Reason is Not the Sole Property of Skeptics

A few weeks ago Politico published an article by professional skeptic Michael Shermer—I think when you are the publisher of a magazine called Skeptic, you can be classified as a “professional skeptic,” right?—called “Why Politicians Need Science,” with the subtitle, “Remember: before the triumph of science, we burned witches at the stake and thought that kings ruled by divine right.” The headline betrays attitudes toward science and reason and an understanding of history that demonstrates why, whether or not politicians need science, skeptics need reason.

Shermer begins by accusing a senator of using bad science for a political end in the global warming/climate change debates, and he uses this example to argue that “we have forgotten how to discern what actually is true. We’ve forgotten how to use science and reason to solve problems and instead we’ve turned to moralizing about scientific issues.” Already the problems are evident.

The method for discerning what is true will depend upon the question at hand. Science answers questions about the physical nature and operations of the material universe; questions concerning such matters are indeed “scientific issues.” But while such scientific data and empirically derived conclusions can provide matter for our public policy or personal decision-making, they cannot tell us what ought to be done. The principles of practical reasoning are not scientific ones, but philosophical ones. Science may (or may not) be telling us that humanity is causing the Earth to warm, but science cannot tell us what we ought to do about it. It cannot tell us the goals we should seek or the values we should have. Here reason thanks science for its contributions and leaves it behind to do further work, as the architect thanks the surveyor for his measurements of the plot then decides how best to design the building to fit the client’s needs. The two are not coterminous.

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Often in his article Shermer pairs the terms “science and reason” as essentially identifiable with one another. Reason, though, is a category that includes but is not exhausted by empirical science. If we define “reason” as something like “the exercise of the intellect in grasping the character and features of reality,” then we find that reason encompasses other modes of thought apart from empirical observation and verification. The various branches of philosophy employ reason: logic and metaphysics perhaps have a primary claim to being the main referent in the phrase “using your reason,” as they are the building blocks–apprehension, definition, judgment, the syllogism. Theology, too, uses the tools of reason in its approach to God, as any reader of Aquinas could tell you—it is, after all, the “sacred science.” Theology, however, takes some of its data from revelation, which, though it may use a different source than science for its data, nevertheless proceeds upon rational grounds. It is precisely rational reflection upon the matter of Scripture and Tradition that constitute this discipline. Reason, thus, is not to be confined to the domain of empirical science, but rather is used (and eminently) in many disciplines besides.

This conflation between science and reason would seem to set up in the mind of Shermer a false identification: anything rational is scientific. Thus, if we hold some position to be a rational one, be it a political policy or a moral imperative, that policy or imperative must be in some way scientifically demonstrable and derived.

Shermer makes this mistake in the following passage: “Enlightenment natural philosophers such as John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and Thomas Paine—America’s Founding Fathers—placed supreme value on reason and scientific inquiry, which in turn led them to prize human natural rights, equality, and freedom of thought and expression.”

(As an aside, it should be noted that Locke was more of a founding grandfather, having died 72 years before the Declaration of Independence was signed, but I quibble. As one further aside, I would question in what sense these men were “natural philosophers.” Some engaged in scientific pursuits, true, but how many actually pursued philosophical reflection on nature itself in the sense that Aristotle or St. Albert the Great did? I think Shermer has misused the term.)

As to the main point: What connection is there between scientific enquiry and concepts like natural rights or equality? Were these discovered in a lab or through a telescope? Shermer gives an example of his thinking when he asserts that “based on his medical training and the influence of many of the biggest scientists of his generation, Locke reasoned that all people should be treated equally under the law. He then sought to verify his theory empirically; and his theory has endured, as countries that practice it have flourished.”

