you believe in God, not merely empty faith.

And we all want our children to be healthy. And so, you know, when your children - when your child has a seizure, in a context where there's no science of neurology, well, then you're worried about demons and demonic possession, and you go to the church and you try to figure out what to do. But the moment you have a science of neurology, then the diagnosis of demonic possession is no longer attractive. And this area of human flourishing, human health, gets taken away from the authority of the church and seeded to a genuine knowledge-gathering enterprise, which is medicine.

And I think that's going to happen on the - in the moral sphere, as well. Honest talk about human well-being, and a maturing science of the human mind, will steal the ground under - from under religious claims to moral knowledge.

FLATOW: Here's a tweet that came in that says: This conversation is great. But the accounts of flourishing, and what count as knowledge, seem incredibly reductionistic.

Dr. HARRIS: Well, what's left out?

FLATOW: Simon, do you want to jump in on that one?

Dr. BLACKBURN: Well, I was hoping my introduction of Hegel as bringing flourishing into a slightly less reductionistic...

FLATOW: And then people are also tweeting, saying exactly: What do you mean by flourishing? What does that term mean?

Dr. BLACKBURN: Yeah. Right. Right. Yes. Well, I - I mean, there are moral traditions - like that of Buddhism, stoicism - which find our flourishing in the mastery of desire, not, for example, in the satisfaction of desire. A lot of people in contemporary philosophy and neurophilosophy think it's a preference utilitarianism, just satisfying as many desires as possible should be the measure of flourishing. Now, I don't think that, and those moral traditions don't think that.

And I'd be very amazed to learn that science can adjudicate that debate. I'd love to know what experiments are going to do it. Certainly, you can do a brain scan on a Buddhist monk, and you might find all sorts of interesting things. Whether you then count that as flourishing, that's where the morality comes in, I'm afraid.

Prof. PINKER: Well I - I think it - go ahead, Lawrence.

Prof. KRAUSS: Okay. Well, I'll go first. But then - well, I think that there is this social contract. You have to - that you can ask the question: Which leads to a society in which there's more harmony and justice and well-being for the whole? And at some level, you know, you can say hedonism works for individuals, but it doesn't work for a society. It's that old social contract that we're constrained by that, I think, you know, determines - helps determine our morality.

Dr. BLACKBURN: Very much so.

Prof. KRAUSS: And I think that, ultimately, when you talked about respect or the things that - and Sam alluded to this - you know, I'm an educator, so I guess I believe in education. But whenever you provide more information, then I think you find - and so that people have a better understanding, you find their behavior, I think in general, improves.

And there's a lot of cultural anthropology. We just had some lectures here at our Origins Institute, saying that maladaptive behavior is culturally based on incomplete information about the groups we live in. And I think the more we can provide knowledge, and knowledge through science, I think ultimately, the more likely we are to expect, on a whole, people to behave rationally and for the welfare of all.

Prof. PINKER: Yeah. One thing I would add is, I don't think we need to be too worried about defining well-being precisely or narrowly. Because I think it is truly open-ended. I mean, there are frontiers of well-being that we may yet discover - or fail to discover, both personally and collectively. We simply don't know how good human life could be. And the concern that gratifying every desire as it arises may not, in fact, be good is simply a concern about the deeper kinds of well-being that could be foreclosed if we lived that way.

And I think it's a totally legitimate question to ask. Certain short-term desires are clearly at odds with deeper, long-term ones. And this is something we all understand. And it can be very difficult to be motivated by long-term desires, where short-term preferences can be gratified. And this is a challenge for living a good life, that we all face.

FLATOW: There is a challenge that we see on this program - and in the public - faced by science, I think, and that is that science - scientific evidence, in many cases, cannot persuade people who've already made their minds up. If someone...

Prof. PINKER: Yeah. You can see that with evolution. We can't - for 150 years, we've known that it's true.

FLATOW: Funny, you can see that - well, you can see that with vaccination. You know...

Prof. PINKER: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...you can see that with all - global warming. You can see that with all kinds of things. I think by telling people...

Dr. HARRIS: But that's precisely why it's - just a quick point. That's precisely why scientific truth is not predicated on Democratic principles. And we don't do our - we don't create our scientific world view by plebiscite. The fact that only 25 percent of Americans believe in evolution doesn't, for a moment, stand as a challenge to biology. Biology thrives. And evolution is a fact. And who knows when everyone will agree? And I think that that can be true in the moral sphere. There are truths to be known about human well-being. Whether or not we can get the Taliban to agree - and whether or not we, frankly, can get a majority of Americans to agree on all of these points, that's a political problem more than a scientific one.

Dr. BLACKBURN: There also is...

Dr. KRAUSS: But when you're trying to teach science, you - there is this problem that if you just tell people how, you know, that the world works this way and try and use logic, it's true that you can't change - at least if you ask people why a book falls faster than the piece of paper, most people will say it's because the book is heavier, in spite the fact that somewhere, at some point, they learn that's not the case.

