Why Science Can’t Explain Morality

Copan, Paul-Naturalism Ground Genine Moral

Review: JAS275 | By Paul Copan

This review first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 29, number 6 (2006). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, is a best‐selling author whose books include Why People Believe Weird Things and How We Believe. The Science of Good and Evil (Henry Holt and Company, 2004) is yet another engagingly written book by this former “born‐again Christian” and “born‐again atheist” who currently holds the view of “agnostic nontheist” (p. 3). He believes that, “by the criteria of science and reason,” God is an “unknowable concept” (4). After all, we cannot “prove or disprove God’s existence,” says Shermer, although he is open to some proof of the divine materializing in the future (p. 5).

Shermer distinguishes between morality, which “involves issues of right and wrong thought and behavior,” and ethics, which “involves the study of right and wrong thought and behavior” (7). The first half of his book covers “The Origin of Morality,” and the second half covers “A Science of Provisional Ethics.” Shermer believes that religion evolved as a social structure to reinforce rules regarding altruism and cooperation. Instead of accepting supernaturalism, Shermer opts for an evolutionary basis for connecting God, religion, and morality. He thus approaches evolutionary ethics (a subdivision of evolutionary psychology) in a “scientific” manner, drawing on anthropology, sociology, social psychology, and evolutionary biology.

Taking the position of a “transcendent empiricist” (19), Shermer claims that he can (a) “leave God out of the ethical discussion altogether” and, in order to avoid pure relativism or culturally determined ethics, (b) “adopt the methodological naturalism of science” (17). Morality, he claims, exists “outside of us”; it is a universal human trait (18). The impersonal force of evolution created our moral sentiments and behaviors, even though we may fine‐tune and tweak them according to our cultural preferences and historical circumstances (18–19). The existence of morality, according to Shermer, is not the result of religious influence, although religion creates social institutions that canonize and reinforce moral principles. Evolution generates moral sentiments, and culture (including religion) helps codify these principles into societal rules.

Shermer argues that moral rules are not absolute (i.e., they do not apply to all people in all cultures under all circumstances all of the time), but that they are not relative either. They are provisionally true (i.e., they apply to “most people in most cultures in most circumstances most of the time” (20–21) and operate according to various provisional moral principles (which I will discuss below).

Shermer preserves a place for human freedom and moral responsibility despite evolution (19–22), and appeals to scientific evidence to bolster his claims. He explores such issues as the myth of the noble savage in light of warfare and hostility as well as ecocide among primitive civilizations (ch. 3).

The following will summarize some of Shermer’s key points. More important, it will address some of the most philosophically and apologetically significant problems in his work.

The Problem of Moving from Is to Ought. Shermer holds that somehow we are morally obligated to act according to drives that have been genetically passed down to us, which create certain moral feelings within us and are reinforced by group pressure (56–57). To ask “Why should we be moral?” is like asking “Why should we be hungry or horny?” Shermer insists that “the answer is that it is as much a part of human nature to be moral as it is to be hungry, horny, jealous, and in love” (57). If so, then all Shermer can do is describe how human beings actually function, but he can’t prescribe how humans ought to behave. There’s no difference between whether I ought to be moral and whether I ought to be hungry since both are functions of evolutionary hard‐wiring. These states just are. Naturalism ultimately can give us a description of human behavior and psychology, but it can’t ground genuine moral obligation. Moral obligations in a world of naturalistic scientific descriptions are odd indeed. They fit quite nicely into a theistic world, however.

Furthermore, Shermer’s belief that human persons are self‐aware, reasoning, morally responsible agents who possess free will and human rights actually is better explained against the backdrop of a supremely self‐aware, rational, good, free, personal Being (who made us in His image) than that of a nonconscious, nonrational, valueless, deterministic series of material causes and effects.

The Problem of Knowing vs. Being. Shermer asserts throughout his book that “morality need not be the exclusive domain of religion” (64). Shermer approvingly cites biographer Jared Diamond, who says, in light of three decades of research in New Guinea, that he has “never heard any invocation of a god or spirit to justify how people should behave toward others” (36). Shermer devotes chapter 5 to the question, “Can We Be Good without God?” He claims that most believers think people cannot lead moral lives “without recourse to a transcendent being” or construct ethical systems “without religion” (149), but that, regardless of a person’s religious views (or lack thereof), “certain moral principles hold” (156).

One section reveals Shermer’s confusion here. He asks, “What would you do if there were no God?” (154); would you rape or murder or rob? Without God, however, this is a meaningless question, for there would be no rights‐bearing, intrinsically valuable, morally responsible humans. How could blind, valueless processes produce such beings? Shermer wrongly thinks he can rest content in knowing moral truths concerning human rights and obligations (i.e., in the realm of epistemology) and yet ignore the basis for those truths (i.e., the realm of metaphysics). Theism, on the other hand, acknowledges that metaphysical basis, which gracefully transfers from a supremely valuable Creator to His valuable human creatures who have dignity and rights. Thoughtful theists agree that people can know and live by objective moral values even if they do not believe in God or have the Bible. This is so because theists and nontheists alike are made in God’s image.

