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Panel: Can science tell us right from wrong?

November 04, 2010

7 p.m., Nov. 6, ASU Gammage

Event features Singer, Pinker, Krauss, Harris, Churchland, Blackburn

If human morality is an evolutionary adaptation and if neuroscientists can identify specific brain circuitry governing moral judgment, can scientists determine what is, in fact, right and wrong? A distinguished panel of scientists, philosophers and public intellectuals will explore this and other questions as part of a public discussion on the origins of morality at Arizona State University. 

“The Great Debate: Can Science Tell Us Right From Wrong?” will take place at 7 p.m., Nov. 6 at ASU Gammage in Tempe. Tickets are $5 and $10, plus a facility fee, and are available at ASU Gammage Box Office,, 480-965-3434, or 

“Perhaps no topic at the interface of philosophy, biology and psychology currently evokes more interest than the question of whether morality has any external meaning beyond that determined by our evolutionary development,” notes Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and director of the ASU Origins Project. “At the same time, for the public, morality is at the heart of much of what we think about and act upon.” 

Joining Krauss on stage to debate the subject will be bioethicist Peter Singer, psychologist Steven Pinker, author Sam Harris, philosopher Patricia Churchland and philosopher Simon Blackburn. They represent some of today’s leading minds exploring the boundaries between science and morality. 

The debate will include a moderated discussion as well as a question and answer session, during which audience members will have an opportunity to submit questions. A book signing will follow the discussion. 

“To have a debate that cuts directly at the heart of this issue by some of the most eloquent and thoughtful individuals on the planet should be fascinating,” says Krauss. “It should be a lot of fun. I cannot wait to see what transpires.” 

The “debaters” on stage will include: 

Simon Blackburn, the Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Trinity College. He is also a visiting distinguished research professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Blackburn has written extensively on the philosophy of mind, language and psychology. Among his latest works are “Practical Tortoise Raising and Other Philosophical Essays,” “The Big Questions: Philosophy” and “How to Read Hume.” 

Patricia Smith Churchland is a Professor Emerita of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. She is also an adjunct faculty member at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Her research focuses on the interface between neuroscience and philosophy. Her books include “Brain-Wise: Studies in Neurophilosophy,” ”Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain” and “On the Contrary: Critical Essays 1987-1997,” with husband Paul M. Churchland. Her newest book, “Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality,” is due out in spring 2011. 

Sam Harris is the author of the New York Times bestsellers “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values,” “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation.” “The End of Faith” won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. Harris has a doctorate in neuroscience from UCLA and a degree in philosophy from Stanford University. He is a co-founder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. 

Steven Pinker is Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard. His research is on visual cognition and the psychology of language. Among his books are “The Language Instinct,” “How the Mind Works” and “The Blank Slate.” He has been named Humanist of the Year, and is listed in Foreign Policy and Prospect magazine's "The World's Top 100 Public Intellectuals" and in Time magazine's "The 100 Most Influential People in the World Today." His latest book is “The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature.” 

Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. He is also a Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. Singer first became well-known internationally after the publication of “Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals.” His latest books include “The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty” and “The Life You Can Save: Acting now to end world poverty.” Singer was the founding president of the International Association of Bioethics, and with Helga Kuhse, founding co-editor of the journal Bioethics. Outside academic life, he is the co-founder and president of The Great Ape Project, an international effort to obtain basic rights for chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. He is also president of Animal Rights International. 

Lawrence Krauss is a Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Department of Physics in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He also is director of the ASU Origins Project. He is the only physicist to have received the highest awards from all three major U.S. professional physics societies. His popular publications include “The Physics of Star Trek,” “Quintessence,” “Atom,” “Hiding in the Mirror,” and due out in 2011, “Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science” and “A Universe from Nothing.” 

“The Great Debate” is sponsored by the ASU Origins Project in collaboration with the ASU Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law Center for Law, Science and Innovation; the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge; and the Science Network. 

Krauss cites Jean-Jacques Rousseau to explain why the ASU Origins Project is sponsoring this discussion. “Rousseau said ‘We are born free, but live forever in chains.’ Is that true? Is our morality imposed by our social circumstances or is it innate?” 

As an organization focused on getting people to explore their place in the cosmos, Krauss notes that the ASU Origins Project is naturally drawn to asking questions about the nature of morality. “These are precisely the kind of questions we need to be asking,” he says. “And, these are the kind of questions that form the heart of the intellectual journey that the Origins Project hopes to offer to students, faculty and the public.” 

“The Great Debate” is connected to a workshop at Arizona State University on the origins of morality. Co-sponsor, James Weinstein, professor of constitutional law at ASU, explains that the workshop will “consider the implications, if any, that evolutionary psychology and neuroscience have for normative ethics or meta-ethics.” 

More information about the ASU Origins Project is online at, or at 480-965-0070.