The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

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Alvy’s Error and the Meaning of Life

Science reveals our deepest purpose

Scientific American (cover)

In a flashback scene in the 1977 film Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer is a depressed young boy who won’t do his homework because, as he explains to his doctor: “The universe is expanding…. Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart, and that will be the end of everything.” His exasperated mother upbraids the youth: “What has the universe got to do with it?! You’re here in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding!”

Call it “Alvy’s Error”: assessing the purpose of something at the wrong level of analysis. The level at which we should assess our actions is the human timescale of days, weeks, months and years—our life span of fourscore plus or minus 10—not the billions of years of the cosmic calendar. It is a mistake made by theologians when arguing that without a source external to our world to vouchsafe morality and meaning, nothing really matters.

One of the most prominent theologians of our time, William Lane Craig, committed Alvy’s Error in a 2009 debate at Columbia University with Yale University philosopher Shelly Kagan when he pronounced: “On a naturalistic worldview, everything is ultimately destined to destruction in the heat death of the universe. As the universe expands, it grows colder and colder as its energy is used up. Eventually all the stars will burn out, all matter will collapse into dead stars and black holes, there will be no life, no heat, no light—only the corpses of dead stars and galaxies expanding into endless darkness. In light of that end, it’s hard for me to understand how our moral choices have any sort of significance. There’s no moral accountability. The universe is neither better nor worse for what we do. Our moral lives become vacuous because they don’t have that kind of cosmic significance.” (continue reading…)

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Are We All Racists?

Private thoughts and public acts

Scientific American (cover)

Novelists often offer deep insights into the human psyche that take psychologists years to test. In his 1864 Notes from Underground, for example, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky observed: “Every man has reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone, but only to his friends. He has other matters in his mind which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind.”

Intuitively, the observation rings true, but is it true experimentally? Twenty years ago social psychologists Anthony Greenwald, Mahzarin Banaji and Brian Nosek developed an instrument called the Implicit Association Test (IAT) that, they claimed, can read the innermost thoughts that you are afraid to tell even yourself. And those thoughts appear to be dark and prejudiced: we favor white over black, young over old, thin over fat, straight over gay, able over disabled, and more. (continue reading…)

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If There is No God, is Murder Wrong?

On the popular online site Prager University, the conservative radio talk show host Dennis Prager recently posted the video “If there is no God, Murder Isn’t Wrong.”

Nearly two million people have heard his argument that without God, anything goes.

I’ve known Dennis for many years and have been a guest on his show a number of times. He’s a smart guy, and we agree on many issues, but on this one I think he is wrong.

Prager’s belief that without God there can be no objective morality is, in fact, a common one many people hold. It’s wrong for 4 reasons.

1. Divine Command Theory is Fallible

The argument that our morals come from God is what philosophers and theologians call Divine Command Theory, well captured by the popular bumper sticker:

God said it. I believe it. That settles it.

This argument was refuted 2500 years ago by the Greek philosopher Plato, when he asked, in so many words:

“Is what is morally right or wrong commanded by God because it is inherently right or wrong, or is it morally right or wrong only because it is commanded by God?”

For example, if murder is wrong because God said it is wrong, what if He said it was okay? Would that make murder right? Of course not! (continue reading…)

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Michael Shermer in Reasons to Believe

Reasons to Believe is a thought-provoking documentary by filmmaker Ben Fama Jr., that explores the psychology and science of belief and why we believe, sometimes falsely, in things that may not match up with reality. Facilitated by leaders in the fields of science, philosophy, neuroscience, moral reasoning, psychology, perception, memory formation, and indoctrination, these experts answer a variety of thought provoking questions and provide tangible structure to the definition and creation of belief in the human brain. Fama asks the question: Why do we believe?

Starring: Michael Shermer, Peter Boghossian, Jennifer Whitson, Caleb Lack and Chad Woodruff. Official website

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Michael Shermer and Dave Rubin: Skepticism & Conspiracy Theories

Michael Shermer (author, skeptic) and Dave Rubin discuss skepticism, morality, conspiracy theories, political issues like gun control, abortion, libertarianism, and more.

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