Michael Shermer is one of comedian and podcaster Bryan Callen’s go-to science skeptics. So when Callen invited Dr. Stephen Meyer on his show recently, he knew he’d have a colorful back-and-forth on his hands if he also asked Shermer to join in. The result is the type of interaction we’re secretly craving more of these days — energetic conversation between people with differing views but who demonstrate respect for one another, for themselves, and for those who may be watching.
“So afterwards, we’re going at it!” Shermer jokes with a chuckle early in the proceedings. And why not? In their younger years, Stephen trained as a boxer and Michael rode bikes professionally. After the verbal sparring, there may be a chance for these athletic scholars to settle things off-camera.
One reason a Shermer/Meyer match-up makes sense is that both men demonstrate a healthy level of intellectual humility, an essential ingredient in any debate over important scientific ideas. “I’ll talk to anybody,” Shermer acknowledges, “because I’m curious to know, is it possible I’m wrong in this new idea?” Indeed, Shermer recently spent over two hours wrestling with Meyer’s arguments on his own podcast discussing Return of the God Hypothesis.
Higher, Unmeasurable Truths
As Callen probes Shermer on whether higher, unmeasurable truths exist in life, Meyer helps to focus the conversation on the science:
There are both observables and unobservables as we begin to think about the big questions. And the God question, I think, is a question of metaphysics, but it’s also a question of science. And even the most staunch atheists inadvertently reveal that they accept that as well. Richard Dawkins, for example, has said that the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if at bottom there is no purpose, no design, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.
Dawkins’s way of framing the issue, says Meyer, implies that metaphysical hypotheses, whether materialism, theism, deism, or pantheism, can be tested, just as scientific hypotheses can be tested, by making observations about the properties of life in the universe.
A Conference in Wales
Not so fast, contests Shermer. “The idea that there’s one theory here, and then there’s the God hypothesis — no. There’s actually a dozen over here and we don’t know which one’s the right one.” Shermer reported on a conference he had recently attended in Wales where he watched Roger Penrose, Brian Greene, and others debate the Big Bang and the origin of the universe. “There is not agreement that there was a beginning called the Big Bang,” says Shermer. “There is no ‘A’ Beginning, it just keeps cycling through…”
“No, no, that’s not actually accurate,” interjects Meyer politely:
There is empirical evidence of a beginning. What Penrose does is postulate an infinite cycle of beginnings for which he has no evidence and has to posit something called a phantom field, which other physicists have rejected on the grounds that the phantom field has attributes that no other physical field ever postulated in physics has, namely mind-like characteristics. It can reduce entropy at just the right time in just the right way to allegedly produce another cycle of expansion, but there’s no evidence for an infinite cycle of beginnings. That’s a pure theoretical postulation.
“What’s More Magical?”
The sparring continues over fine-tuning, the origin of complexity, and why mind is a better candidate for a prime reality than matter alone. “Michael and I both agree that we both oppose magical thinking,” says Meyer. “But the question is what’s more magical?” Is it more magical to posit causal powers to brute inanimate matter that our observation shows isn’t capable of producing the effects in question, or to posit a mind, knowing that minds are real and knowing from our own observation what minds are capable of doing?
Throughout their conversation both Meyer and Shermer reveal a fair bit of common ground, from effective political systems to their adherence to Bayesian logic. That means they also both agree that it’s not possible to be 100 percent positive about a given hypothesis. Which is why Meyer follows the same methods of reasoning that Charles Darwin and his 19th-century contemporaries used in their own work. Examine multiple competing hypotheses, test and evaluate their explanatory power, and make an inference to the best explanation. As Shermer puts it as he defines what truth is, “something confirmed to such a degree it would be reasonable to offer your provisional assent.”
“I’m also a skeptic,” says Meyer, “but I’m a skeptic about the magical thinking that materialism now entails. I think Michael and I have a lot of commonality and epistemology but difference in judgment about where the rub is.”
Come for the sparring. Stay for the civility. Enjoy for yourself this friendly, thoughtful exchange on the God question!