Ethics of the Gaps

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Listening to George Ellis on Speaking of Faith on NPR some mornings ago, expound on the compatability of science and religion arising from the existence of areas, such as ethics and aesthetics, which science will "never ever be able to touch." Always interesting to hear the respectable, non-crazy scientists weigh in on matters of spirit. They can, at the very least, usually be relied upon to have thought their opinions through.

I find myself disagreeing with his propositions, because of the very train of thought that his original thesis sparked -- that ethics and morality are built into the structure of the universe. He provides only a very fuzzy argument in this direction, but it occurs to me that something resembling an evolutionary argument can be made to explain the existence of a fundamental knonotic1 ethics such as he proposes, if you really want to go in that direction. Principles that, with mathematical rigour, could be said to ensure that pain or violence always exists in a negative feedback loop; failure to discover such principles would eventually result in failure to survive.

However, this very idea suggests that these principles could be scientifically discovered, meaning that science could well uncover fundamental ethical principles. Ellis observed that science occasionally makes similar claims that sociology or sociobiology does investigate ethics, but that if you ask science what should be done in Iraq, there is a "great silence." Yet this is wrong; many sociologists, economists, and other academics would offer suggestions about how to deal with Iraq. "Science" as a monolithic whole obviously says little, as the many disciplines have different viewpoints -- stemming from the fact that science has yet to convincingly uncover a way to answer the question of what outcome we actually want.

So overall, a disappointment. After all, we have here an important cosmologist on the radio to discuss how morality is intrinsic to the fabric of reality. The least I'd expect is a proposal to investigate, if not actually test, this hypothesis. Something more than a kind exhortation to take his word for it, on faith.

1 Knosis is a Greek word which, in Ellis' usage, means the ethics of Jesus, of unconditional love and rejection of violence. I think he actually means the word gnosis, γνώσις, Greek for "knowledge". This word has been used in a number of ways over the centuries.

7 Comments

The obvious cheap shot: Since when have most cosmologists even bothered with experiment to prove or disprove their crack-pot ideas?

He says to the cosmologist! But you're right in a way; Ellis is a GR theorist who's recently been dabbling in quantum gravity like all the other cool kids. (I've linked to his home page / pub list above.) In the short term, it's not really any easier to look for physical evidence of loop quantum gravity than to look for the intrinsic ethics of spacetime. I'm not very likely to see either one in the patterns of the CMB.

Nevertheless, if he's claiming to speak in the mode of a cosmologist, he could be expected to suggest a mechanism, or propose (probably also untestable) physical consequences of his claim. He didn't do that in the interview I heard, but I'd really have to read his book to make that complaint stick.

If, on the other hand, he's speaking as a philosopher, I'd be more comfortable if he made some gestures in the direction of the millennia-long intellectual tradition he's diving into.

Yeah it's in the league with Intelligent Design. If it doesn't make testable predictions then it isn't science. We should take away his union card for doing that.

Harsh, man, way harsh. Especially given the ID rantage running around the department of late. I would point out, though, that Intelligent Design makes lots of testable predictions, which are trivially proven wrong, forcing its proponents to lie continually to hide this fact.

Ellis, by comparison, presents completely untestable musings that don't even really intersect with actual science. He might be guilty of philosophising under the guise of a scientist, but he's no liar.

Ellis was speaking of kenosis (not knosis or more importantly misuse gnosis). Kenosis is a Greek word for emptiness, which is used as a theological term. The ancient Greek word κένωσις kén?sis means an "emptying", from κενός kenós "empty". The word is mainly used, however, in a Christian theological context, for example Philippians 2:7, "Jesus made himself nothing (?κένωσε ekén?se) ..." (NIV) or "...he emptied himself..." (NRSV), using the verb form κενόω kenó? "to empty".

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