Jeff Schweitzer – Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World

May 01, 2009

Dr. Jeffrey Schweitzer is an author, scientist and public speaker who has traveled widely speaking to varied groups about the application of the scientific worldview to public policy and ethical questions. He has published more than one hundred articles in an eclectic range of fields, including neurobiology, marine science, international development, environmental protection, and even aviation. He formerly served as assistant director for international affairs in the Clinton White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He is a featured blogger on Huffington Post. His new book is Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World.

In this interview with D.J. Grothe, Dr. Jeffrey Schweitzer argues that adopting the scientific view of human origins has implications for understanding that morality is a consequence of our biology. He argues that religion puts humanity on a pedestal, and why that is dangerous. He contends that religion has failed to morally guide humanity, and he attacks religion for impeding the moral development of humanity and for causing much human suffering. He explains that religion results from fear of death, an attempt to understand the universe, achieve social cohesion and political power, and an attempt to control our fate by appealing to gods. But he argues that in the age of science, these reasons are no longer compelling. He denies that science has become a religion in itself. He explores if and how religion and science ask different questions, and if science can answer the existential questions that religion attempts to answer. He argues that life has no ultimate meaning, and that he derives this fact from science, while denying that this leads to nihilism. He discusses existentialism and contrasts it with his scientific worldview. He argues against the concept of free will as a false concept of religion, and discusses the implications this has for moral responsibility. He talks about the biological component to human morality, and defends his position from the charge of moral relativism, while admitting a kind of cultural relativism. He discusses Social Darwinism, and distinguishes core values from social values that progress over time. He explains components of his moral view, and compares his view with scientific or secular humanism. And he suggests that humanity is at a crossroads where our continued survival is uncertain, and describes the kind of behaviors consistent with a natural ethic that may be key to humanity’s surviving the future.

Mark Colvin, this is point of inquiry for Friday, May 1st, 2009. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe growthy point of inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values and public affairs. And at the grass roots. Before we get to this week’s guest, Dr. Jeffrey Schweitzer, I’d like to let you know that if you’re interested in receiving updates throughout the week about the topics we cover on the show, find us on Twitter or on Facebook. Jeffrey Schweitzer is an author and a scientist, a public speaker who’s traveled widely, speaking to groups of all kinds about the application of the scientific worldview to public policy and ethical questions. He’s published more than 100 articles and eclectic range of fields, including neurobiology and marine science, international development, environmental protection, even aviation. He formerly served as assistant director for international affairs in the Clinton White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He joins me on the show to talk about his new book, Beyond Cosmic Dice, Moral Life and a Random World. Dr. Jeffrey Schweitzer, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

I’m glad to be here. 

Jeff, your new book, Beyond Cosmic Dice, it serves kind of as a primer for evolution, but it goes further than that. You talk about evolution of religion, how it can kind of be bad for one’s moral health. That’s a claim you’re making. Before we get into all that ethics stuff, though, just to start off, why do you argue that it’s so important to know science is take on our origins? Is it really going to affect, like, my workaday world? Is it really going to affect how we live our daily lives? 

Yes, ultimately it will, because I believe that if we’re going to understand morality as a consequence of our biology, we have to understand that biology and we won’t be able to do that unless we understand our origins. It’s very important that we have a humble understanding of who and what we are and how humans interact with each other and the environment and other animals. And in order to adopt that more humble understanding, we really do need to to understand where we come from. 

You’re kind of aiming to put humanity in its place, kind of putting humanity in perspective. But it’s also the way that you’re trying to put religion in its place. You’re saying that people are not special in the way religion says we are, but we are special. You’re like doing two things at once. You’re slapping religion and you’re also humbling. You know, humanity. 

I have no beef with religion, per say. My problem is that religion puts humanity on a pedestal and that has turned out to be dangerous. 

Well, that sounds like a problem you have with religion. 

I have a problem with the consequences of religion and true and the consequences of putting us on a pedestal are that we have not behaved well as far as I’m concerned. I mean, we have looked religion really has had at least Western religions had 2000 years to prove itself as an adequate moral guide. And I think it’s failed miserably. I mean, if you look around, the world is still consuming itself in poverty, disease, war and environmental destruction. And I think we can do better. 

But isn’t religions response to that? That it’s humanity’s fault? It’s our human nature. It’s not the the heights that religion wants us to attain. It’s the kind of the basic fouled up nature of humanity that gets us and all these problems. You just listen. 

Well, but that’s kind of defining the problem away, because if religion has not been able to tame our demons, so to speak, then it’s not an adequate moral guide. And what I’m trying to say is that morality is our biological destiny, but it has been masked by a false morality perpetrated by religion. 

