Michael Shermer and 360 Degrees of Skepticism
Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic Magazine, the author of many popular science books, and a regular columnist in Scientific American. In his book, The Believing Brain, he tries to explain how the common person comes to believe in strange things, such as God, miracles, Heaven, the survival of the soul after death, and psychic phenomena. According to Shermer, “reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of it depends upon the beliefs we hold. ” (Believing Brain, 5). In a tell-tale sign of his materialistic tendencies, he criticizes claims of psychic phenomena by stating that “until psi proponents can explain how thoughts generated by neurons in the sender’s brain can pass through the skull and into the brain of the receiver, skepticism is the appropriate response. ” (Id. 149). (This is materialistic because Shermer assumes that mindless particles are the source of reality and anything that cannot be explained by the movement of particles and forces does not in fact exist. )
Shermer, however, despite his claim to being a skeptic, does not practice 360 degrees skepticism. This form of skepticism doubts everything, not just phenomena contradicting materialism. This perspective has a long history in philosophy, beginning with Socrates and ending with Descartes’s famous methodological doubt, where he found that he could doubt everything about the external world except one thing: the doubting function itself.
The problem with modern, materialistic science, as exemplified by Shermer, is that it does not apply skepticism across the entire spectrum of theories: those of materialism are true; everything else is subject to doubt. This is neither science nor skepticism: it is dogma. Shermer writes, with arrogance but no proof, that: “The universe really did begin with a big bang, the earth really is billions of years old and evolution really did happy and someone’s belief to the contrary really is wrong.” (Id. 7). A grand — and empty — statement. Here are some questions a true scientists might ask: (1) How did something come from nothing in the big bang? ( Are we to assume as true this greatest of all mysteries?); (2) How did this random, chaotic explosion rush toward a world of mathematical order? (3) How did life arise from dead particles? (4) what is the source of the struggle for existence and can random mutations really lead to the form of a human body? (5) What is the “nature” doing the selecting in “natural” selection? And there are countless more questions a true skeptic might ask. But Shermer does not ask them because he has convinced himself that materialism is true and all that is contrary must be false.
But then he had what looks like an epiphany. In the October 2014 issue of Scientific American he gives a first-hand account of a truly amazing synchronicity. He gets married in Germany. His new wife was raised by her mother and her grandfather, the closest father figure, who died when she was 16. They shipped her family belongings to Shermer’s home but in transit numerous heirlooms were damaged, except for her grandfather’s 1978 Philips 070 transistor radio which arrived safely. But try as he might, Shermer could not get it to work, despite banging it against a hard surface. After the ceremony, his new bride, Jennifer, feeling lonely and missing her grandfather, wanted to say something to Shermer. So they retreated toward the bedroom where they heard music playing. They searched all possible modern devices but could not find the source of the music — until Jennifer opened a desk drawer and found her grandfather’s radio, playing a romantic love song. They fell asleep to classical music from her grandfather’s radio, but then the next day it stopped working for good.
Shermer recounts this story with a sense of wonder and ends the column by saying, “if we are to take seriously the scientific credo to keep an open mind and remain agnostic when the evidence is indecisive or the riddle unsolved, we should not shut the doors of perception when they may be opened to us to marvel in the mysterious.”
In reading this passage, I am reminded of Shakepeare’s Hamlet, where he says, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Yes, materialism cannot explain the wonder of life. For that reason alone it is false.
We need to be open-minded 360 degrees; we need to be skeptical 360 degrees. Skepticism toward a rigid materialistic mindset opens the door to wonder, mystery, and a world-theme in which we all play a part. We are not puppets in a world without meaning, but creators of our destiny; authors of this story, and yes, Shakespeare was also right on this point: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”