Where do the ethical sensibilities and VALUES of scientists, in doing their work, come from?
In other words, why do scientists (for example) value such things as VIGOROUS DEBATE and SEEKING OUT CONTRARY LINES OF EVIDENCE?
In a science essay in the NY Times today, Dennis Overby, offers a novel answer:
[Science,] which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.
Nobody appeared in a cloud of smoke and taught scientists these virtues. This behavior simply evolved because it worked.
Put another way: There was no need for a REVELATION FROM GOD (via, say, stone tablets) to arrive at a highly productive and VIRTUOUS cooperative system among scientists.
This raises an obvious question: If a virtuous ethical and values system can arise spontaneously among scientists, why can’t we infer that many (perhaps all) ethical systems arise in a similar fashion?
In other words, maybe human communities don’t need the sanction of gods to function morally and well, but just a process of trial and error among groups of people willing to work with one another.
In short, the death of the gods might not mean the death of cooperation, ethics, and values. If dogmatic religious belief goes on a general decline, it does not follow that murder rates or other forms of noxious behavior will rise.
Perhaps the right question to ask is not:
- “Is this system of ethics and cooperation grounded in divine law?”
- “What (and whose) PURPOSE does this system of ethics and cooperation SERVE?”