Moral objectivity can also explain the objectivity of science (not the other way round).

In most Western philosophy the assumption is that if there is any moral objectivity, it must be in some way tributary to scientific objectivity. I think this is putting the cart before the horse. If we think of both moral and scientific objectivity as dispositional (a matter of personal habit) and incremental (a matter of degree) then this should become increasingly clear.

Scientific objectivity is not a matter of discovering 'natural laws' which then give you an ultimate God's-eye view of reality. Scientific theories are simply generalisations of a view that is in accordance with our experience so far. If you assume that it is the theories that need to be objective, you are led into a false dichotomy between absolutism and relativism. Given how often in the past accepted scientific theories have later been proven inadequate, it is crazy to imagine that the scientific theories we have can ever be absolutely right. Most scientists accept that they do not have (and never will have) a God's-eye view. Yet the alternative is often taken to be a relative view, where scientific theories are only the construction of a particular culture. This also does not fit our experience that the scope of scientific discovery is universal.

Some of the greatest philosophers of science, such as Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos, have struggled to find some sort of middle way between these extremes. They have, in effect, tried to explain the objectivity of science without resorting to absolutism, by linking epistemological questioning to historical evidence. Lakatos, particularly, has made progress by explaining the objectivity of scientific theories in terms of their fruitfulness in making predictions that fit our experience. This shows the incrementality of scientific objectivity. A theory can be more or less fruitful without being absolutely true or false.

By itself, however, this does not explain the objectivity of scientific discovery. The improvement could still be seen as improvement only within the terms of a particularly cultural set of assumptions. Where Kuhn and Lakatos were unnecessarily narrow in their approach was in their refusal to consider psychological accounts of objectivity. Scientific theories can only be objective in a way which is derivative from the objectivity of scientists themselves. Only an account of objectivity that is personal as well as incremental can show how the judgements applied to new information can be more or less objective. Judgements based on a greater degree of awareness can show the limitations of previously-held assumptions as well as the positive fit between theory and experience. It is increasingly objective scientists as individuals, interacting with an increasingly objective scientific culture, who can develop the dispositions of the Middle Way by avoiding narrow assumptions both of a positive and of a negative kind. This kind of dispositional development enables them to make better judgements in relation to whatever they encounter.

The objectivity of scientists, however, is equally a moral objectivity. It consists in a habitual integration of beliefs, desires and meaning, a total state of character. This is not just a state of individual character, but one which interrelates with the state of society and the degree of integration in that society. It is scientists with greater moral objectivity who will be able to apply balanced critical reflection to their scientific work and thus pursue it better, with a greater probability of fruitful results. This does not mean that there will not be conflicts between goals often perceived as "scientific" and ones perceived as "moral", but that this will be a conflict between different moral goals that can only be resolved morally, by developing the character to be able to best address conditions. Conditions may not always be addressed best by necessarily putting scientific advance first. Science does not have the independence of other values that is commonly ascribed to it.

Links to further discussion

The state of philosophy

Lakatos and non-dualist ethics (prize-winning paper)

Discussion of the heuristic problem in thesis

Discussion of verification and falsification and the Middle Way (scroll down to 6c)

Objection #4. We cannot escape metaphysics. Even scientists have to use metaphysical assumptions.

Discussion of scientific issues in "A New Buddhist Ethics"

Taking the Meta- out of Physics: A paper responding to Graham Smetham on metaphysical claims made from quantum physics

Review of 'The Science Delusion' by Rupert Sheldrake


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Quick links to other pages related to science:


the heuristic process


metaphysical assumptions in science

scientific issues (e.g. genetic engineering, cloning, space exploration)

Rupert Sheldrake

Objections and responses

Home page


8 Central claims of Middle Way philosophy







philosophical problems

practical ethics


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objections and responses copyright Robert M. Ellis