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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.

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13 Comments

  1. Francisco says:

    Excellent answer.

  2. Will Cooper says:

    Dr. Shermer,

    You wrote: “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.”

    I agree that the “moral emotions and behaviors” arose through evolutionary biology, whether the process involved individual or group selection and that we created morals.

    There is a conceptual leap, however, from these products of evolutionary history to the moral precepts or deontological ethics we derive from them. How do humans determine whether morals are true? For instance, take the statements, “Murder is immoral” and “You shall not murder.” How do we bridge the gap between our feeling that such behavior is wrong, heinous, or unfair and the proscription, “You shall not murder”? How do we proceed from the specific too the universal? The theists take the position that God commanded such and such; therefore it by its origin is universally true. Of course Plato delivered a fatal blow to the Divine Command Theory in the Euthyphro.

    What I’m getting at is that one might say that the moral instinct is objective, because we can observe feelings and behaviors that accord with what we believe to be right. However, morals themselves are cognitions. We can observe that we have them and codify them in laws and so forth. The question is, how can we assert them to be true (or false). Their validity is surely not “objective.”

    So when you write, “It’s true, some atheists and secularists do reject the objectivity of morality and human rights, but I am not one of them,” I wonder on what basis you think that morals are objective, as opposed to the ancestral feelings and behaviors that we agree give rise to them.

    An excellent article, as always.

  3. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    It seems to me that Dr Schermer enjoys arguing with religious folk… even if it is the same argument over and over but dressed up differently.

    I maintain that ‘science’ can only be applied to natural phenomena and is ill equipped to study human phenomena*. My rule of thumb, which I teach my students, is: the less it has to do with matter & energy (and their closely related phenomena) the more it is opinion/speculation and not science. Also, the majority of these ‘scientific’ statements about _human_ things (e.g. good & bad, morality, honor integrity, love) are old ideas in new clothes.

    *Since science has no way to detect or measure these most interesting aspects of humanity, we redefine words, like ‘honor’, to refer to things we _can_ measure and study … but sadly almost no one would recognize that new thing as what people usually call ‘honor.’

    You see, brainwaves aren’t ‘thought’ and heart beats aren’t ‘love’ – no more than charm quarks make one ‘charming.’

  4. BillG says:

    Thank “GOD” we don’t get our morals from religion;)

  5. Marvin Doolin, Jr. says:

    BillG – Amen!

  6. Sam Jamison says:

    I agree that morality is objective and can be measured by science just like any other evolutionary trait.

  7. Jack boy G says:

    Science “measuring” morality?
    While morality may generally be “objective”, it is also subjective due to
    each human beings unique individual brain-waves.
    How can we quantify “brain waves” and get unique “repeatable” results?
    How can genes be selfish and moral at the same time, Dr. Dawkins?

  8. Ugo Corda says:

    There are “objective” human feelings connected with evolution, like distrust for individuals not belonging to the same tribe, hate for individuals not sharing the same sexual orientation, etc. which modern societies consider immoral. Sadists and psychopaths are also the “objective” result of evolution (even though they are usually a minority within a given population) and their actions are also usually considered immoral. So selecting from evolution those values that coincide with our common moral code is just cherry picking at the service of a predetermined conclusion.

    I belong to “those atheists and secularists who reject the objectivity of morality and human rights”. David Hume’s basic distinction between “is” and “ought” is, in my view, still completely valid.

  9. Gary Whittenberger says:

    GW: This essay is another brilliant rebuttal of a weak objection.

    “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.”

    GW: I agree with this, but I don’t think it goes far enough. There are different moralities or moral systems and some of them are incompatible or contradictory. However, there can be a single Correct Universal Morality (CUE) developed through the consensus of moral experts all using reason. This is what we need to work on.

    “In the same way that evolution transcends culture, morality and ethics transcend culture, inasmuch as the latter are direct products of the former.”

    GW: Well said!

  10. Gary Whittenberger says:

    Response to #2

    “The question is, how can we assert them to be true (or false). Their validity is surely not “objective.””

    Moral propositions can be neither true nor false since they are not descriptions. However, they can be correct or incorrect. A moral proposition in the form of a “should” statement can be shown to be correct by rationally showing that it maximizes the survival, well being, and advancement of humanity, in comparison with competing propositions. Such conclusions can be viewed as objective in a nonconventional sense, if they are the products of a consensus of moral experts using reason.

  11. Illya Zubaryev says:

    That is a wonderful response to a question many deem unanswerable. One might argue this is a different “objectivity” than in the hard sciences traditionally, but alas, we have no alternative word (yet). It is exactly in line with what Sam Harris speaks about in relation to “objective moral truth”. I wish we had more people who could agree with this and move on to actually work on human progress.

