It used to annoy me to be called the king of woo woo. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, “woo woo” is a derogatory reference to almost any form of unconventional thinking, aimed by professional skeptics who are self-appointed vigilantes dedicated to the suppression of curiosity. I get labeled much worse things as regularly as clockwork whenever I disagree with big fry like Richard Dawkins or smaller fry like Michael Shermer, the Scientific American columnist and editor of Skeptic magazine. The latest barrage of name-calling occurred after the two of us had a spirited exchange on Larry King Live last week. . Maybe you saw it. I was the one rolling my eyes as Shermer spoke. Sorry about that, a spontaneous reflex of the involuntary nervous system.
Afterwards, however, I had an unpredictable reaction. I realized that I would much rather expound woo woo than the kind of bad science Shermer stands behind. He has made skepticism his personal brand, more or less, sitting by the side of the road to denigrate “those people who believe in spirituality, ghosts, and so on,” as he says on a YouTube video. No matter that this broad brush would tar not just the Pope, Mahatma Gandhi, St. Teresa of Avila, Buddha, and countless scientists who happen to recognize a reality that transcends space and time. All are deemed irrational by the skeptical crowd. You would think that skeptics as a class have made significant contributions to science or the quality of life in their own right. Uh oh. No, they haven’t. Their principal job is to reinforce the great ideas of yesterday while suppressing the great ideas of tomorrow.
Let me clear the slate with Shermer and forget the several times he has wiggled out of a public debate he was supposedly eager to have with me. I will ignore his recent blog in which his rebuttal of my position was relegated to a long letter from someone who obviously didn’t possess English as a first language (would Shermer like to write a defense of his position in Hindi? It would read just as ludicrously if Hindi isn’t his first language).
With the slate clear, I’d like to see if Shermer will accept the offer to debate me at length on such profound questions as the following:
• Is there evidence for creativity and intelligence in the cosmos?• What is consciousness?• Do we have a core identity beyond our biology, mind, and ego?• Is there life after death? Does this identity outlive the molecules through which it expresses itself?
The rules will be simple. He can argue from any basis he chooses, and I will confine myself entirely to science. For we have reached the state where Shermer’s tired, out-of-date, utterly mediocre science is far in arrears of the best, most open scientific thinkers — actually, we reached that point 60 years ago when eminent physicists like Einstein, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger applied quantum theory to deep spiritual questions. The arrogance of skeptics is both high-handed and rusty. It is high-handed because they lump brilliant speculative thinkers into one black box known as woo woo. It is rusty because Shermer doesn’t even bother to keep up with the latest findings in neuroscience, medicine, genetics, physics, and evolutionary biology. All of these fields have opened fascinating new ground for speculation and imagination. But the king of pooh-pooh is too busy chasing down imaginary woo woo.
Skeptics feel that they have won the high ground in matters concerning consciousness, mind, the origins of life, evolutionary theory, and brain science. This is far from the case. What they cling to is 19th Century materialism, packaged with a screeching hysteria about God and religion that is so passé it has become quaint. To suggest that Darwinian theory is incomplete and full of unproven hypotheses causes Shermer, who takes Darwin as purely as a fundamentalist takes scripture, to see God everywhere in the enemy camp.
How silly. Shermer is a former Christian fundamentalist who is now a fundamentalist about materialism; fundamentalists must have an absolute to believe in. Thus he forces himself into a corner, declaring that all spirituality is bogus, that the sense of self is an illusion, that the soul is ipso facto a fraud, that mind has no existence except in the brain, that intelligence emerged only when evolution, guided by random mutations, developed the cerebral cortex, that nothing invisible can be real compared to solid objects, and that any thought which ventures beyond the five senses for evidence must be dismissed without question.
I won’t go into detail about the absurdity of such rigid thinking. However, the impulse behind dogmatic materialism seems intended to flatten one’s opponents so thoroughly that through scorn and arrogance they must admit defeat, conceding that science is the complete refutation of all preceding religion, spirituality, psychology, myth, and philosophy — in other words, any mode of gaining knowledge that arch materialism doesn’t countenance.
I’ve baited this post with a few barbs to see if Shermer can be goaded into an actual public debate. I have avoided his and his followers’ underhanded methods, whereby an opponent is attacked ad hominem as an idiot, moron, and other choice epithets that in his world are the mainstays of rational argument. And the point of such a debate? To further public knowledge about the actual frontiers of science, which has always depended on wonder, awe, imagination, and speculation. Petty science of the Shermer brand scorns such things, but the greatest discoveries have been anchored on them.
If you are tempted to think that I have taken the weaker side and that materialism long ago won this debate, let me end with a piece of utterly nonsensical woo woo:
Nobody understands how decisions are made or how imagination is set free. What consciousness consists of, or how it should be defined, is equally puzzling. Despite the marvelous success of neuroscience in the past century, we seem as far from understanding cognitive processes as we were a century ago.
That isn’t a quote from “one of those people who believe in spirituality, ghosts, and so on.” It’s from Sir John Maddox, former editor-in-chief of the renowned scientific journal Nature, writing in 1999. I can’t wait for Shermer to call him an idiot and a moron. Don’t worry, he won’t. He’ll find an artful way of slithering to higher ground where all the other skeptics are huddled.
P. S. In light of a few of the comments I would like to clarify something. I hold great value and trust in the scientific method when practiced honestly. Also, I have nothing against healthy skepticism which retains an open mind to future possibilities in science. What I am really addressing here is the brand of professional skepticism that Shermer stands for that borders on cynicism and which leads to a rigid attachment to materialist science. It is the cynicism and prejudice that refuses to explore the new frontiers of neuroscience, genomics, epigenetics, information theory and the understanding of consciousness that I am speaking to.
Published in HuffingtonPost