Sunday, September 23, 2012

You talkin’ to me?
The Aggravations of Morality in the realm of Reality, Dreams, and Imagination

Irving A. Lerch


Science requires objective reality that other realms of the human intellectual enterprise appear able to do without.  Thus “Cultural Relativism” has risen with the argument that objective reality is a “Cultural Construct” no more valid than any other cultural construct.[i]  While these ideas may have credence in ethics, theology, cultural anthropology and the “non-quantitative sciences”[ii] they have little relevance for the quantitative sciences except at the interface (neuroscience and molecular genetics as an underlying determinant of social organization or individual behavior for example).  But most important, cultural relativism is the cause of a violent confrontation between assumed values and perceived morality.

Objective reality guides our inquiries.  We cannot know it except to know that it exists.  Otherwise once we obtain a satisfactory answer to a given question, our inquiries would cease.  Observation leads to speculation as to the cause—the reality—giving rise to any phenomenon.  To enhance our observation, new technologies are innovated to improve the precision and accuracy of our measurements which might, in consequence, overturn existing understanding by uncovering discrepancies in our knowledge.  This filigree of associations between observation, modeling and technology has created a vast powerhouse that dominates our intellectual energies, perceptions, economic progress and imagination.  It is the foundation of industrial society.


Deistic belief provides no means for discovering verifiable approximations of truth.  Canonical formalisms must be molded to accommodate a given end even when the resultant world view denies the systemics of science, law, government, economics and philosophy.  Science on the other hand, holds that discoverable truth exists and that all theses are open to question, all propositions must be confirmable and no authority is beyond challenge.  There has been a great deal of nonsense built on the claim that science, like religion, is a faith-based enterprise.  This is sheer sophistry founded on the fabricated consilience of two vastly dissimilar systems.

We are drawn to an objective reality just beyond our grasp because of the inevitable failure of perception and theory to satisfy all that is presently known.  This insures that we will move in the direction of discovery and that always there will be mysteries to solve.

We cannot spontaneously grasp the grand truth that moves the world beyond our dreams although that is the hope of many scientists in hot pursuit of the universal theory of everything (similarly in medieval and renaissance times, the lost sacred knowledge, prisca sapientia, was the irresistible lure for many scholars).  And once we adopt a unifying principal, we hold it fast until it defies experience at which point we must scramble to find refuge within a new edifice that may evaporate before we can set up housekeeping.

A common proposition is that our intelligence is structurally inadequate to grasp the factual laws of nature.  True or not, this is irrelevant as is lamenting our inability to “see” the quarks within the proton or the singularity preceding the Big Bang.  We cannot directly apprehend the fundamental laws that guide the cosmos until we inform our imagination about how and where we must look.


Imagination is the foundation for all creative activity.  For the scientist, the fabric of imagination is a kind of spandex that allows speculation to be channeled in many directions providing it is contained, disciplined and open to exploration.  Newton imagined gravity as an invisible force reaching across space instantaneously—a breech of scientific etiquette.  Einstein saw gravity as the curvature of space that mediated the motion of interacting masses.  The two systems converged at one end of experience but General Relativity explained esoteric divergences at the other end and did away with action at a distance.  How could Newton not be impressed?

What does this say about the conflict between science, culture, politics and religion?  In an age of specialization, we suffer from a fragmentation of knowledge and language.  The non-scientist, excluded, is deeply suspicious of the cadre that dictates the origin of the species and the universe, the cause of global climate change and the nature of human biology in contravention of religious prescripts, economic interests, political views and cultural conditioning.  But this is an ambivalent relationship not marked by total hostility.  There is a fascination with matters scientific and technical which is fed by science popularizers on an industrial scale.

The most important conflict is political.  Science has always been a thorn in the side of the religious establishment which commands that scripture and doctrine dictate the transcendent and corporeal.  Eventually dogma must yield to reality.  But in politics, science confronts governance, economic interests, cultural norms and policy.  Scientists are often portrayed as an interest group and their image as disinterested, truthful observers is attacked by opponents concerned that scientific positions could damage their interests.

