Tag Archives: Michael Shermer

Can philosophers, or anyone, tell us what is “right” and “wrong”?

Empirical-ethics

Credit: Descartes Centre

It’s no secret philosophers and scientists sometimes seem to be in conflict. I’m not talking about philosophers of religion (there are epistemological grounds for an inevitable conflict with science there). No, I mean philosophers in general. And the conflict usually involves claims being made about the respective roles of science and philosophy. A sort of professional demarcation issue.

Massimo Pigliucci often seems to go into battle on the philosophers side. I often think this reflects his own sensitivity to any real, or perceived, criticism of the role of philosophy. For example, in his recent article Michael Shermer on morality he referred to the “simplistic dismissal of philosophy a la Harris-Krauss-Hawking.” He seems to be reacting to provocation!

But at other times he goes deeper and critiques what he sees as “scientism,” intrusion of scientists into areas he feels should not concern them, or claims that he feels are being made for science outside its special domain. Morality is an area he is sensitive to and he confesses (in the above article) to taking upon himself the role of “chastising skeptics like Sam Harris* on the relationship between philosophy, science and morality.”

Some critics seem to have knee jerk reaction to any scientific investigation of human morality, or to scientists who comment on morality. Pigliucci is not one of those – he will concede that science can properly investigate many areas of morality. For example, he says in the above article:

“This is not at all to say that science is irrelevant to ethical reasoning. No philosopher I know of holds to that absurd position (except perhaps a dwindling band of stubborn theologians).”

And

“we need an evolutionary understanding of where a strong sense of right and wrong comes from as an instinct, and a neurobiological account of how our brains function (or malfunction) when they engage in ethical reasoning.”

But he adds the following (and this may indicate where he sees the problem):

“But it is the moral philosopher, not the evolutionary biologist or the neurobiologist, we should check with if we want to know whether a particular piece of ethical reasoning is logically sound or not.”

I interpret this to mean that it’s OK for the relevant scientist to investigate morality in their area of speciality – evolutionary psychology, cognitive biology, etc. But when it come to actually using logic, doing ethical reasoning, that’s the job of the philosopher, in particular the moral philosopher.

Must we always rely on philosophers for logic?

On the surface that seems reasonable – specialists have their speciality and non-specialists  should defer to the specialist when considering relevant areas. Mind you, I don’t accept that reasoning and logic are the exclusive domain of philosophers. Science does involve reasoning and logic – even in highly developed forms like mathematics.

We in fact receive a certain amount of training in such areas as part of a science degree. Consequently a chemist, physicist or biologist may be quiet proficient at applying mathematics in their area. Although the wise individual recognises their level of understanding and will involve the mathematical specialist if they feel it necessary. In my own research I always involved statisticians – and while I often carried out my own statistical tests I always checked later with a statistician.

And in ethical areas – how complex is the logic involved? Does one have to be able to express each proposition in the appropriate academic notation and be aware of all possible transformations before one can decide, on the basis of the facts and one’s values what is “right” and “wrong?” How would the “person in the street” react to that suggestion?

Who does the lay person trust on moral questions?

I am very sceptical of any group claiming for itself a special role on moral questions. And I don’t think that attitude is unusual. When it comes to decision making in social and ethical areas these day I think the individual herself usually wants to be involved. They won’t automatically just rubber stamp decisions made by specialists – scientists or philosophers.

Take climate change. I think most members of the public actually do accept what climate scientists say about human influence on the planet’s climate. After all, a lot of effort and money has gone into the research. It has been reviewed extensively, there is a wide scientific consensus about the science, and honest awareness of gaps in knowledge. And the conclusions are conservative and  usually presented moderately, with scientific qualifications.

But the climate scientists do not tell us what we should or shouldn’t do politically. Their science informs our decisions (and the decisions of our governments), but it doesn’t determine them. Economic specialists will also have input into recommendations for mitigation of, or accommodation to, climate effects. They will also inform. And while governments and democratic institution in each country make the final decisions on any resulting plans, we all expect that we should have the ability to influence those decisions.

I think this is even truer on moral issues. In the end morality concerns individuals and their actions. We insist on making those decisions ourselves. And especially in this sort of area our decisions and actions are not based only on evidence or logic - inevitably our emotions and value judgements are involved. So we are understandably not happy about any suggestion  that others, specialist or not, make those decisions for us.

So scientists can inform us regarding moral issues. They might give us facts – like when neural activity is present in a foetus, do animals feel pain, is sexual preference innate or learned, etc. But its up to us to use that information when we make decisions on moral questions like abortion, factory farming and eating meat or marriage equality. And we insist that this final decision is for us alone – not the scientist.

I think we would have the same attitude toward the moral philosopher. We might listen to their reasoning (if they communicate it properly), maybe even take it on board, but will still make the final decision ourselves. Because that decision involves far more than the scientist’s evidence and the philosopher’s logic. It also involves our own values and emotions.

