In his 1963 book Conjectures and Refutations the philosopher Karl Popper identified in the title a principle that is at the heart of the scientific method: generating new ideas (conjectures) and introducing them to your peers and the public where they can be skeptically scrutinized for possible refutation:
If we have made this our task, then there is no more rational procedure than the method of trial and error—of conjecture and refutation: of boldly proposing theories; of trying our best to show that these are erroneous; and of accepting them tentatively if our critical efforts are unsuccessful.
The purpose of this process is to find out if you’ve come up with something new and important or if you’ve been immersed in self-deception or delusion (or, as is more often the case, catching errors and fine-tuning arguments). It is in this spirit that I read reviews of my books. Like everyone else I dislike negative reviews and criticism, but I force myself to try to learn from them and treat my reviewers’ comments as a form of constructive feedback. The Moral Arc is by far and away the most important book of my career, on which I worked harder and longer and conjectured more boldly challenging ideas that I think warrant serious consideration (and possible refutation). Now that my U.S. book tour is over and a number of initial reviews have come in, I thought I would respond to some of the criticisms put forth thus far. Given that it is a 500-page treatise that covers many different topics, I realize that many more reviews—most notably by professional scientists and historians in scholarly journals—will come in later. For now I’ll address a few points by topic, rather than by review, as this is a more productive means of generating further conjectures and refutations.
The Enlightenment, the Reign of Terror, and the Nazis
In nearly every Q&A after book talks someone brings up the Nazis (or Stalin’s Soviet Union) as examples of a scientific society run amok and turned evil. My friend and colleague Massimo Pigliucci, in his review of an excerpt from The Moral Arc that appeared in Reason magazine (he says he has not had time to read the book yet), in which I tout the virtues of the Enlightenment, brought up the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror as a counter example, ending his critique with this assessment:
As for the Enlightenment, Richard Dawkins once declared himself a son of the movement. So did I, when I was 18. Then I grew up and I started seeing things in a bit more nuanced way. After all, the Enlightenment was followed by the French Revolution, which bred the Reign of Terror, which led to Napoleon. Not exactly a stellar record for the champions of reason.
RESPONSE: Um, so Dawkins—and by extension myself, Steven Pinker and Sam Harris, whom Massimo also reproaches—have yet to grow up and understand the world in a more nuanced way. That aside, Massimo’s observation is a common confusion that both Pinker and I address, and that is that such evil events as the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror and the Nazi genocide were products of the Enlightenment. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Edmund Burke pointed out during the French Revolution, its leaders had abandoned all reason. Here is what I wrote on page 143 of The Moral Arc , about Burke’s assessment of the French Revolution:
If political change is called for it should happen gradually and only after due deliberation, because human history, he wrote, “consists for the most part of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites.
Burke contrasted the French revolutionaries, beset as they were with ungoverned zeal and all the rest, with the American revolutionaries, who set about dissolving their ties with England in a most moderate and rational manner, as they wrote in the Declaration of Independence:
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
Had the French followed the American model—grounded as it was in Enlightenment natural philosophy (what we today call science) and led by men steeped in the classical tradition of rational analysis of all propositions—the Reign of Terror would surely have been avoided.
As for the Nazis, here is what I wrote on page 137 of The Moral Arc :
Theists and postmodernist critics of science and reason often label the disastrous Soviet and Nazi utopias as “scientific,” but their science was a thin patina covering a deep layer of counter-Enlightenment, pastoral, paradisiacal fantasies of racial ideology grounded in ethnicity and geography, as documented in Claudia Koonz’s book The Nazi Conscience and in Ben Kiernan’s book Blood and Soil.
These are admittedly big historical events that certainly do require nuanced thinking to unravel the twisted labyrinth of causal factors, so to that give me the courtesy of reading the book itself, as there I devote a 20,000-word chapter to the Enlightenment—culled from courses I took on the topic in graduate school and from the rich literature on the subject since—that is much richer than anything I can say in a short excerpt.
