Sunday, June 26, 2011

Morality without religion

One theory of ethics (and it could be argued therefore morality) is the existence of religion. Certainly many religious figures have argued that religion (their own) is the glue that holds society together and prevents us from entering a moral abyss. During his 2007 visit to Brazil, Pope Benedict XVI said:
"Where God is absent - God with the human face of Jesus Christ - these [moral] values fail to show themselves with their full force: nor does a consensus arise concerning them.
I do not mean that nonbelievers cannot live a lofty and exemplary morality; I am only saying that a society in which God is absent will not find the necessary consensus on moral values or the strength to live according to the model of these values".
Another commonly touted argument is that amoral (or immoral) figures throughout history (such as Stalin) professed to being atheists.

Not everyone would agree with this. The Greek philosopher Plato (228-348 BC) believed that ethics could not be derived from religion. He raised the question:
"Is something good because God says it is good, or does God say it is good because it is good?"
If it is possible for something to be inherently good, then it seems it is not necessary to appeal to the existence of God (and therefore organised religion) as the basis of ethics and morals. Of course, other ideas of the genesis of ethics exist: moral relativism, self-interest, duty ethics and utilitarianism. Therefore it could be argued that ethics and morals can exist completely independently of religion.

Richard Dawkins would not be expected to agree with the religious ethics argument. In the video below he sets out his beliefs that it is possible for an atheist to be a moral person. He also discusses his view that morals developed through natural selection as altruism developed in our ancestors.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

How long is a piece of string?

In a Horizon documentary made for the BBC in 2009, comedian and professional dunce Alan Davies set out to measure a piece of string he bought in a hardware shop. After meeting a series of pompous and condescending experts he decided it's an impossible task. According to the mathematician his string may be of infinite length, while the physicists tell him that until he goes about measuring it, it actually has no length (the observer effect).

Its an interesting exercise which brings together branches of natural sciences, maths and philosophy.