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on June 5, 2000
In the preface to "How We Believe," Michael Shermer thanks his family for raising him in an atmosphere free of pressure regarding either religious or secular beliefs. I feel the same gratitude toward my family, and greatly enjoy the game of truth-hunting without having to drag along the millstones that childhood indoctrination can attach. Shermer's book covers a lot of ground, ranging from general philosophical commentary on belief systems, to Cargo and Messiah Cults, to the author's personal intellectual journey and conclusions. Along the way (Chapter 4) we are shown interesting results from a study, co-designed by the author, in which selected groups of individuals were asked to explain and interpret their own religious views. Shermer is able to deduce some fascinating, revealing, and occasionally amusing generalizations from the survey data.
In terms of creative content the book's most important contribution is Chapter 10, "Glorious Contingency." Here Shermer expands on a theme credited to S.J. Gould, the central idea being that the evolutionary chain leading to H. Sapiens (us) was contingency-intensive, and therefore probably irreproducible if a repeat trial could somehow be arranged. Gould attributes the irreproducibility not primarily to true randomness or asteroid-type disasters, but rather to overwhelming practical uncertainties rooted in the sensitivity of final outcomes to initial conditions and early events in lengthy, complex processes. As the author points out, recent trends in Chaos Theory lend support to such a conclusion. After addressing some criticisms of Gould (primarily from Daniel Dennett), Shermer introduces his own concept, Contingent-Necessity, which is generalized to cover not just biological evolution, but any historical sequence or process. He proposes a shifting balance (bifurcation) between contingency and necessity that could clarify the nature and genesis of events ranging from punctuated equilibria in evolution to the great social upheavals in human history.
A common complaint about Shermer's books is that he tends to ramble; that is, every chapter is not centered on the book's title subject. True enough, but I don't see a serious problem if the material is at least related to the book's main theme. One Amazon reviewer saw no satisfactorily-explained connection between religion and the above-described Chapter 10. It seems to me that in the chapter's last section ("Finding Meaning in a Contingent Universe"), the connection becomes clear enough: To evaluate intelligently any religion's view of how and when we got here, one requires more than passing familiarity with what science, with its built-in BS detectors, can tell us about the very same subject. On the critical side, I have to agree with the reviewer who found Shermer's reference to science as "a type of myth" quite annoying. The problem isn't so much the statement itself as the author's assumption that no supporting explanation was necessary.
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on May 26, 2000
As usual, Shermer covers of hodgepodge of related topics in this work as has been his style in previous writings. The subject matter is, in a word--nebulous. God, religion, belief, politically incorrect topics in an age where variety of ideas about these topics abounds. Basically, Shermer puts forth the thesis of an evolutionarily evolved human pattern-seeking system which compels us to find meaning in the endless static. This conceptualization is broad enough to explain the basics of religious though, as well as our ability to be taken advantage of by frauds masquerading as scientists--a subject that Shermer, the high priest of skepticism, is quite familiar with. In the end, the book as a whole is an intriguing read, however it could have been improved with better editing. The middle chapters contain loosely tied together concepts and often get off-topic. However, Shermer makes up for this by writing a brilliant summary (and defense) of Stephen Jay Gould's writings on science and religion in the last chapter.
Shermer believes that the question for God in insoluble and therefore sees nothing wrong with religion and belief in the numinous. However, as a skeptic, Shermer, in other writings, espouses the basic tenet that one should believe the simplest scientific explanation for a given phenomenon. From a purely scientific viewpoint, God is unnecessary and therefore a superfluous concept. However, Shermer's willingness to allow for an "expection to the rule" in this instance may be viewed as slightly hypocritical. Nevertheless, while logically inconsistent, I thing Shermer comes to the right conclusion.
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on May 17, 2000
The fatal flaw that makes the tires fall off the Shermer Skepto-mobile is that he always, always, always fails to question HIS OWN philosophical assumptions. Agnostic materialism can try to tell us why we do things. But it can never, ever tell us why we SHOULD do things. A consistent evolutionary materialist can only say he FEELS something is wrong, not that it IS wrong. Only problem is the guy on the other side of the moral fence can say the same darn thing:.........
The parts on Hal Lindsey and Van Praagh and the Bible Code are good. But a previous reviewer was correct in saying the book is a bit disjointed.
