Monthly Archives: March 2010



The question of whether a humanist philosophy is compatible with a world in which superheroes exist might be a fun one to explore. Can people save themselves, or do they need superheroes/authorities/gods to save them? This seems to be a theme that bubbles up every so often (and gets answered in different ways) in the comics and movies.

I found it interesting, for instance, to see The Dark Knight play with the idea that Batman may not need to micromanage justice from “on high”: at one point Harvey Dent and Gotham law enforcement manage to arrest and convict the majority of the Mob; the people on board the civilian and prisoner ferries decide not to blow each other up, and require no rescuing.

The Superman movies seem to send mixed messages. Jor-El’s recorded message to his son has strong humanist strains: he says of humans, “They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be,” and extols “their capacity for good.” But he, and the movies, also see a deficiency: “They only lack the light to show the way,” and therefore need a savior: “my only son.” It was interesting to see Superman Returns turn this around, and show Superman himself being saved by mere mortals from drowning (with, I believe, the humanist part of Jor-El’s speech playing as a voice-over?), before the movie reverts to form — naturally — with Supes recovering and saving the world from Luthor’s Kryptonite-laden real estate.

I don’t follow the Wonder Woman comics faithfully, but in the few recent issues I’ve browsed in the library she seems to be her island nation’s ambassador to the United Nations, trying to fulfill her ideals of justice and harmony by working through the legal and diplomatic mechanisms of the human world (with the occasional ass-kicking, of course). And I’m sure much more can be said about the relationship between humans and superheroes — between human and superhuman justice — in such works as The Dark Knight Returns, X-Men, The Watchmen…

(h/t The Mississippifarian, via Pharyngula)

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Can science answer moral questions? cont’d.

Sam Harris addresses the critics of his TED talk:

Moral relativism is clearly an attempt to pay intellectual reparations for the crimes of western colonialism, ethnocentrism, and racism. This is, I think, the only charitable thing to be said about it. Needless to say, it was not my purpose at TED to defend the idiosyncrasies of the West as any more enlightened, in principle, than those of any other culture. Rather, I was arguing that the most basic facts about human flourishing must transcend culture, just as most other facts do. And if there are facts which are truly a matter of cultural construction—if, for instance, learning a specific language or tattooing your face fundamentally alters the possibilities of human experience—well, then these facts also arise from (neurophysiological) processes that transcend culture.

I must say, the vehemence and condescension with which the is/ought objection has been thrown in my face astounds me. And it confirms my sense that this bit of bad philosophy has done tremendous harm to the thinking of smart (and not so smart) people. The categorical distinction between facts and values helped open a sinkhole beneath liberalism long ago—leading to moral relativism and to masochistic depths of political correctness. Think of the champions of “tolerance” who reflexively blamed Salman Rushdie for his fatwa, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her ongoing security concerns, or the Danish cartoonists for their “controversy,” and you will understand what happens when educated liberals think there is no universal foundation for human values. Among conservatives in the West, the same skepticism about the power of reason leads, more often than not, directly to the feet of Jesus Christ, Savior of the Universe. Indeed, the most common defense one now hears for religious faith is not that there is compelling evidence for God’s existence, but that a belief in Him is the only basis for a universal conception of human values. And it is decidedly unhelpful that the moral relativism of liberals so often seems to prove the conservative case.

His full response is here. Lots of food for thought.

Update: Continue reading

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On being skeptical of skeptics

Freddie DeBoer on his blog L’Hote posts an interesting response to Sam Harris’s TED talk, which I wrote about here.

The entire post, titled “Skepticism and the Last Dogma,” is worth reading, as are the readers’ comments that follow. I think he makes an excellent point about the need for a “true” skepticism — one that guards against the arrogance of unwarranted certainty — but also seriously misapprehends Harris’s argument. Here are some of the salient points:

This is the kind of skeptic that Sam Harris is: he is skeptical of competing claims of truth and accuracy, but not of his own capacity to judge, nor of the human capacity to create intellectual structures that make that judging correct. Certainly, this is what the edifice of modern skepticism represents: a skepticism that first flatters the intellect of the skeptic in question, and the human mind in general.

I’ve always felt that the kind of skepticism that is most valuable, that is to our pragmatic benefit, is the skepticism that begins the skeptical enterprise at the human mind, the classical Greek skepticism that regarded any real certainty as dogmatism. Not because it is true, or even because it is superior, but because epistemological modesty seems to me to be an entirely under appreciated tool for the practical prosecution of our lives and our arguments. You can of course read a vast array of literature making this same point, from people far smarter and better argued than I am. You can read people like Sextus Empiricus, the Buddha, David Hume, George Berkeley, Nietzsche, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty…. Not because they are gurus who will point you towards truth, but because what they have to say may help you along your way.

