Michael Shermer Interview
| TBS Staff
Are you ready to discover your college program?
Dr. Shermer holds a B.A. in psychology/biology from Pepperdine University, an M.A. in experimental psychology from Cal State Fullerton, and a Ph.D. in the History of Science from Claremont Graduate University. Among his numerous endeavors, he has been writing the monthly “Skeptic” column for Scientific American magazine since 2001, has produced the 13-episode television series "Exploring the Unknown" for the Family Channel, and is a former competitive bicycle racer who co-founded Race Across America (RAAM) and helped design better protective equipment for the sport.
▶ You may read more about Dr. Shermer's activities on his website.
Michael Shermer Interview
Thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule to be interviewed by TheBestSchools.org. You have a new book just out! It is called The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom (Henry Holt and Co., 2015), and we will be spending a good deal of this interview discussing it in detail.
Before we do that, though, we would like you to tell us a little bit about yourself. First of all, when and where were you born, and what is your family's educational, social, ethnic, religious background, etc.?
I was born and raised in Southern California, specifically the La Canada area in the foothills surrounding Los Angeles. My parents were not religious and none of them went to college. I had both bio and step parents, and toggled between homes week days and weekends while growing up — a real boon at Christmas time! I have three sisters and two brothers and am an only child. Figure that one out — the quintessential American blended family of two half-sisters (same father, different mother), a step-sister, and two step-brothers. No one in the family was particularly religious, and yet somehow we grew up learning moral principles and how to be good. Imagine that!
Today, you are one of the most recognizable atheists/agnostics in the United States as well as across the world. Yet, you were once an evangelical Christian. That's quite a journey! Could you describe the circumstances that led you to become an evangelical Christian as well as give some snapshots of what your life during that time was like? Is there anything you miss about that phase of your life?
My conversion to Christianity came at the behest of my best friend in high school, whose parents were Christian, and it was something of a “thing” to do at the time (early '70s) as the evangelical movement was just taking off. I accepted Jesus as my savior on a Saturday night with my friend, and the next day we attended the Glendale Presbyterian church, which had a very dynamic and histrionic preacher who inspired me to come forward at the end of the sermon to be saved. My buddy told me that I didn't need to do it, but it seemed more official in a church than at the bar at my parents' home. So, I was born again, again, so I figure that must count for something, you know, just in case I'm wrong now in my belief that there very probably is no God.
I took my religious beliefs fairly seriously. For a couple of years I attended this informal Christian study fellowship group at a place called “The Barn” in La Crescenta, which in looking back was a quintessential '70s-era hang-out with a long-haired hippie-type, guitar-playing leader who read Bible passages that we discussed at length. But more than the social aspects of religion, I relished the theological debates, so I matriculated at Pepperdine University (a Church of Christ institution) with the intent of becoming a theologian. Although living in the Malibu hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean was a motivating factor in my choice of a college, the primary reason I went there was I thought I should attend a school where I would receive serious theological training, and I did.
I took courses in the Old and New Testaments, Jesus the Christ, and the writings of C.S. Lewis. I attended chapel twice a week (although, truth be told, it was required for all students). Dancing was not allowed on campus (the sexual suggestiveness might trigger already-inflamed hormone production to go into overdrive), and we were not allowed into the dorm rooms of members of the opposite sex. Despite the restrictions, it was a good experience; I was a serious believer and I thought this was the way we should behave.
The only thing I miss — and only a little — is the confident certainty that religion brings, the knowing absolutely that this is the One True Worldview. That was, as well, the downfall of my faith.
To follow up on the last question, what circumstances led you to abandon evangelical Christianity? In repudiating evangelical Christianity, did you immediately become a skeptic of all religion, or did your skepticism evolve more gradually? Please explain.
How did your evangelical friends handle your “deconversion”? In leaving your former church community, did you readily find a new community? What did that community look like?
While undertaking my studies at Pepperdine, I discovered that to be a professor of theology you needed a Ph.D., and such a doctorate required proficiency in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Aramaic. Knowing that foreign languages were not my strong suit (I struggled through two years of high school Spanish), I switched to psychology and mastered one of the languages of science: statistics.
