By Michael Shermer
I believe, but cannot prove, that reality exists independent of its human and social constructions. Science as a method, and naturalism as a philosophy, together create the best tool we have for understanding that reality. Because science is cumulative, building on itself in progressive fashion, we can achieve an ever-greater understanding of reality. Our knowledge of nature remains provisional because we can never know if we have final Truth. Because science is a human activity and nature is complex and dynamic, fuzzy logic and fractional probabilities best describe both nature and our approximate understanding of it.
There is no such thing as the paranormal and the supernatural; there is only the normal and the natural and mysteries we have yet to explain.
What separates science from all other human activities is its belief in the provisional nature of all conclusions. In science, knowledge is fluid and certainty fleeting. That is the heart of its limitation. It is also its greatest strength. There are, from this ultimate unprovable assertion, three additional insoluble derivatives.
1. There is no God, intelligent designer, or anything resembling the divinity as proffered by the world’s religions. (Although an extraterrestrial being of significantly greater intelligence and power than us would probably be indistinguishable from God).
After thousands of years of attempts by the world’s greatest minds to prove or disprove the divine existence or nonexistence, with little agreement among scholars as to the divinity’s ultimate state of being, a reasonable conclusion is that the God question can never be solved and that one’s belief,
disbelief, or skepticism ultimately rests on a nonrational basis.
2. The universe is ultimately determined, but we have free will.
As with the God question, scholars of considerable intellectual power for many millennia have failed to resolve the paradox of feeling free in a determined universe. One provisional solution is to think of the universe as so complex that the number of causes and the complexity of their interactions make the predetermination of human action pragmatically impossible. We can even assign a value to the causal net of the universe to see just how absurd it is to think we can get our minds around it fully. It has been calculated that in order for a computer in the far future of the universe to resurrect in a virtual reality every person who ever lived or could have lived (that is, every possible genetic combination to create a human), with all the causal interactions between themselves and their environment, it would need 1010 to the power of 123 (a 1 followed by 10123 zeros) bits of memory. Suffice it to say that no computer in the conceivable future will achieve this level of power; likewise, no human brain even comes close.
The enormity of this complexity leads us to feel as though we were acting freely as uncaused causers, even though we are actually causally determined. Since no set of causes we select as the determiners of human action can be complete, the feeling of freedom arises out of this ignorance of causes. To that extent, we may act as though we were free. There is much to gain, little to lose, and personal responsibility follows.
3. Morality is the natural outcome of evolutionary and historical forces, not divine command.
The moral feelings of doing the right thing (such as virtuousness) or doing the wrong thing (such as guilt) were generated by nature as part of human evolution. Although cultures differ on what they define as right and wrong, the moral feelings of doing the right or wrong thing are universal to all humans. Human universals are pervasive and powerful and include at their core the fact that we are by nature moral and immoral, good and evil, altruistic and selfish, cooperative and competitive, peaceful and bellicose, virtuous and nonvirtuous. Individuals and groups vary in the expression of such universal traits, but everyone has them. Most people, most of the time, in most circumstances, are good and do the right thing, for themselves and for others. But some people, some of the time, in some circumstances, are bad and do the wrong thing for themselves and for others.
As a consequence, moral principles are provisionally true, where they apply to most people, in most cultures, in most circumstances, most of the time. At some point in the last 10,000 years (most likely around the time of the advent of writing and the shift from band and tribes to chiefdoms and states, some 5,000 years ago) religions began to codify moral precepts into moral codes and political states began to codify moral precepts into legal codes.
In conclusion, I believe but cannot prove that reality exists and science is the best method for understanding it; that there is no God; that the universe is determined but we are free; that morality evolved as an adaptive trait of humans and human communities; and that ultimately all of existence is explicable through science.
Of course, I could be wrong…
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)