by Patrick Appel

A reader sketches out the ethical problems that arise:

First, in a deterministic universe, it does not make sense to use words like "should" or "ought". In order to say that someone should have done something in a certain situation, then it follows that she could have done something else instead. But in a deterministic universe, by definition, the person could not have done something else, because her actions, thoughts, and feelings were determined by the environment.

Second, in a deterministic universe, values are completely arbitrary. Any values we possess would be by definition merely a result of our environmental programming.
In that situation, subjective terms lose their meanings, since those meanings are defined only by values, which would be the result of arbitrary programming. Hence there are no absolutes (nor responsibilities), and therefore there can not exist concepts like right or wrong, good, better, or problem. If values are arbitrary, then words like "worth" have no meaning. These concepts are defined in terms of values.

Claiming that ethical values can be derived logically and rationally runs into some significant problems (something the new athiests have not come to terms with, it seems). For example, what seems logical to us would only seem so when judged according to a specific pattern of expectations and definitions we inherit from our environments.

Critically, one can not look to science to provide suggestions for the bedrock principles of societal ethics and morality. Scientific inquiry is very powerful, but it does not give answers to questions like that. Certainly, it is possible to logically derive ethical guidelines from a first principle, such as the golden rule for example, but there is no way to scientifically/logically derive that first principle itself...the first axioms have to be accepted on faith.

What, exactly, is scientific about any ethical first principle? For example, what is scientific about "do unto others as you would have them do unto you"? What scientific experiment could demonstrate the truth or falsity of this statement? What is the scientific answer to what is "right" or "good" in a given situation?

Why would the golden rule be more "scientific" than a first principle of might makes right, for example? Why, scientifically, should people be treated equally? Especially if people are to be nothing more than a transient arrangement of mental (or energy) states that are mere epiphenomenon determined by the interplay of forces and particles through time in an unending sequence of causes stretching back to the beginning of time? Accepting a determinist universe would be a tall order for anyone.