There's a lot of pedagogical research that suggest the only way to really change people's minds is to confront them directly with the wrong misconceptions, lead them to an internal contradiction so that they discover that for himself - themselves. And I think, really, that's the only, ultimate, way to teach about the world.

FLATOW: All right. We're talking about science of morality this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow with Lawrence Krauss, Simon Blackburn, Sam Harris and Steven Pinker.

Steven, did you want to jump in there?

Prof. PINKER: Yeah. We shouldn't underestimate the extent to which people's minds can be changed over the long term. It used to be a live, moral issue whether slavery could be justified or not. We're done with that. It's just not a live option. It used to be thought that blood transfusions were a terrible - ethical problem; artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization. There were ethical debates at the time. They -people's minds weren't changed instantly. But in an open society, in an educated society, very often the - almost everyone does come around, and what used to be burning issues no longer become them.

Prof. KRAUSS: (unintelligible) the Catholic Church.

Prof. PINKER: So I have church - well, the Catholic Church has been forced, at various times in its history, to back off claims that it used to hold. I mean, the...

Prof. KRAUSS: Yeah. Absolutely.

Prof. PINKER: ...how the cosmology works, for example. And often, it's done with a declaration; sometimes, it's done quietly. It just happens, and no one notices. But minds do get changed over the long term.

FLATOW: Has it taken - does it take that famous generational shift, the death of the old people who believed in it?

Prof. PINKER: Funeral by funeral, science progresses.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. KRAUSS: Yeah, right.

FLATOW: You know what I'm talking about. So where - is there a frontier? As - we've got a couple of minutes left. Is there a frontier in morality science research someplace? Is there some sort of area - Steven, is there someplace in the brain that you might want to look at, or any brain research going on?

FLATOW: You know what I'm talking about. So where - is there a frontier? As - we've got a couple of minutes left. Is there a frontier in morality science research someplace? Is there some sort of area - Steven, is there someplace in the brain that you might want to look at, or any brain research going on?

Prof. PINKER: There's - the interplay between the emotional parts of moral reasoning; the gut feelings that we have that killing someone with your bare hands, watching someone suffer, watching someone starve is bad; the way it interacts with the more deliberative parts of the mind -what is a defensible principle of rights, even if we can't see who benefits right now, but we know abstractly that it will help people in the long run; how do the intellectual and the emotional components of moral deliberation interact? I would say that's one of the frontiers.

Dr. BLACKBURN: I would agree with that, absolutely.

FLATOW: Simon. Simon...

Dr. BLACKBURN: I would agree - yes, I'd agree with that, absolutely. I think that ever since David Hume, who was the first philosopher, really, to emphasize the role of the passions, as he called them - that is, attitudes, practical stances and devotions in reasoning and in practice, ever since that was emphasized, the relationship between those elements and reason - as a cold, less-impassioned kind of faculty - have been topics of great debate. And I'm glad to see that neurophysiology is telling us more about them.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. HARRIS: Yeah, I would agree with all that. I would just add that the more we understand the causes of human behavior, I think that's going to push our moral intuitions around as well, to simply understand in psychopathy, for instance, as a neurological condition - which it undoubtedly is - changes our notion - or it should change our notion of retributive justice. I mean, when you discover that someone has a brain tumor, that explains their antisocial behavior. That changes your sense of their moral responsibility. And to some degree, we're going to find, as the science of mind matures, it's all basically a matter of brain tumors.

I mean, we - that we are not the author of our own causes. We don't create our genomes. We don't create our environments, and everyone on death row at this moment has either bad genes, bad parents or bad ideas. And they're not really responsible, in the usual sense, for any of them. That is not to say we don't have to lock away dangerous people. We do. But I think retribution as a motive, as opposed to just the preservation of human well-being, is going to be challenged by the more we understand the causes of human behavior.

FLATOW: All right. Thirty seconds, Lawrence.

Prof. KRAUSS: I think this pushes further what Sam is already emphasizing. As we learn the biochemical basis of emotions, it's going to change everything about the way we think about ourselves. And this discussion is just the beginning. It's going to change about what it means to be human, and just wait.

FLATOW: Thank you...

Dr. BLACKBURN: I think if you go back and find somebody sitting in your car, you'll be angry - however much you understand about the neurophysiological basis of your anger. I don't see why it affects its likelihood, or its propriety.

FLATOW: All right. That's the last thought for this evening. I'd like to thank my guests: Lawrence Krauss, foundation professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, and the Physics Department, at Arizona State University, he's also director of the Origins Project there; Simon Blackburn, research professor, University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill; Bertrand Russell, professor of philosophy at University of Cambridge in England; Sam Harris, author of "The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values," and co-founder and CEO of Project Reason; Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor at department of psychology at Harvard. Thank you all for taking time to be with us today.

Have a good weekend. And good luck on - your conference, Lawrence.

Prof. KRAUSS: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: And if you missed part of what we talked about today, you can go to our website at sciencefriday.com and download the podcast, if you want to relive these wonderful, scintillating moments we had this afternoon in the discussion.

Have a good weekend. I'm Ira Flatow, in New York.

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