Skeptic Michael Shermer: Skepticism shaken to its core

In a beautiful and poignant narrative, Skeptic/Agnostic Michael Shermer relates an event which shook his skepticism to its core:


One thought this does provoke in me: why does a scientist like Shermer seem ok with simply “marveling in the mysterious”, on this matter?

Isn’t that the point of science–to ask questions and to find answers to the why and the how?

Why is it that on this particular issue it’s fine, in his mind, to say, “We don’t know why. It just is.”

That would never be acceptable to any scientist for any other inexplicable phenomena.

Rather, it ought to prompt a detailed and zealous investigation, no?

In Scientific American, it is quite a statement. Very interesting!

There are many meaningful stories like that.
I would say that most speak little of them, knowing that in the telling, it can be rendered mundane.
It would be especially difficult for a scientist, who would thereby open himself up to ridicule.
You keep the experience in your heart.

Good for him to share with us.


The Lord moves in mysterious ways, doesn’t he? The thing the skeptics can’t see, even though they think they can see through everything, is that they have closed their hearts and minds so firmly that it takes odd events like this one to pry open their hearts/minds–to stir something deep inside they know exists, but just can’t/won’t admit to. The wife’s reaction tells the whole story–how people will deliberately close themselves off from anything and everything that might provoke thought/belief outside their little boxes. I believe this was God peeping through the cracks in their certainty to say “I’m here even if you don’t believe I am.”

Skepticism shaken to its core? I don’t believe it.

You don’t believe Michael Shermer when he says it was?


Why would he lie?

OK I’ll bite. My thoughts are: interesting story. To suppose a malfunctioning radio is a “sign” from “beyond” is unwarranted, in my opinion. It isn’t that we shouldn’t admit that we don’t know how the radio turned on, but rather we should avoid appealing to a supernatural explanation when any number of natural explanations seem sufficient. God does not expect us to be superstitious, in my opinion! That doesn’t mean miracles never happen or that there is always a natural explanation (whether we understand it or not) but that we shouldn’t be looking for “signs” on every piece of burnt toast or every odd coincidence.

I come from a long line of superstitious Italian Catholics. I’m allowed to say that, since I used to be one, and this isn’t meant to be racially/ethnically derogatory. They were always praying to St. Anthony to find lost items, or burying statues of St. Joseph upside-down under ground to sell their homes, or reciting superstitious prayers to Mary for special favors, etc. As a kid I watched them and thought, this can’t be the truth about how the universe really is. I couldn’t believe that God could be manipulated so easily! Whenever a prayer was ambiguously “answered” it would be cause for celebration. Confirmation bias abounded. That said, here is a story for you:

Years ago, one time while praying, and I had a sudden vision of a childhood classmate who I hadn’t seen or heard from in 10 years or more. I felt the urge to pray for the well-being of that person. The next day I got a call from my mother who saw this former classmate’s mother at the store (bear in mind, my mother had never met this classmate or the classmate’s mother, and neither have I, to this day). She approached my mother (randomly) and asked her if she was my mother, and then told her that her husband had just committed suicide and that her son (my former classmate) was aimless, despondent, and deeply depressed. Mind you, I do not have any relationship with this classmate or the classmate’s mother. I have tried to come up with explanations for these events. It seems unlikely to be a pure coincidence, but I’m not sure what can be the cause. It could be that my mother and I have some kind of spiritual connection, or that God wanted me to pray for this classmate, or that the classmate’s mother and I have a spiritual connection, or any number of other possibilities.

Skepticism says we should be cautious in examining the evidence, and consider the probabilities of the situation. I think it is very improbable that my vision and my mother’s conversation were totally coincidental and unrelated. I don’t know what caused that radio to suddenly begin to operate at that precise moment, and it doesn’t seem to be a random coincidence, but we shouldn’t conclude that the bride’s grandfather communicating from beyond the grave is the certain cause and best explanation!

At first I was skeptical this was a joke but now I find it humorous.

Don’t you think that Shermer, as a scientist and a skeptic, ought to have the exact OPPOSITE reaction that he has to this, which is, “Let’s embrace the mystery.”

There is absolutely no other phenomena, when scrutinized by a scientist, in which this woud be acceptable.

No scientist looked at electricity and thought, “I don’t really know how it works. And, frankly, I’m fine with enjoying the results of electricity without having to examine it microscopically.”

No scientist looks at leprosy and thinks, “It just happens. Why do we need to know how it is caused?”

But for some mysterious reason, this mystery is ok to not investigate…by a person whose raison d’etre is to investigate mysteries.

Ah! NOW I see!

:smiley: :stuck_out_tongue:

Umm… the field of quantum physics is full of phenomena that are in the realm of “we really don’t know how this happens, we just know it does.” For instance, two entangled subatomic particles will always have opposite spins, no matter how far apart they are in space (seriously - they could be on opposite sides of the universe, and still have opposite spins). In an electron jump, the electron literally teleports itself simply by using the absorption or release of energy. And there’s a multitude of other qurky facts about quantum physics. Yet the basis of quantum physics is probabilty. Why? Because one of the fundamental theorems of quantum physics is the uncertainty principle - in which it is impossible to know both the velocity and the location of a subatomic particle at the same time. In other words, the foundations of quantum physics themselves admit that we can’t know why the phenomena happen - we can just describe, probabilistically, that it does happen.

