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Towards a Science of Morality: A Reply to Massimo Pigliucci

In this year’s annual Edge.org question “What should we be worried about?” I answered that we should be worried about “ The Is-Ought Fallacy of Science and Morality.” I wrote: “We should be worried that scientists have given up the search for determining right and wrong and which values lead to human flourishing”. Evolutionary biologist and philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci penned a thoughtful response, which I appreciate given his dual training in science and philosophy, including and especially evolutionary theory, a perspective that I share. But he felt that my scientific approach added nothing new to the philosophy of morality, so let me see if I can restate my argument for a scientific foundation of moral principles with new definitions and examples.

First, morality is derived from the Latin moralitas, or “manner, character, and proper behavior.” Morality has to do with how you act toward others. So I begin with a Principle of Moral Good:

Always act with someone else’s moral good in mind, and never act in a way that it leads to someone else’s moral loss (through force or fraud).

You can, of course, act in a way that has no effect on anyone else, and in this case morality isn’t involved. But given the choice between acting in a way that increases someone else’s moral good or not, it is more moral to do so than not. I added the parenthetical note “through force or fraud” to clarify intent instead of, say, neglect or acting out of ignorance. Morality involves conscious choice, and the choice to act in a manner that increases someone else’s moral good, then, is a moral act, and its opposite is an immoral act.

Given this moral principle, the central question is this: On what foundation should we ground our moral decisions? We have to ground the foundations of morality on something, and we secularists (skeptics, humanists, atheists, et al.) are in agreement that “divine command theory” is untenable not only because there probably is no God, but even if there is a God divine command theory was refuted 2500 years ago by Plato through his “Euthyphro’s dilemma,” in which he asked “whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods?”, showing how it must be the former—moral principles must stand on their own with or without God. Rape, for example, is wrong whether or not God says it is wrong (in the Bible, in fact, God offers no prohibition against rape, and in fact seems to encourage it in many instances as a perquisite of war for victors). Adultery, which is prohibited in the Bible, would still be wrong even if it were not listed in the Decalogue.

How do we know that rape and adultery are wrong? We don’t need to ask God. We need to ask the affected moral agent—the rape victim in question, or our spouse or romantic partner who is being cuckolded. They will let you know instantly and forcefully precisely how they feel morally about that behavior.

Here we see that the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) has a severe limitation to it: What if the moral receiver thinks differently from the moral doer? What if you would not mind having action X done unto you, but someone else would mind it? Most men, for example, are much more receptive toward unsolicited offers of sex than are women. Most men, then, in considering whether to approach a woman with an offer of unsolicited sex, should not ask themselves how they would feel as a test. This is why in my book The Science of Good and Evil I introduced the Ask-First Principle:

To find out whether an action is right or wrong, ask first.

The moral doer should ask the moral receiver whether the behavior in question is moral or immoral. If you aren’t sure that the potential recipient of your action will react in the same manner you would react to the moral behavior in question, then ask…before you act. (This principle applies to rational sane adults and not to children or mentally ill adults. Asking a 12-year old girl raised in a polygamous family belonging to the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints if she feels it is moral to marry a man in his 60s who is already married to many other women is not a rational test because she does not have the capacity for moral reasoning.)

But what is the foundation for why we should care about the feelings of potentially affected moral agents? To answer this question I turn to science and evolutionary theory.

Given that moral principles must be founded on something natural instead of supernatural, and that science is the best tool we have devised for understanding the natural world, applying evolutionary theory to not only the origins of morality but to its ultimate foundation as well, it seems to me that the individual is a reasonable starting point because, (1) the individual is the primary target of natural selection in evolution, and (2) it is the individual who is most affected by moral and immoral acts. Thus:

The survival and flourishing of the individual is the foundation for establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best survive and flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality.

Here we find a smooth transition from the way nature is (the individual struggling to survive and flourish in an evolutionary context) to the way it ought to be (given a choice, it is more moral to act in a way that enhances the survival and flourishing of other individuals). Here are three examples:

In his annual letter Bill Gates outlined how and why the progress of the human condition can best be implemented when tracked through scientific data: “I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve amazing progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal.”

