Saturday, 13 November 2010

The Great Debate

Scientists, religious advocates and lay people have long held as truth the view that science can describe how the world works, but can say nothing about the purpose of life or the values by which we should live.

Advances in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology have been pushing against this barrier for some years now and finally seem to be breaking through.  We may well be at the brink of a new scientific revolution, one which sees for the first time a rational basis for values and ethics and allows people to choose religion or not without the fear of undermining moral values.  Indeed such a rational basis for values may at last give us a sound progressive morality without the need to hold on to archaic origin myths, the authority of morally corrupt religious leaders and without the need quietly to brush under the carpet some of the indefensible practices advocated in scripture.

A new rational ethics can extend beyond believers in 'our religion' to encompass all people, and maybe even all sentient animals as well.  And if different capacities for suffering can be understood scientifically, then different values can be applied to mice and men without logical inconsistency.

Is such expectation justified?  Can values have a scientific basis at all?  Can science tell us what is right and wrong?  This last question is the basis for a debate which recently took place at the Arizona State University, and is presented in the videos below.  The total running time is 2 hours, in 7 sections, and is well worth it for thinking people interested in science, religion, philosophy or ethics.

For a short-cut summary, scroll down to Steven Pinker's 12 min address which I think cuts through to the heart of the matter.

Part 1 - Introduction by Roger Bingham then Sam Harris

Part 2 - Patricia Smith Churchland

Part 3 - Peter Singer

Part 4 - Lawrence Krauss

Part 5 - Simon Blackburn

Part 6 - Steven Pinker

Part 7 - The Debate Panel

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