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What Should We Be Worried About?

by Michael Shermer, Jan 15 2013

The following article was first published on Edge.org on January 13, 2012 in response to this year’s Annual Question: “What Should We Be Worried About?” Read Michael Shermer’s response below, and read all responses at edge.org.

The Is-Ought Fallacy of Science and Morality

Ever since the philosophers David Hume and G. E. Moore identified the “Is-Ought problem” between descriptive statements (the way something “is”) and prescriptive statements (the way something “ought to be”), most scientists have conceded the high ground of determining human values, morals, and ethics to philosophers, agreeing that science can only describe the way things are but never tell us how they ought to be. This is a mistake.

We should be worried that scientists have given up the search for determining right and wrong and which values lead to human flourishing just as the research tools for doing so are coming online through such fields as evolutionary ethics, experimental ethics, neuroethics, and related fields. The Is-Ought problem (sometimes rendered as the “naturalistic fallacy”) is itself a fallacy. Morals and values must be based on the way things are in order to establish the best conditions for human flourishing. Before we abandon the ship just as it leaves port, let’s give science a chance to steer a course toward a destination where scientists at least have a voice in the conversation on how best we should live.

We begin with the individual organism as the primary unit of biology and society because the organism is the principal target of natural selection and social evolution. Thus, the survival and flourishing of the individual organism—people in this context—is the basis of establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality. The constitutions of human societies ought to be built on the constitution of human nature, and science is the best tool we have for understanding our nature. For example:

  • We know from behavior genetics that 40 to 50 percent of the variance among people in temperament, personality, and many political, economic, and social preferences are inherited.
  • We know from evolutionary theory that the principle of reciprocal altruism—I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine—is universal; people do not by nature give generously unless they receive something in return.
  • We know from evolutionary psychology that the principle of moralistic punishment—I’ll punish you if you do not scratch my back after I have scratched yours—is universal; people do not long tolerate free riders who continually take but never give.
  • We know from behavioral game theory about within-group amity and between-group enmity, wherein the rule-of-thumb heuristic is to trust in-group members until they prove otherwise to be distrustful, and to distrust out-group members until they prove otherwise to be trustful.
  • We know from behavioral economics about the almost universal desire of people to trade with one another, and that trade establishes trust between strangers and lowers between-group enmity, as well as produces greater prosperity for both trading partners.

These are just a few lines of evidence from many different fields of science that help us establish the best way for humans to flourish. We can ground human values and morals not just in philosophical principles such as Aristotle’s virtue ethics, Kant’s categorical imperative, Mill’s utilitarianism, or Rawls’ fairness ethics, but in science as well. Consider the following example of how science can determine human values.

Question: What is the best form of governance for large modern human societies? Answer: a liberal democracy with a market economy. Evidence: liberal democracies with market economies are more prosperous, more peaceful, and fairer than any other form of governance tried. Data: In their book Triangulating Peace, the political scientists Bruce Russett and John Oneal employed a multiple logistic regression model on data from the Correlates of War Project that recorded 2,300 militarized interstate disputes between 1816 and 2001. Assigning each country a democracy score between 1 and 10 (based on the Polity Project that measures how competitive its political process is, how openly leaders are chosen, how many constraints on a leader’s power are in place, etc.), Russett and Oneal found that when two countries are fully democratic disputes between them decrease by 50 percent, but when the less democratic member of a county pair was a full autocracy, it doubled the chance of a quarrel between them.

When you add a market economy into the equation it decreases violence and increases peace significantly. Russett and Oneal found that for every pair of at-risk nations they entered the amount of trade (as a proportion of GDP) and found that countries that depended more on trade in a given year were less likely to have a militarized dispute in the subsequent year, controlling for democracy, power ratio, great power status, and economic growth. So they found that democratic peace happens only when both members of a pair are democratic, but that trade works when either member of the pair has a market economy.

