Response to Skeptic magazine: On being skeptical of skepticism…

Some months ago while browsing in a grocery store looking for other items I accidentally came across a magazine in the magazine shelves entitled Skeptic. I was intrigued by the title, but even more so by the cover which showed a full page in black and white with the question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” which to my mind meant the magazine was going to focus on some questions of interest in Physics.

The article in the magazine that corresponded to the cover was entitled “The Grandest of Questions – Why is there something rather than nothing?” It was authored by Michael Shermer who I am not familiar with, but appears to be a strong advocate of the debate of science versus religion. I only say that from having read more in the magazine.

Shermer’s article begins with some philosophical questions, including discussion on definitions, e.g. what is meant by “nothing”. He looks at the place of religion in discussing the main point of the article – why there is something rather than nothing and, not surprisingly, adopts the view that religious ideas on the creation of the universe can be dismissed. Atheism, or at least agnosticism, is a logical consequence of science in this view. Shermer gives a very interesting and fairly succinct discussion of some of the arguments for and against the view of a creator God but proceeds to the conclusion that the existence of the Universe does not require a creator and then discusses at length some of the many ideas from Physics by which something might be created from nothing.

These include what Shermer calls the “Boom-and-Bust cycles” or what some refer to as a cyclic or bouncing universe whereby the universe does not begin or end but continually goes through cycles of expansion and contraction and re-expansion; another concept is that of “Darwinian Universes,” an idea championed by Lee Smolin, whereby there are a multitude of universes spontaneously created or possibly many versions of our own universe, but all go through a process of evolution so that any “surviving” universe has the necessary ingredients for life and intelligence, like our own; there is the “Many Worlds Multiverse” an idea usually ascribed to Hugh Everett as a way of interpreting quantum theory; several other models or ideas that have been proposed by physicists to account for how the universe might have been created are also reviewed by Shermer.

Shermer also refers to the commonly held idea that religious notions for the creation of the world and the Universe have had to continuously retreat under the advance of science. This implies then that religion is really a substitute for all that is unknown – and which must always be on retreat as human understanding advances. Shermer states (p. 12),

“It is at the horizon where known meets the unknown that we are tempted to inject the supernatural…but we must resist the temptation, for such efforts can never succeed. Let us…follow the path of science in searching for natural forces.”

What Shermer ignores is that religious thought has also advanced, although many of these advances are not always reflected in changes in the doctrine or practices of established religions. For example, most mainstream Christian religions accept the paradigm of evolution but some still include reading the story of Adam and Eve in their services, but treat it as an allegory or fable that illustrates an underlying truth. Even more importantly, in my opinion is that Shermer and others like him ignore the fact that as science paradigms shift and religious paradigms shift (along with many other upheavals, such as social revolution) what we are really engaged in on all fronts is finding out more about ourselves and the nature of our existence.

Nowhere is this more obviously true than in an area like cosmology. Take the current accepted paradigm of the Big Bang followed by inflation: that the universe was created – randomly or out of chaos – by a super explosion followed by an exponentially accelerated expansion. The details of before the Big Bang and the inflation expansion are hot topics of research, but many features of our present universe can be explained with this paradigm. In any event most of the protons in the universe were created at a cool down phase of this bang. Since most of the protons are still around – and a very tiny fraction of those protons are in the hydrogen in the water and other molecules in our bodies – including the hydrogen in our DNA – this means a large amount of the stuff of which we were created was created at the Big Bang. All of us are closer than cousins in this sense. So – a modern scientific paradigm in effect underscores what major religions and other philosophies have long espoused – that we are all like kin and therefore there are expectations that we treat one another equally and do onto others as we would have done to ourselves.

My point here is that religious ideas – in their most inspired and inclusive concepts- are not at odds with or in competition with what we learn from scientific exploration. Now on the specific topic of how the Universe came to be – that is a scientific question. However it begs more questions – such as now that we are here, What now? What is our purpose? Or is there any purpose?