The cursory looks at the arguments and counterarguments for God's existence were, no disrespect to the author, almost laughable. Shermer's response to Aquinas' "First Cause" argument is unbearable. Shermer says that it is possible that the universe "sprang into existence out of a quantum vacuum, uncaused." Shermer (like Bertrand Russell, who also tried to weasel out of Aquinas' chain of reasoning) makes THE ABSOLUTELY FUNDAMENTAL ERROR OF LOGIC, and that is violating the Law of Non-Contradiction: A cannot be A and not-A at the same time and in the same relationship. Self-creation is a violation of this law. Van Praagh may be a fraud, but at least his theory of talking to the dead is not a blatant contradiction of a fundamental rule of philosophy. A self-creating universe is a contradiction in terms and a surprising number of otherwise mentally astute people seem to entertain this theory.
Antidotes for this book, if anyone is interested: "Not A Chance" by R.C. Sproul; ANYTHING by Aquinas; "Creation and Change" by Douglas F. Kelly; "Written On The Heart" by J. Budziszewski; and the essay "The Poison of Subjectivism" by C.S. Lewis.
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on May 16, 2000
As in his Why People Believe Weird Things, Michael Shermer makes it clear that people who believe in God are not stupid. He breaks important ground by making a home for two types who have been lately rejected by the mainstreams of Skepticism and Religion: those who believe in God even though they know that they cannot prove God's existence empirically; and those who simply refuse to answer the question.
Shermer makes an excellent case for an alternative form of Skepticism with this book, based on the premise that if there is a God, He/She/It is of such a character as to be beyond human knowing. God, Shermer reminds us, is supposed to be omniscient (all-knowing), omnipresent (present everywhere), and omni-potent (all-powerful). We human beings are none of these things: so how can any of us claim to be certain of this other beings existence or nonexistence?
It is a premise which will make those who want empircal proof for their beliefs unhappy: neither the Creationist or the Atheist will be satisfied with Shermer's formula. Yet, I think, that thinking people of spirit and nonspirit will appreciate Shermer's liberating observations. He is consciously trying to create a world-view about religion for the coming millenium and, I dare say, his is the most realistic and sensible that I have seen so far.
From this beginning, Shermer goes on to discuss the human creation of religion, an artifact which is separate from the question of whether or not God exists. Shermer contends that we humans are, by the grace of natural selection, pattern-seeking animals. Religion is an attempt by us to make sense of the chaos and the uncertainty which is always there. He concludes his discussion by establishing his view as an independent theory of religion, offering it to religious scholars and others who are seeking a common-sense position about the way we believe.
The concluding section, about the theory of Evolution and its relationship to issues of modern faith, has been cited by some as superfluous and out of keeping with the rest of the book. I contend, however, that it is a logical conclusion to Shermer's epistemology given that nowhere has the conflict between the Godless and the God-inspired been so evident as it has been in this debate. Shermer pulls evolution and Science as a whole out of the political void created by this conflict and sets it where it rightly belongs: as an objective, well-grounded explanation of the fossil evidence which does not tell us a thing about whether or not God exists. This question, Shermer believes, cannot be answered by we mere humans. We are best served by realizing our limitations, he concludes, and accepting empirical Truth as limited to what we can find out with our own senses.
It was appropriate that this book appeared in the first month of the year 2000. It is a book to guide epistemological debate in the next millenium.
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on April 4, 2000
It doesn't matter how well authors like Michael Sherman write because those who share his scientific materialist philosophy always fall short on the evidence. They can never prove paranormal phenomenon/metaphysical realities/spiritual dimensions in general. All they can do is prove that certain charlatans are fakes and that's it. But just because you prove a charlatan here and there doesn't mean that any paranormal phenomenon in the cosmos is false. That would be like saying that if one black person is a criminal then all of them must be, yeah right!
Hard nosed skeptics like Shermer and scientific materialists never seem to realize the obvious flaws in their beliefs, only the faults of other peoples'.
