Sean McDowell | February 6, 2018

Can Science Explain Morality?

Can Science Explain Morality?

Human beings have a universal belief in right and wrong. As C.S. Lewis has observed, moral codes from cultures throughout world history vary over what specific behavior they consider moral, but there is an underlying agreement that objective moral values and duties exists.

As my father and I state in the introduction of the updated Evidence that Demands a Verdict, any adequate worldview must be able to explain this feature of reality.

Science and Morality

In his book The Moral Landscape, atheist Sam Harris claims science can provide a basis for objective morality. But in his recent book Stealing from God, my friend Frank Turek has written a piercing response:

“Science might be able to tell you if an action may hurt someone—like giving a man cyanide will kill him—but science can’t tell you whether or not you ought to hurt someone. Who said it’s wrong to hurt people? Sam Harris? Is his nature the standard of good?”[1]

In other words, science is a descriptive discipline, but morality is a prescriptive discipline. Science can describe how things work, but it can never tell us how we ought to behave.

Another popular explanation for morality is evolution.

Evolution and Morality

A few years ago, I participated in a public debate on the question of God and morality. My opponent argued that evolution explains morality better than God. But this explanation also fails too. Frank Beckwith and Greg Koukl offer two reasons:

First, evolution doesn’t explain what it’s meant to explain. It can only account for preprogrammed behavior, not moral choices. Moral choices, by their nature, are made by free agents. They are not determined by internal mechanics. Second, the Darwinist explanation reduces morality to mere descriptions of behavior. The morality that evolution needs to account for, however, entails much more than conduct. Minimally, it involves motive and intent as well. Both are nonphysical elements that can’t, even in principle, evolve in a Darwinian sense. Further, this assessment of morality, being descriptive only, ignores the most important moral question of all: Why should I be moral tomorrow? Evolution cannot answer that question. Morality dictates what future behavior ought to be. Darwinism can only attempt to describe why humans acted in a certain way in the past.[2]

Science and evolution simply cannot adequately explain the origin of right and wrong. They are both incapable of offering a robust account for why humans have moral obligations.

And yet theism offers a much more natural explanation. Think about it: Valuable human beings don’t come from purposeless, random processes in nature. Rather, they come from a personal, good God. God Himself is the source for right and wrong, and we ought to follow His guidance because He is the one who created us.

Even those who don't believe in God, still believe in objective morality, because the moral law is written on their hearts (See Romans 2:14-16). Belief in objective morality is ultimately inescapable.

Science can explain many things. But it will never be able to adequately account for morality. To explain real right and wrong we need a source beyond human efforts - namely, God.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, best-selling author, popular speaker, part-time high school teacher, and the Resident Scholar for Summit Ministries, California. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog:

[1] Frank Turek, Stealing from God (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2014), 100.

[2] Greg Koukl and Francis Beckwith, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 164.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell, TikTok, Instagram, and his blog: