Science and Nihilism

I’ve been thinking about this argument:

1. Explanations of purely natural events ought to be morally neutral; they ought to assume that natural events are, in themselves, neither good nor bad.

2. There is evil.

3. Therefore, no explanation or set of explanations of the world that confines itself to the purely natural realm can be sufficient. We need more than science to understand our life in the world.

I’m reasonably sure that the argument is formally valid. I also think that the assumptions are at least reasonable and probably, in fact, true. So how is it that some scientists, not an insignificant number it seems to me, deny the conclusion?

Perhaps I’m wrong to believe that many scientists (and many of those who take a scientific view) think that science is ultimately sufficient to explain everything. Some of the recent public attacks on religion make me think I’m right, but perhaps I misunderstand. (This, however, makes me think that I don’t—thanks to Russell Fox.)

I take it that there is little argument about the truth of the first assumption. Again, perhaps I misunderstand, I’m happy to let the scientists among us correct me, but I think it important to a scientific understanding of the world not to impute moral qualities to natural events. If, however, the first assumption is true, then one must either agree with the conclusion or deny the second assumption, presumably by taking evil to be merely an expression of our likes and dislikes: “Murder is evil” amounts only to “I (or we) don’t like murder.”

The argument amounts to the conclusion, “Either we have an account of the world and human existence that goes beyond what science can tell us or we have nihilism.”

45 comments for “Science and Nihilism

  1. Herodotus
    December 17, 2006 at 8:53 am

    I’m interested in your post, but I’m not entirely sure what the “recent public attacks on religion” are that you see from scientists. It’s hard to comment when one hears only half of the conversation. (I looked at the link but saw only a testimonial from an atheist. Is this the attack?)

    While recognizing that characterizing the attitudes of “scientists” is probably equally difficult as generalizing the views of “philosophers,” “blacks,” “women,” or even “Mormons” I do think it’s probably a mistake to assume that most scientists consider science to be “sufficient.” In my experience metaphysics is viewed pretty dimly in academia regardless of if the bent is atheistic or believing, even if it is an engaging pastime.

  2. December 17, 2006 at 10:29 am

    I think scientists would, instead, say this:

    1. In thousands of years of religious inquiry into the nature of the universe, religion has not settled definitively, any question whatsoever.
    2. The scientific method, to those questions that are amenable to scientific inquiry, had supplied humanity with definitive answers to many extremely important questions, as well as allowing us to transform our lives dramatically for the better with technology.
    3. Therefore, since religion isn’t fruitful (in their view) and science is, let’s ignore religion and marginalize it. We can’t depend on its answers to be true with a capital T, so we’d rather spend our efforts and energy on scientific pursuits.

    What gets forgotten, too often, is that the first assumption is not a finding of science, it’s an axiom. Because people then go on to use science as the only tool to build their picture of the universe, they end up with a morally neutral view of the universe, which they then feel is scientifically proven. Most scientists, though, when questioned closely, will admit that science can’t teach us about morality either way. It can give us access to nuclear energy, but it’s up to us (our moral sense – something outside of science) to decide whether to make bombs or power plants.

    The atheism of very smart scientists like Richard P. Feynman comes from a love of the truth, of actual reality, and of knowing, in a scientific way. There is something beautiful and glorious about that, and it’s certainly a huge part of the glory of God. They have this mainline access to the beauty of creation, in a way that most of us don’t fathom. Their infatuation with that satisfies them spiritually, so that they don’t develop their morality, oftentimes, into a formal system, but rather, they just guide themselves by what we would call “the light of Christ”, their own internal moral compasses. Because they are extremely intelligent, they also tend to be wise. They observe the world and discover which actions lead to misery and which lead to joy. So, many times, they are highly moral people, though they’re susceptible to making wrong turnings, and the spiritual and physical damage that can result from those mistakes, because of having to prove everything to themselves, and not having access to the commandments and prophetic guidance.

    (Written by a scientist and lifelong atheist who converted within the last 10 years.)

  3. December 17, 2006 at 10:33 am

    I need an edit function. =) In the second paragraph, I should have said “What gets forgotten, too often, is that YOUR first assumption is not a finding of science…”

  4. December 17, 2006 at 12:30 pm

    Scientists have yet to discover what Kurt Godel proved earlier in the 20th century– that there can be true, but unprovable, statements. But then again, the mathematicians are always a step ahead of the scientists. :)

  5. December 17, 2006 at 1:08 pm

    Jim, how does Free Will figure in to your argument. One can assume that Free Will arises naturally, but that how a particular agent behaves has moral complications.

    That is to say that the wind could blow and and a tree falls and kills a person. This seems to be morally neutral as the death is the result of random forces (though some might ascribe chaos to the fall and consequently render Adam culpable). I can’t see how the person that kills by volition could be classified in the same category unless we adopt a completely deterministic world view.

  6. Blake
    December 17, 2006 at 2:30 pm

    Jim: Isn’t the response from the scientific view (one which I don’t buy mind you): millions of years of evolution have fitted us for the belief that there is evil. But there is no ontological reality that is evil in the sense assumed in premise (2); there is merely a survival-functional evil. It isn’t really evil in the sense of premise (2), but we have been so evolved that it serves us to see it that way and we cannot easily shake this notion. Therefore the argument isn’t sound. Given the different views of evil, don’t we need to unpack it a bit more?

  7. December 17, 2006 at 2:46 pm

    Some would also say that evil(ness) only comes from man (animals can’t sin), and therefore isn’t natural, and therefore premises 1 and 2 don’t conflict.

  8. Jim F.
    December 17, 2006 at 5:34 pm

    Herodotus: The piece I linked to is a response to a number of recent attacks on religion by people like Richard Dawkins. Others are mentioned in the piece. I agree that some kinds of metaphysics are generally looked down on. (There are also a number of metaphysical discussions that don’t engender that condescension.) However, that’s the point: if the argument I propose is unsound, allowing one to reject the conclusion, then it is probably because the second assumption is unacceptable. However, if the second assumption is unacceptable, then I don’t see any way to avoid nihilism.

