Another criterion for judging whether to “cancel” someone

September 15, 2020 • 11:00 am

Although I don’t spend a lot of time calling for people to be unpersoned, canceled, or have their statues toppled or namesakes changed, I do try to discern whether “cancellation” calls are justified or unwarranted. Clearly there’s no good criteria that will work all the time, so it usually comes down to a judgment call.  In general, I tend to side with those who want history left as it is, but sometimes qualified, as with statues of Confederates famous for defending the South. (I favor “counterstatues” or explanatory plaque.) But in many cases, such as the Teddy Roosevelt statue at the American Museum of Natural History, I see no need for revision (see Greg’s post on that here).

My criteria so far have been twofold. First, is the statue celebrating something good a person did rather than something bad? So, for example, Hitler statues fail this test, though I hear that some Nazi statues are simply left to molder and degenerate rather than having been pulled down. Second, were the person’s contributions on balance good or bad? So, though Gandhi was a bit of a racist towards blacks as a barrister in South Africa, the net amount of good he did in bringing India into existence through nonviolent protest seems to me to heavily outweigh his earlier missteps. Gandhi statues should stay.

What if someone was bad on balance but did a good thing—should that person be celebrated? That would be a judgment call.

In general, I err on the side of preserving history, for statues and buildings are a mark of history—of times when our morality was different from what it is today. And it’s useful to be reminded of that rather than simply having our past, especially the bad bits, erased. History, after all, isn’t all beer and skittles. We don’t want a lot of Winston Smiths operating in our culture.

Now, in an article in Quillette, Steven Hales, described as “Professor and Chair of Philosophy of Bloomsberg University of Pennsylvania”, and author of The Myth of Luck: Philosophy, Fate, and Fortune, has added another criterion, one that seems sensible to me.  Well, it’s not really a criterion for determining who should be cancelled, but a way to look at the supposed missteps of figures from the past. I have tweaked it to make it a criterion.

Click on the screenshot to read:

Hales analyzes morality as analogous to science. Science has improved over time in helping us understanding nature, but we don’t denigrate scientists who made honest errors in the past. (Miscreant scientists, like Lysenko, are a different case.) Similarly, morality improves over time. (I don’t think there’s an objective morality, but surely the way we run society has allowed flourishing of more people over the past few centuries.) To Hales, it makes as little sense to denigrate those who went along with the morality of their time as to denigrate those scientists who accepted the “received wisdom” of their time. As he says:

All of which to say, there is a vital difference between being wrong and being blameworthy. Einstein struggled to admit the fact of quantum entanglement, but that does not entail his blameworthiness as a scientist. In one clear sense, he was on the “wrong side” of quantum history, but that doesn’t necessarily merit demotion from the pantheon. Scientific praiseworthiness or blameworthiness is determined not by the standards of our times, but of theirs. While you can hardly blame Darwin for not knowing the unit of natural selection, you would certainly blame a modern biology undergraduate if she did not know about DNA. Nonetheless, it is Darwin who deserves our admiration and praise, even if today’s undergrad knows more than he did.

And so we should judge people by the “average” moral standard of the time, which I interpret as meaning that if someone wasn’t considered immoral in their own society, but had values and beliefs that were fairly standard, then we can’t fault them too much today, for people are products of their genes and environments.


Anyone who thinks that right moral thinking is obvious, and is incredulous at the horrible beliefs of the past, is the unwitting heir to a philosophical fortune hard-earned by their forebears. The arc of the universe may bend towards justice, but it is a long arc. As with scientists, moral actors of the past also fall into the great, the average, and the bad. Our judgment of them shouldn’t be by the standards of our own times, but the standards of theirs. By the moral understanding of his day, Vlad the Impaler was still a monster. But should we say the same of St. Paul, who in his Letter to Philemon, returns Onesimus, a runaway slave, to his owner instead of providing the slave with safe harbor? While Paul’s letter includes a request for Christian mercy, he omits condemnation for the horror of slavery. Paul was no slave trader, but the moral views displayed here were typical for his time.

By these lights, Hume, who gave approbation to a slaveholder, wasn’t the monster he seems to be today, as acceptance of slavery wasn’t seen as immoral back then as it is now. Morality has evolved for the better. I think it’s misguided, then, to “cancel” Hume, as they’re trying at Edinburgh with a building name, because of one “misstep” in a life that was otherwise very useful and salubrious.

Now of course this criterion has its own problems, the most obvious being “what was the ‘received’ moral wisdom of the time?” For example, Darwin was not in the majority of Brits of his time in being an abolitionist. Should we expect people of Darwin’s era, then, to adhere to the “best” morality, or simply to an “average” morality—one that wouldn’t get its adherent labeled as immoral in his society? Since there are always some angels in society, however rare, I’d go with the latter criterion.

This doesn’t solve all the issues, for of course the Nazis adhered to the average anti-Semitic morality of their times, and we don’t want people to put up statues to Nazis or label buildings “Goebbels Hall.” How do we judge an “average” morality? Morality among all humans on the planet in a time when people can read, learn and think, or the morality obtaining in one’s immediate surroundings? I have no answer.

Nor do I know how to combine Hales’s criterion with the ones I’ve held previously. All I know is that I have a mental algorithm about who should be canceled, and few people fall on the “yes” side, mainly those with no redeeming lives, acts, or thoughts.  Nor should we laud people today for things that were once considered okay, but now are seen as bad. Hume deserves to stay because he was not only a great man and a great philosopher, but also because he wasn’t the equivalent of a Nazi.  Finally, I don’t have problems getting rid of art that shows things that really are considered universally offensive: like a mural showing a lynching in the South.  Clearly, we will never get everyone to agree on these issues.

But as for Darwin, Gandhi, Jefferson, George Washingon and yes, with qualification, Robert E. Lee—let them stay. As they say, those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it.

Baptist leader tells us that God doesn’t want us to sacrifice the old

March 26, 2020 • 12:30 pm

Here we have the New York Times once again pandering to religion, publishing an article that says we should help save lives, including the lives of the elderly, not because of humanistic values, but because God says so.  The author, Russell Moore, is described as “the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Read and scowl:


Moore’s point, which many people have discussed without invoking religion or God, is whether we’re going to let people go back to work prematurely because the preservation of the economy (and other social values) is more important than the lives that would be lost by an early ending of the quarantine. Well, that’s basically true, but surely we’ll have to resume normal life before the world is entirely cleansed of Covid-19, so that itself is a form of tradeoff. A more important issue at the moment is how do we give care to young versus old people, or people who are immunologically compromised, when care is limited?