Halving Extreme Poverty (graph from Bill Gates' Annual Letter

One notable sign of progress is seen in this graph from Gates’ Annual Letter (right).

If the survival and flourishing of the individual is the foundation of values and morals, then this graph tracks moral progress because we can say objectively and absolutely that reducing extreme poverty by half since 1990 is real moral progress. On what basis can we make such a claim? Ask the people who are no longer living on less than $1.25 a day. They will tell you that living on more than $1.25 a day is absolutely better than living on less than $1.25 a day. Why is it better? Because individuals are more likely to survive and flourish when they have the basics of life.

This is why Bill Gates is backing with his considerable wealth and talent the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals program that is supported by 189 nations, in which the year 2015 was set as a deadline for making specific percentage improvements across a range of areas including health, education, and basic income. Gates reports, for example, that the number of polio cases has decreased from 350,000 in 1988 to 222 in 2012. Is that a moral good? Ask the 350,000 polio victims. They’ll tell you. Or ask the 5.1 million children under the age of 5 who didn’t die in 2011, who in 1990 would have died (Unicef reports that the number of children under 5 years old who died worldwide was 12 million in 1990 and 6.9 million in 2011).

Bill Gates delivering report

Caption from Gates’ Annual Letter: Getting a closer look at charts documenting rural health progress at the Germana Gale Health Post in Ethiopia. Over the past year I’ve been impressed with progress in using data and measurement to improve the human condition (Dalocha, Ethiopia, 2012).

A second example may be found on the opposite end of the economic sale in a study conducted for the National Bureau of Economic Research entitled “Subjective Well-Being, Income, Economic Development and Growth” by the University of Pennsylvania economists Daniel Sacks, Betsey Stevenson, and Justin Wolfers, in which they compared survey data on subjective well-being (“happiness”) with income and economic growth rates in 140 countries. The economists found a positive correlation between income and happiness within individual countries, in which richer people are happier than poorer people; and they also found a between-country difference in which people in richer countries are happier than people in poorer countries. As well, they found that an increase in economic growth was associated with an increase in subjective well being: “These results together suggest that measured subjective well-being grows hand in hand with material living standards.” How much difference? “A 20 percent increase in income has the same impact on well-being, regardless of the initial level of income: going from $500 to $600 of income per year yields the same impact on well-being as going from $50,000 to $60,000 per year.” Contrary to previous studies, the economists found no upper limit in which more money does not correlate with more happiness. As well, on a 0–10 scale measuring “life satisfaction,” people in poor countries averaged a 3, people in middle-income countries averaged a 5–6, and people in rich countries averaged a 7–8 (Americans rate their life satisfaction as a 7.4). The economists’ conclusion confirms my moral science theory that the survival and flourishing of individuals is what counts:

The fact that life satisfaction and other measures of subjective well-being rise with income has significant implications for development economists. First, and most importantly, these findings cast doubt on the Easterlin Paradox and various theories suggesting that there is no long-term relationship between well-being and income growth. Absolute income appears to play a central role in determining subjective well-being. This conclusion suggests that economists’ traditional interest in economic growth has not been misplaced. Second, our results suggest that differences in subjective well-being over time or across places likely reflect meaningful differences in actual well-being.

Here is the figure for the relationship between happiness and GDP from this study:

Happiness and GDP chart from World Values Survey

World Values Survey, 1999–2004, and author’s regressions. Sources for GDP per capita are described in the text. The happiness question asks, “Taking all things together, would you say you are: ‘very happy,’ ‘quite happy,’ ‘not very happy,’ [or] ‘not at all happy’?” Data are aggregated into country averages by first standardizing individual level data to have mean zero and standard deviation one, and then taking the within-country average of individual happiness. The dashed line plots fitted values from the reported OLS regression (including TZA and NGA); the dotted line gives fitted values from a lowess regressions. The regression coefficients are on the standardized scale. Both regressions are based on nationally representative samples. Observations represented by hollow squares are drawn from countries in which the World Values Survey sample is not nationally representative; see Stevenson and Wolfers (2008), appendix B, for further details. Sample includes sixty-nine developed and developing countries.

