Tag Archives: Michael Shermer

Will We Ever Really Know Ourselves?

2016 Dino Reichmuth
When the ancient Greeks first uttered the dictum “Know thyself,” they had another choice. They could have said “Know lots of other things.” In one direction the investigation goes inward; in the opposite direction the investigation goes outward. “Know thyself” stands for something that, as far as we know, only human beings possess: self-awareness. “Know lots of other things” also points to a unique human capacity: curiosity about the outside world. I think it’s unarguable that the investigation of the outside world, as pursued by science, has gotten much, much further than self-awareness. Scientists have probed Nature in every dimension, while self-awareness hasn’t even stopped humanity from the impulse to destroy itself.

The gap between “Know thyself” and “Know Lots of other things” was sharply drawn by a current post from the back-page editor of Scientific American, Michael Shermer.  Reading his piece, “At the Boundary of Knowledge,” one comes away with a sense that science is totally triumphant. Not only has science achieved huge successes in acquiring facts and data that led to the overwhelming dominance of technology in the world. It has done something much more difficult. Quoting a recent book, The Big Picture, by Sean Carroll, a physicist from the California Institute of Technology, Shermer claims that now we can be almost certain about how all knowledge is attained. “All of the things you’ve ever seen or experienced in your life—objects, plants, animals, people—are made of a small number of particles, interacting with one another through a small number of forces.”

From this position, which we can call hardline materialism, Shermer reaches the following conclusion: “Once you understand the fundamental laws of nature, you can scale up to planets and people and even assess the probability that God, the soul, the afterlife and ESP exist, which Carroll concludes is very low.” I haven’t read Prof. Carroll’s book, but you can see Shermer, and many of his readers, dusting off their hands with a satisfied sense of “Well, that’s that.” If they are right, science has eliminated the need for “Know thyself” simply by swallowing up the whole issue of self-awareness and packing it away with particles and forces, having scaled up to planets and peoples, God and the soul. Continue reading

Deepak Chopra: Does God Have a Future?

god-and-scienceOff and on for twenty years I’ve thought deeply about God and his chances of survival (for “his” you can substitute ” her” or ” it’s” since an all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present deity doesn’t have a fixed gender). But this Sunday, God’s survival became the subject of a debate before an audience at Cal Tech.

If you’re interested, the debate will later be televised on ABC’s Nightline. My debating partner was noted author and spiritual teacher Jean Houston. On the side representing atheism was Dr. Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic magazine, and Sam Harris, who wrote the bestseller, Letter to a Christian Nation. (I’m writing this preview before the actual event, but the article will appear afterward.)

This won’t be the standard argument about whether God exists, with believers declaring their faith on one side and doubters declaring that there is no evidence for God on the other. Rather, both sides will look at the current state of science to see if we are getting closer to finding a supreme intelligence in the universe or further away.

In the past few years the camp of skeptics, atheists, and doubters has been emboldened to use science as a weapon to ridicule faith. The British evolutionist Richard Dawkins is associated with this attitude, and compared to his loud, disdainful voice, the efforts of scientists who believe in God, such as the eminent geneticist Francis Collins, have been relatively muted. As the head of the human genome project, Collins is far more credible about genetics than Dawkins, however, and he argues strenuously that evolution is consistent with a principle of intelligence in the formation of life. But no matter who wins any debate on a given night, the future of God is by no means settled.

Socially, God is waning in the developed countries, if you measure this by church attendance. The U.S. traditionally has had higher church attendance than any European country, but in both places the trend has been steady decline for at least four decades. Science has been viewed as the enemy of religion since the time of Darwin, when the Christian world was shocked to discover that Homo sapiens evolved from primate ancestors, thus turning Adam and Eve into a myth.

In the face of evolution, which serves as the bulwark of the atheist argument, the devout have been forced to fall back on faith. In a scientific age, faith is bound to lose out to facts in the minds of most rational people. Which is why millions of us are worried about God, even if the majority haven’t decisively renounced him.

My position is that advanced science has actually turned the tables, giving us new ways to defend, not God as a patriarch seated on his throne in the sky, but God as a field of intelligence that gives rise to evolution itself and all that goes with it: creativity, quantum leaps, time and space, and expanding consciousness. As we learn more about these things, we will reshape God into something new and far more powerful than the traditional Judeo-Christian conception.

