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Science vs Religion?

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... or "Can Science Have a Positive Effect on Religion and Culture to Help Answer Questions of Morality?" My previous blog Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions brought as many questions to the table as it did bring facts. It has been pointed out to me that many people feel that Sam Harris was using the word "science" as a way to get a conversation going rather than actually making a true statement that in fact science can answer moral questions. I agree with these statements, and I do believe that the title of Harris' talk missed the mark.

That is not to say however that the speech is useless, in fact far from it. He raises some critical ideas about culture and religion, about problems brought about by cultural systems, about the extremes of each end of the spectrum in cultures, and about where we draw the line between being respectful of other cultures and where we should speak up and say when something is wrong.

I have touched upon this idea myself in a previous blog, and the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that we must identify cultural practices that we consider morally reprehensible and label them as such, regardless of the cultural roots from whence they spring. For example another story in today's paper, from Toronto. While the actual murder of Aqsa Parvez took place in 2007, the story is back in the papers because her father and brother this week pleaded guilty to murder and face up to 25 years in prison. The reason he gave for killing his own daughter? The article says:

When asked by his wife why he had killed their daughter, Ms. Parvez said her husband told her: "My community will say you have not been able to control your daughter. This is my insult. She is making me naked."

This is just an indication that these cultural practices DO travel with people, and I would be remiss to expect individuals to leave behind their cultural backgrounds in their home countries. But we should not accept that practices such as this are accepted on the grounds of multiculturalism. The article goes on to say:

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said it's a particularly pernicious form of murder to kill a member of one's own family for cultural reasons.

"That's one of the reasons we have been explicit in condemning what we call barbaric cultural practices such as honour killings," Mr. Kenney said.

"We want to underscore that multiculturalism is not an excuse, or a moral or legal justification, for such barbaric practices. Multiculturalism does not equal cultural relativism."

And I want to make that clear at this point. Just because it's what people do or have always done in the name of their cultural heritage does not automatically make what people do morally acceptable. We have to make judgments on how a practice reflects on the individuals and the society at large, then make a judgment on how well that fits as a culture into a socially acceptable practice. If it does not fit, is unsuitable, unsustainable or harmful to an individual so as to cause pain, disfigurement or death, then they cannot be accepted. One man's honour does not give him the right to kill his own family members.

Harris claimed in his talk that "Science can answer moral questions". He touched on areas where science can inform our decisions on topics that we can then make moral judgments on, but I think he failed to address the topic he set properly.

Given this, how does science fit into this equation?

As I said, science can help us inform our decisions on moral topics by outlining what affects certain actions can have on other beings. Science can help us look objectively at the impact cultures have on societies and the environment. Science can help us to gain a new perspective on the world, and make us think philosophically about what it means to be human. It can help us discover what it is that makes us work as individuals, and how we interact with others.

But science does not invoke morality and more than mathematics or geology invokes morality. The fact that science is by nature an objective field that strives to better itself does not make it a good sounding-board against which to make moral judgments.

What science can do is help us understand ourselves better, and give us groundings in our universe, ones which then can set us in good stead to see what the future might hold if we can get it right here and now.

In a past article I talked about the nature of morality, and how it is subjective to cultures and people. In the comments to that article, the idea was extrapolated to say that an enactment of what one believes to be justified morality but based on the prejudices, intuition and upbringing, people can be lead to make bad moral judgments.

Science cannot make us make the right moral judgments, but by studies of cultures, of societies and of the human mind and emotional impulses, science (mostly social sciences) can draw us closer to an understanding of just why it is that humans can make such seemingly immoral decisions but still feel morally justified.

Some people have a fear that if we use science to make our actions seem like they are all products of brain chemistry that we will be stealing the innate "humanness" from humanity, making us the lose our "souls" to the mechanistic and deterministic principles of machines. But as I have said before, just because we know how something works, does it make it any less remarkable, or beautiful, or mysterious? The human mind is so amazing that even if we do eventually discover how morals work in our brains, I doubt we will all of a sudden be saying "Well that's the last mystery solved, there's nothing more." This is because with every new discovery we find a new question, or several questions.

So science can't answer moral questions, not directly anyway, but it can help us understand ourselves better.

EDIT: I do realise that I too failed to address the topic of this blog post in the blog, however I think that the wider ranging idea of morality in many contexts and for many people is intrinsically linked to their religious views. I hope to address this point further in subsequent blogs. I have given this blog a subtitle to help avoid confusion.
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I am a blogger who deals primarily with ideas of atheism and the problems that religion, politics and culture cause worldwide. I am also an advocate for science. I live in Melbourne Australia and am currently 38 years old. That's really all you need (more...)
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