Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Many Mistakes of Michael Shermer

I devote a whole chapter to my critique of Michael Shermer in my book The Vast Wastelands of Unbelief and point out the many fallacies in his writing. Browsing on youtube, I came across a debate between Shermer and Jeffrey Schwartz[1] on whether consciousness is a separate thing from the brain or if consciousness is merely a side effect of the brain’s chemistry. People who hold to the first view would believe in a soul and be called dualists, and believers in the second view would be called materialists, physicalists, or atheists.  Shermer is the famous skeptical atheist founder of Skeptic magazine and author of such books as How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science and Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design. Schwartz is professor at the UCLA School of Medicine and author of such books as  Brain Lock and You Are Not Your Brain.

Schwartz’s interest is a way of coping with OCD with a method he calls “mindfulness” where sufferers meditate upon ideas that can change the brain’s structure and eventually produce relief. For instance, in therapy people relabel their obsessions as false brain signals, and this relabeling eventually reduces the anxiety.What generates this debate is his insistence that consciousness has a power to it and is not just some byproduct of the brain. In his book The Mind & The Brain, coauthored by Sharon Begley, Schwartz states that “directed, willed mental activity can clearly and systematically alter brain function . . . the exertion of willful effort generates a physical force that has the power to change how the brain works and even its physical  structure.” This force he calls “mental force.”[2]


If there is something that changes the brain, then it must exist apart from the brain. That is the problem for Shermer and what he does not want to accept because of obvious religious ramifications to its existence. In his first presentation in the debate, Shermer makes it clear where he stands on the issue by reproducing a drawing by Sidney Harris of two mathematicians mulling over a series of equations with one step described as “and then a miracle occurs.” One mathematician says to the other “I think you should be a little more explicit in step 2.” Shermer says whenever  we say that a god, intelligent designer, mind, or spirit did something, we are doing the equivalent of invoking the bland explanation of a miracle without doing the necessary work.

Yet, Shermer’s mistake arises when he lampoons Schwartz’s idea of mental force by bringing up fellow evolutionist Julian Huxley’s satire of the scientific philosophy of vitalism[3] where Huxley humorously suggested that a train engine operates by “Force Locomotif.” To Shermer, Schwartz explaining the mind’s actions by referring to mental force is no different than explaining how a train works by referring to locomotive force. Shermer believes stopping there to explain how a train works is no different than invoking a miracle in step 2 in the Sidney Harris cartoon.                                        Is he right, though, in making such a comparison? If we suspect that the brain operates on physical and chemical principles as much as a train engine does, then we have no more free will than a train. Is that what Shermer believes? I would have asked him what accounts for his free will. Does it come from a mind or spirit that is able to act apart from the brain’s nature or does it come from nothing more than the equivalent of locomotive force? If it’s nothing but locomotive force, than his decision to be an atheist and embrace his beliefs certainly isn’t a choice from free will. So what makes him think it’s rational? Obviously we have free will, but a train does not and his comparison is invalid. Maybe we can’t explain mind and consciousness in any deeper ways like Shermer wants to do.

[2] Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley, The Mind & The Brain (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 18.
[3] “Vitalism is the metaphysical doctrine that living organisms possess a non-physical inner force or energy that gives them the property of life.” What this is saying is that what living organisms do is not defined by their chemistry or physics but this inner force. This philosophy is no longer accepted.

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