The Is-Ought Fallacy
In pre-book debates with Massimo Pigliucci he took me to task for committing the Is-Ought fallacy—that the way something is tells us nothing about the way something ought to be (see my initial rebuttal to Massimo ). In another review of my Reason magazine excerpt at the Discovery Institute’s website, Wesley J. Smith expressed the problem this way:
Science is a powerful and empirical method of learning. It can only tell us what is—and fashion hypotheses about what may be. It can’t tell us what is morally better or worse, right or wrong, enlightened or regressive. That is the subjective job of religion, philosophy, and morality.
Strange bedfellows are beneath the sheets here as both creationists and scientists seem swept up by this insistence that science and reason have nothing to say about right and wrong. In an otherwise very positive review in The Wall Street Journal, for example, the highly regarded psychiatrist and science writer Sally Satel opines:
Science can’t determine values. The desire to enhance human flourishing, Mr. Shermer’s mission, itself reflects a value—a Bentham-like utilitarianism—that he assumed prior to his examination of how science might advance it. Science can give us only more efficient ways of bringing about desired outcomes, not tell us which outcomes to desire.
Matthew Hutson also succumbs to the power of this myth in his otherwise fair and balanced review in The Los Angeles Times, while accusing me of magical thinking for my conjecture that moral values can be discovered:
Shermer advocates moral realism: “morality is real, discoverable, ‘out there’ in nature.” Can a microscope or experiment locate human rights or reveal whether loyalty is a higher virtue than honesty, or prioritize my interests over yours? No; ethical judgments are inherently subjective. And attributing subjective preferences to the cosmos—locating morality “out there”—is a form of magical thinking.
RESPONSE: Baloney. I spend a good deal of time on this issue in Chapter 1 (including how utilitarianism must be undergirded by natural rights theory), and in dialogue with Sam Harris posted on his web site, a portion of which I’ll quote here:
I employ a public health analogy. I argue that if you agree that it is better that millions of people no longer die of yellow fever and smallpox, cholera and bronchitis, dysentery and diarrhea, consumption and tuberculosis, measles and mumps, gangrene and gastritis, and many other assaults on the human body that hardly even enter our conscious awareness today, then you have offered your assent that the way something is (diseases such as yellow fever and smallpox kill people) means we ought to prevent it through vaccinations and other medical and public health technologies.
By extension, I then make the case that social problems such as homicide and violence ought to be—and in fact are—treated as public health issues. Over the centuries the rates of violence in general and homicide in particular have plummeted, primarily as a result of better governance, better policing, and numerous other social policies grounded in reasoned arguments and empirical data. If you agree that millions of lives have been saved over the past couple of centuries by a reduction in violence due to improved technologies and policies, then you might well concur that applying the methods of the social sciences to solving problems such as crime and violence is also something we ought to do.
Why? Because saving lives is moral. Why is saving lives moral? Because the survival and flourishing of sentient beings is our moral starting point.
Would anyone argue that sparing millions of people suffering, agony, and death through public health measures is merely a “Western bias,” a culturally-dependent belief system restricted to only certain areas of the world, and that there are non-Western peoples around the world who enjoy suffering, agony, and death (religious fanatics anticipating a martyr’s death and heavenly reward notwithstanding)? If you are not religious, and yet you do not believe that science and reason can determine right and wrong and moral values, what methods do you think we should use? Cultural relativism? Emotion? Whim?
What I am arguing is that all of us base our morals on rational arguments and empirical evidence, and The Moral Arc is one long argument for how we have already been applying science and reason to solving moral problems and why we should continue to do so.
Science and Religion
Not surprisingly, the one chapter out of 12 that deals with religion has generated the most acerbic commentaries, mostly confined to Amazon (for what that’s worth—most of the reviewers’ comments have little or nothing to do with the book and seem to be just another forum for spouting their own ideas or berating me for being an atheist). One reviewer accuses me of taking an “atheistic approach to morality” and of hiding “behind the cloak of the ‘scientific method’,” by which he says I mean that “if it cannot be seen, heard, touched, tasted, or felt through the physical senses, it can’t be scientific.” Another reviewer upbraids me for failing to address the work of the sociologist of religion Rodney Stark, and says my scholarship “is a triumphalist, zero-sum game: Atheists win; believers lose.”
