For much of human history, guidance on morality and establishing social values fell primarily under the realm of religion. However, in recent years, several writers have gained prominence for challenging the concept that religion is essential for providing a framework for universal ethics.
Neuroscientist Sam Harris, one of the members of the so-called New Atheist movement, says that science can not only define morality, it may do a better job than religion.
"It's simply untrue that religion provides the only framework for a universal morality," Harris told CBC's Mary Hynes on a recent episode of Tapestry. "Not only is it untrue, it doesn't provide a good [framework] because, of course, we have many different religions on offer — they don't agree on their basic principles and they have shattered the human community into these separate moral communities and I perceive that to be a real problem at this point in human history."
In his latest book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Harris argues against the division between scientific facts and human values and says that a "maturing science of the mind" can give us guidance on how we ought to live and interact.
For example, he notes how recent studies involving neuroimaging have revealed that cooperation has a reward effect on the brain — working together drives dopamine into the medial prefrontal cortex, leading to elevated feelings of pleasure. Harris says this is why we know subjectively that "it feels good to trust others, [and] it feels bad to have trust violated." In other words, understanding that one should follow the Golden Rule is built into us chemically and doesn't necessarily require dogmatic reinforcement.
Harris, ever the scientific skeptic, doesn't shy away from his belief that reason should never be suspended in favour of religious beliefs. He argues that people would be better off, politically, socially, and perhaps even spiritually, if everyone engaged in a "21st-century conversation based on honest observation and clear reasoning."
What do you think of Harris' ideas? Could science help determine universal morality better than religion? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
Buy this book at:
fresh perspective to age-old questions of right and wrong and good
and evil, Harris demonstrates that we already know enough about the
human brain and its relationship to events in the world to say that
there are right and wrong answers to the most pressing questions of
human life. Because such answers exist, moral relativism is simply
false and comes at an increasing cost to humanity. And the intrusions
of religion into the sphere of human values can be finally
repelled: for just as there is no such thing as Christian physics
or Muslim algebra, there can be no Christian or Muslim morality."