Recently, arch-skeptic Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and field-marshal of militant skepticism worldwide, wrote a surprising piece for the Scientific American. In it, Shermer relates a synchronicity that happened recently to him and his wife (both of whom I’ve had the recent and sincere pleasure to meet in person), in the occasion of their wedding ceremony. The synchronicity seems indeed to have been particularly disconcerting, impacting both Michael and his wife Jennifer at a deep emotional level. I’ll let you read the details for yourself. The point I want to make here is this: Shermer confesses that the synchronicity – which he termed an ‘anomalous event’ – has shaken his skepticism to the core. Personally, I think this is unfortunate; it reflects a generalized misinterpretation of what skepticism actually means. Indeed, I think the problem with the militant skeptic movement is that it isn’t skeptical enough. Like an army attempting a forward-escape when pressed into a corner, I think the solution to Shermer’s dilemma is not to abandon skepticism, but to embrace it more fully, in an internally-consistent manner. Allow me to elaborate.
Jung on synchronicities
Skepticism is a general and healthy attitude of doubt. In terms of ontology and cosmology, a skeptical attitude translates into a preference for parsimony: if we can explain empirical reality with less theoretical entities, why postulate extra, unnecessary ones? Theoretical entities should be doubted unless they are necessary to make sense of things. The parody of the “flying spaghetti monster” evocatively illustrates why parsimony is preferable from a skeptical perspective. While we can’t disprove the existence of the monster, we don’t need to postulate it in order to make sense of the world. Another example: if you find footprints in your backyard one early morning, you could infer (a) that a burglar tried to break into your house during the night, or (b) that aliens from another dimension landed their spaceship at your neighbor’s property, somehow stole his shoes, and then went for a stroll in your backyard before departing to space. Although you cannot disprove explanation (b), the reason you will certainly prefer (a) is parsimony: it only requires entities that you already know to exist (burglars). Explanation (b), on the other hand, requires postulating a number of new theoretical entities: aliens, spaceships and extra dimensions. Clearly, skeptical parsimony is a good and important guiding principle in our efforts to understand reality.
But parsimony regarding theoretical entities is not the same as parsimony regarding nature’s degrees of freedom. Less theoretical entities may actually imply that nature has more degrees of freedom to operate. Let me unpack this with an example: during the seventeenth century, so-called “effluvium” theories dominated research on static electricity (see Shavinina, L. V. (2003). The International Handbook on Innovation. Oxford, UK: Elsevier Science, pp. 440-1). For centuries it had already been observed that, if a piece of amber was rubbed, it would attract chaff. Researches postulated that the rubbing dislodged a material substance, called “effluvium,” which then stretched out in space mechanically connecting the amber to the chaff and, like an elastic band, pulled the chaff to the amber. The problem with this theory is that it could not account for electrostatic repulsion. So committed to their effluvium theories researchers were at the time, they couldn’t even see repulsion: they would describe chaff mechanically “bouncing off” or “falling from” the amber, but not being repulsed by it (see Kuhn, T. S. (1996). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Third Edition. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, p. 117).
|Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released into the Public Domain.|
Precisely by postulating an extra, unnecessary theoretical entity that acted mechanically between bodies (that is, effluvium), researchers artificially constrained the degrees of freedom of nature (that is, they could not accept electrostatic repulsion, only attraction). A failure of skepticism at the level of theory led directly to misplaced skepticism at the level of empirical phenomena. So much so that researchers would even refuse to see instances of electrostatic repulsion when it was right in front of their eyes. Electrostatic repulsion was turned into an ‘anomaly.’
Shermer, as nearly everyone else engaged in militant skepticism, seems to conflate parsimony regarding theoretical entities with parsimony regarding the degrees of freedom of nature. Proper skeptical parsimony is not about declaring things to be impossible. It has nothing to do with pruning as many degrees of freedom off reality as conceivable. After all, reality remains what it is regardless of our theoretical abstractions. Proper skeptical parsimony is about making sense of reality with as few postulated theoretical entities as possible. The very concept of ‘anomaly’ is a reflection of this misunderstanding of parsimony: an anomaly (if true) is simply a phenomenon that doesn’t conform to our theoretical expectations. It doesn’t have a different ontological status than any other phenomenon in nature, for the same reason that electrostatic repulsion doesn’t have a different ontological status than electrostatic attraction. Both are entirely normal and natural.
Today, the metaphysics of materialism postulates an extraordinarily complex theoretical entity: a whole universe fundamentally outside the only carrier of reality anyone can ever know for sure, which is consciousness itself. Materialists do this for exactly the same reason that researchers earlier postulated effluvium: it seems to be a reasonable inference that explains most aspects of reality (provided that you refuse to see the anomalies, of course). The problem is that it makes an implicit and fallacious assumption: it assumes that reality cannot be made sense of without the postulated world outside consciousness. If it can, then, based on the application of proper skeptical parsimony, it is as unnecessary to postulate a world outside consciousness as it is to postulate the flying spaghetti monster. Indeed, I claim that we can explain reality on the basis of excitations of consciousness alone. This has been done in allegorical language in several of the world’s metaphysical traditions. It has also been done in modern, straight-forward, logical language in my book Why Materialism Is Baloney. Summaries and overviews of my argument can be found in other recent essays in my blog, as well as in recent videos in my YouTube channel, all of which I invite you to peruse.
Now, the key point is this: precisely by succeeding in explaining reality with less theoretical entities, we realize that what materialism considers anomalous is, in fact, entirely natural. When we dropped effluvium, electrostatic repulsion also became natural. What Shermer considered a shattering anomaly can, under this more parsimonious and skeptical metaphysics, be seen as ordinary. More details in my book. And that reality is allowed to have more degrees of freedom under this view does not, in any sense whatsoever, contradict the proper application of skeptical parsimony. Much to the contrary.
In conclusion, in order to make sense of anomalies what we need is more skepticism of the proper kind: skepticism about postulated theoretical entities like the spaghetti monster and a whole universe outside consciousness (which one is more inflationary?). More skepticism of the proper kind will allow us to see that nature has more degrees of freedom to operate than we could accept to be the case before. And, as we’ve seen, this won’t even be the first time in history that we make, and then correct, this kind of mistake. Michael Shermer has no reason to abandon skepticism. If anything, he now has an extra reason to embrace his skepticism more fully and in an internally-consistent manner.
(Comments are very welcome.)
Originally published at BernardoKastrup.com