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Scientific Morality, Beauty, Justice, and Kindness

By DealDoctor ~

Our good friend Valerie Tarico in her excellent recent article “Heaven, Hell and Sam Harris”  which responds to Sam Harris’ new book
Commit Random KindnessImage by ganesha.isis via Flickr
The Moral Landscape said:

"For those of us who find traditional dogmas inadequate to answer the complex ethical questions before us, and I am one, Harris has opened a conversation we need to have."

I could not agree more with smart Valerie. I would go on to say when we reject dogmatic Medieval religion and then find liberal religion to be only a tap dancing cop out which lacks the courage to just let it go and move on because of habit, tradition and social structures those facts do not mean that science has all the answers moral or otherwise for human situation. Harris is correct that it does have many.

I remember in the movie " Dead Poets SocietyRobin Williams saying something to the effect that subjects like math, physics, and chemistry help us make a living but that poetry, literature, love and art help us build a life. I honestly think and feel, because I as a human being have the right to think and feel what is real and important, that my wife and children are more than just the components of their chemical and material makeup. People have value beyond what an icy cold scientific materialism may reduce us to the value of the few dollars our material make up might bring at market. Such thinking points to nihilism and the absurdity of that path is a dead end with no meaning.

Otto Rank, one of Freud's heretical disciples, argued that we all must have our illusions in order to cope and I would argue that we all do have our illusions, repressions, projections denials et al and that such illusions are held even by our best scientists. Some illusions are certainly more helpful than others but without them we enter into full-blown psychosis or have a horrific neurosis. The " normal" people embrace the illusions of their culture, society, religion, sports teams, political systems and then they also go take out the trash and do the laundry. They are also amazed by the beautiful smiles of their children and grandchildren, which do indeed give them more meaning than chemical formulas for the makeup of that same grandchild. How does one scientifically measure love and beauty? Who would seek to find meaning (moral or otherwise) as a human being without these things? An act of moral courage is a thing of beauty for those with eyes to see it. Justice shines as bright as the sun when it bursts through the clouds of common living. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were not atheists but they were "Brights". The moral and the just are wedded and they embrace beauty and kindness certainly what is true-scientifically and in human experience. The truly moral must satisfied not only our reason but also our deepest feelings as well. A human being with no honest emotional feelings of concern for others is little more than a wooden totem pole. They have become machine.

There is no question morality should not be based on a false revelation from a Bronze Age tyrant god and Harris is clear in his argument that the welfare of human beings and animals should rather be based on what promotes their health and welfare. What could be more obvious? Scientific data can measure that in some ways and is extremely useful to the degree that it can do so. Science is certainly more useful than hot headed fundamentalist religion which so often gives us many” reasons" to judge others as evil and then to attack them in holy wars for the glory of God resulting in anything but the increase in the welfare of humankind. Warfare ain't welfare.

The "Good” can only go so far if it is merely based on physical welfare and safety scientifically measured. The promotion of pleasure and the avoidance of pain (hedonism) based on a personal or scientific measure is neither a flawless nor sufficient measure. The heroes we all admire so much usually throw safety and pleasure to the wind and embrace pain towards the end of a greater good. Science majors do not all become heroes but science has had its share of heroes-example Bruno. Courage did not come from his scientific discoveries but from his heart.

Ralph Waldo Emerson has a series of essays at the website below and in the index the ones on Beauty and Illusion might be of interest as we truth seekers who hopefully embrace the strong points of science will also have the courage to admit its limits and weaknesses. Science is not God either and being the product of human beings it has limits. It is my opinion that the scientist who brings us scientific truth as a human being has more value than the scientific truth they bring us and that science has no value whatsoever if it does not benefit human beings. Humanism trumps science. Humanism needs to have the courage to embrace the arts, beauty, morality, science and all other things that promote the intellectual, emotional, and physical well being of humankind. One of our deepest needs is the need for meaning and value in our lives. Facts will only do so much toward that end and that truth must be embraced as fundamental to our experience as human beings. Mountains may be measured in feet and the sun rising over the mountains in the morning may be measured as a definite number of miles away from earth burning at a definite number of degrees but a child (or child-hearted adult) might experience a meaning and awe-beauty at seeing the sunlit mountain in the morning which no scientist will ever measure even if that scientists can measure the chemical and neurological events going on in the person's brain. Those are all measured by scientific facts but it is the human being alone who measures the meaning. Beauty! Beauty, grace, and art have value. Our illusions as we relate to that value have meaning for us and that FACT is true. Truth fits into no one department at the university and has no certain measure. Both objective and subjective measuring sticks have a place in the evaluation of truth and beauty. Thus the law court has a judge and jury made up of human beings as well as the law statute, which brings the accused before the bar. Man is the measure of all things and it is man that does the measuring.

Primitive religious morality might and must give way to a more scientific understanding of the good so be it. But science itself will never provide the important elements of beauty, kindness, justice and meaning man needs as much as food and drink because those essentials for a meaningful life are seen and felt by the eyes and hearts of human beings. Religion with its false Gods should not be our center, science with its rational and logical proofs should not be our center, humankind and its total well being which totality certainly includes more than its physical well being should hold that center. If you doubt this watch a child at play or watch a scientist playing in their lab both who are struck with awe at a new insight brought by seeing beautiful butterfly or perhaps a BEAUTIFUL insight into a new scientific model.

I would urge the agnostic and atheists to admire the BEAUTY of music, the BEAUTY of a human face, the BEAUTY of a society fighting for justice, the BEAUTY of great literature and poetry, the BEAUTY of thoughts that soar far beyond the common mundane thoughts. The beauty of all that point us as individuals or us as a human race toward a more beautiful tomorrow. Without such things we might become little more than cold humanoid-computers with programs built for rational self-improvement. I trust, I am a believer, I am faith oriented that love is real and I trust that honest atheists are better off than dishonest theists. It is the beautiful honesty rather than the atheism or theism that is the value with meaning and that it is a moral judgment. With no basis of judgment there is no morality an on that Sam Harris as well as the fundamentalist are correct. I speak in behalf of a scientific morality wedded to the common human heart desires for beauty, love, and justice, which combined, give us meaning. Nature rules but culture provides meaning and culture is more than science alone.

I am thankful for Sam Harris, Valerie Tarico and many other truth-folk like Ralph Waldo Emerson to whom I will point you on the link below because they bring us beautiful things to consider which provide meaning for our lives as human beings. Having an eternal purpose and having a daily meaning within our own cultural context are not at all the same thing. Give me a daily meaning based on the value of a thoughtful life which seeks beauty and practical kindness for human beings. All else, science included, is either a supportive or non-supportive measure towards that end-a beautiful and meaningful human life and by extension a meaningful human society that values truth, beauty, kindness as well as logic and scientific truth.

"Why do we seek this lurking Beauty in skies, in poems, In drawings? Ah, because then we are safe, then we neither sicken nor die. I think we fly to Beauty as an asylum from the terrors of finite nature. We are made immortal by this kiss.

"We are immortal, at once, by the contemplation of beauty. Strange, strange that the door to it should thus perversely be through the prudent, the punctual, the frugal, the careful. And, that the adorers of Beauty, musicians, painters, Byrons, Shelleys, Keatses, and such like men, should turn themselves out of doors, out of sympathies and out of themselves!"

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson