By day Michael Shermer is the author of several bestsellers including The Moral Arc and The Believing Brain by night he is a world-renowned skeptic. How exactly does one build one’s reputation as a skeptic? In Shermer’s case he founded the Skeptics Society and is editor-in-chief of its periodical Skeptic magazine he also contributes a column here and there to Scientific American. Shermer is perhaps best understood as a scientific skeptic, that is, a skeptic whose opinions are informed by science in its procedures and what it accepts as evidence. Heavens on Earth is Shermer’s latest book and in it he tackles the human obsession with death and legacy.
Why can’t we live forever? Would we want to live forever?
These are a few of the seminal questions humans have contemplated for millennia. For human beings it is not enough to simply desire life everlasting we also burn to know why mortality is our lot—all the better to fight inevitable demise, one supposes. Human history is dotted with written accounts of individuals who have claimed access to an eternal realm, or seen the abode of the gods, or have experienced God himself in his divine home. It is hard to know what to make of these claims. They seem extraordinary and tantalizingly mysterious. For anyone who has lost a loved one belief in continued existence after death may provide joyful solace. But are these claims of proof in a life beyond the grave verifiable? The answer ultimately is no they are not. Why not? Because science provides our best standards for verifiability and these extraordinary claims of post-mortem survival do not stand up to the rigours of the scientific method.
The same verifiability standards set against the proofs for heaven are applied with equal precision to beliefs in immortality, broadly conceived, and to the attainment of utopian existence here on earth. None of these ideas and the evidence that supports them fairs well under the lights of the scientist’s microscope.
The pattern in all cases is the same. Shermer takes a belief and then subjects it to the scientific sniff test. Beliefs (thoughts and feelings) turn out to be nothing more than chemical reactions in the brain. Things that are seen or felt beyond the grave as, for example, some have claimed to have experienced after a so called near-death experience are illusions or the distortions that naturally occur when the physical brain is under stress or in some cases damaged. After the analysis ideas of heaven, immortality, even God are deemed unverifiable and likely false. One can’t help feeling that we are left with a purposeless universe of atoms moving in a void.
So no heaven no meaning to life, right? Not according to Shermer. He argues that a purposeful life is achievable despite the apparent purposelessness in the universe. Meaning and purpose in life is personal. You get out of life what you put into it. Love and family, career, social and political involvement, setting goals for oneself these are all ways that people can have meaning in their lives without the need for any transcendent deity or eternal heavenly abode.
It is hard to argue against Shermer because he will accept no other court of appeal than the physicalism of scientific experiment and verification. Atheists will find much in this book to bolster their opinions. Shermer, it should be noted, isn’t arguing against the fact that humans have hopes and dreams of immortality and utopia. His point is much more circumscribed. He looks at what has been offered as proof for the existence of a heavenly realm, and claims people make for immortality. Each bit of evidence on offer is scrutinized and found inadequate.
To begin this brief book review I wrote that Shermer was a scientific skeptic. I want to return to that. To be a scientific skeptic is to accept as evidence for an argument such experiential criteria that can be observed and quantified. Science is extraordinarily effective (and useful) as an exercise in telling us what something is, what its parts are, and also how that something works, that is, science can provide categories of analysis and functional explanations for most of what surrounds us in the universe. I wrote “most”. Beliefs about the afterlife and ideas concerning immortality and utopias have much more to do with human desires, hopes and aspirations. Hope is a notoriously difficult concept to pin down on the petri dish of scientific experimentation. Why? Because there is something non-physical about thoughts and ideas. Defining exactly what that “something” is, well that is another story. The usual strategy for a scientific skeptic is to reduce all experience to objective, physical stuff, but is this reductionism legitimate? Do we not lose something … something important? I think we do. Life (or experience) has an inside and an outside. The outside can most definitely be analyzed by scientific methods and we can learn much from examining the world in this way. But the inside subjective quality of experience cannot be reduced to atoms and void so it remains stubbornly beyond the reach of scientific method. Physical proof of heaven, nope, but hope springs eternal.