Finally, the 3rd vertex of Russett and Oneal’s triangle of peace is membership in the international community, a proxy for transparency. The social scientists counted the number of IGOs that every pair of nations jointly belonged to and ran a regression analysis with democracy and trade scores, discovering that democracy favors peace, trade favors peace, and membership in IGOs favors peace, and that a pair of countries that are in the top tenth of the scale on all three variables are 83% less likely than an average pair of countries to have a militarized dispute in a given year.

The point of this exercise is that in addition to philosophical arguments, we can make a scientific case for liberal democracy and market economies as a means of increasing human survival and flourishing. We can measure the effects quantitatively, and from that derive science-based values that demonstrate conclusively that this form of governance is really better than, say, autocracies or theocracies. Scholars may dispute the data or debate the evidence, but my point is that in addition to philosophers, scientists should have a voice in determining human values and morals.

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52 Responses to “What Should We Be Worried About?”

  1. Other Paul says:

    … determining the conditions by which humans best flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality

    Isn’t that rather assuming that humans themselves are of some ‘natural benefit’ to any system within which they may find themselves embedded?

    • steve says:

      I don’t think so. He’s making human well-being axiomatic. If there’s a conflict between that and the system in which we’re embedded, it would complicate the theory, not refute it.

      • Other Paul says:

        Axiom, shmaxiom. It remains an assumption. And it’s not the well-beingness of humanity i’m concerned with, but its benefit to something else. And I said any system, not the. Thus all that would be required to refute (not complicate) the theory would be a single system adversely affected or damaged by humanity’s existence within it.

        I suppose, then, that the interesting question would be whether or not it mattered if that enclosing system had some sense of morality. I.e. would humanity’s destruction an enclosing environment with no detectable morality matter. (I propose no morality-detector btw – it’s just an idea).

      • @blame says:

        Answerable by the sciences, I’d say.

        Almost by definition, “morality” can only matter to a system that’s sufficiently similar to a healthy adult brain.

        So far, the only systems we’ve caught moralizing have been DNA-based earthlings.

        We needn’t wonder whether or not a local ecosystem “cares” about the moral transgressions of its inhabitants. Literally only its brainy inhabitants could care.

  2. Chris says:

    I agree with your point that scientific analysis has a role to play determining ethics. In fact, it is the basis of empirical ethics, which holds that in most circumstances the preferred course of action cannot be determined by moral logic alone, and that a systematic observation of community values is also required. Together, they ensure that societal decisions have an ethical basis as well as evidence of public support. For example, there may be an ethical case to be made for veganism, but it is unlikely to be the best course of action if the majority of society strongly prefers to eat meat. Likewise, a society may be comfortable with discriminating on the basis of race, but there is no ethical argument that could be made in support of it and therefore it cannot be justified as an appropriate or beneficial policy.

    One caveat to your example demonstrating empirical support for liberal democracy. You appear to start with the idea that the absence of warfare is the ultimate human condition. This is probably true, but is itself a value judgement. You need to justify the absence of warfare as the preferred outcome (perhaps through empirical ethics) before you can use scientific analysis to test the best way to achieve it.

    • Retired Prof says:

      Also, if we accept the axiom that the individual organism is the unit we need to concern ourselves with, then we need to take into account how contented individuals are with their lot. The absence of war is an important factor, but I’m not sure we can use it as a proxy for general well-being. Another possibly revealing index is incarceration rates, which tend to be highest in societies with large gaps in wealth distribution, no matter what economic system the society follows.

      Considering only market economies, individuals in those with the lowest discrepancies in wealth distribution tend to express the greatest satisfaction with their lives.

      • Dallas says:

        To achieve the lowest discrepancies in wealth distribution, the society must thwart the desires of a small sub-set of the population that has a higher than normal drive for innovation, wealth and power. Keeping in mind that real wealth is control over the disposition of assets and people, which may not require “owning” the asset — ownership only determines who pays the taxes. Also keep in mind that all innovation and change will have a detrimental outcome for someone.

