Michael Shermer and the moral arc of libertarianism

img_0265by Massimo Pigliucci

Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer has gotten onto the same “science can determine moral values” bandwagon as other scientistically-minded writers such as Sam Harris. But this commentary isn’t directly about Shermer’s latest book [1], and even less about Harris (about whose ideas I’ve written more than enough [2]). Rather, it concerns a more specific claim about science-driven moral progress made by Michael in a recent article that appeared in the libertarian Reason magazine, entitled “Are We Becoming Morally Smarter? The connection between increasing IQs, decreasing violence, and economic liberalism” [3]. The piece is an interesting mix of good points, good reasoning, bad points, and bad reasoning. I am going to try to sort things out in the interest of stimulating further discussion.

Shermer begins by talking about the famous (and still poorly understood) “Flynn effect” [4] the observation that IQ test scores, when non standardized to the population average, have increased by two standard deviations throughout the 20th century: we have become “smarter.” Of course, one has to buy into the idea that IQ tests actually measure “intelligence,” or that the latter is even a sufficiently coherent concept to be quantified effectively. But for the sake of the argument, let’s say that cultural evolution (obviously, as Shermer himself readily acknowledges, this has nothing to do with biological evolution) has made it so that people are getting better at scoring high on a certain class of standardized test that has something to do with intelligence, at the least when the latter is understood in certain ways.

The controversy really heats up when we move from the observation of the Flynn effect to what it means and what is causing it. Shermer quotes Flynn himself as attributing “the effect to an accelerating capacity for people to view the world through ‘scientific spectacles.’” I’m not sure what that means, but the publisher of Skeptic magazine should be cautious about this sort of conclusion. If people really have increasingly been donning scientific spectacles during the past several decades, wouldn’t we expect, say, a correspondingly decreasing degree of acceptance of anti-scientific notions? Alas, this is clearly not the case, as demonstrated by repeated Gallup and NSF surveys about Americans’ beliefs in ghosts, telepathy, creationism, and so forth. These beliefs have been holding steady for decades, Flynn effect be damned.

Shermer (and Flynn) shift into an even more speculative mood immediately afterwards: “Flynn and his colleague William Dickens suggest that the increases in reasoning abilities may have started centuries ago with the industrial revolution, which required certain cognitive abilities not needed in a predominantly agricultural society.” It’s too bad we don’t have data on IQ going back to before the industrial revolution, though I seriously doubt that the history of humanity until that point had been characterized by low cognitive abilities. More likely than not, the Flynn effect is part artifice (because of substantial problems with the whole idea of IQ testing) and part the result that more people have become educated in certain ways of thinking, exactly those ways (not at all by coincidence) that lead to high scores on IQ tests. None of this is a bad thing, mind you, but grand claims about historical levels of intelligence ought to be tempered by the utter lack of corresponding historical data.

In the last paragraph of the first section of the article, Shermer tells us where he wants to go next, and why he began by talking about the Flynn effect: “Our improved ability to reason abstractly may also be the result of the spread of scientific thinking — reason, rationality, empiricism, skepticism. Thinking like a scientist means employing all our faculties to overcome our emotional, subjective, and instinctual brains to better understand the true nature of not only the physical and biological worlds, but the social world (politics and economics) and the moral world.”

Notice a few preliminary points, before we get to the meat of Michael’s argument: i) the assumed equation of scientific thinking with “reason, rationality, empiricism, skepticism,” as if these were inventions of the scientific revolution, rather than some of the very attitudes that contributed to make the scientific revolution possible; ii) the artificial, and both philosophically and scientifically flawed, opposition of reason and emotion, where of course the latter is bad, the former is unquestionably good, David Hume (and modern neuroscience) be damned; iii) the overt suggestion that scientific thinking leads to moral development. The latter is the true main focus of the rest of the article.

At the beginning of the next section, Shermer tells us that “since the Enlightenment, humans have demonstrated dramatic moral progress. … Liberal democracies are now the dominant form of governance, systematically replacing the autocracies and theocracies of centuries past.” Broadly speaking, this is true, though it’s not like moral progress began with the Enlightenment. As for the triumph of liberal democracies, let us temper our enthusiasm just a little bit, as data show that out of 167 countries only 25 are characterized by “full democracies,” while in another 54 democracy is “flawed,” 37 more have hybrid regimes, and another 51 have authoritarian ones [5]. Still, there has been (qualified) progress, though the full democracies are still found only in Western Europe and North America (and if you ask me, they are pretty flawed).

“Abstract reasoning and scientific thinking are the crucial cognitive skills at the foundation of all morality. Consider the mental rotation required to implement the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” says Shermer. But presenting the Golden Rule (obviously a much more ancient moral principle than the scientific revolution, as Michael admits) in pseudo-mathematical terms like “mental rotation” makes it sound “sciency” without any particular scientific reason behind it (doesn’t that ability to see things from other people’s perspective have to do with the function of mirror neurons and the emotional capacity we have for empathy rather than with geometrical exercises?).

It is also highly doubtful, indeed, it goes against everything we know about evolution, that the foundation of all morality is abstract reasoning, and even less so “scientific” thinking. Research by primatologist Frans de Waal and others [6] has long showed that moral instincts are present in other social primates, and that that is where we get the foundation for our morality. Of course, abstract reasoning is necessary for anything like the sort of language-articulated, sophisticated thinking about morality that people have exhibited since at the least the ancient Greeks, but that’s not foundational to morality itself. And, it should go without saying, we have engaged in moral thinking long before anything like science came along. The fact that more people accept sophisticated moral reasoning (though, not nearly as much, or as many people, as we would like, given recent events) is likely due to the spread of those ideas via mass education, and of course to the prolonged, sometimes violent, struggle on the ground that has forced people in power to accept, say, equal rights for women and blacks (at the least in theory). Or do we want to argue that the good people of Alabama bought into civil rights in the ‘60s because they became scientifically literate?

Shermer continues: “As Enlightenment philosophers and scholars consciously adopted the methods of science to establish such abstract concepts as rights, liberty, and justice, successive generations have become schooled in thinking of these abstractions as applied to others in matrices-like mental rotations.” I don’t know which history books Michael has been reading lately, but that’s not how I understand what happened during the Enlightenment. I don’t remember Voltaire, Diderot, or Hume doing scientific experiments or observations in order to establish the abstract concepts of rights, liberty and justice. To begin with, those concepts were known and debated for many centuries before the Enlightenment; moreover, it was a great educational (remember the Encyclopédie?), literary (Voltaire’s Candide, for instance), and philosophical (Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding) effort that characterized the intellectual vibrancy of the period. Science didn’t enter into it, though of course the scientific revolution was already in full swing, reaping the benefits of that earlier rekindling of human thought not at all casually known as the Renaissance.

The next section in Shermer’s article deals with the (scientific) evidence backing up his thesis. The evidence he refers to is indeed interesting, but it is altogether unclear why he thinks it supports his own particular view of things.

Here is a taste: “Numerous studies from the 1980s onward, for example, find that intelligence and education are negatively correlated with violent crime … correlation between literacy and moral reasoning, most particularly between reading fiction and being able to take the perspective of others … A 2013 study by the psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano explored the causal relationship between reading high-quality literary fiction and the ability to take the perspective of others.”

Interesting stuff, but notice that the mentioned correlation is between reading literature (i.e., fiction) and ability to take others’ perspective. Could it be that a liberal arts education, rather than specifically a scientific one, is more relevant, or at the least one of the crucial factors at play?

Shermer then moves closer to his real target: “among 20,000 young adults there was a positive correlation between IQ and liberalism. Data from the General Social Survey clarified the link in noting that the correlation involves classical liberalism of the Enlightenment kind, in which smarter people were less likely to agree that the government should redistribute income from the rich to the poor.”

Ah yes, smarter people lean libertarian! But of course this is very likely an artifact of the fact that the survey in question was conducted in the United States, where Ayn Rand’s novels are still, bafflingly, best sellers among the young. Do the same survey in Sweden, say, and you’ll likely get that intelligent people favor social democracies. Heck, do it in China and I’m sure the smartest will favor a hybrid capitalist/autocratic system. And so on.

Shermer mentions psychologist Ian Deary as saying that “Bright Children Become Enlightened Adults,” where by “‘enlightened,’ Deary meant the values that came directly from the Enlightenment, the definition for which he adopted from the Concise Oxford Dictionary: ‘a philosophy emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition.’” So now Voltaire was a libertarian? Perhaps one should consult an historian of the Enlightenment, rather than a concise dictionary, as prestigious as the Oxford is.

