2018 Gareth Evans Memorial Lecture
Over the last half-century or so, much has been said about the corrosive effect on ethics of “scientism” or scientific naturalism; the view that the ontology of a completed basic natural science, say future physics, will provide an “alphabet of being” with respect to which everything present in space and time is a word or a sentence or a paragraph or a novel or a library built up from that alphabet, by modes of combination which the natural science in question can make fully intelligible. Scientism has been charged with deracinating the meaning of human life; with entrenching skepticism about the authority of traditional values, including truthfulness itself; and with obliterating teleology from history and so from our informed understanding of history, thereby leaving us in a condition of liquid post-modernity in which all meta-narratives appear as laughably unempirical and defensive stories that serve to mask the arbitrary evolution of material events and of technological and financial power.
By and large, Anglophone academic ethics has remained calm in the face of such claims, even though many of its practitioners either endorse scientific naturalism or see no viable alternative to it.
As a matter of temperament, I also prefer calm. But I have discovered a series of arguments that begin with the variety of naturalistic conceptions of the self and proceed to demonstrate that with the exception of hedonistic utilitarianism and its ilk, ethics is bunk if scientific naturalism is true. In the lecture I explain some of these arguments, and invite you to help me with my resultant disquiet.
Mark Johnston is Henry Putnam University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University.