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Infrequencies

I just witnessed an event so mysterious that it shook my skepticism
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Often I am asked if I have ever encountered something that I could not explain. What my interlocutors have in mind are not bewildering enigmas such as consciousness or U.S. foreign policy but anomalous and mystifying events that suggest the existence of the paranormal or supernatural. My answer is: yes, now I have.

The event took place on June 25, 2014. On that day I married Jennifer Graf, from Köln, Germany. She had been raised by her mom; her grandfather, Walter, was the closest father figure she had growing up, but he died when she was 16. In shipping her belongings to my home before the wedding, most of the boxes were damaged and several precious heirlooms lost, including her grandfather’s binoculars. His 1978 Philips 070 transistor radio arrived safely, so I set out to bring it back to life after decades of muteness. I put in new batteries and opened it up to see if there were any loose connections to solder. I even tried “percussive maintenance,” said to work on such devices—smacking it sharply against a hard surface. Silence. We gave up and put it at the back of a desk drawer in our bedroom. (continue reading…)

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The Awe Delusion

What does the magnificence of the universe
have to do with God?
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After 64-year-old Diana Nyad completed her 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida in September 2013, she was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey on her Super Soul Sunday show in what was to be a motivational reflection on the triumph of will over age. When Nyad announced, “I’m an atheist,” Oprah responded quizzically: “But you’re in the awe.” Puzzled, Nyad responded: “I don’t understand why anybody would find a contradiction in that. I can stand at the beach’s edge with the most devout Christian, Jew, Buddhist—go on down the line—and weep with the beauty of this universe and be moved by all of humanity. All the billions of people who have lived before us, who have loved and hurt and suffered. So to me, my definition of God is humanity and is the love of humanity.” What Oprah said next inflamed atheists: “Well, I don’t call you an atheist then. I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, then that is what God is.”

This is the soft bigotry of those who cannot conceive of how someone can be in awe without believing in supernatural sources of wonder. Why would anyone think that? (continue reading…)

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God, ET, and the Supernatural

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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The Flake Equation

Estimating the number of people who have
experienced the paranormal or supernatural

The Drake Equation is the famous formula developed by the astronomer Frank Drake for estimating the number of extraterrestrial civilizations:

N = R × fp × ne × fl × fi × fc × L where…

  • N = the number of communicative civilizations,
  • R = the rate of formation of suitable stars,
  • fp = the fraction of those stars with planets,
  • ne = the number of earth-like planets per solar system,
  • fl = the fraction of planets with life,
  • fi = the fraction of planets with intelligent life,
  • fc = the fraction of planets with communicating technology, and
  • L = the lifetime of communicating civilizations.

The equation is so ubiquitous that it has even been employed in the popular television series The Big Bang Theory for computing the number of available sex partners within a 40-mile radius of Los Angeles (5,812). My favorite parody of it is by the cartoonist Randall Munroe as one in a series of his clever science send-ups, entitled “The Flake Equation” (on xkcd.com) for calculating the number of people who will mistakenly think they had an ET encounter.

Such multiplicative equations for calculating the product of an increasingly restrictive series of fractional values are effective tools for making back-of-the-envelope calculations to solve problems for which we do not have precise data. To that end I thought it a useful addition to the Skeptic toolbox to create a Flake Equation for all paranormal and supernatural experiences (and in the Flake Equation I’m interested not in beliefs but in actual experiences that people report and that we hear about, because this becomes the foundation of paranormal and supernatural beliefs):

N = Pw × fp × fm × ft × nt × no × fm where…

  • N = Number of people we hear about who report having experienced a paranormal or supernatural phenomena,
  • Pw = Population of the United States (January 1, 2012: 312,938,813),
  • fp = Fraction of people who report having had an anomalous psychological experience or witnessed an unusual physical phenomena (1/5),
  • fm = Fraction of people who interpret such experiences and phenomena as paranormal or supernatural (1/5),
  • ft = Fraction of people who tell someone about their experience (1/10),
  • nt = Number of people they tell (15),
  • no = Number of other people told the story by original hearers (15), and
  • fm = Fraction of such stories reported in the media or on Internet blogs, tweets, and forums (1/10).

N = 28,164,493, or about 9 percent of the U.S. population.

