Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Opinions, Morals and What Science Could but Shouldn’t Tell Us

Headache. Image source: Mupso.
In an opinion piece from December, Brian Cox and Robin Ince argued that opinion must be separated from science when it comes to policy decisions:
“[T]here must be a place where science stops and politics begins, and this border is an extremely complex and uncomfortable one. Science can’t tell us what to do… The choice of policy response itself is not a purely scientific question, however, because it necessarily has moral, geopolitical and economic components.”
I used to say the same, that politics unfortunately mixes up scientific questions with unscientific ones, and that informed decision making requires us to first distinguish these. But then I went down a windy road trying to understand where science ends and where decision making begins. This eventually lead to my paper on the measurement of happiness. It also lead me to the conviction that the “extremely complex and uncomfortable border” doesn’t exist. Cox and Ince come to the right conclusion, but for the wrong reasons.

What is and what isn’t in the realm of science, and what is the role of science is in our political system are questions I care about deeply. And so I could not avoid noticing Sean Carroll and Lubos Motl recently discussed whether morals can be reduced to science. They come down, in rare agreement, on the side of “no”. It’s a variant of the “boundary” Cox and Ince touched on, so let us see what they had to say.

Sean and Lubos start by elaborating on what is and what isn’t a scientific statement. A scientific statement, they say, is one that could be false and whose truth value could at least in principle be empirically evaluated. The problem is then that the statement that morals can’t be reduced to science itself isn’t scientific. It isn’t because a definition for “moral” is lacking. Then, all answers to this question are just opinion so why bother with it? Lubos alludes to this by saying that whenever one could answer the question one way or the other somebody might just change the definition of moral
“Imagine that you find some quantity M encoded in the equations of M(orality)-theory in the future and you will claim that it measures morality… The problem is that even with this nice and well-defined formula, one may always legitimately refuse such a measure of morality and choose a completely different one.”
This lack of proper definition is an example for what I complained about in my recent post, that many philosophical questions are a waste of time if one doesn’t know what one is talking about to begin with. So let’s not debate the meaning of words and instead identify the real issue behind it.

What people really want to know is where science leaves them the freedom to make decisions. That’s why they are looking for a border between scientific and unscientific questions, the former can be answered by science, the latter presumably can only be answered by humans. In other words, they’re asking for their space to exercise free will.

Free will is an illusion that people hold on to quite stubbornly and that they protect vehemently, so the debate about the unscientificness of morals shouldn’t come as a surprise. The thought that science might tell people what they should or shouldn’t do is a great threat to free will, one that gets addressed in a forward defense. But that’s a misunderstanding. Science has never and will never tell anybody what should or shouldn’t be done because “should” is another one of these ill-defined words. “Should” implicitly necessitates a goal or a purpose.

“Science can’t tell us what to do”, as Cox and Ince write - correctly. But science can in principle tell us what we do. To understand how let’s have a look at what people mean when they refer to “morals” or “values”.

Humans are self-aware complex systems that have to process a lot of information to make informed decisions. Human self-awareness however is limited. We are not normally aware how the detailed processes of our thoughts proceed. In fact recent research in neuroscience seems to show that what we think of as “I” is primarily an aggregating mechanism of various deeper level systems whose detailed procedures the “I” does not normally take note of.

Thus, “we” don’t consciously know the details of how we make decisions. Moreover, a central element of human decision making is ignorance and oversimplification. The one thing that the human brain is really good at is energy efficiency. Which is why the default is to avoid thinking if unnecessary.

What we do instead of monitoring all that information from the input that we receive is learning to construct models of behavior that make use of simplified patterns and categories. Then we explain our decisions and those of others in terms of these simplified patterns. You chose this job because independence is important to you. You think polygamy is immoral and should be punished. These are rough summaries of longwinded thought processes which made use of experience, evolutionary traits, and random noise. They classify decisions in values like “independence” or morals like “faithfulness.”

Morals and values are thus just categories that people use to classify and explain the way they make decisions. Over time, using these simplified models, the higher level “I” system becomes good at predicting what will happen, and interprets this as an exercise of “free will.”

