Opinion piece in CSM’s newspaper: http://www.oredigger.net/opinion/9-opinion/2770-ethics-across-campus-beliefs-and-actions.html
Recently, the Muslim Students Association at the Colorado School of Mines hosted a talk by Mines Physics PhD student Abdulaziz Alaswad entitled, “From the Atom to the Galaxy; Quran and Science”. During the talk, Alaswad interpreted a number of passages in the Quran as clear evidence that the author of the Quran had knowledge of contemporary (i.e., 20th and 21st century) science. This fact, he claims, is proof that God authored the Quran. There is no doubt that Alaswad is a well-spoken scientist with a special talent for explaining complicated subjects (e.g., cosmology, atomic physics) in a way that the non-specialist can understand. There is also no doubt that Alaswad has a sincere belief in a higher power. Here, I do not wish to take issue either with his scientific knowledge or his faith; I have a sincere respect for both. Rather, I would like to analyze the arguments that he presented for the claim that the author of the Quran had knowledge of contemporary science (call this claim C).
All of Alaswad’s evidence for claim C was presented in the following way: first, Alaswad explained a bit of a contemporary scientific theory; then, he presented a passage from the Quran that he believed to be overwhelming evidence that the author of the Quran knew the claims of the scientific theory just presented. So, for example, Alaswad presented a brief summary of the Big Bang Theory—the theory that, at some time in the past, the universe occupied an infinitesimally small, infinitely dense point. Then he presented the following passage from the Quran: “The heavens and the earth were joined together, and we clove them asunder” (21:30). He holds that this passage is strong evidence for claim C. I believe that this example is representative of the argument structure of the entire talk.
On my view, this connection does not constitute good evidence for C. There are a number of reasons that support my view, many of which have to do with the vagueness of this passage. Granting for the moment, as Alaswad believes, that the Quran is the perfect word of God, we are still faced with the question on how we should interpret these words. This passage in particular allows for at least two interpretations (and in reality, many more but we’ll consider two), none of which seem better than any other. For example, it is not clear at all what is meant by the claim that “the heavens and the earth were joined together.” Does the word ‘heaven’ refer to the several levels of the afterlife that most Muslims believe exist? If so, then it should be apparent that this passage has nothing to do with modern science since the Big Bang Theory does not posit the existence of this kind of heaven. But, perhaps ‘heaven’ refers what we call ‘the heavenly bodies’—the moon, the planets, the stars, etc. This interpretation might lend some support for claim C, but with a bit of inspection, we see that it doesn’t lend much. ‘Being joined together’ is certainly not equivalent to ‘being infinitely dense’; it is hard to see how we can interpret this passage as at all matching the level of precision of the Big Bang Theory. The Big Bang Theory makes claims about temperature, the nature of space, time, and matter; none of these things are addressed in the Quran passage (or anywhere else in the Quran, to the best of my knowledge) with any precision. Such precision is necessary in order to make the connection between science and the Quran. Otherwise, the connection is much like the purported connection between astrological events and social interactions: dubious at best.
One might object here that I’m being too demanding. Perhaps what is important about the Quran—and what is important about many religious texts—is that it displays the mysterious nature of God. Rather than speaking directly, and with precision, God is mysterious and unknowable. I’m sympathetic to this view. But, if we accept that God’s writings are mysterious, then it doesn’t seem reasonable to expect that the word of God be understood scientifically. Science is meant to be clear, unambiguous, and devoid of mystery.  It values not believing over believing falsely. Thus, I think that the best we can hope for is that the Quran is consistent with contemporary science. But that is a very different claim than the one made by Alaswad.
The Quran may be the word of God but we, as finite beings, are left with the monumental task of interpreting His (unfortunately ambiguous) word. In many cases, there aren’t any good reasons to believe that one interpretation is better than the other. But, without a relatively unambiguous interpretation of a religious text, it is extremely difficult—if not impossible—to make a link between that text and a scientific theory. As someone not at all opposed to religious thinking, it is hard for me to understand the appeal of making such connections. There are consistent positions that allow science and religion to coexist without sacrificing intellectual rigor.
 I am granting this claim—that the Quran is the perfect word of God—for the sake of argument. Full disclosure: the degree to which I believe that this claim is true is very low.
 To be clear, I am not judging which kind of discourse is superior; rather, I am merely arguing that, on an important level, the goals of each type of discourse are very different.
This morning on Face the Nation, host Bob Schieffer discussed Ohio Senator Rob Portman’s change in position on gay marriage. Portman, a Republican, was opposed to same sex marriage until he discovered that his son is gay. Now, he is the only Republican Senator to be in favor of same sex marriage. Schieffer’s editorial seemed to laud, not only Portman’s decision, but also the reason for his decision: “People can have differing views on what constitutes marriage, but wanting a fair shake for your kid is about as good a reason to take a public position as any I can think of. It is after all, the principle on which this nation was founded.”
I also praise Portman’s decision to support gay marriage; there is nothing wrong with being gay, and gay people ought to be afforded the same rights as anyone else. But, unlike Scheiffer, I do not praise Portman’s reasons for supporting gay marriage. I believe this is true because, at its core, the decision to support gay marriage is an ethical decision and requires ethical reasoning. In general, choosing to support an ethical position simply because the position affects me (or because it affects my family) constitutes a bad reason for supporting it. We ought to consider how our positions would affect anyone, not just those we know or are close to. Ethical reasoning requires that we detach ourselves from our particular situation and consider what might be best, not just for us and ‘our own’, but for everyone (or everything) involved in the decision.