In science, I discovered that there are ways to get at solutions to problems for which we can establish parameters to determine whether a hypothesis is probably right (like rejecting the null hypothesis at the 0.01 level of significance) or definitely wrong (not statistically significant). Instead of the rhetoric and disputation of theology, there was the logic and probabilities of science. What a difference this difference in thinking makes!
But the switch to science was only one factor in my deconversion. There was the intolerance generated by absolute morality, the logical outcome of knowing without doubt that you are right and everyone else is wrong. There were the inevitable hypocrisies that arise from preaching the ought, but practicing the is. (One of my dormmates regularly prayed for sex, rationalizing that he could better witness for the Lord without all that pent-up libido.) There was the awareness of other religious beliefs (often mutually exclusive) and their adherents, all of whom were equally adamant that theirs was the One True Religion. And there was the knowledge of the temporal, geographic, and cultural determiners of religious beliefs that made it obvious that God was made in our likeness and not the reverse.
By the end of my first year of a graduate program in experimental psychology at California State University, Fullerton, I had abandoned Christianity and stripped off my silver ichthus medallion, replacing what was for me the stultifying dogmas of a 2,000-year-old religion with the worldview of an always-changing, always-fresh science. My enthusiasm for the passionate nature of this perspective was communicated to me most emphatically by my evolutionary biology professor, Bayard Brattstrom, particularly in his after-class discussions at a local bar — The 301 Club — that went late into the night. This was another factor in my road back from Damascus: I enjoyed the company and friendship of science people much more than that of religious people. Science is where the action was for me.
There is one final episode that ended my faith for good — a very personal incident related to the problem of evil that I wrote about for the first time in my book The Believing Brain (Times Books, 2011). My college sweetheart whom I met at Pepperdine, a woman named Maureen, was in a horrific automobile accident that broke her back and rendered her paralyzed from the waist down. When I saw her at the Long Beach Medical Center ER, the full implications of what this meant for her begin to dawn on me. There, in the ER, day after dreary day, night after sleepless night, I took a knee and bowed my head and asked God to heal Maureen's broken back. I prayed with deepest sincerity. I cried out to God to overlook my doubts in the name of Maureen. I willingly suspended all disbelief.
At that time and in that place, I was once again a believer. I believed because I wanted to believe that if there was any justice in the universe — any at all — this sweet, loving, smart, responsible, devoted, caring spirit did not deserve to be in a shattered body. A just and loving God who had the power to heal, would surely heal Maureen. He didn't. He didn't, I now believe, not because “God works in mysterious ways” or “He has a special plan for Maureen” — the nauseatingly banal comforts believers sometimes offer in such trying and ultimately futile times — but because there is no God.
You are known, among other things, as a skeptic, an agnostic, and an atheist. Is there a designation that you prefer for yourself? How would you distinguish these three designations? Is it possible to be a skeptic in your sense without being an agnostic or atheist? How would you distinguish agnosticism from atheism?
Speaking for yourself, are you certain God does not exist? Some atheists have such an antipathy toward God that they might better be called anti-theists. You've never struck us as that hardcore. What accounts for that?
I'm an atheist. I don't believe in God. No, I am not 100% certain there is no God. But there is insufficient evidence to conclude that there is, and so pick whatever label you like. Technically speaking, agnostic as Thomas Huxley defined it in 1869 to mean that God is “unknowable,” is accurate from an ontological perspective since it is difficult to imagine a scientific experiment that would clearly delineate between the God hypothesis and the no-god hypothesis. But we are behaving primates, not just thinking sapiens, so we must choose to act on our beliefs, and I act under the presumption that there is no God.
That said, I don't like to define myself by what I don't believe. I believe lots of things: the Big Bang, evolution, the germ theory of disease, plate tectonics and the geological record, the laws of nature, and the like. I also believe in natural rights, moral progress, and that science and reason are the best tools we have for determining how best we should live. To that end, I call myself a Humanist and I adopt the worldview of Enlightenment Humanism.
We would also like to know a little bit about your career. We are especially interested to learn whether your experiences in higher education may have led you in the direction that eventually culminated in your highly successful career as a popular science writer.