    Tatiana: My argument doesn’t require that religion be the “something more than science” that understanding requires. I’ve not argued that we need religion, though of course I believe that we do. I’ve merely argued that science is insufficient. I agree that many scientists give the answer you outline: religion hasn’t answered our questions, so we should ignore it. My argument is an argument meant to show that such an answer doesn’t work.

    I don’t think it is a problem that the first assumption is an axiom rather than a finding. Science has to begin with axioms of some kind, and I think that is a perfectly acceptable axiom. However, I think that reasonable assumption about the nature of science leads directly to the conclusion that either something more than science is needed to explain human life and experience or there is no morality. Since most scientists, even atheistic ones, are moral people, I assume they believe there is morality. It follows that something more than science is needed to explain human life and experience.

    I didn’t intend this to imply that either scientists or atheists aren’t moral people. Of course many of them are; I would be surprised if the percentage of moral atheists or scientists isn’t the same as the percentage of moral religious people. I wish it were true that some measure of belief in God makes one more likely to be moral, but I doubt that it is.

    Wacky Hermit: Does Gödel’s proof apply to scientific theories? I’m not sure.

    J. Stapley: You’re going to have to help me understand your response. I don’t see how the question of free will is relevant to the argument I laid out, presumably because I’m overlooking something obvious.

    Blake: You’re right, that is the likely scientific response. However, as you point out, the response doesn’t solve the problem since denying the second assumption results in the conclusion for which I’ve argued. I’m not sure why we would need to unpack the second assumption more. Why wouldn’t it be enough to let the assumption cover whatever particular readers might mean by it? In other words, how would specifying what I mean by “There is evil” change the discussion?

    D.Hofmann: I didn’t argue that premises 1 and 2 conflict. I argued that they lead to the conclusion that science is not enough to explain the world. That, in turn, I argue, leads to the conclusion that either there is (at least potentially) an account of the world that goes beyond what science tells us, or there are no values.

  9. Jim F.
    December 17, 2006 at 5:38 pm

    Herodotus and Tatiana: I think it is not uncommon for scientists, religious or otherwise, to believe that eventually science will be able to explain everything. I certainly encounter on a regular basis LDS scientists who believe that. My argument is an argument against that understanding of science.

  10. Blake
    December 17, 2006 at 7:21 pm

    Jim: Perhaps your readers are willing to embrace what you lable “nihilism” but they see as just straightforward ethics of any kind worth wanting. For example, one could say that there is evil in the consequentialist sense and be perfectly fine adopting it. Further, they would say that anything more isn’t worth wanting. So premise (2) is true, but it doesn’t follow that we have nihilism since a consequentialist ethic isn’t nihilist.

    Now in saying this, let me assert that I am more in alignment with deontic ethtics. Yet perhaps we could still say even from a deontological sense that what is evil is anything that harms relationships. There was no evil before there were inter-human relationships; but the universe has conspired accidentally through the selection of the fittest process to give rise to meaningful realtionships. Thus, there is now something meaningful, relationships, and destruction of this meaningful reality is evil. So there is evil (in this sense) and yet it isn’t a nihilistic conclusion. Is that an adequate response?

  11. December 17, 2006 at 9:37 pm

    Blake, good response. Consequentialism may avoid the nihilistic conclusion, but I don’t think it does so by giving us an account that doesn’t go beyond science. Consequentialist ethics have to decide what is a good outcome, and it is difficult–perhaps impossible–to do so in merely natural terms. Consequentialist accounts don’t have to appeal to religion, but in the end they cannot avoid appealing to some kind of metaphysics to decide what is good and what is not. The closest they could come might be by appealing to pleasure, but I don’t think a pleasure principle will do all of the work needed in an ethics.

    The universe may have happened to conspire to give rise to meaningful human relations, but I don’t see how a merely natural account could explain what it means for a relation to be meaningful.

  12. diogenes
    December 18, 2006 at 12:06 am

    Does Gödel’s proof apply to scientific theories? I’m not sure.

    Yes, according to the Church-Turing-Tarski formulation of the hypothesis. Any formal system robust enough to include number theory is subject to the Gödel incompleteness problem.

    And, Wacky Hermit, scientists do know this. At least, scientists who are paying attention do.

  13. Blake
    December 18, 2006 at 12:39 am

    Jim: I think you’re right that science must fail in naturalistic accounts to give any traction to what it means to have meaningful relationships. So perhaps we have an allied or replacement argument of the form:

    1. Explanations of purely natural events in and of themselves are not interpersonally meaningful.

    2. There are meaningful relationships.

    3. Therefore, no explanation or set of explanations of the world that confines itself to the purely natural realm can be sufficient. We need more than science to understand our life in the world.

  14. December 18, 2006 at 12:59 am

    Alas, Jim, it is not likely to your overlooking something obvious but likely due to my incompetence. I’ll have to do some reading before I can make a substantive comment, but it seems to me that evil can’t be the result of random events. If there is no Free Will then there isn’t any real difference between death by rockslide and death by serial murderer. However, if Free Will exists then there is a difference.

    As Mormons we reject creation ex nihilo. In some way, God and man are fundamental to the Universe and there is a fair case against Divine Command Ethics (though there are many in the Church that champion it). If we reject God’s caprice as the source of Good and Evil, in many ways, are we not like the scientist who believes that free agency resulted by evolution?

  15. December 18, 2006 at 2:06 am


    While I agree that your argument is sound and the conclusion correct, I think it will fail to have force with those who it is aimed at because of the inherent difficulty of ethics within any framework. I think Blake’s comments have been exactly on track, except that he might have given up to quickly.

    You said to Blake: “The closest they could come might be by appealing to pleasure, but I don’t think a pleasure principle will do all of the work needed in an ethics.”