Mm hmm. So let’s before we get into the morality stuff, let’s talk about the origins of religion. You spend some time in this book Beyond Cosmic Dice on the origins, the evolution of religion. You know, if you look at where we came from religiously, our ancestors probably believed in the afterlife going on 300000 years ago with such a belief so deeply ingrained in our species. Isn’t it possible, at least possible that not only are we hardwired for that belief, but that it’s actually been useful, it’s served some evolutionary function because it’s been around for 300000 years. Book believing in these things might just be good for society, even if they’re untrue. 

I think we believed in those things from an early stage in our evolution and why it’s been around for so long. Not because it’s hard wired, but because early on religion solves several problems. Religion really was our first attempt at astronomy and physics to explain the unknown. The human brain is extraordinarily adept at asking questions, but we abhor the concept that some questions can go unanswered. And religion and God are the response. Religion and God help us overcome the pain of the unknown and solve the problems that we have with our own ignorance. So the fact that religion and belief in the afterlife has been around for so long isn’t proof that it’s hardwired. It’s proof that we had issues very early on in our evolutionary history. And I think it’s time to move beyond those. 

So religion had something going for it originally, but it’s outlived its usefulness. 

What religion has been a strong force for many good reasons. One is, of course, fear of mortality. The other is an attempt to explain the natural world. 

But there are three other important pillars social cohesion, raw political power, and an attempt to control our own fate by communicating with God and praying guides that are our conditions can be changed. Those are very compelling. I mean, you can see why in our history, in the absence of science, in the absence of knowing how things worked around it, that there would be compelling reasons to generate those myths and gods. But really, in the age of science, we don’t need to have a thunder God anymore and a sun God. And in fact, we don’t really need to have any God at all. I mean, the need for that has really disappeared. If we want to take that out. 

Religion has been made obsolete because of science. But doesn’t that also open up the door that you’re making science into a religion? You’re making science fulfill all the existential needs that religion used to know. 

Two responses to that. One is the absence of dogma is not dogma. So I don’t think that science does replace religion, but more importantly, science and religion ask fundamentally different questions using fundamentally different methodologies, and they’re not compatible. They’re asking they’re asking two very fundamental, different things of the world. Religion asks why. And science asks how. And there is no bridge between those. I know many people disagree with that. And the Pontifical Scientific Academy tries to bridge that gap. But I think it’s impossible. I think it’s oil and water. They just don’t mix Jim Underdown. 

You’re really talking about how mainstream science education organizations, National Center for Science Education, Stephen Jay Gould used to pronounce this notion that, you know, science and religion are in different domains. And so one can’t really replace the other. You’re jutting up against that point of view. 

Stephen Jay Gould is one of my heroes. So I don’t I hesitate to disagree with him, but I do in this case because I agree that they’re in different domains. But for me, that doesn’t mean that one can’t replace the other. But that doesn’t mean that one becomes the other. One can displace the other without becoming the other one. And that’s what I mean about religion and science. I mean, if you reject the myth that there’s that imaginary invisible man of the sky with magical powers, with rationalism, that doesn’t mean that rationalism all of a sudden becomes a myth. 

I follow you there. And it’s kind of hard to to be devil’s advocate because, you know, I buy what you’re saying, but I have one concern. You mentioned that religion in science ask different questions. From my vantage, I see that. Or at least maybe it’s my hope that religion, while it asks these basic meaning of life questions, that science can also ask them and answer them. And indeed, that seems to be the whole project of your book. You’re saying that an ethics can be derived from the natural cayo world or, you know, you call it in natural ethics. It’s kind of done in the spirit of science that science can answer the basic meaning of life questions, you know? How should I behave? What’s my place in the universe? Religion used to tell us God made you. Now we learn evolution got us here. Those seem to be on the same kinds of footing, those those kinds of questions and answers. 

Science can’t answer the question of the meaning of life. If you believe and science believe that life has no meaning. And that’s where this book comes in, because that seems kind of a nihilistic view. And people fear the concept that life has no meaning. But I find it extraordinarily liberating because I believe we each have within us. What I really consider the awesome power to create our own meaning in life, our own sense of purpose and our own destiny. I think we can move beyond the random hand of birth and pay our own way to a better life without any appeal to a God. I mean, we’ve actually, in the absence of an appeal to God, we can take control of our own destiny and define what it means. And I think that’s extraordinarily powerful and extraordinarily liberating. So it’s not that science is going to replace religion’s ability to answer what is the meaning of life. I believe science, if you take it to the extreme as it should be taken, shows that life has no meaning. So we need to ask an entirely different set of questions. In the absence of meaning, in the absence of God, how do we live a good life? How do we take this gift of life that we have and make the most of it? 

You’re talking about life having no meaning. It sounds like you’re saying life has no ultimate meaning, but it can still be meaningful. It’s just meaning derived from our own experience and our own kind of decisions, et cetera. You’re you’re not. Certainly you’re not saying life has no meaning. Period. You’re saying life has no ultimate or cosmic significance. And you’re getting that answer from science. Science is answering that existential question. 

