Michael Shermer speaks at U of C
Famed skeptic lauds progress but sacrifices environmental concerns
It’s not too often that Calgarians are granted the chance to see a famed skeptic speak. It’s perhaps a once-a-year occurrence; Sam Harris was the latest thinker to drop by, but tickets were a staggering $500 each.
That trend’s beginning to change thanks to the committed work of the local chapter of the Centre for Inquiry (CFI).
The charity, locally led by Nate Phelps, the son of Westboro Baptist Church leader Fred Phelps, brought Michael Shermer to Calgary on March 15. It’s really quite a feat for the CFI: Shermer’s the editor-in-chief of Skeptic magazine, the founder of The Skeptics Society and a Scientific American columnist.
His hour-long talk, given to a packed lecture hall at the U of C, addressed the roots of morality (a combination of evolution and socialization), fundamental moral principles (kinship and reciprocity), the need for a rights-based morality (which he termed the “ask first principle”) and the way in which global prosperity has resulted from secular liberalism that emphasizes democracy, private property and universal human rights.
Shermer is very certain that the Age of Enlightenment has been a roaring success, which is a common belief among skeptics.
The secularization of society — marked by mainstream institu- tional divorces from the concept of “divine rule,” and the relative division between church and state — has resulted in discov- eries and innovations that have greatly improved quality of life for many people.
Accompanying that growing emphasis on rational forms of knowledge has been an explosion in inclusive morality. Although concepts of fundamental human and non-human animal rights have been kicking around for centuries, it’s really been in the post-WWII period that the world has seen feminism, LGBTQ rights, civil rights, animal rights and dis- ability rights taken seriously in the political realm.
That, Shermer says, is a result of the moral arc of science. To be clear, “science” is a worldview that values “reason, empiricism and rationality” — it’s not just lab coats and beakers.
As overall quality of life has improved, conceptions of morality have broadened to include more people, non-human animals and the biosphere. Think of Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” model, except for morality.
Allofthatisbangon—I’m glad that the CFI was able to bring in Shermer, who is clearly skilled at articulating that mes- sage in a concise and entertaining manner. It’s not new or overly complex, but it’s important.
But it wasn’t a perfect thesis. There seemed to a glaring flaw that the entire presentation was predicated on; Shermer’s not the only adherent to it, with many skeptics and religious folk alike buying into it.
It’s the notion of anthropocentric progress being inherently good. Economic growth, as measured broadly by GDP or more specifically by purchases of luxury goods in “developing” countries, is fundamental to this worldview. It supposes that in- creased profits — whether the industry is oil extraction, assembling toothbrushes or selling life insurance — is highly preferable, as it “lifts all boats.”
But that view is disturbingly problematic, and it’s disappointing that someone as intelligent as Shermer can’t connect the dots. The global economy is founded upon cheap energy, accessible natural resources and plentiful water. But all of those so-called “intangible assets” are becoming increasingly threatened, especially with rising consumption from countries such as China and India. Our biosphere is under at- tack in the name of “growth.”
There aren’t any easy answers to curbing our maniacal exploitation of the life that we share this rock with, but the blind infatuation with “progress” that Shermer and some other skeptics possess doesn’t help.
It ultimately offers nothing better than what religious conservatives spout.
Calgary’s CFI is hosting an annual river and pathway clean up on May 5. To me, that’s a much more helpful and progress-oriented approach to secularism.