The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

A Pathway to Objective Morality:
Why the Case for Scientific Humanism is Rational

In response to my January, 2019 column (“Stein’s Law and Science’s Mission: The Case for Scientific Humanism”), California State University historian Richard Weikart, who is also a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture (an Intelligent Design creationism advocacy organization), has written a critique in which he claims “Michael Shermer once again confuses science with atheism, and inexplicably claims that science can support humanism.” He says that I try “to rewrite history by insisting that science is built on atheist assumptions.” Even though I never mention atheism, in the following passage from my column Weikart says “scientific naturalism as defined here is atheism.” Judge for yourself:

Modern science arose in the 16th and 17th centuries following the Scientific Revolution and the adoption of scientific naturalism, or the belief that the world is governed by natural laws and forces that are knowable, that all phenomena are part of nature and can be explained by natural causes, and that human cognitive, social, and moral phenomena are no less a part of that comprehensible world.

Atheism is simply the lack of belief in a God. Full stop. It is not a worldview, paradigm, or ideology. Most atheists, of course, embrace scientific naturalism as I’ve defined it, but so do many modern theists such as the renowned geneticist and Director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, whom Weikart says would not accept “this atheistic definition of science.” On the contrary, I know Dr. Collins and include our dialogue on this very topic in my book The Believing Brain (2011, Henry Holt) in which he reiterates his rejection of Intelligent Design creationism (his book The Language of God is one of the best refutations of all forms of creationism) and affirms his commitment to scientific naturalism without an underlying atheist assumption. On the evolution of the moral sense, for example, Collins told me “that wouldn’t rule out that God planned it, since for a theistic evolutionist like myself, evolution was God’s awesome plan for all creation. If God’s plan could give rise to toenails and temporal lobes, why not also a moral sense?” As Collins defined it in a 2006 article in Nature titled “Building Bridges”, theistic evolution is the position that “evolution is real, but that it was … set in motion by God.”

Weikart goes on to declare that Thomas Jefferson (along with John Locke) would reject my column’s thesis that “Human progress…has principally been the result of the application of scientific naturalism to solving problems, from engineering bridges and eradicating diseases to extending lifespans and expanding rights.” In support, Weikart quotes Jefferson’s famous passage from the Declaration of Independence, in which the sage of Monticello asserted the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In point of fact, this passage is a reflection of Enlightenment reason, not religious faith. In his biography of Benjamin Franklin, Walter Isaacson recounts the story of how the term “self-evident” came to be added by Franklin to Jefferson’s original draft, on Friday, June 21, 1776:

The most important of his edits was small but resounding. He crossed out, using heavy backslashes that he often employed, the last three words of Jefferson’s phrase, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” and changed them to the words now enshrined in history: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

The idea of “self-evident” truths was one that drew less on John Locke, who was Jefferson’s favored philosopher, than on the scientific determinism espoused by Isaac Newton and on the analytic empiricism of Franklin’s close friend David Hume. In what became known as “Hume’s fork,” the great Scottish philosopher, along with Leibniz and others, had developed a theory that distinguished between synthetic truths that describe matters of fact (such as “London is bigger than Philadelphia”) and analytic truths that are self-evident by virtue of reason and definition (“The angles of a triangle equal 180 degrees”; “All bachelors are unmarried.”) By using the word “sacred,” Jefferson had asserted, intentionally or not, that the principle in question—the equality of men and their endowment by their creator with inalienable rights—was an assertion of religion. Franklin’s edit turned it instead into an assertion of rationality.

As for Jefferson’s declaration that “All men are created equal,” far from religion or the Bible being the source of this greatest of all moral precepts, Jefferson explained its inspiration a half century after he wrote it, in a letter to Henry Lee in 1825: “Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.”

Finally, Weikart asserts that my fellow atheists and secularists “have argued that science and/or atheism undermines all objective morality and human rights,” noting that: “Harvard biology professor E.O. Wilson, in an article co-authored with philosopher Michael Ruse, stated, ‘Ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to co-operate.’ Wilson, and many other like-minded scientists, present science as undermining morality and human rights, not providing a foundation for them.”

It’s true, some atheists and secularists do reject the objectivity of morality and human rights, but I am not one of them. In his 1998 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (Knopf), E.O. Wilson outlines the problem this way: “Either ethical precepts, such as justice and human rights, are independent of human experience or else they are human inventions.” On the one side, says Wilson, are the transcendentalists, “who think that moral guidelines exist outside the human mind.” On the other side are the empiricists, “who think them contrivances of the mind.” Wilson is an empiricist: “I believe in the independence of moral values, whether from God or not, and I believe that moral values come from human beings alone, whether or not God exists.” I propose a both-and consilience of transcendentalism and empiricism. How?

Morality is objective in the sense that it exists outside any one human’s mind or any one culture, but instead belongs to all of humanity. Natural selection created the moral emotions and their concomitant behaviors over millions of years of primate evolution, so that today even though we agree that humans created morality and ethics (and thus we are empiricists), it is not us who created the moral emotions and behaviors, it was the forces of evolution acting on our Paleolithic ancestors who created them during those long gone millennia. We inherit them, fine tune and tweak them according to our cultural contexts, and apply them within our unique historical circumstances. In this sense, the moral emotions and behaviors exist beyond us, as products of an impersonal force called evolution. In the same way that evolution transcends culture, morality and ethics transcend culture, inasmuch as the latter are direct products of the former.

Thus, it seems rational to be both a transcendentalist and an empiricist. Call it transcendent empiricism. Transcendent empiricism avoids supernaturalism (e.g., Divine Command Theory) as an explanation of morality, and yet grounds morality on something other than the relativism of culturally-determined ethics. It has the added advantage of being a testable hypothesis in the same way that any evolutionary trait might be subject to the scrutiny of empirical science. Thus, transcendent empiricism affords us a pathway toward an objective morality. END

About the Author

Dr. Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American and a presidential fellow at Chapman University. His latest book is Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia.

For those seeking a sound scientific viewpoint


Be in the know!

Subscribe to eSkeptic: our free email newsletter and get great podcasts, videos, reviews and articles from Skeptic magazine, announcements, and more in your inbox once or twice a week.

Sign me up!

Copyright © 1992–2022. All rights reserved. | P.O. Box 338 | Altadena, CA, 91001 | 1-805-576-9396. The Skeptics Society is a non-profit, member-supported 501(c)(3) organization (ID # 95-4550781) whose mission is to promote science & reason. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases. Privacy Policy.