Science is answering that, by the way. Yes. You’ve characterized that correctly. Life has now ultimately the ultimate meaning and that we create our own meaning and that that was correctly characterized. But I don’t view it as an existential question. I mean, I believe that if you if you accept the notion that life has no ultimate meaning, it ceases to be an existential question. It becomes a question of taking advantage of what you’ve been given and maximizing that that opportunity for no other reason. Because you can’t. 

And that’s a different question. Then what is the meaning of life or because I’m here, what should I do with it? Because there’s some kind of ultimate purpose. I think, you know, if you walk that, it’s kind of a bad analogy. But if you walk down the street and see a 20 dollar bill, you want to pick it up and make the most use of that 20 dollar bill. I mean, I think all life is a great roll of the cosmic dice, which is where I derive my title of the book. And there’s an inherent core. Randomness to it, which destroys any concept of meaning, purpose, driver intelligence, ultimate meaning, the ultimate meaning. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of Beyond Cosmic Dice Moral Life in a Random World through our Web site. Point of inquiry, dawg. Jeff, I don’t want to be unnecessarily contrary, but you mentioned that once you accept this brute truth that life has no meaning, it ceases being an existential question. I think those you know, those Frenchmen who smoke the little cigarets, you know, on on on this on the streets of Paris and in the 40s, those happy go lucky ex Essentialists would disagree with you on that, you know. The meaningless life or the meaning fullness of life either is an answer to the existential question. What is the meaning of life? 

Well, it depends who you want to talk about. Existential atheist or or the Christian ones like Kirkegaard. 


Right. I mean, it depends. I mean, it’s not it’s not a monolithic concept existentialism. But both of those philosophies have a fundamental flaw. Interestingly, they put humanity on a pedestal just like religion does, because they both reject from different perspectives, oddly, but they both reject the concept of an objective reality and say that reality is a consequence of human perception. 

Jim Underdown that it’s all in our head as opposed to being out here in the real world. 

Right. That’s one way of looking. That’s that’s more Sacco’s viewpoint. But yes, exactly. I mean that there is no objective reality outside of our own perceptions of that reality. So we actually create that reality, human beings, by their existence and their sensory systems, perceiving the world around them, create the reality. And I, of course, reject that. Absolutely. 

And you reject that from a scientific perspective. You say there is a real world. Not only are there objective facts, but you’re saying there are objective moral facts. There are ways to look at the world around us and derive accurate notions of right and wrong from evidence as opposed to from divine commander. 

Looking at an ancient text or something like that, what you just described is kind of a combination of moral fence theory and rationalism. And in any of the moral philosophy that it developed since the 15 hundred, you can find parallels to some elements of them in a natural ethic, but they diverge in important points. I mean, I don’t really think that there is a natural law showing that every human has an innate capacity to understand right and wrong as a biological mandate. But I, I, I’m think something similar and certainly different from that, though, and that is that human beings have the capacity to understand concepts at a general level and right and wrong. Sure. I mean, everyone knows that killing babies and torturing babies is a bad thing. That’s kind of universal. So there’s some truth to that. But more important than that, I think, is the fact that human beings can make the choice to be moral. And it’s the act of making that choice that separates us, that makes us special as individuals and as a species. The fact that we have the choice to be moral and then act on that choice. 

I don’t want to open a can of worms, but you’re talking about making a choice. Does that preclude what’s coming out of cutting neuroscience these days, that maybe this homunculus inside of us, this little person that we think we all have inside of us, that makes choices? You know, the best science says that does not exist, that the self is an illusion, that there’s no such thing as free will. I know that’s a hot topic, 2000 years of Western philosophy. But do you need those concepts in order to have your natural ethics? 

No. In fact, the concept of free will is I spent quite a bit of time on it because it’s a false concept of religion, an attempt to solve a major problem they have and they do it very badly and it doesn’t work in all religions. How the problem that if God is all knowing and all powerful and there’s evil in the world and God must be evil, and the way they get around that is to create the concept of free will, but it fails and all kinds of levels. Not only does a natural ethic not require the kinds of free will of free will, it’s very much actively rejects the concept as a construct of religion to solve a problem that they have. 

Well, you your your preach in my sermon. Now, I, I buy that, you know, most naturalist, humanist skeptics, you know, that’s their last sacred cow. The notion of free will, because we all want to think that we’re free moral agents in the world and therefore are responsible. And and there’s an assumption that if we don’t have free will, then there’s no responsibility and no one can be blamed for any bad thing they do. But you don’t arrive at that place. 

