Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Michael Shermer wants to believe

Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, has just written his 100th column and it's a keeper.

What I want to believe based on emotions and what I should believe based on evidence does not always coincide. And after 99 monthly columns of exploring such topics (this is Opus 100), I conclude that I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe but because I want to know.
Ann Druyan said the same thing about her husband Carl Sagan: He didn't want to believe; he wanted to know.  To believe something is easy, but to know if something is true is much more difficult.  However, taking the extra effort to uncover the facts behind a claim rather than accepting it outright is the best method of avoiding swallowing lies or misinformation.

There is one mystery I will concede that science may not be able to answer, and that is the question of what existed before our universe began. One answer is the multiverse. According to the theory, multiple universes each had their own genesis, and some of these universes gave birth (perhaps through collapsing black holes) to baby universes, one of which was ours. There is no positive evidence for this conjecture, but neither is there positive evidence for the traditional answer to the question — God. And in both cases, we are left with the reductio ad absurdum question of what came before the multiverse or God. If God is defined as that which does not need to be created, then why can’t the universe (or multiverse) be defined as that which does not need to be created?

A debate I listened to recently between theists (Hassanain Rajabali & Michael Corey) and atheists (Dan Barker and Richard Carrier) hovered over this area. The theists asserted that God created the universe, and when the atheists asked for proof, the theists' response was mild offense. "It's obvious," they said, "and besides, science hasn't come up with anything better, have they."

At no time during the debate were miracles mentioned, or the efficacy of prayer, or the problems of evolution.  No, the primary focus was on the state of the universe 15 billion years ago and how it came to be that way, something that cosmologists are currently puzzling out.  It's as though the theists have conceded almost everything to science and are now desperately hammering against what could be called "the weaknesses of cosmology." Richard Carrier who advocated the Black Holes-Multiverse method couldn't offer positive evidence for the model, but nothing in our physical world rules it out.  But the theists would have nothing to do with it. No, the universe must have been created by God because there's no evidence for Black Holes creating baby universes. What would Michael Shermer have said about that?

In both cases, we have only negative evidence along the lines of “I can’t think of any other explanation,” which is no evidence at all. If there is one thing that the history of science has taught us, it is that it is arrogant to think we now know enough to know that we cannot know. So for the time being, it comes down to cognitive or emotional preference: an answer with only negative evidence or no answer at all. God, multiverse or Unknown. Which one you choose depends on your tolerance for ambiguity and how much you want to believe. For me, I remain in sublime awe of the great Unknown.

I'm with you, Mr. Shermer. Count me in with those who are satisfied with the Unknown.  I don't trust my emotions enough to judge truth by them.

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