And there is more: “the economists Bryan Caplan and Stephen Miller culled data from the General Social Survey and published an article in a 2010 issue of the journal Intelligence tellingly titled ‘Intelligence Makes People Think Like Economists.’” Well, naturally, just like Aristotle thought that the highest occupation for a human being is philosophizing (hint: he was a philosopher). And never mind that certain aspects of economics have an abysmal record as a science, and any intelligent person ought to be weary of whatever comes from the keyboard of an economist (particularly one with a political agenda, as most of them seem to have).

Here is an interesting study cited by Shermer: “the German psychologist Heiner Rindermann ran correlational studies on a number of data sets from many different countries, examining their average scores on popular intelligence tests and measures of academic achievement from the period 1960 to 1972. Rindermann found that intelligence scores predicted the level of prosperity, democracy, and rule of law found in those countries in the subsequent period 1991 to 2003 — even when controlling for the country’s prior level of prosperity.” Right, but I don’t see anything in there that supports the idea that a scientific, libertarian inclined mind is responsible for prosperity. I see instead classical progressive values at work, like education (which is highly correlated with “intelligence”). It is nice to have the data, but it has been rather clear that a better educated populace means generally more open and prosperous societies. It was true in ancient Athens and during the Renaissance, it remains true today.

Michael concludes his essay by saying that “it’s hard to accept the notion that people in the early 20th century were moral idiots, two standard deviations dumber than us.” It is hard because we don’t actually have the data to back up that claim. Shermer has quickly moved from the (actual) IQ Flynn effect to the (hypothetical) “moral Flynn effect,” which has not been measured. In other words, we have seamlessly moved from (debatable) science to pure speculation.

I do agree with Michael that — since moral progress is cultural, not evolutionary — we can expect to go much further along the same lines, possibly very quickly. (Conversely, since moral progress isn’t embedded in our genetics, we can just as easily and quickly slide backwards.) But no, I don’t think that the scientific worldview has much to do with it (as good a thing as it is in itself), and I certainly don’t think that “free trade and market capitalism” are such an obvious positive that they ought to be mentioned in the same sentence as civil rights and equal treatment under the law. As for the Enlightenment, Richard Dawkins once declared himself a son of the movement. So did I, when I was 18. Then I grew up and I started seeing things in a bit more nuanced way. After all, the Enlightenment was followed by the French Revolution, which bred the Reign of Terror, which led to Napoleon. Not exactly a stellar record for the champions of reason.


Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, by M. Shermer, Henry Holt and Co., 2015

[2] Here is why I think Michael is wrong, and this is a sample of what I think about Harris’ thesis.

[3] Are We Becoming Morally Smarter? by M. Shermer, Reason, March 2015.

[4] Flynn effect, Wiki entry.

[5] Democracy Index, Wiki entry.

[6] Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved: How Morality Evolved, by F. de Waal, Princeton University Press, 2006.

Categories: commentary

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90 replies

  1. Hi Massimo, that was a really nice article and its hard to think of anything to add (especially given some very thoughtful replies in support of your article). I see Shermer acknowledged it on Twitter and recommended reading his book. Do you have plans to look at/review his book?

    Given some of the comments on this thread I would be interested in seeing something directly on economics/economic theory. While I like free trade, when it is practiced completely unregulated or without a social net of some kind, it can be horrific. Proponents seem to miss that while trade might lessen strife between people (creating peace and prosperity) it ignores the fact that trade requires mutual needs/wants of some kind. The effects of indifference to the “have-nots” when they cannot provide anything the “haves” want, can be just as devastating to their lives as warfare or other direct cruelties.

    I think my only disagreement with your article might be along the lines of what DM was suggesting regarding Shermer’s use of ‘science’, or ‘scientific’. I believe I’ve seen him defend philosophy from some of the more hardcore scientism-ists. That of course does not save his ideas from the problems you (and others) have pointed out.

    Along those lines… to David Ottinger first, thanks for the link that was useful.

    “So when Shermer or Harris are confronted with a question of what is right to do they try to gather data or run experiments (conduct surveys, do nuero-science). This shows that when they say they want to think about morality scientifically they mean scientifically in the narrow sense.”

    While they might agree with your suggestion they approach moral questions with (narrow) scientific methods, I simply can’t agree. Actually it was Shermer’s first book (Science of Good & Evil) that got me worried about what was going on within the atheist/skeptic movement. Thankfully that didn’t seem to go anywhere so I stopped writing a rebuttal to it… and then Harris’s book came out which really jerked my chain. While they both use ‘science-y’ sounding terms and appeal to evidence (though they are at best correlations), I have yet to see either use actual (narrow) scientific methods to address morality.

    This is a really grave issue for me, because it undermines public understanding of both moral philosophy and scientific methodology.

    I actually like a lot of Shermer’s skeptical work, but his attempts to build a scientific (broad or narrow) world-view in support of his emotional world-view always seems to lack sufficient skepticism.

    Labnut, I’ll miss your contributions.


  2. labnut,
    Having seen the offending comment I can well understand your offense. You seem to think you are targeted as a theist in general. For myself I had no idea you were a theist (I don’t read all the comments and most of your comments aren’t about that) and I wouldn’t be surprised if that were true of many other commentators. Self-consciousness can make us exaggerate the way we are perceived. As I say I understand your irritation but consider this: we of the atheist stripe put up with far more and far more scathing attacks professing atheism in this Christian country. Many continue to do it because they believe it to be important to have an influence and be heard in the debate. Since we talk a lot about atheism in this mostly-just-us-atheists forum your presence as a theist is the more valuable. I hope your willing to take a few low minded attacks so that the rest of us can continue to have your thoughts. I hope you consider it.

    “While they both use ‘science-y’ sounding terms and appeal to evidence (though they are at best correlations), I have yet to see either use actual (narrow) scientific methods to address morality.”
    I would agree that Shermer and Harris’s methods don’t amount to real science, though they sometimes rest on real science such as neurology. My point was that they are modeled on empirical science in that they expect moral claims to be adjudicated by experiment and data gathering. This is already a step to far in modeling ethical thinking on (narrow) science because it obscures the nature of the problems and eschews moral philosophy (on this I assume we agree).


  3. Phoffman56,
    Your comment was scurrilous, disrespectful and designed to wound. I particularly dislike the way you had to hide it just enough to get it past Massimo who is working honestly to prevent such discourse. I agree with another commentor that at the least an apology is owed. The fact that you thought such a comment was appropriate tells me you seriously misunderstand the nature and spirit of this forum. Current my own advice I will not presume to tell Massimo what to do on his forum. But I know what I would do in his situation.


  4. labnut, your analysis is pretty much correct, but – if I may – you draw the wrong conclusions from it. Yes, SciSal has “inherited” a largely atheist/skeptic audience from Rationally Speaking, but it should have been clear by a number of moves I made in recent months that my intention is to expand significantly on that core audience:

    * I have closed the RS blog and began a whole new venture, knowing that I would lose some readers in the transition, because I explicitly want to engage a broader public;

    * I have concludes my 12-year run as a columnist for Skeptical Inquirer, so that I could concentrate more on SciSal;

    * I have just announced leaving the RS podcast after five years and more than 130 episodes, for the same reason.

    And now you tell me it was all for naught? (Okay, kidding.) Keeping voices like yours and Aravis’ is crucial for this forum; just like, I hastened to say, are Coel’s and DM’s, and those of many other regulars (sorry guys, can’t name you all), representing a spectrum of ideological and cultural positions. That’s what this is all about.

    At any rate, readers, I have just acquired a new editor – we will present him shortly – to help with better moderation of comments and with further screening of submissions. Hopefully, therefore, the chances of this sort of incident will decrease even further (it really was my fault for not realizing what the well camouflaged comment by Phoffman was really about…).



  5. If labnut does chose to leave, I can take on the role of token theist, since my arguments for thermal feedback being more explanatory than temporal narrative seem to have fallen flat.
    Admittedly my bottom up, consciousness as elemental to biology, version may not fit the usual top down, paternalistic>judgmental>moralistic assumptions, but I am fairly thick skinned about it.
    Some days I veer agnostic, but then I’m much more agnostic about reality.
    Is there anyone here actually lacking conscious impulsion?


    If you chose to stay, I may not be the most respected participant, but I can take some pressure off. They need someone to keep the pot stirred.

    My last post on this thread anyway.


  6. Hi Labnut,

    On thinking about it I would ask you to reconsider your decision, if only that it seems to imply that phoffman56’s post had some sort of intellectual force, which of course it didn’t.

