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Shermer on God’s Existence

December 2012

Dr. Michael Shermer gives his argument against the existence of God at the Oxford Union. Watch more at http://www.oxford-union.org/debates

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Coincidences and Certainties

December 2012

On the morning of Friday, November 16, 2012, I wandered out of my hotel in Portland, Oregon—The Crystal Hotel, an exotic boutique hotel with rooms decorated in the theme of a musician, poet, or artist (I stayed in the Allen Ginsberg room staring at a portrait of the beat poet and realized why I write nonfiction). In search of breakfast, I could have turned left or right as I exited the lobby. I turned right. At the first intersection I could have continued straight, gone left, or gone right. I went left. There were breakfast restaurants on both the left and the right side of the street. I chose one on the right. The hostess asked if I wanted to be seated near the window or next to the wall. I chose the window. About half way through my breakfast I happened to look up to see a man walking by who looked familiar. He looked at me with similar familiarity. I waived him into the restaurant. He spoke my name in recognition. I stuttered and stammered and hemmed and hawed and finally admitted, “I’m sorry, but I can’t remember your name.” He said, “Uh, Michael, it’s me, Scott Wolfman, your agent!”

After I recovered from my embarrassment and momentary fear that I’d never get another speaking engagement, we had a laugh about it all, but then got to thinking—what are the odds of something like this happening? I’m from Southern California and Scott is from Connecticut. And we happened to run into each other in Portland, Oregon, a city neither of us normally has any business being in. I was randomly walking about the town, as was Scott. We were stunned. It sure seemed like something more than a coincidence, and we both joked about how there must be some sort of scheduling god who makes these things happen.

But Scott and I are good skeptics. We know how to think about such events. Even though such coincidences as this really stand out as unusual—and they are when I describe it in this manner—most people forget to consider all the other possibilities: the thousands of people I know who didn’t happen by that diner, the delay at the diner talking to Scott when I might have left earlier and had something else unusual happen that now didn’t, all the other cities I’ve traveled to and dined in when I didn’t see anyone I knew, and so on. And the same for Scott: he has hundreds of clients and knows thousands of people in the lecture business, any one of which he would ever happen to bump into in any given city he happened to travel to, would stand out as unusual.

In other words, after the fact we construct all the contingencies that had to come together in just such a way for one particular event to happen, and then we only notice and remember (and later tell stories like the above) about the events that we noticed as extraordinary, and conveniently forget to notice all the other possibilities. Here’s an article opening you’ll never read:

“A remarkable thing happened to me this morning. When I went out for breakfast I didn’t see a single person I know.”

And yet I’ve had thousands of breakfasts just like this one in which I see nothing but strangers. And, of course, I don’t bother to take note of that uninteresting fact, and I do not give it a second thought. The main cognitive bias at work here is the hindsight bias.

The hindsight bias is the tendency to reconstruct the past to fit with present knowledge. Once an event has occurred, we look back and reconstruct how it happened, why it had to happen that way and not some other way, and why we should have seen it coming all along. Such “Monday-morning quarterbacking” is literally evident on the Monday mornings following a weekend filled with football games. We all know what plays should have been called…after the outcome. Ditto the stock market and the endless parade of financial experts whose prognostications are quickly forgotten as they shift to post-diction analysis after the market closes—it’s easy to “buy low, sell high” once you have perfect information, which is only available after the fact when it is too late. In this story, the hindsight bias was my noticing after the fact all the particularities that had to come together in just such a way for Scott and I to run into each other.

What would have been truly and extraordinarily beyond coincidence is if I had computed ahead of time the odds of running into my lecture agent at that very time and place, and then it happened. But that’s not what happened. My account here is a post-diction—an after-the-fact analysis—instead of a prediction. Unfortunately, most people who are not aware of such cognitive biases fail to consider all the other possibilities, and how the sum of all these possibilities is certainty—something must happen, and 99.99% of the things that happen are uninteresting and unimportant and so we don’t notice or recall them later. This cognitive shortcoming is, in part, the basis of a type of superstition and magical thinking that finds deep meaning in coincidence, while ignoring entirely the certainties that must happen according to the laws of nature and contingencies of history.