RESPONSE: There is no “atheist approach to morality” because atheism isn’t a belief system or a worldview; it isn’t even a thing. Atheism just means a lack of belief in God and nothing more. We atheists get our morals not from “atheism” but from philosophy, humanism, and culture, behind which, I argue in the book, lie reason and science. In Chapters 1 and 3 of The Moral Arc I devote many pages explaining exactly what I mean by science and reason, which goes far beyond what can only be perceived through the senses. In fact, as I demonstrate, many areas of science are inferential and not directly observational, and that often requires sophisticated techniques to discern what is really going on in nature or society. As for Rodney Stark, I devote an entire section of Chapter 4 (pp. 163–165) to his 2005 book The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, whose thesis I think I thoroughly refuted, but readers can judge for themselves by actually reading the book. (I use the comparative method, showing how some Christian countries did not develop science, freedom, and capitalism, while some non-Christian countries did.)
As for the “zero-sum” game of science and religion, I contend that gradually over many centuries the application of science and reason toward solving social problems are superior tools for achieving the goal of expanding the moral sphere to religious faith. But it’s not so black-and-white. Someone can be religious and still successfully apply the methods of science and reason; indeed, historically many have, such as Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes. An Amazon reviewer claims that I ignored the fact that they (and other scientists at the time) were religious. First, pretty much everyone was religious at that time (or at least professed that they were), so one could tie religiosity to just about anything. Second, I don’t care if they were religious or not; the point is that they used science and reason to solve problems in physics and mathematics, and thinkers after them were inspired to apply those same methods to solving social and moral problems.
I also go out of my way to point out that religions (and religious people) who adopt the methods of reason and science have, in time, supported most of the rights revolutions, from the abolition of slavery to same-sex marriage. It is a simple historical fact, however, that most religions (and religious people) are slow to bend to the cultural forces of moral change, as in the fact that the Quakers and abolitionists like William Wilberforce were opposed by most of their fellow Christians, and same-sex marriage today has been opposed by most religions (and religious people). But eventually when religions come around to the changing moral zeitgeist they get behind moral movements and drive them forward, which is why I opened and closed The Moral Arc
with the stirring words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of my personal heroes and one of the greatest moral activists to ever grace this planet.
Science and Economics
everal reviewers use the label “libertarian” to describe my political preference, as if the label itself suffices to refute any arguments I make in the book. Massimo Pigliucci used the label in his title, and in Philly.com Marc Moreau says:
Shermer builds a libertarian vision of moral progress: Moral progress means growth in free trade between free individuals; any notion of restraining free trade is thus moral regression.
RESPONSE: In the past I have used the libertarian label to describe myself (generally speaking, libertarians are socially liberal and fiscally conservative), but in recent years I have tried to avoid all such labels (liberal, conservative, etc.) because they carry so much baggage in readers’ minds that it interferes with the capacity to judge my arguments on their own merit. “Oh, he’s a libertarian. I know what that means so I need not read or think further about what he’s saying.” In point of fact, while researching and writing The Moral Arc
I came to change my mind on many topics that most libertarians (and, by extension in certain realms, most conservatives) hold: I used to be against gun control but am now in favor of some legislation; I used to be in favor of the death penalty (primarily out of sympathy for the victims’ families) but I am now against it for reasons I articulate in the book (it doesn’t work to deter crime, it doesn’t bring closure to the victims’ families, it gives the state too much power, and the state gets it wrong too many times and executes innocent people); I think economies and financial markets need to be governed by rules and regulations because people will cheat if they have the chance to do so (I discuss this at length in the book using behavioral game theory to show the logic behind cheating as a rational choice people make, such as in athletics—as in my own sport of cycling where doping has run rampant); finally, my life-long belief that states and governments are mostly evil contrivances run by corrupt political thugs has been completely overhauled and refined to the point where I am now a strong advocate for liberal democracies (while still condemning those regimes that are run by corrupt political thugs).