    It is certainly true that the pleasure principle will fail to do all of the work needed for the type of ethics you are likely to defend, but I think you would be hard pressed to demonstrate that the pleasure principle would not save a naturalist from inevitable nihilism. In fact, I think the pleasure principle can make significant headway in ethics. Something like the pleasure principle (maybe I would call it the joy principle) is at the heart of my own understanding of ethics. Joy is just such an obvious candidate for a “good” per se. Blake and I have disagreed about this previously, but I would contend that joy is the end for which meaningful relationships exist.

    My point is that I think a naturalist will be able to formulate some kind of ethical system which does not appear to be nihilism, and I am not sure you’ll be able to show that it actually reduces to nihilism.

    (Usually I don’t comment if I won’t be there for the response, but I am about to be away from internet access for awhile, so I will absorb your rebutal when I return. I couldn’t resist commenting, great post.)

  16. veritas
    December 18, 2006 at 4:09 am

    …We need more than science to understand our life in the world. True. But science would have a lot to say about the personality characteristics and genetic predispositions of the types of people who would be most likely to join and stay active in a vain, cultish religion. And I’m sure some of those involved in such a religion would label the observations an “attack” by so-called experts.

  17. Blake
    December 18, 2006 at 9:35 am

    J. and Jacob: I believe that Jim’s argument is valid if by naturalistic explanation we mean deterministic physical explanation where everything is explained as merely a function of what went before so that the universe at t1 determines all subsequent states of the universe. In such a universe there is no free will of the type necessary to make choices that are truly self-expressive or that arise from responsible choices; rather, we are merely algorithmic processors of what went before and nothing is truly novel because it was already implicit in the prior states of the universe. In that case, I don’t see how there could be non-nihilistic meaning or responsibility. For example, my choice of my wife is fully explained not by my choice to love her; but by the physical states of the universe. I don’t see how there could be such a thing as truly meaningful life in such instances. What we have are states for which we merely appear to be responsible, but we are not. We may have relationship that appear to be meaningful, but in reality they are merely a blind social-evolutionary scheme working itself out mindlessly. I would also argue (and will at greater length if the discussion warrants) that there cannot be anything other than merely apparent rationality in such a universe. Indeed, in such a universe, every word I type was already implicit in the universe before ever I was born or the world was created.

    Thank goodness the only possibilities for a world not created by God in every respect (i.e., there is no ex nihilo creation) are not exhausted by such a reductionistic closed deterministic system. What Jim is arguing against is such naturalistic reduction as the total explanation of all that there is. I agree with him in that.

  18. Blake
    December 18, 2006 at 9:43 am

    Jacob: Your joy principle will reduce to an egoistic ethic I believe. In other words, I will have a relationship with you only so long as it bring me joy. Thus, I don’t associate with you because of your inherent value or goodness or dignity, but because it brings me joy. In the end, you see me as insstrumental for your purposes and I am fungible in the sense that if someone brought you more joy, you would go with that producer of joy instead. In the end, relationships exist for your ends and purposes and can be manipulated to do so when they don’t serve the purpose of bringing joy. So I would suggest that your joy principle cannot give rise to I-Thou relationships or relationships that are truly meaningful in themselves. They are merely instrumentally value and reduce to an egoistic ethic. That is sufficient reason to reject such an “ethic” as I see it.

  19. Herodotus
    December 18, 2006 at 10:28 am


    Thanks for the clarification. Unfortunately I was unable to read the full article you linked as I don’t have a subscription to their journal.

    I actually specifically avoided addressing your argument in my post as I have no background in philosophy and suspect that I can’t discuss this intelligently on your terms. My only point was that I don’t think you’ll find any established atheistic consensus among scientists. For every Dawkins there is an Einstein who was a huge advocate for the idea that scientific truth affirms belief.

    Your post actually reminds me of an apocryphal story attributed to Einstein in which he argues for God. In this story he takes issue with your second assertion. I doubt you’ll find it to be convincing, but it there are enough parallels to this discussion that you might find it to be interesting. I’ll post it below.

  20. Herodotus
    December 18, 2006 at 10:30 am

    *** The following is considered to be apocryphal. There is no evidence this exchange ever occurred ***

    The university professor challenged his students with this question. Did God create everything that exists?
    A student bravely replied yes, he did!”
    “God created everything?” The professor asked.
    “Yes, sir,” the student replied.

    The professor answered, “If God created everything, then God created evil since evil exists, and according to the principal that our works define who we are then God is evil.”
    The student became quiet before such an answer.

    The professor was quite pleased with himself and boasted to the students that he had proven once more that the Christian faith was a myth.

    Another student raised his hand and said, “Can I ask you a question professor?” “Of course”, replied the professor. The student stood up and asked, “Professor, does cold exist?”

    “What kind of question is this? Of course it exists. Have you never been cold?” The students snickered at the young man’s question.

    The young man replied, “In fact sir, cold does not exist. According to the laws of physics, what we consider cold is in reality the absence of heat. Everybody and every object is susceptible to study when it has or transmits energy, and heat is what makes a body or matter have or transmit energy. Absolute zero (- 460 degrees F) is the total absence of heat; all matter becomes inert and incapable of reaction at that temperature. Cold does not exist. We have created this word to describe how we feel if we have too little heat.

    The student continued. “Professor, does darkness exist?”

    The professor responded, “Of course it does”.

    The student replied, “Once again you are wrong sir, darkness does not exist either. Darkness is in reality the absence of light. Light we can study, but not darkness. In fact we can use Newton’s prism to break white light into many colors and study the various wavelengths of each color. You cannot measure darkness. A simple ray of light can break into a world of darkness and illuminate it. How can you know how dark a certain space is? You measure the amount of light present. Isn’t this correct? Darkness is a term used by man to describe what happens when there is no light present.”

    Finally the young man asked the professor. “Sir, does evil exist?”

    Now uncertain, the professor responded, “Of course as I have already said. We see it every day. It is in the daily example of man’s inhumanity to man. It is in the multitude of crime and violence everywhere in the world. “These manifestations are nothing else but evil.”

    To this the student replied, “Evil does not exist sir, or at least it does not exist unto itself. Evil is simply the absence of God. It is just like darkness and cold, a word that man has created to describe the absence of God. God did not create evil. Evil is not like faith, or love, that exist just as does light and heat. Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God’s love present in his heart. It’s like the cold that comes when there is no heat or the darkness that comes when there is no light.”