The Problem of Freedom and Responsibility vs. Determinism. In chapter 4, Shermer points out that there are varying degrees of guilt; morality is not black‐and‐white. He devotes a good deal of space to John Hinckley, who, in order to get the attention of film star Jodie Foster (his obsession) tried to assassinate former president Ronald Reagan. Hinckley’s actions involved a combination of free will alongside factors that were beyond his control—namely, severe mental disorders.

If we are the products of evolutionary forces, then, how did moral freedom and responsibility emerge? Shermer claims that sometime during the Paleolithic period, humans shifted from being under “mostly biological control to mostly cultural control” (47). He observes that “it is obvious that there are necessitating forces at work in history,” and “it is equally obvious that contingencies push and direct historical sequences” (136). Shermer matter‐of‐factly asserts, “We can make a difference. Our actions matter” (137). He believes that the contingencies and necessities of atoms moving about in space suggest a “helpful analogy” (136) for deterministic evolutionary forces and free human actions as they shape the course of morality.

The more pressing matter, however, given the radically different natures of mindless atoms and human agents (which make for a very unhelpful analogy) and given our supposed materialistic, deterministic origins, is how free will or moral freedom emerged. How did thinking, conscious beings emerge from mindless, nonconscious processes?

Naturalists such as Jaegwon Kim, Colin McGinn, and Ned Block admit that they are baffled that consciousness exists at all. Beyond this, many naturalists simply deny free will precisely because science has no place for personal agency. New York University philosopher Thomas Nagel believes there is “no room for agency in a world of neural impulses, chemical reactions, and bone and muscle movements”; naturalism strongly suggests that we are “helpless” and “not responsible” for our actions.1 Atheist John Searle admits that we have intuitions of free will, but says free will itself does not exist, since it interferes with the “scientific” idea of “the causal order of nature.”2

Shermer, therefore, cannot simply assert that free will is possible because of contingency and necessity in nature, because the metaphysical context of his view suggests otherwise. Theism, on the other hand, which posits that we have been created by a free, personal Being, offers an excellent context for affirming free will and moral responsibility.

The Problem of Absolute vs. Provisional Morality. Shermer defines “absolute” morality as an inflexible set of rules for right and wrong thought and behavior derived from a social group’s canon of ethics (158), which he believes leads to people establishing themselves as the final arbiters of truth and morality. (Shermer offers many negative examples of popular religious extremism, but he ignores the more nuanced, thoughtful, and reflective voices within the Christian community.) “Relative” morality is a set of moral rules that is defined by a social group and is dependent on situation and culture (161). Shermer advocates a “provisional” morality or ethic (which he believes is analogous to scientific facts), to which we can offer “provisional assent” and aim to do the best we can (167), since “absolute morality” cannot be lived out in the real world. There are, nonetheless, “absolute” morals: it always is wrong to torture babies for fun, to abuse children, and to rape. I doubt that Shermer really thinks that these are provisional.

In chapter 7, Shermer elaborates on four principles or higher moral values of provisional morality: (1) The ask‐first principle: to find out if an action is right or wrong, ask first (e.g., asking your spouse if it is okay to commit adultery likely will elicit a firm negative response). (2) The happiness principle: seek happiness with others in mind, never pursuing happiness for yourself when it leads to unhappiness for another. (3) The liberty principle: seek liberty with others in mind, never pursuing liberty for yourself when it leads to loss of liberty for another. (4) The moderation principle: avoid extremism and promote moderation.

The Problem of Misunderstanding Theistic Ethics. Shermer points out the difficulties in biblical ethics, particularly in the Old Testament (e.g., 36–40, 182–85), but he does not appear to appreciate the nuances and historical/ theological contexts that bear on reasonable solutions to these difficulties (see the writings of Christopher Wright, Gordon Wenham, and Walter Kaiser for such solutions). Shermer believes, for example, that not all killing (murder, manslaughter, slaying in self‐defense) is the same, but fails to realize that believers can agree with him in this.

He also considers it morally permissible to deceive Nazi soldiers in order to protect innocent Jews, but does not seem to understand that Christians find this permissible as well. Scripture permits deception under certain conditions; for example, in warfare (e.g., 2 Chron. 20:22, where God Himself sets ambushes) and when there is criminal activity or innocent life is endangered, such as when the God‐fearing Hebrew midwives deceived Pharaoh (Exod. 1) or when Rahab hid the spies and deceived the authorities (Josh. 2) or when God Himself gave Samuel a deceptive excuse against the capricious Saul (1 Sam. 16:1–2). Most Christians, as well, have no problem turning on houselights at night when they go out for dinner!