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The Alpinists of Evil

December 2012
Nazis did not just blindly follow orders
magazine cover

IN LAST MONTH’S COLUMN I recounted how my replication of Stanley Milgram’s shock experiments revealed that although most people can be inveigled to obey authorities if they are asked to hurt others, they do so reluctantly and with much moral conflict. Milgram’s explanation was an “agentic state,” or “the condition a person is in when he sees himself as an agent for carrying out another person’s wishes.” As agents in an experiment, subjects shift from being moral agents in society to obedient agents in a hierarchy. “I am forever astonished that when lecturing on the obedience experiments in colleges across the country, I faced young men who were aghast at the behavior of experimental subjects and proclaimed they would never behave in such a way but who, in a matter of months, were brought into the military and performed without compunction actions that made shocking the victim seem pallid.” (continue reading…)

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God, ET, and the Supernatural

November 2012

Why there cannot be a deity beyond the natural world
that science can discover

On Saturday, November 3, 2012 I spoke at the big atheists’ conference in Mexico City on The Believing Brain, my latest book in which I develop a theory to explain not just why people believe weird things, but why people believe anything at all, including and especially god beliefs. (I don’t know if the talk will be posted Online but it is an expanded version of my TED talk or this longer version.

In the audience was the biologist Jerry Coyne, the author of one of the best defenses of evolutionary theory ever penned: Why Evolution is True. He posted a blog about my lecture in which, surprisingly (given his staunch militancy for atheism), he expressed a difference with me in the possibility of there being a God. He writes:

While I respect Shermer’s view that invoking aliens or some unknown explanation avoids a “god of the gaps” argument for unknown and miraculous or divine phenomena, I still feel as a scientist that the existence of a true supernatural god is a theoretical possibility, and that there is some possible evidence that could convince me of it. (I’ve described that evidence before; needless to say, none has been found.) Yes, such miraculous evidence for a god might eventually be found to be due to aliens or the like, but my acceptance of a god would always be a provisional one, subject to revision upon further evidence. (We might find aliens behind the whole thing.) After all, every scientific “truth” is provisional.

Jerry’s allusion to alien gods is in reference to my brief summary in the Q&A of what I originally proposed in a 2002 Scientific American column entitled “Shermer’s Last Law” (title written with tongue firmly in cheek because naming laws after oneself is a sure sign of crankdom): “Any sufficiently advanced extra-terrrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God.”

Readers will recognize this as a variant of Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I expanded on that column in my god chapter in The Believing Brain to address the claim by both theists and atheists that god’s existence is an empirical matter open to verification or refutation. I contend that it is not. Both Richard Dawkins (in The God Delusion) and Victor Stenger (in God: The Failed Hypothesis—How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist) have claimed as much in their books, and I believe that this is what Jerry Coyne means as well. My argument is that the most any natural science could ever discover in the way of a deity would be a natural intelligence sufficiently advanced to be god-like but still within the realm of the natural world. As I wrote in Scientific American:

God is typically described by Western religions as omniscient and omnipotent. Since we are far from the mark on these traits, how could we possibly distinguish a God who has them absolutely, from an ETI who has them in relatively (to us) copious amounts? Thus, we would be unable to distinguish between absolute and relative omniscience and omnipotence. But if God were only relatively more knowing and powerful than us, then by definition it would be an ETI!

The logic of this gambit is relatively simple:

  1. Biological evolution progresses at a glacial pace compared to scientific and technological evolution.
  2. The cosmos is very big and space is very empty, so the probability of making contact with an ETI who is only slightly more advanced than us is virtually nil. If we ever do find ETI it will likely be hundreds of thousands or millions of years more advanced than us.
  3. Apply Moore’s Law of the doubling of computing power every year to technology in general (as Ray Kurzweil has done in his book The Singularity is Near), and then imagine an extra-terrestrial civilization a million years more advanced than us. If in a mere century we went from crude rockets to manned-space flight, and from plant-breeding genomics (Gregor Mendel) to the creation of artificial genomes (J. Craig Venter), imagine what an extra-terrestrial intelligence could do in a million years of scientific and technological R&D?
  4. What would you call an entity a million years more technologically advanced than we are? If you don’t know the technology behind it you might call it a god, if you do you would correctly identify it as a sufficiently advanced extra-terrestrial intelligence.

On the matter of the supernatural, Jerry Coyne continues in his blog:

As always, I find the natural/supernatural distinction confusing, and see that it is possible in principle for some divine being who operates outside the laws of physics to exist.  To say there is no possibility of such a thing is an essentially unscientific claim, since there is nothing that science can rule out on first principles.  We rule out things based on evidence and experience, that is, we consider the possibilities of gods extremely unlikely since we have no good evidence for them. But it is close-minded to say that nothing would convince us otherwise.

