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The Science of Right and Wrong

Can Data Determine Moral Values?
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Ever since the rise of modern science, an almost impregnable wall separating it from religion, morality and human values has been raised to the heights. The “naturalistic fallacy,” sometimes rendered as the “is-ought problem”—the way something “is” does not mean that is the way it “ought” to be—has for centuries been piously parroted from its leading proponents, philosophers David Hume and G. E. Moore, as if pronouncing it closes the door to further scientific inquiry. (continue reading…)

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A New Phrenology?

Metaphors, modules and brain-scan pseudoscience
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The atom is like a solar system, with electrons whirling around the nucleus like planets orbiting a star. No, actually, it isn’t. But as a first approximation to help us visualize something that is so invisible, that image works as a metaphor. (continue reading…)

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Free to Choose

The neuroscience of choice exposes the power of ideas
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Have you ever watched a white rat choose between an 8 and 32 percent sucrose solution by pressing two different bars on variable-interval schedules of reinforcement? No? Lucky you. I devoted two years of what would otherwise have been a misspent youth to running choice experiments with rats in Skinner boxes for my master’s thesis on “Choice in Rats as a Function of Reinforcer Intensity and Quality.” Boys gone wild! (continue reading…)

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A Bounty of Science

A new book reexamines the mutiny on the Bounty, but science offers a deeper account of its cause
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The most common explanation for the Bounty mutiny pits a humane Fletcher Christian against an oppressive William Bligh. In her 2003 revisionist book, The Bounty, Caroline Alexander recasts Bligh as hero and Christian as coward. After 400 pages of gripping narrative, Alexander hints that the mutiny might have involved “the seductions of Tahiti” and “Bligh’s harsh tongue” but concludes that it was “a night of drinking and a proud man’s pride, a low moment on one gray dawn, a momentary and fatal slip in a gentleman’s code of discipline.”

A skeptic’s explanation may seem less romantic, but it is more intellectually satisfying because it is extrapolated from scientific evidence and reasoning. There are, in fact, two levels of causality to consider: proximate (immediate historical events) and ultimate (deeper evolutionary motives). Both played a role in the Bounty debacle. (continue reading…)

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Out of Body Experiment

Michael Shermer travels to Laurentian University in Sudbury, Canada, to strap on the “God Helmet” in neuroscientist Michael Persinger’s lab that duplicates out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, alien abductions, and other paranormal phenomena.

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