I have had what is usually described as a “nontraditional career,” meaning that I didn't go the route of K–12, four years of undergraduate school, four–six years of graduate school, professorship for life. Cradle to Grave. Not that I didn't want that — it's a great gig, if you can get it!
But after my M.A. in experimental psychology I did not get into a Ph.D. program anywhere in the country, so instead of waiting and working another year in the lab and re-applying the following year, I went over to the employment office at Cal State Fullerton to search for a job. I liked writing and there was an ad for a writer at a bicycle magazine in Irvine, so I applied and got the job. My first assignment was to attend a press conference by Cycles Peugeot to celebrate a guy named John Marino, who had just ridden his bicycle from L.A. to New York nonstop in 13 days, one hour, and 20 minutes.
I was riveted by John's story. He lived only five miles from my condo, and so I bought a bike that week and entered a bicycle race that weekend — the Yoplait Yogurt 50-kilometer race through Griffith Park in Los Angeles. There I saw Jonathan Boyer, the first American to race in the Tour de France, and I was hooked! I took up serious cycling and started riding hundreds of miles a week, doing a century, then a couple of centuries — getting into longer and longer rides. This culminated in the first-ever Race Across America in 1982 (called the Great American Bike Race at the time) with John Marino, three-time Olympic cyclist John Howard, the transcontinental record-holder Lon Haldeman, and myself (I had since ridden from Seattle to San Diego in record time, so that qualified me, such as it was at that time).
So, for a decade I was a bicycle racer and entrepreneur — I owned part of the bike race, I owned a bike show, and I supported myself with corporate sponsors (I left the bike magazine job after 2½ years). During that time, I kept my hat in the academic ring by teaching Psychology 101 at Glendale College during the evenings. I loved lecturing and during that decade I wrote and wrote and wrote about anything and everything that interested me. Most of it went unpublished (no, there are no hidden masterpieces, no lost gems — my writing just wasn't that good yet, or original).
In time, I grew weary of the training (cycling is an exhaustive sport that takes a lot of time) and I wanted to get back in the academic game and teach at a four-year university instead of a two-year community college. So, I went back and got my Ph.D. in the history of science. (I lost some interest in psychology because I was steeped in behaviorism and worked in a lab with Skinner boxes and I couldn't see how I was going to make a difference in the world doing that. I hadn't noticed the shift to cognitive psychology, which is far more interesting and important.)
In addition to being a best-selling book author and to writing a monthly “Skeptic” column for Scientific American, you are also the founder of the Skeptics Society and editor-in-chief of its house magazine, Skeptic. Could you tell us about the purpose of the Skeptics Society and how the idea for it came to you? What are some of the milestones that the society and magazine have seen and what are some of the things you still hope to see accomplished through them?
After I earned my doctorate, I got a job teaching at Occidental College, a highly regarded four-year liberal arts college in Los Angeles, and I figured I would settle in for the duration. But I was still restless to be an entrepreneur, so I co-founded the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine in my garage as a hobby, and as it grew I realized by the late '90s that I could do this full time. I loved teaching and being in a classroom. However, publishing magazines, writing a monthly column for such a large-circulation magazine as Scientific American, writing books, and doing television and radio shows gave me access to a much larger classroom than I could ever reach in a brick-and-mortar building. So, I've never looked back, even though I am now teaching one class a year at Chapman University — Skepticism 101 — a critical thinking course that I like to do to try out new ideas on students.
The mission of the Skeptics Society is to promote science and critical thinking. Although we do a lot of debunking — and let's face it, there's a lot of bunk out there — we always maintain an undercurrent of promoting the positive aspects of science, which we also do through our monthly science lecture series at Caltech and our annual conference on various topics (coming up May 29: "In the Year 2525: Big Science, Big History, and the Far Future of Humanity").
The idea of organized skepticism has been around for many decades, starting in the 1970s with Skeptical Inquirer magazine and their organization (now called CFI — Center for Inquiry). So there was some cultural momentum already in place when I got involved, but it has really taken off this century with numerous skeptical magazines published around the world, dozens of official skeptical organizations, and hundreds or even thousands of meet-up groups who get together regularly to celebrate science and skepticism.
You have stated, in connection with non-mainstream scientific claims, that “Skepticism is the default position because the burden of proof is on the believer, not the skeptic.”