    The questions he attributes to this imaginary “phil prof” sound like something I would have come up with in a junior high school debate and would have probably been soundly and deservedly thrashed on their merits.

    I should hope that if any real “phil prof” who would present such poorly thought out objections would be approached and asked if he might consider a profession more suiting his talents.

    I can tell from what he said that he did not read your post properly and has not thought the matter through in the context of the attributes that God is supposed to have.

    So please, don’t leave on account of a dead-sheep savaging.


  7. Labnut, please reconsider. Your departure diminishes us. It also diminishes the cause of theism. You have created a cadre of anti-bullying supporters behind you. phoff already feels the brunt of censure.


  8. First, this by Massimo:

    Shermer (and Flynn) shift into an even more speculative mood immediately afterwards: “Flynn and his colleague William Dickens suggest that the increases in reasoning abilities may have started centuries ago with the industrial revolution, which required certain cognitive abilities not needed in a predominantly agricultural society.”

    They should know better, that biological evolution on a human brain doesn’t work that quickly. You’re totally right, in that this is a testing artifact, to fair degree. Other writers on IQ besides Flynn — but also, IIRC, Flynn himself, have written about how IQ test questions are written, etc.

    Rather, it’s likely the increased accumulation of knowledge, which is partially but not entirely due to the scientific mindset, but also due to the increased accumulation of knowledge, per Newton’s “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

    As for Hume, and not caring whether I’m tarred with somebody else’s brush of “presentism,” his racism showed that Enlightenment philosophers weren’t always so enlightened.

    Onward. Massimo then lets Shermer off lightly; he could have been easily accused, in his intelligence vs. violent crime comment, of conflating statistical and causal correlation.

    Shock me that Shermer’s final landing point is libertarianism.

    As I Tweeted him, in part: “With a nod to Wolfgang Pauli, the Moral Arc seems to be not even wrong.”

    And, with that said, I’ll confess that it’s kind of fun to kick Shermer when he engages in nuttery like this.

    That said, this is a man who has had two known racialists on the masthead of his magazine, as I describe in detail: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2010/11/is-michael-shermer-racialist.html

    And, he’s also been alleged to been part of some of the sexual harassment and more issues that have been problematic in organized skepticism.

    Sadly, articles like this, not to mention the other things, are damaging to the broader skeptical movement, as it again seems to imply that libertarianism is part of skepticism.


  9. I too would be sad to see Labnut go again. And, PHoffman’s comment on the previous essay was meant to be a chain-jerker.

    That said, contra Labnut’s claims, this is not a nearly all atheist audience. Far from it. While I haven’t seen a lot of conservative-moderate “orthodox Christians” besides you, there’s plenty of non-atheists. And non-agnostics. I at times sigh over the amount of comments we get here that are New Agey, or, if slightly less than New Agey, are its first cousin, comments of process theology.

    (Or, on this essay, sigh over one or two people who think “free trade” was written as the 11th Commandment and ignore that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” was simply his extension of the Deistic wind-up-the-universe-and-let-it run Deity.)

    With that in mind, and per Massimo’s observation, with which I agree:

    To be fair, from where I stand at the least, labnut has been dishing it about equally to the amount of receiving it, so much so that both he and others have incurred in episodes of filtering on my part.

    While I would miss reading some of your comments, I would accept your decision to move on, especially since you took a similar stance a few months ago.


    Back to Shermer.

    Per the link from my blog I posted in my first post, reposted here: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2010/11/is-michael-shermer-racialist.html
    I’m OK if anybody calls that an ad hominem, even though it’s not. It’s simply an observation that Shermer has had known racialists on the masthead of his blog. He knows that racialism has no support in the biological sciences. He also knows that it’s generally regarded as being of dubious morality.

    Thus, he undercuts his own ground on both being a prophet for the verities of science, and for his certainties about the advance of the moral arc.

    Frankly, per Brodix, Shermer strikes me as a Charles Murray run through the filter of one particular type of modern “scientific skepticism,” which does not represent all “scientific skepticism” today, let alone all modern skepticial-type thinking today (outside of true philosophical Skepticism). And per EJ, Massimo may indeed be too generous.

    Otherwise, Marko is right. Except for people who want to advance up the ranks within Shermer’s particular variety of “scientific skepticism,” he’s not worth reading.

    St. David to put it more succinctly, I say that quantum theory, the Shoah and Hiroshima have undercut Shermer’s line of moral reasoning progress. And have said that before.

    Schlafly If what you said in your first comment passes for scientific reasoning, or empirical proofs, I’ll remember not to get engaged in discussions of either with you in the future. On your second comment, I’ve heard politicians deny not only anthropogenic climate change, but the existence of it at all.

    Beyond that, Pinker (a Pop Ev Psycher galore) is no smart-thinking cup of tea himself. As I note here, Pinker undercuts himself in “Better Angels.” http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2012/01/worse-angels-of-steve-pinkers.html

    Jake That link, and other thoughts, apply to your comments, too.


  10. I erred in saying that the price floor would reduce supply. I meant to say that it would reduce quantity demanded.

    ejwinner, all mainstream economists agree that free trade is better for everyone. You only need a rudimentary understanding of economics to realize this.

    – “This kind of arguing seems basically predicated on a hidden assumption – ‘the economists I pay attention to are right, the one’s I ignore are wrong.’ I’m pretty sure that economists that you ignore would disagree with you.”

    Which ones? What economist said Smoot-Hawley was a good idea? What are some arguments in favor of barriers to trade?

    “One of the problems with economics as a field to be modeled theoretically, is that we are always in the practice of it. And unfortunately, the practice of it today can lead to the crisis of it tomorrow without anybody able to recognize it”

    This is coming from a philosophy buff. Philosophers don’t agree about anything and yet you still engage in philosophy debates. Economists agree on many of the factors involved in the financial crisis, including Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, too big to fail laws, and loose monetary policy following the 2001 recession.


    I’m sorry. I stopped reading after you agreed with John Gray. He’s a professional troll that flatters pretentious curmudgeons for a living. His anti-meliorism is, with a nod to Wolfgang Pauli, not even wrong. It’s not surprising that you agree with him, however, because you both are gadflies that have said nothing I’ve ever agreed with. But I’m just a religious imbecile so what do I know?


  11. Just a comment to say that Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Australia happen to be two full democracies outside Western Europe and the USA.


  12. labnut,

    (and I hope you are still reading) – here is the blog post I hoped to deliver you: https://nosignofit.wordpress.com/2015/02/25/can-information-theory-save-the-soul/. I will have to approve your comments (so pardon any delay), but promise to approve any comment you care to make.


    “Michael’s claim is that studies have shown an increase in performance on abstract subjects like similarities and matrices tests” – and this has what to do with morals? and this proves what about the intelligence of people in the past – or in the present for that matter? Where is the IQ ratings for Plato? Explain to me how W.E.B. Dubois or John Dewey or Emma Goldman could somehow be any less intelligent than the inarticulate libertarians who burble through the media in order to get elected today.

    You have no argument; Shermer has no argument. What Shermer has is utopian hope, Ayn Rand’s wretched novels, and pats on the back from fellow pseudo-scientists masquerading as public ‘philosophers’ who have no credentials for that claim, and no discernible insight into the social issues they address.

    Believe me, this is a real disappointment; I like Shermer’s earlier skeptical writings. But in this article – apparently in the book it is extracted from – Shermer is asking us to set aside our skepticism and buy into libertarian ideology. I’m sorry, I won’t do that – and frankly your comment sounds like the ‘denialism’ that Shermer, in his better days, once warned us against.


  13. Morning All,

    I’d like to say a word in defence of phoffman56. Yes, he did (in the last thread) refer (obliquely) to labnut‘s proposal for a “soul” as something that philosophy professors “… might regard as a goofy scenario put forth by an undergraduate …”, which is not fully polite.

    He also said that “I thought phil and psych profs had some time ago ceased taking seriously the religious uses of the word ‘soul’, except in places like Bob Jones U”, which a sincere Catholic like labnut would regard as disrespectful to his religious beliefs.

    But, it’s also fair to consider the wider context, where labnut has repeatedly on SciSal written denunciations of New Atheists and scientismists that were just as scathing. Hence Massimo’s comment about “labnut has been dishing it about equally to the amount of receiving it …”, which is true.

    The exchange between labnut and phoffman56 had actually started on the thread before that, where labnut had argued that:

    Attaching terms of opprobrium to dissenting beliefs is always a form of silencing. […] I argue for tolerance and against the use of opprobrium to silence dissenting thought.