        In what are considered “lowest discrepancies in wealth distribution societies”, the individuals in this sub-set can either fight even harder for political power over others (resulting in a nanny state or worse) or will emigrate to a country that allows individuals to accumulate greater wealth, often by actually creating that wealth to the benefit of the world. Considering the percentage of very wealthy, innovative immigrants in the US, we are allowing some of this sub-set to “express the greatest satisfaction with their lives”.

        You may be right about the “median” persons happiness or even the “average” persons, but decreasing innovation in the face of an increasing world population, pushing global sustainability limits, may result in the long term maximum unhappiness.

  3. Canman says:

    It looks to me like philosophies tend to boil down to bifurcated spectrums:

    -left vs right
    -liberal vs conservative
    -Keynesian vs Hayekian
    -socialism vs capitolism
    -statist vs libertarian
    -Malthusian vs Cornucopian

    I worry about scientist deciding what is moral and ethical for the rest of us, because they tend to fall on the left side of my list, especially social scientists. Scientists have big intellectual egos which make them victims of what Hayek called the “fatal conceit”.

    • tmac57 says:

      Hayek also said this:

      “Conservatism, though a necessary element in any stable society, is not a social program; in its paternalistic, nationalistic and power adoring tendencies it is often closer to socialism than true liberalism; and with its traditionalistic, anti-intellectual, and often mystical propensities it will never, except in short periods of disillusionment, appeal to the young and all those others who believe that some changes are desirable if this world is to become a better place.”

      From The Road To Serfdom

      • TPaine says:

        Note that when Hayek used the words “conservatism”, “socialism” and “true liberalism”, They may have had different commonly used meanings (in 1930′s)than the meanings commonly used today.

      • Other Paul says:

        Can’t speak as to what Hayek meant by the others, but his meaning of “conservatism”, associated as it is with paternalism, nationalism, power-adoration, traditionalism, anti-intellectualism, mysticism, vulnerability to enlightenment and elder-appeal seems pretty spot-on.

  4. The only reasonable position, in my opinion, is that philosophy and science are complementary parts of moral thinking. Michael seems to support this when he says – science,in addition to philosophy, is needed (not instead of).

    But I disagree that science can determine our moral values. It can inform those values, and many values are basic and near universal. Further, science can only inform within a philosophical framework. For example, which moral give the better outcome assumes consequentialism, which is a philosophical choice.

    Further, when you get down into the weeds of individual moral decisions you frequently get to conflicts among various ethical concerns, which can then only be resolved by deciding on the relative importance of those moral values. Science cannot do that for you. Where do you draw the line between freedom and security or safety? Not everyone would draw the line in the same place, and there is no way to objectively determine where to draw the line.

    • Max says:

      Even in consequentialism there’s the problem of how to weigh everyone’s interests. You mentioned killing one person to save five lives. Or how about torturing one person to save a million people from getting a slap on the wrist? E.g. Should peanuts be served on airplanes?

  5. Retired Prof says:

    Whatever quibbles I might have with details, I heartily approve of using empirical data rather than ideology as a basis for both societal and individual choices. We need evidence-based economic, legal, and ethical systems as much as we need evidence-based medicine. We need to monitor outcomes to find policies that get intended results and minimize side effects, and we need to stand ready to repeal bad laws and abandon bad policies. For example, if we had been paying attention, we should have realized long ago that the ills entailed by the drug war are worse than the disease of recreational drug use.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not fanatical about pragmatism. If the pragmatic approach doesn’t work, we should try something else.

    • Max says:

      Scientists urge end to limits on gun safety research
      http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/01/10/us-usa-guns-scientists-idUSBRE90915F20130110

      “The federal Centers for Disease Control has cut firearms safety research by 96 percent since the mid-1990s, according to one estimate. Congress, pushed by the gun lobby, in 1996 put restrictions on CDC funding of gun research into the budget. Restrictions on other agencies were added in later years.”

      • Daniel says:

        What precisely is there to “research”? While I’m reminded there’s a war on science being waged, I’m pretty sure that even a creationist will accept that a high velocity projectile tends to inflict bodily injury when it collides with a living target.