However, some of the people you have criticized in your Scientific American column and in Skeptic magazine — we are thinking especially of Rupert Sheldrake, with whom you will be engaging in a “Dialogue on the Nature of Science” here at TBS in the near future — have pointed out that they are the ones who are “skeptical” vis-à-vis mainstream scientific opinion.
In fact, there is now an entire website, Skeptical about Skeptics, devoted to equalizing the burden of proof between the scientific establishment and its critics. In this connection, I also think of my friend and colleague William Dembski (whom you have debated on college campuses), who has offered to join your editorial board at Skeptic magazine to be its resident skeptic about Darwinian evolutionary theory. Last I heard, you had still declined his offer.
How do you respond to Sheldrake, Dembski, and others who are “skeptical about your skepticism,” and who want to shift the burden of proof back onto you?
I do not recall Bill ever suggesting to me that he be on our board! Perhaps my memory is faulty. But in any case, my position on who has the burden of proof stands pretty solid among most scientists because of the fact that most mainstream scientific theories are hard won over many years and, like governments, “should not be changed for light and transient causes” (as Jefferson opined in the Declaration of Independence).
Yes, historically speaking, a few mainstream scientific theories were overturned by isolated outsiders, but that is almost never the case today. There's a reason we talk about a “consensus” among climate scientists that global warming is real and human-caused. It isn't because science depends on the consensus of authorities; it is because science is an extremely competitive enterprise and if there were serious problems with climate models or datasets, then there is little doubt that these would have been uncovered by scientists working in other labs. The idea that scientists get together on weekends to get their story straight in the teeth of opposition from without is ludicrous. Attend scientific conferences on any topic and you will find often bitter contentions over this and that dataset or hypothesis. By the time findings and theories filter out of the lab into the public, they have been tried and tested and hold a high degree of confidence of most scientists who work in that field.
I will expand on this more in my Dialogue with Rupert, but in short, there's certainly nothing wrong with outsiders (and especially insiders!) challenging the consensus. But the argument that “they laughed at the Wright brothers” doesn't hold because “they laughed at the Marx brothers” too, so being laughed at doesn't mean you're right. You have to actually have both data and theory in support.
It is time to turn to your new book — by all accounts your magnum opus — The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom (Henry Holt, 2015).
And a blockbuster of a book it is! First and foremost, it seems to us, The Moral Arc is a treasure chest of thought-provoking, cutting-edge social science research on a very wide array of topics, grouped around the unifying theme of the human condition very broadly conceived.
But in addition to its wealth of absorbing empirical detail, the book is also thesis-driven. The thesis — again in our interpretation — is twofold:
(1) the moral progress of humanity over the past several centuries has been palpable, and may be confidently expected to continue into the future; and
(2) the principal driver of that moral progress has been science and reason, with the corollary that religion has not only been of no help in this regard, but has been a positive hindrance — and therefore the sooner it is extirpated the better.
Is that a fair assessment of The Moral Arc, in very general terms? If not, what have we gotten wrong?
Yes. The Moral Arc is by far my best and most important work, so thank you for recognizing that.
Most people have a hard time getting past the first thesis of the book — that things are getting better — and it is understandable why, if you're paying attention at all to the news with all the stories coming out of Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, and parts of Africa, not to mention Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, MD! It seems like things are bad and getting worse. But we should follow the trend lines, not just the headlines, and when you do so there is no question that in nearly every sphere of human endeavor, there has never been a better time to be alive than now.
As for my second thesis about religion, that is very much a secondary issue to the stronger thesis emphasizing the role of science and reason and the Enlightenment. The Moral Arc is not an “atheist” book. It's a science book. It is about the positive forces that have been at work over the past two centuries to expand the moral sphere — bend the moral arc — and grant more rights and freedoms and liberty and prosperity to more people in more places than at any time in history.
I don't care what someone's religion is, as long as they agree that everyone has the natural right to be treated equally under the law, to be endowed by nature and nature's laws (evolution in my model) with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and to honor The Liberty Principle: The freedom to think, believe, and act as we choose, so long as our thoughts, beliefs, and actions do not infringe on the equal freedom of others. I doubt that there are any Jews or Christians who would disagree with this principle, but then they — like me and most everyone else reading these words — are children of the Enlightenment, where these ideas were first articulated.
