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The Meaning of Life in a Formula

Can science help us overcome the terror of existence?
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Harvard University paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who died in 2002, was a tough-minded skeptic who did not suffer fools gladly when it came to pseudoscience and superstition. Gould was a secular Jew who did not believe in God, but he had a soft spot for religion, expressed most famously in his principle of NOMA—nonoverlapping magisteria. The magisterium (domain of authority) of science “covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory),” he wrote in his 1999 book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. “The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.”

In part, Gould’s motivations were personal (he told me on many occasions how much respect he had for religion and for his many religious friends and colleagues). But in his book, he claimed that “NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectual grounds, not a merely diplomatic solution.” For NOMA to work, however, Gould insisted that just as “religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions residing properly within the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution.” (continue reading…)

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Michael Shermer on Reasonable Doubt at TEDxGhent

Michael Shermer explains how a scientific way of thinking manages to improve the world in various kinds of ways. He describes how science and reason lead humanity toward truth, justice and freedom. “As democracy increases, violence decreases” is the theme of his talk. He discusses the death penalty, women and gay rights and so much more. He states that within these delicate issues, rationality and abstract thinking are the keys to increased awareness and democracy.

Learn more about Michael Shermer’s book, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom on the official website.

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Terrorism as Self-Help Justice

The moralistic motivations of ISIS
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IN AN UNINTENTIONALLY HILARIOUS VIDEO CLIP, primatologist Frans de Waal narrates an experiment conducted in his laboratory at Emory University involving capuchin monkeys. One monkey exchanges a rock for a cucumber slice, which he gleefully ingests. But after seeing another monkey receive a much tastier grape for a rock, he angrily hurls it back at the experimenter when he is again offered a cucumber slice. He rattles the cage wall, slaps the floor and looks seriously peeved at this blatant injustice.

A sense of justice and injustice—right and wrong—is an evolved moral emotion to signal to others that if exchanges are not fair there will be a price to pay. How high a price? In the Ultimatum Game, in which one person is given a sum of money to divide with another person—with the stipulation that if the offer is accepted both keep the money, but if the offer is rejected no one gets any money—offers less than 30 percent of the sum are typically rejected. That is, we are willing to pay 30 percent to punish an offender. This is called moralistic punishment. (continue reading…)

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The Genesis of Justice

Before all learning, an infant’s mind has a sense of
right and wrong
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On the platform of a subway station, a woman and two men are talking a few feet away from the open track pit. Without warning, one of the men shoves the woman. She staggers backward toward the edge. The other man reaches out to catch her, but he is too late, and down she goes onto the tracks. In an instant, he reacts. He turns on his heels and coldcocks the culprit. It is a magnificent roundhouse to the face that snaps the wrongdoer’s head back. Satisfied with this act of revenge, he turns, hesitates and dashes over to pull the woman to safety. He reassures her, then takes off after the malefactor, who has beat a hasty retreat. The entire incident takes 20 seconds, and you can see it yourself on YouTube (at the 1:47 mark).

In that moment—too brief for rational calculation—a conflict of pure emotionality unfolds between rescue and revenge, helping and hurting. In a flash, two neural networks in the rescuer’s brain are engaged to act: help a fellow human in trouble or punish the perpetrator. What is a moral primate to do? In this case, because no train was coming, he could afford that problematic first choice. Rescue is sweet but so is revenge. (continue reading…)

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Confessions of a Speciesist

Where do nonhuman mammals fit in our moral hierarchy?
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The case for exploiting animals for food, clothing and entertainment often relies on our superior intelligence, language and self-awareness: the rights of the superior being trump those of the inferior. A poignant counterargument is Mark Devries’s Speciesism: The Movie, which I saw at the premiere in September 2013. The animal advocates who filled the Los Angeles theater cheered wildly for Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer. In the film, Singer and Devries argue that some animals have the mental upper hand over certain humans, such as infants, people in comas, and the severely mentally handicapped. The argument for our moral superiority thus breaks down, Devries told me: “The presumption that nonhuman animals’ interests are less important than human interests could be merely a prejudice— similar in kind to prejudices against groups of humans such as racism—termed speciesism.”

I guess I am a speciesist. I find few foods more pleasurable than a lean cut of meat. I relish the feel of leather. And I laughed out loud at the joke about the farmer who castrates his horses with two bricks: “Does it hurt?” “Not if you keep your thumbs out of the way.” I am also troubled by an analogy made by rights activists that animals are undergoing a “holocaust.” Historian Charles Patterson draws the analogy in his 2002 book Eternal Treblinka, and Devries makes visual reference to it by comparing the layout of factory-farm buildings to that of prisoner barracks at Auschwitz. The flaw in the analogy is in the motivation of the perpetrators. As someone who has written a book on the Holocaust (Denying History, University of California Press, revised edition, 2009), I see a vast moral gulf between farmers and Nazis. Even factory-farm corporate suits motivated by profits are still far down the moral ladder from Adolf Eichmann and Heinrich Himmler. There are no signs at factory farms reading “Arbeit Macht Frei.” (continue reading…)

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