For a first posting I thought I’d recycle an article I wrote for Axiomatic Magazine back in October, about finally approaching morality like scientists. (Enough time has passed that I can share it here.) It is adapted from part of a lecture I gave in 2003.
Last Gasp for the God of the Gaps by Greg Perkins
Every gust of wind and bolt of lightning was a direct act of God. But then came Ben Franklin, and we no longer think about meteorology that way. The same thing happened with tornadoes and earthquakes: the Acts of God that insurance policies exclude used to be divine punishment, but with our current understanding the term is really a euphemism for natural disasters. And today, most people don’t consider themselves impious just because they catch the flu or get a nasty infection–they know it’s because of germs.
The history of mankind has been one long account of religious explanation being crowded out by scientific discoveries and rational understanding. This striking pattern is called the “God of the Gaps,” where something supernatural is cited as the reason behind those things we do not understand–God lives in the gaps of our knowledge. As our gaps close and we grow in understanding and power, ever more supernatural territory vanishes. But one stretch of territory has stubbornly remained: the realm of values. Science may be able to explain facts, believers say, but only God and religion can establish moral concepts.
In fact, this attitude is widely shared by nonbelievers as well, who agree that how-questions about the workings of the world are entirely different than why-questions of meaning, value, purpose. Both camps say that the domains of science and religion are important but different in kind, that they are “separate but equal.” Scientist and nonbeliever Stephen Jay Gould laid this out with forceful clarity in his book Rocks of Ages:
I write this little book to present a blessedly simple and entirely conventional resolution… I speak of the supposed conflict between science and religion, a debate that exists only in people’s minds and social practices, not in the logic or proper utility of these entirely different, and equally vital, subjects. I present nothing original in stating the basic thesis (while perhaps claiming some inventiveness in choice of illustrations); for my [thesis] follows a strong consensus accepted for decades by leading scientific and religious thinkers alike.
On some level, most people understand the genuine need for a code of values and principles to provide guidance in living life. Seeing no source in the facts of science, they are easily driven to religion by authorities who maintain that the supernatural is the only viable basis for morality. For example, one of the most influential religious apologists of our time, C.S. Lewis, offered such a “moral argument for God” via his bestselling book Mere Christianity. But if we want to capture the essence of what is wrong with the moral argument, we need to appreciate its reliance on this separate-but-equal doctrine. We need to understand why that reliance means the moral argument should fail just as thoroughly as countless other God-of-the-Gaps arguments-from-ignorance have failed in the realm of science.
Consider folk remedies–everything from the witch doctor’s poultices, herbal teas, leeches, and dances, to modern-day supplements people use to stave off colds, to the magnetic inserts they put in their shoes, to hangover cures. Folk remedies are found by chance and by trial and error. Indeed, some are total bunk and any effectiveness they have is due to the placebo effect. But many really do help, and sometimes dramatically.
The downside is that folk remedies are not well understood, so their results are often inconsistent and they can have severe side effects. This is because their users lack a genuine causal understanding of what makes the remedy work. To achieve that, the part that actually does the work–the “active ingredient”–must be identified by isolating it from the irrelevant factors, and this is accomplished by using inductive logic as embodied in modern scientific methodology. The Aristotelian/Objectivist tradition understands the law of causality as being the law of identity applied to action, so achieving genuine causal knowledge of how something works–of why something works the way it does–means grasping a “why” that is rooted in the identities of the relevant existents.
When we do identify the active ingredient, the remedy becomes much more effective because we can reduce side-effects by using only the parts that do the work, leaving aside other parts that might be poisonous or trigger allergic reactions or nasty interactions. Plus, we can produce it in greater supply and deliver it in controlled concentrations. But more than merely improving effectiveness in the original solution, we can study the active ingredient and solve a wider array of problems. Causal knowledge strengthens and extends our control and understanding beyond the original, narrow treatment.
For example, people noticed the patterns of heritable traits in offspring, such as eye and hair color. Gregor Mendel improved our understanding and quantified these patterns by carefully breeding peas and discovering the rules of dominant and recessive traits, among other important concepts. We were then able to more effectively breed and crossbreed plants and animals to suit our purposes, and we could even understand some of the patterns in heritable diseases. But then James Watson and Francis Crick identified DNA–the causal factor Mendel had shown must exist–and our world was revolutionized. This is a metaphorical active ingredient so powerful and instructive that it is now the cornerstone of our understanding of life. It allows us to understand and treat illness like never before–we’re creating solutions like genetic therapy and contemplating nanorobots able to fix genetic defects. We can create organisms to produce useful chemicals and build microscopic structures. We have the power to design genetically modified crops, saving millions of people from disease and starvation. We use genetic fingerprinting to convict criminals and free innocents, and on and on. All of this flows from striving for the active ingredient rather than stopping at getting by with a few narrow, folk-remedy-style solutions like crossbreeding animals or plants.
Now, the idea behind the moral argument–that religion is the only possible basis of value and source of moral principles–really amounts to arguing that we cannot find the active ingredient and understand what makes morality work; that the incredible power of a causal understanding is simply not available to us in this realm; that in ethics, there can be no Newton to light up our understanding and make the murky obvious. The moral argument stands or falls on the separate-but-equal assumption that there is a difference in kind between facts and values, between moral knowledge and scientific understanding. Ayn Rand made a key contribution in rejecting this dichotomy and rooting value in the phenomenon of life, closing the notorious “is-ought gap” and showing that values are actually a species of fact. In her essay “The Objectivist Ethics,” Rand explained how “the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of an ultimate value which for any given living entity is its own life. Thus the validation of value judgments is to be achieved by reference to the facts of reality.” In rejecting the fact-value dichotomy, we should expect to see the God of the Gaps squeezed just as hard in the realm of morality as in the realm of science–and to similarly positive effects.