Of course.

And Michael Shermer, as an investigative scientist, ought to devote a great deal of study to how this worked in the case of his personal experience.

Instead he is simply shrugging it off.


Sometimes saying “We dont know” is scientifically honest. But just because we dont know now, doesbt mean we wont know in the future. Also, science’s job is always the “how” and not the “why.”

But, you’ll never hear a believer say they don’t know, they always have all the answers. That has been my experience, at least.

If I could ask him a few questions, I would ask these:

  1. Did you make sure that the sounds actually come from the speaker of the radio?
  2. Did you try to manipulate the controls… like turning the radio off and on? And changing the stations? Or changing the volume?

These are elementary and very quick tests. If he did, why didn’t he tell about them? If he did not perform them, why not?

It sounds like a hoax to me, like the infamous “crop circles”, or the pictures of Nessie. Or the hoaxes performed by Uri Geller and his “magical” restart of long dead watches. He takes the watch in his hand, shakes it vigorously, and says: “WORK!”… and the watch will start ticking for a very short time.

Maybe he is simply playing a joke on the gullible. That is the most probable explanation. Or someone played a joke on him… with the current miniaturization technology it would be a simple trick to perform it.

Actually, and I hate to refute you, I admit that I don’t know a great deal–nearly every day. :wink: There are many things in nature we simply can’t understand, as well as supernatural things we can’t understand, and life is full of paradoxes. If there were no pardoxes we wouldn’t have a word to describe the phenomenon. :slight_smile: Exactly how the Incarnation happened has not be revealed to us, neither has how electricity actually works. They’re not in the same realm of importance theologically, but in the physical the latter is very important. Each question has a place in our lives. To deny that parts of us exist that we can’t understand is just as strange to human reason as to deny the things we can for both are legitimate expressions of our understanding. At least, that’s how I see it.

I’m not familiar with the author, but apparently he has been writing for the magazine for quite a few years, so if he is fibbing he’s risking his reputation merely to pull our leg. He may have tried all the things you mentioned–he doesn’t say. You could ask him if he takes emails from readers. :slight_smile: And, I rather doubt friends would play such a cruel joke on him and his bride on their wedding day. He simply writes that he encountered the mysterious. He doesn’t say he’s no longer a skeptic, but he does seem to have opened his mind to the possibility that he doesn’t/can’t understand everything. I admit that, too, as should we all, IMHO.


But a scientist ought never be satisfied with that.

We acknowledge our ignorance, and then spend the rest of the day looking for the answer to fill the void of that ignorance.

I’m just astonished that a man whose entire career is spent looking for answers is willing to simply end the query with, “I don’t know”.

But just because we dont know now, doesbt mean we wont know in the future.

Well, since the knowledge doesn’t come magically, he’s going to have to do some more questioning and investigating.

It seems like he’s not doing that. He’s fine with embracing the mystery.

That’s curious to me.

Also, science’s job is always the “how” and not the “why.”

Fair enough.

Although I’m not sure I buy that. The first scientist, the cave man, most certainly asked, “Why does lightning strike?”

But, you’ll never hear a believer say they don’t know, they always have all the answers. That has been my experience, at least.

You need to spend more time in dialogue with more Believers then.


The very basis of Christianity is that God is unknown; He gives us clues about Him through Scripture, the Gospel, and prayer but in the end, God is a mystery. I can’t think of any reason why a Christian, true faith, would claim to have all the answers. I believe your opinion “just because we don’t know now, doesn’t mean we won’t know in the future” accurately applies to the faithful as well. We’re all on faith journey here on earth. Some choose to stand still or even walk away from God. Others move towards God, some rushing at warp speed and others cautiously, but we’ll never know God until we stand before Him at the end of our lives and He reveals Himself to us.

Do not unbelieve; believe in Christ.

He does know why. Or rather he knows what the causes were likely to be.

But what Shermer is saying is that in an emotional moment like that (he’s just about to get married for heaven’s sake) then if the planets align and that one in a gazillion chance occurs, then accept it and enjoy it. You’d have to be pretty cold hearted if you didn’t find something wonderful in a moment like that.

I have a grandfather clock on the wall that actually to belong to my grandfather. It hasn’t worked since he died years ago. If that clock had started up as my daughter walked down the stairs in her wedding dress, then I would have been ‘shaken to the core’ as well (I wasn’t exactly in an unemotional state of mind in any case). As Shermer himself said shortly after his article was printed:

Until such time when science can explain even the most spectacularly unlikely events, what should we do with such stories? Enjoy them. Appreciate their emotional significance. But we do not need to fill in the explanatory gaps with gods or any such preternatural forces. We can’t explain everything, and it’s always okay to say, “I don’t know,” and leave it at that until a natural explanation presents itself.

It would be worth reading the whole article to which I linked. As he says, it’s fine to say: ‘I don’t know’ sometimes. And at other times it would be better to enjoy the moment and not try to deconstruct it.

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