That having been said, if you believe in reductionism, morals and values are just emergent patterns in highly complex systems. It is clearly impractical and anyway presently impossible, but in principle one could define morals in this way. Imagine you’d do this. Now you have a definition for moral. An individual one, one that depends on cultural history as well as genetic ancestry. Here you have it. These are your morals.

You might then go and say that’s not what you mean with moral. And that would be fine with me because I don’t want to argue about words, so just call these emerging patterns something else. The point is that they’re what people make use of when they make decisions, and recall that this is the question we really want to address: What decisions are humans free to make because they’re allegedly unscientific?

If you have such a definition for morals then would science then tell you what you should do? No. It would in the best case simply tell you what you do. The best case being one in which scientists would be able to construct a complete model for human behavior. Depending on your attitude you might call that the worst case.

But while in principle possible, it is questionable that such a model is feasible to construct at all. It seems plausible to me that the process of thought is irreducible in the sense that if you tried to predict it you’d have to create an almost perfect copy of the original system and watch it in real time, in which case you’d just duplicate rather than predict decisions.

In other words, while the “border” between scientific and unscientific questions does not exist in principle, it does exist in practice. And it’s located where our ability to model complex systems ends, an end that might shift somewhat in the future but quite possibly will never entirely recede. The best way we presently know to find out what decisions humans make is to ask them. The best way we know to find out what the global climate does is not to ask humans but a computer model.

What does this have to do with happiness? Well, striving to achieve happiness is a human universal, so much so that you might want to raise the maximization of well-being of conscious beings to a universal goal. Having defined such a goal it would fill in the blank of the “purpose” and the “should” that was previously missing, or at least it seems so.

The problem is however that happiness is a byeffect of natural selection, it’s a simplified response to behavior that has in the past been beneficial for reproduction. Elevating happiness to an end unto itself is a circular definition of purpose, it’s fundamentally meaningless. Which is why, in my paper I argued we should forget about trying to define happiness and its maximization as a proxy to understand human behavior. Instead we should look for a properly defined quantity that has predictive power to describe the evolution of our economic, politic, and social systems, and the suggestion I made was maximizing the number of possible decisions that we (think we can) make. Which might or might not be correct. A scientific question that’s waiting to be answered.

Summary: Ill-defined questions are unscientific, but uninterestingly so. Once a question is well-defined science is in principle able to answer it, but not necessarily in practice. A scientific definition for morals might exist, but quite plausibly we will never be able to construct it. And even if we could, it wouldn’t tell us what should be done, but simply what is done. Opinion begins where our ability to model complex systems ends. This border will inevitably shift over time and it’s this “shift” that makes it uncomfortable. And no, I don’t believe in free will.


  1. "Ethical axioms are found and tested not very differently from the axioms of science. Truth is what stands the test of experience."
    — Albert Einstein

  2. I agree in general, but I think many people, in a political context, will say "See, science can't tell us what we should do, so in determining government policy, we will ignore what science has to say about X". X could be global warming. X could be the lack of genetically inferior human races at the present time. X could be that homeopathy is bullshit.

    This is not what you mean, of course, but what many people who want to "keep science out of politics" understand by the phrase.

  3. Hi Bee,

    It seems you're saying science can tell us how we decide things, yet will never have us certain as to entirely why we do. Would it not then be fair to say morality is what gives us the whys that science then can at best only attempt to have tested, as to whether they are actions of reason or rather ones formed of will primarily in ignorance of it. This takes us back to whether will is free or not, as to have the only will which is free is that which can ignore reason. From this perspective I find humanity has continuously demonstrated to be totally capable. So as you say perhaps the how of decision can be known, yet only when they can be measured, to have critical aspects of the will involved remain totally private as to have morality left to be nothing more than a manifestation of same.

    “On Bohm’s theory, there is, right now (that is : before those upcoming measurements get carried out) an objective physical matter of fact about what the future act of h’s is going to be: and (moreover) h knows with certainty, what that act is going to be; and (moreover) no other observer in the world (no matter how adept they may be at measuring or calculating) can possibly know (right now) what that act is going to be.

