A couple of weeks ago I had a most enjoyable conversation at Spui25 with Michael Shermer on his new book “The Moral Arc”. According to Michael, science increased our moral sensibility. He argued that experimental methods and analytical reasoning of science created the modern world of liberal democracies, civil rights, civil liberties, equal justice and prosperity. In my reply I argued that he had forgotten the immense influence of the humanities in explaining the increase of moral justice — in particular the insights from sceptical philologists like Lorenzo Valla, Desiderius Erasmus and Joseph Scaliger whom I had discussed in depth in my own book “A New History of the Humanities”. Somewhat to my surprise, Michael admitted that he had indeed overlooked people like Valla and others, and he agreed with my argument that both humanities and science increased moral justice. I was impressed and delighted with Michael’s reaction, so here’s the full text of my reply to his book:
“Thanks for this mind-provoking book. I agree with Michael that on the long run the arc of the moral sphere bends towards justice. It’s a robust, empirical tendency, impossible to deny.
But my view departs from Michael’s when it comes to an explanation for this long-term moral progress. Michael attributes it to science, whereas I would attribute it to the humanities, and science, but at least to both of them.
What does Michael mean by science? It’s great that we don’t have to infer Michael’s notion of science from his book – instead he gives an explicit definition himself. According to Michael, and I quote from p.15, “Science is a set of methods that describes and interprets observed or inferred phenomena, past or present, and is aimed at testing hypotheses and building theories”.
Now, since this definition doesn’t explicitly state that the phenomena are natural phenomena, they can also be cultural phenomena like art, literature, music, languages, texts etc. So the definition also includes the humanities! And humanities disciplines like linguistics, philology, art history, musicology, history etc, indeed follow Michael’s definition: “they use a set of methods that describes and interprets observed or inferred phenomena, past or present, and is aimed at testing hypotheses and building theories”. Or don’t they?
In any case I’d like to ask Michael why he doesn’t discuss the impact of the humanities on justice. The word ‘humanities’ is not even mentioned in his book. Maybe he believes these disciplines did not contribute to explaining the moral arc. Well let me give some evidence to the contrary.
Let me do so by very briefly sketching the history of secularization. Contrary to common wisdom, secularization is not an outcome of the natural sciences, but of the critical, empirical study of texts – a field called philology – and also the study of languages , the study of art – in other words, the humanities
It probably started with the Italian philologist Lorenzo Valla who demonstrated in 1440 that a famous Latin document called the Donatio Constantini – the Donation of Constantine — was a forgery. According to that document the Roman emperor Constantine had donated the Western Roman Empire to the Pope. The Latin document was used for many centuries as a legitimization for the church’s worldly power. Valla was one of the most skeptical humanists around, and he claimed that the document was fake. But how could he prove this? Valla used historical, linguistic and philological evidence including counterfactual reasoning for his rebuttal. One of the strongest pieces of evidence he came up with was of lexical and grammatical nature: Valla found words and constructions in the document that could not possibly have been used by anyone from the time of the emperor Constantine, at the beginning of the 4th century AD. The late-Latin word feudum, for example, referred to the Feudal system. But this system was a medieval invention, which did not exist before the 7th century AD.
If we look at the structure of Valla’s famous rebuttal, we notice a number of methods that would nowadays be attributed to science: he was skeptical, he was empirical, he drew an hypothesis, he was rational, he used abstract reasoning (even counterfactual reasoning), he used textual phenomena as evidence, and he laid the foundations for one of the most successful theories: stemmatic philology that aims to derive the original text from extant copies (in fact, the much later technique of DNA analysis was based on methods from stemmatic philology). Yet, there is no mention of Valla in Michael’s book.
What happened after Valla’s rebuttal? Well, Valla applied the same methods and hypotheses to the Bible. Rather dangerous at the time. Nevertheless, scholars directly after him, in particular the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus, showed that some parts of the Bible were sneaked in by later copyists, such as a reference to the Trinity. Clearly some copyists wanted to have a proof for the Trinity in the Bible, but Erasmus showed that older versions of the Bible did not mention the Trinity.
Other scholars, in particular Joseph Scaliger, who was active at the University of Leiden in the 16th century, used Valla’s philological approach to reconstruct the so-called King Lists of ancient Egypt. It turned out – to Scaliger’s own dismay — that there had been pharaohs living more than a millennium before the Christian creation of the world, which was commonly accepted to be around 4000 BC. Thus the earth had to be older than what could be derived from the old testament. Within a couple of generations it became accepted among scholars that the Bible could not be used as a historical text. This biblical criticism came to an explosion in the work of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza from whom the later Enlightenment philosophers drew their inspiration.
Thus abstract reasoning, rationality, empiricism, and skepticism are not just virtues of science. They had already been invented by humanities scholars in the 15th and 16th century.
All this is extremely relevant for Michael’s book. For instance, Michael uses the example of burning witches. It was once thought that witches caused crop failures, diseases and other misfortunes. We now know, thanks to our scientific knowledge of agriculture and medicine — as Michael correctly notices — what are the causes of these phenomena. But what Michael neglects to mention, is that women were burnt as witches because they were thought to co-operate with the devil. Well it’s thanks to the aforementioned philologists like Valla and Scaliger that we (or at least most of us) don’t believe any longer in the Bible as an historically reliable text. It can not be proven that people co-operate with the devil. And this insight does not come from natural science, but from philology, history and other fields of the humanities.
My point is not limited to this example of witches, but also counts for (what Michael refers to as) the moral science of slaves, women, and gays. The critical study of texts showed that there was no historical authority justifying slaves or suppressing women and gays. The influence of the humanities has been immense here.
So in sum: I agree with Michael’s observation of the moral arc, but not with his explanation of it, at least not entirely. Both the humanities and the sciences strive for finding the truth!