Tuesday, May 31, 2005

How We Believe, Shermer's Great Capitulation

I recently finished listening to Michael Shermer's How We Believe, read by Dr. Shermer himself, provided by my preferred audiobook source, Audible.com.

This is not Shermer's best work. While it does have Shermer's familiar, conversational-if-almost-rambling style (which I find an acceptable voice for Shermer's chosen line of inquiry) and while I very much enjoyed his previous Why People Believe Weird Things (which perhaps more exposed the gamut of weird things that people believe than explained the actual why of why people believe them), this particular book fails to make any kind of strong stand. Like Weird Things, Shermer's How We Believe wanders through a gauntlet of subjects within a fairly well controlled domain, and it is thematically cohesive. But as one reads it, a problematic issue starts to emerge, an inconsistency with the general body of Shermer's work that I cannot reconcile.

As the founder (?) of the Skeptic Society and Editor of Skeptic magazine, Shermer seems one of the most profound of adherents to the philosophy of science: that doubt is a healthy universal, and that evidence should always trump conjecture. But in How We Believe, Shermer seems to be trying to toe an unexpected line in which he cedes ground to religion by claiming that science and religion are actually two very different ways of "knowing." He also declares himself to be an agnostic, which seems inconsistent with his line of reasoning in his other works. (Perhaps this book predates his others...bad me, I did not check that.)

Those who follow my personal blog will know that I don't unequivocate about whether I believe in God. I see such belief as anti-scientific: it requires faith in a claim for which all presented evidence could easily support many other conclusions. (There is just as much evidence for flying reindeer and forty-foot, purple apes. Oh, Grape Ape, how we miss you.) So when Shermer declares his agnosticism, it seems to me like a namby-pamby, noncommital way to retain more readers. Unfortunately for Shermer, his audience is by nature skeptical...that's why they're his audience. So how can a person claim himself a skeptic, and still leave room for indecision on such an outrageous, unsubstantiated claim as the existence of a divine creator for the entire universe? Does not the very definition of "skeptic" deem necessary the exclusion of such claims without solid substantiation? Does that mean that one can be agnostic about flying reindeer?

In the book, Shermer also describes correspondence with several members of the skeptic society who claim a similar agnostic worldview. So, there are perhaps many of them—I have absolutley no doubt about Shermer's integrity (and I should hope that no one takes my criticism as me impuning Dr. Shermer in such a way). From my experience with him as a speaker and writer, he is an absolutely forthright and consciencious human being. But I do question his approach to this particular work. Did he soften his position in order to appeal to a broader audience? Or, does his skeptical worldview somehow still allow him to permit supernatural claims for which he cannot find directly refuting evidence?

How We Believe covers a lot of ground about belief systems without ever really addressing the how bit--it probably should have been called What we Believe. Some of it is well-balanced inquiry, some interesting factual background, and some of it the familiar kind of material that Shermer so often covers in his lectures and written works. If you seek to understand commonalties between disparate religions--perhaps what makes Buddhism, Islam, and animistic worldviews tick—this work will leave you unsatisfied. However, if you are looking to add information and soft opinion on the general topic of 'how we believe,' Shermer's work provides the usual good insights in an entertaining format.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Review: On Bullshit, Harry G. Frankfurt

Okay, so this is my first book review submission, and it's hardly even a book. It's more an pamphlet or essay that a publisher somehow thought could be hardbound and successfully marketed as a book. Also, it's not the most engaging book I have ever read, but for me as a marketing professional, it makes some interesting distinctions that are particularly relevant to my trade. I also found Frankfurt's ideas very compatible with a scientific worldview.

"When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true;and for the liar, it is correspondingly indespensible that he considers his starements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and the eyes of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest of getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose."

Shortly after, Frankfurt asserts that bullshitting is even more damaging to the concept of "truth" than lying, essentially because willfully lying at least acknowledges that there is indeed something called "truth" to be thwarted, whereas bullshitting is altogether indifferent to truth. Bullshit brazenly defies the whole concept of truth.

If nothing else, On Bullshit will at least help you to recognize your own propensity to bullshit, and recognize it better in others. It may also help you to put the finger on the unsubtle disgust you may feel when you realize something has been passed off to you under the guise of bullshit.

Still one problem I have with the book trumps all: isn't there something kind of bullshitty about passing off an essay as a book? Happy reading.