We have only a certain number of ventilators, and if there are two people competing for one, one 25 and the other 80, who do you choose? Reason would suggest that you’ll create the most well being, on average, by saving the greatest number of years to come. And that would favor the younger over the older, those likely to survive over those likely to die. That is the only humane decision, and you don’t need religion to make it (simple utilitarianism will do). Already, Italy is prioritizing Covid-19 care for those under 60, giving older people palliative care. When there are limited resources, priority must be given.

Of course Moore is correct that we shouldn’t—as Trump appears to want—blithely allow older people to die in the service of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, but such advice doesn’t require invoking God. So why does Moore stick the divine in?

For example:

A pandemic is no time to turn our eyes away from the sanctity of human life.

As opposed to other kinds of life?

We already are hearing talk about weighing the value of human life against the health of the nation’s economy and the strength of the stock market. It’s true that a depression would cause untold suffering for people around the world, hitting the poor the hardest. Still, each human life is more significant than a trillion-dollar gross national product. Stocks and bonds are important, yes, but human beings are created in the image of God.

There Moore is using the Bible as his source of ethics. Because humans (but not gorillas or ducks) are created in the eyes of God, we cannot automatically prioritize the economy and the fabric of society over people’s lives. But you don’t need the Bible for that. Try John Rawls, or Peter Singer (both atheists). And don’t forget that giving human life the highest priority over everything, including suffering, leads to spending millions of dollars to keep those in vegetative states alive, or to disallowing assisted suicide.

It goes on:

We must also reject suggestions that it makes sense to prioritize the care of those who are young and healthy over those who are elderly or have disabilities. Such considerations turn human lives into checkmarks on a page rather than the sacred mystery they are. When we entertain these ideas, something of our very humanity is lost.

Nope. Who gets the ventilator? The 25 year old or the 80 year old? Do we lose our humanity when we have to make such a choice? I don’t think so: we exercise our humanity.

But wait! There’s more!

. . .Vulnerability is not a diminishment of the human experience, but is part of that experience. Those of us in the Christian tradition believe that God molded us from dust and breathed into us the breath of life. Moreover, we bear witness that every human life is fragile. We are, all of us, creatures and not gods. We are in need of air and water and one another.

A generation ago, the essayist and novelist Wendell Berry told us that the great challenge of our time would be whether we would see life as a machine or as a miracle. The same is true now. The value of a human life is not determined on a balance sheet. We cannot coldly make decisions as to how many people we are willing to lose since “we are all going to die of something.”

You don’t need to see life as a miracle to come to ethical decisions about triage or ending pandemics.  You need consider only well being versus other things we value. After all, there are thousands of deaths every year due to car accidents, falls in the bathtub, accidental discharge of firearms, and so on. In 2000, 17,000 people committed suicide with a firearm.  Many people (though not I!) would say that the value of firearms outweighs those of the lives lost using them, and that the value of cars outweighs the 15,000 or so people killed in vehicular accidents every year. We make these decisions all the time, weighing known loss of life versus social goods. I don’t happen to think that we need guns, but I do think we need vehicles, despite Moore’s claim that every life is a sacred miracle.  And during this pandemic, as we’ve seen from Italy, you simply can’t treat everyone the same way. Does Moore think so? (He doesn’t say, but that’s the implication).

It angers me that Moore claims God and the Bible as his arbiter of moral behavior when humanistic values lead to exactly the same conclusions he reaches:

That means we must listen to medical experts, and do everything possible to avoid the catastrophe we see right now in Italy and elsewhere. We must get back to work, get the economy back on its feet, but we can only do that when doing so will not kill the vulnerable and overwhelm our hospitals, our doctors, our nurses, and our communities.

Duhhh! (But I note that the Italian form of triage is in effect “killing the vulnerable”, but through inaction rather than direct action. The result is the same).

Truly, I can see nothing in his article that a humanistic atheist like Peter Singer couldn’t write, and without invoking the false idea that we’re made in the image of God. (How does that matter, anyway? God, who made us in His image, saw fit to commit repeated genocides in the Old Testament, and that selfsame God allowed coronavirus to spread over the globe and kill tens of thousands.) The “image of god” idea grates on anyone who thinks we evolved, and on those who believe we can derive our ethics (better, ethics, actually) without consulting a nonexistent being in the sky.  So I could have written this last paragraph—except for the final seven words:

And along the way we must guard our consciences. We cannot pass by on the side of the road when the elderly, the disabled, the poor, and the vulnerable are in peril before our eyes. We want to hear the sound of cash registers again, but we cannot afford to hear them over the cries of those made in the image of God.

Why was this published?

More mishigas about free will, this time in the TLS

August 12, 2019 • 9:45 am

The Times Literary Supplement, which I used to write for, doesn’t often make its articles free online, but this one was (click on screenshot below to see it). And it’s about free will: a review of three books on the topic (The Limits of Free Will: Selected essays by Paul Russell, Aspects of Agency: Decisions, abilities, explanations, and free will by Alfred R. Mele, and Self-Determination: The ethics of action – Volume One by Thomas Pink). The reviewer, Jenann Ismael, is a professor at Columbia University, specializing in, as her website reports, “Philosophy of Physics; Philosophy of Science; Philosophy of Mind; Epistemology;  Metaphysics, with interests (and some expertise) in Cognitive Science, Philosophy of Literature, and Existentialism.” That’s a lot of expertise!

As is common in many book reviews, and in most of the good ones, the books themselves play a secondary role to the author’s ideas about the subject. The thing is, I’m not sure what the author’s ideas are, as she goes back and forth between hard determinism and “freedom”, trying, I guess, to forge some compatibilist view that gives us free will. It has something to do with “moral responsibility”, too; but the rather flabby article would have benefited from tighter writing and better editing.

Ismael starts out admitting that the laws of physics make it certain that we could not act other than what we did. She even goes so far as to claim that quantum indeterminacy would not affect her claim that everything we do was determined from the moment of the Big Bang. I don’t accept that, for I’m pretty sure (though I can’t prove it), that quantum indeterminacy made today’s actions fundamentally unpredictable, even if we knew the position of every particle in the Universe after the Big Bang. But since Ismael asserts that quantum mechanics and quantum field theory are not truly deterministic, I’m not sure how she claims that a rerun of the Big Bang would produce exactly the same results, right down to our choice of food the last time we went to a restaurant (or even if there would be restaurants!).

So be it. I’ll buy it since it’s irrelevant to her argument. For as Ismael admits, even quantum mechanics gives us no agency. In one of her better paragraphs, she says this:

Considering quantum mechanics helps us focus on the kind of control that seems essential to human freedom. We don’t want our actions to be controlled by the initial conditions of the universe, and we don’t want them to be controlled by random sub-microscopic events in the brain either. We want to control our own actions ourselves, and we think we do. We want to get ourselves into the causal chain. And we want our decisions to come from us.

