I had a brief Twitter exchange with leading skeptic Michael Shermer in September 2013. Michael Shermer founded the Skeptic Society and is Editor-in-chief of its magazine “Skeptic.” He also writes a column for Scientific American. He’s a leading name amongst modern skeptics and secularists.
A few days ago on Twitter he wrote:
“Can science determine moral values? Determine right and wrong? Take the Sam Harris Challenge.”
Now, I’ll explain what the Sam Harris challenge is. Sam Harris is a famous New Atheist writer who wrote a book called The Moral Landscape which attempts to ground objective morality in a naturalistic science outlook. He’s been panned by theists and atheists alike and so issued a challenge: write a 1000 word essay refuting the thesis of his book, and there’s a prize of $2000 for the best one and a prize of $20,000 if anyone actually convinces him.
My response to Shermer’s tweet was:
“1000 words? I can do it in two: ‘naturalistic fallacy.'”
Let me explain what this is. The naturalistic fallacy is understood in different ways, but the most common is the problem of deriving moral “oughts” – moral imperatives and moral prohibitions – from mere statements of biological fact. This is a well known problem that dates back centuries, classically stated by the Scottish skeptic David Hume. Simply put the problem is how we derive a moral OUGHT statement from a natural IS statement; just because something IS the case does not mean it OUGHT to be the case. My point was that this is the fallacy Sam Harris’ book makes. He tries to derive moral commands and prohibitions [oughts] from nature [things that are the case].
Shermer’s response to my tweet was this:
“Animals must eat to survive [is]. Ergo animals ought to eat. From is to ought. Naturalistic falalcy busted. QED.”
Now, to those who understand the naturalistic fallacy and a few basic tenets of moral theory it should be pretty obvious where Shermer has gone wrong here. The “ought” he uses is NOT in fact a MORAL ought. True, an animal should eat if it wants to survive. But it doesn’t follow that an animal has a moral obligation to eat or that it is doing something morally wrong by not eating! About 7 seconds of reflection should show how absurd Shermer’s rebuttal is: when a dog refuses to eat its breakfast is it breaking a moral imperative, or is it just being a bit picky? Is the dog breaking some moral command? Are dogs the type of beings that can break moral commands, or even understand the concept? Of course not.
And so my response to Shermer was:
“Hardly since the word ought in your example is not a moral ought! An animal isn’t MORALLY wrong for not eating! Just dead!”
As of now Shermer has not responded to my reply.
I happened to send the conversation to Christian philosopher William Lane Craig whose response was simply: “Geez.”
I know what he means. This kind of superficial skepticism is so popular these days, and yet so very philosophically illiterate.