Friday, July 23, 2010


Science's Idea of Morality

BBC recently carried a story about a "study" in which people's morality was altered based on simple physics:
Scientists have shown they can change people's moral judgements by disrupting a specific area of the brain with magnetic pulses.
When you get into the specifics - things start to get a little shaky:
The researchers subjected 20 volunteers to a number of tests designed to assess their notions of right and wrong.

In one scenario participants were asked how acceptable it was for a man to let his girlfriend walk across a bridge he knew to be unsafe.

After receiving a 500 millisecond magnetic pulse to the scalp, the volunteers delivered verdicts based on outcome rather than moral principle.

If the girlfriend made it across the bridge safely, her boyfriend was not seen as having done anything wrong.

In effect, they were unable to make moral judgments that require an understanding of other people's intentions.
Let's see here - very small sample, statistical results not cited, very subtle moral distinction and anecdotal as best (one scenario out of "number of tests." I am thinking someone had a point to make here. Of course, the "point" is that morality is a result of brain chemistry and not some super-natural influence. For the reasons I cited above that is not even a valid scientific conclusion from the data presented, but that is not what interests me most.

What interests me most is WHAT they presume to be moral judgments. It is not like they were able to induce moral changes in people on big stuff. No one murdered anybody, no one was induced to infidelity. Nope the moral dilemma cited was about something that I am not sure sacred texts in most religions address. Not to mention it is something morally ambiguous.

"Unsafe" is a relative term. Most of us outweigh our significant female others - what is unsafe for me at 200 pounds may be quite safe for her at 120. There is, as described a complete lack of data to determine if morality was even at play here.

And since when is "intent" the measure of morality? It may lessen the penalty for murder, but killing someone is still killing someone.

Science has set itself a very low bar for morality here which it is why it cannot ever replace religion in that area. It has insufficient authority.

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