But for her the important issue is that although determinism be true, and we couldn’t have chosen otherwise, it doesn’t square with our experience of agency:

This problem [of free will] has been around for millennia, but physics gives it a precise formulation and a concrete setting. It’s a beautiful problem because it brings physics into contact with issues of central human concern and forces us to think hard, in concrete detail, about what a scientific view of the world really entails about ourselves. The problem confronts us with a vision of human action that appears to be irreconcilable with the way we experience the world.

Well, lots of our experience is at odds with what science tells us. We experience a chair as a solid surface, yet most of it is empty space. And physics tells us that our experience of solidity is illusory, but also why we have that experience. In the case of free will, the so-called disconnect between our experience of agency and the reality of determinism may rest on evolution’s having instilled into our ancestors a sense of you-can-do-otherwise agency. It may have been illusory, but it may also have been adaptive. I can think of several reasons why selection would favor that cognitive illusion, but I won’t go into them here.

And there the issue should rest, but Ismael still can’t seem to reconcile our experience of agency with the reality of determinism. This, she says, tells us something important:

To most people, however, it seems literally unbelievable that the scales of fate don’t hang in the balance when making a difficult decision. And it is not just those dark nights of the soul where this matters. You think that you could cross the street here or there, pick these socks or those, go to bed at a reasonable hour or stay up, howl at the moon and eat donuts till dawn. Every choice is a juncture in history and it is up to you to determine which way to go.

Yet, if there is one foundational scientific fact, it is that things can’t happen that the laws of physics don’t allow. And the clash between these two things shows that there is something centrally important about ourselves and our position in the cosmos that we don’t understand.

Apparently—though in a way that she doesn’t make clear—the “centrally important” thing is our sense of moral responsibility—a sense that Ismael thinks is important to preserve. Again, I’d punt to evolution here, and simply say that “morality” is the word we use to describe the dos and don’ts of behavior instilled in us by both evolution and culture. Some animals have it, though not to the degree that we do, but a sense of “right and wrong” is not absolutely unique to humans. Still, the issue appears to keep Dr. Ismael awake at night.

She then describes in detail the murder of the Clutter family in Kansas in 1959—a story well known to those who have read Capote’s In Cold Blood. Surely Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, the murders, were morally responsible for that horrific crime, no?

As I’ve said many times, I don’t think adding the word “morally” to the word “responsible” adds anything. In fact, it’s misleading, for to most people, if moral responsibility means anything it means that you could have done other than what you chose to do. I prefer to simply use the word “responsible”. Or, if you insist, “responsible for violating the social norms considered part of ‘morality’.” To me, the term “moral responsibility” is heavily freighted with libertarian free will, and should be, if not abandoned, heavily qualified, as I’ve just done.  It is this feeling of moral responsibility that Ismael appears to find problematic in light of determinism:

It is the question of moral responsibility that transforms the problem from the relatively shallow one of reconciling the rigid necessity of physics with the felt spontaneity of action into one that engages with deep human questions about what we are, both as individuals and as a species. It also moves the question outside of the simple setting of physics. The question “what am I? And how do I fit into the universe?” is one of the oldest in philosophy. Linking the question to moral responsibility gives us more traction because it forces us to think about what makes another human being an appropriate target for moral emotions like praise and blame, not to mention love, admiration, anger and contempt. Science won’t answer these questions, but it provides us with the right setting in which to address them, if we do not want to rely on magical thinking.

Well, I think science could at least give us a purchase on these questions. Why do we even have notions of morality?  Do most people really think that being morally responsible means that, at the moment of your decision, you could have chosen to do something other than what you did? I don’t think philosophy has much to add to this; in fact, I think philosophy has actually muddled thinking about free will by dragging in the inevitable compromise of compatibilism: the “little people” notion that we must have some notion of free will, despite physics, because without it society will fall apart. (They used to say the same thing about ideas of God.) Philosophers can’t even agree on what compatibilistic free will is!

And so, at the end, Ismael proposes, but not explicitly, her own idea of compatibilist free will:

We are shaped by our native dispositions and endowments, but we do make choices, and our choices come from us to the extent that they are expressions of our hopes and dreams, values and priorities. These are things actively distilled out of a history of personal experience, and they make us who we are. Freedom is not a grandiose metaphysical ability to subvene the laws of physics. It is the day-to-day business of making choices: choosing the country over the city, children over career, jazz over opera, choosing an occasional lie over a hurtful truth, hard work over leisure. It is choosing that friend, this hairstyle, maybe tiramisu over a tight physique, and pleasure over achievement. It is all of the little formative decisions that when all is said and done, make our lives our own creations.

This is freedom? Where is the freedom? I scrutinized this paragraph over and over, and I find no “freedom” in it. What I see is (as is common for compatibilists) a redefinition of “freedom” in which there are no degrees of freedom, no scope to do otherwise. For Ismael, your predetermined choices are called “free” because they are your choices, stemming from your personal experience (which is determined) and your genetic endowment (which is also determined).

It takes a special kind of slippery philosophy to engage in this kind of rhetoric. And, in fact, virtually every sentient organism has this kind of free will, including microbes, whose lives are also their own creations.

Truly, the idea that we have free will because our choices are the result of our unique combination of genes and environments mystifies me. After all, that same combination is what makes our choices predetermined. What we see here is a kind of Orwellian doublespeak: “DETERMINISM IS FREEDOM’.


h/t: Michael

My newest piece in Quillette: Another response to John Staddon

May 11, 2019 • 10:30 am

My contretemps in the pages of Quillette continues with the psychobiologist John Staddon. I hope this is the end of it, as it’s no fun to write what I’ve written many times before to criticize a man who’s repeating old and tedious arguments that have been rebutted many times before. But so great is Staddon’s animus against atheism that he simply can’t learn.

As you may recall, Staddon originally wrote a piece in Quillette called “Is secular humanism a religion?” His answer was “yes,” even though his own concept of religion didn’t fit secular humanism in two of its three defining characteristics. But his main point was that secular humanism is religious because it has a morality—a morality that, as a conservative, he considered odious. (One of the supposedly repugnant aspects of secular morality was gay marriage.) He also argued that, like religion, secular humanism has “blasphemy rules,” like the criticism of those who wear blackface. That’s what’s known as “straining to support your argument”, and it causes mental hernias.

Well, I couldn’t let his piece stand, and so wrote a substantial reply, “Secular humanism is not a religion.” I won’t reiterate it here, as you can read it at the link or read about it on my website (here and here).