Squeezed He is.
Morality is objectively valuable to humans because our existence literally depends on it. We need abstract principles to guide our choices and actions, short- and long-term, and over the span of an entire lifetime. So it is no accident that the longstanding religions all have moral codes. Current-day conservative scholars such as Thomas Sowell talk about the “collective wisdom derived from the past,” echoing a line of conservative leading lights:
Like [Edmund] Burke, [Friedrich] Hayek combines liberalism in economics and politics with a marked conservatism in morality. … Traditions encode the accumulated wisdom of earlier generations in a way that no single generation, however sophisticated, could discover for itself; and it is through learning those traditions and passing them on to our children that we avoid extremely costly mistakes.
Thus, we can view major religions and mythology in part as accumulators and transmission vehicles for the moral equivalent of folk remedies. Rand recognized this in her comment that
Since religion is a primitive form of philosophy–an attempt to offer a comprehensive view of reality–many of its myths are distorted, dramatized allegories based on some element of truth, some actual, if profoundly elusive, aspect of man’s existence.
It is likewise no accident that there is great overlap in religions’ moral ideas: some of them have tremendous value to our lives, and the better ideas are more likely to be passed on, shared, and incorporated in neighboring traditions. In contrast, moral ideas that do not help people tend to die off, at least when not carried along by enough good ideas or shielded from scrutiny by the promise of benefit or redress in an afterlife.
Given the identification of values as a species of fact, the parallel between folk remedies in medicine and the moral ideas in traditional institutions is instructive; the latter are likewise open to objective study and causal understanding. And the result is what happens any time we find the active ingredient: we move from narrow and cloudy discoveries that work marginally well, to a deep understanding that is much more useful and can be applied more widely, more cleanly, more powerfully. We can examine traditional institutions to understand what values they are aimed at fostering, and we get to look at the internal structure of virtues to see how they work, where they work, and exactly why. We can:
- clarify real virtues and how they serve our lives: rationality, honesty, productivity, integrity, independence, justice;
- highlight supposed virtues which aren’t real, such as humility, self-immolation, and the self-sacrifice of altruism;
- tease apart “package-deals” that really mix both false and genuine virtues in one idea, like conflating benevolence with the self-sacrifice of altruism;
- discover the virtue of supposed vices, like self-interest and pride;
- understand the moral place of social norms such as etiquette.
This approach has the advantage of keeping moral principles that identify causal connections grounded in fact-based inductive evidence, rather than attempting to capture morality in rules supported by appeals to faith, duty, intuition, and the like. A simple example of the dangers of the latter can be seen in the idea of living peacefully with others, something widely incorporated in tradition. Someone avoiding murdering simply because he is committed to following the commandment that “thou shalt not kill” is not so much against murder as for obeying God; he would likewise obey if he instead thought God wanted him to kill (consider terrorist suicide bombers, or the case of Abraham and Isaac). Similarly, someone committed to following the rule that “violence is evil and must be avoided” could easily slip into pacifism by not attending to conditioning factors like the difference between aggression and defense in understanding how shunning the use of force serves life. In contrast to both of these, understanding the principle that the initiation of force is evil draws our attention to the morally salient elements in our context. Rule-based moral codes are brittle precisely because they do not respect context and cut us off from the inductive evidence that can limit error and serve as a platform for extending and refining our understanding.
In approaching morality like scientists, we don’t reject “traditional values” out of hand, nor do we follow tradition blindly. Instead, we use this bounty of material to identify and refine principles of human action that support our lives. The value of doing so can be as immense as in any area of science: just as a causal understanding is more than a “rule of thumb” that “sort of” works in physics and medicine, a causal understanding is more than that in identifying good moral principles–these are identifications of the effect of an action on man’s life.
The idea that science and morality are separate but equal realms governed by fundamentally different rules is tragically mistaken. In illuminating the essential connection between fact and value, Rand effectively closed off the last refuge of the God of the Gaps and cleared the way to a rational, scientific morality based in facts and causality–a morality that can be pure and powerful in serving peoples’ lives as against the muddled morality of tradition.
 “National Academy of Sciences (1972),” Voices for Evolution, available online at http://www.don-lindsay-archive.org/creation/voices/Science/NAS72.htm.
 Pope John II’s address on November 4, 1992, available online at http://www.its.caltech.edu/~nmcenter/sci-cp/sci-9211.html.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (HarperSanFrancisco; Harper edition 2001). For a discussion of varied less-populist moral arguments for God, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry online at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-arguments-god/.
 John Stewart Mill, A System of Logic, available online at http://www.la.utexas.edu/research/poltheory/mill/sol/ (see Book III: Of Induction). These central rules of inductive reasoning (“Mill’s Methods of Induction”) are described concisely online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mill%27s_methods.
 Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1989) 18. For a scholarly exposition of Rand’s metaethics, see Tara Smith’s Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000).
 Jonathan Sachs, “Markets and Morals”, First Things 105 (August/September 2000): 23-28, available online at http://print.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0008/articles/sacks.html. Jonathan Sacs is Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth.
 Ayn Rand, “Philosophy and Sense of Life,” The Romantic Manifesto (New York: Signet, 1971).