        Firearms safety research is not, and ought not be, part of the mission of the CDC. Frankly that “research” should be cut 100 percent, so the Center for Disease Control can focus on, I don’t know, curtailing the spread of diseases.

      • Max says:

        What’s there to research? How about whether gun ownership or gun control prevents or increases gun violence and deaths.

        “Firearms safety research is not, and ought not be, part of the mission of the CDC.”
        The CDC is home of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC).
        http://www.cdc.gov/injury

        Stifling research that goes against the Party line is what the Soviets did.

        More detail here
        http://news.discovery.com/human/life/how-government-stifled-gun-research-130115.htm

        “In the 1980s and 1990s… the CDC National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC) funded studies on gun violence, and research was bearing fruit… Agency-funded research had revealed that residents of homes with guns had a higher likelihood of violent death in the home. However, once those findings came to the attention of the NRA, a political firestorm ensued…
        Congress added language to the budget appropriations bill forbidding any CDC funding that might ‘advocate or promote gun control’…
        In 2011, the wording on budget appropriations was expanded to include funding from all Department of Health and Human Services agencies, including the National Institutes of Health. In other words, Congress let it be known that attempts to get at the root of the more than 31,000 U.S. deaths from firearms each year would be punished…”

      • Max says:

        Come to think of it, we have a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Why not a National Gun Safety Administration, seeing as how the gun lobbyists keep comparing guns with cars.

      • Daniel says:

        Again, a total waste of money, which, as your posts reveal, is an attempt to put what is supposed to be a nonpartisan agency into the political fray.

        Houses with guns being more likely to have violent deaths? Jeebus, how many Phd’s and MD’s did it take to figure that one out. (I’ll also add that those studies are misleading in that a violent death in the home also includes intentional suicides.)

        Also, we do have something like a “National Gun Safety Administration”, actually several agencies, which include, the ATF, that, unlike the NHTSA, sometimes take it upon itself to hunt down and murder people who committed the crime of living out in the woods and holding eccentric world views.

        It’s off-topic anyway, so I’ll leave it at that.

    • TPaine says:

      Unless part of the problem is thinking that society will be better off if the central planners “always try something”.
      Maybe if the pragmatic approach isn’t clear, society would benefit the most if planners do nothing.
      “First, do no harm”

    • Max says:

      The National Drug Intelligence Center closed in June.
      http://www.justice.gov/archive/ndic/ndic-moved.html

  6. While I have little quarrel with the argument that our moral reasoning and political policies should be informed by an evidence-based understanding of the real world, I don’t buy Michael’s suggestion that this implies that science does or can tell us what our moral values ought to be.

    Thus, the survival and flourishing of the individual…is the basis of establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality.

    This kind of axiomatic reasoning always sounds pretty convincing when it’s laid out by a writer of Michael’s persuasiveness, but there have been a great many such axioms laid out by a great many smart people. The seductiveness of all such philosophical arguments reminds me of Darwin’s comment that “a paper or book, when first read, generally excites my admiration, and it is only after considerable reflection that I perceive the weak points.” But however persuasive or unpersuasive, the arguments that “human flourishing” is a thing that can be identified or maximized or used as the basis for individual action or political policy are themselves philosophical arguments (and old philosophical arguments, as Massimo Pigiucci has pointed out) founded ultimately upon moral intuition—not upon science.

    And that, I think, is for the best. I don’t want “science” telling me what I moral values I “should” hold. Historically, “scientific” moral reasoning has at least sometimes led to conclusions that most people would reject as morally grotesque. Pigliucci’s response to Sam Harris goes to the heart of the matter:

    Harris rhetorically asks whether we really think that hitting children will improve their school performance or good behavior. But that isn’t the point at all. What if it did? What if a scientific study showed that indeed, hitting children does have a measurable effect on improving those desirable traits? Harris would then have to concede that corporal punishment is moral, but somehow I doubt he would. And I certainly wouldn’t, because my moral intuition (yes, that’s what I’m going to call it, deal with it) tells me that purposefully inflicting pain on children is wrong, regardless of whatever the empirical evidence says.

