This article presents the view that science is sufficient to establish at least the basis of an ethical system through indicating human identity and purpose. We have evolved as our pla net evolves, and we can now understand ourselves as the forefront of that evolution. Science can also be instrumental in shaping goals through morality. We are the most conscious, responsible, and powerful creatures on planet Earth. Our actions modify our world more profoundly than any other living creature ever has. This shapes our task, our place, more clearly and more emphatically than any scripture can.
Our lives have been impacted by science and advanced technologies, yet many of us who are comfortable with this modern technology accept traditions formulated thousands of years ago. We use these traditions to maintain a sense of who we are and to define the meaning of our lives. The scriptures of Abrahamic faiths have many concepts of the world and humankind’s place in it that differ fundamentally from modern scientific findings. Millions, perhaps billions, of us live simultaneously in these two conflicting realms, oblivious to the glaring contradictions between them.
There are critical differences between a scientific worldview and that of these scriptures. Science studies billions of years, while the scriptures deal with only a few thousand years. Science portends the possibility that we and our ancestors may survive for perhaps millions or billions of years. In order to survive, we must advance beyond the limitations of our current knowledge and capacity. It is not a question of waiting a few years or even a few centuries for a final judgment to be imposed upon us that will determine our destiny. If we and our descendants fail to evolve and approach new frontiers, we may be lost. It was not even suspected thousands of years ago that we would travel to the moon or that the world’s economy would depend upon satellites transmitting signals from the heavens. Even our present achievements may seem primitive to our descendants thousands of years from now. Our future depends upon what we and future generations do. The end of our story is not found in an ancient book; it has yet to be written.
As the tasks of human communities became more complex, cooperation among members became more essential and purely instinctual behaviors became inadequate—even dangerous. We learned to review our actions critically and to estimate the future consequences of what we do or intend to do. We are capable of evaluating ourselves, of comparing ourselves with others, and of directing ourselves toward self-improvement. We have established moral standards and judge ourselves and others by those standards. We have become ethical, and our intentions can be directed not just to pleasure and survival but also to higher and more distant goals. This was a long, arduous evolution, a process of trial and error, slowly forming and enhancing consciousness and expanding its use. We unite to accomplish long-term goals, and our lives take on greater significance with shared meaning and intent. Morality adds another dimension, separate from survival and reproduction. The ability to see ourselves and our place in the universe, and to act upon that vision, allows us to break through the limitations of our past. We are not only the most advanced creatures on Earth; we have become the power of Earth to be conscious of itself, to evaluate itself, and to project its goals into the future. This is not romanticism. It is science. We do what no other creature on Earth does or could conceive of doing. Our Earth has evolved a means of judging itself and a means of setting its own conscious goals and attempting to achieve those goals. We are the Earth’s self-knowledge and self-determination.
Are we capable of doing this well, of consciously and deliberately guiding ourselves and our planet toward a greater future? It is a difficult task, but we must accept it. What we do, more than any other factor, will determine what happens next in the multibillion-year process of life on this planet. If we use nuclear weapons to destroy ourselves, we might push back the evolution of life to the point where consciousness disappears—possibly not to reappear before life on Earth ceases. Our weapons could leave our planet dead, lifeless—a cosmic tragedy. Even should life survive a nuclear holocaust, the setback could prove fatal.
Taking a longer view, Earth will eventually die. Our sun will expand, and its heat will evaporate the oceans and all water on Earth. It will later contract and stop producing enough heat to support life. Unless our descendants find ways to travel to other planets in other solar systems, they will not survive. If we nurture ourselves and our world, our descendants may learn to travel to other solar systems and have billions of years to grow and become more perfect. If we destroy ourselves, there may not be time enough for another technological species to evolve and create the means for interstellar travel before Earth becomes desolate.
We have a clear ethical choice. We could destroy ourselves through our ignorance and savagery or our descendants can achieve glories we cannot now even conceive.
