Last week agnostic astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted, “Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence.” I did my best in 140 characters to show how this sentiment is the exact of opposite of profound. I said, “@neiltyson ‘Rationalia’ is as useless as ‘Correctistan,’ or a country whose constitution says, ‘Always make the correct decisions.'”
Obviously, public policy should rationally consider all the relevant facts and circumstances. But it is naïve to think that all it takes to create a just society is a scientific mindset that “follows the evidence where it leads.”
That’s because the “evidence” we need includes not just facts Tyson and other scientists can confirm in a laboratory but values that help us interpret those facts and come to correct conclusions. In fact, a tragedy that took place last week perfectly illustrates how we can’t solve every problem with a facile appeal to scientific reasoning.
The driverless car dilemma
Last week Joshua Brown became the first fatality in an accident involving a car using autopilot mode. This won’t spell the end of driverless cars any more than the very first automobile crash kept the horse and buggy in business, but the technology does raise important questions related to ethics and highway safety regulations. For example, a recently published article in the journal Science revealed the attitude of 2,000 people towards this dilemma:
A driverless car is about to run over ten people, and there is not enough time to for the car to stop. The only the way the car can avoid killing the pedestrians is to swerve into a wall, which will probably kill one or more of the vehicle’s passengers. Should driverless cars be programmed to save as many lives as possible in an accident (utilitarian programming)? Or should they be programmed to do what is necessary to protect their passengers?
The survey revealed that 76 percent of people believe it is more moral for a driverless car to receive utilitarian programming. In other words, most people think it’s better if a car’s computer sacrificed the vehicle’s passengers in order to save as many lives as possible. But the survey also revealed that 81 percent of respondents would not purchase a driverless car with such programming. Instead, they would prefer a car programmed to protect them and their passengers at all costs.
This brings us back to Tyson’s suggestion that we follow “the weight of the evidence.” How should Rationalia’s transportation authority deal with the problem of highway fatalities? Should it mandate utilitarian programming in driverless cars in order to achieve the goal of reducing highway fatalities? Or should it allow drivers to choose which programming they want in order to achieve the goal of respecting civil liberties, even if it causes an increase in traffic fatalities?
The “evidence,” or facts and statistical relations, can support both policies, so an appeal to facts alone doesn’t tell us what we ought to do. The “Rationalia” approach won’t resolve dilemmas like this, because ethical disputes tend to be about the values people hold and not just the facts they observe. This means Rationalia’s anemic constitution cannot resolve societal disputes any more than your GPS unit can resolve a fight your family has over a summer vacation.
In both cases science can give us facts that describe what is, but only philosophical reflection can tell us what we ought to do.
The myth of objectivity
In a video posted a few days ago, Tyson explained in more detail why something like Rationalia is necessary. He said, “It is unstable to build a government on a belief system.” [Audience applauds] “What you want is objectively verifiable truths, that we can all agree—that’s what you build your economic system on, your government system.”
What does he mean by “belief system”? In the video, Tyson is clearly referring to religion. He says those kinds of belief systems are unstable, because religious people disagree with one another. Instead, we should build public policy on “objectively verifiable truths,” which are apparently secular in nature. I agree that public policy should not simply mirror what is found in divine revelation (something natural law theorists like St. Thomas Aquinas have known for millennia). But the materialistic, utilitarian thinking that motivates scientists like Tyson is not exempt from this critique.
Many people, religious and nonreligious, disagree with that belief system. Furthermore, the truth of this value system can’t be “objectively verified” with a scientific instrument. In other words, you can’t build a political philosophy, even one as simple as Rationalia’s, out of something like the periodic table of elements. You need objectively true values or moral facts that can be known only through nonscientific means like intuition or ethical reflection. Since God is pure goodness itself and can be known through reason, we can build equitable societies on moral principles derived from the natural law that compliment the special moral principles we receive from the same source in divine revelation.
There’s nothing wrong with someone like Neil De Grasse Tyson encouraging us to be rational when we debate important social issues. What is objectionable is the claim that because some scientists are successful at solving practical problems we should adopt their personal value systems. We should instead critically examine these value systems and apply nonscientific (but equally valid) philosophical tests to see if they support just societies and affirm the intrinsic dignity of the human person.