    The professor sat down.

    The young man’s name — Albert Einstein.

  21. veritas
    December 18, 2006 at 11:36 am

    Count gullibility as one of those predispositions.

  22. Herodotus
    December 18, 2006 at 11:42 am

    Eh, if you look at my introduction to that story you’ll see that I label it both as apocryphal and unconvincing.

    I thought the similarities to this discussion were interesting though.

  23. greenfrog
    December 18, 2006 at 12:53 pm


    Would the same conclusion obtain if #2 were “There is subjectivity”?

  24. Matt Evans
    December 18, 2006 at 12:56 pm

    Jim, this is a great observation. The problem of evil can’t refute God because “evil” can only be ontologically defined by reference to an extra-natural source. The naturalists who use “the problem of evil” to disprove God, like Dawkins and Dennet, are using a non-natural definition of evil. (I have no idea how Dawkins would define evil

    Back in the halcyon days of blogging (2003) I lambasted Dawkins and Dennets effort to rally atheists around the label “brights,” claiming they hoped to found a new religion. Dawkins had claimed in his NYT editorial that, “[t]he ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic world view,” to which I responded that no ethics can be derived from a naturalistic world view. I got lots of credentialed people (including Brian Witherspoon, philosophy prof at Brown, and Larry Solum, legal theory prof at UCLA) to bear their testimonies about the soundness of their naturalistic ethics. Really, really, they pleaded, that their ethics are not based on blind faith. My challenge to them:

    Ok, so my assertion that the Bright religion is no better than any other has gotten a lot of you riled up. My heretical claim that your positions are non-rational has so exasperated some of you that you’ve turned to personal attacks. (No offense taken, I empathize with your frustration. I like to think my religion is better than others, too.) To advance the content of the debate, however, I propose a more constructive course.

    Here’s the deal: I invite all Brights to email me the moral premises they accept not by blind faith, but because they are founded in nature. Please trace the moral premise to natural facts. Though submissions will be accepted in any format, syllogisms are especially appreciated. Show your work.

    This will allow us determine with certainty whether Brights have discovered a higher rational order, as advertised, or if they rely on non-rational faith, just like every other religion.

    Please email all responses to Matt at the email address on the top right. I’ll publish the best answers in a future post. Feel free to copy your messages into the Shout Outs. To expedite the diffusion of knowledge, I’ll forward copies of all submissions to those who ask for them.

    Start your keyboards!

    P.S. Recent Bright converts are not expected to have deduced more than one moral premise at this stage in their progression.

    P.P.S. Colleagues of Bright clergy, especially Fathers Dawkins and Dennet, are urged to alert them of our project and encourage their participation.

    Most of our exchange can be accessed here:

  25. December 18, 2006 at 2:18 pm

    Blake, I completely agree with your comment.

  26. December 18, 2006 at 2:24 pm

    Jim: We need more than science to understand our life in the world… Either we have an account of the world and human existence that goes beyond what science can tell us or we have nihilism.

    Couldn’t a devout naturalist simply amend these conclusions of yours to say we just need more than our current understanding of science to explain evil? As Stapley noted, there is a time honored line of thought even in Mormonism that holds that there is no such thing as true supernaturalism (aka magic) and that even libertarian free will can arise (or at least exist) naturally. Perhaps Blake is right that your argument is largely an argument against an entirely causally determined universe. Or perhaps your point is to argue with Matt that believing science can (one day) provide all of the answers requires as much faith as any religion. Do Blake and or Matt have your intent right? If not then there are some major loopholes a naturalist could use to escape nihilism.

  27. December 18, 2006 at 4:32 pm

    Sorry – I’m coming late to the discussion. So I’m just addressing Jim’s original post.

    It seems to me that there is an equivocation over “natural.” For instance I think most scientists would say humans are natural in one sense. But in an other we typically make a separation between human-derived events and human-independent events. The later are called natural. This is terribly confusing and a source of no end of problems in my mind. But somewhat understandable.

    It seems to me that your argument depends upon conflating the two senses.

    I may have more comments as I read the comments.

  28. December 18, 2006 at 4:44 pm

    Jim: (#8) I think it is not uncommon for scientists, religious or otherwise, to believe that eventually science will be able to explain everything. I certainly encounter on a regular basis LDS scientists who believe that.

    I think that, myself, for instance.

    Diogenes: (#12) Yes, according to the Church-Turing-Tarski formulation of the hypothesis. Any formal system robust enough to include number theory is subject to the Gödel incompleteness problem.

    But of course science isn’t “closed” the way the axiomatic systems Godel was discussing. So in a sense one is constantly moving to new meta-descriptions. Even back in the 19th century though at least some scientists realized that while everything was knowable by science it might be that one couldn’t logically know everything. (Due to problems made clearer by modern information theory of finite systems) Peirce discussed this for instance.

  29. Blake
    December 18, 2006 at 6:54 pm

    Clark: It is not merely questionable but seems to me to be false to assert that “most scientists” would exempt human-derived events from the natural order. Indeed, that is what evolution is all about — humans are not exempted and there acts are merely the result of events which are reducible to physical events and laws of causation. I’d like to know what you base your judgment on — I have way to much respect for you to simply believe that you made this statement without something in mind that must be different than what it appears you are saying.

  30. Douglas Hunter
    December 18, 2006 at 7:02 pm

    I agree that science does not provide a full description of the human experience but I find the three part formulation a bit confusing.

    >1. Explanations of purely natural events ought to be morally neutral; they ought to assume >that natural events are, in themselves, neither good nor bad.

    >2. There is evil.

    >3. Therefore, no explanation or set of explanations of the world that confines itself to the >purely natural realm can be sufficient. We need more than science to understand our life in >the world.

