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Reason (and Science) for Hope

A review of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Viking, 2018, ISBN 978-0525427575). This review appeared in Science in February 2018.

Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization (book cover)

How much better can you imagine the world being than it is right now? How much worse can you imagine the world being than it is right now?

For most of us, it is easier to imagine the world going to hell in a handbasket than it is to picture some rosy future, which explains why there are far more dystopian and apocalyptic books and films than there are utopian. We can readily conjure up such incremental improvements as increased Internet bandwidth, improved automobile navigation systems, or another year added to our average lifespan. But what really gets imaginations roiling are the images of nuclear Armageddon, AI robots run amok, or terrorists mowing down pedestrians in trucks. (continue reading…)

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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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Mr. Hume: Tear. Down. This. Wall.

A Response to George Ellis’s Critique of My Defense of Moral Realism

This article appeared in Theology and Science in December 2017.

I am deeply appreciative that University of Cape Town professor George Ellis took the time to read carefully, think deeply, and respond thoughtfully to my Theology and Science paper “Scientific Naturalism: A Manifesto for Enlightenment Humanism” (August, 2017),1 itself an abbreviation of the full-throated defense of moral realism and moral progress that I present in my 2015 book, The Moral Arc.2 As a physicist he naturally reflects the methodologies of his field, wondering how a social scientist might “discover” moral laws in human nature as a physical scientist might discover natural laws in laboratory experiments. It’s a good question, as is his query: “Is it possible to say in some absolute sense that specific acts, such as the large scale massacres of the Holocaust, are evil in an absolute sense?”

Pace Abraham Lincoln, who famously said “If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong,”3 I hereby declare in an unequivocal defense of moral realism:

If the Holocaust is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.

Since Professor Ellis is a physicist, let me approach this defense of moral realism from the perspective of a physical scientist. It is my hypothesis that in the same way that Galileo and Newton discovered physical laws and principles about the natural world that really are out there, so too have social scientists discovered moral laws and principles about human nature and society that really do exist. Just as it was inevitable that the astronomer Johannes Kepler would discover that planets have elliptical orbits—given that he was making accurate astronomical measurements, and given that planets really do travel in elliptical orbits, he could hardly have discovered anything else—scientists studying political, economic, social, and moral subjects will discover certain things that are true in these fields of inquiry. For example, that democracies are better than autocracies, that market economies are superior to command economies, that torture and the death penalty do not curb crime, that burning women as witches is a fallacious idea, that women are not too weak and emotional to run companies or countries, and, most poignantly here, that blacks do not like being enslaved and that the Jews do not want to be exterminated. Why? […]

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Postmodernism vs. Science

The roots of the current campus madness

Scientific American (cover)

In a 1946 essay in the London Tribune entitled “In Front of Your Nose,” George Orwell noted that “we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”

The intellectual battlefields today are on college campuses, where students’ deep convictions about race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation and their social justice antipathy toward capitalism, imperialism, racism, white privilege, misogyny and “cissexist heteropatriarchy” have bumped up against the reality of contradictory facts and opposing views, leading to campus chaos and even violence. Students at the University of California, Berkeley, and outside agitators, for example, rioted at the mere mention that conservative firebrands Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter had been invited to speak (in the end, they never did). Middlebury College students physically attacked libertarian author Charles Murray and his liberal host, professor Allison Stanger, pulling her hair, twisting her neck and sending her to the ER. (continue reading…)

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Giving the Devil His Due

Why Freedom of Inquiry in Science and Politics is Inviolable

This article appeared in the Journal of Criminal Justice in May 2017.

In the 1990s I undertook an extensive analysis of the Holocaust and those who deny it that culminated in Denying History, a book I coauthored with Alex Grobman (Shermer & Grobman, 2000). Alex and I are both civil libertarians who believe strongly that the right to speak one’s mind is fundamental to a free society, so we were surprised to discover that Holocaust denial is primarily an American phenomenon for the simple reason that America is one of the few countries where it is legal to doubt the Holocaust. Legal? Where (and why) on Earth would it be illegal? In Canada, for starters, where there are “anti-hate” statutes and laws against spreading “false news” that have been applied to Holocaust deniers. In Austria it is a crime if a person “denies, grossly trivializes, approves or seeks to justify the national socialist genocide or other national socialist crimes against humanity.” In France it is illegal to challenge the existence of “crimes against humanity” as they were defined by the Military Tribunal at Nuremberg “or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated.” The “Race Relations Act” in Great Britain forbids racially charged speech “not only when it is likely to lead to violence, but generally, on the grounds that members of minority races should be protected from racial insults.” Switzerland, Belgium, Israel, Italy, New Zealand, and Sweden have all passed similar laws (Douglas, 1996). In 1989 the New South Wales parliament in Australia passed the “Anti-Discrimination Act” that includes these chilling passages, Orwellian in their implications: (continue reading…)

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