Christianity, Science, Values, and Morality

Another Peterson lecture: Jordan Peterson – Atheist Scientists vs Christian Fundamentalists

Peterson argues that fundamental Christianity and atheist science are opposite sides of the same coin. By ‘science’ I think he means absolutism; just as scientist believe in the infallibility of their models as ‘truths’, so to do fundamentalists. Peterson says, “and then the scientist say ‘those are just empirical truths, but they are wrong’” (the scientist’s response to the fundamentalist). This is a miscategorization. Fundamentalists are using rationalism, not empiricism. The scientist uses a combination of rationalism (math & theory) and empiricism (experimentation, data collection). Alternatively, what Peterson could mean is that fundamentalists and scientists are both using science to arrive at truths (in the case of the fundamentalist, using science to justify the literal representation of biblical stories), but that the scientist disagrees with the fundamentalist’s use of science to disprove the very science the fundamentalist uses in his proof. It’s that not clear.

Science and religion can coexist, in contrast to the false dichotomy that one must oppose the other. Gregor Mendel, for example, was a devout Christian (here’s a list of scientists who believed in God). From the post Math, Physics, and Philosophy: Linked Together:

Many math and physics enthusiasts understand that religion and math can coexist, unlike as we see with evolutionary and cognitive scientists Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett, who tend to be intolerant or hostile towards religion. In the sciences, the staunchest critics of religion are biologists and psychologists, both fields that involve empiricism (such as fossil evidence), not abstractions such as math and physics equations. Many math and physics enthusiasts, who may also believe in God, understand that the laws of nature only provide an incomplete picture of reality, and that there will always be unknowns. Science cannot explain everything, and it’s possible science will never be able to fully explain everything, no matter how advanced technology becomes.

Although Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nyen get a lot of media attention and are prominent atheists, they are in no way representative of all scientists or science-minded people. Their smugness and self-assured arrogance is off-putting to many, including even other atheists.

At 5 minutes into the video he discusses how, “the scientific method can’t tell us how we should conduct ourselves in the world.”

This is not news to scientists. A mathematical formula may tell you how much load a bridge can sustain, but not the moral implications of the bridge failing, although the two can be combined. If an engineer calculates that a bridge has a .01% chance of failing over a 10-year period, and such a failure may cost 10 lives, how much are those lives worth? What is the acceptable risk?

From the post The Tyler Cowen-Rationality feud is getting out of hand:

Science is descriptive, but possible problems arise when it becomes prescriptive. That’s where the whole is/ought thing comes into play (echoing Caplan’s critique). Some people are uncomfortable with the idea of using science to solve social and moral problems, because science ignores or overlooks things that cannot be quantified in a scientific sense. For example, the ethics of euthanasia and ending life support. Is there consciousness that cannot be measured by scientific means? This is related to the mind-body problem.

But, still, it sounds like unnecessary moralizing on Peterson’s part, especially considering the criticism is not original. For example, historian Jacques Barzun in 1964 described science “a faith as fanatical as any in history” and warned against the use of scientific thought to suppress considerations of meaning as integral to human existence. Scientists don’t tell Peterson how to do his job; likewise, Peterson shouldn’t tell the scientists to do theirs.

Peterson says science does not teach values and that each fact is of an equal utility. The last phrase makes no sense. I’m pretty sure the science of fertilizer is of more utility than, say, the science of roundworm nervous systems (there is even something called the ‘Ig Nobel’, which is awarded for trivial science discoveries).

8 minutes into the video he says ‘you need to have a value system’, but again, being ‘pro science’ does not imply the absence of values. And this where Peterson’s argument fails to some degree. I think this is veiled critique of how postmodernism (although he doesn’t say the word postmodernism) is the rejection of values for science, and how postmodernism and science are inherently nihilistic because neither have concern for the present or for values. But considering that fertilizer has contributed to the conception of billions of lives that otherwise would not have existed had it not been for the invention of the Haber–Bosch process, science can be a ‘force for life’ even if at the same time science seems coldly indifferent to it.

But also, Stalin and especially Hitler prized science (in the 50′s, Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany (in the 30′s and 40′s) had some of the most brilliant scientists alive at the time, and as everyone knows, Sputnik 1 was the first artificial Earth satellite, although this was under Nikita Khrushchev, who succeeded and ended Stalin’s dictatorship). Obviously the Soviets and Nazis had values: for the former, Russian supremacy; for the latter, German supremacy, but both leaders were amoral. Thus, values and morality are not interchangeable. Postmodernism is a rejection of both values and morality, but not necessarily science. The postmodernist nihilist may complain about the state of society (this is called the postmodern condition and involves annonie and alienation), but the absence of a value system precludes a resolution; in their idealistic world, they just want ‘more good’ and ‘less bad’. The ‘right system’ combines values and morality, which is probably what Peterson meant.

Some argue that religion is necessary for morality, but I disagree. Morality is both internal (biology) and external (laws, scriptures, etc). Rather, people need some sort of goal and then to cooperate to attain it. Ants are programmed to cooperate to built ant hills, for example. Employees working in a company cooperate. Soldiers cooperate to complete their mission. For families, it’s to raise children. Capitalism, in it’s most reductionist form, is a mutual, amicable exchange between two people. Religion can be likened to a set of rules that help people cooperate better, because humans, unlike ants, have free will and thus need more guidelines.