Moreau writes that of the various social systems I discuss involved in bending the moral arc, “the most enlightened, in his views, is the free market. By transforming human interactions into a win-win game that promises prosperity for everyone, free trade encourages interpersonal trust while reducing interpersonal enmity.” Nowhere in The Moral Arc
do I claim that the free market is the most important driving force for moral progress. What I do demonstrate through numerous studies is that, to pick one example among many, conflicts between groups are reduced in frequency and severity when there is mutually beneficial exchange between them (not restricted to economic relations alone), but I debunk the “McDonalds’ Theory of Peace” that claims no two countries with McDonalds’ ever fight (not true), along with the equally fatuous claim that no two democracies ever go to war (also not true). My more nuanced point, based as it is on the important research by the political scientists Bruce Russett and John Oneal in their book Triangulating Peace (discussed on pp. 127–129 of The Moral Arc ) “that, overall, democracy, trade, and membership in IGOs [Intergovernmental Organizations] all favor peace, and that a pair of countries that are in the top tenth of the scale on all three variables are 83 percent less likely than an average pair of countries to have a militarized dispute in a given year.”
Scaling complex social phenomena in this manner allows us to shift from categorical thinking to continuous thinking about moral issues, a point I make in a section devoted to this on pp. 30-31, that “thinking about issues on a continuous scale rather than as categorical entities is both instructive and enlightening, and if exceptions to generalizations come to mind it is helpful to consider whether they invalidate the generalization or fall on a continuous scale within the generalization.”
Moral Regress: What About ISIS?
In his positive review in The Washington Post the science writer Seth Shulman quite reasonably asks, what about the exceptions to moral progress? He cites “terrorist attacks on cartoonists, Islamic State beheadings, Taliban massacres of schoolchildren and police shootings of innocent civilians, among other seemingly daily atrocities,” not to mention “science’s role in everything from the development of the atomic bomb to pervasive government surveillance” and “the role of Nazi scientists to the development of biological weaponry.”
RESPONSE: I devote an entire chapter to moral regress (including the Nazis and my own reinterpretation of Milgram’s shock experiments), showing that the moral arc is not a smooth one. It is often a matter of two steps forward and one step back. There will always be enough homicides, wars, revolutions, and immoral acts to fill the daily headlines, but as President Bill Clinton said in a recent speech in which he recounted the many bad things still extant in the world, “there are beneath all these really troubling headlines a lot of good trend lines,” adding, “We’re not perfect, we’ll never be perfect, we can always do better.”
As well, atomic and biological weapons are examples of the products of science, whereas I’m addressing the process of science, the application of the methods of science toward solving social and moral problems. And as for these specific examples, note that no atomic weapon has been used in war since 1945. Why? In part, because when it comes to such civilization-threatening weapons politicians have learned to become rationally-calculating game theorists, as when President Kennedy and Premiere Khrushchev reasoned their way out of nuclear Armageddon in the Cuban Missile Crises of 1963.
What About Climate Change?
Jake Whitney’s thoughtful review in The Daily Beast also noted recent exceptions to my thesis, most notably the Charlie Hebdo massacre, along with “beheadings in the Middle East, cops assassinated in New York, and protests over alleged police abuse in multiple American cities.” But what vexes Whitney the most is that…
Shermer ignores one of the most morally vexing issues of our time: climate change. One wonders if he does so because it clashes with his thesis. To wit: if science, which drives our morality, led to modern technology, then what to make of the Industrial Revolution, which sparked global warming, and, by threatening the lives of sentient beings, is thus immoral? This would seem a paradox worth exploring.
RESPONSE: In a book that was already pushing 500 pages it seemed that adding a chapter on climate change would tip it over the edge of patience for most readers. But more importantly, as I’ve stated in many venues, including and especially in several of my Scientific American columns, although I am convinced by the evidence that global warming is real and human caused, I am not as confident that it will be a catastrophic threat to civilization as some scientists and activists believe. I am optimistic that we will find scientific and technological solutions before the clime-apocalypse comes, and as I argue in the closing pages of The Moral Arc , I predict that by the 23rd century the population of the Earth will be back down to around 1–2 billion people, for which sustainable energy and food sources can carry our species on until we finally become a space-faring Type I civilization.
Ad astra per aspera!