Why does money matter morally? Because it leads to a higher standard of living. Why does a higher standard of living matter morally? Because it increases the probability that an individual will survive and flourish. Why does survival and flourishing matter morally? Because it is the basis of the evolution of all life on earth through natural selection.

There are many more examples like these in which we can employ science to derive all sorts of findings that show how various social, political, and economic conditions lead to an increase or decrease of the survival and flourishing of individuals. This is why in my Edge.org essay I discussed data from political scientists and economists showing that democracies are better than dictatorships and that countries with more open economic borders and free trade are better off than countries with more closed economic borders and restricted trade (think North Korea, whose citizens are on average several inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts because of their crappy diets). These are measurable differences that allow us to draw scientific conclusions about moral progress or regress, based on the increase or decrease of the survival and flourishing of the individuals living in those countries. The fact that there may be many types of democracies (direct v. representative) and economies (with various trade agreements or membership in trading blocks) only reveals that human survival and flourishing is multi-faceted and multi-causal, and not that because there is more than one way to survive and flourish it means that all political, economic, and social systems are equal. They are not equal, and we have the scientific data and historical examples to demonstrate which ones increase or decrease the survival and flourishing of individuals.

woman burned alive in papua new guinea

In this Feb. 6, 2013 photo, bystanders watch as a woman accused of witchcraft is burned alive in the Western Highlands provincial capital of Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea.
(Credit: AP)

One final example on the regress side of the moral ledger: On Wednesday, February 6, 2013, a 20-year old woman and mother of one named Kepari Leniata was burned alive in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea because she was accused of sorcery by the relatives of a six-year-old boy who died on February 5. As in witch hunts of old, the conflagration on a pile of rubbish was preceded by torture with a hot iron rod, after which she was bound and doused in gasoline and ignited while surrounded by gawking crowds that prevented police and authorities from rescuing her. Tragically, a 2010 Oxfam study reported that beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft are not uncommon in the highlands of New Guinea, as well as in many parts of Melanesia in which many people still “do not accept natural causes as an explanation for misfortune, illness, accidents or death,” and instead place the blame for their problems on supernatural sorcery and black magic.

By now it seems risibly superfluous to explain why this is immoral and what the solution is, but in case there is any doubt: We know that belief in supernatural sorcery and witchcraft and their concomitant consequences of torturing and murdering whose so accused is wrong because it decreases the survival and flourishing of individuals—just ask first the woman about to be torched. The immediate solution is the enforcement of laws prohibiting such acts. The ultimate solution is science and education in understanding the natural causes of things and the debunking of supernatural beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft. And it is science that tells us why witchcraft and sorcery is immoral.

Note to my readers: What I am outlining here is the basis for my next book, The Moral Arc of Science, which I am researching and writing now, so I ask you to post your critiques here or email me your constructive criticisms. My role model is Charles Darwin, who solicited criticisms of his theory of evolution and included them in a chapter entitled “Difficulties on Theory” in On the Origin of Species. Of course, if you agree with me, and/or think of additional examples in support of my theory, then I would appreciate hearing those as well!

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What Should We Be Worried About?

The following article was first published on Edge.org on January 13, 2012 in response to this year’s Annual Question: “What Should We Be Worried About?” Read Michael Shermer’s response below, and read all responses at edge.org.

The Is-Ought Fallacy of Science and Morality

Ever since the philosophers David Hume and G. E. Moore identified the “Is-Ought problem” between descriptive statements (the way something “is”) and prescriptive statements (the way something “ought to be”), most scientists have conceded the high ground of determining human values, morals, and ethics to philosophers, agreeing that science can only describe the way things are but never tell us how they ought to be. This is a mistake.