No, exactly. Because I think that’s a fundamentally flawed concept of what freewill is meant to say. And and you mentioned earlier off line the concepts of the Odyssey. And I mean it really. The concept was trying to shoehorn the reality around us into the concept of benign, a loving God, and it doesn’t work. And what I’m saying is, because I reject the religious concept of free will does not mean by any means that I don’t believe we to have personal responsibility. In fact, I arrive at the exact opposite conclusion of that, that given that there is no higher power and given that we’ve been given this gift of life than we have within ourselves, the ability to to create our own meaning in life and our own sense of purpose, that we have an obligation to do that. I mean, I think with the ability to choose to be moral comes the obligation to make that choice. 

And that then is counter to that notion that a free will doesn’t exist. You have no personal responsibility. 

OK, I don’t want to say trucker chat, but give me just real quick how you can lack free will, but also make choices. 

Freewill, as it’s understood. 

I just have to chuckle, I’m asking you to kind of explain the solution to the biggest quandary of Western philosophical history. 

So I’m about to do it free will as defined by normal conversation in normal philosophical conversations. Is a gift from God. That’s the freewill that I reject Jim Underdown. 

But there are non-religious people who still believe in a kind of quasi supernatural freewill. You know that they have an agent inside of them that is making choices irrespective of determinants in their environment. You know, counter causal freewill, they call it. 

Well, this is where I, I start agreeing with the existentialists in the world that I mean, I do see I think that I mean, I reject that notion. I mean, I think that may be clear. I reject the concept of free will as a gift from God. And I reject the concept that some kind of spiritual free will. I think free will is human. Free will is no different than the. Ability to act that other animals, sentient beings, have you asked at the very beginning of this conversation, why is it important to understand origins? Because we have to understand our affinity with our animal cousins on elephants, apes, dolphins, other mammals, where intelligence and empathy and sentience and self-awareness all exist in the animal kingdom. And any time you start talking about humans having free will, you have to start asking, well, is that true for the animals that are very closely related to us and have by degree comparable levels of intelligence? And that starts undermining the idea that there’s something special about people and special about people’s freewill. 

So just to put a finer point on it. If you reject this religious notion of freewill. Does it follow that you believe all of your likes and dislikes, tastes and preferences? The things that repel you? That all of those are determined externally, that you have no say in those. In other words, are you determined or are you free? 

No, I’m definitely free. That’s what I was trying to say in rejecting the concept of free will as a gift from God. I don’t in any way reject the notion that I’m a free agent. I mean, I’ve got I’ve got 11 billion neurons making more than a trillion connections in my brain. And that that’s a neurological foundation for my mind and brain, which I know. Of course, I also reject dualism, another concept, another whole conversation. So, I mean, I because I am my brain is me and my mind is me. And there is. But that’s internal to me. I believe on the free agent. However, like all beings, I am a product of my evolutionary history and I’m interacting with the environment. So it’s not I’m not I’m not operating in a vacuum. So I’m free, but I’m influenced. 

I didn’t invite you on the show to talk about these big philosophy of mind questions. But just one more question on the spirit. Do you think the concept of the self is illusory? Is it a just a function of how, you know, our our brain an illusion that our brain gives us? Because it helps us kind of a fair in the world. A lot better to think that I am a self as opposed to, you know, an organism that’s living out its impulses as determined by its neurochemistry or its environment. 

No, I mean, I do believe very strongly we have choice. And and I would not believe that if it not believe in self, I mean, choice is a consequence of self harm. But I want to be clear, though, that that being free and having choice and accepting the concept of self does not imply that I am not influenced by it interacting with the environment around me. I mean, like most concepts in biology and philosophy, it’s not an all or nothing proposition. There’s subtlety there. But I do believe we are free agents, but free agents that are influenced by external forces and interacting with US external forces, we in turn affect them and they affect us. You can reduce the question of self to social insects and wonder if a drone is part of a super organism or an individual. And, you know, you can say both their subtlety when it comes to biology and there’s no black and white. 

Okay, so I will do us both a favor and get off this topic of kind of the nature of the self and freewill. It is a fascinating topic and it really does undergird much of your argument. But I want to move on to some of the other things you talk about. The main crux of your book is really not just that religion’s a bad thing, but that religious morality is not really moral at all. And so I want to take a stab at that. If it’s true, what you said a few minutes ago, that everybody knows murdering babies is wrong, but you don’t get that knowledge from on high. Where are you getting it? Is it just a matter of opinion? You like chocolate? I like vanilla. You like to murder babies. I like to cuddle babies. But there’s no ultimate authority to actually tell us which of those is right and wrong. So is it all just a matter of taste? 