For me, I would merely put it this way: that we do not encounter the physical universe unmediated but through a consciousness mechanism and sensory inputs that seem to be the products of evolution. And the belief (however you want to define a belief) in evolution makes the idea of those consciousness and sensory mechanism being capable, no matter how long the time scale, of perfectly or non-contingently ordering the universe around us seem quite low. Evolution does not produce perfectly fit systems, it only eliminates those systems so unfit that they prevent survival and the propagation of genetic material. A chimpanzee’s intellect is a near-miracle, capable of incredible things, but it will never understand calculus. I could never and would never say this with deductive certainty, but it seems likely to me that our consciousness has similar limitations.


All of history’s greatest villains were people who were certain. From Pol Pot to Hitler to Stalin to the Spanish Inquisition, the conquistadors, the progenitors of the Rwandan genocide, the Ku Klux Klan…. They all had it all figured out. […] What the world needs isn’t yet another muscular certainty that seeks to impose itself on all. What it needs is doubt, I think.


Among the few necessary social functions that religion performed, and that we now are lacking in a post-theistic world, is the enforcement of a certain humility. There is no god, but you and I are still dust, we always were.

First, here’s where I disagree. Continue reading

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The Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate: video

Video of the 10th Annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate (“Moon, Mars and Beyond: Where Next for the Manned Space Program?”) is available here, courtesy of Landmark Pictures.

My thoughts on the event here.

And, just because:

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Poetic atheism: other voices

Once we’re attuned to this kind of rapturous embrace of the real, it seems to pop up everywhere.

Here’s Neil deGrasse Tyson, practically religious in his description of our oneness with the universe:

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Moral animals

A few nights ago, our daughter burst into tears in the middle of reading Love That Dog by Sharon Creech. “I didn’t know,” she sobbed, “that shelters kill the dogs that don’t get adopted!”

That wasn’t true of all shelters, we reassured her; different shelters have different policies, and some are definitely “no-kill” ones. But others aren’t, she insisted, and that wasn’t right; no animal should get killed just because no one wants them! We agreed wholeheartedly. “I think I could be a vegetarian,” she mused, after calming down; “I don’t want any animal to get hurt.”

While I doubt that she’ll stick to vegetarianism at this age — my wife and I don’t really feel strongly either way, and our daughter didn’t seem to mind having turkey burgers for dinner later that evening — it’s certainly a very admirable sentiment. And it made me think of something I’d written before: that humanists strive to expand the circle of our ethical concern to include the natural world around us.

Sam Harris would probably say, as he did in his TED talk, that the circle of ethical concern would specifically be for conscious entities. And we feel more concern for those whom we’ve observed to have a well-developed capacity for feeling emotion and pain — e.g. primates — than for those who apparently don’t have such an ability — e.g. insects. Harris does admit that science could later prove us wrong about insects; the unspoken implication is that such a revelation would transform the way we treat them.

The more intellectually and emotionally developed an entity is (or is perceived to be), the more we feel we have ethical responsibilities toward it. We have no problem manipulating bees to make our honey, taming horses to serve as labor and transportation, and raising cattle to provide our food. But once people realized that slaves were fully human, with the full emotional, moral, and intellectual capacity of human beings, slavery became unjustifiable, and is rightly seen as immoral today. Likewise — although some societies still don’t seem to realize this — restricting the rights, movements, and actions of women is manifestly wrong, because women demonstrably have the same human consciousness, the same capacity for feeling and thinking, as men. It’s true that it makes sense to treat every human well because we all belong to the same species; but it’s also true that we extend that courtesy to other species whom we perceive to have a consciousness similar to ours — which is why it’s emotionally easier to kill a cockroach than an ape.

But what if animal consciousness is even more developed than anyone had previously imagined? What if we discover, in many species, an astonishing capacity for fairness, compassion, altruism, forgiveness, retribution, and justice? What if — in contradiction to the widely held belief that only humans have moral values — we find that many animals, in fact, possess morality? Continue reading

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Can science answer moral questions?

Sam Harris thinks it can: “There are truths to be known about how human communities flourish whether or not we understand these truths. And morality relates to these truths. So in talking about values, we are talking about facts.”

Some thoughts: Continue reading

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