Imagine that you’re over at your friend Mike’s house for dinner when he pulls out a Monopoly box and invites you to a game. “But before we get started,” he says, “the rules are that I get $500 every time I pass go and you don’t get anything. ”
You protest: “That’s not fair. You’re setting up the game so you can’t lose!”
Mike is unmoved. “This is my house, my Monopoly game, and my rules,” he says. “If you don’t like it, then don’t play.”
The Moral Arc features a competition of sorts: on the one side we have religion (generally) and Christianity (specifically), and on the other side we have Shermer’s own secular worldview which he refers to variously as “scientific naturalism” or “a naturalistic, science-and reason-based worldview.” (114)
That latter description should be a tip-off that this isn’t a fair match: Shermer is setting up the game with his own version of Mike’s Rules according to which science and reason favor his worldview while the other guys — the religious and Christian folk — can only lay claim to “magic” and “superstition.” With that set up, it’s pretty clear who is going to win this game: this is Mike’s book and his rules, and if we don’t like it then we don’t have to read.
Science, Empirical Reason, and Naturalism
Shermer sets up the argument in the following passage in which he states his thesis of the arc of moral progress while claiming that it is primarily attributable to “secular not religious forces” including “science and [empirical] reason”:
“we can trace the moral arc through science with data from many different lines of inquiry, all of which demonstrate that in general, as a species, we are becoming increasingly moral. As well, I argue that most of the moral development of the past several centuries has been the result of secular not religious forces, and that the most important of these that emerged from the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment are science and reason, terms that I use in the broadest sense to mean reasoning through a series of arguments and then confirming that the conclusions are true through empirical verification.” (3)
Did you catch that? Shermer defines the process of reasoning and appealing to empirical evidence to support arguments as an example of a “secular force”. Talk about gaming the system: by that definition if Michael Behe had succeeded in establishing that the bacterial flagellum was irreducibly complex he would have only provided ammunition for “secular not religious forces”.
Remember Monopoly: when I pass go I get $500. And you get nothing…
Shermer nowhere explains precisely what it takes for a “force” to be religious rather than secular. Nor does he explain why we should assume these are exclusive categories. However, he does appear to assume that forces (i.e. beliefs and actions that impact the world) which originate in empirical verification (i) properly count as secular rather than religious and (ii) thereby favor a naturalistic worldview.
Speaking of “naturalistic worldview”, Shermer invokes the term “scientific naturalism” a handful of times. The term appears to refer to the worldview he is defending over-against Christianity, religion, and supernaturalism. However, he never defines “scientific naturalism.” This is a massive lacuna in the argument since the term “naturalism” is one of the most controversial and tortured terms in contemporary philosophy. Needless to say, it is well-nigh impossible to assess whether evidence supports Shermer’s worldview if he never defines that worldview.
To make matters worse, Shermer also never defines “religion”. This is also very problematic since “religion” is a highly contested, abstract concept. (Is communism a religion? What about consumerism? Or humanism? Naturalism? And who decides?) He also never defines supernaturalism or Christianity (though I’m okay with an ostensive definition of Christianity).
As a result, we are left very much in the dark as to what exactly Shermer is defending or how the evidence he proffers is supposed to support it.
The Witch Theory of Causality
To consider a concrete example we can turn to Shermer’s discussion of the “witch theory of causality.” In the narrow sense, this phrase functions to identify the theory that witches exist and some (negative) effects in the world can be attributed to their nefarious action. Shermer also observes that in a broader sense, the phrase functions as “a catchall explanation for the miseries of life” (114).
For the most part, Shermer appears to use the term in that broader sense. Unfortunately, it isn’t at all clear what that means. Time and again, Shermer cannot be bothered to move beyond nebulous rhetoric in his definition and use of terms. For someone who touts “reason”, he indulges in a surprising amount of polemic.
When it comes to the witch theory of causality and its eventual abandonment, Shermer writes:
“The primary difference between these premodern people and us is, in a word, science. Frankly, they often had not even the slightest clue what they were doing, operating as they were in an information vacuum, and they had no systematic method to determine the correct course of action either. The witch theory of causality, and how it was debunked through science, encapsulates the larger trend in the improvement of humanity through the centuries by the gradual replacement of religious supernaturalism with scientific naturalism.” (105)
Witch trials have long achieved a sort of mythic status among secularists angling to critique the damage wrought by “religion” and so it is no surprise that they make an appearance in The Moral Arc.
Shermer’s recounting of the historical abandonment of witch interrogation and trials nicely illustrates how he tendentiously games the system to favor his undefined worldview. He tells the story of two Jesuits who believed in the use of torture to elicit confessions from witches.
The Duke of Brunswick, however, suspected that women were confessing falsely under duress simply in an attempt to avoid further torture. So he brought these two Jesuits into the dungeon to witness the torture of a suspected witch. Then while she was being tortured, the Duke asked her if the two Jesuits observing the proceedings were involved in witchcraft. In response, she dutifully agreed and then she went on to accuse the two men of a litany of horrific crimes. (112)
Of course, the Jesuits knew they were innocent of such absurd charges. As a result, they experienced a Eureka moment as they recognized that confessions elicited under torture were unreliable. From that point on they began to speak out against the practice and soon the Archbishop of Menz abolished the use of torture altogether.
All parties to the discussion can agree heartily that this is a fine example of reason and evidence winning out over errant beliefs and practices. The problem is that Shermer also aims to claim this case for scientific naturalism over-against Christianity, religion, and supernaturalism. Remember, according to Shermer the fact that these men reasoned informed by empirical evidence entails that they were moved by “secular” rather than “religious” forces.
Mike’s rules strike again: I get $500 and you get nothing.
Of course, this is all incredibly tendentious. And as I said, with no formal definitions for “scientific naturalism” or “religion”/”supernaturalism” it is exceedingly difficult to see how this case of good reasoning really supports naturalism. The fact is that by any plausible measure it seems to me that a case like this completely underdetermines the competing philosophies/worldviews and thus provides direct evidence for none of them.
What it does provide is evidence for the importance of good reasoning. Unfortunately, when it comes to the overarching argument of The Moral Arc, that is a commodity in short supply.