Michael Shermer just gave the morning’s first talk at the Mexican Atheist meetings. This is the first time I’ve heard him speak, and he’s very entertaining and engaging. While he was nominally touting his new book, The Believing Brain, it was really a talk about Skeptic magazine, which he edits, and about why people are credulous.
Many of you may be familiar with the reasons why people believe weird stuff from Shermer’s previous books, or from those of other skeptics: they include the fact that we’re hard-wired to accept authority, that we come naturally to the concept of agency and thus to accepting the supernatural, that that concept of agency is also instilled in us by evolution (better to mistake a rustle in the bushes for a predator than to ignore it, since fitness is maximized by the former strategy), and so on.
He gave a lot of examples of studies with which I wasn’t familiar, including Emily Rosa’s experiment debunking healing touch, which led to her publishing that study at the age of 11 in The Journal of the American Medical Association; she’s still the youngest person to publish a paper in a major journal (see the link above for more information).
Shermer also answered audience questions for about 45 minutes, including one about whether Deepak Chopra really believes what he says. (Shermer gave an unequivocal “yes,” saying that Deepak may well have deluded himself into really believing his quantum-based woo, but yes, he really believes the tripe he dishes out.)
Shermer ruled the supernatural out of court from the beginning, saying that, like Hume, a naturalistic explanation is always more parsimonious, even if we can’t find one. I asked him if there was anything that could make him believe in the existence of a god, and he joked about “A million dollars appearing in a Swiss bank account in his name,” but then said, no, even the healing of amputees might be attributed to the intervention of aliens.
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.
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. This is not just a tactical move to make me appear open minded; it’s something I really feel.
Now I know that the concept of gods is incoherent in the main, one reason because nobody can agree how you would identify one. But it is possible in principle that some god, say the Abrahamic one, could exist. (I know that even Abrahamic-god folks can’t agree on what their god is like!)
As scientists we dismiss possibilities not on first principles (“those things simply couldn’t exist”), but from our experience about how things work in the universe. The Laplacean dictum: “We have no need of that hypothesis,” still applies in science, but it is possible that some day we would have need of that hypothesis. Again, so I don’t give succor (or out-of-context quotes) to the faithful, I don’t envision that ever happening.