    …if we let empirical facts decide what is right and what is wrong, then new scientific findings may very well “demonstrate” that things like slavery, corporal punishment, repression of gays, limited freedom of women, and so on, are “better” and therefore more moral than liberal-progressive types such as Harris and myself would be ready to concede.

    • Kooz says:

      “Morals and values must be based on the way things are in order to establish the best conditions for human flourishing.” Axiomatic indeed. I think I may be more concerned (at least on a base level) with my personal flourishing (as well as my family’s, then my social circle’s, etc. on out to humanity’s) which may well be directly opposed to human flourishing. And I don’t think I’m atypical. What am I missing here?

      • TPaine says:

        Well, maybe you’re missing the vision of a free market. Where every personal market interaction is voluntary, peaceful, and beneficial.
        In this world, how could your flourishing be directly opposed human flourishing?

  7. badrescher says:

    Aside from being unconvinced that this proposition is philosophically tenable, and in line with what Daniel said in his comment above, I think this is a very, very dangerous position to hold.

    Most people interpret science in ways that satisfy their current beliefs and ideologies. The complexity of the social sciences already makes this process extremely easy, allowing the spread of what are most likely incorrect views of everything from gender differences to parenting practices to mental health. Our current education practices are so filled with convoluted pop-science notions that they are doomed to fail. The myth of the “cycle of violence” is so pervasive that it makes responses to incidents like mass shootings as predictable as fictional plot lines about it. Media imagery is blamed for mental illnesses such as eating disorders. I could go on and on.

    If declaring one’s values as supported by science becomes more widely accepted, then right-wing rhetoric about “legitimate rape” and other issues is given credence.

    Furthermore, in practice I don’t see it as much different than defending morality using “God’s word”. It’s scientism.

    I think that science is the best way to acquire knowledge, but I can’t prove it and neither can you. All we can do is draw attention to the fact that it’s worked well so far. Others, however, can present similar arguments and evidence about the Bible.

    And I have not even begun to discuss the implications for the practice of science itself, which could no longer operate objectively. We already struggle with that, thanks to modern media and the need for funding.

    So far, one major difference between most religions and science is that science has not claimed to be a source of morality. You want to change that?

  8. Brian Lynchehaun says:

    I am disappointed with this piece, as it’s something on the level that Sam Harris would write.

    1) Shermer has mistated the Is-Ought problem, and then declared it to be “a fallacy”. This is a Strawman Fallacy.

    The Is-Ought problem is the claim that in any argument that has only ‘is’ statements, you cannot derive an ‘ought’ from those premises. This does NOT entail the claim that “science can only describe the way things are but never tell us how they ought to be”. Unless Shermer wants to claim that science is nothing more than a list of “is” statements? I think not.

    2) “Morals and values must be based on the way things are in order to establish the best conditions for human flourishing.”

    I find it deeply ironic that Shermer would argue against Philolsophical reasoning by echoing John Stuart Mill. I’m also very interested in learning who Shermer thinks that he is arguing against. I know of no (consequentialist) philosophers who would argue against the point that Shermer is making.

    3) “We begin with the individual organism as the primary unit of biology and society because the organism is the principal target of natural selection and social evolution.”

    I’ll grant that I do not have a University education in Biology, but I was under the impression that genes were the primary unit of biology.

    Furthermore, biology and society are not synonymous, especially if one is discussing “organisms”. If you’re talking about “humans”, they are certainly both important, but this rhetorical sleight of hand is dishonest.

    4) “Thus, the survival and flourishing of the individual organism—people in this context—is the basis of establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality.”

    And here is where Shermer smuggles an “ought” statement into the foundation of his argument. You’ll notice that he hasn’t shown the Is-Ought problem to be false: he has demonstrated that it is true by including an “ought” statement in his premises.

    5) “The constitutions of human societies ought to be built on the constitution of human nature, and science is the best tool we have for understanding our nature.”

    Please quote me a modern (consequentialist) Philosopher who thinks otherwise.