We should be worried that scientists have given up the search for determining right and wrong and which values lead to human flourishing just as the research tools for doing so are coming online through such fields as evolutionary ethics, experimental ethics, neuroethics, and related fields. The Is-Ought problem (sometimes rendered as the “naturalistic fallacy”) is itself a fallacy. Morals and values must be based on the way things are in order to establish the best conditions for human flourishing. Before we abandon the ship just as it leaves port, let’s give science a chance to steer a course toward a destination where scientists at least have a voice in the conversation on how best we should live.

We begin with the individual organism as the primary unit of biology and society because the organism is the principal target of natural selection and social evolution. Thus, the survival and flourishing of the individual organism—people in this context—is the basis of establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality. The constitutions of human societies ought to be built on the constitution of human nature, and science is the best tool we have for understanding our nature. For example:

  • We know from behavior genetics that 40 to 50 percent of the variance among people in temperament, personality, and many political, economic, and social preferences are inherited.
  • We know from evolutionary theory that the principle of reciprocal altruism—I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine—is universal; people do not by nature give generously unless they receive something in return.
  • We know from evolutionary psychology that the principle of moralistic punishment—I’ll punish you if you do not scratch my back after I have scratched yours—is universal; people do not long tolerate free riders who continually take but never give.
  • We know from behavioral game theory about within-group amity and between-group enmity, wherein the rule-of-thumb heuristic is to trust in-group members until they prove otherwise to be distrustful, and to distrust out-group members until they prove otherwise to be trustful.
  • We know from behavioral economics about the almost universal desire of people to trade with one another, and that trade establishes trust between strangers and lowers between-group enmity, as well as produces greater prosperity for both trading partners.

These are just a few lines of evidence from many different fields of science that help us establish the best way for humans to flourish. We can ground human values and morals not just in philosophical principles such as Aristotle’s virtue ethics, Kant’s categorical imperative, Mill’s utilitarianism, or Rawls’ fairness ethics, but in science as well. Consider the following example of how science can determine human values.

Question: What is the best form of governance for large modern human societies? Answer: a liberal democracy with a market economy. Evidence: liberal democracies with market economies are more prosperous, more peaceful, and fairer than any other form of governance tried. Data: In their book Triangulating Peace, the political scientists Bruce Russett and John Oneal employed a multiple logistic regression model on data from the Correlates of War Project that recorded 2,300 militarized interstate disputes between 1816 and 2001. Assigning each country a democracy score between 1 and 10 (based on the Polity Project that measures how competitive its political process is, how openly leaders are chosen, how many constraints on a leader’s power are in place, etc.), Russett and Oneal found that when two countries are fully democratic disputes between them decrease by 50 percent, but when the less democratic member of a county pair was a full autocracy, it doubled the chance of a quarrel between them.

When you add a market economy into the equation it decreases violence and increases peace significantly. Russett and Oneal found that for every pair of at-risk nations they entered the amount of trade (as a proportion of GDP) and found that countries that depended more on trade in a given year were less likely to have a militarized dispute in the subsequent year, controlling for democracy, power ratio, great power status, and economic growth. So they found that democratic peace happens only when both members of a pair are democratic, but that trade works when either member of the pair has a market economy.

Finally, the 3rd vertex of Russett and Oneal’s triangle of peace is membership in the international community, a proxy for transparency. The social scientists counted the number of IGOs that every pair of nations jointly belonged to and ran a regression analysis with democracy and trade scores, discovering that democracy favors peace, trade favors peace, and membership in IGOs favors peace, and that a pair of countries that are in the top tenth of the scale on all three variables are 83% less likely than an average pair of countries to have a militarized dispute in a given year.

The point of this exercise is that in addition to philosophical arguments, we can make a scientific case for liberal democracy and market economies as a means of increasing human survival and flourishing. We can measure the effects quantitatively, and from that derive science-based values that demonstrate conclusively that this form of governance is really better than, say, autocracies or theocracies. Scholars may dispute the data or debate the evidence, but my point is that in addition to philosophers, scientists should have a voice in determining human values and morals.

