What science can’t say

Ard: On this topic of morals, what do you think is at stake if someone were to say, ‘Well, you know, I’m just going to let go of this idea that there is any kind of real normativity to morals, that they are really out there. They’re just something that we’ve created and, finally, science has told us that that’s all that they are.’? Some people say, ‘Well, who cares?’ Is that going to matter? Or is something at stake?

JC: Well, science, I think, could never tell us that that’s all that they are. It couldn’t be that an empirical investigation of the structure of our bodies or brains could reveal that there is no such thing as an authoritative moral requirement.

Ard: Well, there are people who claim that it does, but you just don’t think that’s right? On what basis? Why do you think that’s not right?

JC: I think you could certainly say that science exhausts all the reality that there is. And so anything not explicable in terms of the procedures of science just has no status. But that would be scientism, not science.

David: Yeah, what is scientism?

JC: I think we all have, I certainly have, an enormous respect and admiration for science. I think it’s one of the greatest of human achievements. But scientism is very different: that is the non-scientific dogma or doctrine that science exhausts all the reality that there is. And that could not be established scientifically, so it’s not a scientific claim.

David: I’m not quite sure. What does that mean? ‘It exhausts all the reality there is’.

JC: One way of putting it would be that everything, ultimately, is grounded in some ultimate physical entities, particles or forces, and that there are no truths which aren’t, in principle, explicable ultimately in those terms.
But I think, what we’ve just been talking about – namely normativity, authority, the idea of a requirement which is incumbent on me however I happen to feel, however my drives or inclinations push me – that’s something which it’s very hard to see as explicable in those terms.

David: Yes.

Ard: So, are you saying that, partially, the argument that science can explain everything is itself a non-scientific argument because it stands outside of science in order to make that claim?

JC: Yes.

Ard: So maybe a last question along these lines. Some scientists will say the beauty of science, or of mathematics even, is that science has a method by which we all end up agreeing. That’s not true of moral truths: we don’t have a science of morality that allows us to adjudicate in some kind of clear way – it’s a lot more fuzzy. So, given that it’s more fuzzy, it’s therefore not nearly as good a method as the scientific method is, because the scientific method allows us to agree.

JC: Yes, it’s interesting that. I mean, the great moral philosopher Bernard Williams, who died not that long ago, made a similar point when he said that in science, there’s always hope for convergence, but he saw no prospects for such convergence in ethics. I think in fact there is increasing convergence.

Ard: Okay.

JC: Things which were matters of debate 200 years ago – the rightness or wrongness of slavery – are no longer serious matters of debate. And similarly, there are ways of dealing with people who don’t share your particular preferences, say, sexual preferences or political preferences. There seems to be a convergence towards a less authoritarian… Of course, there are no guarantees in this, but I think those who take a religious view of the cosmos as a whole must believe that there is a right answer which, in principle, ought to be converged upon sooner or later, though no one can predict how long the search will take.