Staddon was apparently peeved that I didn’t swallow his half-digested pabulum, and so wrote a response to me called “Values, even secular ones, depend on faith: A reply to Jerry Coyne” (you can read my note about it here, which didn’t give a rebuttal because I knew I’d write one for Quillette). In this response, without admitting it, he retracts his original claim that secular humanism is a religion. He first argues that he didn’t choose the title (and that may have been true), but neglects to add that the very first sentence of his first piece, a sentence that he surely wrote himself, was this:

It is now a rather old story: secular humanism is a religion.

Oh well, let the readers be deceived. But he went on to claim that well, maybe secular humanism and its morality really isn’t religious, but they do have religious aspects: they’re based on faith. As Staddon said,

My argument is simple: religions have three characteristics: spiritual, mythical/historical, and moral. Secular humanism lacks the first two and is often quite critical of these aspects of religion. But they are largely irrelevant to politics. Hence the truth or falsity of religious myths is also irrelevant, as are Coyne’s disproofs of the existence of God. The fact that religious morals are derived from religious stories—myths in Mr. Coyne’s book—does not make them any more dismissible than Mr. Coyne’s morals, which are connected to nothing at all. In his own agnostic terms, all are matters of faith.

I couldn’t let that stand, either, as “faith” means something very different in secular humanistic ethics and religious ethics. And the claim that secular morality is based on “nothing at all” is completely stupid.

I explain the difference in the construals of “faith” in my article, while noting that, at bottom, any ethical system is based on “preferences”. In religion it’s for following the dictates of your particular sect, while in humanism it’s usually based on what kind of world you’d like to see and inhabit. There can be no claim that this and that morality is “objective and scientific” as all are grounded on preferences. (Some differ from me: Sam Harris and Derek Parfit, for instance, think that we can construct a perfectly objective morality.)

Nevertheless, secular morality can be based on a rational and coherent set of principles (I give one example in my piece), can be informed by science, and can also change based on changing mores. (When religious morality changes, that’s not based on changes in theology but on changes in secular morality that then force changes in theology. The Euthyphro Dilemma applies here.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. You can read my response by clicking on the screenshot below.  And thanks to Rebecca Goldstein for discussing the issues with me; one can have no better critic.

As I found before, the commenters on my piece, already active, are disappointingly unthoughtful.

Once again, John Staddon maintains that religious morality is superior to secular morality

May 5, 2019 • 9:00 am

John Staddon and I have been having “words” in Quillette. It began with Staddon’s piece “Is Secular Humanism a Religion?“, a question he answered in the affirmative, even though secular humanism violated two of Staddon’s three defining traits of religion. I thus responded both here and then in a rebuttal in Quillette, “Secular Humanism is not a religion“.

Now Staddon has written a short reply to my critique, also in Quillette. See below; you can access it by clicking on the screenshot:.

First, Staddon denies that he ever claimed that secular humanism is a religion. That’s just not true, as you can see not just from his original title (which, he claims, was “misleading” and was chosen by Quillette), but also from the very first sentence of his article: “It is now a rather old story: secular humanism is a religion.”  Apparently the man cannot read his own piece! Or perhaps he reads it like he reads his Bible, picking and choosing the parts that support his argument while ignoring the rest.

But leave that aside, for in his new piece Staddon wants to emphasize the main point of his first piece: that, like religious ethics, secular ethics are based on faith and cannot be “proved”:

. . . in no case are secular commandments derivable from reason. Like religious “oughts” they are also matters of faith. Secular morals are as unprovable as the morals of religion.

In fact, Staddon sees religious morals as superior to secular ones because they rest on religious stories, stories that he admits are myths. But at least religious morals rest on something. Secular ethics, so he claims, are based on nothing:

My argument is simple: religions have three characteristics: spiritual, mythical/historical, and moral. Secular humanism lacks the first two and is often quite critical of these aspects of religion. But they are largely irrelevant to politics. Hence the truth or falsity of religious myths is also irrelevant, as are Coyne’s disproofs of the existence of God. The fact that religious morals are derived from religious stories—myths in Mr. Coyne’s book—does not make them any more dismissible than Mr. Coyne’s morals, which are connected to nothing at all. In his own agnostic terms, all are matters of faith.

. . . In other words, in all the ways that matter for action, secularists and religious believers do not differ.

I’m not going to give my counterarguments here, as I’m putting them in a short piece in Quillette, but I’ll let the readers have the pleasure of arguing whether secular ethics are indeed based on the same kind of faith as is religion, and that secular ethics “are connected to nothing at all.” I will show, as briefly as I can, that secular ethics are not connected to “nothing at all.”

Have at it.


Kate Cohen: Don’t mix religion, morality, and politics

May 2, 2019 • 1:15 pm

There are two things that most of us have learned about religion and morality:

1.) People don’t really get their morality from religion—or at least most of it. That is, people don’t judge what is moral versus immoral behavior solely from the dictates of their faith, but rather from extra-Biblical sources that are antecedent to God’s wishes. There are of course exceptions: Christians often oppose abortion because they think fetuses have souls, and pious Muslims decree that homosexuality is a capital offense and women must be covered. But as Plato realized millennia ago in the Euthyphro Argument, most things are deemed “moral” or “immoral” not because they comport with the wishes of a deity, but because they comport with some extra-theistic versions of morality. If God, for instance, said that killing innocent people was good, not many folks would agree. (William Lane Craig is an exception, and he’s signed on to one version of that.) That’s because they think there are non-religious reasons to prohibit killing. All thoughtful morality is secular morality.

2.) When people say they get their morality from religion, they’re often picking and choosing from scripture, again taking those things that comport with a non-religious view of right versus wrong. That’s why most Christians reject the dictates of the Old Testament (approving of killing kids who curse their parents, as well as those who engage in homosexual acts or gather sticks on the Sabbath) in favor of the more comfortable statements from Jesus or the Ten Commandments.  Nearly all adherents to every Abrahamic faith chooses those aspects of scripture that conform to their own notions of right and wrong—those notions that derive from #1 above.

And so Kate Cohen, an atheist writer, takes religious politicians to task in her excellent Washington Post article (click on screenshot), pointing out the flaws of bragging that your political views are good because they align with religion:

Although we’re well aware of how Republicans use scripture to support political issues like anti-abortion bills and a brake on stem-cell research, I hadn’t realized that so many Democratic candidates also claimed their politics were grounded in faith. (Of course, very few politicians are open atheists, but at least Democratic believers, who presumably support the First Amendment, don’t have to flaunt their religion).

