After watching yet another theological debate where the participants cover old ground, this one a two hour epic from Mexico, I've noticed a few points rear their heads again, and I'd like to discuss one in particular: the idea that science must not replace religion because it doesn't tell people what morals they should have.

It's true that science offers no moral compass. It tells us how the universe works and how the things in it work, and it tells us why they work that way. It doesn't suggest how anything ought to work in an ideal world. It merely illuminates how things do work in the real world.

Most of the time, this is fine. It's both fun and useful to find out things like the size, shape and age of our humble planet, or where all the different species came from. No morals would be expected here.

The apparent problem has come about because we now know so much about the universe that we're forced to face the fact that we're utterly insignificant in it. Our four and a half billion year old planet is one of countless many, as is the star we orbit, and the galaxy we reside in. We now know that humans weren't created out of thin air by any benevolent genetic tinkerer. We merely happen to be a particular species of ape that adapted to its surroundings by becoming smarter and less hairy.

Again, this is no reason to despair. It makes our being able to discover these things so much more incredible to think that we're merely arbitrary parts of the universe that happened to become able to look at both ourselves and the other parts and really think about them.

Still, it seems to throw a few people into despair to realise they're not particularly special, nor looked upon fondly by some galactic parent figure. Presumably this is roughly analogous to what it might feel like to discover you're adopted.

One of the things that belief in this parental figure was allegedly meant to help with is keeping people in check, making sure they don't go around being nasty to each other. As superior as science is to religion at discovering how things work, it won't tell people how to behave, only how they're already likely to behave, and why.

To put it another way, a set of mutually antagonising ideologies exist that incorrectly explain how the world works, form communities, and dictate morals. These ideologies are going the way of the dinosaurs, so to speak, due to the efforts of a completely different kind of ideology that is far more useful in the explaining department but does sod all in the community building and morally guiding departments.

Criticising science for what it doesn't do strikes me as a curious gripe, as science never claimed to do anything more than tell you how nature works. Community building is important, and having good morals is important, but science doesn't provide these things. It's not supposed to.

Science is not a monolithic ideology that sits on its own and demands you do what it wants. It's a learning tool, and nothing more. It's a very good learning tool, but you shouldn't use it for things other than learning. If you want to build a community or work out your moral system, you shouldn't use science to do it. You arguably shouldn't use religion, either.

Admittedly, most modern community building seems to be done on the World Wide Web, which was designed to be a neat little documentation system for the good scientists at CERN, but that's besides the point. Such conveniences are merely a side effect of the technology that science allows. Technology in general is the unintended but nevertheless appreciated byproduct of scientific inquiry.

In the case of morals, you don't need to get them from anywhere. You already have them. In your head, you already have ideas of what you should do and what you shouldn't do, and you didn't get these ideas from a several thousand year old list.

Unless you're a psychopath, your mirror neurons already let you picture things from other people's point of view, and act accordingly so you don't annoy them. We happen to know this thanks to science, but you'd do it even if you didn't consciously know why you were doing it -- it's in your nature.

Even if this wasn't the case, we also have legal systems that evolve over time, shifting with the zeitgeist, that reflect what people currently consider to be inappropriate enough to warrant punishment. This is also better than religious dogma because deciding which particular laws should be adhered to is an argument that can be settled by requesting your government pass a bill to create a new law, requesting they remove an old one, or physically moving to a different country. Sure, this isn't a perfect system, but it's a lot better than one that cannot keep up with new moral dilemmas brought about by new technology such as, say, contraception or stem cell research. As our knowledge and abilities grow, our agreed upon morals and laws need to grow with them.

So even though it's true that science in isolation can't replace religions, that doesn't change the fact that it's showing them to be increasingly likely to be complete nonsense, nor the fact that it's already far exceeded them in its ability to explain how things work. A combination of science, a legal system, and a good community is already more than enough to safely phase out the outmoded concept of religion without causing society to collapse like a neutron star.

Science itself may be amoral, but various social sciences involve the study or analysis of moral systems, from political science to economics to comparative religious studies.

Science also has something to say about contemporary morality as the result of the evolution of cooperation. By cooperation, I don't merely mean negotiation or compromise. I think that implies that the result of cooperation is ultimately not as good as you would like, if you didn't have to do it. In many cases, I would say that's not true at all.

For example, say there were two people on opposite sides of an island, each building their own house. So each of them climbs on ladders, by themselves, outside each of the houses, doing various things. The problem is that by working alone, they risk injury - the ladder may slip without anyone holding it. They also have nobody to hand them tools when they need it, etc etc.

If they worked together to build the houses (ie. cooperation), then they in fact would have someone to hold the ladder, or hand them tools. Similarly, on an assembly line, everyone works together to produce things much faster than if each of them had to build the whole thing alone.

On the other hand, if the two guys on the island decided to "compete" for the right to control the island, then they might spend their time making spears. When the day the fight comes, one may be killed, and the other may be seriously injured, only to die of an infection a week later. Competition obviously didn't quite work out for either party in this case.

I'm sure some "civilizations" end up like the one in Lord of the Flies, however, the "civilizations" like LotF don't have as much survival advantage as those with more cooperative memes.

The ones that don't have the same survival advantage kill themselves off and therefore their memes don't get propagated to future generations. The civilizations that not only don't kill themselves off, but help the carriers of their memes survive, end up with future generations with similar cooperative memes.

Interestingly enough, this is an amoral explanation for why you shouldn't kill people and why you should help them instead, instead of a moral justification for why you shouldn't kill people... it kind of scares me a bit actually.

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