Of course, religious people, once they are behind a moral revolution — such as the Civil Rights Movement — are very effective at rallying the troops to help bring about change. But where did those ideas (articulated above) come from? Not from the Bible or any other holy book. Yes, the Quakers and Mennonites agitated for the abolition of slavery in the late 17th century, but they had almost no influence on their fellow Christians, who fully believed in slavery and quoted scripture in its support. Even the mighty William Wilberforce, who most certainly was a deeply religious man, spent decades trying to convince his fellow Christians that the slave trade was immoral. Even Dr. King — the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in fact — said that his biggest influence was Gandhi, who was a Hindu.
Gay rights and same-sex marriage is a case in point since we're living through this moral rights revolution right now. For decades, gay marriage has been primarily opposed by most mainstream Christian religions and supported by secularists and the most politically liberal religious people, such as reformed Jews and Episcopalians. But the times they are a changin'! As I write this on Tuesday, April 27, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States is hearing arguments for and against same-sex marriage, and a vote will likely be forthcoming by June, with most experts predicting a 6–3 or 5–4 decision in favor of allowing gays and lesbians to be treated equally under the Constitution. In five years, maybe 10, virtually all Christians will agree that of course gays should be allowed to fully enjoy the institution of marriage, which by the way has also been one of the drivers of moral progress. And, while I'm making predictions, many of those same churches that were against same-sex marriage will take credit for this moral revolution. “God loves everyone, don't you know? He created us all equal and so everyone should have equal rights.”
We found ourselves — perhaps surprisingly — in general agreement with much of what you have to say in The Moral Arc. For example, we largely applaud your definition of “moral progress” as “the improvement in the survival and flourishing of sentient beings” (p. 12). Though we believe that rational beings should take precedence over other sentient beings, nevertheless that is an excellent definition — and one that is very much in keeping with Aristotle, we might add!
We, too, are optimists — we readily acknowledge the progress you recount in your book (though we also see areas of moral regression) — and your emphasis on reason and rationality is most congenial to us here at TBS. Moreover, your adherence to a classical liberal — if not outright libertarian — political philosophy delighted us, as well. Although we will naturally be emphasizing the differences between us (so as not to bore the daylights out of our readers!), we wanted to make the broad areas of agreement between us clear at the outset.
By the way, we confess to being a bit surprised at your sympathy for classical liberal political philosophy (you even cite Frédéric Bastiat at one point [p. 126]!). We were under the impression that the majority of the “New Atheist” crusaders against religion under the banner of science were “men of the left”? Were we simply mistaken in that impression? If not, we are curious as to how your New Atheist colleagues have received The Moral Arc: Have they taken you to task for your “conservative” views in this area?
While most atheists are politically liberal, there is a sizable minority of us who hold more libertarian beliefs, or are classical liberals, in the sense of most of our founding fathers and Enlightenment philosophers such as Adam Smith and David Hume. That said, I have changed my position on several issues since researching and writing this book. I used to be against most gun control; I now endorse some modest measures such as background checks, limits on clip size, and especially stronger requirements for training and safety. The primary reason why homicide rates are about an order of magnitude higher in American than in Europe is because we have over 300 million guns. Mix those guns in with young men, alcohol and drugs, hot tempers, and contests for hierarchy, and other emotions such as jealousy, anger, and revenge, and you have a recipe for the gun murder of around 13,000 Americans a year.
As well, I used to be in favor of the death penalty, primarily in sympathy for the victims' families, who understandable want justice and revenge. Strap the killer into old sparky and fry his brains out! But that's a very old and antiquated notion of retributive justice driven by our baser instincts, and does nothing to restore the problem (restorative justice is a movement I cover in the book). Plus, as a libertarian I'm always nervous about giving the state too much power, and it turns out that the state gets it wrong too many times (over 220 to date according to the Innocence Project), meaning that very likely hundreds or even thousands of innocent people have been put to death by the state over the past two centuries.
