Tom Clark, Empiricism, and Ethics

Thinking Christian
Thinking Christian
Tom Clark, Empiricism, and Ethics

After a two-month hiatus, it’s my pleasure once again to take up conversation with Tom Clark, director of the Center for Naturalism, who also runs the website and the Memeing Naturalism blog. Our first three rounds on this were interesting and productive, in my opinion, and apparently also Tom’s.

Previously we discussed whether his approach to epistemology was adequate and supportable, which I do not intend to raise for discussion again here; I think we’ve covered that, even though we did not come to agreement. The great remaining question has to do with his position on the ethics of naturalism. I will illustrate his position with a series of quotes from his paper Reality and Its Rivals: Putting Epistemology First.

This statement of the obvious – that respect for empiricism matters, crucially – simply sets the stage for the central argument of this paper: that when it comes to representing reality, there is no coherent, ethically responsible substitute for science and other empirical disciplines.

But the empirical imperative is not only rational, it becomes a positive ethical obligation when we engage in collective projects that affect the lives of millions.

A little epistemic humility would go a long way toward reducing the ideological tribalism underlying the culture wars.

So we see that Clark values, and seeks to be guided by, responsibility and humility, and he acknowledges that there are ethical obligations upon humans. On these things we are quite in agreement. He shares more detailed ethical views in passages like this one:

Religiously motivated opponents of birth control, abortion, stem cell research and gay marriage have sought to disseminate information at odds with science: about the supposed inefficacy of condoms in preventing the spread of HIV, the purportedly dire psychological impact of having an abortion or growing up with two mommies or daddies, and the supposedly superior feasibility of some alternatives to embryonic stem cells.

(I note in passing that the “superior feasibility of some alternatives to embryonic stem cells” is, at least at this stage of research, quite empirically factual. But that is not my main point here.)

Now, all of this is in context of an impassioned call for empiricism, Clark’s position that nothing is known unless it is knowable through science or means very much like science, i.e., intersubjective empiricism. In a spirit of epistemic humility, no belief or opinion should be regarded as knowledge unless the object of that belief is a public object, capable of being examined by anyone (theoretically at least), and on which other persons generally find agreement.

Clearly, though, he takes ethical obligations to be an object of knowledge. How can he do this on his empiricist epistemology? One potential difficulty with his position comes to mind but must be discarded immediately. By public object, we can be sure Clark does not necessarily mean a physical object; I’m sure he also includes abstract objects like, say, the triangle formed by our sun, Betelgeuse, and Sirius; or numbers; or logical relations. So even though ethical obligations are not touchable, countable, or measurable, that in itself does not automatically rule them out under his epistemology, provided they can be tested by some appropriately empirical means.

Clark suggests that this is possible. He says that “empiricism and equality go hand in hand,” producing a basis for ethics that stands, by the way, in sharp contrast to religiously based ethics:

The primary justifications for discrimination against women, racial, ethnic and religious minorities, atheists, homosexuals, and other out-groups are found in traditional faith-based religions such as Christianity and Islam, and in non-empirical secular ideologies such as Nazism, social Darwinism and white supremacy. There are no good science-based reasons for such discrimination, so to the extent that we can divest people of their factually unfounded prejudices we’ll move toward a more tolerant, pluralist, egalitarian culture of universal human rights.

In an earlier paper of his he expresses this view in further detail:

By contrast, there is no science-based, empirically derived justification for supposing any class of individuals merits fewer opportunities for self-development, or for limiting their rights to education, political participation, owning property, or any other right commonly held by individuals in liberal secular societies. Such limitations and discriminations can only find justification in non-empirical beliefs about the privileges owed those ranked higher in a social hierarchy, or belonging to certain in-groups, whether based on gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, religious identification, or other denomination. The history of progress in human rights (progress as progressives see it) is the dismantling of such justifications, of showing them to have no basis in empirical fact.