    A couple of sentences later, though, and apparently not realising the irony, labnut had continued:

    For example, well known anti-religious bigots have hastened to apply the term ‘deluded’ to religious beliefs.

    Now, I’d chosen to just ignore labnut’s post, but phoffman56 noted various phrases including “anti-religious bigots” immediately after labnut had argued against “attaching terms of opprobrium” to “silence dissenting thought”. He referred to this as:

    ‘cover me with “tolerance” sainthood while I slander my intellectual opponents’.

    Labnut then replied (a guess, from the wording there may have been some versions of the replies that were moderated?), which included:

    I made a reasoned argument for the avoidance of the use of terms of opprobrium, like the word ‘delusional’, …

    … but not, apparently, the word “bigot”?

    Now, from my point of view as a Gnu Atheist and a scientismist (and proud of it!) I’m quite happy for people to verbally lay into new atheism and scientism (we are entirely used to it!). It’s the same principle by which we claim the right to lambast religion. But anyone doing so, as labnut has a long track record of doing, is surely then fair game for replies?

    Labnut, from his perspective as a sincere Catholic, seems to see it as his duty to warn the world of the dangers of New Atheism of scientism (no problemo!) but then takes umbrage (and takes it a bit personally) when atheists then stick up for themselves.

    Labnut continued,

    But it is an unfortunate fact of life that theists are legitimate targets for attack, as we have just seen.

    This is a world where, taking the example of the US, where this blog is hosted, 30% of Congress is Catholic and 100% of it is theist. There has never been (I think) anyone elected to Congress after declaring themselves an atheist. Further, two thirds of the Supreme Court are Catholic. It’s hard to see Catholics in the West as a beleaguered minority.

    Note, also, that the “attack” was no more than the verbal sparring outlined above. In that sense, New Atheists and scientismists are among the most “attacked” people on the planet! Plenty of people find it near impossible to write anything at all on the subject of religion or atheism without taking at least one swipe at Dawkins! 🙂

    So, to summarise, unlike some other commenters, I don’t see that phoffman56 has done much wrong.

    Having said that, labnut does bring to the blog a welcome diversity as a defender of a world view that is — see just above — very prevalent and influential, and thus it would be a loss not to have an able promoter of that perspective (however much I disagree with it!).


  14. After a fairly lengthy comment, here’s a shorter one on the OP:

    Michael Shermer seems to suffer from the same misapprehension as Sam Harris, that out of utilitarianism it is possible to construct an objective moral-realist scheme.

    His only excuse is that plenty of notable people have erred in the same way, starting with Bentham and Mill.


  15. Massimo,

    “This is a complicated issue, worth a separate discussion.”

    I look forward to it! In the meantime, are there economists you think are especially valuable to listen to or read? In the last year or two i’ve found a lot of challenging discrepancies between my own ideological leanings and the views of experts in this field—”candy”, as your co-host might put it.


    “trained in what tradition?”

    I can’t answer that question directly, but i can quote the “About the IGM Economic Experts Panel” sidebar at the website itself:

    This panel explores the extent to which economists agree or disagree on major public policy issues. To assess such beliefs we assembled this panel of expert economists. Statistics teaches that a sample of (say) 40 opinions will be adequate to reflect a broader population if the sample is representative of that population.

    To that end, our panel was chosen to include distinguished experts with a keen interest in public policy from the major areas of economics, to be geographically diverse, and to include Democrats, Republicans and Independents as well as older and younger scholars….

    The statistical claim strikes me as fuzzy (though i do count 51 current panelists), and in their effort to be culturally diverse they may be sacrificing representativeness. Still, the percentage breakdown of the responses to the four questions spotlighted at the link i shared above are unambiguous (>95% agreement, 0% disagreement—on par with the agreement of climate scientists on AGW).

    That said, i would be delighted to see an example of a topic on which economists have been more widely or representatively surveyed for their opinions, with a result that disagrees meaningfully with a more or less equivalent question put to the IGM panel. I myself have misgivings about some of their responses and would be glad to have good reason to be more cautious about them. I’ve done some of my own searching but haven’t come up with a good example.


  16. Hi Labnut, phoffman56,

    I would mostly echo Coel’s sentiments above. I would prefer if Labnut did not quit, but I don’t think phoffman56 should be held responsible for Labnut’s sensitivity. Phoffman’s remark was perhaps more caustic than I would like, but Labnut is approximately as bad as far as I can see.

    So while I would like increased civility all around, I don’t think phoffman56 should be censured and hope Labnut sticks around (and develops a thicker skin!).

    Hi Massimo,

    > The whole point of the Flynn effect is that people’s intelligence has gotten better over time, the fact that you don’t see that in Shermer’s decision to frame his entire article in terms of the effect is a bit baffling.

    The Flynn effect is a real, observed phenomenon. The point of it is open to interpretation. The fact that Shermer brings up the effect does not mean that he thinks modern humans are intrinsically more cognitively able, only that we are better at certain tasks than our ancestors (and this may include moral reasoning).

    > Sure, but I usually try to get my facts straight and lined up, even in an opinion piece.

    Agreed, so any criticism where you point out factual errors is entirely appropriate and welcome. But excoriating criticism on the basis of not having proof is not (note that I’m not suggesting that you ought not mention that this is speculation).

    > A chronological claim is most certainly been made, since Shermer thinks that things got better after the Enlightenment, which he equates with the rise of “scientific thinking,” which he in turns equates with reason more generally. Just connect that dots.

    So, to Shermer, “scientific thinking” is reason, rationality, skepticism and so on. Shermer thinks these modes of thinking became more prominent during the Enlightenment. What’s the problem? Nowhere does he claim that these modes of thinking were founded by scientists. The chronological claim is in your interpretation of the text and not in the text itself.

    > He couldn’t be disputing my claims, since I’ve made them after he published the piece. See the issue with anachronism?

    Ha ha. But of course he could be disagreeing with your view even before you express it, which is what your criticism seems to suggest. However that interpretation is not supported by the text.

    > I don’t know what that means, a designer of humans? Are you turning toward ID my friend?

    Perish the thought. But you can imagine designing a human, e.g. from the perspective of an anthropomorphised personification of evolution. Never mind, it’s not important!

    Hi David Ottlinger

    I had a look at about ten minutes of that Shermer bloggingheads video starting at the point you mention and didn’t see much objectionable in it, though perhaps there is some stuff that could be interpreted uncharitably. My interpretation is that though he grounds morality in evolution, he is not committing the “appeal to nature” fallacy. Rather his position is that whether we like it or not we are stuck with evolved preferences for life over death, pleasure over pain and so on. What we consider to be good at an emotional level is to some extent hard-wired in. He therefore takes it as a given (and does not attempt to derive) that human flourishing is good. Science and “scientific thinking” only come into play when trying to achieve this good.


  17. “There has never been (I think) anyone elected to Congress after declaring themselves an atheist.” ?

    Former Representative Pete Stark* announced he was an atheist in 2007 and was re-elected in 2008 and 2010. 🙂

    * http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pete_Stark


  18. [PART 1] To put it rather provocatively on purpose, what is it about rationality, skepticism, objectivity (esp permuted to objectivism) that so attracts kooks? It is little wonder that skepticism and its cousin contrarianism appeal to those who feel different from others (a catagory that tends to include geniuses and crackpots) — both implicitly refer to rejection of the norm. But to speak of rationality or objectivity, while they are nominally positive ideals (not a reaction to something else) also seem to indicate an implicit critique of the thinking of most people. It is somewhat like if metaphysics is the study of “what is real”, why do I have a couple of friends (I really do) who belong to a “Metaphysical Society of New Jersey”, which is concerned with things like psychic powers and “Pangia Healing Arts will have a table in conjunction with the Tree of Light Healing Center and is offering discounted services at thee … save $$ on DNA Activations, Cord Cuttings, and more” (source: http://newjersey.tribe.net/event/Metaphysical-Society-of-NJ-Expo-113008/saddle-brook-nj/6aa04d6e-c236-409d-8017-ab371295e8bc)? Maybe because we usually don’t focus on any strong notion of “what is real” unless we have a novel view of the subject? E.g. we are living in Plato’s Cave and have no idea really what reality is. Meanwhile, the most serious direction of metaphysics is now just physics (which is weird in its own way: quantum physics, etc., but make verifiable predictions in precise mathematica formulae, and has produced mountains of practical results like the internet).

