The Wrong Tool for an Important Job

“There was no real mention of the connection between religion and morality except in a snide, condescending manner.”

(photo: Pixabay)

What do you get when four scholars meet to discuss a topic they haven't properly studied, refuse to admit exists and can't define?

Answer: chaos, misdirection and pabulum.

On Thursday, May 29, 2008, two philosophers, a biologist and a psychologist met at Manhattan's 92nd Street YMJA as part of the New York City's four-day Science Festival, lectures and other activities.

The lecture, entitled “The Science of Morality,” drew a nearly capacity crowd of approximately 1,200 people. It was advertised as an open discussion of science's understanding of right and wrong and the place of morality and society with an eye towards evolutionary biology. It was meant to investigate the biological roots of empathy, altruism and cooperation to discover whether humanity possesses an innate moral grammar or whether morality arises from the interactions between biological and social systems.

The four panelists were Antonio Damasio, Professor of Neuroscience and Director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California who studies the neural basis of emotions, memory, language and consciousness, Daniel Dennett, Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, Marc Hauser, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Cognitive Evolution Laboratory at Harvard University and Patricia Churchland, self-described "neuroethicist," Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego and an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla.

Jon Meacham, managing editor of Newsweek magazine and bestselling author, served as the panel's moderator.

The most interesting exchanges of the evening came in response to two of Churchland's ill-timed and most inconsistent remarks including a joke offered at the expense of those who hold religious values.

“Morality is not universally recognized and I don't want someone who claims to have spoken to God as a result of being electrocuted by using a hairdryer to tell me what I can and cannot do,” she insisted, soliciting wild applause and hoots of laughter from approximately half of the crowd. The rest sat stoically and expectantly.

Jon Meacham, the panel's self-effacing and demure moderator, responded to Churchland's demagogic rhetoric.

“But certainly,” Meacham said gently, “you would admit that we need moral and ethical rules in society?”

The calm manner with which he stymied/disarmed Churchland solicited chuckles from the audience and a stony silence from Ms. Churchland who was at a loss to explain the incongruence of her previous statement.

In her response, Churchland stressed ethology, the study of animal behavior, and “possibly cultural anthropolog” in helping decide what is moral or not.

She failed, however, to explain why if there is no universal agreement to morality, why would anyone need to poll others as to their opinions. And if a consensus were to spontaneously appear in the collected data, would she and others then comply with the findings?

“Neither morality nor any particular moral rule is universally recognized,” Churchland said. This is despite the fact that everyone agrees to the Golden Rule, especially those who refuse to live by it. Thieves never welcome others to steal from them. Murders never offer up themselves, or those they love, to be killed. Liars never invite their colleagues to lie to them.

Churchland restricted the rest of her discussion to the social behavior of mountain and prairie voles who apparently have different standards as to the appropriateness of adultery and a rather lengthy diatribe about the Iraqi war and the “lies perpetrated upon the American public by the [Bush] administration.” Regardless of how accurate her political opinions were, they were out of place considering the topic at hand.

Other than Churchland's inept denunciation of religion, the topic was mentioned several more times throughout the evening. Professor Damasio offered the politest interpretation of religion. “Though religion had offered the world many magnificent accomplishments, it's time to allow science to more objectively consider morality.”

Despite Churchland's unthought-out remarks, Prof. Dennett, an avowed atheist, offered the only consistent and coherent remarks of the evening on the subject of morality. “Just because someone doesn't believe in God doesn't mean they can disregard morality,” he said in response to Damasio's and Churchland's insistence that morality was purely subjective and arbitrary.

Dennett was most successful at setting the opposing tone of the discussion. “Biology and animal studies do not suffice to explain moral behavior or, indeed, how to be moral. It is not what people are most interests them in terms of morality. We should be considering what ought to be done not what is being done.”

Despite this, the rest of the evening was bereft of any serious discussion of morality.

For an hour and a half, Hauser successfully avoided defining morality even though he was pressed to do so several times. “Oh, no! I'm not going to play that game!” he exclaimed — which was odd since he presented himself as an expert on the topic and he was panelist specifically to answer questions on it.

“It was rhetoric and just-so stories,” explained Thomas Cohen, 49, after the discussion ended. “Churchland had no proof of anything she said about morality. She kept confusing, I think intentionally, what is done and what ought to be done.” It is interesting that lower animals display social behavior, he added, “but this is not equivalent to moral behavior.”

“You might as well try measuring Mt. Everest with the set of calipers,” said Patricia Doherty, 38. “The similarities between social behavior shaped by evolution of mountain and prairie voles is inconsequential to any and all situations calling for an ethical response from humans.”

Diann Smith, 45, who works as a tax lawyer, attended the presentation. “I'm amazed at the complexity of the study of this subject and the connection between morality and science but there was no real mention of the connection between religion and morality except in a snide, condescending manner.”

“They were deliberately separating them,” she added, “and, therefore it wasn't very elucidating.”

Roberto Ruiz, 24, Professor of Ethics at Sullivan and Orange Community Colleges offered his comments afterwards.

“I wish the panel had discussed the social implications of moral decisions,” said Ruiz. “They stressed the place of scientific experiments but didn't make a distinction between scientific facts and moral facts. At the end of the lecture, I learned a great deal about science but nothing about morality.”

The structure and aim of evolutionary biology is to study the behavior organisms have selected to best represent their genes in succeeding generations. Some of the behaviors used by animals, as pointed out by several panelists, included infanticide, adultery, thievery, deception and falsehoods. Humanity already does these things in great abundance and purposefully developed ethics to regulate our “beastly” behavior and to combat our natural sinfulness. In this regard, the “The Science of Morality” panelists failed to explain what authority or practical advice science has to legitimize its views on the topic.

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.