How do we find answers to important questions? In the beginning, humans looked to wise elders, sages, and shamans. Over time, authority to speak on matters of consequence became vested in secular rulers, religious leaders -- or, frequently, a hybrid of the two.
It wasn’t until the 17th century that an objective approach to finding true answers was outlined by Bacon and Descartes (and later refined by Charles Sanders Peirce). We call it the scientific method. Through this means, we learned that our planet orbits the sun, that disease is transmitted by microbes, and that old women do not fly on broomsticks.
Can we now use the same method for discovering answers to significant ethical questions? Could right and wrong be determined through study and reason?
Those who wrote the books that some call scripture were, perforce, not well-informed about the way the world works. They did their best to make sense of what they saw, but their understanding was severely limited both by a lack of information and by a means of acquiring reliable data. This may help explain why adultery, homosexuality, and even cursing were considered punishable by death.
If we wouldn't want to rely on ancient sages to give us good directions for crossing the ocean, for preventing infections, or for treating mental illness, then why do we assume that their definitions of right and wrong (and appropriate consequences for violating societal norms) cannot be improved upon?
This is more than just an interesting epistemological issue. Many of us still seem oddly reluctant to surrender our reliance on mystical (some might say ignorant) authorities for instruction on moral issues. But emerging technologies -- especially molecular manufacturing -- could enable fanatical believers in ancient superstitions to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction. Do we want someone who relies upon the “truth” of books written by “prophets” to execute their visions of justice upon millions of our fellow humans?
Before we reach a point of total democratization of violence -- a day that is rapidly approaching -- we should take a serious look at how we determine right and wrong. It may be time to seek global consensus on the necessity of relying upon reason instead of faith to answer life’s most critical questions. Our survival may depend upon it.
Originally posted at Science Blog, May 21, 2006