Skeptic: Viewing the word with a rational eye is a collection of essays penned by Michael Shermer that have appeared in the pages of Scientific American over many years. As only the best and most popular authors are granted such a collection, it comes as no surprise that the 70 essays are uniformly of high quality. Covering an extraordinary breadth of material from the history of science to alien abductions, evolutionary theory, climate change, Intelligent Design and the efficacy of prayer, the essays are consistently well-informed, insightful, often challenging and sometimes inspiring. Even those essays not of direct personal interest (I was never much drawn to believing in alien abductions anyway) were worthwhile simply for the pleasure of watching an excellent thinker and writer at work. Where I did have a personal interest, I found his work genuinely provocative. In fact, anyone wanting to become a better and more careful thinker could do worse than reading, and emulating, Shermer.
As you would expect of a collection of this sort, there is no single argument that develops across the whole book. There are, however, themes that emerge in different ways throughout the collection: I’ll focus on ‘scientism’, the nature of science, and why science ought to be given a central place in our lives.
Science, on Shermer’s conception, is not an individualistic enterprise. While the dogged determination or genius of key individuals at times plays its part, Shermer rightly conceives of science as an essentially collective activity. In this collective activity, experimental confirmation carried out by the scientific community is the key to progress. In a conservative and pragmatic spirit, he describes science as making progress in slow but crucially self-correcting steps. Science may not get everything right the first time—it’s quite possible that not every current finding of science will be current science in 100 years. However, because it is self-correcting and bound by the way things are, it will eventually converge on the truth, often from multiple directions at once. Indeed, for Shermer it is the only such method that will reliably deliver truth because it is the only one that properly leverages the power of a community working from multiple directions at once and upon shared standards. It is on this claim to exclusivity that we ought to focus.
This does not imply that Shermer would ban us from such non-scientific pursuits as art or theology or poetry. Many of his articles start with poetry or song lyrics, and while he isn’t at all sympathetic to some of the excesses of post-modernism, he is clearly sympathetic to the humanities more broadly. Appreciating the natural process that brought something about is, for Shermer, supposed to heighten our sense of beauty and awe in the encounter itself and afterwards as our understanding grows. Science, when done well, ought not to be a killjoy. Nor does Shermer wish to limit science to the ‘hard’ sciences. Psychology, anthropology, history and paleontology are all legitimate—as presumably are any other self-correcting, convergent and community-based enterprises.
Yet even on this liberal and fairly inclusive conception of science there remains something deeply problematic in Shermer’s conception of how we gain knowledge. Powerful and productive as science is, it’s far too limited to account for my whole lived experience and the experience of others. The knowledge of God I gain through prayer and meditation cannot be investigated through the methods of science for it is a direct person-to-person communion, not merely a psychological state with a specific causal history (although it is, of course, partly that). Likewise, my genuine encounter with Scripture is knowledge-producing but not ‘scientific’, involving as it does the internal illumination of the Holy Spirit.
Shermer fully understands something important: knowledge of God’s world happens slowly, and only with the help of a community, and is reliable. He grasps how easily we can be led into falsity and there is much we can learn from his book. But there is more to be said than he is in a position to say.
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