    In one group of devoted explorers of rationality, Lesswrong.org, so many members place themselves somewhere on the autistic spectrum that they tend to speak of the rest of us as “neurotypical”. Temple Grandin exemplifies what the high-functioning Aspergers syndrome person can contribute to the world clearly no mere crackpot but a genius (but who looked to many like a crackpot until her work proved spectacularly successful). A study I recently encountered indicated a high percentage of “Aspergerish” folks are atheists, suggesting their weakness in agency detection makes them quite unlikely to have an “overactive agency detector”.

    For those gifted ones who figure out what empathy is about (highly recommended: The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man’s Quest to Be a Better Husband), it is apt to look to them like a sophisticated intellectual achievement rather than something that happens naturally.


  19. As is my custom these days, I’ve followed the articles and comments closely. At times, dozens of time each day. I really need a life, folks. (Do not enter retirement blindly.) Regarding Massimo’s review of Shermer, I’m mostly on his side and on the side of those who agree with him. To a large extent, though, we’ve covered this terrain before. So, it’s not surprising to find the commentary form along previous lines of thought. The discourses on economics were somewhat novel, but not particularly helpful, opening the way for throw-away jokes about the dismal science and whether any economic theory is fit for human consumption. But it might be a good subject for a future article.

    At any rate, the commentary has come full circle. With labnut’s announced departure, we are suddenly face to face with claims that xyz accounts for progress in moral responsibility because as the school kids told the teacher, “Well, he shoved first.” I wish someone could see the humor in this banter. As it is, much of this has to do with stylistic and tonal considerations. That’s something that Massimo has promised to address, and it’s not an easy task.

    I don’t have a major problem with either phoffman or labnut, but I do think, as some have already suggested, that phoffman’s satire was lame as satire goes–largely a cheapshot along the lines of Aristophanes’s safely cheap jokes at Socrates’s expense, pandering to what he perceived was a ready-made audience. That’s not, to my mind, appreciative of the “spirit/soul” at SciSal. I’m sure Massimo would appreciate some self-control in his readership along the lines of curb your enthusiasm.

    Now for a parting cheap shot of my own. And that’s regarding those who make a point of contending that moral/ethical concerns largely reduce to personal tastes and preferences while engaging in lengthy didactic excursions in their commentary. And, no, I’m fully aware of the didactic nature of my own comment. But there are times when I read an article and am rather baffled that the comments seldom direct questions at the OP, but rather end up being minor treatises on one’s personal positions. No sincere requests for elaboration or clarification. Just bombs-away.

    Is there any wonder why the commentary here is not more diverse? Speaking from the vantage of someone who’ll acknowledge his igonrance on many of the topics, I’d like to hear from more of my ilk. I’ll just end by pointing you to what I believe is an excellent article on satire since that subject came up recently on the article about Badiou and in phoffman tete-a-tete labnut.



  20. Hi David Ottlinger,

    “My point was that they are modeled on empirical science in that they expect moral claims to be adjudicated by experiment and data gathering.”

    I agree that they expect it to work that way. I just wish people (around them) were a bit more strict and ask them to go ahead and actually try it. I think their theories have longevity simply because, unlike scientists, they never actually get around to conducting the first experiment.

    “This is already a step to far in modeling ethical thinking on (narrow) science because it obscures the nature of the problems and eschews moral philosophy (on this I assume we agree).”

    Yes we agree on this. Of course it’s possible that I believe science can inform or support philosophical inquiry to a greater extent than you would agree with. But yes, moral philosophy requires by its nature more than just science… and that doesn’t make it ‘weaker’ or less important.


  21. R. Herbert (Feb24 7:51am) 
    > I…seem to have no trouble making the right moral choices
    > ..finding the right moral choices is not a cognitively difficult task

    I was intrigued by these bold statements because i suspect despite the very many disparate views expressed on SciSal, this is an inner conviction probably implicitly shared by me, most if not all of the contributors to this webzine and by Michael Shermer too. I might even go as far as to include most readers also -if not nearly everyone on the planet. But that’s subjective morality for you. That some do feel hopelessly bad or immoral, who can’t excuse or self-justify their actions *to themselves* is evinced by those who publicly admit to the fact or even kill themselves through remorse or guilt.

    Otherwise I was dismayed by the many confusing switches made in the discussions between “scientific method” to “science” to “Science” and even “scientism”. They all contain the basic root word of science but they are by no means synonymous.

    Generally the (western) scientific method is reckoned to have arisen in the 17th century but I would say that it was just a refinement (which occurred at that time) of a long-established thinking “tool”. I suggest it has been in effective use for far longer. Evolution itself is *my* example of a very slow but still a “scientific” method with its process of change by experiment, by the trials and eliminations of the less successful samples of living matter.

    We are each conscripted to live at the end of a long chain of successful ancestors and are given the distilled results of that chain’s empirical experiences: a unique genetic coding which starts off the human beings that we become: it instigates and controls our individual physical attributes including the brain. This genetic coding also supplies our reflexes, instincts, feelings, emotions and intuitive moral instinct.

    I do think that the intelligent design of moral precepts to supplement and refine our inborn instincts can be amenable to the scientific method, that is to the “systematic observation, measurement. and experiment. and the tormulation. testing. and modification of hypotheses.” (OED) -The Golden Rule as one example?


  22. This illustrates the web of reason. Here we see Massimo applying mostly linear logic: Enlightenment good when young & naïve implies contradiction because Terror and Napoleon.

    However, mathematics needs more than one axiom to work.

    Actually Euclid is known to have missed all together several axioms, and that means that he was not as logical as he was long thought to be.

    In truth, the Revolution of 1789, and the Constitution that came out of it the same year, was excellent, and vastly superior to the contemporaneous to the American constitution that preceded it by a few weeks.

    Why? Because it proclaimed Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

    Whereas the Americans just restricted rights to the nebulously defined “People of America”. Whereas, on the ground, according to their origins, Jews, Coloreds, and weird religious types could not apply, and many could even be enslaved.

    “Equality” is a terrible notion. It meant equality relative to taxation. The aristocracy, like today’s plutocrats (and not just in Greece) don’t pay (as much) tax (or none at all).

    British aristocracy, having just lost the USA thanks to France was not amused. It brought up, and paid for, on credit, a gigantic coalition against France, including Austria, Russia, Prussia. And then attacked. It did not matter that Louis XVI was still king of the (now constitutional) monarchy. After all, Louis had made war to install the American Republic.

    By July 1792, the Prussian Duke of Brunswick announced that he would:

    “7. That the inhabitants of [FRENCH] towns and villages who may dare to defend themselves against the troops of their Imperial and Royal Majesties and fire on them, either in the open country or through windows, doors, and openings in their houses, shall be punished immediately according to the most stringent laws of war, and their houses shall be burned or destroyed. . . .

    Their said Majesties declare, on their word of honor as emperor and king… they will inflict an ever memorable vengeance by delivering over the CITY OF PARIS TO MILITARY EXECUTION and COMPLETE DESTRUCTION, and the rebels guilty of the said outrages to the punishment that they merit. . . .
    Given at the headquarters at Coblenz, July 25, 1792.
    Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg.”

    Brunswick was at the head of the Germanic part of the plutocratic coalition. The British landed where they were not expected, in Provence, with the idea of going up the Rhone valley, in a pincer.

    The rest is known: the Prussian army was defeated at the gates of Paris, in Valmy. Napoleon, then an artillery captain, defeated the British at Toulon (Napoleon’s plan was used; he was immediately promoted general, after being severely wounded during the assault).

    So the Terror, and Napoleon started in 1792, and it’s the Pitts, and more generally a coalition of furious plutocrats, who started it (the plutocrat Pitt junior was the youngest British PM, ever.)

    Reason is a complex web. Linear logic just a dart. Wisdom does not just throw darts.


  23. Patrice, your point being?


  24. Coel, DM,
    I am shocked that you would see labnut’s and phoffman’s comments as anything like equivalent, but I know I should not be. I should expect that the man who found The God Delusion “mildly written” (quoting from memory) would be nonplussed. Did you read phoffman’s entire comment? It made every attempt to portray labnut as provincial, juvenile and foolish with a the-adults-are-talking kind of condescension. It attacked labnut’s background (which was irrelevant) and even made crass remarks designed to be sexually humiliating which I will not repeat. The strongest you can find from labnut is calling someone a bigot. Well Coel you compared all sincere religious people to ISIS. I think this (and many other comments) makes you a bigot. I base this on the Mirriam Webster definition of the term: “a person who strongly and unfairly dislikes other people, ideas, etc. : a bigoted person; especially : a person who hates or refuses to accept the members of a particular group (such as a racial or religious group).” Your views are both “strong” (however “mild” they might seem to you) and “unfair” in the relevant ways and I think both points have been cogently argued across Scientia Salon. The point here is that this is an attack on your views and your attempts to justify them. Up to now I have said only what labnut has said (and in my own voice). Suppose I went further into phoffman territory. Perhaps I could make some remark about the philistinism of the English, portray you as senile, make some crass personal attack (do not take this for praetorition, I believe none of these things). I think you would be livid. You would have a right to be. I’d like to think you can see the difference. But I won’t hold my breath.