We have got used to saying that while science can inform us on moral issues it cannot tell us what is “right” and “wrong”. I think most people today will also want to extend that to say that neither can philosophy tells us what is “right” and “wrong.”

Today we (or at least those of us who value autonomy) no longer allow priests and theologians to make moral decision for us. Why would we allow philosophers to do so – even if they are “moral philosophers.”


* It has become fashionable to criticise Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values because of its probably over-optimistic predictions of a future role of neuroscience in moral decision making. However, I think there is a lot of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” here. The main purpose of Harris’s book was a strong (and some would say overdue) criticism of moral relativism –  and this is often ignored by his critics.

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Sceptical arrogance and evolutionary psychology

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“We should be skeptical of all points of view, including those of the skeptics.”*

I came across the quote above in Michael Shermer’s article remembering Paul Kurtz, one of the founders of the modern US skeptical movement (see “Paul Kurtz & the Virtue of Skepticism“). It struck a chord – I have been thinking about this for a while. It strikes me that self-declared sceptics can sometimes be far from sceptical in the own beliefs and declarations.

No, I am not adopting the position of some of the targets of scepticism. I am not saying “sceptics’ are biased or arrogant because they criticise superstition, pseudoscience and religion. Nor that their ridicule of religious and superstitious ideas is somehow unwarranted. Within reason, ridicule is sometimes the most effective form of criticism. No way am I defending superstition and religion.

No, the arrogance I refer to is the claim that we are on the side of reason, simply by declaring that we are on the side of reason. To a limited extent I agree with the religious critics of the Reason Rally held a few months back in Washington, DC. At the time I did raise my concern about how ideological groups co-opt words for their own purposes (see Co-opting “Truth”). Perhaps the atheist rally was slightly disingenuous to label itself the Reason Rally, as a contrast to faith. But how much more disingenuous was the religious response when it launched a small group called “True Reason.”

A sort of ideological poker game: “see your reason and up you with Truth (with a capital T).” Well, what did we expect?

Rational or rationalising?

I have a thing about this word “reason” because if modern psychology and cognitive science tells us anything it is that we are not a rational species, more a rationalising one. Often (very often) our reasoning is motivated. We are justifying actions or attitudes which may be more driven by emotion and feeling than by logic and reasoning.

I am not saying that as a criticism – just as a fact about the human species. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Emotions and feelings are often a more efficient (and humane) way of making decisions than logic. And individuals find careful reasoning difficult. It’s best done in groups.

So yes, support reason and logic against faith and prejudice. But let’s not fool ourselves that this is enough to make sure that our own positions and proclamations are always based completely on reason and logic. They aren’t. And sometimes this becomes obvious.

I think if we are conscious of current understanding in psychology and cognitive science we would not fall into the trap of arrogance. We would seriously take on board another quote from Paul Kurtz: “No one is infallible, and no one can claim a monopoly on truth or virtue.” Maybe then sceptics would avoid such co-option of words by self-proclamation. And we might have the humility to temper the criticism of groups and people we disagree with.

Rebecca Watson’s talk

My current reason for commenting on sceptical arrogance is a video I watched of Rebecca Watson’s talk at a recent Scepticon conference in the US. This is relevant in NZ because Rebecca is currently here after attending an Australian Skeptics’ conference. She has delivered the same talk down under as she delivered in the US.

For those who have not see the talk – its titled How Girls Evolved to Shop and other ways to insult women with “science” and I have embedded it below.

Now, I realise this talk has become controversial in the US. And because of recent ructions over Rebecca Watson, “elevatorgate,”  feminism and misogynism in the atheist movement, and formation of Atheist+ groups this controversy inevitably involves other issues. Personalities and strong feelings are involved. Positions are being strongly defended. None of that interests me. Here I am commenting only on sceptical arrogance and Rebecca’s sweeping rejection of evolutionary psychology – with which I strongly disagree.

However, if you wish to follow the US debate have a look at Edward Clint’s Science denialism at a skeptic conference which criticises Rebecca’s presentation, and Stephanie Zvan’s Science Denialism? The Role of Criticism and PZ Myer’s Oh gob, evo psych again? which defend the presentation.

Is her sarcasm justified?

First, let’s get Rebecca’s sarcasm out of the way. Maybe some of it was justified in commenting on the media presentation of research and on examples of poor science but personally I found her extension of sarcasm to a whole scientific discipline childish, arrogant and unwarranted. Problems and difficulties in an entire scientific discipline require a far more serious consideration than Rebecca gave. In my mind her sarcasm appeared was her way of compensating for her own lack of knowledge of the subject – in much the same way that climate change deniers/contrarians/sceptics use sarcasm when they discuss climate science and scientists.

Sarcasm as a substitute for reason and evidence.