An excerpt from Cohen’s piece:

I’m an atheist. I have bemoaned the fact that my country’s motto is “In God We Trust,” that elected officials are sworn in on holy books, legislative sessions begin in prayer, and big political speeches seem predestined to end with the phrase “God Bless America.” I think religion and government should be kept far apart. But if I ruled out all the self-proclaimed Christians in the race, I would lose a lot of great candidates. Cory Booker told a CNN town hall that “Christ is the center of my life”; Kamala D. Harris announced her candidacy “with faith in God”; Elizabeth Warren taught Sunday school and quotes the Gospel of Matthew.

That [Pete] Buttigieg is a Christian doesn’t concern me. But he’s not just a Christian; he also publicly advocates a reemergence of a “religious left.” He argues that Democrats should not be afraid to use religious traditions “as a way of calling us to higher values.” As he told Bill Maher, “When I go to church, what I hear a lot about is protecting the downtrodden, and standing up for the immigrant and being skeptical of authority sometimes and making sure you look after the poor and the prisoner.”

He told The Post that he wants to “remind people of faith why the same things that are being preached on Sunday apply to the policies that we’re making on Monday morning.” In other words, use religion as a tool for political persuasion.

It’s time to stop pandering to the faithful by parading how your beliefs support your politics. The reasons why can be seen in #1 and #2 above: your morals are antecedent to scripture, and if you buttress your liberal principles with faith, then you are susceptible to conservatives who buttress their more repugnant views with faith. After all, you can find any morality you like in the Bible. And even the Qur’an, filled as it is with hatred and xenophobia, can also be parsed as a “document of peace.”

It’s so refreshing to read stuff like this:

Here’s the thing: People bring their morality to their religious texts; they don’t get their morality from them. After all, how does Buttigieg decide what’s important in the Bible and what should be ignored, underplayed or dismissed as vestiges from another era? What does he measure each message against? His own innate sense of morality.

When Buttigieg argues that Democrats should be able to use religious traditions “as a way of calling us to higher values,” he means “higher” as in lofty. He’s not saying those values — compassion, justice, humility — are higher than the traditions themselves. But they are. Because those religious traditions also include the “values” of exclusion, patriarchy and tribalism. And, yes, even the “value” of homophobia.

The higher values that Buttigieg embraces — values I, an atheist, share — exist not because of religion but independent of it. Can he find Christian tenets to express those values? Sure. Could that help him urge “people of faith” to move their politics “in a certain direction”? Maybe.

In the second sentence above, Cohen distills the Euthyphro argument for the layperson. Kudos to her, and to the Post for publishing something by—horrors!—an open atheist.

Just don’t ask me how to pronounce “Buttigieg”. I can spell it but I can’t say it, and I’ve NEVER heard it pronounced on television.

The worst article ever to appear in Quillette: Psychologist declares secular humanism a “religion”

April 12, 2019 • 9:45 am

In general I like the articles in Quillette: they’re generally left-wing but also critical of the Left’s excesses—a theme that has led some misguided ideologues to call the site “alt-right.” But this time the editors screwed up by accepting a piece that makes very little sense, and arrives at its conclusion by some risibly tortuous logic (click on screenshot). The author, John Staddon, is identified as “James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biology, Emeritus, at Duke University”. His answer to the title question, by the way, is “yes”.

This may in fact be the worst piece that Quillette has ever published:

Staddon begins by claiming that there are three elements common to all religions (his defining traits are in bold). I won’t argue with him except to say that the first and second claims show substantial overlap:

1.)  “The first is the belief in invisible or hidden beings, worlds and processes—like God, heaven, miracles, reincarnation, and the soul. All these are unverifiable, or unseen and unseeable, except by mystics under special and generally unrepeatable conditions. Since absence of evidence is not, logically, evidence of absence, these features of religion are neither true nor false, but simply unprovable. They have no implications for action, hence no bearing on legal matters.”

I’ll leave it to readers to judge whether this claim is true of all religions (Staddon mentions no exceptions). But this characteristic is certainly not true of secular humanism, which is SECULAR.  So on this count Staddon shows that secular humanism doesn’t share an important feature of religion.

However, he fails to realize that claims about God, miracles, the soul, and so on, can indeed be testable under some circumstances. I summarized in Faith Versus Fact how there could be evidence for God and miracles (all provisional, of course, because this is empirical and semiscientific evidence). Carl Sagan also wrote about the conceivable but unobserved evidence for God.

2.) “The second element are claims about the real world: every religion, especially in its primordial version, makes claims that are essentially scientific—assertions of fact that are potentially verifiable. These claims are of two kinds. The first we might call timeless: e.g., claims about physical properties—the four elementary humors, for example, the Hindu turtle that supports the world, properties of foods, the doctrine of literal transubstantiation. The second are claims about history: Noah’s flood, the age of the earth, the resurrection—all “myths of origin.” Some of these claims are unverifiable; as for the rest, there is now a consensus that science usually wins—in law and elsewhere. In any case, few of these claims have any bearing on action.”

First of all, this overlaps almost entirely with claim 1, for things like resurrections and miracles and the soul are claims about the real world, and some are testable. There could, for example, be a soul that is somehow detectable (people used to weigh dying people to see if they lost weight when they died and their “souls” left the body). In fact, I’d say that claims about heaven are in principle more testable than claims about literal transubstantiation, which the Vatican has immunized against disproof by making the “transubstantiation” undetectable by empirical means.

But we see in the last sentence of #2 what Staddon really wants to see as the defining trait of religion: something that “have a bearing on action”. That brings us to #3:

3.) “The third property of a religion are its rules for action—prohibitions and requirements—its morality. All religions have a code, a set of moral and behavioral prescriptions, matters of belief —usually, but not necessarily—said to flow from God, that provide guides to action in a wide range of situations. The 10 Commandments, the principles of Sharia, the Five Precepts of Buddhism, etc. 

Secular humanism lacks any reference to the supernatural and defers matters of fact to science. But it is as rich in moral rules, in dogma, as any religion. Its rules come not from God but from texts like Mill’s On Liberty, and the works of philosophers like Peter Singer, Dan Dennett and Bertrand Russell, psychologists B. F. Skinner and Sigmund Freud, public intellectuals like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, and “humanist chaplains” everywhere. “

Yes, most religions do have a morality, at least the theistic ones. But Staddon doesn’t seem to realize that the morality of religion has two features which differentiate it from the morality deriving from secular humanism. (I’ll add here that there isn’t really a morality of secular humanism beyond “Do what benefits other people.”) The variety of secular-humanistic morality makes it far less comprehensive than the morality of religions, for secular humanists differ drastically from each other in how they construe ethical action beyond the Golden Rule. Indeed, Staddon recognizes this:
Because secular-humanist morals cannot be easily identified, they cannot be easily attacked

First, much of religious morality, as Maarten Boudry and I argued, derives directly or indirectly from its supernatural claims. So the view that abortion is murder, for instance, comes from the view that fetuses, like adults, have souls, and therefore aborting them is murder. The prohibition of homosexuality comes from scripture, both in Islam and Christianity. And so on.