In a word, the future of God depends upon human evolution. As we look deeper into our own awareness, we will meet the field of infinite awareness and intelligence that is our source, and on that path we will encounter God. What supports such a view? First, there are a host of mysteries that current science, with its fixation on materialism, cannot remotely explain. Let me list a few.

1. The Big Bang: Almost all physicists and cosmologists conclude that the universe began in a single moment referred to as the “big bang” 14 billion years ago. At that moment the universe burst forth into creation from an infinitely dense dimensionless point of pure energy. The laws of physics operate after the first 10-43 seconds after the big bang. In the first 10-43 seconds what happened is not only unknown, but unknowable as the laws of physics breakdown and don’t exist. As the eminent astrophysicist Robert Jastrow said, “e; At this moment it seems that science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientists who has lived by his faith by the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries. ”

Stephen Hawking commenting on the big bang states “it would be difficult to explain why the universe begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings just like us.”

2. DNA: So far as we know, DNA is the most complex microstructure in the universe, surpassing by millions of times the next most complex organic molecule. To claim that the universe developed human DNA, with its three billion codons, at random is like saying that a hurricane can blow through a junkyard and create a Boeing 757. Francis Collins argues two things: We have no idea how the lifeless “prebiotic soup” of the early Earth developed the first DNA, and in fact such a leap, which produced a self-replicating molecule form which all life emerged, may be totally unknowable.

3. Human intelligence: Science currently insists that the brain is the source of intelligence, but no one can identify where this mysterious component entered into us. The brain is composed of water, sugar, and proteins. Are we to say that these chemicals are intelligent? If so, then why isn’t a sugar cube equally intelligent? The most advanced neuroscience has not come close to explaining such a basic thing as memory. There are no chemical traces of memory inside any cell of the brain. In addition, no one can explain how separate areas of the brain “light up” simultaneously, involving billions of neurons, without communicating to each other the way we communicate on the telephone, by passing along messages. In the brain, neurons in different locations get the same message all at once. Also, new ideas crop up spontaneously, without reference to past brain activity.

But the most obvious flaw in brain research is that while it is obvious that we have organized thoughts, the action of atoms and molecules can not in any way explain subjectivity, or the mechanics of intention, free will, choice making, insight, intuition, imagination, inspiration, or creativity. There are neural correlates to our subjective experience, of course, but correlation does not mean causal relationship. Neural networks do not compose music or poetry just as your radio set does not compose songs.

4. The Self: We all know that we have a self, but science has never located it. There is no area of the brain where “I” exists. This has led materialists to claim that the self is an illusion created by the brain’s complexity. But this leads science into a self-contradiction, because the very researchers who say that “I” doesn’t exist must themselves be an illusion. This is a subtle point, and we must also consider the Buddhist position, which says that the ego-self in fact is an illusion because reality is consciousness itself, without boundaries. Trying to contain the self inside an individual mind and body is a mistake, because all of us are part of the same infinite field of consciousness. This comes close to Erwin Schrodinger’s statement that “consciousness is a singular that has no plural. ”

5. Evolution: Francis Collins points out that Darwinism cannot be attacked for having gaps. As a model of how a multitude of life forms developed from the first strand of DNA, Darwinism seems elegantly true. But Collins also asserts that the impetus for such a perfect model requires an intelligent principle, giving rise to “theistic evolution, ” as Collins dubs it.

The picture of creatures with selfish genes fighting for survival, with the fit passing their genes on while the unfit perish, is a leaky boat of a theory. There are countless examples of cooperation in nature that allow two creatures to survive by sharing the same food and shelter, the way squirrels and birds share the same tree and serve to warn each other of approaching predators.

Also, traits can be passed along from one generation to the next without new genes. The latest research indicates that it’s the action of our genes, whether they are switched on or off, that shapes us as much if not more than which genes we were born with. Behavior can be passed from parent to child without having to develop a new gene for that behavior. This undercuts the materialist notion that we are essentially zombies moving at the whim of molecules.