Political arguments tend to be about personalities, motives, presumed costs and the distribution of material benefits, not about the merits of propositions, scientific conclusions and the overarching consequences of specific policies.  Scientists are unprepared to respond to attacks on their motives and political operatives are not interested in the intricacies of scientific inquiry.  The 2009 hacking and release of the personal emails of climate scientists in the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit in the UK, one of the research centers that constructs various global temperature and precipitation analyses, was presented as proof that advocates of climate change were engaged in deception and fabrication.  The scientific merit of the work of generations of climate scientists was never in dispute.  The subsequent academic investigation and finding that there was no deception or fabrication did little to diminish continuing denunciations.[iii]  Once a charge is leveled, it is repeated, amplified, circulated and given a permanent place in the discourse.  The political pitch is the arena for blood sports.


One problem is that the consequences flowing from scientific innovation—good and bad—cannot easily be defined by experience.  Unseen costs emerge with time.  Another problem is that scientists, as instruments of society, do not control their creativity.  This is the responsibility of the political and commercial establishments.  In sum, science innovates, society disposes.

This brings us to the system of values we rely on to mediate our behavior: morality and ethics.  The scientist must scrupulously adhere to the truth as it is defined in the moment with enough transparency of exchange to promote free flow of information and to permit the independent testing of results and hypotheses.  This provides a basis for ethical conduct but not morality.  Einstein made little distinction between ethics and morality: “A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary.”[iv]  This sentiment extended to general morality and he was explicit: “There is nothing divine about morality; it is a purely human affair.”[v]

Moral and ethical judgments are derived from a mĂ©lange of culture, language, experience, emotional conditioning, education, history, religious predisposition, personal interest and institutional traditions.  This is also characteristic of politics.  Where is the point of convergence between science, politics and religion?  Cultural relativism is not acceptable when it comes to many moral and ethical prescriptions (Westerners condemn ethnic cleansing, religious persecution, female genital mutilation and honor killings) but are unable to agree on others which are very much the province of relativistic values (abortion, in vitro fertilization, stem cell research, birth control).

Scientific consensus is rarely accepted at first blush—especially on contentious ground.  Either the science is too convoluted or abstract, or popular interests are under assault, or powerful constituencies have mobilized to convince the public that the science is unproven.  Shouldn’t the scientist be satisfied by exploring nature and allowing others to define the implications?  Or must the scientist put science into an ethical and moral frame and engage in political ripostes?

The danger is that if scientists relinquish to others the interpretation of their work, pressure will mount to suppress the support, and perhaps, the intellectual freedom essential to the successful progress of the scientific enterprise.  Religion and government have often moved to marginalize scientists in an effort to retain their hold on power even as the fruits of science have revolutionized warfare and economies—FDR insured that atomic policy remained exclusively in executive hands, in a sense, mirroring the Vatican’s attempt to control science through the publication of doctrinal Papal Bulls.[vi]

Yet once in a while the moral and ethical interests of science, government and religion converge (the atmospheric test ban treaty of 1963 and the 2007 declaration by Pope Benedict XVI urging bishops, scientists and politicians to “… respect Creation …” while “… focusing on the needs of sustainable development.”  Nonetheless the reality of science is inadequate to move the political and heavenly firmaments.

Ethics and Morals

When confronting irrationality, our devotion to reality must take a back seat to our moral standing.  The province of ethics is professional and personal behavior, the adherence to norms as defined by society and the professional community.  Morality encompasses a much larger arena: individual and collective responsibility for the welfare of society.  But morality is malleable depending on the narrowness of view.  Conflict can arise when a moral position may be at loggerheads with ethical conduct or if moral proscriptions appear to put in jeopardy a larger good.  Is it ethical to misrepresent the facts of a case if a moral end is at stake?  Or—to belabor a popular argument—is it ethical or moral to torture a terrorist if you are certain that he has planted a bomb in some public place?

Of course what appears a Hobson’s choice is, on examination, no choice or, more precisely, a false choice.  We need not dwell on whether torture produces the desired result or whether lying in court will lead to the desired verdict (whose?).  Stripped of such meretricious absurdities the question remains: What is the proper moral and ethical position of a scientist engaged in political discourse?  The simple answer is to engage in rigorous research, tell the truth, admit uncertainties, and cage all arguments in a moral framework expressing concern for the public good.  When assailed with factual falsehoods, contradictions and irrelevancies, to advance arguments with force, persistence and without malice.