    First, there is a shift between numbers 1 and 3. In 1 the description appears to refrence the necessary limitation of observational procedures we use in science to only take into account the material dimesions of the objects, or events under study. In 3 the description is much broader, including “our life in the world”. How are these two ideas related? The first imples something very specific (a methodology), the second is much broader in scope (a general idea of human life in all its dimensions). I think that the link between the two needs to be more fully explained, the relationship between them is not self evident to me.

    Second, I don’t think you need 2 at all, because the entire formulation seems to be a bit of a straw man. Why would we presume that the observation & measurement of material relationships (the job of the material sciences) can tell us everything there is to know about “our lives in the world?” How could one defend such a statement? I assume any such defense would be broad and abstract and not bother with many specifics. Further, In order for “evil” to have a bearing in regards to scientific methodology, wouldn’t one need to observe / measure the material nature of evil, and be able to theorize / describe how evil bears on material relationships?

    My life in the world contain a good deal of science and also poetry, story telling, philosophy etc. While I personally frequently rely on scientific methodology in measuring various elements of how specific human movements are performed, I have to ask what relation there is between science and “not even the rain has such small hands.” or “It is the undeconstructability of justice that makes it in excess of the law (not an exact quote)”?

    Someone might counter that science can ask questions about the cognitive processes involved in poetry or philosophy which is interesting. But don’t claims that science, or religion for that matter, are capable of creating an exhustive description of the material world and our life in it, dependent on some serious epistemicological assumptions? I think so, but I don’t see how “evil” is necessary to engage such assumptions. I think the fact that we can ask questions that cannot be scientifically formulated or answered is evidence enough.

    But then again I probably have no idea what is being discussed here.


  31. gad
    December 18, 2006 at 10:05 pm


    An interesting argument. But what if we substitute “cuteness” and “ugliness” for good and evil? Then the question broadens to whether anything normative is compatible with physicalism. I have three responses off the top of my head an anti-religious atheist might entertain:

    1) An atheist worldview doesn’t presuppose science to have the answers to everything. Ethics originated in Greece with thinkers who to my knowledge didn’t require religious enlightenment even if their views aren’t typically in line with

    2) The scientifically reductive explanations I believe you’re talking about are easiest to see (intuitively) as flawed in the framework of type physicalism. How can we possibly meaningfully talk about goodness or cuteness in the language of forces and atoms? But more popular now is supervenience physicalism which frames the discussion a little differently. We could say that the cuteness of a kitten (or the beauty of a work of art) supervenes of the physical and retain physicalism, but the kinds of explanations for cuteness aren’t guaranteed to be one of forces and neural excretions. In fact, those explanations might not even be the most helpful even if they are true.

    3) Premis one is a little confusing. There is a difference between saying it was evil of the blood to accept the carbon monoxide molecule more readily than the oxygen molecule, thus leading to the death of the child and saying the evil of the killer emerged under the following material circumstances. In other words, if a descriptive account of the normative is ultimately possible, that doesn’t mean the description is normative, it’s rather, subnormative.

  32. December 19, 2006 at 12:37 am

    Blake (#29), I think you’re falling prey to the same equivocal use of language. In one sense they would of course never remove man from nature but in an other sense this is very common. I hear this all the time. So, for instance, waste from a chemical factory isn’t considered natural even though clearly in an other sense it is.

    I’m rather surprised you’d even seen this as a controversial point. Every scientists I’ve known speaks this way.

  33. Blake
    December 19, 2006 at 1:13 am

    Clark: I believe that the equivocation is yours. Let me explain. When speaking colloquially, scientists may speak as you say. But when speaking qua scientist, giving an explanation, just as you admit above, everything is explainable in scientific (event causal and covering law) terms. So don’t be surprised.

  34. Jim F.
    December 19, 2006 at 1:51 am

    Diogenes: Thanks for answering my question about Gödel’s proof, but it seems to me that Wacky Hermit must have meant more. What you say seems true by definition: Number theory is incomplete. So, any theory that includes number theory is incomplete. If that’s what Wacky Hermit meant, then I don’t see how it is relevant. I suspect, instead, that he was using “Gödel’s proof” as an analogy of some kind, as sometimes happens (often improperly to my mind).

    Blake: I like your allied argument. I don’t think it is quite the same, but it is close enough to make the same basic point about the ability of science to explain all. And thank you for the responses to J. Stapley and Jacob. I don’t think there is anything in them with which I disagree except, perhaps, that joy can be egoistic. Perhaps, however, you are merely using “joy” in a sense that Jacob has used it rather than agreeing that it is egoistic.

    J. Stapley: Thanks for saying more. Now I see what you were getting at, and I think that the problem was, indeed, mine rather than yours. Your point that to speak of evil is necessarily to speak of human freedom is an interesting one. I haven’t thought about it enough to know, but it seems to me that your point might be the basis for an interesting and helpful variation on the argument I’ve suggested.

    Jacob: Hope to see you back again, but have a good Christmas vacation in between. I suspect that our disagreement will, in the end, come down to a variation (and not much of one) on your disagreement with Blake: I don’t think that joy and pleasure are the same since the first implies value and the second does not. I see how a consequentialist ethics can give us quite a bit, but—like Blake—I don’t think it can give us enough. Whether it can depends on whether pleasure and joy are the same, the point on which we disagree.

    Veritas: I don’t think you can reasonably say that Dawkins is merely talking about the “the personality characteristics and genetic predispositions of the types of people who would be most likely to join and stay active in a vain, cultish religion.” Obviously you and I will disagree about whether Mormonism is such a religion, but that is irrelevant. Dawkins and others are attacking religion per se. Plus, as I pointed out earlier, my argument does not specify that religion is the “more” that science needs. It may be, but there may be other possible “mores” as well.

    Herodotus: I agree that there is not an atheistic consensus among scientists. I don’t recall the most recent figures, but I think I recall them showing that a large percentage of scientists, though I don’t think it was a majority, are believers.

    greenfrog: Good question. I don’t have a strong opinion, but I think the same conclusion would obtain.

    Matt Evans: It looks like you beat me to this some time ago. Nice series of posts and discussion. Thank you for referring us to it.