  12. Grammatikós says:

    ‘ “When I use a word,”Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” ‘

    Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass (1871)

    Michael Schremer suggests that evolution transcends culture and that moral and ethics also transcend culture as they are shaped by cultural evolution. I started thinking about the role of language in all this and here are some questions of which I think that they’re relevant to the discussion.

    In how far is language a product of evolution?

    Given that language is also a product of human conscience, can a parallel be drawn between morality and ethics and a performance/competence dichotomy in language?

    Is there an objective grammar outside the relativist cultural framework (Universal Grammar)?

    Therefore, does grammar transcend the linguistic performance?

    Is there an objective moral and ethical competence?

    Or is it all performance in constant evolution?

    I do not pretend to know the answers and I hope that they can serve as an inspiration for future debate. Also, I beg pardon if there is anything that is rooted in misunderstanding or may cause confusion.

    It is our minds that give a meaning to things and we create concepts. We give them names and definitions. Morality and ethics depend on the very same definitions that we give to the phenomena that they encompass.

    I am not Saussure if there is any good in these thoughts, but they’re definitely well meant. For sure, their significance can be called into question. May Chomsky be with you.

  13. Johannes Iemke "Hans" Bakker says:

    The issues raised here are very complex. It is easy to get lost in semantic and pragmatic (in the linguistic sense of pragmatic) confusion. I will focus on the notion of a Universal Grammar (UG) that Grammatikos (Grammatikós) raises. It is not clear what a UG would look like, but it is perfectly clear that the 6,000 or so known languages (in the common sense version of that word, e.g. Arabic, English, French, Russian, Mandarin, Latin, Ancient Greek, etc.) exhibit clear patterns. But we distinguish among language families. I know a bit of Bahasa Indonesia (i.e. advanced intermediate level) and that language is part of the Austro-Oceanic Language family. (It used to often be called the Malayo-Polynesian.) In Indonesian the pronoun “ia” [eee-aah] can mean either he or she. In other words, there is no distinction between a male/masculine/cismale person and a female/feminine/cisfemale person. My students often got the English pronouns he and she mixed up and would refer to a person who to all intents and purposes was a “man” and not a “woman” as “she”. (This had nothing to do with LGBTQ+ concerns.) So the conclusion I draw from this is that there is nothing universal about gendered use of pronouns. (This has been important to me ever since Jordan Peterson raised a bit of a stir about the issue in Toronto.) How does this relate to the general notion that there may be a UG? I would say that if a UG were ever discovered it would not be a simple, straight-forward, common sense kind of grammar. When I try to read linguistics journals I realize that I am in over my head. Similarly, when I read bio-chemistry or genetics journals I only get a bit of what is being argued. (It can be valuable to get an inkling of course, but that is not the same as really knowing the subtle nuances.) So would that not mean we would have to side with Erasmus against Luther and claim that at some level the really natural science or social science generalizations about a topic like a UG would require a high level of skill and education? Contrary to Luther’s idea that “everyone” can read and interpret Tanakh or the New Testament I would submit that even someone like James Kugel (a noted Hebrew scholar) may not get it right 100% of the time. (He argues that even the very first commentators may not have gotten it right!) Certain kinds of ethical and moral questions are fairly easy to settle. I am 100% against first degree murder. But if we then think of World War II we have to balance the geopolitical interests of various factions and nation-states. Were the Amish and others morally right in not being willing to fight alongside the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. against the Fascists? I think so. But when I read about the critiques of the legal basis for the Nuremberg trials I start to wonder if I can really, really justify my beliefs in a final and decisive manner. The key is the clear truth that human beings are fallible and that even the good guys and gals make tragic mistakes. Nuremberg did not touch on Dresden or Hiroshima. So it may be that it comes down to what C. S. Peirce wisely called Pragmaticism (to distinguish the approach from William James’ adaptation: “Pragmatism” as understood circa 1900). I merely toss out these thoughts spontaneously. But I am essentially arguing that even if a Wissenschaftliches approach could result in some kind of 100% clear and definitive results, the idea that they were not subject to further challenge would not only be “un-scientific” but significantly removed from everyday life kinds of conversations and the loose language of popular trade books of the kind Jordan Peterson has become famous for. If there is a Universal Morality along the lines of a UG then we would have to rely on “the experts” and that in itself becomes problematic given all we know about how paradigms tend to have a life of their own. The Popper-Kuhn-Feyerabend literature would come into play. Once again: I am merely tossing out some ideas and thoughts. I may very well be wrong in my basic assumptions. I have been wrong before. As Gandhi said: life is a series of experiments with truth and Truth.

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