Yet, even with those changes of mind, most of my fellow atheists consider my political and economic views to be problematic at best (lower taxes?), daffy at worst (capitalism was one of the drivers of moral progress?), and even hallucinatory (Ayn Rand had a couple of good ideas?). What I don't like about labels of any kind, such as “atheist” or “libertarian,” is that people think they know what you think without having to actually ask or read what you really think. Labels are cognitive shortcuts to thinking and analyzing, and they're misleading (“libertarians think that everyone should be armed to the teeth” or “atheists don't believe in right or wrong”).
You make only one glancing reference to Aristotle in connection with ethics (p. 147), yet it seems to us that your moral system is clearly a form of eudaimonism — in which morally good or virtuous behavior is grounded in what it means for human beings to flourish as rational animals. If that is right, then aren't you really an Aristotelian at heart? If not, why not?
Yes, I'm an Aristotelian, although I graft onto that parts of other moral philosophies, such as natural rights theory and (sometimes) utilitarianism and (occasionally) Rawlsian original position theory. No one moral theory can get it right for all circumstances, so we have to cobble together parts of what our greatest minds have generated before us. All I'm trying to do in The Moral Arc is establish that:
(1) there are objective transcendent moral truths — right and wrong — and these are grounded in nature and human nature; and
(2) there is no wall separating is and ought. Everyone just repeats the naturalistic fallacy without ever reading what Hume actually said — which I did, and then took my interpretation to one of the world's leading Hume scholars, Oxford University philosopher Peter Millican, who confirmed that he thinks my interpretation of Hume is accurate (this is all in Chapter 1 of my book).
Although you do not discuss Aristotle, eudaimonism, or virtue ethics in any detail, you do spend a couple of pages discussing the concept of “natural rights” (pp. 13–14) in connection with John Locke as the foundation of your individualist approach to morality (which we applaud). We understand why you wish to claim a direct lineal descent from Locke, in accordance with your claim that Enlightenment “science and reason,” not religion, have been the principal drivers of human progress.
Now, natural rights are normally thought of as grounded in natural law — and so ultimately in human nature. Of course, we also understand that the view of human nature underpinning your invocation of natural rights is based on the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution, as you have explained at length in several of your previous books, as well as in The Moral Arc. We will explore all of this in detail with you in a few moments. However, first we wanted to point out a significant historical connection that you do not mention.
Obviously, Locke himself knew nothing of Darwin. For him (as for the other “Enlightenment” figures whom you cite), natural rights were principally grounded in the natural law tradition leading back to Hugo Grotius — who lived a couple of generations before Locke — and beyond Grotius to the great sixteenth-century Spanish Scholastics (Francisco de Vitoria, Domingo de Soto, Bartolomé de las Casas, Francisco Suárez, et al.), who in turn based their ethical and political thought on earlier Scholastic philosophy, notably that of Aquinas and Ockham.
In short, the Lockean tradition of human rights which you wish to claim as the offspring of the Enlightenment, we would claim is in reality to a very significant degree the offspring of Scholasticism — i.e., of Christian philosophy. How would you respond?
I have taken a number of courses from The Teaching Company on the history of rights and the origin of the concept of natural rights — Rufus Fears's "History of Freedom," Dennis Dalton's "Freedom: The Philosophy of Liberation," and Joseph Koterski's "Natural Law and Human Nature" — all of whom take the concept back to the ancient Greeks. So, you have to start the historical timeline somewhere, or else we'll end up with all ideas as footnotes to Plato, as Whitehead said (wrongly I might add).
I begin with Locke because that was the most influential source for the founding of America and the modern concept of natural rights as it is understood and practiced today. Certainly, the Scholastics were hugely influential in their time, as were the Renaissance humanists such as Erasmus in their time. But The Moral Arc is not a history book meant to convey the full and rich history of ideas, but rather (as you properly discerned) a work with a central thesis in the spirit of what I call Darwin's Dictum: “All observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.”
Here is another problem we find with your general approach to morality in The Moral Arc.
You quite rightly point to the importance of what you call “the principle of interchangeable perspectives” as absolutely fundamental to human morality (pp. 17ff). Your principle appears to mean more or less the same thing as Adam Smith's “impartial spectator,” Kant's “categorical imperative,” or simply the Golden Rule. That is, in our dealings with others, we ought to give much (though not necessarily overriding) consideration to their interests, and not just to our own or those of our family, friends, tribe, etc. With all of this, very few would disagree.
