Contra Mundum: When Scientists Make Bad Ethicists

by Matthew Flannagan

One thing I find particularly frustrating is reading commentary on theology and philosophy written by scientists. To be fair, some scientists I have read are informed and do offer astute and insightful comments; commonly, however, one finds a person who is undoubtedly brilliant in their own field, writing with confident gusto, articles that fail to understand the most basic theological and philosophical distinctions.

A good example can be seen in a recent USA Today article by influential biologist Jerry Coyne entitled, As atheists know, you can be good without God. Coyne, an outspoken atheist, is disturbed that many Americans, including some prominent scientists, believe that our instinctive sense of right and wrong is “strong evidence for [God’s] existence.” He ventures into moral philosophy to explain why this is clearly mistaken.

From the get-go Coyne demonstrates he does not understand the issues.

It is necessary to accurately understand the position Coyne is criticising before we look at the paucity of his critique. The argument that our instinctive sense of right and wrong “is strong evidence for [God’s] existence” found its most important formulation in a 1979 article by Yale Philosopher Robert Adams. In it, Adams noted that we instinctively grasp that certain actions, like torturing children for fun, are wrong; hence, he reasoned, we are intuitively aware of the existence of moral obligations. According to Adams, the best account of the nature of such obligations is that they are commands issued by a loving and just God. Identifying obligations with God’s commands can explain all the features of moral obligation better than any secular alternative. Consequently, the existence of moral obligations provides evidence for God’s existence.

It is important to note what Adams did not claim. Central to Adams’ argument, and to pretty much every author who follows him, is a vital distinction; this is the distinction between the claim that moral obligations are, in fact, divine commands and the claim that one cannot recognise what our moral obligations are unless one believes in divine commands or some form of divine revelation. Adams illustrates this distinction with the example of H20 and water.

Contemporary chemistry tells us that the best account of the nature of water is that water is, in fact, H20 molecules. This, of course, means that water cannot exist unless H20 does. However, it does not mean that people who do not know about or believe in the existence of H20 cannot recognise water when they see it. For centuries people recognised, swam in, sailed on and drank water before they knew anything about modern chemistry.

This distinction has important implications. The claim that moral obligations are, in fact, commands issued by God does not entail that people must believe that God exists and has issued commands in order to be able to recognise right and wrong…

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