6. The Intelligent Universe: Although the Big Bang is considered the starting point of the universe no one knows why or how it occurred. However, a deeper point needs to be made – the universe has evolved, not simply expanded. Swirling, superheated gases began to form complex molecules, and there has been no backsliding. One inexorable force called entropy leads to the cooling of the universe and the breakdown of complex forms into simpler components (the way a corpse decays after death). Entropy was supposed to be all-powerful, yet another force, called evolution, keeps defying decay by creating such complexities as DNA and the human brain.

Traditionally, highly evolved forms were considered anomalies, little islands of “negative entropy” that exist by accident. This seems unlikely, however, since the universe has been creating more complexity for 13 billion years, not less complexity. There is a strong implication that the universe may be aware of its own evolution.

To be continued…


Originally published in 2010

Tonight! ABC Nightline Faceoff with Deepak Chopra, Jean Houston, Michael Shermer and Sam Harris

 The "Face-Off" is a recurring series where opposing sides debate hot topics. In the sixth installment of the series, Deepak Chopra, a physician and best-selling author of "How to Know God," and prominent scholar, philosopher and writer Jean Houston, will face-off against Michael Shermer, founding publisher of "Skeptic" magazine, and Sam Harris, author of "The End of Faith" on the tension between God and science.


Check out the video preview for tonight, here at ABC.com! 


Which is Real, the Moon or God?

Most people have spent at least a few minutes pondering a famous riddle, although they may not know that it originated in Zen Buddhism: If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Strangely, this turns out to be a pivotal question if you want to prove that God exists, or doesn’t.

I want to explain the whole issue in detail, but if you want to view a vigorous and often contentious debate about God and whether He has a future, ABC Nightline is running Tuesday (March 23). The Nightline episode contains only excerpts, but the full debate will be available online at Nightline/FaceOff/ .

The location was at Cal Tech, where God probably isn’t a pressing topic compared to quantum physics. Yet as it turns out, the two are vitally linked. What you think about reality depends on quantum physics, and since God is the ultimate reality, His existence hinges on such things as waves and particles. This wasn’t a crude argument between believers and non-believers. It was an attempt to see if the most up-to-date science made God’s existence unlikely, which is what atheists led by Richard Dawkins believe.

Taking that position in the debate was Dr. Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptics magazine, and Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation. As staunch materialists, they offered a simple attack on God — nothing is scientifically valid unless it can be seen and measured. Since God has no physical presence in the world, there can be no measurement of His existence. Without a physical presence, the deity is reduced to being subjective. Millions of people were taught to believe in a supreme being. If they paid attention to science, they’d realized that their faith has no real basis.

On the other side, I and my partner, the noted philosopher and writer Jean Houston, rejected materialism. We held that science is about objective data, but human beings have rich internal experiences that are valid. These experiences give rise to art, morality, psychology, and everyday things like love, truth, honor, and so on. Is science really in a position to call human experience itself wrong if it cannot be seen and measured?

Our opponents of course argue that ethics, values, meaning, and purpose are all reducible to brain phenomena. While we hold that brain phenomena are merely representations of consciousness and not the experience itself. Yet it was obvious to me and Jean that God has been greatly undermined by materialist science, and also by organized religion, with its simplistic Sunday school lessons about a bearded patriarch sitting on His throne above the clouds. (The very notion that God is referred to as He implies gender, which a supreme being couldn’t have if such a being is beyond time and space.) No, God can’t have a future until the arguments against Him are discredited, and as it happens, rank materialism has been dismantled by science itself, and in particular by quantum physics.

Here, the discussion gets rather technical, but let’s venture forward on a basic question. Does the moon exist if no one is there to see it? This was the last topic our debate arrived at, and afterwards Dr. Shermer and I continued to discuss it, not as adversaries in a heated debate but in hopes of reaching some kind of understanding or common ground. (Shermer’s summary of our discussion can be found here ) The common sense notion is that of course the moon exists without human beings to look at it. It existed long before life on Earth; it will be around if human folly wipes out our species in some possible future. People aren’t going to be argued out of common sense, no matter how tricky your science or philosophy. Yet, surprisingly, physics starts to fall apart if you cling too stubbornly to common sense.

