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 prescriptivediscipline. Science can describe how things work, but it can never tell us how we oughtto 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.


[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 is a gifted communicator with a passion for equipping the church, and in particular young people, to make the case for the Christian faith. He connects with audiences in a tangible way through humor and stories while imparting hard evidence and logical support for viewing all areas of life through a biblical worldview. Sean is an associate professor in the Christian Apologetics program at Biola University. He is the Resident Scholar for Summit California. Sean still teaches one high school Bible class, which helps him have exceptional insight into the prevailing culture so he can impart his observations poignantly to fellow educators, pastors and parents alike. In 2008, he received the Educator of the Year award for San Juan Capistrano, Calif. The Association of Christian Schools International awarded Exemplary Status to his apologetics training. Sean is listed among the top 100 apologists. He graduated summa cum laude from Talbot School of Theology with a master’s degree in theology and another in philosophy. He earned a Ph.D. in Apologetics and Worldview Studies in 2014 from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Traveling throughout the U.S. and abroad, Sean speaks at camps, churches, schools, universities and conferences. He has spoken for organizations including Focus on the Family, the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Backyard Skeptics, Cru, Youth Specialties, Hume Lake Christian Camps, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Association of Christian Schools International. Sean has also appeared as a guest on radio shows such as Family Life Today, Point of View, Stand to Reason, Common Sense Atheism and the Hugh Hewitt Show. Sean has been quoted in many publications, including the New York Times. Sean is the author, co-author or editor of over 18 books including The Fate of the Apostles (Routledge, 2015); A New Kind of Apologist (Harvest House, 2016); The Beauty of Intolerance (Barbour, 2016); Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage, with John Stonestreet (Baker, 2014); Is God Just a Human Invention? with Jonathan Morrow; and Understanding Intelligent Design, with William A. Dembski. Sean has also written multiple books with his father, Josh McDowell, including The Unshakable Truth, More Than A Carpenter and an update for Evidence that Demands a Verdict (2017). Sean is the general editor for The Apologetics Study Bible for Students. He has also written for YouthWorker Journal, Decision Magazine and the Christian Research Journal. Follow the dialogue with Sean as he blogs regularly at seanmcdowell.org. In April 2000, Sean married his high school sweetheart, Stephanie. They have three children and live in San Juan Capistrano. Sean played college basketball at Biola and was captain his senior year on a team that went 30-7.

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