Let’s start by agreeing Shermer is right, as he opens this interview: Humans do seek out evidence that supports our beliefs. We do tend to cement our convictions more than we question them. He’s wrong, though, when he tells Stephen Colbert (at 1:40), “The only way to tell, really, the difference between these true patterns and false patterns is science.”
I’m happy to leave the most obvious flaws in that thinking for you to discuss in the comments. For starters, it’s a performative self-contradiction/self-defeating statement, and it’s over-optimistic with respect to the “debunking” human factor in science. I see these topics debated all the time.
Under the surface, though, Shermer’s got another theme going on. Hardly anyone talks about this one — even though atheists and “skeptics” do it all the time.
(Update Jan. 12: Some readers are reporting they can’t access this video. The original is here, if that helps.)
That theme goes something like this: Never let yourself get fooled. Suspend judgment. On everything. Make certain it’s certain before you buy into it. Never believe anything that might not be true.
That’s a scientific attitude, in a way. Scientists are loath to say experiments prove anything; instead they “fail to confirm” or to “disconfirm.” No conclusion is anything more than a working conclusion, subject to later amendment.
I’m speaking in ideal terms here, for scientists are human beings, too. (I’m also excluding evolution, which for mysterious reasons gets exceptional treatment as “Fact, Fact, FACT!“)
Heuristics, Science, Art, and Morality
The history of science supports this tentative approach. We keep learning, and therefore unlearning. What once was “certain” is now rejected as false; therefore the safer route is never to say anything is certain. Working conclusions are good enough, anyway: They lead to new technologies or new theories; or if they prove not to work after all, they point away from themselves toward new ideas.
But not everything is science. Not every false conclusion has heuristic value. Some are just deadly. Not every branch of knowledge has the same learning-unlearning-new learning growth characteristic science has, either. Science has progressed by orders of magnitude over the past few years, much less centuries, but has music? Poetry? Drama? How much better was Tennessee Williams than Sophocles? Who today is orders of magnitude ahead of Shakespeare? (Is anyone even a match for Tennessee Williams?)
There is such a thing as heuristic science, so eternal skepticism has its usefulness there, but there is no such thing as heuristic music. Even less is there any such thing as heuristic morality; the very term contradicts itself. Moral truths have no scientific tests, though, so on Shermer’s line of thinking, one should never adopt any moral conclusions. The problem with that should be plain, however. Skepticism cannot be known to be a virtue unless one knows of such a thing as virtue. His position incinerates not only its own logic but also its own reason for being.
We Won’t Be Fooled Again!
He seeks to minimize false beliefs so “We don’t get fooled again!” (I’ll bet he skips the “get on my knees and pray” part.) In some skeptics’ case, it sounds a lot like, “We won’t get embarrassed again!” Because there is that image to keep up, you know.
But a ship navigated by skepticism can only anchor outside random ports, then skitter off the next morning, just in case it’s the wrong place to be. Maybe one port is right, maybe not, so the safest bet is to stay out of them all. (We won’t get vulnerable again!)
Colbert asks (at 4:04), “What about religion?” Shermer says, “There are so many prophets and they conflict with each other…. <inaudible> What kind of experiment could we possibly run to tell the difference between whether this is the one true religion or this is the one true religion?”
What kind of experiment could the ship run to tell whether this is the right port or this other one is? None, obviously. Why would this even be the kind of knowledge someone would acquire by experiment? How would you know where to begin? Keep the ship at sea!
Likewise with religion. Shermer refuses to land, because he might land in the wrong place. No, it’s worse than that: He sees that there are wrong places to land — there must be, considering their contradictions — and concludes therefore that there is no right place to land.
The Skeptic Who Wasn’t
But at this point I must introduce one way besides science by which we can know a conclusion is untenable. If it doesn’t follow from its premises — if it’s irrational — then one ought not land on it. Yet Shermer does: When he will land on no religion, in view of the fact that they all might be wrong, he lands instead on a conclusion that is demonstrably irrational.
Let me replay it in case you missed it: Every religion has a chance of being false, therefore we should conclude that none of them is true. There’s another version: Our experimental methods, designed to give us heuristic knowledge about the natural world, don’t give us certain knowledge in the extra-natural world; therefore we conclude that there is no knowledge of the extra-natural world.
Neither conclusion follows from the premises, but Shermer commits to both of them. He’s not such a good skeptic after all. He believes both of those conclusions, even though they might be false — no, even though they certainly are.
In fact everyone, Shermer included, happily lives with truths not known through science. Christians like myself are convinced that history (including its documents, artifacts, archaeology, and more), philosophy, and even science point directly toward the reality of God in Jesus Christ.
Could I be wrong? Sure. But I have made it my business to maximize true beliefs in areas where truth matters as much as this does. I am quite convinced there are good reasons to consider this a true belief. I won’t skitter away from it like a scaredy-cat, just because there’s a chance it might be wrong.
Image Credit(s): Dave Fayram/Flickr.