    I am irritated that this has taken so much of the discussion on an interesting article but I know these issues will continue to come up so I feel they must be addressed. Onto substance.

    “My interpretation is that though he grounds morality in evolution, he is not committing the “appeal to nature” fallacy. Rather his position is that whether we like it or not we are stuck with evolved preferences for life over death, pleasure over pain and so on. What we consider to be good at an emotional level is to some extent hard-wired in. He therefore takes it as a given (and does not attempt to derive) that human flourishing is good.”
    I suppose you mean to be reffering “naturalistic fallacy”. If so your sentence “He therefore takes it as a given…” commits naturalistic fallacy. This identifies a problem with the argument. See also on the part on rights where Wright (no pun intended) does a good job hammering Shermer on his equivocation between consequentialism and deontology.


  25. Dear Massimo:
    My point? This fits with the following post about causality (in biology, but the… point extends further).

    The lesson of Quantum Physics is that there are no points (that’s one of the intuitions at the root of String Theory). It’s hard to understand and few have attempted it. Instead of points, what we have is non commutative geometry (Alain Connes, etc.), let alone non-commutative logic.

    So, instead of points, the base of everything is made of spaces (of functions!)

    In this case, it seems to be that, in his desire to get to a… point, Massimo proffered, a bit rashly that:

    “As for the Enlightenment, Richard Dawkins once declared himself a son of the movement. So did I, when I was 18. Then I grew up and I started seeing things in a bit more nuanced way. After all, the Enlightenment was followed by the French Revolution, which bred the Reign of Terror, which led to Napoleon. Not exactly a stellar record for the champions of reason.”

    So the abominable, demented Terror and the despicable, self-obsessed, fascist, dictatorial, god-obsessed, pope approving, enslaving, misogynistic, homicidal Napoleon, both Terror and Napoleon being as adverse as imaginable to the Enlightenment, end up being used as arguments against… the Enlightenment.

    It is a bit as if, much of the population having been eaten by crocodiles, led to be a bit more nuanced about crocodiles, and less enlightened about championing reason.

    What I indicated is that it is not the Enlightenment (about the ways and means of Plutocracy) that led to Terror, but the plutocratic terror which, faced with the Enlightenment, instigated an even greater terror.

    Indeed, in the beginning, the 1789 Revolution was not very bloody: a few people got killed during the taking of the Bastille (they had been set-up by… Sade).

    Yet, the plutocrats of Europe united and attacked, with a giant terror, so great that it could only be fought with something similar (namely all-out, total war, followed by an ephemeral bout of the so called “Terror”).

    The inner “Terror” lasted only ten months, or so, but the war started by the plutocratic coalition of 1792 in a way lasted until 1815 (although, by the way, I condemn Napoleon totally… although I approve of Caesar). It was an immense tragedy at the British PM Lloyd George himself recognized a century later.

    Judging the 1789 Revolution from its most extreme reaction of survival to the extreme plutocratic terror imposed by the satanic powers which hated the 1789 proclamation of the rights of man is not the most pertinent logical chain snaking around the entire causative web.

    However, it is the most frequently presented, by the very same forces which were against Liberty-Equality-Fraternity, in 1792 as they were in 2012.


  26. Hi David Ottlinger,

    I agree that phoffman’s comment was not funny or smart. It was pretty off target, with Labnut being anything but an 18 year old hick. And the comment about the 72 virgins was unnecessary and stupid.

    But I don’t think the tone of it as as bad as you do, and not that far removed from that I have seen from Labnut in the past (although don’t ask me for examples!). This is just my impression. I don’t have time to support it. Your mileage may vary. I just think the pile-on on phoffman was a bit excessive.

    > I suppose you mean to be reffering “naturalistic fallacy”.

    No, I mean the “appeal to nature”. I wouldn’t correct you and would understand what you meant if you said “naturalistic fallacy”, but in some circles the proper term for what you mean is “appeal to nature”. In contrast, I concede that he may actually be committing the “naturalistic fallacy”, which is something else, and means trying to explain what is good in terms of natural properties (in violation of Hume’s is/ought). I think the two terms are confused around these parts particularly because Massimo confuses them himself. Since I think it is useful to keep distinct terms for different things, I prefer to use the more orthodox definitions in my own writing, but to each his own.

    In any case, I don’t accept that Shermer is fallaciously appealing to nature. To appeal to nature is to say something (e.g. raw meat) is good or healthy or normative because it is natural, or by contrast that something is bad because it is unnatural.

    In this context, an actual appeal to nature would be saying “We should care about other people because we evolved to care about other people”. But that is not what Shermer is doing, although it is superficially similar. Rather, Shermer is arguing (and I agree) that our most basic moral intuitions are the products of evolution. Asking why we should care about other people is in this view the wrong question to ask. The fact is we (or most of us) simply DO care about other people, and this is in large part because of our biology. The “why” question is why do we, not why should we. The “should” question is how can we help people (and ourselves) to flourish. We can then choose, as a matter of convention, to agree to use the language of morality as a shorthand for such questions. Good becomes helping others, evil becomes harming others. I don’t have space to develop this further or defend against the objections I might anticipate.

    I also think that while Shermer failed to answer the challenge of his vacillation between consequentialism and deontology, Wright ultimately answered his own question perfectly: deontological rules can arise out of a utilitarian foundation. It was disappointing that Shermer failed to explain this himself, but this answer shows that his position is not incoherent, even if it is not particularly well developed or articulated.


  27. Hi DM,

    For the reasons I gave earlier (and others linked by Massimo) I don’t think that you can meaningfully classify the ‘Flynn Effect’ as real and observable.

    For all that it is useful, IQ is defined as that which an IQ test tests. There has been too much variation in the form of tests over the years to get anything like comparability across the years.

    Hi Coel,

    I don’t think that you can tell from this excerpt that Shermer is claiming that he can derive an objective morality like Harris. Although I have not read the book I think it is more likely that he is simply taking assuming moral axioms like Pinker.

    As for Utilitarianism, well the whole point of it is to recognise the subjective nature of good. Things like ‘utility’ and ‘hedonism’ are subjective and it matters little to the project of Utilitarianism that they differ person to person.

    Of course it always collapses to some deontic assumption, but Mill, at least, recognised this and that Utilitarianism might be considered a pragmatic rather than prescriptive program.

    So it is certainly not true of Mill to say that he thought that a moral realist scheme could be constructed from Utilitarianism.


    Your use of ellipsis appears to imply that I am saying that I seem to have no trouble making moral choices and I would just like to make it clear that I didn’t say that, I said that I had observed many people with intellectual disabilities who seemed not to have that trouble.

    As for phoffmans questions which he said seemed completely unanswerable, I had a go anyway, just for fun: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1YdmbdvcWJQFCD9VFzhjbvOm2HvgnTGkIWlBcjDFbWNI/pub


  28. As per usual, I avoided, for a few days, reading the present article and glancing at responses. That’s more efficient timewise for me. And also, I’m a bit slow, and often comments by a couple of people help me to see some missed-by-me points in the article itself (assuming the set of points is non-empty, of course—cf. the immediately previous article).

    So it was a surprise to discover that a minor storm had blown up entirely to do with not this but with the previous article, precipitated by a Labnut response to this one at a time when the other article was still ‘open’. And I am certainly a major part of that storm, so clearly need to say something.

    Right off, I will definitely make an apology, as below. But let me say first quite unapologetically that, with the sole exception of modifying one word, I’d reiterate everything that I had written related to that previous article, including also my responses to ejwinner.

    So I certainly apologize for not using ‘Ladnut’ as the name of the mythical 18-year old Missourian university freshman taking a phil class. Something like that name would be needed to be clear where to look if anyone had missed Labnut’s novel definitions of soul and afterlife, and also so that it was clear from whom it would be that I hoped for a reply to my 3 questions just below the name. Having considered using that name, I instead used a word which is certainly an ad hominem, and I definitely apologize for having written it down. The word ‘nutter’ is pretty much British and does usually mainly connote something related to mental illness. For me (and I’ve lived there off and on for about 6 years of my life) this is a bit ameliorated by the fact that use of the word often includes some friendliness, even affection—e. g. in Merriam-Webster we see

    “rather than ostracizing them, the British seem to cherish their nutters”
    and “Synonyms: character, codger, ….eccentric …., oddball, oddity, original,…”.

