Michael Shermer and the Witch Theory of Causality in The Moral Arc

Recently well-known skeptic Michael Shermer did a book tour in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands to promote his new book, The Moral Arc, How science and reason lead humanity toward truth, justice, and freedom. I had the opportunity to interview him about his book for Skepter, the magazine of the Dutch skeptics foundation Skepsis.  Shermer is the founder and executive director of the Skeptics Society, a California based skeptic organization. He is also Editor in Chief of Skeptic and has written numerous books on a broad spectrum of subjects. In his last book, he brings a positive message: humanity is morally doing better and better especially since the Age of Enlightenment. And, he claims, science is an important factor which drives this moral progress.

The interview has now appeared in Skepter in Dutch and I don’t think there will be a translation any time soon. Also because already quite some blogs, reviews and interviews with Shermer in English have appeared in the recent weeks on the web and there are not a lot of points in my Dutch article which haven’t been touched by others as well. Though there are still some issues I raised with Shermer which didn’t make the article and which I think are worth mentioning.

Witch theory of causality

Chapter three of the book (‘Why Science and Reason Are the Drivers of Moral Progress’) starts with some comical depictions of the persecution of people accused of doing witchcraft which once was commonplace in Europa. Shermer on our changed views on witches (quotes from several pages) :

Compressed into these comedic vignettes are centuries of intellectual advancement, from the medieval worldview of magic and superstition to the modern age of reason and science. It is evident that most of what we think of as our medieval ancestors’ barbaric practices were based on mistaken beliefs about how the laws of nature actually operate. If you—and everyone around you, including ecclesiastical and political authorities—truly believe that witches cause disease, crop failures, sickness, catastrophes, and accidents, then it is not only a rational act to burn witches, it is also a moral duty.


Nowadays, science has all of these problems covered. We know that crops can fail due to disease, which we study through the science of agronomy and the etiology of disease; or they fail due to insects that we can investigate through the science of entomology and further control through chemistry; or they fail due to inclement weather that we can understand through the science of meteorology.


But given the fact that Europeans and Americans abandoned their belief in witches when science supplanted superstition as a better explanation for evil (and it was outlawed), the generous assessment is that these witch-hunters are merely misinformed. In short, they hold a wrong theory of causality.

So I got the impression that Shermer wants to tell us that the persecution of alleged witches stopped (in Europe and the States at least) because our ancestors found out better explanations for unfortunate events, based on science. However, a bit further in the same chapter we get a far more concrete reason for why people accused of being witches stopped getting burned at the stake. Shermer retells a story from Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay in which the Duke of Brunswick demonstrates two important Jesuits (who believe in witchcraft and in torture as a means of getting genuine trustworthy information) that he can get a woman to confess whatever he wants under torture. People will say anything to stop the pain. Shermer again:

One of these Jesuits was Friedrich Spee, who in response to this shocking display of induced false confessions published a book in 1631 called Cautio Criminalis, which exposed the horrors of the torturous witch trials. This led the archbishop and elector of Menz, Schonbrunn, to abolish torture entirely, which in turn led to the abolition of torture for witchcraft elsewhere

In my interview with Shermer I asked him whether it was not in the first place this insight that torture was a useless tool to find out the truth that stopped these witch hunts rather than the development of better, scientific explanations for the misdoings of which they were accused. It might as well be that people continued to believe in witches as a cause, but had now become aware that there was no reliable way to find out who those witches were. Shermer seemed to agree to this somewhat:

OK, but even then, the idea that if we torture people we get accurate information, that’s a false idea. That’s not true. We now know it’s not true and people who think it’s true have been watching to many tv shows in which the guy has the right perpetrator, the perpetrator knows where the bomb is and if I torture him just the right way he will give us accurate information. (24!: Jack Bauer is gonna torture the bad guy, he knows where the bomb is! )

[ …]

With the witch thing, it’s a dual thing. Part of that is that torturing people and killing them doesn’t work. It isn’t a good idea, it doesn’t deter crime, it doesn’t make society better. That’s a theological idea, a religous idea. Punishing somebody for doing bad. A more sophisticated, rational idea is to see if we can disincentize them from doing it again. Sensitize them to be better citizens, lower the rates of crime and homicide. And that’s better for everyone. That’s what we’ve been doing for centuries and it works.


I call all of that science. In the sense that you are reasoning, you’re collecting data, you’re looking at evidence, you’re deducing principles, you’re debating what we should do next about this.

OK, if you want to broaden ‘science’ to rational thinking in general, the argument that the persecution of witches stopped because of ‘science’ is valid. But that weakens the idea that abolishment of the witch theory of causality was driven by scientific progress as you would normally define it.

On this matter, I didn’t find Shermer really convincing, but with such a book dealing with an enormous amount of issues, of course, you’ll find something which did not quite hit the nail. On the whole, I think The Moral Arc is a quite an interesting book. Shermer really gives great care looking for arguments and counter-arguments. And in most cases, the data presented supports his view that we are indeed living in the most moral period of our known history.

Me interviewing Michael Shermer (photo: Bas Uterwijk)
Me interviewing Michael Shermer (photo: Bas Uterwijk)

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