To compute this figure I used the 2005/2007 Baylor Religion Survey, which reports that

  • 23.2% say that they have “witnessed a miraculous, physical healing,”
  • 16.3% “received a miraculous, physical healing,”
  • 27.5% “witnessed people speaking in tongues at a place of worship,”
  • 7.7% “spoke or prayed in tongues,”
  • 54.5% experienced being “protected from harm by a guardian angel,”
  • 5.9% “personally had a vision of a religious figure while awake,”
  • 19.1% “heard the voice of God speaking to me,”
  • 26.1% “had a dream of religious significance,”
  • 52% “had an experience where you felt that you were filled with the spirit,”
  • 22.1% “felt at one with the universe,”
  • 25.7% “had a religious conversion experience,”
  • 13.8% “had an experience where you felt that you were in a state of religious ecstasy,”
  • 14.2% “had an experience where you felt that you left your body for a period of time,”
  • 40.4% “had a dream that later came true,” and
  • 16.7% “witnessed an object in the sky that you could not identify (UFO).”

This works out to an average of 24.4 percent, thereby justifying my conservative 20 percent figure for fp and fm. The other numbers I gleaned from research on gossip and social networks, conservatively estimating that 10 percent of people will tell someone about their unusual experience, and that within their average social network of 150 people they will tell at least 10 percent of them (15) who in turn will pass on the story to 10 percent of their social network of 150 (15). Finally, I estimate that 10 percent of such stories will be reported in the media or recounted in blogs, tweets, forums, and the like.

Of course the final figure for N will vary considerably depending on what numbers are plugged into the equation, but the result will almost always be a number in the tens of millions, which goes a long way toward explaining why belief in the paranormal and supernatural is so ubiquitous. Experiencing is believing!

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The Natural and the Supernatural

Cartoonist Sidney Harris once illustrated two scientists at a chalkboard. One has written, among mathematical equations, “Then a miracle occurs,” to which his colleague replies, “I think you need to be more specific here in step two.” This nicely sums up the relationship between science and religion: one deals in the natural while the other deals in the supernatural. And never the twain shall meet.

Were only it were so. Unfortunately, religions routinely make claims about the natural world that are in direct conflict with the scientific evidence. Young-Earth Creationists, for example, believe that the world was created around 6,000 years ago, about the same time that the Babylonians invented beer. These claims cannot both be correct, and anyone who thinks the former is right has relegated all of science (along with brains) to the dumpster of life. Many people of faith believe that prayer can cajole the deity into taking action in our world to do everything from healing cancers to winning wars. Yet a comprehensive controlled scientific study on the efficacy of prayer on healing, funded by the religiously-based Templeton Foundation and conducted at the prestigious Harvard Medical School, found no relationship between the two: subjects in the non-prayed for group did just as well (or poor) as those in the prayed for group. And why is it, scientists want to know, that prayer only seems effective for things that might have happened anyway, such as tumors going into remission. A more dramatic and unmistakably religious miracle that would shock even the most skeptical of scientists would be if prayers for amputees (especially our brave wounded Christian soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan) resulted in renewed whole limbs; i.e., a true miracle.

How, then, can we reconcile the natural and the supernatural? Most people keep them separated in logic-tight compartments, even scientists. Surveys conducted in 1916 and again in 1997 found that 40 percent of American scientists said they believe in God. As well, hundreds of millions of practicing Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and members of other faiths both believe in God and fully embrace science, even evolution: a 2005 Pew Research Center poll found that 68 percent of Protestants and 69 percent of Catholics accept the theory. So, demographically speaking, most people find no conflict between science and religion.

However, the natural world does not bend to the demographics of belief. Millions of people also believe in astrology, ghosts, angels, ESP, and all manner of paranormal piffle, but that does not make them real. The veracity of a proposition is independent of the number of people who believe it.

In conclusion, I go so far as to conclude: There is no such thing as the supernatural or the paranormal. There is only the natural, the normal, and mysteries we have yet to explain. God is a mystery, and the God of Abraham may very well be an eternal mystery for the simple reason that any God explicable through science and the laws of nature would, by definition, lose the status of supernatural and enter the realm of the natural. A God definable by science is not a God at all.

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