    But the other synonyms are not so nice. So the apology from me is definitely needed and I offer it with no reservation to all here, including of course labnut.

    Happily, the personal advice was offered to me by Marko, who is always super-polite, even when I disagree with him about determinism, reductionism and the age-old stuff about Godel’s effect on dreams of a final theory.

    On the other hand, I would not expect Labnut to apologize to Richard Dawkins for placing him right there in the category of Adolf Hitler. But surely there isn’t something special about believers which makes them immune to being expected to avoid comments about the personal qualities of their opponents (i.e. to avoid ad hominems). At the time, it was just a bit shocking to me that no one else except SciSal had objected to the putting of New Atheists in the same category as operatives and leaders of the Nazi Party in Germany. If anyone really desires it, I can pull up the actual Labnut quote on this.

    More recently, he said the following

    “It is…triumphalism. … partisanship …radicalizes … arrogant…. need.humility…arrogance of certain belief …Scientismists, nota been….
    ….weapon in the hands of bigots.
….well known anti-religious bigots ….cynical ploy….attacks on religion….
    …betrayal ….intellectual laziness”

    Maybe those will suffice to indicate, as a few other people have also, that this shoe fits more than just my foot. Furthermore, can you find anything from me other than the above which is objectionable because of snideness about personal qualities? I doubt you can, but I’ll be happy to make further apologies if you do. And to reiterate, I make no apology for anything else in my comments on the previous article.

    My activities here may be limited in future to simply reading the articles, and perusing whatever SciSal himself has commented about them. For some that may come as a relief! For awhile I’ve considered disciplining myself in that way to have that bit more time for other activities, so this would be a good time to start. That can apply to this article here and all its responses. I have not had time yet even to read everything connected to me in these responses.

    But, referring back to that same response for which I have apologized for a very badly chosen word, I was perfectly serious in asking about how a Phil prof is able to maintain his or her composure at times, and behave in a properly professional way in interaction with students. I do not take this blog to be at all the same as such an interaction, even though politeness is always to be desired. And my 3 questions seem to me a perfectly sensible response to the mooting of the soul and afterlife the way Labnut did. I still await a response to those questions. It is too bad that ejwinner was unable to see those questions as (at least the beginning of) a reasonable negative response to that mooting. Many elsewhere would probably think such mooting deserves no response at all, and maybe it doesn’t, but at least I cannot be accused of not initially taking seriously what people write here.


  29. Hi David Ottlinger,

    The strongest you can find from labnut is calling someone a bigot.

    It was just one example. The point is that labnut has a long track record of denunciations of New Atheism and scientism. There is a tendency among the religious — and here I’m talking much more widely than commenters on SciSal — to see it as their duty to present a robust critique of society, but then see any counter criticism of their religion as beyond the pale.

    It’s amazing how huffy some theists get about the word “deluded” (Cambridge Dictionaries: “believing things that are not real or true”) when they regularly direct worse at the New Atheists. Labnut sees the word “deluded” as beyond the pale, but doesn’t hold back in his own denunciations of New Atheists.

    Well Coel you compared all sincere religious people to ISIS.

    As I’ve aready clarified, that terse aside was presenting ISIS as an example of believers giving primacy to their theology over their humanity (and was posted after reading this).

    I stick to my suggestion that large swathes of sincere believers, when it comes down to it, give primacy to their humanity over their theology. That is not a criticism of them, quite the reverse.

    I should expect that the man who found The God Delusion “mildly written” (quoting from memory) …

    Yes, it is! By the standards of the invective regularly directed at Dawkins it is mild! The only reason it is seen otherwise is because of the tradition of treating other people’s religious beliefs with kid gloves and unwarranted respect. Thus a critique written in the manner that is quite usual when directed, say, at a political party’s economic policy, causes people to reach for the smelling salts.

    To take one example of invective directed at New Atheists, read “The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism” by the academic philosopher (and Catholic) Edward Feser and then tell me which is the milder and more temperate book.

    Hi Robin,

    I don’t think that you can tell from this excerpt that Shermer is claiming that he can derive an objective morality like Harris.

    Agreed. I was basing that also on other writings of his.

    So it is certainly not true of Mill to say that he thought that a moral realist scheme could be constructed from Utilitarianism.

    He does in the sense that he sees it as a normative scheme that humans “should” follow.


  30. Well, I for one do appreciate what I have no doubt is phoffman56’s since apology, and would very much like to move on.

    However, let me make a few more general points, prompted by the latest developments in this discussion. To begin with, let us remember that there is a difference between personal insults – which are obviously and categorically blocked at SciSal – and more general non-flattering characterization of positions. The latter, as I said before, have come from both sides, and while in some cases they do rise to the level of unacceptably harsh speech, generally speaking they are just part of the discourse. SciSal is not a politically correct site, but rather one that encourages civil and vigorous discourse.

    Second, I must say – for all my dislike of Dawkins and the New Atheists – that their assaults on religion are definitely mild by comparison of some of what they receive from many of their religious critics, and they are about on par with the sort of criticism they get from fellow atheists like me.

    So, I (and our new Assistant Editor, Dan!) will continue to monitor discussions to make sure that we create and maintain the best possible environment for discussion here at SciSal, but not only we will obviously always do an imperfect job, there is something inherent in passionate intellectual discussions that inevitably blurs the line between criticism and offense. If I may, I suggest keeping a copy of this quote from Epictetus about taking offense at what others say to us:

    “Remember that it is we who torment, we who make difficulties for ourselves – that is, our opinions do. What, for instance, does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective?” (Discourses I, 25, 28-29)


  31. Robin Herbert (Feb25 23.48) >Your use of ellipsis appears to imply that I am saying that I seem to have no trouble making moral choices and I would just like to make it clear that I didn’t say that, I said that I had observed many people with intellectual disabilities who seemed not to have that trouble.
    I apologise both for my blunder and my insensitive imputation. Of course like most of us, you do have problems in making (right/good) moral choices. 
    But the point I was trying to raise is that most of us do *feel* we behave morally or that most of us *feel* that we have more to the credit side than the debit on our “moral balance sheet*, -probably this is true even of those *financial geniuses at the big end of town* -likewise psychopaths.
    If, as I think, morality is mainly, even entirely, about communal behaviour then subjective morals are too fickle, too personally biased, to be a reliable working societal system: there are needs for enforceable general rules and these norms are quite legitimately a matter of intelligent scrutiny via “systematic observation, measurement and experiment, and the tormulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”

    Since I don’t have much faith in the practical veracity of the means, results and comparisons of IQ testing then neither can I have much confidence in relating them any improvement in them to a similar improvement in general morals, apparent or real. Is it not the extent, reliability and wide accessibility of our recorded information that has vastly improved rather than general innate reasoning ability?


  32. Massimo You can’t quote Scripture in here! 🙂

    “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice.

    And, Dan the Bloggingheads companion, known here under other name?

    DM vs David Ottlinger Wikipedia lists both as separate items, with this as an example of appeal to nature:
    N is natural.
    Therefore, N is good or right.
    U is unnatural.
    Therefore, U is bad or wrong.

    And this as an early explainer of the naturalistic fallacy:
    Moore argues it would be fallacious to explain that which is good reductively in terms of natural properties such as “pleasant” or “desirable”. It then ties this to Ye Olde Is-Ought issue.

    So, they’re in the same corner of the philosophical universe, but, yes, they’re separate things.

    On critiques and criticisms, I’m not a big fan of Gnu Atheists myself, and have leveled out comments, without trying to get too personal, but yes, tis true that such rhetoric is often (though not always) harsher from people at the conservative end of the religious spectrum. (Latest example: Earlier this week, American Family Association called atheist community/MeetUp-type groups “terrorists.”) Also, failure to distinguish between different types of atheists is an issue, one that Labnut, along with, say, Chris Hedges, committed with some regularity.

    Patrice Rather than wading through everything, and not, either straightforwardly or rhetorically, asking for a “point” from you, Napoleon was NOT “god obsessed.” Certainly, he was not an atheist, unlike leaders of the Terror. He had some sort of religious beliefs, and then, made his Concordat deal with the pope on good political grounds, but god-obsessed he was not. Please don’t bother with an attempt to explicate which I won’t read anyway.

