Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You

recent interview with George Ellis, from the University of Cape Town, had him confront the potential for his religious faith to affect his scientific views. (Part of) his response:

“Many key aspects of life (such as ethics: what is good and what is bad, and aesthetics: what is beautiful and what is ugly) lie outside the domain of scientific inquiry”

appears – at first glance – to concur with Stephen Jay Gould’s vision of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA). NOMA demands that moral values lie in the domain of religion, a claim heavily criticised by Richard Dawkins in his book, The God Delusion. Not a huge fan of the book, but I’m definitely less of a fan of NOMA. For completeness, according to NOMA, art and beauty then belong to yet another “magisterium”. Ellis argues, rather, that ethics “what is good or bad” is “a philosophical or religious question”. [Edit: to clarify, my qualms are regarding whether this is a religious question, not whether it’s a philosophical question.]

“Scuola di Atene”/“The School of Athens” Raphael

“Scuola di Atene” or “The School of Athens”, fresco by Raphael 1509-1510

Admittedly, most of my education of ethical philosophy has been limited to reading whatever I stumbled across in a Leichhardt bookshop while procrastinating from writing my PhD thesis, or watching Sam Harris’s TED talk or enjoying the back-and-forth essays of Sean Carroll and Harris. If you can suggest further reading, feel free to leave a message in the comments below! For the most part, I have found myself being absolutely sure that from given axioms about the “state of well-being”, of either the individual or society, one could logically derive conclusions about moral values. And once you describe the utility function of desired outcome correctly you have a set of instructions for moral behaviour ready-made! Sure. Putting anything into practise, however, is extremely difficult due to the world being a very messy and complicated place.

Skip forward 4 years and the annoyance over Ellis’s comments and [Edit: I also initially took offense to ethical issues being removed from scientific inquiry, but now…] here’s the thing: ethics and aesthetics don’t have any meaning outside humanity, or more broadly speaking, outside of the existence of life. That is, humans have created the notion of good and bad, beautiful and ugly, as well as the so-called domains of philosophy, religion and science [Edit: the latter two having evolved somewhat out of the former]. But if no living being ever existed in the universe, would there be such a thing as ethics?

If a star explodes in the Large Magellanic Cloud and there’s no one around to see it, is it still beautiful?


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