The main problem here is that there is overwhelming evidence to support telepathy, UFO's, mystical phenomenon, etc. that to say that they are ALL false by default is just sheer stupidity. Hard nosed skeptics are never able to explain the following for example:
1. There are cases of direct telepathy where something traumatic is happening to a loved one and you see or dream it in exact detail at the EXACT SAME TIME! That's a FACT, NOT a hoax! For example, I know someone who fell asleep at the wheel and was about to run head on into a truck but heard his name shouted out and woke up just in time to get out of the way. At the SAME TIME, his girlfriend woke up all of a sudden after dreaming that he got in an accident and screamed out his name!
2. There are TRUE STORIES (not stories made up to sell books, duh!) where a child is in trouble or in trauma, and the mother sees it all happening as it is happening. There are countless stories like these not only in books but in everyday people's lives.
So you see, all this is overwhelming evidence that some kind of telepathy or collective consciousness that connects people does in fact exist. And we could say that if telepathy does exist, then it OPENS THE DOOR for a wide range of other paranormal phenomenon and dimensions to exist as well.
Also, people like him also tend to categorize every religion and spiritual/metaphysical practice into the same category, which is very naive. They are not all the same and they are not all bunk. Organized religion is easy to bunk because it makes too many rigid claims and puts too many limitations on God. But spirituality and metaphysics in general doesn't make the kind of claims that organized religion does. So what if he can debunk creationism or Christian fundamentalism. Most non-Christians don't believe in those things anyway. It's like he's putting a hundred objects in one bag and then saying that if one object is broken then all of them are broken. Very naive.
Any thoughts or comments, email me at
Thanks, Winston
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on March 4, 2000
How We Believe is a disjointed compendium of various topics, many taken from previous articles in Skeptic. Much of the material is useful and interesting for the reader who has not already seen it in the magazine. It is debatable whether Shermer succeeds in delivering the explanation promised in the title.
Shermer gives us a brief summary of the most popular arguments for the existence of god, and shows how each is flawed. He himself would appear to be a closet atheist. He calls his position "nontheism" which on close examination is essentially identical to negative atheism, i.e. absence of belief in god.
Yet Shermer bends over backwards to be very, very, nice to religious believers and practitioners. But he is not too shy about misrepresenting science (just what does he mean by statements such as "science is a type of myth" or "deep and sacred science"?) and belittling atheists and humanists (dimissing them as fanatical, or unrealistic, or overly obsessed by clarity and logic). He tells us over and over and over that "God" is certainly not dead, as if equating widespread belief in god with confirmation of his/her/its reality. He implies that that widespread belief will always be with us, and that's cool.
The great flaw in Shermer's worldview is the specious way in which he separates science and religion in order to let the latter off the hook. He fully endorses S. J. Gould's NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) view according to which science and religion are relegated to distinct separate domains, thus avoiding conflict.
Nevertheless, Shermer does have some important things to say. In the book's last, and best, chapter, Shermer discusses the interplay of chaos and order -- or contingency and necessity as he refers to them -- in evolution, in the flow of history and in the unfolding of an individual's life. In the course of this discussion he responds to those who claim that their religious beliefs are necessary to give meaning to their lives. On the contrary, Shermer argues, the freedom to think for himself and to take responsibility for his own actions is what allows him to give meaning to his life and to live it to the fullest.
[ A more complete review is available on-line. E-mail me for the URL if interested. ]
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on January 18, 2000
Michael Shermer is the founder and leader of the Skeptic's Society, and in this, his most recent book, he takes on religion in a collection of essays. Although his direction seems to meander, the research that went into this book provides an excellent aggregation of facts and ideas that explore why people believe in anything or anybody, from James Van Praagh to God himself. Shermer's proposal of a Belief Engine is an interesting one and explains how humans, as pattern-seeking creatures, could have evolved an inherent propensity to believe. Unfortunately, I feel that this book will offend religious folk (rather than create skeptical converts), despite Shermer's claims that he means only to understand.
In my opinion, the religious and the skeptical are always at one another's throats because neither accepts the other's criteria for acceptance of an idea. The skeptic relies on science to discover the truth; the answers to his or her questions are things to be discovered. Someone with a more religious outlook starts at the opposite end of the spectrum. That is, all answers can be found through faith in God and it is up to us to conform our worldview to confirm that philosophy. With one group seeking an answer and the other starting with the answer, it's no wonder that both wouldn't mind seeing the other ousted from schools, government, and other positions of influence.