Our most essential task, then, is to survive and to take responsibility for the sustainability of life on Earth. Our ancestors, including the writers of the books of the Bible, may not have understood the scope of this responsibility, but we have grown into it. Our duty is to remain true to it. This responsibility requires honesty, and the fulfillment of this task requires discipline. It is not necessary to have a prophet reveal this to us. It is our own history. It is not necessary that a supreme being command it of us. Though a commandment might confirm our duty, the duty is already evident. We know our place in the universe: the most exalted and responsible place of all the creatures our planet has. Our science has taught us this. It is the foundation of our self-knowledge as well as the foundation of the vision of the task before us. Even a decision to ignore our responsibility would be an ethical decision, albeit one that could prove disastrous.
We can immediately decide upon at least one moral precept: that it would be unethical to deprive Earth of its consciousness acquired over the course of billions of years. And it would also be dangerous. Without our guidance and our growth, life that originated on Earth will eventually perish. This existential imperative is obvious, yet it directly contradicts a religious view held by millions—a belief that may prove to be one of the most dangerous ideologies ever widely accepted. This is the belief in a final, horrible war between the forces of good and evil, a war of intense devastation to purify Earth and establish a realm of peace and justice forever. This belief originated in Zoroastrianism, which taught that the universe is ruled by two powers, one of goodness and light and the other of evil and darkness. Supposedly, these two forces are equal in strength, and the struggle between them will be resolved one day through a human battle during which those who follow goodness and light will be victorious. The Hebrew community was exposed to Zoroastrianism when Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylon and released the Hebrews from captivity, allowing them to return to Jerusalem as subjects of his empire. The concept of a final battle was absorbed into some Jewish sects and then into Christianity and Islam. When the most frightful weapons we possessed were bows and arrows, this belief posed no existential threat. It was just one more reason to go to war.
However, now that we have weapons of terrifying potency, we simply can no longer afford to abide this myth. Each community of combatants in such a conflict would be confident that God will be on its side, guaranteeing its victory. Jews await the Messiah, Christi
ans await the second coming of Christ, Muslims await the Mahdi. Given our current weapons and the possibility of even more devastating weapons in the future, there may be no victors in a final struggle. Just as millions of species have been lost to extinction, such a war could be an unrelieved horror, an insane act of planetary suicide. There are members of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths who believe that building a nuclear arsenal to prepare for that final battle is an act of obedience to God. This could lead to a worldwide disaster. Even in biblical times, it was obvious that war does not lead to peace, nor does it usually lead to purification. It leads to death, and a nuclear winter could lead to the death of millions of species, including humans.
After millennia of assuming that we reside in the center of the universe, we have just begun to realize how vast the universe is in both space and time. Because of this realization, we are beginning to understand the immensity of our own potential. Our lives have already begun to expand beyond the surface of our planet. As we understand our origins, we begin to comprehend both our responsibilities and the magnificent future that awaits us if we are wise. Our instincts evolved as survival mechanisms. Some of them, such as love and compassion, are essential for our progress. Others, such as hatred and pride, are highly dangerous. This is true whatever scripture one may believe in, and it is true without belief in any scripture. Our selfishness and violence have largely shaped our history, but they now threaten to bring us and much of the world around us to a disastrous end. To transform ourselves and the world around us, to build a home in the universe and to be worthy of living within it, will require insight and technology and also caring and concern for ourselves and the environment that sustains us. For the first time in human history, most people can read and write. For the first time in human history, most people live under democratic governments and believe that all humans have rights. The transformation is underway.
Our evolution is more deliberate than ever before, and our future depends more than ever upon our own insight and morality. If we are to thrive, we must put away the anger, hatred, and prejudice that have plagued us and increase in forgiveness, compassion, and love. We must outgrow our parochial viewpoints and prepare ourselves to live out a role in a universal drama far beyond the scope of our ancestors. The home we build for ourselves is the home we shall live in. Science has provided a means both of understanding who we are and of constructing an environment for ourselves in which we can thrive. The scriptures of Abrahamic faiths have played a vital role, but as our knowledge advances, their weaknesses have become more and more apparent. In the process of overcoming these weaknesses and moving forward in our growth, science must be our guide.
Steve Sklar has a degree in Oriental Studies and Western Philosophy from Columbia College. He studied Asiatic faiths with native adherents overseas for twelve years. He presently lives and works in Florida.