Dr. Michael Shermer gives his argument against the existence of God at the Oxford Union. Watch more at http://www.oxford-union.org/debates
Dr. Michael Shermer gives his argument against the existence of God at the Oxford Union. Watch more at http://www.oxford-union.org/debates
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:
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.
The following excerpt is from the Prologue to my new book, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts, Gods, and Aliens to Conspiracies, Economics, and Politics—How the Brain Constructs Beliefs and Reinforces Them as Truths. The Prologue is entitled “I Want to Believe.” The book synthesizes 30 years of research to answer the questions of how and why we believe what we do in all aspects of our lives, from our suspicions and superstitions to our politics, economics, and social beliefs. LEARN MORE about the book.
Wow. More people believe in angels and the devil than believe in the theory of evolution. That’s disturbing. And yet, such results should not surprise us as they match similar survey findings for belief in the paranormal conducted over the past several decades.2 And it is not just Americans. The percentages of Canadians and Britons who hold such beliefs are nearly identical to those of Americans.3 For example, a 2006 Readers Digest survey of 1,006 adult Britons reported that 43 percent said that they can read other people’s thoughts or have their thoughts read, more than half said that they have had a dream or premonition of an event that then occurred, more than two-thirds said they could feel when someone was looking at them, 26 percent said they had sensed when a loved-one was ill or in trouble, and 62 percent said that they could tell who was calling before they picked up the phone. In addition, a fifth said they had seen a ghost and nearly a third said they believe that Near-Death Experiences are evidence for an afterlife.4
Although the specific percentages of belief in the supernatural and the paranormal across countries and decades varies slightly, the numbers remain fairly consistent that the majority of people hold some form of paranormal or supernatural belief.5 Alarmed by such figures, and concerned about the dismal state of science education and its role in fostering belief in the paranormal, the National Science Foundation (NSF) conducted its own extensive survey of beliefs in both the paranormal and pseudoscience, concluding with a plausible culprit in the creation of such beliefs:
Belief in pseudoscience, including astrology, extrasensory perception (ESP), and alien abductions, is relatively widespread and growing. For example, in response to the 2001 NSF survey, a sizable minority (41 percent) of the public said that astrology was at least somewhat scientific, and a solid majority (60 percent) agreed with the statement “some people possess psychic powers or ESP.” Gallup polls show substantial gains in almost every category of pseudoscience during the past decade. Such beliefs may sometimes be fueled by the media’s miscommunication of science and the scientific process.6
I too would like to lay the blame at the feet of the media, or science education in general, because the fix then seems straightforward—just improve how we communicate and educate science. But that’s too easy. In any case, the NSF’s own data do not support it. Although belief in ESP decreased from 65% among high school graduates to 60% among college graduates, and belief in magnetic therapy dropped from 71% among high school graduates to 55% among college graduates, that still leaves over half of educated people fully endorsing such claims! And for embracing alternative medicine, the percentages actually increased, from 89% for high school grads to 92% for college grads.
Perhaps a deeper cause may be found in another statistic: 70% of Americans still do not understand the scientific process, defined in the NSF study as grasping probability, the experimental method, and hypothesis testing. So one solution here is teaching how science works in addition to the rote memorization of scientific facts. A 2002 article in Skeptic magazine entitled “Science Education is No Guarantee of Skepticism,” presented the results of a study that found no correlation between science knowledge (facts about the world) and paranormal beliefs. The authors, W. Richard Walker, Steven J. Hoekstra, and Rodney J. Vogl, concluded: “Students that scored well on these [science knowledge] tests were no more or less skeptical of pseudoscientific claims than students that scored very poorly. Apparently, the students were not able to apply their scientific knowledge to evaluate these pseudoscientific claims. We suggest that this inability stems in part from the way that science is traditionally presented to students: Students are taught what to think but not how to think.”7 The scientific method is a teachable concept, as evidenced in the NSF study that found that 53% of Americans with a high level of science education (nine or more high school and college science/math courses) understand the scientific process, compared to 38% with a middle level (six to eight such courses) of science education, and 17% with a low level (less than five such courses) of science education. So maybe the key to attenuating superstition and belief in the supernatural is in teaching how science works, not just what science has discovered. I have believed this myself for my entire career in science and education. If I didn’t believe it I might not have gone into the business of teaching, writing, and editing science in the first place.