Second, religious morality largely comes from interpreting what is God’s will—sometimes in the “divine command theory”: the view that whatever God says is good is good. (This overlaps, of course with my point above.) In contrast, the morality of secular humanists usually (and should) come from some basic non-divine principles about how we ought to act—principles based largely on reason but in the end are grounded on preference. While the foundations of secular morality are subjective, they largely coincide for most of us, and encompass some version of Sam Harris’s view that “objective” morality means maximizing well being.

I’ve objected to Sam’s view not because it’s not a good guideline for action (it almost invariably is), but simply because it’s not as objective as he thinks. You have to sign on to the idea that “maximizing well being” is the highest good, and not everybody might do that. How do you show people who reject the well-being criterion that they’re objectively wrong?

In other cases Sam’s criterion is not practicable. How do we weigh the well-being of animals versus humans when we cut down rain forest, eat meat, or use animals in medical research? How many mice have the well being equivalent to one human? How do you trade off wealth versus health? My objection, in other words, is not that Sam’s utilitarian rule is not generally the best one, but that it’s not objective in its claim that science can decide the most moral thing to do. (Given some constraints, science may be able to decide what will maximize well being, however.)

If you do accept the idea that most secular humanists have a similar morality that derives from an intuitive grasp of maximizing well being, a view that goes hand in hand with liberalism and empathy, then you get a very different morality from secular humanism than you do from religion.

Most important EVERYONE has a moral code, but that doesn’t make everyone religious. For, in the end, Staddon decides that only item #3, rules for behavior and right action, counts as religion. Thus everyone in the world is religious save sociopaths and others who have no moral rules. That makes Staddon’s characterization of secular humanism pretty much of a tautology. To wit:

But it is only the morality of a religion, not its supernatural or historical beliefs, that has any implications for action, for politics and law. Secular humanism makes moral claims as strong as any other faith. It is therefore as much a religion as any other. But because it is not seen as religious, the beliefs of secular humanists increasingly influence U.S. law.

This is about as dumb a claim as you’ll see a respected academic making. It completely evades both the dictionary and the vernacular conceptions of religion, and makes everybody religious who has a view of right and wrong. It also ignores the diversity of moral views among secular humanists. I’d take issue, for instance, with Staddon’s argument that secular humanism makes moral claims as strong as that of, say Sunni Islam or Southern Baptists.

So the whole piece is bogus, resting on a nonstandard definition of “religion”. But why does Staddon twist language this way?

Apparently because he doesn’t like the kind of morality that he sees flowing from secular humanism, which contravenes what I think is his own conservative view of morality. He gives three examples of how secular humanistic “faith” has affected people’s actions and the law in ways he clearly disapproves of.

One is the legalization of same-sex marriage. The second is the existence of “blasphemy rules,” like “it’s immoral to dress in blackface or use the “n-word”. I myself object to the extreme censoriousness affecting some of these actions (though the two cited are abhorrent), but I see this as the result of people trying to create a harmonious world (sometimes in misguided ways), and not at all the same thing as a religious dictate. The passion of opposing blackface may be of the same intensity as the passion of opposing abortion, but that doesn’t make the former religious, except insofar as you use “religious” as a synonym for “passionate.”

Staddon’s third example is weird: humanist Fred Edwords’ (Staddon misspells it as “Edwards”) opposition to the erection of a 40-foot cross in Maryland on public land. Not realizing that opposing that is simply enforcing the First Amendment (an Amendment supported, by the way, by many believers), Staddon argues that “It seems to be the faith of a competitor that Fred objects to.” In other words, by allowing people to erect nonreligious monuments on public land but opposing religious ones, Edwords is supposedly showing the religious side of secular humanism:  no competitor monuments allowed. To make a pun, this is monumentally stupid.

Staddon goes on objecting to asking political candidates about their religion, something I think is fair if their faith would influence their actions as an elected official, but I desist. In the end, Stodden fails to prove his thesis since he admits that secular humanism lacks two of the three defining traits of religion, and then he implies that anybody with a moral code is religious.

That reminds me of Stephen Jay Gould’s weaselly reconciliation between science and religion in his book Rocks of Ages. In that book, Gould’s NOMA Hypothesis was that science is about finding the facts of the universe, while religion’s bailiwick is meaning, morals, and values. Gould ignored the long tradition of secular ethics, and, addressing that lacuna when I reviewed the book for the Times Literary Supplement, I said this:

Finally, it need hardly be pointed out that atheists are not automatically amoral. Gould senses this difficulty, but finesses it by claiming that all ethics is really religion in disguise. To distinguish the two, he says, is to “quibble about the labels”, and he decides to “construe as fundamentally religious (literally, binding us together) all moral discourse on principles that might activate the ideal of universal fellowship of people”. But one cannot evade this problem by defining it out of existence.

Gould was wrong, and so is Staddon. Why did the editors of Quillette publish this odiferous serving of tripe?

h/t: Michael, who says, “I remember this same guy rabbiting on about ‘scientific imperialism’ a decade ago.  I found a video of Staddon doing that; it’s only two minutes long, and I’ll leave it to you to react/rebut.


Why is Pinker demonized?

March 13, 2019 • 9:45 am

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a new and longish article by Tom Bartlett about the character, achievements, and demonization of Steve Pinker. Click on the screenshot below to read it.

Let me give my own take on Pinker first. It’s no secret that I consider him a friend and admire him hugely. Among all those in the atheist-sphere with whom I’ve interacted, he’s the most empathic, the most intellectually productive, and the most thoughtful. Dawkins is a marginally better writer, but not by much. I’ve never seen Steve commit a shoddy act nor engage in ad hominem arguments. I’ve read nearly all his books (save the linguistic ones except The Language Instinct), and can’t find much to quibble with.

But people still dislike him—even hate him. This is puzzling to me as he’s a nice guy and can’t be accused of Misogyny and Nazism Through Tweeting. As best I can understand, people don’t like him because he’s famous and they’re not, because he attacks a “blank slate” view of human nature (a view to which much of the Left is ideologically wedded), and because he has documented continuing material and moral progress in humanity (which “riskologists” don’t like because they make their lives crying that the sky is going to fall). I’m not a sociologist, and accept his figures as given, but even his critics can’t find much to quibble with about the data he shows. Rather, they make false claims about his “rosy” view that society will always be improving without effort, and about his ignoring existential threats like atomic wars. If you read his books, though, especially the last two big ones, you’ll see he does take these issues into account.

