Can Science Tell Us What Is Good?


Science is rapidly becoming the religion of modern man, and the drive to displace Christianity is being led by "new athiests" like Sam Harris. Jon Stewart of The Daily Show interviewed Harris earlier this week about his new book, in which he argues that science can lead us to a true knowledge of what is good. He doesn’t mean practical good, as in a machine that works or a medicine that cures, but moral good, as in a superior way to live one’s life.

Harris began the interview by noting that the world has a problem – finding a common moral code by which to live. He lamented that the only ones who think there are truly right answers to moral questions are religious fanatics who think the Earth is 6,000 years old. Everyone else, he argued, thinks there is something suspect about the notion of moral truth. Despite this, he nonetheless insists that science can deliver what Christians have been getting wrong all these centuries: answers about moral truth. It can do this, he claims, without the baggage of religion, which he insists gives people bad reasons to be good where good reasons – from science, presumably – are actually available.

Harris is probably well intentioned – after all, the world does indeed have a problem – but he is making a basic mistake. He is assuming that because some people misuse religion, and do bad things in the name of religion, that religion itself cannot be a source for true moral knowledge. The behavior of bad people, of course, tells us something about those people, but not very much about whether the religion they purport to follow is true or not. Harris compounds this error by trying to make science do something it cannot. Realizing that science is good at finding truth, in some settings, and that science is modern and doesn’t have the baggage of "organized religion," he concluces that science is the perfect choice for a modern, neutral framework.

But this is simply fallacious. Science can no more discover moral truth than it can explain why courage in battle is preferable to cowardice. After all, won’t the coward be more likely to save his life and preserve his genes for the next generation? Science can analyse the statisical frequency of courage, and perhaps what is occurring in the brain of a brave person, but it can never tell us why it is "better" to risk one’s life for the sake of one’s friends.
Stewart never bothered to challenge Harris about concepts such as "better," or the definition of "good," for that matter. How can Harris use science to determine what is good, without first having some notion of what "good" is. Isn’t every example of "good" only meaningful if one first has in mind a scale, a continuum, in which things move from awful, to bad, to good, to better, and ultimately, and perhaps only theoretically to "best?" What is the source of this scale for Harris?


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