Field of Science

Can science tell us right from wrong?

That is the question* posed at this ASU Origins debate that I found my way to via Rationally Speaking I was referred to this debate in which one Patricia Smith Churchland asks which higher mammal babies died unpleasant deaths at high rates in the time before humans started to destroy everything (some paraphrasing), rhetorically. Suggesting that this was not the case. Hmm, I think, what an odd statement, because I imagine that even when humans weren't destroying gorilla habitat, lots of other dangers lurked everywhere and the young ones paid the price.

But then I think I better look her up before I dismiss her remark as a silly ignorant one, because just maybe she has reasons to believe that higher mammals didn't lose their young children much before humans made them. And then I have another experience that I have had several times before, because I see that she is a philosopher, and I immediately realize that what she says is based on no evidence whatsoever. She's doing research in "the interface between neuroscience and philosophy." In other words, no expertise in the field of mammalian suffering™.

However, I find her comment on Hume's is-ought fallacy later (at 8:49 in part 2) very, very true, that all right, no deduction is possible, but other kinds of inferences - the ones we use on a daily basis most of the time.

*And my answer is that all by itself, science cannot tell us right from wrong, but that is not the relevant question. The right question is whether it can inform us on questions of right and wrong, and that it so very clearly can. We don't like poverty (well, some rich people do like that others are poor, but you know what I mean), and science can inform us how to alleviate it, so there.


  1. At this point, you know who she is, right?

  2. I meant to say, do you know who her husband is?

  3. I didn't know, but on Wikipedia I learned that she is married to Paul Churchland, who has this philosophical view:

    "Just as modern science has discarded such notions as luck or witchcraft, Churchland argues that a future, fully-matured neuroscience is likely to have no need for "beliefs" or "feelings" (see propositional attitudes), and that even consciousness and personal identity are suspect. Such concepts will not merely be reduced to more finely-grained explanation and retained as useful proximate levels of description, but will be strictly eliminated as wholly lacking in correspondence to precise objective phenomena, such as activation patterns across neural networks. He points out that the history of science has seen many posits once considered real entities, such as phlogiston, caloric, the luminiferous ether, and vital forces, thus eliminated."


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