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Coincidences and Certainties

On the morning of Friday, November 16, 2012, I wandered out of my hotel in Portland, Oregon—The Crystal Hotel, an exotic boutique hotel with rooms decorated in the theme of a musician, poet, or artist (I stayed in the Allen Ginsberg room staring at a portrait of the beat poet and realized why I write nonfiction). In search of breakfast, I could have turned left or right as I exited the lobby. I turned right. At the first intersection I could have continued straight, gone left, or gone right. I went left. There were breakfast restaurants on both the left and the right side of the street. I chose one on the right. The hostess asked if I wanted to be seated near the window or next to the wall. I chose the window. About half way through my breakfast I happened to look up to see a man walking by who looked familiar. He looked at me with similar familiarity. I waived him into the restaurant. He spoke my name in recognition. I stuttered and stammered and hemmed and hawed and finally admitted, “I’m sorry, but I can’t remember your name.” He said, “Uh, Michael, it’s me, Scott Wolfman, your agent!”

After I recovered from my embarrassment and momentary fear that I’d never get another speaking engagement, we had a laugh about it all, but then got to thinking—what are the odds of something like this happening? I’m from Southern California and Scott is from Connecticut. And we happened to run into each other in Portland, Oregon, a city neither of us normally has any business being in. I was randomly walking about the town, as was Scott. We were stunned. It sure seemed like something more than a coincidence, and we both joked about how there must be some sort of scheduling god who makes these things happen.

But Scott and I are good skeptics. We know how to think about such events. Even though such coincidences as this really stand out as unusual—and they are when I describe it in this manner—most people forget to consider all the other possibilities: the thousands of people I know who didn’t happen by that diner, the delay at the diner talking to Scott when I might have left earlier and had something else unusual happen that now didn’t, all the other cities I’ve traveled to and dined in when I didn’t see anyone I knew, and so on. And the same for Scott: he has hundreds of clients and knows thousands of people in the lecture business, any one of which he would ever happen to bump into in any given city he happened to travel to, would stand out as unusual.

In other words, after the fact we construct all the contingencies that had to come together in just such a way for one particular event to happen, and then we only notice and remember (and later tell stories like the above) about the events that we noticed as extraordinary, and conveniently forget to notice all the other possibilities. Here’s an article opening you’ll never read:

“A remarkable thing happened to me this morning. When I went out for breakfast I didn’t see a single person I know.”

And yet I’ve had thousands of breakfasts just like this one in which I see nothing but strangers. And, of course, I don’t bother to take note of that uninteresting fact, and I do not give it a second thought. The main cognitive bias at work here is the hindsight bias.

The hindsight bias is the tendency to reconstruct the past to fit with present knowledge. Once an event has occurred, we look back and reconstruct how it happened, why it had to happen that way and not some other way, and why we should have seen it coming all along. Such “Monday-morning quarterbacking” is literally evident on the Monday mornings following a weekend filled with football games. We all know what plays should have been called…after the outcome. Ditto the stock market and the endless parade of financial experts whose prognostications are quickly forgotten as they shift to post-diction analysis after the market closes—it’s easy to “buy low, sell high” once you have perfect information, which is only available after the fact when it is too late. In this story, the hindsight bias was my noticing after the fact all the particularities that had to come together in just such a way for Scott and I to run into each other.

What would have been truly and extraordinarily beyond coincidence is if I had computed ahead of time the odds of running into my lecture agent at that very time and place, and then it happened. But that’s not what happened. My account here is a post-diction—an after-the-fact analysis—instead of a prediction. Unfortunately, most people who are not aware of such cognitive biases fail to consider all the other possibilities, and how the sum of all these possibilities is certainty—something must happen, and 99.99% of the things that happen are uninteresting and unimportant and so we don’t notice or recall them later. This cognitive shortcoming is, in part, the basis of a type of superstition and magical thinking that finds deep meaning in coincidence, while ignoring entirely the certainties that must happen according to the laws of nature and contingencies of history.