One of the most famous quips about quantum physics is that it isn’t stranger than you imagine — it’s stranger than you can imagine. This is because quantum physics disposed of raw materialism long ago, showing that solid objects are made up of invisible waves of energy, and those waves themselves disappear into clouds of mere possibilities. Every rock, tree, and cloud is made up of molecules, which in turn are made up of atoms, and they in turn are made up of elementary particles like electrons, protons, and neutrons. It would be consistent with common sense if these particles, and the subatomic particles that they can be broken down into, were solid and stable in spacetime. But they aren’t.

Thanks to two breakthrough ideas — the Uncertainty Principle and the Observer Effect — nothing in Nature can be seen as solid and fixed in spacetime. The Uncertainty Principle says, in its simplest terms, that you cannot know the position of a particle and its momentum at the same time. The observer effect says that particles are only a superposition of possibility waves until a non-material observer causes them to collapse from one state, a wave, into another, a particle. Already I can see readers glazing over, but these are important points for the existence of God and also for our existence.

All solid objects exist, in essence, as invisible waves that extend infinitely in all directions. When an observer enters the picture, the wave collapses into a point, and that point is a spacetime event — or a particle — that you can measure. So it turns out that looking at a virtual electron (waves) causes it to appear as an actual electron (particle). Is the same true of the moon? Does it appear because consciousness is collapsing possibility waves as the moon?

On the side of materialism, Shermer and many others say no. Quantum behavior, or as Shermer calls it "Quantum weirdness," is confined to the microscopic world. It doesn’t leak into the macroscopic world of rocks, trees, clouds — and the moon. But there are three weaknesses in this argument:

1. Recent discoveries have produced quantum weirdness on the macroscopic level. See this article about "supersizing" quantum mechanics

2. Quantum physics is behind all kinds of technologies used in the big everyday world: transistors, superconductors, experiments with superfluids. There are even cutting-edge experiments with time travel and teleportation, very Star Trek, although so far the results are on the level of light beams, not Scottie and Captain Kirk.

3. Most crucial of all, if you don’t allow quantum phenomenon to interact with the big world, you run into a huge problem with physics itself. Quantum physics is the basis of our macroscopic physical world, so there has to be an interaction, even if that interaction is not fully understood.

Now we are getting somewhere in undermining the certainty that makes materialists too stubborn and certain of themselves. If you don’t admit that the moon is behaving in a quantum fashion, that’s a bit like saying that red blood cells absorb oxygen but the human body as a whole doesn’t. The part and the whole must conform to each other. Having kicked a few rungs out of the materialist position, it’s now possible to see what the alternative may be.

The basic understanding of the collapse of the wave function is called the Copenhagen Interpretation, in which a non-material observer is involved in quantum measurement. John von Neumann demonstrated that an understanding of the collapse of the wave function requires consciousness. Without an observer, there is no collapse, no particle, no matter, no measurement. Alternative quantum theories such as transactional interpretation and many-worlds theory try to get around the need of consciousness or an observer, but fail in the end.

Woo Woo Is a Step Ahead of (Bad) Science

It used to annoy me to be called the king of woo woo. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, "woo woo" is a derogatory reference to almost any form of unconventional thinking, aimed by professional skeptics who  are self-appointed vigilantes dedicated to the suppression of curiosity.  I get labeled much worse things as regularly as clockwork whenever I disagree with big fry like Richard Dawkins or smaller fry like Michael Shermer, the Scientific American columnist and editor of Skeptic magazine. The latest barrage of name-calling occurred after the two of us had a spirited exchange on Larry King Livelast week. Maybe you saw it. I was the one rolling my eyes as Shermer spoke. Sorry about that, a spontaneous reflex of the involuntary nervous system.


Afterwards, however, I had an unpredictable reaction. I realized that I would much rather expound woo woo than the kind of bad science Shermer stands behind.  He has made skepticism his personal brand, more or less, sitting by the side of the road to denigrate "those people who believe in spirituality, ghosts, and so on," as he says on a YouTube video. No matter that this broad brush would tar not just the Pope, Mahatma Gandhi, St. Teresa of Avila, Buddha, and countless scientists who happen to    recognize a reality that transcends space and time. All are deemed irrational by the skeptical crowd. You would think that skeptics as a class have made significant contributions to science or the quality of life in their own right. Uh oh. No, they haven’t. Their principal job is to reinforce the great ideas of yesterday while suppressing the great ideas of tomorrow.