Alas, I have come to the conclusion that belief is largely immune to attack by direct educational tools, at least for those who are not ready to hear it. Belief change comes from a combination of personal psychological readiness and a deeper social and cultural shift in the underlying zeitgeist of the times, which is affected in part by education, but is more the product of larger and harder-to-define political, economic, religious, and social changes.
Similar percentages of belief were found in this 2005 Gallup Poll:
|Psychic or Spiritual Healing||55%|
|Clairvoyance (know past/predict future)||26%|
|Psychics are able to talk to the dead||21%|
|Channeling spirits from the other side||9%|
Do you believe in God? In most surveys, about nine out of ten Americans respond in the affirmative. The other ten percent provide a variety of answers, including a favorite among skeptics and atheists, “which God?,” spoken in a smarmy manner and followed by a litany of deities: Aphrodite, Amon Ra, Apollo, Baal, Brahma, Ganesha, Isis, Mithras, Osiris, Shiva, Thor, Vishnu, Wotan, and Zeus. “We’re all atheists of these gods,” goes the denouement, “some of us go one god further.”
I have debated many a theologian who make the traditional arguments for God’s existence: the cosmological argument (prime mover, first cause), the teleological argument (the universe’s order and design), the ontological argument (if it is logically possible for God to exist then God exists), the anthropic argument (the fine-tuned characteristics of nature), the moral argument (awareness of right and wrong), and others. These are all reasons to believe if you already believe; if you do not already believe these reasons ring hollow and have been refuted by philosophers from David Hume to Daniel Dennett.
This last spring, however, I participated in a debate with a theologian of a different species—the New Age spiritualist Deepak Chopra—whose arguments for the existence of a deity take a radically different tact. Filmed by ABC’s Nightline and viewed by millions, Deepak hammered out a series of scientistic-sounding arguments for the existence of a nonlocal spooky-action-at-a-distance quantum force. Call it Deepak’s God 2.0.
In the Middle Ages scholars drew correspondences between the microcosm (the earth) and the macrocosm (the heavens), finding linkages between bodily organs, earthly minerals, and heavenly bodies that made the entire system interlocking and interdependent. Gold corresponds to the Sun, which corresponds to the Heart. Silver corresponds to the Moon, which corresponds to the Brain. Mercury corresponds to the planet Mercury, which corresponds to the Gonads. The four elements of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire were astrologically coupled to the four humor-based personality traits of melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine, and choleric. In its essence Deepak’s New Age theology is a Middle Ages-inspired correspondence between macrocosm world events and microcosm quantum effects, an upgrade from God 1.0 to God 2.0, well captured in the following chart (inspired by my friend and colleague Stephen Beckner):
|God 1.0||God 2.0|
fully man/fully God
leap of faith
Council of Rome
forgiveness of sin
Heisenberg uncertainty principle
Deepak believes that the weirdness of the quantum world (such as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle) can be linked to certain mysteries of the macro world (such as consciousness). This supposition is based on the work of the tandem team of Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff, whose theory of quantum consciousness has generated much heat but little light in scientific circles.
Inside our neurons are tiny hollow microtubules that act like structural scaffolding. The conjecture is that something inside the microtubules may initiate a wave function collapse that leads to the quantum coherence of atoms, causing neurotransmitters to be released into the synapses between neurons and thus triggering them to fire in a uniform pattern, thereby creating thought and consciousness. Since a wave function collapse can only come about when an atom is “observed” (i.e., affected in any way by something else), “mind” may be the observer in a recursive loop from atoms to molecules to neurons to thought to consciousness to mind to atoms to molecules to neurons to….
In reality, the gap between microcosm quantum effects and macrocosm world events is too large to bridge. In his 1995 book The Unconscious Quantum (Prometheus Books) the University of Colorado particle physicist Victor Stenger demonstrates that for a system to be described quantum mechanically the system’s typical mass m, speed v, and distance d must be on the order of Planck’s constant h. “If mvd is much greater than h, then the system probably can be treated classically.” Stenger computes that the mass of neural transmitter molecules, and their speed across the distance of the synapse, are about three orders of magnitude too large for quantum effects to be influential. There is no microcosm—macrocosm connection. Subatomic particles may be altered when they are observed, but contrary to what Deepak believes, the moon is there even if no one looks at it.