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God, ET, and the Supernatural

Why there cannot be a deity beyond the natural world
that science can discover

On Saturday, November 3, 2012 I spoke at the big atheists’ conference in Mexico City on The Believing Brain, my latest book in which I develop a theory to explain not just why people believe weird things, but why people believe anything at all, including and especially god beliefs. (I don’t know if the talk will be posted Online but it is an expanded version of my TED talk or this longer version.

In the audience was the biologist Jerry Coyne, the author of one of the best defenses of evolutionary theory ever penned: Why Evolution is True. He posted a blog about my lecture in which, surprisingly (given his staunch militancy for atheism), he expressed a difference with me in the possibility of there being a God. He writes:

While I respect Shermer’s view that invoking aliens or some unknown explanation avoids a “god of the gaps” argument for unknown and miraculous or divine phenomena, I still feel as a scientist that the existence of a true supernatural god is a theoretical possibility, and that there is some possible evidence that could convince me of it. (I’ve described that evidence before; needless to say, none has been found.) Yes, such miraculous evidence for a god might eventually be found to be due to aliens or the like, but my acceptance of a god would always be a provisional one, subject to revision upon further evidence. (We might find aliens behind the whole thing.) After all, every scientific “truth” is provisional.

Jerry’s allusion to alien gods is in reference to my brief summary in the Q&A of what I originally proposed in a 2002 Scientific American column entitled “Shermer’s Last Law” (title written with tongue firmly in cheek because naming laws after oneself is a sure sign of crankdom): “Any sufficiently advanced extra-terrrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God.”

Readers will recognize this as a variant of Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I expanded on that column in my god chapter in The Believing Brain to address the claim by both theists and atheists that god’s existence is an empirical matter open to verification or refutation. I contend that it is not. Both Richard Dawkins (in The God Delusion) and Victor Stenger (in God: The Failed Hypothesis—How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist) have claimed as much in their books, and I believe that this is what Jerry Coyne means as well. My argument is that the most any natural science could ever discover in the way of a deity would be a natural intelligence sufficiently advanced to be god-like but still within the realm of the natural world. As I wrote in Scientific American:

God is typically described by Western religions as omniscient and omnipotent. Since we are far from the mark on these traits, how could we possibly distinguish a God who has them absolutely, from an ETI who has them in relatively (to us) copious amounts? Thus, we would be unable to distinguish between absolute and relative omniscience and omnipotence. But if God were only relatively more knowing and powerful than us, then by definition it would be an ETI!

The logic of this gambit is relatively simple:

  1. Biological evolution progresses at a glacial pace compared to scientific and technological evolution.
  2. The cosmos is very big and space is very empty, so the probability of making contact with an ETI who is only slightly more advanced than us is virtually nil. If we ever do find ETI it will likely be hundreds of thousands or millions of years more advanced than us.
  3. Apply Moore’s Law of the doubling of computing power every year to technology in general (as Ray Kurzweil has done in his book The Singularity is Near), and then imagine an extra-terrestrial civilization a million years more advanced than us. If in a mere century we went from crude rockets to manned-space flight, and from plant-breeding genomics (Gregor Mendel) to the creation of artificial genomes (J. Craig Venter), imagine what an extra-terrestrial intelligence could do in a million years of scientific and technological R&D?
  4. What would you call an entity a million years more technologically advanced than we are? If you don’t know the technology behind it you might call it a god, if you do you would correctly identify it as a sufficiently advanced extra-terrestrial intelligence.

On the matter of the supernatural, Jerry Coyne continues in his blog:

As always, I find the natural/supernatural distinction confusing, and see that it is possible in principle for some divine being who operates outside the laws of physics to exist.  To say there is no possibility of such a thing is an essentially unscientific claim, since there is nothing that science can rule out on first principles.  We rule out things based on evidence and experience, that is, we consider the possibilities of gods extremely unlikely since we have no good evidence for them. But it is close-minded to say that nothing would convince us otherwise.