Debates in the public arena are often brutally nasty and unfair.  The stakes are large and emotionally charged.  It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to maintain equanimity.  In the past, conflicts between the religious establishment and science have also been mean-spirited but in our time these quarrels have been muted since reality becomes the final arbiter.

What is lost is the simple fact that such disputes are held in public and that scientists and other academics, the fourth estate, politicians, economic interests, religions and institutions are not the sole interlocutors.  The general public has a seat at the table and they are often voiceless because they have no megaphone.  What is needed is a mechanism for direct confrontation and exchange.  This is the province of the news media but their focus has been on hyping quarrels and antagonisms, not on serving as a channel of exchange.

The rules of debate tend to promote rhetorical combat, not understanding.  Turning to the methods of Socrates (ignoring his failed understanding of the natural world), what is needed is a kind of “Town Hall” format mediated by fiercely disinterested referees whose sole purpose is to insure that private citizens are given the opportunity to explore the science, politics, economics and social dimensions of an issue.  This does not mean that scientists give lectures, clergy give sermons and politicians rouse passions.  Scientists may explain their science and their personal positions.  But the focus must be on mutual exchange—dialog (or to invoke a much abused word—dialectics) where fabrication and fuzzy logic are challenged.  There must be taxonomy of human exchange whereby the world of science, religion and politics meet in the mind of the public to explore the great issues.  Perhaps somewhere in the democracy of the cybersphere there is a prescription for sanity.

Irving Lerch

24 September 2012

[iii] Sir Muir Russell, The Independent Climate Change E-mails Review, July, 2010
Patrick Johnson, “Climate scientists exonerated in 'climategate' but public trust damaged,” The Christian Science Monitor, July 7, 2010 []
[iv] New York Times, 11/9/30
[v] Albert Einstein, The World As I See It (1949)
[vi] Most famously Alexander VII Bull of 1664 condemning, “…all books teaching the movement of the Earth and the stability of the Sun.”  This codified his predecessor’s (Urban VIII) condemnation of Galileo in 1633.


Roger in Texas said...

The stark, glaring contrast between this excellent essay and those which precede and follow it is enormous -- almost breathtaking. It's the difference between Queen Elizabeth and Madonna; Cary Grant and Al Capone; Gregory Peck and Boo Radley. Mr. Lerch speaks of ideas, concepts and ethics. The other two entries criticize, malign, distort and derogate an individual who, while deeply flawed, is probably motivated by a desire to improve our country. After all, he's made his multi-millions; who needs this slanderous BS from extreme partisans of the other party?

It's tempting, and would be damned easy, to respond in kind with equally negative and scurrilous characterizations of the president. He has lied, exaggerated, made promises he hasn't kept, and (with Congress) run our debt up north of $16 trillion, making Bush's record deficits pale in comparison. He is today calling the drone shots which kill a few bad guys and lots of civilians. He is far over his head, never having managed anything before trusting fools elected him to manage the largest free-enterprise nation in history. He flouts the law when it suits his purposes, and his racial makeup caused hordes of guilty Caucasians to vote for him. Nevertheless, I would hesitate to call him an ass-licker.

Civil discourse indeed.

Irving Lerch said...

First, a clarification: Roger and I were comrades-in-arms too many years ago to count. Second, Roger is of conservative political bent whereas I, along with most readers and participants in this blog, are unabashedly liberal. So Roger is being kind to point out the obvious, that this essay has no political ax to grind except in that it tends to be dismissive of fundamentalist religious dogma. It is hard, when underlining your thoughts with copious scholarly footnotes to engage in scurrilous declamations against those whose politics one finds repulsive. But I agree that it would be nice not to trigger emotional outbursts. This goes for you too, Roger.

Irving Lerch said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Roger in Texas said...

I have to wonder what the deleted comment said, and why it was removed. Interesting.

I am conservative on some issues, moderate on some, and liberal on others. I'm a member of the ALCU and the NAACP, and not a member of the NRA. At one time I was a doctrinnaire liberal across the board, but I no longer am, for two principal reasons: Lots of "limousine liberals" turn me off because of their "do as I say, not as I do" approach to civil rights, and many so-called liberals are tolerant, fair-minded and understanding only until someone disagrees with their views. There are excellent examples on this blog.

Roger in Texas said...

Horrors! I just noticed that I typed "ALCU" rather than "ACLU". My mistake.