Legal or moral equality of persons is not something that can be ascertained through empirical observation and analysis. If you determine that all humans are anatomically similar, that tells you nothing about their moral status … unless you hold prior to that the philosophical principle that all creatures that possess the same anatomy are the same species, and all of the same species have the same nature, by virtue of which they possess a dignity which entitles them to equal treatment under the law. In such a position, the scientific data does not lead to the philosophical legal and moral principle; rather, the principle already is in place, and the data tells us where it is to be applied. The two truths come from different spheres. This is demonstrated by the fact that there is many a person today who admit the scientific truth of human physical similarity but deny the moral truth of the equality of a certain class of humans: the unborn. If the two truths were indistinct, all who held the former would by that fact hold the latter. Would that were so.

Shermer cites other examples trying to prove his point, all the while repeating his error. Thomas Hobbes applied his atomic theory to government, thus proposing his Leviathan—his theory is wrong and his policy is terrifying, but this does not concern Shermer. He says Montesquieu applied deductive reasoning to determine what sort of laws are fitting for humanity. “‘Laws in their most general signification, are the necessary relations derived from the nature of things,’ he wrote.” Deducing conclusion from first principles, from the nature of things? This is philosophy, not empirical science.

Shermer then asks:

So you see, for nearly three centuries, we have been using science to determine such moral values as the best way to structure a polity, an economy, a legal system and a civil society, in the same way that physicians have developed improved medical science and epidemiologists have worked to build better public health science in order attenuate plagues, disease and other scourges of humanity. Are we supposed to just give up on that now?

Nowhere does he say how science helped to determine moral values, and he could not, for it is not within the scope of science to do so. The moral values themselves were not determined by science, but by previously held first principles.

Some of Shermer’s worst errors of this kind come in his list of some of the historical achievements of science:

Science and reason have debunked a number of such myths, such as that gods need animal and human sacrifices, that demons possess people, that Jews cause plagues and poison wells, that some races are inferior to other races, that women are too weak to run countries or corporations, that animals are automata and feel no pain, that kings rule by divine right, and many other beliefs no rational scientifically literate person today would hold.

What does scientific literacy have to do with such ideas? How and when did science disprove any of these? Certainly most of these are no longer held by most people (except for the question of demonic possession), but can Shermer tell us what scientific study proved that women were capable of running corporations? Or the journal article that describes the experiment by which the moral equality of races was proved? He cannot, because none such exist, because these are not matters that are within the purview of science. The needs (or existence) of gods, the operation (or existence) of demons, the activities of Jews, the moral status of races, the capabilities of women, the root of the legitimacy of political power—none of these is subject to empirical observation and verification. Even the question of animal pain requires definitions of both pain and “feeling” that themselves cannot be determined by science.

Through all this Shermer argues that Enlightenment thinkers led the way toward democracy, while the “backward” notions he listed were all antithetical to it. And at the root of Shermer’s position is one of the most basic logical fallacies: post hoc ergo propter hoc, or “after this therefore because of this.” Shermer believes that because democracies flourished in Europe chronologically posterior to the nascence of the scientific revolution, such scientific ideas must have been the cause of such a political sea-change. His attempts to cite examples fall flat, and indeed his thesis proves too much, for the very phenomena he cites in his subtitle, the burning of witches and the political theory of the divine right of kings, both had their zenith in the time chronologically posterior to the day of Bacon, Descartes, and Galileo. And the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century produced some fantastic scientific advances, from Nazi rocketry to the Soviet space program. Science and democracy are hardly a package deal.

We must give Shermer this much: politicians do indeed need science, as society needs data about the world to inform the decisions it makes. But the decisions themselves, the principles that help us to determine what we ought to do, cannot be derived from science, but must be brought in to make use of this data, either from natural reason or supernatural revelation. A nation that rejects such reason will only be ruled by the will of the strong, still with their science in hand. Shermer may think he is avoiding Christendom, but he is pushing toward North Korea.


  • Nicholas Senz

    Nicholas Senz is Director of Faith Formation at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Arlington, Texas and a Master Catechist. A native of Verboort, Oregon, Nicholas holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. He is on Twitter @nicksenz and his own blog, NicholasSenz.

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