I disagree. It is simply a matter of what philosophers of science call methodological naturalism, or the process of employing only natural explanations for natural phenomena. Science operates in the natural, not the supernatural. In fact, I go so far as to say that there is no such thing as the supernatural. There is just the natural and mysteries we have yet to explain by natural causes. Invoking such words as “supernatural” (and, in other realms, the “paranormal”) just provides a linguistic place-holder until we find natural causes (or we do not find them and discontinue the search out of lack of interest). I often employ the example of how cosmologists talk about “dark energy” and “dark matter” in reference to the so-called “missing mass” needed to explain the structure and motion of galaxies and galaxy clusters—they do not use these words as causal explanations. The words themselves are just linguistic place holders until the actual forms of matter and energy are discovered and described.

Similarly, when people use the word “mind” they tend to reify it into something that exists up there in the head in addition to the brain. It doesn’t, but let’s say I’m wrong and the “paranormalists” are right that consciousness exists separate from the brain in, perhaps, a quantum state, and that when your neurons fire they are capable of influencing the neurons in someone else’s head, and thus mind-reading or ESP is real. That would no longer be something “paranormal”; instead, it would be entirely within the realm of normal science—quantum neuroscience perhaps.

What Jerry Coyne (and, presumably, Richard Dawkins and Victor Stenger) is open-minded about is the possibility of a new and as yet undiscovered natural entity or force at work in the cosmos capable of creating, say, universes, stars, planets, and living beings (Freeman Dyson, Michio Kaku, and science fiction writers have speculated for years on how sufficiently advanced ETIs could create planets, stars, and even universes—it’s all really just an engineering problem to be solved).

A supernatural entity or force (something like the God of Abraham) that exists outside of nature is, by definition, unknowable to science. By contrast, if a supernatural being reaches into our natural world in order to act on it, He must stir the particles in some way (to, say, answer prayers for healing a cancerous tumor by reconfiguring the DNA of the cancerous cells, or to help one nation win a war over another by redirecting bullets and bombs, or to aid one football team defeat another in the Superbowl by deflecting a touchdown pass), and that action must in principle be measurable by science. If it is not measurable even in principle, then it is not knowable by science.

As correctly noted by Mssrs. Coyne, Dawkins, and Stenger, no such particle stirring (or stirrer) has been detected by scientists. But by the logic of Shermer’s Last Law, the only God that science could discover would be a natural being—an entity that exists in space and time and is constrained by the laws of nature. A supernatural God that exists outside of space and time and never interacts with our world is not knowable to science.

Q.E.D.

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Why Ayn Rand Won’t Go Away

Atlas Shrugged, Part 2
and the Motor of Moral Psychology

This article was originally published on HuffingtonPost.com on October 12, 2012

Atlas Shrugged, Part II (theatrical poster)

After seeing the Los Angles premiere of Atlas Shrugged, Part 2, the film that opened October 12 based on the 1957 novel by Ayn Rand (and with an entirely new cast and higher production values a vast improvement over Part 1), a question struck me as I was exiting the theater surrounded by Hollywood types most commonly stereotyped as liberal: Why don’t liberals admire Ayn Rand and her philosophy of objectivism, so forcefully presented in this book and film?

It is not a mystery that the woman who called herself a “radical for capitalism” would be embraced by some conservatives such as Paul Ryan and Ron Paul, but why do liberals not recognize that Rand was also a champion of individual rights, was outspoken against racism, bigotry and discrimination against minorities, and most notably was ahead of her time in championing women’s rights and demonstrating through her novels (and films) that women are as smart as men, as tough-minded as men, as hard working as men, as ambitious as men, and can even run an industrial enterprise as good as—if not better than—men? In the teeth of a 2010 study that revealed Hollywood still discriminates against women when it comes to roles in films, most notably the number and length of speaking parts and the continued blatant sexuality in which women show far more skin than men but speak far less, the hero of Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggert (played by Samantha Mathis in the new film), has the most speaking roles (and shows almost no skin), runs her own transcontinental railroad, handles with ease both seasoned male politicians and hard-nosed male titans of industry, and embodies courage and character deserving of respect and admiration from women and men, liberals and conservatives.