But what about evolutionary psychology? Although Rebecca’s examples were of pop psychology and the media presentation of research (both genuine and motivated “research”) she was clearly aimed her criticism at the whole field of evolutionary psychology. Her slides show this and her shonky definition of evolutionary psychology in one of her slides supports that interpretation.

Is evolutionary psychology a science?

Criticism of evolutionary psychology in not new or unique to Rebecca. Philosopher Massimo Pigluicci even asks the question “Is Evolutionary Psychology a Pseudoscience?” in his book Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. He sees problems related to historical investigations and the small number of species closely related to humans but concludes these do “not make evolutionary psychology a typical example of pseudo-science, like astrology or parapsychology, but it certainly moves it away from mainstream evolutionary biology . . .” However, “the overarching idea that behaviours (and therefore cognitive traits) can evolve, and sometimes do so as the result of natural selection, is completely uncontroversial amongst scientists, and so to should be.”

So, there are problems in this field. But would we expect otherwise? Evolutionary psychology is a “soft science” rather like psychology and sociology. We should not expect the precision, or epistemic confidence, of the “hard sciences” of physics and chemistry. There is therefore room for a quite a bit of tentative and speculative hypothesising. I don’t see speculation as a bad thing in science – in fact it’s essential. As long as we are conscious that speculative ideas don’t equate to verified knowledge. And we do make room for speculative ideas in even the hard sciences – string “theory” and multiverses for example.

Yes, I know, the difficulties of verification and testing in the soft sciences provides advantages for those wanting to promote pet ideas and fancies. Maybe even advantages for the unscrupulous “researcher.” And the subject lends itself easily to media interested more in scandal and sexual innuendo than real knowledge. Plenty of scope for misrepresentation of even the more genuine research. Rebecca was right to criticise this.

Let’s be realistic

But come off it. Even the hard sciences are not completely immune to such problems. Just have a look at some of the popular writing on quantum physics.

It’s easy to play up, as Rebecca does, the media treatment, the pop psychology and the unscrupulous “researchers” willing to sell themselves to commercial interests. But that ignores the far more honest research that is also going on in evolutionary psychology. Research on the continuity from species to species of emotions. Similarities in the brain. The evolution of morality, society and religion. And I could go on.

Sure, we will have less epistemic confidence in many of the findings and resulting theories. There is plenty of room of mistakes and blind allies. But I believe we are making progress and our current understanding in these areas is much better than when we were informed only by folk psychology and religion.

Yes, evolutionary psychology is a mixed bag. To some extent this is true of all the “soft sciences.” But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.


*The quotation is from The Transcendental Temptation: A Critique of Religion and the Paranormal by Paul Kurtz. Here it is in context:

“The skeptic is not passionately intent on converting mankind to his or her point of view and surely is not interested in imposing it on others, though he may be deeply concerned with raising the level of education and critical inquiry in society. Still, if there are any lessons to be learned from history, it is that we should be skeptical of all points of view, including those of the skeptics. No one is infallible, and no one can claim a monopoly on truth or virtue. It would be contradictory for skepticism to seek to translate itself into a new faith. One must view with caution the promises of any new secular priest who might emerge promising a brave new world—if only his path to clarity and truth is followed. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to temper the intemperate and to tame the perverse temptation that lurks within.”

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Making sense of religion, science, and morality

Here’s an interesting discussion. And unlike many in this area – one that makes a lot of sense. Perhaps it’s because the participants are all non-theists so are not encumbered with ideological baggage.

Atheists On Religion, Science, And Morality (The Point)

The discussion is between Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine, Theoretical Physicist Sean Carroll, and Edward Falzon (author of the parody Being Gay Is Disgusting). There are also brief video inputs from James Randi, PZ Myers, and AJ Johnson.

Thanks to Friendly Atheist: A Panel of Atheists Discuss Religion, Science, and Morality.

A silver lining to Expelled?

Readers are probably aware of the nasty little creationist/intelligent design film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Despite all the fanfare suggesting it was coming to a church hall or basement near you sometime soon it seemed to drop out of existence.

Perhaps that is why the company that produced the film has gone bankrupt. And the film itself, together with its assets, is to be auctioned off any day now.

I thought that would be the end of the sorry little affair. But no – there may be a silver lining – depending on who the final buyers are.

PZ Myers reports that Talk Origins, the people from Panda’s Thumb, are making a bid to buy it. That seems weird.

But think about it. Expelled misrepresented some important people like Myers, Richard Dawkins, Eugenie Scott, Michael Shermer and so on. These people were interviewed extensively on evolutionary science, science in general and intelligent design. However, only short clips, heavily edited to produce a misleading impression, were included in the film.