Whatever biological and cultural differences exist between genders, races, ethnicities, religious groups and nationalities, there are no scientific grounds for supposing members of out-groups, or low status members of in-groups, deserve not to have their human needs met, or not to develop their full potential by according them the same rights as others. As scientific empiricism has won allegiance as our guide to reality, displacing faith and other non-empirical grounds for belief, the discriminatory social practices built on such beliefs have been deprived of their rationales, making the presumption of equal rights more and more the norm.

In summary, then, Clark holds to an ethic including responsibility, humility, and human equality (a generally liberal approach to this, as stated elsewhere in that paper); and he considers that there are obligations attached to all of these. He maintains that there is an empirical basis to his ethic.

Two questions come to mind in response. First, is there any place where he proposes to bridge the is-ought gap? This is the famous issue posed by David Hume and described as the naturalistic fallacy: that one cannot derive an ought from an is. Christian theism has no problem with this, for the ought is as much an aspect of the character of God, and thus the foundation of reality, as any other aspect of his character. The oughts of human ethics do not start from an is, they derive from the original oughts of basic reality in God.

Second, is there really an empirical basis for any of his ethics at all? What is the empirical basis for supposing we have an ethical obligation to empiricism? Is that not somewhat circular? In his paper he poses this ethical obligation as being demonstrated in its results; that it leads to more equal treatment for humans, more respect for public health and the environment, and so on. These imply values attached to the environment and to human equality. Do these values flow from empirically-based knowledge?

To the second of those, human equality, he proposes an answer. He says there is “no empirically derived justification for supposing any class individuals merits fewer opportunities…. there are no scientific grounds for supposing members of out-groups, or law status members of in-groups, deserve not to have their human needs met.” But what is the empirical study that supports this? Is it not empirically obvious that persons are not equal? As individuals, some of us are more intelligent, some less; some more emotionally intelligent, some less; some more athletic, some less; some more productive in giving to society, some less, some even taking more than they give. Now, it’s true that science has shown that, taken as groups, we are all very much the same (some highly controversial studies even differ on that). But individuals are not at all the same.

People as individuals differ, groups are similar, at least on a biological level. What ethical imperative flows from that? About a hundred years ago, it was forced sterilization and other eugenics programs. Now, Clark says that the ruling value is that people should be allowed to “develop their full potential.” This sounds suspiciously like Maslow, whose “Hierarchy of Needs” has, unfortunately for Maslow and possibly also for Clark, not been supported by empirical research. Regardless of that, what empirical study showed that individuals developing their full potential is more important than the improvement of the race? Now, I certainly do believe that individual growth is a better ethical idea than eugenic manipulation, but I didn’t get gather that opinion from an empirical study, and I don’t think Tom Clark could have, either.

Further, suppose people were much markedly similar to each other than they are in fact. How would that fact make equal treatment an ethical imperative? It seems that “equal treatment” was picked out of the empirical air.

But in fact it wasn’t. It comes from historical roots, for example, “All men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator…” And those historical roots have roots themselves. The principle of equality was never one of empirical observation, but of theological reflection. The only relevant sense in which humans are equal is in worth, but worth is not an empirical concept at all. How is it measured? How could it be? No, equality is a matter of our standing before God. As a matter of historical fact, this conception of human equality arose out of Christian roots. Agreed, it took time to flourish, but it’s no accident that is has never flourished anywhere but in lands informed by Biblical beliefs.

Now, this post is running long, and it was not my primary purpose to establish the validity of Christian ethics or to defend their historical expression. (Timothy Keller does a great job of this in this talk: mp3 download.) Rather, my main purpose has been to explore two of Tom Clark’s central beliefs: that the only reliable route to knowledge is the empirical one, and that there are ethical obligations binding upon us, including the obligation to be empiricists. I think he can maintain those two beliefs as long as he does not try to impose the first one on the second one. If he does, he will find that on his terms of knowledge, his knowledge of ethics has no standing.