Having said all that, I wonder if anyone's mind will actually be changed by this book, or if it will serve only as a rallying point for like-minded skeptics as a sort of skeptical equivalent of _Evidence That Demands a Verdict_. No matter the eventual outcome of the science-religion conflict, this book provides a solid intellectual foothold for the skeptic.
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on January 6, 2000
To me the title of this book suggested a treatise essentially on the psychology of belief systems. Indeed we are presented with quite interesting material in this regard. Mr. Schermer uses the fields of psychology, evolutionary biology, sociology, philosophy, and anthropology, amongst others, to help explain belief systems.
While I found that almost all the book held my interest, it seemed somewhat disjointed. Some of the material is also quite controversial. While such matters only serve to entertain me, others may get offended - Christians may take umbrage at having their beliefs repeatedly referred to as "myths".
The book presents intriguing survey results on why people believe in God. What is most fascinating is that respondents felt that other people believe in God for reasons that differ considerably from their own. Shermer moves on into a discussion of evolutionary biology and a "belief module" (more controversy). Then, surprisingly, we move into a section concerned with traditional philosophical arguments (primarily those of Thomas Aquinas) for belief in God. When you get right down to it, no one embraces religious belief purely on the basis of philosophical arguments. Creationists will be offended by a section on their beliefs. A chunk of the book is given to the Indian Ghost Dance of the 1890s, and we read a discussion on a mathematical refutation of the recent best seller The Bible Code. Good stuff, but its like reading a collection of essays that are not often obviously related to each other.
The final chapter had me scratching my head the most. It's a section discussing the controversy surrounding Stephen Jay Gould's theories of evolution regarding necessity/contingency/chance. While poring through this I kept wondering what it had to do with religion. My question was never answered satisfactorily. Shermer forces this subject into a paean to the wonders of living in a contingent universe. He states that his abandonment of religion allows him to bask in the beauty of our magnificent universe. I get annoyed with concept that if you are religious you can't appreciate science and nature. Not every religious believer is constrained by fundamentalist young earth/intelligent design theories. I am an agnostic who was brought up a Catholic. My intense curiosity and admiration of nature was as strong when I was a believer as it is as a non-believer today.
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on December 5, 1999
I agree that people believe in God with too little evidence.They believe many things without any evidence, and as a result believe in lies. Many of these people are religious fanatics (I include evangelicals and fundamentalists in this group, who believe in the inerrancy of the bible) who cause great damage because they so convinced they are right. However, Shermer himself is more of a fanatic than the tone of the book would suggest--he is a fanatic atheist. This does not detract from the book too much, but you should know it. I heard him on PBS in October 1999... and it is clear that he becomes angry when people profess their faith in God to him. I do not fault him for being an atheist, not at all, but I do fault him for his fanaticism. It should be mentioned that Shermer has a tendency toward fanaticism, in his youth he was a fanatic born-again Christian, Shermer readily admits this. For an alternate view from a more respected source in the skeptic community, read Martin Gardner's wonderful book The Whys of A Philosophical Scrivener, where he discusses (among other things) his belief in God, though he affirms that God is unprovable. What Shermer is missing is the mystical experience of God, the personal experience that cannot be proven but that many people have powerfully, often overwhelmingly experienced, nevertheless. For discussions about that read the classic by William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience.
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on October 24, 1999
One of the finest and most comprehensive books I have ever read on our beliefs and why we believe the way we do. I truly have to give Michael Shermer the utmost respect for being so rational and not going out to bash, but to unearth reality. Michael Shermer is truly a person whom has well researched his information and made his study, research, and findings understandable by showing how we as human beings have become the way we are. At the same time, prepared his information in an understandable way that focuses on logical thinking, not mythical, which so many of us like to do so often. The bottom line, this book illustrates how we have created a very mystical world to help us better cope with life. Hey, Shermer does not feel it is bad to believe in a supreme being as it offers many people needed comfort, at the same time, he urges us to "Think for Yourself"-Cogita tute, which is absolutely one of the greatest messages within this book because it points out some serious errors humankind have made in their belief organisms, in turn, generating great pain and affliction that could have been circumvented through placing trust in themselves by using good old common sense and by thinking for themselves. Shermer does not ask you to take his word for it, he simply states, you shouldn't believe what I say or anyone else, "Think for yourself" and if it makes sense then, believe. This is a definite read!
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