    6) “We know from evolutionary theory that the principle of reciprocal altruism—I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine—is universal”

    Really? “Universal” you say? We have tested every single human being, and know that every single future human being will put forth this principle?

    Shermer seems to be going beyond the evidence, a position untenable if we are to take science seriously.

    7) “We know from evolutionary psychology that the principle of moralistic punishment—I’ll punish you if you do not scratch my back after I have scratched yours—is universal”

    See 6.

    8) “We can ground human values and morals not just in philosophical principles such as Aristotle’s virtue ethics, Kant’s categorical imperative, Mill’s utilitarianism, or Rawls’ fairness ethics, but in science as well.”

    Again: please quote me some modern (consequentialist) Philosophers who claim otherwise.

    9) “Question: What is the best form of governance for large modern human societies? Answer: a liberal democracy with a market economy. Evidence: liberal democracies with market economies are more prosperous, more peaceful, and fairer than any other form of governance tried.”

    Shermer isn’t answering the question asked.

    If the question was “what is the best form of governance that we have tried for large modern human societies?”, his answer would fit the question. As it is, he’s foisting his ideology in here.

    10) “The point of this exercise is that in addition to philosophical arguments, we can make a scientific case for liberal democracy and market economies as a means of increasing human survival and flourishing.”

    Yes, of course you can. Provided that the scientific case is philosophically sound, this should not be an issue. But pretending that the two things are independent shows a ignorance of the subject matter.

    Shermer, like Harris, is arguing against a position that no modern (consequentialist) Philosophers hold. This may seem like news to Shermer’s target audience, but that tells us more about Shermer’s target audience (and their general ignorance of Philosopher) than it does about the state of Philosophy.

    I’m disappointed to see this drek on SkepticBlog. Please: do better.

    • Mike McRae says:

      I was debating on whether I should write something, but Brian’s covered it nicely. I take my hat off to you, sir.

      Arguing that organisms ‘ought to’ survive does nothing to avoid the naturalistic fallacy. The very core of the fallacy states that values such as ‘good’ (and therefore ‘ought’) cannot exist independently of a context. Any individual is well within their right to provide survival as that context, and it might well be a popular value. But popularity of a value still doesn’t make it universal or in itself objective.

      It’s a shame that Shermer has divorced science from philosophy so much – philosophy is the very reason we can say why science is limited in its ability to comment on morals.

  9. Phea says:

    It all sounds very complex and confusing… I think I’ll just stick with coin flips and my Magic 8-Ball.

  10. Matthew Putman says:

    I agree with this Michael, and think that right now, among some philosophers, there is a tendency to be concerned that the finding of science will lead to immorality. I noticed this in watching the “Moving Naturalism Forward” http://preposterousuniverse.com/naturalism2012/ Summit. It was an unnecessary concern of some of the philosophers to basically claim that even if science reveals certain truths (regarding Free-Will for instance) society cannot handle the moral repercussions. This is so much like an old religious argument to me that I am surprised to hear it often made by other atheists. Science does help us by providing a method for discovering truth. People are much stronger than many think, and more often than not evidence leads to morality, rather than immorality. This is a great piece.

    • Brian Lynchehaun says:

      “It was an unnecessary concern of some of the philosophers to basically claim that even if science reveals certain truths (regarding Free-Will for instance) society cannot handle the moral repercussions.”

      The “truth” revealed was that when people believe that they don’t have free will, the rate of cheating increases.

      An argument based in science, where we want *less* cheating, therefore argues that we *shouldn’t* reveal that we don’t have free will (if that turns out to be the case).

      Or do you want more cheating? Because science ties ‘the knowledge that we don’t have free will’ with ‘more cheating’.

      • Max says:

        Reveal that when people believe that they don’t have free will, the rate of cheating increases, and see what that does to the rate of cheating.

  11. Peter says:

    Waste of time. Put philosophy on side. We are too kind, too many problems to solve, no useful help from philosophers, dislike of evaluation process, relativism king of hill and too many realities to find their way home to help people.

