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.


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