    And so h, under these sorts of circumstances (even though the complete physical theory of the world here is a deterministic one), has what you might call an inviolably private will.”

    -David Z. Albert, “Quantum Mechanics and Experience” (page 188)



  4. There is not a definition problem with "moral". It is rather, you cannot answer the question "why should I be moral?"

    Given a system of morality, scientifically derived, or Biblical, or arrived at by "pure reason", you can choose to reject it, whether or not you have free will!

    If one views morality as a set of policies to guide behavior that help one attain one's values, then the question is - what should one value? Even in a limited sphere of action, such as the professoinal life, what a physicist should value is likely different from what a banker should value. That is the scale of values may be differently ordered, and even if in the same order, may have different weights. Again, whether people are deterministic or have free will, the fact is that different people, in different circumstances of life, will have different scales of values, and science cannot help you there.

  5. Bee:In fact recent research in neuroscience seems to show that what we think of as “I” is primarily an aggregating mechanism of various deeper level systems whose detailed procedures the “I” does not normally take note of.

    In a mechanical, as a computational sense, I was just recently looking at this.:)There were two versions of this as to imply aggregating outside the home, as well aggregating inside the home. These remain mechanical versions, but I know what you meant when you look at what you are capable of.

    This post of yours was really interesting to me.

    Bee:if you tried to predict it you’d have to create an almost perfect copy of the original system and watch it in real time, in which case you’d just duplicate rather than predict decisions.

    The unpredictability of arrays of decay chains from collision processes let's you identify dispersion processes. This may make you think that repeatability does not let you consider the implication of deeper things going on that need to be added to the vocabulary. That this needs new conceptual beginnings in order to shape the future for what you intent to do?

    I want to add to this, that as we may see Plinko and the Galton(quincunx) Board as some array of such dispersion it would have been to say, we see the underlying bell curve as a repeatable process yet there are indeed identifying markers as to imply that such predictability has been identify to a degree.

    Perhaps, as some technological production as to lets say, being displayed as some fractal antenna array(Nathan Cohen) that is specific, while allowing you to talk on a network. Allow you to participate in the economy.

    That is a process of discovery that you may limit yourself by not acknowledging this capability hidden in the underlying pursuance of observation attained from data acquisition. This carefully about this Bee.

    Hmmm...lets consider Fractals and Antennas and The Economy in context as Benoit identifying correspondence? Nassim Nicholas Taleb and the idea of the Black Swan?

    It takes money in order to proceed with scientific plans, yet it takes a science mind in order to take the supplier to the edge of what has been identified. The gap then lays before society for what is to come next. So you say, you have to fill that gap?

    Experimentally you have to verify while theoretical say certain things conceptually? Where did that come from?

    You then realize, that you have to provide the opportunity, in order to progress? How well will society fair to say that the politico is thinking about society and advancing our capabilities? There's quite substantial investment there and it is not just about money?:)


  6. True creativity often starts where language ends-Arthur Koestler

    If you think about what conceptually is granted with regard to your parametrization, as to lets say, an individual, do you not see only what you want to see?

    So this is leading, as to say mathematically you couch your breakthroughs as to identify an underlying pattern. Is this then relevant, as the concept explodes upon the world stage.

    How did you ever get to that point as to say, what is self evident is the last word upon which you will choose to move ahead, and in a sense, see society itself has been given an opportunity as if by mathematics or by a scientist, has taken us to this point?

    As an individual you arrive at these points all the time, even amidst all the noise?


  7. Hi Phillip,

    Yes, that's what most people will understand when they hear the phrase, which is why I think the topic is worth elaborating on. Henderson in his "Geek Manifesto" made the point very clearly that whenever we're ignoring existing scientific information we're doing this to our own disadvantage. The point to be made is that taking into account scientific knowledge doesn't mean there's no decisions left to be made, but that we understand better the consequences of decisions. Then we still have to decide if that's consequences we want.