No, it’s not. It’s a matter of biology at a certain level. And then again, beyond that statement, I’ll get a little more subtle. But let me just say that what we call moral is really a suite of behaviors that. Were beneficial to our early survival. Cooperation is very important in animal like we are that is weak and vulnerable, alone but strong in numbers and social animals, not just human beings, but all social animals tend to have a social code. And that’s what we call morality. I mean, kindness to others, altruism. Everything that we view as moral really is probably part of a suite of behaviors. That was that was selected for that promoted group cooperation. So I think there’s a real inherent biological component to it. And not killing babies, as you know, is probably evolutionarily smart. 

So does it follow that someone who likes to kill babies or the mass murder or something, that they’re just kind of an accident of evolution, that they’re not morally responsible, they’re just kind of broken? 

But I mean, the the question of personal responsibility and mental health is kind of a whole different topic. I would say, though, that I think gets to the thrust of your question that there has to be extraordinary circumstances for me to conclude that somebody was not responsible for their actions. 

I mean, extraordinary. I’m not saying that it’s never the case, but the threshold for drawing that conclusion is extraordinarily high. I believe that we are ultimately responsible for our actions. And it’s not that a murder, a mass murder or or a priest raping a child or anything that we view as bad behavior is an evolutionary aberration. I think it’s a consequence of evolution developing a brain with a level of complexity that we have. And that’s going to lead to a huge variety of behaviors. Some of them maladaptive. 

That is the consequence of the evolution of our brain Jim Underdown a huge variety of behaviors that the group, some of those behaviors, the group like some of those behaviors the group doesn’t like. But that liking or not liking. I don’t get a kind of ironclad morality about that. You know, most of the United States doesn’t like the notion of gay sex, but as a gay man, I rather favor it. You know, and I don’t consider it immoral or unethical. So I guess I’m still getting back to that question. Where do you get your morality? 

Well, OK, so there’s two there’s two sources for it. And again, that’s why I want to get back to the settled part, the nonfatal part of the biological part. I believe that some of our core morality, which, by the way, is very similar in some sense, you know, the old natural law. You know, Gropius and Hobbes and poof, endorphin lock. I mean, the guys who who promoted natural law kind of fought this, that although there are reasons why I reject the natural law as a philosophy as well. But they they believe that there were inherent laws that were universal in the human condition and that you just needed to study society’s broadly enough to determine what those laws were at a very small level, very basic level. I believe they’re right. Like not killing babies. I think that’s a universal idea that all humans would have no pathological. I mean, that all healthy human beings would have that killing and torturing babies would be a bad thing. So I think at some level there is an inherent core biological morality that’s in all of us then. And this is the next thing I want to preface it by saying I do not favor moral relativism because it’s going to sound like that initially. But then the next thing is on top of that, core societies develop rules of behavior based on maximum means of cooperation. And those evolve over time as groups grow larger and norms become more deeply embedded in society. So what that means is that different societies develop different types of morality. Let me give you an example. And again, I’m not advocating more relative. It’s not OK for another society to kill babies because they think it’s OK. I think it’s inherently wrong. So I’m not advocating that. But what I’m saying is within the bounds of reason, you can have different societies develop different flavors. 

Are those bounds of reason, though? Are they themselves arbitrary? I mean, your bounds of reason can be different than the limits another person would impose on what’s OK. 

Arbitrary is a little bit harsh, but let me give you an example and we can come back to the concept of arbitrary. It’s OK, for example, in Chinese society to eat dog at the dog meat. Whereas, you know, I, I grew up I had a golden retriever 14 years in eating. My dog would be like eating a child. I mean, it’s it’s completely repugnant to me and an immoral it would be an immoral act. I do accept, though, that in the Chinese society that it’s not immoral, even though it is to me. And so I think within those bounds, I think you can accommodate different cultures and different histories to accommodate different moral values within reason. Now, those boundaries arbitrary. Yes and no, they’re not arbitrary. When you start pushing out to the core biological values between those core biological values and the areas where everyone agrees to disagree. Yeah, that’s a big gray area. And that, you know, people don’t like gray areas. I don’t mind them. It’s the it’s the reality of the human condition. It’s the reality of the complexity of biology. It’s OK to have gray area. It’s not that things are not black and white. 

Jeff, let me take it this way. I don’t think it’s a biologically derived moral notion that people should be treated equally. You know, maybe in fact, we have an evolutionarily determined propensity toward xenophobia or hierarchical kind of social structures or men being kind of patriarchal and society’s being patriarchal. Maybe that’s, you know. Pollution narrowly determined, but in in the steady march of progress in Western civilization, we’ve overturned a lot of things that have been natural. You know, it may be natural, too. This is going to get me some flak. But, you know, the the evolution, our biologists say, look, the rape may be in a certain way. That’s natural, but it is certainly not. Okay. In other words, there’s a natural instinct to kind of go have sex where you want it. And if you’re more powerful, you know, connect the dots. Equal rights for racial and sexual minorities. That doesn’t seem to be a biologically determined moral value that you’re talking about. It seems to be something that instead we look at society and and collectively we kind of move toward what I would consider progress. But certainly there are other societies. You know, some societies eat dogs and some societies don’t let their women out of the house. Right. And so where do you draw the line? That’s what I I’m suggesting in your theory seems kind of arbitrary. 

