Sam Harris thinks it can. In [this TED talk](http://www.ted.com/talks/view/id/801), he argues that (1) science is tasked with tracking down truth, (2) there are such things as moral truths, so therefore (3) science can find moral truths. Given the way he frames “truth” (watch the video to see, as it’s both interesting and more complex than I want to summarize here), I accept (2) but tentatively reject (1), meaning I have to abandon (3).
Two problems. First, he takes a strictly utilitarian approach to morality. Morality is, for Harris, a question of human (and animal) suffering. Science can thus “answer” moral questions by scanning the brains of those involved, checking whether they are experiencing pleasure or pain, and guiding us to proceed accordingly. But this leaves a science of morals open to the same critiques that dog consequentialist ethics. This doesn’t mean Harris is outright wrong, or that science cannot address morality, but it does mean he can’t say “Science tells us to do X” without first showing why utilitarianism/consequentialism is more true than other forms of moral philosophy.
Second, he assumes that moral truths are the same sort of truth as science seeks. I’m not convinced they are. Science is a powerful tool, one that has immeasurably improved the lives of each and every one of us, accomplishing far more than religion has–or can ever hope to. But just as it would strike us as fishy to claim that science can tell us which art is beautiful (or even what art is), there may be something wrong with thinking that, because moral facts exist, and because science tracks down facts, science can track down moral facts. I am not rejecting Harris’s thesis–it may turn out in the end that he is right–but I don’t think science is as obvious an answer to moral conundrums as Harris asserts.
Does this mean we have no choice but to embrace religion as our authoritative guide to morality? No, not at all. There’s simply no reason why we need to operate exclusively within the science/religion binary. The faithful–and, it seems, Sam Harris–present us with a false dilemma: either science is the answer or religion is. But there are other ways of arriving at truth. Philosophy is one option. Intuition is another (though a problematic one).
Science is a method. A powerful one, yes, but not the only one. I fear Harris–who I respect greatly and who’s book, *The End of Faith*, is responsible for making me feel okay to come out as an atheist–is overextending science’s reach. He’s bought into the false dilemma of the faithful.
Science gives us many of life’s answers–but not all.Tweet to @ARossP