An answer may be found in the fact that American politics is a duopoly of those who tend toward being either fiscally and socially liberal or fiscally and socially conservative. Rand’s fiscal conservatism and social liberalism fits into neither camp comfortably (and is mostly commonly associated with the Libertarian party). As well, the moral psychology behind the political duopoly leads people to either believe that moral principles are absolute and universal or that they are relative and cultural. Rand’s implacable absolutism on moral issues, especially her seemingly cold-hearted fiscal conservatism, more comfortably fits into the conservative camp, but even there only barely.

Consider a few correlations from my dataset of 34,371 Americans who took “The Morality Survey” (you can take it yourself), constructed by myself and U.C. Berkeley social scientist Frank Sulloway and analyzed by my graduate students Anondah Saide and Kevin McCaffree: (1) We found a significant correlation (r=.29) between social conservatism and the belief that moral principles are absolute and universal (and between social liberalism and the belief that moral principles are relative and cultural), so Rand’s philosophy does not match that of most Americans. (2) We found a significant correlation (r=.24) between fiscal conservatism and the belief that moral principles are absolute and universal (and the reverse for social liberalism), so fiscal liberals will not embrace Rand here. We also found a correlation (r=.27) between belief in God and belief that moral principles are absolute and universal, and here again Rand is an outlier as an atheist who firmly believed in absolute and universal moral principles (discoverable through reason, she believed). So for liberals, Rand’s fiscal conservatism and moral principle absolutism trumps her social liberalism, and even for many on the right her atheism and rejection of faith calls into question her conservative bona fides.

Our duopolistic political system also explains why third parties in American politics—from libertarians and tea partyers to progressives and green partyers—cannot get a toehold. Despite Romney’s 47% gaffe, in point of fact both candidates know that each will automatically receive about that percentage of the vote, leaving the final 6% up for grabs. Why are we so politically divided? One answer comes from the 19th century political philosopher John Stuart Mill: “A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.”

But why would our political life be so configured? A deep evolutionary answer may be found in the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s new book The Righteous Mind, in which he argues that, to both liberals and conservatives, members of the other party are not just wrong; they are righteously wrong. Their errors are not just factual, but intentional, and their intentions are not just misguided, but dangerous. As Haidt explains, “Our righteous minds made it possible for human beings to produce large cooperative groups, tribes, and nations without the glue of kinship. But at the same time, our righteous minds guarantee that our cooperative groups will always be cursed by moralistic strife.” Thus, he concludes, morality binds us together into cohesive groups but blinds us to the ideas and intentions of those in other groups.

Third parties and outliers like Rand fall into neither group and so are not even taken seriously. But why only two parties? According to Haidt, the answer is in our moral psychology and how liberals and conservatives differ in their emphasis on five moral foundations:

  1. Harm/care, which underlies such moral virtues as kindness and nurturance;
  2. Fairness/reciprocity, which leads to such political ideals of justice, rights, and individual autonomy;
  3. Ingroup/loyalty, which creates within a tribe a “band-of-brothers” effect and underlies such virtues as patriotism;
  4. Authority/respect, which lies beneath such virtues as esteem for law and order and respect for traditions; and
  5. Purity/sanctity, which emphasizes the belief that the body is a temple that can be desecrated by immoral activities.

Sampling hundreds of thousands of people Haidt found that liberals are higher than conservatives on 1 and 2 (Harm/care and Fairness/reciprocity), but lower than conservatives on 3, 4, and 5 (Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect, and Purity/sanctity), while conservatives are roughly equal on all five dimensions, although slightly higher on 3, 4, and 5 (you can take the survey).

Obama’s emphasis on caring for the poor and fairness across all socioeconomic classes appeals to liberals, whereas conservatives are drawn toward Romney’s reinforcement of faith, family, nation, and tradition. Libertarians split the difference in being fiscally conservative and socially liberal, but their one-dimensional emphasis on individual freedom above all else (as in Rand’s philosophy) leaves them devoid of political support.

So when you see Atlas Shrugged, Part 2, remember that this is far more than a film or a story about a railroad and a mysterious motor. It is a vehicle to get us to think about which moral principles we value the most, because as Ayn Rand believed, it is ideas that move the world.

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