Deepak’s use and abuse of quantum physics is what the Caltech quantum physicist and Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann calls “quantum flapdoodle,” which is when you string together a series of terms and phrases from quantum physics and assume that explains something in the regular macro world in which we live. “The mind is like an electron cloud surrounding the nucleus of an atom,” Chopra writes in his 2006 book Life After Death. “Until an observer appears, electrons have no physical identity in the world; there is only the amorphous cloud. In the same way, imagine that there is a cloud of possibilities open to the brain at every moment (consisting of words, memories, ideas, and images I could choose from). When the mind gives a signal, one of these possibilities coalesces from the cloud and becomes a thought in the brain, just as an energy wave collapses into an electron.”
Baloney. The microscopic world of subatomic particles as described by the mathematics of quantum mechanics has no correspondence with the macroscopic world in which we live as described by the mathematics of Newtonian mechanics. These are two different physical systems at two different scales described by two different types of mathematics. The hydrogen atoms in the sun are not sitting around in a cloud of possibilities waiting for a cosmic mind to signal them to fuse into helium atoms and thereby throw off heat generated by nuclear fusion. By the laws of physics of this universe, a gravitationally collapsing cloud of hydrogen gas will, if large enough, reach a critical point of pressure to cause those hydrogen atoms to fuse into helium atoms and give off heat and light in the process, and it would do so even if there were not a single mind in the entire cosmos to observe it.
God 2.0 has no more basis in scientific fact than God 1.0, no matter how many observers believe it is so.
I believe in the power of science and humanity. Specifically, I believe that biodiversity is a good thing and that we have been rapacious in our treatment of the environment, although I think the environmental movement has greatly exaggerated our condition and that the environment is a lot more resilient than most environmentalists give it credit for. I don’t mind eating cows and fish, but dolphins and whales have big brains and they’re cool, so I don’t think we should kill them. I drive an SUV because I haul around bicycles, books, and dogs, but as soon as there is a bigger hybrid, I’ll buy it. And although I am a libertarian heterosexual who is about as unpink (in both meanings) as you can get, I believe people should have an equal opportunity to be unequal. As for evolution, it happened. Deal with it.
I don’t know why the God question is so interdigitated with political and economic issues, but it is. It shouldn’t be. It’s okay to be a liberal Christian or a conservative atheist. I am a fiscal conservative and a social liberal. I don’t think there is a God, or any sort of anthropomorphic being who needs to be worshipped, who listens to prayers, who keeps a moral scoreboard that will be settled in the end, or who cares one iota about who wins the Super Bowl.
This is why what we do in this life matters so much — and why how we treat others in the here and now is more important than how they might be treated in some hereafter that may or may not exist. If we knew for certain that there is an afterlife, we wouldn’t have great debates about it, and philosophers wouldn’t have spilled all that ink over the millennia wrangling over it. Since we don’t know, it makes more sense to assume there is no God and no afterlife, and act accordingly. That is, act as if what we do matters now. That way, we’ll think about the consequences of what we are doing.
I am sick and tired of politicians, and just about everyone else, kowtowing to the religious right’s hypersensitivities and politically correct “tolerance” for diversities of belief — as long as one believes in God — any God will do, except the God who promises virgins in the next life to pilots who fly planes into buildings. Those of us who do not believe in god have had enough of this rhetoric. This is America. We are supposed to be good and do the right thing, not because it will make us rich, get us saved, or reward us in the next life, but because people have value in and of themselves, and because it will make us all better off, individually and collectively. It says so, right there in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights — products of a secular eighteenth-century Enlightenment movement.
Religion and politics should be treated as separate entities. Religion is private and politics is public. If you want more religion, go to church. If you want more politics, go to the capitol. Don’t go to church to politic, and don’t go to the capitol to preach. That’s a non-overlapping magisterium I can live with.
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