But then you go on to say the following (p. 19):
“Reason and the principle of interchangeable perspectives put morals more on a par with scientific discoveries than cultural conventions. Scientists cannot just assert a claim without backing it up with reasoned argument and empirical data . . .”
But the claim that human morality is closely akin to natural science is problematic, to say the least. For one thing, if it were true, it would suggest that the vast majority of human beings who have ever lived were all egoists blind to the claims of morality — which we take to be an unacceptable consequence of your view.
More seriously still, by assimilating reason to science, you seem to be labeling most of humanity as irrational, conflating a highly refined and specialized form of reasoning (natural science) with the general human capacity to reason (common sense). While common sense undoubtedly has its limits, nevertheless it is a thoroughly rational process. Every time a Paleolithic hunter said to himself, “If I want to be successful in the hunt tomorrow, I must sharpen my spear blade,” that was human reason in action. And it is this universal commonsense form of reason that, in our view, is at the root of the principle of interchangeable perspectives, not science.
In short, we believe that you are confusing science with reason itself in claiming that morals are “on a par with scientific discoveries.” How say you?
The Paleolithic hunter who deduces that he must take certain actions to be successful in his hunt is employing a form of scientific reasoning by proposing a hypothesis (“If I want to be successful in the hunt tomorrow, I must sharpen my spear blade”) and then testing it the next day to see if it works. That's not a moral matter, but once brains evolved the capacity to substitute parts in an equation (“If I try, X then Y will result, and whenever Y happens, I also did X”), then we can employ that same capacity to reason about other people, our actions and theirs, and the consequences for both. As I wrote in The Moral Arc, referencing Steven Pinker's analysis of the role of reason in moral progress (in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature [Viking, 2011]):
Reason is part of our cognitive makeup, and once it is in place it can be put to use in analyzing problems it did not originally evolve to consider. Pinker calls this an open-ended combinatorial reasoning system that, “even if it evolved for mundane problems like preparing food and securing alliances, you can't keep it from entertaining propositions that are consequences of other propositions.” This ability matters for morality because “if the members of species have the power to reason with one another, and enough opportunities to exercise that power, sooner or later they will stumble upon the mutual benefits of nonviolence and other forms of reciprocal consideration, and apply them more and more broadly."
As well, I develop the idea of what I call the “Witch Theory of Causality”: If your explanation for why bad things happen is that your neighbor flies around on a broom and cavorts with the devil at night, inflicting people, crops, and cattle with disease, preventing cows from giving milk, beer from fermenting, and butter from churning — and if you believe that the proper way to cure the problem is to burn her at the stake — then you are either insane or you lived in Europe six centuries ago, and you even had biblical support in Exodus 22:18: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
The witch theory of causality gives us insight into how moral progress is made — by achieving a better understanding of causality. It is evident that most of what we think of as our medieval ancestors' barbaric practices, such as witch burning, were based on mistaken beliefs about how the laws of nature actually operate. If you — and everyone around you — truly believe that witches cause disease, crop failures, sickness, catastrophes, and accidents, then it is not only a rational act to burn witches, it is a moral duty. This is what Voltaire meant when he wrote: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”
As we said before, there is a great deal of The Moral Arc that we found not only of absorbing interest, but to be right on target. Your discussion of free will and moral responsibility (pp. 332ff) is a case in point. Here, we find your rehearsal of contemporary brain research to be exemplary, and frankly far more nuanced than most such discussions in either the scientific or the philosophical literature. That said, once again we would beg to disagree that your research supports your general conclusion about the advance of science sustaining the moral arc. In fact, the contrary is arguably the case.
It is of particular interest to us that you develop the concept of “free won't” in some detail (pp. 340ff). This is the idea that the essence of human freedom is our ability to veto certain of our impulses that we judge to be morally wrong. But this seems to be little more than the standard bifurcated view of man — “suspended between the beasts and the angels” — familiar from many religious traditions, including Christianity. Religion aside, it is also familiar from the tradition of philosophical reflection upon morality. For example, in the eighteenth century Bishop Butler stressed that human nature is dual in this sense, and that conscience is precisely the capacity of the higher part of our nature to hold the lower part in check.