Expelled – The Uncut Interviews

So if Talk Origins wins the bidding they will have access to the full interviews. As Talk Origins suggests:

“The auction promises that besides all available rights and interests in the finished film itself (there is an existing distribution contract), the winner will get all the production materials and rights to them. Want to know what was in the rest of the interviews with Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers? I know I would like to have that material archived and made available to the public, among other things that Premise Media found inconvenient to include in their film.”

Anyone who has watched the uncut interviews available from the Richard Dawkins Foundation will appreciate the possibilities. These are interviews used initially to produce BBC films documentaries like The Root of All Evil?, The Enemies of Reason , The Genius of Charles Darwin and others.

So I look forward to a new series of documentaries – Expelled – The Uncut Interviews. Just imagine, not only will we get an interesting and extensive interview of each person (Myers says his interview last 3 hours!). But as an extra, if the clip used in the film is also included we will get to see examples of how creationists quote mine scientists.

Thanks to PZ Myers: I think the creationists would rather just forget about Expelled.

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Converting beliefs to “truths”

Michael Shermer‘s latest book looks interesting – The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths.

Chris Mooney interviews him about the book in the latest Point of Inquiry podcast (see Point of Inquiry or  download the MP3).

Shermer’s thesis is that with humans belief comes first – then we look of evidence to support that belief. I have often made the same claim – we are a rationalising species, not a rational one. There are good evolutionary reasons for this.

At first sight this seems a rather pessimistic thesis for a scientist and sceptic. However, in the book Shermer deals with the tools that science offers for overcoming this problem. For approaching a more objective knowledge of reality. He asserts that science is unique in this.

I have managed to get a copy and look forward to reading it.

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“Other ways of knowing” purpose?

A recent panel discussion in Mexico debated the question “Does the universe have a purpose?” The speakers for the affirmative were Rabbi David Wolpe, William Lane Craig and Douglas Geivett. And for the negative Matt Ridley, Michael Shermer and Richard Dawkins.

I don’t think the discussion was very good. Contributions were short and the original video is in Spanish. It’s also full of hoopla. Reminds we of an international scientific congress I attended in Mexico some time ago. All the official meetings involved many young women as decoration. And the Mexicans are certainly a very musical people. Music was everywhere.

However, I have included a video below of the short contribution made by Richard Dawkins in this discussion. It gives an idea of the issues discussed:

Prof.Richard Dawkins destroys Dr.William Lane C…, posted with vodpod

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Religion in the public square

Or do I mean irreligion in the public square? Same thing really.

I refer to the open discussion of religious ideas in the “public square.” That means ideas can be put up for consideration and subjected to open support or criticism. The same as our ideas on politics and sport. I am using the dictionary, not literal, definition of “public square” as “relating to or concerning the people at large or all members of a community.”

Don’t we already do that? Yes, I agree. But some people are unhappy about it. There is an idea around that religion doesn’t get a fair go. That it should be able to promote its claims and ideas without being subjected to criticism. The United Nations has passed a resolution against the “defamation of religion”. Ireland has reintroduced a blasphemy law. You get the picture.

militant atheists

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Quantum Gods

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Book Review: Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness, by Victor Stenger
US$26.98
ISBN-10: 1591027136
Published May 12, 2009
Prometheus Books.

There’s something about modern physics, especially quantum mechanics, which attracts magical thinking. Perhaps this isn’t surprising. Someone once said that because quantum mechanics is so counter-intuitive, because no one really understands it, it’s easy to fall into the trap of using it to “explain” anything else we don’t understand. Consciousness is a prime example.

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The Bain illusion

Cover via Amazon

The recent media discussion of the “I shot the prick” is rather distasteful. That’s the discussion about a “hidden message” in the recording of David Bain‘s emergency phone call on the day his family was murdered.

Whether or not this should have been submitted as evidence during the trial there is no doubt that the interpretation is highly imaginative. Trouble is with these sort of things, once you are told what the alleged “hidden message” is there is no way you are not going to hear it. We are all very suggestible this way.

Michael Shermer describes a beautiful example of this illusion using the song Stairway to Heaven played backwards. Initially you don’t make sense of it but once you are told what the message is meant to be you can’t help hear hear demonic lyrics. He describes this phenomena, and other similar illusions in his TED talk “Why people believe strange things” in the video below. He also goes into this perception problem in his book Why People Believe Weird Things.

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Changing your mind

John Brockman over at the Edge website periodically poses a stimulating question to a whole range of thinkers, some of the worlds finest minds. I’m currently reading the book compiled from responses to the 2006 question: “What is your dangerous idea?” Fascinating.

The 2008 question is; “What have you changed your mind about? Why?”

As the Edge site says:

When thinking changes your mind, that’s philosophy.
When God changes your mind, that’s faith.
When facts change your mind, that’s science.

Science is based on evidence. What happens when the data change? How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?”

One hundred and sixty three contributors answered this question with relatively brief statements. They are well worth reading. I have listed extracts from a few of the contributors below. Continue reading