Seeking that purpose is something all humans inherently do. There is a hard wired need. That in itself is something that can be verified by observation and statistical analysis – if that were necessary. Finding out more and more about ourselves is an intimate partner activity with religious insight, that includes the scientific method as an essential part of that exploration. Science emphasizes that which can be observed, measured, and repeatedly experienced.

That does not include all human experience however. Science has a tough time with personal experience and especially with revelation or other non-repeatable experiences. Even though there are plenty of such experiences shared by human beings over the centuries, most such experiences are quickly dismissed. As an example, in a blog written by Joel Achenbach on July, 10, 2014, Carl Sagan, a noted (now deceased) science writer is quoted as writing,

“I am not an atheist. An atheist is someone who has compelling evidence that there is no Judeo-Christian-Islamic God. I am not that wise, but neither do I consider there to be anything approaching adequate evidence for such a god. Why are you in such a hurry to make up your mind? Why not simply wait until there is compelling evidence?”

[It’s a bit puzzling that Sagan specifies the Abrahamic faiths in his definition of an atheist.]

Now there is much in that little quote that would merit a bit more discussion and debate, but let’s focus on Sagan’s request for compelling evidence. Evidently the personal revelation experiences of all the apostles and followers of Jesus – numbering in the thousands according to New Testament accounts – are not compelling, nor the thousands of martyrs who died for their personal beliefs in ancient Rome. Of course, Sagan and others would be quick to question the authenticity of Biblical records, but my point is there is lots of evidence, not only in Judeo- Christian- Islamic history but in all history for life changing, personal revelation that has motivated thousands of human beings to seek something higher- that goes well beyond anything that makes sense from a mundane scientific or realistic point of view.

The scientific method and all the associated paradigms that have been developed in science have a hard time coping with personal experience, including revelation, genius and any area that is not subject to repeatable observation. This is why cosmology borders so closely to religion – we have only one universe, and so lack more than one example to test. Nevertheless, we have to admit the reality of unique, personal and often non verifiable personal experience.

There are many instances in life where we are forced to make a decision in a setting where not all “the facts” are known and where personal inputs like belief, trust, hope, compassion, and love – to name but a few – have to be relied on. There are many aspects of religious belief that are in this corner of life.

Shermer’s focus in this article is not so much on religious experience in general but on the more narrow question of how something could be created from nothing – or even whether it makes sense to posit such a question. He is right in saying “God did it” is not helpful for that kind of answer provides no further possibility for growth in understanding. It does not point to what can be measured or what can we do to prove or disprove the “theory”.

It does make sense to ask “ How did God do it?” or even more generally, “How did it happen?” Or as Einstein is supposed to have asked, “What really interests me is whether God could have created the world any differently; in other words, whether the requirement of logical simplicity admits a margin of freedom.”(Quoted in Scientific American, Oct. 11, 2018).

As well, it is important to accept that there is a “herd” aspect to any generally accepted paradigm, or way of doing or saying things – in science, religion and society in general. I previous blogs I have pointed to the debate over “Dark Matter versus MOND,” for example, as an area where present day science has an accepted paradigm that has an effect of isolating or segregating any individuals or ideas that do not conform to the accepted paradigm.

Shermer closes his article by citing Carl Sagan, (The Varieties of Scientific Experience, New York:Penguin 2):

“By far the best way I know to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night….everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe and wonder looking at the sky. This is reflected throughout the world in both science and religion.”

I would add to that another quote from Sagan:

“If you’re only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything. You become a crotchety misanthrope convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) Since major discoveries at the borderlines of science are rare, experiences will tend to confirm your grumpiness. But every now and then a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you’re too resolutely and uncompromisingly skeptical, you’re going to miss (or resent) the transforming discoveries in science, and either way, you will be obstructing understanding and progress. Mere skepticism is not enough.”

(https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/achenblog/wp/2014/07/10/carl-sagan-denied-beingan-atheist-so-what-did-he-believe-part-1/?utm_term=.f0ae371dffa6)

There is also a place for listening, caring, attempting to understand the other and in being open to ideas that one is tempted by upbringing or training, or by socialization to dismiss.

In general it is wise to be skeptical of mere skepticism.

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