In short, your account of modern neuroscience merely confirms what faith traditions and common sense have known all along. But far from helping to shore up this traditional view of human moral responsibility, your emphasis on neuroscience is all too liable to be abused in order to undermine freedom and moral responsibility by those of a more reductionist and determinist bent than yourself. And surely anyone who was already having trouble controlling his base urges would be unlikely to be helped by being made to believe that “my neurons made me do it,” whereas he might well be helped by understanding his situation in fundamentally religious terms as a heroic struggle between his higher and his lower natures.
We have two questions is this connection:
(1) Do you accept that the neuroscience is basically superfluous, merely confirming what we already knew about freedom and moral responsibility?; and
(2) Do you agree that your reliance on neuroscience is potentially dangerous in the hands of authors less scrupulous than yourself?
My view of human nature is not so different from that of the Christian worldview in which we have a dual nature of good and evil, albeit mine is grounded in a scientific understanding of what those terms mean in the context of human action. (Good and evil do not exist outside of human thought and action; there is no “evil” in the world in the theological sense of a force at work separate from humans.)
Neuroscience is just a tool to help us understand human thought and action. It can be used by thinkers on either side of the free will/determinism debate, and like any other area of science, it can be misused by people, as in the case of eugenics and Social Darwinism. In such debates, much turns on the definition of terms and how words are used, so to that extent there may be an inherent limitation in our knowledge, which is why I tried to break out of the categorical, either/or mode (either we're free or we're determined), and work toward a more continuous scale of degrees of freedom — healthy humans more than addicted or brain-damaged humans, humans more than monkeys, dogs more than cockroaches, ants more than bacteria. When you take that approach it allows for more subtle and nuanced analysis of particular cases (Charles Manson had less choice in becoming a career criminal than I do, but he's still responsible for his actions because he could have done otherwise nonetheless).
Again, in my moral theory it isn't necessary to explain every last case; only that we can account for most cases most of the time. Our civil society with the rule of law that presumes people make moral choices and we punish them when they choose to break the law, works for most people in most circumstances most of the time. And that law takes into account diminished capacity to choose, as in the case of a crime of passion vs. premeditated murder.
Most of us most of the time in most circumstances are free to choose, and as such we should be held accontable for our actions.
Any final thoughts you would like to share with our readers? Where would you like to be five years from now? Ten years from now? What is the most important piece of advice you would like to leave with our readers?
In 5–10 years from now I would like to live in a world in which gays and lesbians can marry and have all the same rights as everyone else in this country. I would like to see the continued decline of violence and the expansion of the moral sphere to include even more people as full rights-bearing sentient beings. I would like to see an end to poverty in Africa in 15 years, and the reformation and enlightenment of Islam in 30 years to be fully in accord with Western values that treat women as equals instead of chattel property. I would like to see a colony on Mars, all automobiles gone electric, and everyone on the planet with a device that gives them access to the Internet and all knowledge free and readily available to all.
Is that asking too much? Should not a man's reach exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?
Thank you very much for your time!
1. The title alludes to a famous line from one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, speeches: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
2. “Rupert's Resonance,” Scientific American, October 24, 2005.
3. The exact relationship between the earlier “natural law” and the later “natural rights” traditions is convoluted and, in part, contested; however, there is no doubt of the deep connection between the two traditions. For the philosophical issues involved, see John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford UP, 1980). For the history, see M.B. Crowe, The Changing Profile of the Natural Law (Martinus Nijhoff, 1977), Knud Haakonssen, Natural Law and Moral Philosophy: From Grotius to the Scottish Enlightenment (Cambridge UP, 1996), and Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law, 1150–1625 (Scholars Press, 1997).
4. Joseph Butler, Five Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel and a Dissertation upon the Nature of Virtue, ed. by Stephen L. Darwall (Hackett Publishing Co., 1983; originally published as a group of 15 sermons in 1726). See, especially, the first three sermons, which are collectively entitled “Upon Human Nature.” This idea and some of its history have been beautifully developed in a wonderful little book called The Inner Check (E. Wright, 1974), by the late Swedish philosopher Folke Leander, which we recommend to everyone.
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