    Back to Shermer, though.

    Asked to test his issues about the scientism grounding of ethics? I’m sure that, whether claiming such experimentation itself is unethical, or something else, he (and Harris and others) would first make a claim about not being able to do that, then would commit the “Can’t You Just See It” fallacy or similar.

    And, his confusion of different moral philosophies surprises me not, either.

    Let’s not forget that he’s arguing for the moral arc of libertarianism, not the moral arc of consequentialist philosophy. Start with that, and in addition to critiquing what’s philosophically wrong, we’ll know not to expect a lot that’s necessarily philosophically right.


  33. My last word on a now quite tired subject. I do agree we need to move on.
    It is no doubt true that religions and the religious often take themselves to be above criticism and often launch their own scurrilous attacks against those without faith. I haven’t read the book you mentioned but I’ve seen debates with Dinesh D’Souza and creationist propaganda like Expelled: No Intellegence Allowed and read the less restrained moments of more respectable theologians like Plantinga. They exist. I believe you. I acknowledge it as a problem. I can only say that if I see such an attack on the other side I will call it out with equal verve, although obviously I may not get the chance on this forum. Yet I can also acknowledge that many religious persons can dish it out but not take it without crying “You can dish it out but not take it!” in every situation. Sometimes the religious are being unreasonable and expecting a privileged kind of status in the debate, other times they are insulted and offended with very good reasons. I hold strongly to my contention that this is one of those other times. The idea that Labnut was asserting some special prerogative on behalf of the religious in not wanting to be insulted and personally attacked I find ridiculous. Phoffman went way, way farther than merely being immoderate. He made a personal and demeaning attack at some length. (To your credit, he also went way farther than I have ever seen you go either. I have criticized you for being, in my eyes, misguided, uncharitable and yes even bigoted, but I have never seen you be deliberately cruel or attack someone personally which is why I find your defense of phoffman that much harder to understand.) Whether or not Labnut has expected some kind of special prerogative in the past makes no difference, he was well within his rights on this occasion. I persist in maintaining that the parallels drawn between Labnut’s comments and phoffman’s are very forced indeed for the reasons I gave above. Yes the religious are gun-shy and apt to attack atheists and try to force them out of the debate, that much more reason not to give them grounds to be legitimately outraged.

    I must say I am not impressed with phoffman’s apology (in fact I may have seen better from NFL coaches). He seems to be less sorry at launching a sustained and vulgar attack than using a politically incorrect term while doing it (but not too sorry, it’s apparently affectionate). Well, as the good Lord said, there comes a time when we have to shake the dust from our feet and move on (Matt 10:14). This atheist plans to do just that.


  34. Massimo, I just realized I do have one more comment on the subject. While Shermer often sounds like a libertarian, especially with regard to economic policy, he seems to fall short when it comes to other domestic policies. For example, here he suggests that there has been moral progress, and cites some things like ending slavery, and establishing civil rights for minorities.

    Yet what about increased incarcerations and civil rights abuses for other issues (which can effect those same minorities disparately)? If anything we seem to have traded some persecuted groups for others, and swapped out chattel slavery for wage slavery (with gov’t supporting business against workers). Also, there is much less free speech and privacy than earlier. The ongoing mass surveillance programs throughout western nations exposed by Snowden count to me (and many libertarians) as a decisive shift toward injustice in the free world, not an arc toward Truth, Freedom, and Justice.

    These issues are important for libertarians, but up until now Shermer has not seemed to consider them.


  35. Thank you for this. From what I’ve heard and seen of both Pinker’s ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ and Shermer’s new book, I’m highly skeptical of their theses. I’ll have to read them, of course, to judge them to a better extent, but it seems to me that they’re ignoring plenty of issues that still exist in the West in terms of civil liberties (some posters above have already mentioned Snowden et al.), social justice and more in order to claim that the Enlightenment has allowed the West to make massive moral progress and that those “barbaric” Muslim countries are unenlightened.

    Furthermore, I think they’re clutching at straws with the whole Flynn effect thing as well, but, again, I’ll have to read their books. I’m just disappointed that other writers and philosophers I admire, such as Peter Singer, aren’t casting a more skeptical eye on these scientistically-minded pieces of work.


  36. Does anybody in this community understand economics? This skepticism of economic progress is just baffling to me. Is anybody who thinks we have made incredible gains in human well-being a delusional libertarian? Yes, there are still important problems in the world today, but to not acknowledge the mind-boggling gains in the human standard of living is maddening.You don’t have to be a radical utilitarian to recognize that market economies are vastly better than the alternatives. This is what Shermer is getting at. If anything is a moral fact, this is it.


  37. Jake,

    No one denies that technologies developed during the bourgeois epoch have produced various welfare enhancements for the population. What’s generally omitted in libertarian analyses of this history, however, is that much of the basic R&D that was utilized in developing these same technologies was publicly subsidized and developed in the state sector. Attempting to separate the market from the state at all – as libertarians are wont to do – is an exercise in futility, as they have always been interdependent entities. So-called “libertarians” (who are better termed ‘propertarians,’ given the term was first used in a political context by the communist anti-statist Joseph Déjacque) try to have it both ways: they deny that actually existing capitalism is legitimately capitalist since the state is such a prominent economic actor (capitalism is defined by them as absolute laissez-faire markets) yet they simultaneously accredit all of the material advancements made over the last century to capitalism.

    The radical critique of capitalism concerns the myriad procedural and distributive injustices that characterize the system, in addition to the ecological devastation it causes. Marxists and other factions of the revolutionary left believe these can rectified by transforming the economic institutions of society. The centralized economic planning practiced in the former USSR clearly shouldn’t be emulated, but perfectly feasible alternatives do exist. I can elaborate on all of this elsewhere, if you’re genuinely interested.


  38. I’m out of my depth on some of the philosophical questions here, but, as for economics:

    Jake Zeielsdorf:

    there are still important problems in the world today, but to not acknowledge the mind-boggling gains in the human standard of living is maddening.

    Haven’t seen anyone doing that.

    Economists agree on many of the factors involved in the financial crisis, including Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac

    If by this you mean the idea spread by right-wingers that the crisis was due to Freddie and Fannie being pushed by liberal politicians to give mortgages to unqualified black people, rather than reckless gambling by Wall Street, that has been thoroughly debunked by, yes, mainstream economists.


    “among 20,000 young adults there was a positive correlation between IQ and liberalism. Data from the General Social Survey clarified the link in noting that the correlation involves classical liberalism of the Enlightenment kind, in which smarter people were less likely to agree that the government should redistribute income from the rich to the poor.”

    Smarter young people tending to come from higher up the income scale, with a lot of their increased intelligence derived from growing up with all the benefits of that, and not particularly wanting to see their advantages taken away and given to others to make a level playing field- not sure how that ties in with increasing morality.



  39. viddy9

    I can’t speak for Shermer, but it’s a non sequitur to say that Pinker ignores the “plenty of other issues that still exist in the West in terms of civil liberties”. Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of our Nature” concerns itself with a narrower thesis: the decline of physical violence and the changing attitudes regarding physical violence.

    Pinker doesn’t necessarily dispute that things like economic inequality or other social injustices are bad, but that simply not what his book is about. To quote the man himself: “It’s not that these aren’t bad things, but you can’t write a coherent book on the topic of “bad things.” (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/steven_pinkers_history_of_nonviolence)


  40. Hi Jake you said…

    “You don’t have to be a radical utilitarian to recognize that market economies are vastly better than the alternatives. This is what Shermer is getting at. If anything is a moral fact, this is it.”

    I happen to like free trade, and advocate its free-ness as much as possible. However, even if I were to grant that market economies are better than alternatives (which in fact is really context dependent “better at what?”), that is not a moral fact. That would simply be a fact.

    Regarding market economies, there are always limits, sometimes based on moral constraints. For example some might think that sales in humans (slaves or indentured servitude) would be immoral, yet a truly free market would by definition allow it.

    There are legitimate questions regarding the nature of labor and ownership of property even within free markets (or trade). Regarding the latter, can you own water supplies? The air?

    The reply by Michael Acuna contains credible concerns (regarding your thesis) as well.

    Hi Bjorn, I think Pinker is open to criticism along the lines that have been offered. Yes, one can’t just limit it to what he does or does not say in one book. As one example that I gave for Shermer, Pinker has totally ducked the issue of civil rights violations for example the growth in mass surveillance exposed by Snowden. He has either said nothing publicly (despite being a major news item related to his thesis) or suggested they are not real issues.


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