Let me clear the slate with Shermer and forget the several times he has wiggled out of a public debate he was supposedly eager to have with me. I will ignore his recent blog in which his rebuttal of my position was relegated to a long letter from someone who obviously didn’t possess English as a first language (would Shermer like to write a defense of his position in Hindi? It would read just as ludicrously if Hindi isn’t his first language).


With the slate clear, I’d like to see if Shermer will accept the offer to debate me at length on such profound questions as the following:


·         Is there evidence for creativity and intelligence in the cosmos?

·         What is consciousness?

·         Do we have a core identity beyond our biology, mind, and ego?

·         Is there life after death? Does this identity outlive the molecules through which it expresses itself?


The rules will be simple. He can argue from any basis he chooses, and I will confine myself entirely to science. For we have reached the state where Shermer’s tired, out-of-date, utterly mediocre science is far in arrears of the best, most open scientific thinkers — actually, we reached that point sixty years ago when eminent physicists like Einstein, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger applied quantum theory  to deep spiritual questions. The arrogance of skeptics is both high-handed and rusty. It is high-handed because they lump brilliant speculative thinkers into one black box known as woo woo. It is rusty because Shermer doesn’t even bother to keep up with the latest findings in neuroscience, medicine, genetics, physics, and evolutionary biology.   All of these fields have opened fascinating new ground for speculation and imagination.  But the king of pooh-pooh is too busy chasing down imaginary woo woo.


Skeptics feel that they have won the high ground in matters concerning consciousness, mind, the origins of life, evolutionary theory, and brain science. This is far from the case. What they cling to is nineteenth- century materialism, packaged with a screeching hysteria about God and religion that is so passé it has become quaint. To suggest that Darwinian theory is incomplete and full of unproven hypotheses, causes Shermer, who takes Darwin as purely as a fundamentalist takes scripture, to see God everywhere in the enemy camp.


How silly.  Shermer is a former Christian fundamentalist who is now a fundamentalist about materialism; fundamentalists must have an absolute to believe in. Thus he forces himself into a corner, declaring that all spirituality is bogus, that the sense of self is an illusion, that the soul is ipso facto a fraud, that mind has no existence except in the brain, that intelligence emerged only when evolution, guided by random mutations, developed the cerebral cortex, that nothing invisible can be real compared to solid objects, and that any thought which ventures beyond the five senses for evidence must be dismissed without question.


I won’t go into detail about the absurdity of such rigid thinking. However, the impulse behind dogmatic materialism seems intended to flatten one’s opponents so thoroughly that through scorn and arrogance they must admit defeat, conceding that science is the complete refutation of all preceding religion, spirituality, psychology, myth, and philosophy — in other words, any mode of gaining knowledge that arch materialism doesn’t countenance.


I’ve baited this post with a few barbs to see if Shermer can be goaded into an actual public debate. I have avoided his and his  follower’s underhanded methods, whereby an opponent is attacked ad hominem as an idiot, moron, and other choice epithets that in his world are the mainstays of rational argument.  And the point of such a debate? To further public knowledge about the actual frontiers of science, which has always depended on wonder, awe, imagination, and speculation.  Petty science of the Shermer brand scorns such things, but the greatest discoveries have been anchored on them. 


 If you are tempted to think that I have taken the weaker side and that materialism long ago won this debate, let me end with a piece of utterly nonsensical woo woo:


"Nobody understands how decisions are made or how imagination is set free. What consciousness consists of, or how it should be defined, is equally puzzling.  Despite the marvelous success of neuroscience in the past century, we seem as far from understanding cognitive processes as we were a century ago."


That isn’t a quote from "one of those people who believe in spirituality, ghosts, and so on." It’s from Sir John Maddox, former editor-in-chief of the renowned scientific journal Nature, writing in 1999.  I can’t wait for Shermer to call him an idiot and a moron.  Don’t worry, he won’t. He’ll find an  artful way of slithering to higher ground where all the other skeptics are huddled.

For more information go to deepakchopra.com

Follow Deepak on Twitter


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...