People like John Gray and others go after him, but I fault them for ignoring the palpable fact (which Pinker documents with endless data) that society is indeed getting better, and has gotten better on average over the last four or five centuries. I doubt John Gray and Pinker’s other critics would want to live in 16th century France, for instance, unless they were royalty or a nobleman. For one thing, they’d be sick a lot of the time, and their life spans would be shorter. Their teeth would hurt and rot. Their food and general well being, not to mention their education, would also be much worse.  Which would you choose: to be a European peasant in 1600 or an American, French, or British farmer today? I think the choice is clear.

A few excerpts. The article begins by raising the same issue that has puzzled me:

It’s not like he was uncontroversial before. His 2002 bestseller, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Viking), ruffled egalitarian sensibilities by arguing that our tabulae are far from rasa. He’s also dipped into contentious debates about gender differences, infanticide, and IQ. But the pushback against his more recent work, beginning with The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, 2011), feels harsher, more personal, at times tinged with real anger. Which is surprising, in part because his message — that, hey, despite some significant challenges we’re making progress as a species — seems benign enough. Pinker doesn’t come off like a bomb-thrower; friends and colleagues describe him as generous, curious, eager to share credit. He carries himself with none of the swagger of an academic rock star, though he’s on a short list of those who could reasonably claim that title.

So how did such a nice guy become such a big target?

Before summarizing the criticisms of the Two Big Books, the Chronicle recounts Pinker’s career and his arduous (and, for me, unattainable) work habits:

When he’s at work on a book, Pinker writes obsessively, to the exclusion of almost everything else. “I tend to write morning, noon, and night until I’m finished,” he says. “There’s a low level state of anxiety that keeps me going until the project is done.” Gary Marcus, once Pinker’s student and now a professor of psychology at New York University, remembers working on a paper with him years ago. “He would write for 12 straight hours,” says Marcus, who struggled to keep up. “He could just go and go.”

Yes, that’s what I’ve learned: Pinker told me that when he’s writing, it’s full time except for meals and exercise. And he just keeps doing it. I admire that but I could never emulate it, nor, given my constitution, would I want to. But of course he’s famous and I’m not: that’s the trade-off, even if I did have the brainpower to do what he’s done.

Some of the criticisms:

Pinker isn’t shy about taking on his more substantive critics. Among the most persistent is the philosopher John Gray, whose firmly pessimistic outlook feels like the precise reverse of Pinker’s approach. Gray has called Enlightenment Now“embarrassing” and a “parody of Enlightenment thinking at its crudest.” Gray told me he considers Pinker a “not terribly interesting thinker.” The feeling appears to be mutual. Pinker shrugs off Gray’s critiques as “the kind of argument only an extremely articulate sophist would make.”

Another longtime nemesis is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the best-selling author, statistician, and former Wall Street trader who made his fortune betting against optimism. Taleb accuses Pinker of “unstatistical reasoning” and of disregarding so-called fat-tailed variables — that is, when Pinker contends that we’re living in an extended period of relative peace, Taleb laughs and points out that a nuclear war or other cataclysm could wipe out those gains, just like the subprime mortgage crisis upended the stock market. Pinker responded at length to Taleb in an essay titled “Fooled by Belligerence,” a play on the title of Taleb’s book Fooled by Randomness, writing that Taleb has not read his work carefully and that “accurate attribution and careful analysis of other people’s ideas are not his strong suits.” When asked if he’d ever debate Taleb, Pinker shrugs. “He’s more of a bully than an intellectual,” he says. It’s possible that Taleb, who likes to compare himself physically to a bodyguard, would take that as a compliment.

But Taleb’s not the only one who makes this case. Even some scholars who know Pinker and respect his work, like Niall Ferguson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, are concerned that his undeniably eloquent tone has turned dangerously reassuring: “I have this really awful feeling that one day we’ll all be sitting in a bombed-out bunker saying, ‘Hey, remember Steven Pinker’s book?”

Well, these criticisms are lame. “Not a terribly interesting thinker”? Maybe not to the arrogant and condescending Gray, but a lot of us enjoy Pinker’s books. He writes a lot better than the leaden and mind-numbing Gray, whose picture appears beside the word “hauteur” in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Steve did more than just summarize data, you know: he analyzed the reasons for the world’s moral and material improvement. Gray and others may disagree about those reasons, but let them provide alternative explanations for the same indisputable trends. Taleb and Ferguson’s arguments that Pinker neglects nuclear war are misguided: he takes the threat as real and says we have to work on it. Nowhere does he say that we’re on a fast track to Everything Will be Better; his lesson is that things have gotten better, they’ve gotten better because of the assiduous adoption and employment of Enlightenment values, and we have to uphold those values to keep the world from getting worse. Pinker keeps saying that, and people keep ignoring him.

The one criticism that Bartlett sees as valid doesn’t look so valid after all (my emphasis):

But Pinker complains that it’s often his critics who garble his arguments, and then set about torching straw men of their own creation. For instance, a review in The Nation by David Bell, a Princeton historian, quotes Pinker as asserting that “there really is a mysterious arc bending toward justice,” as if the committed atheist had expressed faith in unseen forces. In fact, in the quoted passage, Pinker is saying the opposite: that social and political advancement only make it seem as if such an arc exists. Bell stands by the quote, telling me that Pinker disregards the reality that societal improvements “take conscious political action” and that in the book Pinker evinces “contempt for intellectuals and what intellectuals do.”

There’s something to that last charge. In Enlightenment Now, Pinker writes that intellectuals hate “the idea of progress” while happily enjoying its multitudinous comforts (“they prefer to have their surgery with anesthesia”). He also mocks academics for embracing Marxism, dismissing science, and for being more interested in crafting critiques than searching for solutions. “It’s easy to take an oppositional stance if you’re not responsible for getting clean water to run through the pipes, sewage to be taken away, electricity to be provided, and police to ensure safety,” Pinker says.

I’ve read both of Pinker’s latest big books (Better Angels and Enlightenment Now), and in fact they are the works of an intellectual, providing copious statistical data as well as rational analysis of the data and reasons for societal trends. The “contempt” that Pinker evinces is not for “intellectuals and what intellectuals do”, but for that subset of intellectuals who are protective of their intellectual turf, who cannot bear to see naked data refuting their hypotheses, and who raise the hue and cry of “scientism” when facts are adduced alongside arguments.