    Yep, it’s me, the bad guy of the day :)

  12. Un Tacon says:

    Philosophy doesn’t solve problems, it poses them, then those branches of philosophy morph into new sciences. At least philosophy did before it got a case of physics envy.

    The problem I see is the attempt to force fit all of the human questioning stances (philosophical, moral, scientific) into a scientific one. Science is a methodology and a methodology that works very well with things that can be analyzed, simplified, boundaried, arranged and tested. Not everything is like that, clearly. Proponents of science as a religion forget that and place the methodological cart before the ontological horse. Philosophy and morality are covered thus: If an object of inquiry can’t be submitted to the current scientific method, then its object can’t exist (ontology) – whatever phenomena it purports to explain are not merely badly defined but delusions of mythologically infected minds. And unless we want another dark age no areas of inquiry should be tolerated that can’t be submitted to the scientific method (ethics.) Clearly not commendable thinking.

    Science is useful in some areas of ethical concern. Science should have a lot to say about the limits of sustainability, for example, but I don’t see much depth in scientific discourse about socio-cultural history and ideological influences.

    Also neuroscience could help investigate sociopathologies that start off as addictions (as per Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself). But God spare me the cyborg utopia of the religiously scientific with and their Prometheean dreams.

    If folks are interested, there are a number of talks in CBC’s IDEAS “How to think about Science” series that touch on new ways of thinking about science and ethics. http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/2009/01/02/how-to-think-about-science-part-1—24-listen/

  13. dave says:

    “What is the best form of governance for large modern human societies? Answer: a liberal democracy…”

    For someone who claims to be about science and the truth, you’d think he might first define “best”. And what does “liberal” mean here? The problem with a democracy (or any government) is that it, by nature, creates and maintains the borders that lead to conflict. Our own leaders push an agenda that paints middle-easterners as evil, for example. Left to think on our own, we would more likely be mildly curious and distrustful of foreigners. But that doesn’t serve the needs of our “democracy”, so a little propaganda is necessary. Shermers discussion also completely ignores the trend of what is going on in U.S. right now. Our government continues to grow as a percentage of GDP and it’s leadership is completely unable to control spending. This system will collapse on itself. This is the best we can do?

  14. Peter says:

    “Philosophy doesn’t solve problems”

    Ok, let’s talk about that assertion. If you don’t solve, by definition, you can’t evaluate the questions you’re working on. You can’t build knowledge on unsound questions and nonexistent solutions.

    • Un Tacon says:

      Peter, so you assert that unless I or somebody living now can solve the problem I ask, there’s no point in raising it. That’s one way of ensuring that all questions will fit the methodolatry that puts the methodological cart before the ontological horse.

      Curiosity born of wonder is what gives vitality to philosophy and science. If science insists on posing only currently solvable problems, it’s robbing its future. And if philosophers insist on expunging any currently, intractable problems by applying pejoratives (“metaphysical”, “mystical”, “smacks of teleology”, etc.) I can only lament how closed our minds have become.

      More directly, it is a huge leap from “philosophy doesn’t solve problems” to “philosophy asks unsound (permanently insoluble) questions”. There is an art to posing questions. People get mired in their categories and the honest philosopher’s job is to suggest other ways of approaching how things are framed through the art of questioning, opening up new horizons of inquiry.

      Nothing needs to be pinned down definitively at the start of a new direction of inquiry. Perhaps the demand that it is is a door slammer.

  15. John M says:

    This column appears to be just another wedge for Dr. Shermer to introduce his new religion: Market Economics.

  16. TPaine says:

    Maybe, but is is very interesting to be exposed to everybody’s views.
    It’s like we’re sharing a brain.
    Just kidding, don’t go there.