I’d love to address that if a great point. Let me be clear that I am not advocating social Darwinism as a concept that’s been long discredited. You know that that life is long and red in tooth and claw. And that, you know, it’s dog eat dog world out there. And if I can rape a woman, it’s OK because I have a biological mandate to do that. I am absolutely not advocating social Darwinism. What I’m saying is something very, very different than that. What I’m saying is we have to look at morality at two distinct levels. One is the biological level. And I can argue that strongly as a biologist, as as a rational. And they are the core values that everyone agrees to. Those are easy to argue. Then there is the sphere around that, where different societies reasonably disagree about what’s moral. And then there’s that ugly gray area outside of those. But I would not argue that because there is an inherent core morality that you can’t impose in that gray area. Social values that progress over time. That’s the advantage of having a big brain and being rational. No, you know, there are women who argue today, well educated women who who have been in the West that argue that it’s OK for women to be covered in burqas or not to have rights in general because they have rights in general. 

Yeah, because that’s like the stage of their society. It reminds me of Star Trek or something, you know, prime directive. You don’t want to muck around with in a less developed society. On the other hand, it seems so almost jingoistic to think of ourselves as more developed and then less developed. 

Of course, they wouldn’t do it that way because they view themselves closer to Allah and we’re infidels. I mean, they would have it a very different view of that. I would I would just argue that. Societies. If I don’t want to use the word evolve, societies transform over time and adopt more or less. Progressive values that get incorporated into the moral code of that society. Those change over time. I mean, look, we had slavery in this country. Now it’s considered OK by many, many people. That changed over time. It was not like it was a biological mandate for us that slavery was something that was wrong in society that was corrected. I think equal rights the same way. I wouldn’t argue that there’s any biological mandate to have unequal rights. You know, a lot of a lot of societies there are matriarchal societies. In fact, some of the Asian societies are matriarchal. So, I mean, I don’t think that arguing that there’s a core level of biological morality has anything to do with social Darwinism or or the inability for a society to progress through time toward a more enlightened moral values, more enlightened from your vantage? 

Certainly from my vantage. But that still seems like we’re we’re just there’s the word, again, arbitrarily saying ours is better. So we’ll leave it at that for now. I’d love to have you back on the show. We could get more into this. But moving on, I just want to touch on the fact that you’ve, in the course of our conversation, mentioned a number of ethical systems. You talked about moral since theory earlier, natural law theory. In your book, you cover egoism, divine command theory. But, you know, you seem really dissatisfied with them all. Here you are, a kind of person who’s worked in public policy and science advocacy. You’ve worked for the Clinton administration and you’ve come up with a ethical theory that trumps all others, right? 

I believe so. But for assembly, it’s not it sounds a little bit grandiose when you put it that way. I think kind of a more humble view of it. I think I have a very simple idea that is not incorporated into any of the philosophical schools that have developed since the fifteen hundreds and certainly not the classical theories, you know, going back to the Greeks, which really aren’t aren’t relevant to this particular discussion. I mean, they’re interesting in their own sense. But I mean, not relevant to what we’re talking about right now. All of them in some way. And in different ways, but all of them place humanity above separate and better than other animals. Mm hmm. And my unifying theme is that is just not a biological reality. 

So your morality puts us in nature squarely in nature. 

Absolutely. But. But it’s not. Yes, definitely. The answer to that question is yes. But there’s more to it. Not only do I put our morality squarely in nature, I put it. In terms of being much more humble about who we are, if we understand that we’re not a pinnacle of evolution, that evolution doesn’t drive toward any species and no species is inevitable, and that we’re just a minor branch and a very large bush of life and that we’ve been around for at most one hundred thousand years compared to bacteria for four billion. If we just get more and more humble about who we are and how close we’ve laid it out to other animal species, it becomes much easier to adopt a more humble moral code about who we are less, less hubris, more accepting that we need to become part of our environment and we need to accept those around us because we’re not really special. 

We’re not really special. You’re arguing from this natural ethic. And of course, your natural ethic is really, you know, jutting up against a supernatural ethic. You’re opposed to a supernatural ethic, you know, deriving right from wrong from thus say, if the Lord. How is your natural ethic, though? How is it different than, say, secular humanism? You know, the bogey man of the religious right? Or how is it different from the stuff Peter Singer preaches? 

