Does Studying Science Make You a Better Person?

I thought I’d take two minutes (I’ll add a footnote telling how long this really took to write) out of my uneventful morning to answer a question I just found in my WordPress feed: “Does studying science make you a better person?”

The answer is no. That might sound weird coming from me, as I often promote Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape, a book with the subtitle “How Science Can Determine Human Values”. But science is not a moral indicator. Given to the wrong person, science leads to neurotoxins, nuclear bombs, chemical warfare, gas chambers and—a real possibility in our future—synthesised viruses that attack according to our genetics. Someone trained in anatomy and physiology might use that to harvest organs of living people for a profit, or find and cut a person’s jugular quickly.

But the answer is also yes, or at least it can. I invite you to look at studies on the intelligence of animals: their empathy, their capacity for language, their love for their family, their enforcement of honesty (in the cases of many monkeys), their culture (elephants have a basic culture that includes mourning the dead); then come to me and say animals don’t have rights. It is a very emotionally difficult thing to do. The more I have studied about the universe, particularly the things living on earth, the more I realise that things have a worth we should protect. If you are already a good person, studying science will make you a better person.

Science can inform us; and it can determine the effects of an action; and it can help us direct our own values; it can even help us to demonstrate the suffering and the pain, the happiness and the pleasure we cause. But it cannot make you a good person.

(This took 12 minutes to write)

Further Reading:

Does Science Make You a Better Person? – Salon.com – The post that inspired me to write the above post doesn’t actually share any content with what I have written. It is interesting.

Evidence for Objective (secular) Morality – I have no issues with self-promotion. This is something I wrote to explain how, although science does not have to make us better people, it certainly can tell us when we are being immoral.

Skeptic Michael Shermer says science better than religion or philosophy at determining morality – Not the catchiest title in the world, and I never know how I feel about Michael Shermer: sometimes he is insightful and wonderful. Sometimes he employs rather childish arguments. This interview, however, is one of the delightful  times.

(Adding in hyperlinks and further reading took a further 14 minutes)

(Adding tags took another 4 minutes)

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25 thoughts on “Does Studying Science Make You a Better Person?”

  1. YES.

    Ps, I ticked off that Dan O’Brian guy pretty good with this comment:

    I appreciate your list of logical fallacies. But, you have an interesting talent for neutralizing another person’s point of view with generalizations which would apply better to your own. A self-deceptive, yet clever, way to preserve your beliefs. I’m not buying it, and I don’t think I have the time to invest in a cyclical conversation either … but, I gather that you are now swimming so deep in the abyss of your own bullshit, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between your own epiphany & the lure of an anglerfish.

    1. When I first read your comment (above) I thought “that’s a bit harsh”. So I went back to the post and looked at the context, and now I think you pulled your punched a little.
      He’s not “neutralising” other views, he’s dodging and ignoring them. His response to my comment looks like “Hmmm… I don’t like those questions. I’ll pretend I don’t believe those questions”. The guy is an insufferable moron (which I rarely say about believers. I often commend them for their will and openness. But I have to admit that all of my religious friends–even the heavily devout–have big problems with doubt and literal interpretation. I respect that sort of honesty a lot).

      (For all my readers, this is the post we’re talking about: http://irrelevantaxiom.wordpress.com/2013/03/23/confession-atheism-good-for-the-soul)

      1. He’s playing the “pity card,” but just in a more articulate, self-righteous way than the usual, “boy, you are mean. where does all that anger come from, mr. atheist? I just want to have a civil discussion.”

        1. He’s also playing the “dogma” card, and very subtly playing the “atheism is a religion” card. The problem is, we’re not playing poker.
          If we were, he’d have a bullshit-Royal-Flush.

        2. “I’m playing fair. You know I’m playing fair. I doubt the sincerity of your challenge to how I am playing this game. You’ll have managed people who cheat at poker the way I cheat at poker, and they will have explained to you how this type of cheating is fair”…

          Yeah… He’s hilarious.

  2. Definitely a well-spent 12 minutes.

    Apart from a more robust sense of morality, I’d also submit that studying science makes you less likely to advance or practice mistaken and often harmful ideas. Being less susceptible to manipulation and suggestion makes you a better person too.

      1. I’d wager that although many atrocities have no doubt been planned by intelligent, educated leaders, they are typically carried out by people whose motivations are blind patriotism or idealistic religion….people who lack the critical reasoning skills to question their orders.

        In other words, if everyone better understood science, we’d have a few more Bin Ladens but a lot fewer Richard Reids.

        1. That is the current theory, isn’t it? Educated but bigoted people get the disillusioned and the uneducated to do their bidding.
          “Science literacy is a vaccine against the charlatans of the world that would exploit your ignorance.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

        2. Gotta love some Tyson.

          There’s always going to be a gradient, of course. But it’s a fair hypothesis that the sharpness of that gradient correlates to the likelihood of abuse.

    1. I read the post, and we see to agree in all dimensions accept that religion is any more useful. It is as true for religion as it is for science that discretion rests with the user. But, unlike science, religion makes certain promises.

      One of the other things we disagree on is whether science can tell us anything about the claims of religion. See, the only way to know if a God exists is for that God to interact with reality in some way and for you to see the evidence. That evidence is within the scope of science. If, however, that evidence is not in the visible reality then you have no method of discerning the truth of your religion, short of immediate guess work.

      1. Thanks for the prompt reply. God has given given visible evidence – much before the organized form of science existed – Science is just 350 years old (new friend). Moses is a historical person. All the Divine intervention is recorded and there starts the Evidence based historical true religion. Till AD 35 it was confined only to Jews. Bust after that through evident signs it was accepted by the Greeks and Romans.please read http://eternaldiginity.wordpress.com/2013/03/12/the-fixed-path-to-eternal-life-a-historical-perspective/
        thank you.

        1. How has God intervened since science? Particularly in advent of the camera?

          God has not held dialogue with me, or anyone I know from places other than the internet, in any fashion. Much less the way He spoke to John and Job and Moses and Abraham.

      2. drfelixjames, provide me with some historical evidence for Moses’ existence (outside of the Bible please). The Egyptians kept excellent records and there are no records of even Jews in Egypt. There is no evidence that Jews walked the desert for 40 years (somehow they didn’t leave any footprints, or anything of the sort). Clearly you haven’t heard of a man by the name of Aristarchus (310 BCE – 230 BCE) he was the first person to discover that the earth moved around the sun. Now I’m no historian (oh wait, I AM) but that seems to me to be more than 350 years old. Aristarchus lived before Jesus. The Christians basically plagiarized most of their religious belief FROM the Greeks and Romans. Do some better research.

        1. I do love it when a follower [sic – I’ll say subscriber from now on, I am not Jesus] comes in and rattles a cage with something as inconvenient as knowledge and facts.

  3. I quite agree with the yes/no answer. I am a tenured university professor, surrounded by tenured scientists, and I’ve found that one can be very proficient in a highly specialized topic, and yet still have a poor grasp of basic logical reasoning outside that specialty. Science makes you a better person only if you choose to use it for that purpose, and maintain a disciplined life of rigorous analysis applied to all your beliefs and actions.

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