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  18. william sujit metta says:

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  19. Shannon says:

    I think ‘market economy’ and it’s role in ‘peaceful nations’ should be re-evaluated and studied much more closely if it’s to be used as a variable in determining what’s best for humanity. I’ve witnessed (as a person living in a supply and demand economy) its ruination of the lesser wage earners, its suppression of the medium wage-earners and its corruption of the top wage-earners to the detriment of our planet and all life on it. I think the ‘peace’ that has been previously maintained is not only temporary but can only be temporary because of the inevitable end that a supply and demand economy brings within a species that reproduces without responsibility and thought to capacity. Just a thought though… :)

  20. LV says:

    Thnak you, Mr Shermer, for illustrating Hume’s is/ought divide by not even covertly introducing your ethical axiom “[m]orals and values must be based on the way things are in order to establish the best conditions for human flourishing” into the argument!

    • noen says:

      Also known as begging the question.

      Atheists who are philosophically illiterate really shouldn’t try to do philosophy.

      • tmac57 says:

        Hmmm…this doesn’t sound right to me.
        Maybe you meant something like: ‘Atheists (I’m not sure that is even relevant) who are philosophically illiterate,really should realize that they are free to philosophize,but should not expect to have any novel insights’. Just as kindergarten,and elementary school students should feel free to express themselves,and ask naive questions and express themselves without being made fun of,but not expected to write a great novel.

      • noen says:

        It is an indication of my level of frustration trying to debate internet know-it-all atheists who don’t actually know that much. So… I’m being unfair… because religious believers can be far worse. It’s just… very frustrating.

      • tmac57 says:

        That is a Tu quoque fallacy.

  21. noen says:

    Michael Shermer on morality — by Massimo Pigliucci

    “Now imagine that Michael had been talking about math instead of ethics. The idea would run something like this: “Scientists have conceded the high ground of resolving mathematical problems to mathematicians, just when the new disciplines of evolutionary mathematics and neuro-mathematics are coming on line.” My point is, I hasten to say, not that ethics is like math, but rather that evolutionary math and neuro-math would be giving us answers to different questions. An evolutionary approach to understanding our ability to reason mathematically could give us clues as to why we are capable of abstract thinking to begin with, which is interesting. “Neuro-mathematics” could then provide answers to the question of how the brain works when it engages in mathematical (and other types of abstract) thinking. But if you want to know how to prove Pythagoras’ theorem, neither evolutionary biologists nor neurobiologists are the right kind of experts. You need a mathematician.”

  22. John Heininger says:

    One of the great amusements of our time is to observe Scientists, Skeptics, atheists, humanists and others fully committed to metaphysical naturalism and raw materialism discussing morality. All intent on making moral connections in an ever changing, ever shifting world that functions on amoral relativism, situation ethics and might makes right. Where the absolute principle is that there are no moral absolutes. Thus, we have naturalistic minded skeptics and scientists endlessly pondering how an indifferent, uncaring, amoral godless universe of “matter and particles in motion” can provide a solid basis for ethics and morality. All arguing that the “well being” of humanity is the primary goal, while having alternative and opposing views as to exactly what that is. As every dictatorship, totalitarian regime, fascist government and elected governmental power has well demonstrated.

    Indeed, when there is no transcendent moral absolutes by which the individual and the state may be morally judged, than individual and state morally is absolute. What is, simply is! Be it good, bad or indifferent. The natural outworking of an undirected cosmological and biological evolutionary process that hasn’t the foggiest notion of where anything, and everything, is evolving to, or even why.

    • un tacon says:

      Multiplicity of viewpoints and lively debate is not exactly what you’ll find amongst totalitarians. You seem to despair over a lack of absolutist moral criteria yet are alarmed by totalitarianism. If you want absolutes, here’s one: The world changes and we must change with it in a sustainable way or die out and take a whole load of it with us on the way. Do we need some textual authority to provide a principle to make us not want that result? The larger purposes we pursue are to a great extent ours to define. I hope we define them with the well-being of our descendents in mind, rather than inventing yet more metaphysical justifications of outdated patriarchal social arrangements when they merely serve to propagate an unsustainable and wasteful social order.

  23. Mikeb says:

    No wonder lay people despair.

    If this is the depth of disagreement among the smart people, then fuck it, I’m going back to my garden.

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