    Geoff J: As I noted earlier (response #9), your tack is one that is often taken by believing scientists, including LDS scientists, but no, I don’t this will work. I don’t think that it is enough to say that science can’t explain evil now but eventually will be able to. I think the root of your and my disagreement can be seen when you seem to imply that by “something more than science” I mean “supernaturalism (aka magic).” Values and goods are not supernatural, but neither are they naturally explicable. Therefore, they cannot be explained by a merely natural explanation and we don’t have to appeal to magic or something like it to explain them.

    Clark: I’m aware of the possible equivocation, but I don’t see how I have conflated them. Can you explain further?

    Douglas Hunter: If there is a problem with assumption #1 and the conclusion (at line 3), I need more help seeing what it is. I apologize, but I don’t understand what shift in meaning you see there.

    As to whether the second assumption, “There is evil,” is necessary: Without it there is not a complete argument; the argument is formally invalid unless it is included. You ask, “Why would we presume that the observation & measurement of material relationships (the job of the material sciences) can tell us everything there is to know about ‘our lives in the world?'” I don’t presume that, but there are plenty of people who do, at least in principle. In fact, it appears that Clark may be one of them. (See #28.)

    gad: Since my point was about the incompatibility of norms and physicalism, your substitutions work. However, I haven’t suggested that atheists all assume that science presupposes the answers to everything else. My argument was not against atheists, but against those who believe that in the long run science will be able to explain everything.

    Whether ancient Greek philosophers were atheists is a matter of discussion, but I believe that most of them were probably not. Again, however, that is not relevant to the argument I’ve made.

    Thanks for introducing the notion of supervenience. I think that is an important notion, for it allows me to claim that morality is not explicable in naturalistic terms without claiming that the world has some additional property or appealing to supernaturalism. It seems to me that those who argue that science will eventually be able to explain everything do not understand morality as supervening on the physical world, though that is how I see the relation between physical explanations and moral ones. If morality is supervenient on science, then no scientific explanation will be able to explain morality.

    You’re going to have to help me with how the first premise is confusing. I don’t understand how what you say shows a problem in my assumption.

  35. Bill
    December 19, 2006 at 2:51 am

    I was just reading some essays by Robert Musil, and found the following excerpt in the essay title “Moral Fruitfulness” from 1913. I’m not sure I understand exactly what he’s getting after, maybe some kind of revaluation of all values. He does seem to be trying to develop some kind of ethics that avoids nihilism:

    What always turns up in practice when we investigate instances of egoism is an emotional relation to the environment, a relation between “I” and “Thou” that is difficult at both ends. But it is just as true that there has never been a pure altruism. There have only been people who had to make use of others because they loved them, and those they had to harm because they loved them and had no other way to express it. Or who did both because they hated. But hate and love too are only deceptive forms of appearance, accidental symptoms of a driving force that occurs in many people and that one can only characterize as moral aggressiveness, as the utterly fantastic compulsion to react to one’s fellow human beings in some vehement way, flowing into them, annihilating them, or creating constellations with them that are rich in inner inventiveness. Altruism and egoism both are possibilities for expressing this moral imagination, but taken together they are nothing more than two of its many forms, which have never been counted.

    Similarly, evil is not the opposite of good, or its absence; evil and good are parallel phenomena. They are not fundamental or ultimate moral antitheses, as has always been assumed, probably not even particularly important concepts for moral theory, but rather practical and impure summations. Diametrical opposition between good and evil corresponds to an earlier stage of thought that expected everything from the dichotomy; in any case this opposition is not very scientific. What gives all these moral bifurcations the illusion of importance is the confusion with the dichotomy: worth opposing/worth supporting. In fact this genuine antithesis, which plays a role in all problems, contains an important element of morality, and any theory that wanted to smooth over or obscure this opposition in some way would be a bad theory. But “to understand all is to forgive all” is no greater a misunderstanding than deciding that the excusability or inexcusability of a moral phenomenon exhausts its meaning. Two things are confused here that must be kept entirely separate. What we should oppose or support is determined by practical considerations and factual circumstances, and, if one allows enough room for historical contingencies, can be explained completely. To punish a thief I do not require an ultimate justification but only an immediate one, but this involves no trace of moral reflection and imagination. If, on the other hand, a person feels paralyzed the moment he s about to punish someone, if he sees his right to lay hands on another person suddenly disintegrate, or if he begins to do penance or carouse to death in bars, then what has moved him no longer has anything to do with food or evil; and yet he still finds himself in a state of the most vehement moral reaction.

  36. December 19, 2006 at 4:22 am

    Alright, I read the post and some of the comments, but I simply don’t have the time or patience to read all of them. Thus, if I say something which has already been addressed, forgive me.

    I agree that many of the scientists which Jim is describing seem to be quite unacquainted with the idea of reducing the subject matter of social sciences to that of the natural sciences.

    Nevertheless, I do not see the naturalist as being as trapped as one might think. The idea of scientists discovering or reducing rights, freewill, beliefs, desires and social rules to mere matter in motion is hopeless. Rather, the naturalists could suggest that they are give a scientific account of how we collectively construe the world so as to experience it as having such things in it. Such a move is practically improbable at best, but I do not see how it is impossible in principle

    Of course the response to this is that this is merely a dressed up version of nihilism. Perhaps, but I think a stronger case can be made for constructivism than merely “we believe X” or “we want X”. After all, the word “dog” really refer to the furry animal which we love, or do we merely believe it to? I see such a constructivist account as being in harmony with, and even historically derived from the non-scientific description of the world inherent in folk psychology. Thus, the question is whether folk psychology can or cannot be reduced in principle to biology/neurology. I think that in principle it can.

    Thus, I guess I could agree with Jim in saying that science doesn’t describe values, freewill, etc. but that is because such things are simply a part of our non-scientific description of the world. It may be possible to scientifically describe our non-scientific descriptions of the world, but we shouldn’t necessarily expect these two descriptions to be intertranslatable.