Theistic ethicists, moreover, often allude to the existence of prima facie duties; that is, they believe that certain moral obligations self‐evidently supersede other moral obligations, and that one should fulfill lesser moral duties (e.g., never to deceive) as long as they do not conflict with greater moral duties (e.g., to save innocent life). In instances where one must choose, say, between deception and saving a life, then deception is permissible. Another area Shermer discusses is abortion. Here, again, he dislikes the either/or, binary thinking of the absolutists. He says the matter of “when a fetus becomes a human” is “difficult to resolve” (203). Science is very straightforward on this matter, however; the fetus is always human. Shermer makes the mistake of assuming that human functions (e.g., brain activity, thinking, and self‐awareness) are more fundamental than human nature. Humans, however, do not lose their value when they are asleep or unconscious. Our functions do not make us what we are; our nature does.

Shermer further supports the preferences of women over those of the unborn, because women can voice their preferences; the unborn cannot (207). He ironically points out that when it comes to rights of animals, even though chimps cannot speak, we can observe their nonverbal communication when they are placed in cages —“they are none too pleased about such arrangements” (221). Ultrasounds of unborn infants being aborted, however, reveal their fierce resistance to invading lethal instruments; these voiceless humans—I write this with deep sadness—“are none too pleased” about their pain. Finally, why should Shermer pit mother against unborn and support only the former? If the unborn are human, he should support them as well. Is it not a mark of virtue to care for all those who cannot care for themselves?

Shermer goes on to fault Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., for their “morally ineffective, even dangerous” turn‐the‐other‐cheek ethic because they paid for their beliefs with their lives (the “sucker’s payoff”): “Turning the other cheek only works if the opposition is inherently benevolent or has chosen a purely cooperative game strategy” (59). Of course, a slap on the cheek in Matthew 5:38‐42 is more of an insult than an act of violence, as Lamentations 3:30 suggests. Some Christians may interpret this passage differently, but one can make a good case that self‐defense or stopping an evil aggressor in a just war situation (e.g., against Hitler) isn’t in view here. Indeed, the passage “do not resist the evil one” in Matthew 5 is better translated “do not resist by evil means,” which is precisely the point of other biblical passages harking back to the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Rom. 12:17–21; 1 Thess. 5:15; 1 Pet. 2:21–24). Christian peacemakers are to return good for evil; we aren’t vengefully to use evil means, but good means to overcome evil. We are to resist the devil (James 4:7), and Jesus himself everywhere resists evil— even when He, though innocent, is physically struck in a law court (John 18:22‐23)!

Shermer’s dismissive comments reveal a naturalistic ethic that cannot truly “rise above” (the title of chapter 8) to reach the level Christ modeled of loving and doing good to one’s enemies, of going beyond the call of duty, or of laying down one’s life for another. These are out of step with self‐preservation and self‐interest (or group‐interest).

The Problem of Inadequacy. Other problems and oversights pepper Shermer’s book. For example, he presents the logical problem of evil (i.e., the alleged contradiction between the existence of evil and the existence of an all‐powerful and all‐good God) as if he is unaware of existing philosophical discussion (66). Though evil is a challenge for any worldview, the logical problem of evil is passé in philosophical circles (especially if God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil). Atheist William Rowe observes: “Some philosophers have contended that the existence of evil is logically inconsistent with the existence of the theistic God. No one, I think, has succeeded in establishing such an extravagant claim.”3

Shermer correctly points out (in ch. 3) the error in considering certain persons “pure evil” and others “good,”4 because people with no history of deep evils, in certain circumstances, can end up committing horrendous acts. Shermer recognizes the potential depths of human depravity that Scripture affirms. On the other hand, Shermer’s explanation for evil falls short. Philosopher Gordon Graham observes that naturalistic concepts (i.e., those of “statistical abnormalities” or “deviations”) cannot describe profound, horrendous evils adequately.5

Despite Shermer’s sometimes helpful insights and perspectives, his naturalism leaves us looking for something more. That something is the Christian theism that he once embraced, but that he also, it seems, misunderstood.

Paul Copan (PhD) is the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He is author and editor of various books, including (with William Lane Craig) Creation Out of Nothing (Baker/Apollos, 2004), The Rationality of Theism (Routledge, 2003), The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of religion (Routledge, forthcoming), and Philosophy of Religion: Classic and Contemporary Issues (Blackwell, forthcoming).


  1. Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 111, 113.
  2. John R. Searle, Minds, Brains, and Science (1984; repr., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), 87–88, 92.
  3. William L. Rowe, “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (October 1979): 41n.
  4. Augustine pointed out that evil is not a substance, but the absence or corruption of goodness in God’s creation.
  5. Gordon Graham, Evil and Christian Ethics (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

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