Idolatry in Science

Gary Marcus recently celebrated Noam Chomsky in an essay about the famous linguist’s life and influence on the field of linguistics over the past fifty years. There is no doubt that Chomsky has had tremendous impact on American intellectual life over the years, from work on language to political and philosophical ideas. However, Gary Marcus’s description of Chomsky’s influence on the field and his colleagues is somewhat troubling and unfortunately not unique to Chomsky but prevalent in the sciences. In every scientific sphere, it seems, a handful of individuals have excessive sway; these one-percenters are revered to an extent that their opinions go unquestioned (unchallenged) at best or as dogma, at worst. As Marcus points out, young linguists have a hard time studying what Chomsky finds uninteresting, the tragedy of which manifests itself in those people either not getting jobs and recognition in the field, or abandoning their interests in favor of Chomsky’s: “A good way for a young linguistics graduate student to make a name is to develop an intriguing idea that Chomsky mentions in one of his footnotes; it’s a riskier move to study something that Chomsky doesn’t find to be important.”

Moral Code

Why is it wrong to kill babies? Why is it wrong to take advantage of mentally retarded people? To lie with the intention of cheating someone? To steal, especially from poor people? Is it possible that Medieval European society was wrong to burn women suspected of witchcraft? Or did they save mankind from impending doom by doing so? Is it wrong to kick rocks when you’re in a bad mood? Questions of right and wrong, such as these, have for millenia been answered by religious authorities who refer to the Bible for guidance. While the vast majority of people still turn to Abrahamic religious texts for moral guidance, there are some other options for developing a moral code. Bibles aside, we can use our “natural” sense of what’s right and wrong to guide our actions; a code based on the natural sense would come from empirical studies on what most people consider to be right or wrong. Ignoring the logistics of creating such as code, we should note that the rules in this code would not have any reasoning behind them other than “we should do this because this is what comes naturally.” How does that sound? Pretty stupid.

The other option is to develop a moral code based on some subjective metaphysical ideas, with a heavy backing of empirical facts. “Subjective” means these ideas won’t have an undeniability to them; they are what they are and that’s it. Take as an example the rule such as “we should not kill babies.” There is no objective, scientific reason why we shouldn’t kill babies. Wait!, you say, killing babies is wrong because it harms the proliferation of our species and inflicts pain on the mothers and the babies themselves! But why should we care about the proliferation of our species? About hurting some mother or her baby? While no one will deny that we should care about these, there is nothing scientific that will explain why. Science may give us a neurological reason why we care about species proliferation (it will go something like, “there is a brain region that makes us care about proliferation of our species.”), but why should we be limited to what our brains tend to make us think or do?

Subjective rules like these must therefore be agreed upon with the understanding that they are subject to change. Interestingly, some argue that science can answer moral questions because it can show us what “well-being” is, how we can get it, etc. But the scientific reason why we should care about well-being is nowhere to be found. The result is that we can use science to answer moral questions, but we have to first agree (subjectively) that we want well-being. Science by itself cannot answer moral questions because it shows us what is rather than what ought to be. (Actually, Sam Harris is the only one to argue that science can be an authority on moral issues; his technical faux-pas is an embarrassment to those who advocate “reason” in conduct).


But more on the idea of metaphysically constructed moral codes. What properties should this code have, and how should we go about synthesizing it? Having one fixed/rigid source as an authority for moral guidance is dangerous. Make no mistake: there must be some authority on moral questions, but it must be flexible, and adaptable; it must be able to stand the test of time on the one hand, but to be able to adjust to novel conditions on the other. This sounds a lot like the constitution of the U.S. But even with such a document as The Constitution, which has provided unity and civil progress since the country’s founding, there are some who take its words literally and allow no further interpretation; if it’s not written in the constitution, it can’t be in the law, they argue (see Strict Constructionism versus Judicial Activism). These folks also tend to be rather religious (read: they spend a lot of time listening to stories from the Bible; not to be confused with “spiritual” or of religions other than the Abrahamic ones). So while we must have a moral code, it must be flexible (i.e. change with time) and we must seek a balance between literal and imaginative interpretations, just as we do with the US Constitution.

Why and how is a rigid moral authority dangerous? Our authority must change with time because new developments in our understanding of the world must update how we interact with others. For example, if science finds tomorrow that most animals have a brain part that allows them to feel emotional pain in the same way that humans do, we will have to treat them with more empathy; research on dolphin cognition has recently produced an effort by scientists to have dolphins be considered and treated as nonhuman persons. Furthermore, if we don’t explain why we do certain things, we won’t understand why we do them and therefore won’t know why violating them is bad. This unquestionability aspect of God as moral authority or the Strict Constructionists as law-makers is what makes them particularly dangerous and leads to prejudice and ignorance. Our moral code must therefore be based on empirical research, with every rule being subject to intense scrutiny (think of two-year-olds who keep asking, “but why?”).

But why should we have a moral code in the first place? Perhaps if everyone followed a moral code of some sort, the world would have fewer injustices and atrocities. Getting people to follow a moral code of any kind is a completely different issue.

Sam Harris gets it wrong.

Nonhuman Personhood for Dolphins

Cetacean Cognition

Mirror Self –Recognition in Dolphins

Witches are immoral and should be burned

Toasters With Feelings

The Brave Little Toaster Bookmark and Share Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics to inanimate objects, animals, or God. It has been a hallmark of faiths and religions worldwide. Humans have a natural tendency to assign intentions and desires to inanimate objects ("my computer isn't feeling well today - he's so slow!"), but they also strip "lower" beings (animals) of those same human characteristics.

We have a history of treating animals unnecessarily cruelly. I don't mean killing for food - that's necessary for our survival; I'm referring to dog fights, hunting, and other violence. We didn't even think that animals could sense pain until quite recently!

Why do we think of lifeless forms as agents with intentions but of actual living creatures as emotionally inferior clumps of cells?

Could it be that the need to rationalize phenomena is simply stronger when the phenomena have absolutely no visible explanation?

And do toasters really have feelings??