  37. gad
    December 19, 2006 at 2:22 pm

    concerning 1) I realize I went beyond the scope of your argument (apologies). It will be tempting for many religious folks to read something into your argument that isn’t here so I launched a preemptive strike.

    concerning 2) What I have in mind with supervenience is something like; An explanation p for cuteness may exist which is 1) scientific in the sense that it posits no more than physical reality, is falsifiable, can make predictions etc. but 2) does not reduce to to a description of physical (natural?) events.

  38. diogenes
    December 19, 2006 at 3:17 pm

    Thanks for answering my question about Gödel’s proof, but it seems to me that Wacky Hermit must have meant more. What you say seems true by definition: Number theory is incomplete. So, any theory that includes number theory is incomplete. If that’s what Wacky Hermit meant, then I don’t see how it is relevant.

    Um, the point is actually a little more complex than that. Any formal system that includes number theory can be arithmatized, or Gödel numbered. Arithmatization is the formal mechanism by which Gödel showed incompleteness. So number theory in this case is a tool, not a characteristic.

    Church and Turing showed Gödel’s conclusion to hold for any system that could be formalized as a Turing machine. Tarski extended this result to any sufficiently rich language or descriptive system.

    This bears on your claim about science in at least two ways. First, there is some movement in current physics to view the universe as a sort of hyper-Turing machine (see for example Lee Smolin or Greg Chaitin). One implication of this is that the set of statements we can make about the universe, computable by some lesser Turing machine, is necessarily incomplete in the Gödel sense.

    Second, and less speculatively, since science constitutes a description of the universe, the set of statements that comprises scientific knowledge is subject to Tarski’s Indefinability Theorem, and there will be true statements that cannot be proven within the system.

    I take Wacky Hermit’s observation to be that your argument is an casual form of Tarksi’s Indefinability Theorem.

    But of course science isn’t “closed” the way the axiomatic systems Godel was discussing.

    That’s why I specified that it is a Church-Turing-Tarski problem, not a Gödel problem. Gödel formally proved only a weak form of the theorem. Tarski’s work extends to essentially any descriptive system powerful enough to be interesting or useful.

  39. Adam S.
    December 19, 2006 at 4:03 pm

    Help me understand:

    If I assert that “there is no evil”, am I a nihilist?

    If so, is a nonbelief in evil a complete definition of nihilism?

  40. Adam S.
    December 19, 2006 at 4:17 pm

    By the way, it seems clear to me that the post is primarily meant as an attack on naturalistic wordviews. From the little philosophy I know, it seems like nihilism is currently used as a epithet.

    from wikipedia:
    In the world of ethics, nihilist or nihilistic is often used as a derogatory term referring to a complete rejection of all systems of authority, morality, and social custom, or one who purportedly makes such a rejection.
    Nihilism is often more a charge leveled against a particular idea, movement, or group, than it is an actual philosophical position to which someone overtly subscribes.

  41. December 19, 2006 at 8:05 pm

    Blake: I believe that the equivocation is yours. Let me explain. When speaking colloquially, scientists may speak as you say. But when speaking qua scientist, giving an explanation, just as you admit above, everything is explainable in scientific (event causal and covering law) terms. So don’t be surprised.

    But I disagree. When scientists speak of the evils of global warming they are speaking as scientists. This gets into the whole fact/value dichotomy in philosophy of science. Certainly some scientists would argue that we ought exclude values or reduce them nominalistically to brain states. But in that case they’ve simply adopted (2) but said it supervenes on (1) and that talk shouldn’t be in terms of good and evil yet accept the reality of evil. Thus the issue is an issue of translation.

    Of course one could also just point out that the fact/value dichotomy is hugely problematic and it seems hard to enforce it in science. Certainly historically there isn’t such a divide with scientists qua scientists engaging in value. One might see this simply as the rejection of (1) but given the qualification Jim made in presenting (1) I don’t think that fits.

    That is, the events “in themselves [are] neither good nor bad.” But events need not be considered purely “in themselves” to be considered scientifically.

  42. December 20, 2006 at 3:00 am

    Note, I should add that I think my point in #41 was simply that when scientists as scientists speak there are different acceptable discourses. Hopefully that was clear.

    Jim, regarding the equivocation. Let me suggest this.

    In (1) the “naturalism” is a naturalism of description. i.e. that any description ought be conducted in a form that doesn’t make moral judgment. (2) is a moral description. (3) then suggests this is a contradiction. However if the issue is merely one of translation then there is no issue. (i.e. the claim that moral talk can be translated into non-moral talk)

    This seems pretty believable on the face of it although I fully understand that some will be reject the ability to make such a translation. (For instance I think Davidson’s anomalous monism would entail this) But consider at a minimum an example where the translation is possible. One adopts utilitarianism as the metatheory for ethics. Thus one is a realist about ethics. “Happiness” can be translated into some neural state (or at least measured by some neural state) So talk about good and evil can be translated into talk that isn’t moral. Now you might say that this fits your discussion of merely our “likes and dislikes” but I don’t think it is. After all happiness is something we are: a property. It isn’t merely a like or dislike. It seems one can take many strategies like this to invalidate (3).

    But that’s not what I was getting at. My point was that we have naturalism as a kind of method. (i.e. science as a way of knowing) Then we have naturalism as an ontological claim. (i.e. physicalism) Then we have naturalism as roughly what is out there independent of intelligent free actions (with what that means left vague). We can’t conflate these three.

    The problem is that your (1) seems to use nature in the ontological sense and (3) in the epistemological sense. Further when we talk about scientists, as I mentioned they often use all three senses. After all, as I noted above, evil can be natural in the ontological sense but not be in the epistemological sense.

  43. December 20, 2006 at 3:03 am

    Just to clarify, I’d say utilitarianism is a realist theory of metaethics. (A theory I happen to disagree with, but that’s neither here nor there). That’s because the claims of what is evil or good are independent of what any finite group thinks. Contrast this with say hedonism which is an antirealist theory since it depends upon what the individual thinks. (Roughly what gives them pleasure)

    I take all that is required to make (2) true is that one adopt a realist metaethical theory but have this theory be describable in terms acceptable to methadological naturalism. I think most consequentialist metaethical theories can do this.