    What I am saying in this post is that the latter decision about what we want will not at any time soon and possibly never fall into the realm of science. Alas, the reason is not that there's something particularly mysterious about human moral, and it should be kept in mind that since scientific knowledge expands, some topics will move out of the corner of "opinion". Best,


  8. Hi Phil,

    I didn't say that science can never explain how humans make decisions. I said it presently can't and it possibly never will, but I don't know what will happen. What matters for the issue under question however is that we for certain presently can't.

    Well, you know that I don't believe in free will. But, yes, I guess one could say that morality is part of what we create to fill in the answers to those question that science can't deliver. Best,


  9. Hi Arun,

    If you don't have free will you can't chose to reject anything. You do or you don't, but any choice is an illusion.

    But I think you're talking about something slightly different, you're talking about a "system of morals", which seems to imply something like rules that all humans conform to, whereas I was referring to morals as an individuals' decision simplifiers. There are probably some very wide spread morals and values and some of them might prove to be more beneficial to survival than others, that puts on another level of complexity.

    All that of course doesn't tell you anything about what you should or shouldn't do. It just presents a selection of what others use as simplifications. Best,


  10. Hi Plato,

    Every scientific model makes a selection of what it aims to describe. You can miss something in that process of course, but if that something matters for the understanding of whatever it is you aim to understand you will notice that what you wanted to see is not all there is to be seen. Best,


  11. Thoughts about what to possibly write? arrive at and display conclusion?


  12. I think this is a difficult paper,
    "Comparative Anthropology and Moral Domains. An Essay on Selfless Morality and the Moral Self".

    But if you can grasp what the author is saying, and if you find it remotely plausible, you will see how premature it is to bring science into the moral domain, even if it eventually belongs there.

  13. 1) It is currently fashionable to allow - to encourage - any human being to marry any other human being.

    2) Mormons are forbidden from practicing heterosexual serial marriage.

    Morality? "Uachdar muc garadh" (Scottish Gaelic)


  14. Dear Bee:

    1. Morality as talked about by Western philosophers and theologists is almost always about universalizable rules of behavior.

    2. Morality is talked about in the Hindu traditions in a very different way, so much so that many Western philosophers have said that Hindus don't have morals.

    3. "Free will" is always a useless distraction. Whether you have free will or not, it does not change the fact that you are constantly faced with decisions you have to make - to do something, or to do something else, or to do nothing at all.

    3. If you're talking about "individual's decision simplifiers" then a way about talking about them is as follows, roughly, divide and conquer. You play various roles in your life, such as daughter, sister, wife, mother, teacher, researcher, colleague, collaborator, referee, etc., etc. The goals of each of these roles is simpler to think about and the decisions you make are primarily in the context of these roles. That is, it is easier to answer "what makes me a good mother?" than "what makes me a good person?".

    Here again, the question crops up, "why should I be a good mother?" and that is a fundamental decision you have to make.

    4. The next question is - what is the relative weight and value of these roles? E.g., under what circumstances will the "mother" role outweigh the "researcher" role? and so on.

    None of these are decidable by science.

    5. When you drill down sufficiently, such as in your role as mother you ask - what is a healthy diet for my child? - then science can enter.


  15. I think we should all be concerned that Lubos and Caroll agreed on anything. Clearly a sign of the end times.

  16. /* can’t tell us what to do… */

    Science should tell us it, but not scientists. Which implies, the scientists shouldn't be the only arbiters or morality.

    For example, science says, there is nonzero probability of black hole formation at LHC or outbreak of deadly virus (which could harm the civilization) or the cold fusion (which could help us instead). But scientists somehow don't want to research the cold fusion, but they want to research viruses and black holes instead.

    Apparently, what the scientists want (not) to do is not what the science says, we should (not) do.

  17. BTW It's not the only situation, when the interest of scientists goes against moral imperative of science.

    For example he purpose of science is to find the answer of questions. But the motivation of scientists is to continue in their research as long as possible. This is apparent conflict of interests.

    How is it possible, that just the people who are necessary for further progress of science don't really want the further progress of science? It's an example of time-reversed, emergent logics.