Yeah, it’s a really good question. I mean, secular humanism. I mean, I can be called a secular humanist. I mean, it wouldn’t be horribly accurate to call, in fact, as a quick digression. You know, I don’t like being called an atheist because that defines me as something that is not being something somebody else is. I’d rather be called the rationalist and how the rest of the world be called a rationalist. 

I think that is unfortunately, there’s not a simple, quick answer that I have a natural that I distinguish a natural ethic based on what I call four pillars and seven biological realities. And those things are what distinguish me from secular humanism. But the distinction is subtle. I mean, I would not objected to being called a secular humanist. What I’m doing is kind of taking that almost as a given as as a world view. I if some if some secular humanist came along and said, you know, you’re really one of us and you’re just extending this concept to a specific idea of morality, then then I wouldn’t disagree with that. 

Let’s get into in the time we have remaining the pillars that you’re resting your ethical system on. Third, the things you’ve already talked about, one, that life on earth is a contingent event, kind of an accident. Although that’s a loaded term. And that we are not the pinnacle of evolution’s achievement. That there’s not boundaries between life and non-life. And there’s not real goals in evolution, you know, trying to arrive at us. Those are the you’ve just named my four pillars that I think most secular humanists can wrap their head around that. And even people like Peter Singer, who says he’s not a secular humanist because it’s two species list, you know. 

Well, that’s the problem with seconde here humanism. And in a very odd way, it kind of gives it it tends toward giving humans that special status only more steadily than religion. 

Some of the other the other philosophical schoolhouse, which gets me to my seven and I can go through very quickly, I won’t go through the whole explanation of all of them, but might have in biological reality. 

And those are a weird animal. 

And all species, like all species, exploit the environment to the maximum extent possible. And we’re no different than that. The difference is we have a technological advantage. And because we have the technological advantage, us doing what every other animal has ever done since the beginning of time might actually lead to our extinction. Our effort to survive may paradoxically lead to our extinction. 

Our success as a species may doom us. 

Exactly. Now, the problem is that our two thousand year history of Western religion has shown that religious morality has not properly compensated for our destructive tendencies. 

That’s the reality. I mean, it’s almost hard to argue with that. You can argue that religion wasn’t properly implemented. People aren’t doing it right. They don’t understand it. But even if all that’s true, that means people aren’t understanding it and not doing it right. So, I mean, religious religious morality, how it has actually been implemented over the last two thousand years clearly has not compensated for our destructive tendencies. We have war, poverty, disease, overpopulation, crowding on a horrible suffering. I mean, the average human condition in this globe is one of poverty, disease and suffering. 

And not only has religion failed to ameliorate that suffering. But you’ve suggested a couple pieces of the book. It’s actually helped cause much of that suffering. 

Well, I mean, I can prove that rather rather directly. For example, the Catholic Church’s position on kind of distribution in sub-Saharan Africa, that we can talk about proof that religion has caused a lot of destruction. There’s lots of lots of examples of that. OK. So that’s kind of those those are biologic reality. There’s another compensatory biological reality, yes. We have large brains that have given us war and religion, but it also has given us the ability to care for future generations. This is where the most subtle point comes in of all. So we have this ability to care for future generations. We have this ability to choose to be moral. You know what I’m saying is we are now at a very specific crossroads in our evolutionary history. We can do nothing. And continue down the path that we’re on right now, which includes adopting religion as a moral code. And we will probably go extinct. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. I mean, ninety nine percent of all species ever to walk the face of the earth have gone extinct. And we are probably just a very small biological aberration that will not even be thought of as bacteria are dividing away, wondering whatever happened to that odd bipedal hairless ape that walked the earth such a short period of time at five. Or we can do something that no other species has ever done. We can actually choose a different path. We can choose not to be like every other animal and struggle to survive in such a way that leads to our extinction. 

But you’re talking about humanity being different than all other animals. That kind of puts us back on that pedestal. You know, we can be unique in choosing our destiny, et cetera, et cetera. 

No. Which is why it’s so important to develop. And I spent so much time in presentations talking about our humble origins. It just because it’s a unique capability doesn’t make it better. I mean, I can’t dove to 3000 meters and I can’t fly like like a whale can. And I can’t fly backwards and forwards and sideways like a hummingbird. I can’t divide up into cells and come back together like a slime mode. I mean, I’m not defining it is better because we can do it. I’m just saying it happens to be a unique capability. 

Do we have, like all species have unique capability and that we should take advantage of if we want to survive? 

I don’t even know if I would say should. I would say we will if we are going to survive. We will take advantage of that opportunity. 

I don’t know if we should or not. I mean, I think we should. But that’s an awfully large judgment. 

That’s kind of dark and bleak. You know, you sound like some of those antihuman folks who say, you know, were were a blight on the planet and the world would be better without us. 

I’m not saying that at all. What I’m saying is that we have in fact, I’m seeing the opposite of that. I’m saying not only is it not bleak, there is there is great. 