  44. T-Bone
    February 4, 2007 at 7:24 pm

    This is an old thread that has gone quiet, so maybe there isn’t much point in it, but I would like to respond to the original post.

    I think the argument involves an equivocation on ‘natural’ and because of this begs the question already in the first premise. Here’s the argument:

    “1. Explanations of purely natural events ought to be morally neutral; they ought to assume that natural events are, in themselves, neither good nor bad.
    2. There is evil.
    3. Therefore, no explanation or set of explanations of the world that confines itself to the purely natural realm can be sufficient. We need more than science to understand our life in the world.”

    But notice that if the first clause of the 1 is true, then if human actions are natural events, their explanations ought to be morally neutral. So no one who wants to find scientific explanations for human actions (i.e., wants to treat them as natural events) can accept this premise without already conceding 3, which is supposed to be the conclusion of the argument.

    The notion of ‘natural events’ that makes 1 seem plausible is the notion used to distinguish earthquakes (e.g.) from murder. But this cannot be the same notion at play in 3, where (because of premise 2) the world is understood to include the existence of evil.

    Without getting into the metaphysics of evil, I suppose that everyone can concede that evil is a normative notion. There are huge tracts of philosophical literature that discuss the question of whether and how normative notions can be explained and understood naturalistically. Unless you were ready to dismiss all the attempts to provide naturalistic accounts of normativity as failures, I don’t know how you could assert 1. (By ‘naturalistic’ and ‘naturalistically’ here I mean to refer to projects whose explicit aim is to integrate normative phenomena into a scientific worldview.)

    Perhaps embedded in the argument is an implicit commitment to the (vague/confused) idea that effects must resemble their causes or that wholes must resemble their parts. Physical descriptions of events are morally neutral; there is no normativity at the atomic level. Physiological descriptions of human activity are morally neutral; probably there is no normativity at the physiological level. But it doesn’t follow that descriptions of events at the personal and social levels must be morally neutral. We can and do have scientific explanations at all these levels of description and in that sense treat the events or phenomena described at these levels as natural events. So when Jim F. says “I think it important to a scientific understanding of the world not to impute moral qualities to natural events” he is either conflating the various sciences or equivocating on ‘natural.’

    While some atheist thinkers (notably Nietzsche) would do away with the concept of evil, this certainly isn’t true of all atheists or naturalists. Although naturalism per se isn’t their primary concern, just off the top of my head I can think of two recent books that argue that objectivism regarding good and evil in no way depends on God or belief in God: Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe by Erik Wielenberg and Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? by Russ Shafer-Landau. In the views of these two authors good/evil can be grounded in uncontroversial facts about human psychology and society.

    Again, it seems to me that 1 above begs the question. We have to agree that human psychology and society are not “purely natural” if we are to accept this premise. An enormous amount of literature in philosophy of biology, philosophy of mind, action theory, moral psychology, evolutionary psychology, metaethics, etc. is dedicated to showing that and how we can understand human psychology and society naturalistically. It seems to me that the general consensus among the philosophers and scientists engaged in these discussions is that this naturalistic project has been (or ultimately will be) successful. Moreover, I suspect that the majority of these same people would accept premise 2. But they should reject 1.

    The second part of premise 1 is also strange or misleading, I think. Even if we are objectivists about morality, do we have a notion of good/bad tout court such that any events (natural or not) can “in themselves” be good or bad. Or does good/bad imply at least the existence of beings with purposes? If beings with purposes can be a part of the purely natural world, then at least some natural events could very well be described as good/bad.

    The conclusion, 3 above, is problematic and vague in a few different ways. The equivocation and/or question begging that undermines 1 also undermines the conclusion. If human action cannot be naturalized, then “no explanation or set of explanations of the world that confines itself to the purely natural realm can be sufficient [to account for the existence of evil].” But if human action can be naturalized, then we just reject 1. As 1 and 3 are stated, they require treating natural events and human actions as disjoint sets to be acceptable; but then the argument misses its target entirely.

    The claim that “We need more than science to understand our life in the world,” would probably be acceptable to many or even most naturalists on at least one reading. We make use of poetry and all kinds of literature and art to help us understand our life in the world. And we tend to distinguish such things from science. So as a pretty uncontroversial matter of fact about the current crop of human beings, we do not understand ourselves purely in terms of science. Must we classify such human activities as poetry and art together with their products as non-natural or not-purely-natural events? When scientists and naturalistic philosophers say things to the effect that science is ultimately sufficient to explain everything, I think they are just denying that human actions and human society are fundamentally separate and distinct from the natural world. And/or they are expressing confidence that the naturalistic projects of the various branches of philosophy have already succeeded or will succeed in the future.

    So I think the argument Jim F. offers for our consideration is just a bad argument. I don’t think there is any short argument from the existence of evil (or any other normative concept) to the inadequacy of a scientific worldview. (There are of course particular conceptions of (e.g.) evil (and also, e.g., free will) that are essentially non-naturalistic. But claiming that these exist would also beg the question if such claims were substituted for 2 above.)

    Finally, I am very puzzled by Jim F.’s closing remark: “The argument amounts to the conclusion, ‘Either we have an account of the world and human existence that goes beyond what science can tell us or we have nihilism.’” In the first place, the argument deals only with evil, not with nihilism. Nietzsche argued that we should give up on ‘evil,’ but denied nihilism, right? Secondly, this remark comes just after this quote: “taking evil to be merely an expression of our likes and dislikes: ‘Murder is evil’ amounts only to ‘I (or we) don’t like murder.’” This, I guess, is an articulation of a non-cognitivist, expressivist metaethical point of view. But are defenders of such a view going to accept with alacrity the label of ‘nihilist?’

  45. T-Bone
    February 5, 2007 at 6:28 pm

    Now that my comment has rolled off the “recent comments” list I suppose it is in danger of never reaching the intended audience. Is there some sort of ‘notify’ function whereby I can let Jim F. know that I responded to his post?

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