Whether or not your son is gay should have no bearing on whether or not being gay is wrong. Perhaps if conservatives and Republicans had a better idea of what it means to reason ethically, we might not have to wait until their family members to come out of the closet in order to extend rights to everyone that deserves them.
Experimental philosophers and sociologists have become interested in the way in which people attempt to reason about ethical choices. Some of their studies have found that people, and especially Americans, think about ethical choices from a relativistic framework. Such people are called ethical relativists. In short, ethical relativists believe that ethical standards are a matter of personal opinion or taste. So, for example, when one says that it is wrong to cheat or lie, one is simply expressing their opinion with respect to cheating or lying in a particular context.
But ethical relativism is a problematic position. For one, if ethical relativism is true, we are in no position to say that an action performed by others is wrong; after all, if ethical standards are a matter of personal opinion, then it is only one’s opinion that some action is wrong. This has far reaching consequences. It follows that, if we truly are ethical relativists, then we cannot condemn actions that many believe to be obviously wrong— e.g., the senseless and unjustified torture of another person, rape, etc. For, as relativists, our condemnations are only our personal opinions; and, the torturer and rapist also have opinions on whether these actions are wrong. If relativism is true, each opinion is as good as any other.
Fortunately, most people that assert ethical relativism in haste aren’t really ethical relativists. Most have deeply held ethical intuitions that are counter to ethical relativism. For example, most people do believe that senseless and unjustified torture is wrong for reasons that go beyond their own tastes and opinions: most plausibly, the action is wrong because senseless torture unnecessarily violates the preferences of the person being tortured.
Once we discover that ethical relativism is inconsistent with our deeply held ethical intuitions, we are presented with a choice: either we abandon ethical relativism and choose to act in a way that is consistent with the consequences of our deeply held ethical intuitions, or, we choose to accept that, at times, we are inconsistent.
The latter action—accepting that we are inconsistent—can have disastrous consequences. To see this, suppose that we believe some contradiction—for example, that, ‘it is permissible to torture and it is not permissible to torture’. Then, we must believe that, ‘it is permissible to torture or the moon is made of green cheese’. Why must we believe this claim? Well, an ‘or’ statement is true if at least one of the disjuncts (i.e., ‘it is permissible to torture’, and ’the moon is made of green cheese’) is true. If we assert the first disjunct as true, as we did above, then the ‘or’ statement must be true. But, since we also believe that ‘torture is not permissible,’ we can (validly!) deduce that ‘the moon is made of green cheese.’
So, starting from an inconsistency (a contradiction), we are logical forced to believe anything. The consequences of this are disastrous: if we are inconsistent, and thus, hold contradictory beliefs, then we are susceptible to believe anything whatsoever—e.g., that ‘the moon is made of green cheese‘ or, worse, that ‘life is not worth living’. This fact is reason enough for us to try hard not to hold contradictory beliefs. Thus, if we have deeply held ethical intuitions about torture, murder, etc., we are better off if we abandon relativism and consider the logical consequences of those intuitions.
Consider the following, fairly recent, projects that people have dedicated their time to:
- MIT Mechanical Engineer Amy Smith has worked on a number of solutions to reduce the rate of infections from breathing smoke from indoor cooking fires (the number one cause of death worldwide). For example, in India, cow dung is used as cooking fuel; but, it produces a lot of smoke. Amy Smith has worked on a several different types of cleaner, healthier, cooking charcoals, each made from locally available, environmentally sustainable sources. (Here’s one of her TED Talks.)
- Astonished by the inability of the richest nation in the world to provide clean water to Hurricane Katrina victims, Michael Pritchard developed a water filter that purifies water of all entities 15 nm or less. It is estimated that $20 billion dollars (less than the yearly cost of the 2003 Iraq War) could provide clean drinking water for the entire world. Surely, this would have a serious impact on those suffering and dying from diarrhea (the number two cause of death worldwide). (Here’s Pritchard’s TED Talk.)
With these projects in mind, consider the following argument:
P1: We have an ethical obligation to minimize the suffering of humans and other sentient animals (i.e., animals that can feel please and pain, and thus, have preferences).
P2: Some projects are more likely than others to contribute to the minimization of suffering.
C: Thus, we have an ethical obligation to take on projects that have the greatest chance of minimizing suffering.
I think that this argument is strong (if not valid). So, the best way to attack it is by attacking the veracity of the premises.
Now, consider the following support for P1:
- One ethical theory claims that we ought to act in a way that makes things go better in the future (Consequentialism). According to this theory, things go better when suffering is minimized.
- Another ethical theory claims that we ought to act in accordance with certain duties (Deontology). Plausibly, one of those duties might be to, as far as possible, not cause undue suffering.
- Finally, a third ethical theory claims that we ought to act out of virtue (Virtue Ethics). Plausibly, allowing others to suffer is not virtuous.
Thus, on most accounts, it seems plausible that we have an ethical obligation to minimize suffering (i.e., P1 seems plausible).
Now, consider the following support for P2:
Consider (1) finding a cure for male pattern baldness and (2) further developing the water filter mentioned above (e.g., making it more affordable, more widely available, etc.). Though (1) might reduce some suffering for some individuals, (2) is much more likely to reduce real suffering. Thus, there is an ordering on projects with respect to suffering and P2 seems plausible.
So, if P1 and P2 are true, and the argument above is strong, then C is probably true.
So, are we doing wrong by not taking on projects that we know would be most beneficial to humans and sentient beings?