  18. We have free will, but only to the extent that the universe is thermodynamically ambivalent about or actions.

    As long as waging war versus fostering peace are thermodynamically equally probable, then how humans treat each other is truly up to human choice.

  19. The corollary to this is clear:

    On aggregate what we regard as free will is simply a mechanism of realizing a stochastic process.

    The next corollary to this is:

    While we may observe a clear line of reasoning leading to our actions; what actual causes harm or benefit is random with respect to the natural measures and symmetries of physical processes, as are the definitions of harm and benefit.

    This is important because it makes a subtle distinction: it is not that harm and benefit are unobservable or undefinable, rather it is that the observation and definition of harm and benefit must be random with respect to the physical symmetries and measures of the universe. In other words as long as the universe is thermodynamically ambivalent about our choices to cause harm or benefit, then what exactly is harm and benefit cannot be derived from any physical theories.

  20. One last thing:

    The most amazing physical property of humans is their exceptional ability to create thermodynamic systems with an inordinately large number of equally probable states.


  21. I think modeling your own behavior is not only impractical but fundamentally impossible. The problem is if you know your future you can change it. Knowledge of the future feeds back on the past and eats knowledge. Self referential systems can break any predictive process.

    But I think you are correct that that is where what we call free will lives.

  22. Yes, folks, you are witnessing something very rare: me agreeing with Uncle Al. The treatment of polygamous people these days is about as bad as the treatment of homosexual people decades ago. ( disagree about the "encouragement", though.)

    Fortunately, in any country in which I would live, there is no law against extramarital sex, serially or simultaneously, with any number of people, even if marriage itself is usually more narrowly defined.

  23. Constitutions written and understood as basis of any country, is the larger hope that what society accepts, is understood as a basis of rights and freedoms. It is as though an individual is sought to be expressed, as in the virtues of that culture?

    How is this done?

    ISAACSON: The virtue of tolerance, which I think is the most important virtue we need in the 21st century. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration, he had a great line, "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable." And Franklin crossed out "sacred and undeniable" and put, "We hold these truths to be self evident." [Franklin] said we need to be a very tolerant nation in which our rights are based on reason, not based on religion, and I think in this century, we have to be tolerant of all religions and all tribes, and that was the thing that Benjamin Franklin taught us.Isaacson on Benjamin Franklin book See: What Began all Else Follows

    In absence of a moral judgement, as to accept the decay and degrees of such failures of a country, is to accept the defeat in the "pursuit of happiness?"

    You have to understand what "self evident means" in order to progress as an individual not only in the pursuit of what is examined as in self, but of what is expressed as a formulation seen in the exposure of the culture at large.

    Does one expect such DNA as to suggest it is in our genealogy as to identify that absence "of a feeling in our children?" As to point too, as to what it is about as a sensitivity and example of what is lacking. Further, having exposed as a demonstrative example of a emotive concept with regard to the psychopathy of the child raised?

    There is further thoughts here in my progressions for sure as to show what is revealed intuitively.


  24. Please bear with me.

    Is Emotional Disconnect Desired?

    Where is this place inside?


  25. Sabine,

    When I come across discussions about a "border between science and opinion/politics/morals" i feel that only one aspect of this is of any real practical importance: only in the rarest instances do we have enough facts (from science) to make an informed decision (list all options; understand their consequences; compare them against some set of shared values), and yet we may be forced to decide anyway. It's not so much about despereately seeking the space where we still have the "freedom to make decisions", but rather finding guidance for those forced to make decisions without sufficient knowledge.

    (Perhaps this is what you mean when you talk about our inability to model complex systems.)

    As Arun points out, this is difficult enough for multi-roled individuals, for society or other group of people the situation is even worse.

    As you suggest, one can turn this into a (descriptive, not normative) science by looking at what people actually do in these situations (political science, sociology), but this of course doesn't resolve the dilemma.

    From this point of view, a moral system is constructed precisely to fill the factual voids: "if in doubt always prioritize X, or leave it to authority Y to decide for you". As a method of avoiding taking responsibility for one's decisions, moral systems have of course always been extremely popular. Morality as politics for the unwilling.


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