He’s also been accused of being an alt-righter, and that’s the most mendacious accusation of all. Pinker is on the Left, though more toward the center than are, say, the Justice Democrats. He donated a sizable sum to the Democratic Party during the last election cycle, and I know from conversations with him that he’s not the neo-Nazi you’d guess from reading, say, Ph*ryng*l*.

Read the piece for yourself if you wish. I have been accused of being Pinker’s Bulldog or an uncritical fanboy, but I reject those charges. I’ve been critical of plenty of my atheist colleagues when I think they say something wrong or act badly. Some of them, like Michael Shermer, Dan Dennett, and Richard Dawkins, I remain friends with although I take issue with some of their ideas; others, like Lawrence Krauss, I’ve broken off with completely.  I just haven’t found anything to dislike about or disagree with vis-à-vis Pinker.

I’ll finish with something that we Pinkerphiles always wonder about: what his next book will be. For there will always be a next book until they lay the man in the ground. And here’s the answer:

The book he’s working on now, tentatively titled “Don’t Go There: Common Knowledge and the Science of Civility, Hypocrisy, Outrage, and Taboo,” will attempt to unpack the psychology behind such outsized responses. “One of the reasons that you get shaming mobs, and conspicuous outrage, especially on social media, is when there is some common knowledge that’s an affront to an understanding that is shared in some faction,” he says. When that understanding is under threat, Pinker says, members of that faction “feel obliged to challenge it because their own identity is at stake.”

As Bartlett notes, this sounds a bit like Steve is trying to make intellectual sense of the new opposition he’s encountered, which is a bit defensive. But I don’t mind it, for I’m sure his take on social media, scientism, and the like will be both interesting and readable.


More email from evolution-haters

March 11, 2019 • 8:45 am

Well, maybe “evolution hater” is too strong a term for this woman from Virginia, who wrote me an email this morning. She said “there is no need to respond,” but given that she sent me an unsolicited email, I’ll send her the link to this post, along with the comments. Feel free to respond, but again—be polite. (I informed the retired Air Force officer who wrote me yesterday of the readers’ responses.)

Dear Professor Coyne,

I read with interest your review of Behe’s book.  As a nonscientist, I am not in a position to make any critical judgment on either view.  As the mother of five and grandmother of seven, I know what the younger generation is seeking- authenticity without vitriol, Truth without preaching and a genuine desire to tackle the “Tough” questions of our time- which include  open discussions of the Four big questions- Origin, Meaning, Morality and Destiny.

Personally, I find evolutionary theory sorely lacking in any meaningful answer to any of theses questions and the attempts to address them fall into the hubris and arrogance of scientism rather than the humility that stems from wonder at the order of the universe and a willingness to admit we do not know everything.There is no need to respond.

There was a postscript:

The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing.  Pascal

My comments:

1.) It saddens me to see a non-scientist claim that they’re not capable of making a critical judgement of ID. The arguments are not that arcane and have been addressed in many popular venues. I think this is just intellectual laziness, or perhaps an unwillingness to engage with the criticisms of ID.

2.) Why is a scientific discussion, or promoting evolution, which happens to be true, “preaching”?  In fact, any attempt to say something that contradicts another person’s religious beliefs is always construed as “vitriol.”

3.) Evolutionary biology doesn’t really deal with the questions of “Origin, Meaning, Morality, and Destiny” except insofar as abiogenesis (the study of how life began) can be considered part of evolutionary biology, and insofar as some aspects of morality—its roots in our animal ancestors—can be examined scientifically.

But, of course, religion, while it may tackle these tough questions, doesn’t answer them. For example, what is the proper moral behavior? If you’re a Christian it’s one thing (actually more, depending on what kind of Christian you are), if you’re a Muslim it’s another thing, and if you’re a Scientologist it’s still another.  The fact is that evolutionary biology actually answers the questions it asks, while religion does not. (Is there a God? Who knows? If there is one, is it the Christian God, Allah, or Shiva? Who knows?) Or if religion does provide answers, there are better (and more consistent) answers provided by secular humanism and ethics.

4.) Once again we see the scientism canard leveled at people like me (at least I presume it’s me, since she’s reacting to my book review). Well, I admit that we don’t know everything, and I know of no scientist who disagrees. The thing is that in 100 years we’ll know more about biology and evolution than we do now, while theologians and believers won’t know one iota more about the divine. It is not the scientists who have hubris, but the believers. And any changes and improvements in morality will, as Steve Pinker argues, come not from religion but from humanism.


Are some truths not worth knowing?

November 18, 2018 • 11:30 am

I was listening for the first time to the famous “Four Horseman” video discussion with Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, and noted that, near the end, they discuss the possibility that some scientific facts might not be worth knowing, or even be dangerous to know. (Dan mentions determinism, though he doesn’t think that it should be hidden from the public). Above that discussion hovers another question: would it ever be good to delude people about the truth (this is regularly suggested by religion-friendly atheists)? And there’s a third question: should we not pursue some lines of research because they might yield truths that would be harmful?

I’ve thought about this question a lot, and touch on it in Faith Versus Fact, but haven’t come up with any examples of truths that should be hidden, or research that shouldn’t be done—unless that research itself involves palpable harm, like the Tuskegee syphilis study. It seems to me always better to know the truth than not know the truth. I don’t like the fact that I’m going to die, for instance, and sometimes I wish I were a squirrel or a duck with no knowledge of my own mortality; but since we are rational beings, it’s better to know what’s going to happen to us. I don’t want someone to tell me I’m going to be immortal—even in the afterlife.

The only instance of a truth that, to me, even comes close to something that would harm society involves studies of genetic differences between groups. Do ethnic groups differ in IQ? Do men and women differ in innate interests and capacities? Such questions certainly could cause huge offense depending on what the results are, but only to the extent that the offended think that those facts will lead to bigotry, racism, and sexism.

They needn’t. As I’ve always said, the morality that we construct, while it should be informed by empirical fact, should not heavily depend on biology. Whether groups or individuals should be treated as equals in terms of opportunities, respect, and so on, should not depend on genetic differences in their behaviors or “talents”. And it is interesting, for example, to know if there are innate differences in preferences and behavior between men and women.

Some truths aren’t worth knowing, I suppose, because the results are boring and trivial. One example is knowing how many blades of grass are there on the University of Chicago quadrangle. I would say that answering that is a dumb and meaningless endeavor of no interest to anyone. But that’s not in the class of the “dangerous” studies I mention above.

I’m just throwing this question out to readers. Are there any scientific truths that, if we knew them, we should keep from people? Are there any questions that could be answered that we shouldn’t try to answer. I await a discussion.