The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Who Are You?

published July 2017

Memories, points of view and the self

Scientific American (cover)

The Discovery is a 2017 Netflix film in which Robert Redford plays a scientist who proves that the afterlife is real. “Once the body dies, some part of our consciousness leaves us and travels to a new plane,” the scientist explains, evidenced by his machine that measures, as another character puts it, “brain wavelengths on a subatomic level leaving the body after death.”

This idea is not too far afield from a real theory called quantum consciousness, proffered by a wide range of people, from physicist Roger Penrose to physician Deepak Chopra. Some versions hold that our mind is not strictly the product of our brain and that consciousness exists separately from material substance, so the death of your physical body is not the end of your conscious existence. Because this is the topic of my next book, Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia (Henry Holt, 2018), the film triggered a number of problems I have identified with all such concepts, both scientific and religious. (continue reading…)

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Romance of the Vanished Past

published June 2017

Did an advanced civilization disappear more than 12,000 years ago?

Scientific American (cover)

Graham Hancock is an audacious autodidact who believes that long before ancient Mesopotamia, Babylonia and Egypt there existed an even more glorious civilization. One so thoroughly wiped out by a comet strike around 12,000 years ago that nearly all evidence of its existence vanished, leaving only the faintest of traces, including, Hancock thinks, a cryptic warning that such a celestial catastrophe could happen to us. All this is woven into a narrative entitled Magicians of the Gods (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015). I listened to the audio edition read by the author, whose British accent and breathless, revelatory storytelling style are confessedly compelling. But is it true? I’m skeptical.

First, no matter how devastating an extraterrestrial impact might be, are we to believe that after centuries of flourishing every last tool, potsherd, article of clothing, and, presumably from an advanced civilization, writing, metallurgy and other technologies— not to mention trash—was erased? Inconceivable.

Second, Hancock’s impact hypothesis comes from scientists who first proposed it in 2007 as an explanation for the North American megafaunal extinction around that time and has been the subject of vigorous scientific debate. It has not fared well. In addition to the lack of any impact craters determined to have occurred around that time anywhere in the world, the radiocarbon dates of the layer of carbon, soot, charcoal, nanodiamonds, microspherules and iridium, asserted to have been the result of this catastrophic event, vary widely before and after the megafaunal extinction, anywhere from 14,000 to 10,000 years ago. Further, although 37 mammal genera went extinct in North America (while most other species survived and flourished), at the same time 52 mammal genera went extinct in South America, presumably not caused by the impact. These extinctions, in fact, were timed with human arrival, thereby supporting the more widely accepted overhunting hypothesis. (continue reading…)

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On Witches and Terrorists

published May 2017

Why torture doesn’t work

Scientific American (cover)

As recounted by author and journalist Daniel P. Mannix, during the European witch craze the Duke of Brunswick in Germany invited two Jesuit scholars to oversee the Inquisition’s use of torture to extract information from accused witches. “The Inquisitors are doing their duty. They are arresting only people who have been implicated by the confession of other witches,” the Jesuits re ported. The duke was skeptical. Suspecting that people will say anything to stop the pain, he invited the Jesuits to join him at the local dungeon to witness a woman being stretched on a rack. “Now, woman, you are a confessed witch,” he began. “I suspect these two men of being warlocks. What do you say? Another turn of the rack, executioners.” The Jesuits couldn’t believe what they heard next. “No, no!” the woman groaned. “You are quite right. I have often seen them at the Sabbat. They can turn themselves into goats, wolves and other animals…. Several witches have had children by them. One woman even had eight children whom these men fathered. The children had heads like toads and legs like spiders.” Turning to the flabbergasted Jesuits, the duke inquired, “Shall I put you to the torture until you confess?”

One of these Jesuits was Friedrich Spee, who responded to this poignant experiment on the psychology of torture by publishing a book in 1631 entitled Cautio Criminalis, which played a role in bringing about the end of the witch mania and demonstrating why torture as a tool to obtain useful information doesn’t work. This is why, in addition to its inhumane elements, torture is banned in all Western nations, including the U.S., whose Eighth Amendment of the Constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments.” (continue reading…)

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What is Truth, Anyway?

published April 2017

How to think about claims, even the Resurrection

Scientific American (cover)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary’ s first definition, a “skeptic” is “one who holds that there are no adequate grounds for certainty as to the truth of any proposition whatever.” This is too nihilistic. There are many propositions for which we have adequate grounds for certainty as to their truth:

There are 84 pages in this issue of Scientific American. True by observation.

Dinosaurs went extinct around 65 million years ago. True by verification and replication of radiometric dating techniques for volcanic eruptions above and below dinosaur fossils.

The universe began with a big bang. True by a convergence of evidence from a wide range of phenomena, such as the cosmic microwave background, the abundance of light elements (such as hydrogen and helium), the distribution of galaxies, the large-scale structure of the cosmos, the redshift of most galaxies and the expansion of space.

These propositions are “true” in the sense that the evidence is so substantial that it would be unreasonable to withhold one’s provisional assent. It is not impossible that the dinosaurs died a few thousand years ago (with the universe itself having been created 10,000 years ago), as Young Earth creationists believe, but it is so unlikely we need not waste our time considering it. (continue reading…)

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Apocalypse A.I.

published March 2017

Artificial intelligence as existential threat

magazine cover

In 2014 SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted: “Worth reading Superintelligence by Bostrom. We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes.” That same year University of Cambridge cosmologist Stephen Hawking told the BBC: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates also cautioned: “I am in the camp that is concerned about super intelligence.”

How the AI apocalypse might unfold was outlined by computer scientist Eliezer Yudkowsky in a paper in the 2008 book Global Catastrophic Risks: “How likely is it that AI will cross the entire vast gap from amoeba to village idiot, and then stop at the level of human genius?” His answer: “It would be physically possible to build a brain that computed a million times as fast as a human brain…. If a human mind were thus accelerated, a subjective year of thinking would be accomplished for every 31 physical seconds in the outside world, and a millennium would fly by in eight-and-a-half hours.” Yudkowsky thinks that if we don’t get on top of this now it will be too late: “The AI runs on a different timescale than you do; by the time your neurons finish thinking the words ‘I should do something’ you have already lost.”

The paradigmatic example is University of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s thought experiment of the so-called paperclip maximizer presented in his Superintelligence book: An AI is designed to make paperclips, and after running through its initial supply of raw materials, it utilizes any available atoms that happen to be within its reach, including humans. As he described in a 2003 paper, from there it “starts transforming first all of earth and then increasing portions of space into paperclip manufacturing facilities.” Before long, the entire universe is made up of paperclips and paperclip makers. (continue reading…)

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