It’s hugely liberating and enlightening and fulfilling to know that we can choose a path that does not lead to that dark outcome. Mm hmm. And it’s it’s not only not dark, it’s brilliantly light. And we we are at the point we can make that choice. We’re at that crossroads in our evolutionary history. And so it really is up to us. The choice is in our hands. 

And this is what I’m saying, that we can actually, by choosing to be moral and throwing away the that the last two thousand years of failed moral theory, adopting one that is more conditioned on our biology, that we can actually choose a state different than other species doesn’t make it better. It just makes us different, like all species are different, are different, happens to provide us with the ability to choose a path that will lead to better societies and better conditions for humanity to choose a path that will be better for our children. 

Our posterity reminds me of Dieter Roseline that for the rationalist, living for posterity is like for the religious person living for heaven. I mean, you’re you’re really imbuing the future. You know, this this hoped for future with status that we should strive for. You know, we should all work together to have a better world tomorrow. 

You know, I I’m going to be a little contrarian there and disagree a little bit. I don’t use the word should. But I what I’m trying to say is we have we we have a choice and it’s up to us to make that choice. 

And I’m not going to stand in front of an audience and say we should make one choice of the other. I’m saying this is the choice. And we have come to this crossroad. And because of our history and who we are and our biology and our evolutionary history and sociality and technological advantage, we have come to a point in the world where we have this choice to make and we have the ability to make that choice, which is kind of unique. 

But doesn’t your book actually propose that people behave verson? So in order to get the, you know, the supposed benefits of behaving bussin? So I mean, you talk about respecting the environment and why we should. You talk about being honest, being reliable, being responsible. All of these things, obviously they benefit us. Is your argument, if we behave this way we’ll get good stuff out of it. But there is, it should in there. You’re not just kind of saying, well, here’s one course of action that we could take and here’s another course and I’d have no opinion about which one we should take. 

What I’m saying when I offer those what I call the tenets for daily living are definitely not should. That’s a personal list that I. But what I’m trying to say is these are the kinds of behaviors. That are consistent with a natural ethic that if people that if people choose to adopt a natural ethic, if our species eventually adopts a natural ethic as a common, more moral foundation, the needs of the types of behaviors that result from that choice. 

And you’ve argued that your natural ethic trumps the others. You’re still not willing to say, though, that people should adopt. 

You know, if you give me a drink or two, I, I would say they should. 

Well, you’re on that. Next round’s on me. Dr. Skywriter to finish up. I wanted to ask you what you think the reception is going to be to your book, your skewering, my words, religion, your saying that kind of a secular and naturalistic and atheistic view of the world is better than the traditional religious view of the world. But here you. You’ve worked so long in the halls of government. This, you know, the halls of power in Washington, D.C. and in those places, you don’t really get to talk religion. You don’t really want to talk religion, much less criticize it because, you know, it just kind of undermines your effectiveness in your job. You’re not there anymore. But do you predict the kind of backlash from your former colleagues in government? 

No, I think I have. I really believe and I don’t. 

I’m not saying this because I hope my book is successful, which, of course, I hope it is. I think there’s a huge pent up demand for what I’m saying. I mean, look at the tremendous success that Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens have. And it’s no it’s no coincidence that they are now, you know, million book best sellers because they are. Tackling an issue which people I think are really hungry for. I think that, you know, the Pew study, whether it was 2002, showed that, you know, if you take the percentage of the population, there was something like 50 million or 60 million Americans. I seriously doubt or have no religious affiliation. And the number, I think is much bigger than that. That aren’t really to admit it either to a pollster or to themselves yet. I think there’s a huge pent up demand for something that offers an explanation outside the realm of religion. And I think this might strike a nerve, and I hope it doesn’t. 

It’s not a bleak explanation that makes us tend toward nihilism. There may be ultimate meaninglessness. But this philosophy you’re pushing is nonetheless something people can sink their teeth into. 

And it’s it it’s it’s not nihilistic at all. I mean, one of them one of the points I really harp on when I speak to audiences in person is that when you first encountered the idea that there’s no God and no imposed meaning in life, it’s frightening. It’s like you’re looking to avoid. But if you can jump across that at best to the other side, it’s unbelievably liberating and unbelievably enlightening and so free. It’s so freeing to know that you’re not under the under the whim of this mysterious thing, acting in ways that you’ll never understand, that you actually have control over over your destiny within the constraints of chance, of course. So it’s not not only is it not nihilistic, it’s the opposite that I think it gives a much more a much brighter vision for life than religion provides. 

Dr. Jeffrey Schweitzer, thanks for joining me on Point of Inquiry. I really enjoyed the back and forth. 

Well, thank you for having me on your show. I’ve been delighted to be with you. 

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Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.