I put “review” in quotes above, because Michael Shermer’s precis of Faith versus Fact in the latest Scientific American isn’t really a review at all, but a further plumping for his claim that—as Sam Harris also espouses—science can hand us objective moral truths. (See Shermer’s new book, The Moral Arc, for a fuller exposition.) The full Sci Am piece is behind a paywall, but here’s what Michael says about FvF.
He’s talking here about Steve Gould’s NOMA hypothesis: that science and religion comprise “nonoverlapping magisteria” because science’s duty is to tell us about the natural world, while the bailiwick of religion is that of meaning, morals, and values. Gould saw this as a way to reconcile the two areas, with each occupying an “equally important” area. I take Gould’s thesis apart of FvF, but you can read my book if you want to see those criticisms. Here’s what Shermer says:
Initially I embraced NOMA because a peaceful concordat is usually more desirable than a bitter conflict (plus, Gould was a friend), but as I engaged in debates with theists over the years, I saw that they were continually trespassing onto our turf with truth claims on everything from the ages of rocks and miraculous healings to the reality of the afterlife and the revivification of a certain Jewish carpenter. Most believers hold the tenets of their religion to be literally (not metaphorically) true, and they reject NOMA in practice if not in theory—for the same reason many scientists do. In his 2015 penetrating analysis of Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry A. Coyne eviscerates NOMA as “simply an unsatisfying quarrel about labels that, unless you profess a watery deism, cannot reconcile science and religion.”
Curiously, however, Coyne then argues that NOMA holds for scientists when it comes to meaning and morals and that “by and large, scientists now avoid the ‘naturalistic fallacy’—the error of drawing moral lessons from observations of nature.” But if we are not going to use science to determine meaning and morals, then what should we use? If NOMA fails, then it must fail in both directions, thereby opening the door for us to experiment in finding scientific solutions for both morals and meaning.
Well, how about using reason and philosophy, as well as innate preferences, to determine meaning and morals? I won’t go into my objections to the science-can-tell-us-moral-truths fallacy (yes, it’s a fallacy), as I’ve laid them out before. Suffice it to say that at the bottom of all “scientific” schemes of determining morality are preferences that lie outside science’s ambit. Certainly science can help us determine the best ways to realize our preferences, but can Shermer tell us, for instance, whether it’s immoral to shoot coyotes that are suspected of eating livestock? How do you weigh the different varieties of well being (if that’s your currency for morality), and balance them against each other? How can that ever be more than a judgment call?
Well, I’ll let the readers argue this one out. At least Shermer called my book a “penetrating analysis” in the middle of an extended advertisement for his own book. Reader John O’Neall informs me that both Shermer’s and my own book are on the Edge summer reading list (no surprise given that John Brockman, who runs Edge, is our agent), but there are several other intriguing books on the list, including the second volume of Richard Dawkins’s autobiography and Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which has gotten good reviews.