I disagree. It is simply a matter of what philosophers of science call methodological naturalism, or the process of employing only natural explanations for natural phenomena. Science operates in the natural, not the supernatural. In fact, I go so far as to say that there is no such thing as the supernatural. There is just the natural and mysteries we have yet to explain by natural causes. Invoking such words as “supernatural” (and, in other realms, the “paranormal”) just provides a linguistic place-holder until we find natural causes (or we do not find them and discontinue the search out of lack of interest). I often employ the example of how cosmologists talk about “dark energy” and “dark matter” in reference to the so-called “missing mass” needed to explain the structure and motion of galaxies and galaxy clusters—they do not use these words as causal explanations. The words themselves are just linguistic place holders until the actual forms of matter and energy are discovered and described.

Similarly, when people use the word “mind” they tend to reify it into something that exists up there in the head in addition to the brain. It doesn’t, but let’s say I’m wrong and the “paranormalists” are right that consciousness exists separate from the brain in, perhaps, a quantum state, and that when your neurons fire they are capable of influencing the neurons in someone else’s head, and thus mind-reading or ESP is real. That would no longer be something “paranormal”; instead, it would be entirely within the realm of normal science—quantum neuroscience perhaps.

What Jerry Coyne (and, presumably, Richard Dawkins and Victor Stenger) is open-minded about is the possibility of a new and as yet undiscovered natural entity or force at work in the cosmos capable of creating, say, universes, stars, planets, and living beings (Freeman Dyson, Michio Kaku, and science fiction writers have speculated for years on how sufficiently advanced ETIs could create planets, stars, and even universes—it’s all really just an engineering problem to be solved).

A supernatural entity or force (something like the God of Abraham) that exists outside of nature is, by definition, unknowable to science. By contrast, if a supernatural being reaches into our natural world in order to act on it, He must stir the particles in some way (to, say, answer prayers for healing a cancerous tumor by reconfiguring the DNA of the cancerous cells, or to help one nation win a war over another by redirecting bullets and bombs, or to aid one football team defeat another in the Superbowl by deflecting a touchdown pass), and that action must in principle be measurable by science. If it is not measurable even in principle, then it is not knowable by science.

As correctly noted by Mssrs. Coyne, Dawkins, and Stenger, no such particle stirring (or stirrer) has been detected by scientists. But by the logic of Shermer’s Last Law, the only God that science could discover would be a natural being—an entity that exists in space and time and is constrained by the laws of nature. A supernatural God that exists outside of space and time and never interacts with our world is not knowable to science.

Q.E.D.

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Shock and Awe

November 2012
Replicating Milgram’s shock experiments
leads to a different interpretation
magazine cover

IN 2010 I WORKED on a Dateline NBC television special replicating classic psychology experiments, one of which was Stanley Milgram’s famous shock experiments from the 1960s. We followed Milgram’s protocols precisely: subjects read a list of paired words to a “learner” (an actor named Tyler), then presented the first word of each pair again. Each time Tyler gave an incorrect matched word, our subjects were instructed by an authority figure (an actor named Jeremy) to deliver an electric shock from a box with toggle switches that ranged in 15-volt increments up to 450 volts (no shocks were actually delivered). In Milgram’s original experiments, 65 percent of subjects went all the way to the end. We had only two days to film this segment of the show (you can see all our experiments on NBCNews.com), so there was time for just six subjects, who thought they were auditioning for a new reality show called What a Pain!

Contrary to Milgram’s conclusion that people blindly obey authorities to the point of committing evil deeds because we are so susceptible to environmental conditions, I saw in our subjects a great behavioral reluctance and moral disquietude every step of the way. Our first subject, Emily, quit the moment she was told the protocol. “This isn’t really my thing,” she said with a nervous laugh. When our second subject, Julie, got to 75 volts and heard Tyler groan, she protested: “I don’t think I want to keep doing this.” Jeremy insisted: “You really have no other choice. I need you to continue until the end of the test.” Despite our actor’s stone-cold authoritative commands, Julie held her moral ground: “No. I’m sorry. I can just see where this is going, and I just—I don’t—I think I’m good. I think I’m good to go.” When the show’s host Chris Hansen asked what was going through her mind, Julie offered this moral insight on the resistance to authority: “I didn’t want to hurt Tyler. And then I just wanted to get out. And I’m mad that I let it even go five [wrong answers]. I’m sorry, Tyler.” (continue reading…)

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