Thursday, February 01, 2007

Skeptic or Cynic

Michael Shermer, Executive Director of the Skeptics Society (SS) and editor of Skeptic magazine, was the guest speaker at our Omnilore luncheon yesterday. After browsing the SS web site and reading his statement in Edge (“Before Darwin,… everyone believed that life was designed by God. Today less than half believe that in America.. That's progress.”), I was skeptical of finding much to agree with in Dr. Shermer’s speech. I was pleasantly surprised. He is no grumpy curmudgeon or cynic.

The SS investigates claims on a wide variety of subjects including evolution, creationism, global warming, atheism, religion, etc. and the recent issue of Skeptic magazine features 9/11 conspiracy theories (Bush did it. I was happy to hear Shermer say that was total bunk.) The SS adopts the philosophical perspective of Baruch Spinosa: “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.” What’s not to like in that?

Shermer described his upbringing as an Evangelical Christian (like “AMWAY with Bibles”) and his conversion to atheism (or agnosticism?). When asked about the afterlife his position is -- “I’m for it!” -- but he clearly does not believe in it.

Shermer is especially interested in the origin of our moral sense. Most people would say it comes from God, but Shermer insists that we must search for a natural cause. By making it a scientific question he rules out any possibility of a supernatural explanation, by definition. His latest book The Science of Good and Evil is the third in a series addressing these issues.

That God gave us morality cannot be a hypothesis for a scientific study, says Shermer. He quotes the physicist Wolfgang Pauli: “That’s not right. It’s not even wrong,” and notes that it is similar to the claims being made about string theory. On this last point I am in complete agreement with Shermer: String theory is not even wrong.

Shermer explains our moral sense from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. Having just finished the Omnilore Evo-Psycho course, I knew that his model employed the “memes” of Richard Dawkins to describe ideas as undergoing a Darwinian process of survival of the fittest. It started out 5-7 thousand years ago when small groups of hunters-gatherers used the embrace or shun as a method of reinforcing moral or discouraging immoral behavior. Thus our moral sense was born and developed, if you can believe it.

Another primary interest of the SS is Intelligent Design (ID). According to Shermer, ID proponents use the argument from incredulity: If I can’t understand it scientifically, there must be no natural explanation. That argument has been made by some who can’t explain how the Egyptians made the pyramids. Shermer says that when ID-ers are unable to find a natural explanation for the creation of DNA they claim that failure as evidence for a designer.

Or, like Sir Fred Hoyle’s panspermia theory, they claim that DNA was delivered to the Earth from an extra-terrestrial source. He (mockingly) explained that even if a Martian intelligence was the creator of DNA, then the question becomes: Who made the Martian? and so on. Here I felt that Shermer was being unfaithful to his SS principles (“not to ridicule”) particularly since he knows that Hoyle’s theory is much more sophisticated than he portrayed it.

After his quite entertaining talk, Shermer took questions from the gathered Omilorians. I asked this: Can you conceive of the possibility that there is NO natural explanation for the creation of the universe? Shermer had a bit of difficulty with this innocuous question. He noted that this is a question dealt with by cosmologists and that he was not in their pay grade. He claimed my question contained a double negative. He did not answer the question and I said so. I repeated it: Do you admit the possibility that there is no natural explanation for the creation of the universe? After a bit more hem-haw he said, Yes. I was gratified that this atheist spokesman would admit that a creator might exist. He is not quite wrong.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Bill ~ I really appreciated your last paragraph, asking him to answer the question as asked. I can just imagine you repeating it s l o w l y. And then the only appropriate answer ~ YES.
Good work Bill.


8:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting. I wonder if Bill can be equally broad-minded in answering the converse question to the one he asked:

"Can you conceive of the possibility that there IS a natural explanation for the creation of the universe?"


9:39 AM  
Blogger Bill Lama said...

Good question, and the answer is Yes. As a believer,I realize that God could have created the universe (and life) any way He wished. God may very well have used natural means that we may someday be able to discover. It is one of the reasons why I am so interested in science, and became a scientist. I realize this is faith.

I believe that Shermer has faith in the opposite position but did not want to admit it in that venue.

11:05 AM  
Blogger Heresiarch said...

The choice between neoDarwinian evolution and Intelligent Design is a false dichotomy. Our accounts with reality are not settled, and therefore the category of the "supernatural" is highly suspect. In particular, the relation to panspermia is elaborated at

Peace out dawg, Heresiarch

8:06 PM  

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