Why Michael Shermer’s “Case for Scientific Humanism” Fails

https://evolutionnews.org/2019/01/why-michael-shermers-case-for-scientific-humanism-fails/

I stopped reading just a little bit after

on which the rest of the article relies. GIGO.

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I was amazed how quickly the article went downhill:

Shermer tries to rewrite history by insisting that science is built on atheistic assumptions. He states:

Modern science arose in the 16th and 17th centuries following the Scientific Revolution and the adoption of scientific naturalism — the belief that the world is governed by natural laws and forces that are knowable, that all phenomena are part of nature and can be explained by natural causes, and that human cognitive, social and moral phenomena are no less a part of that comprehensible world.

Nothing in that quoted paragraph from Shermer’s article necessarily refers to atheism! The ENV critique can freely quibble with Shermer’s summary of modern science—but to say that that summary is built upon “atheistic assumptions” is problematic. Indeed, lots of theists would agree with Shermer’s summary.

Then I noticed the name of the author of the ENV article, Richard Weikhart. He’s probably best known for the widely panned-within-the-academy book, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, which is yet another effort by an anti-evolution creationist to blame Hitler and racism in general on Charles Darwin. (The technical term is argumentum ad Hitlerum.) Of course, I don’t want to imply another logic fallacy, the converse of Appeal to Authority. Yes, just because Weikart is panned for his analysis on the role of the Theory of Evolution in the rise of Hitler doesn’t necessarily mean he is wrong about summarizing the rise of modern science. Nevertheless, I simply would point out that despite his training as a Ph.D. historian, readers should take note that the history academy has not been reluctant to reject his scholarship. And that does matter to most of us when we weigh his claims as a historian.

Honestly Shermer gets some things wrong here, as @rcohlers and @TedDavis (historians) would likely point out. He writes:

Modern science arose in the 16th and 17th centuries following the Scientific Revolution and the adoption of scientific naturalism — the belief that the world is governed by natural laws and forces that are knowable, that all phenomena are part of nature and can be explained by natural causes, and that human cognitive, social and moral phenomena are no less a part of that comprehensible world.

I do not think it is accurate to say that early scientists believed all phenomena were part of nature. For example, many of them believed that God did miracles that were not explained by natural causes.

His article is here:

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I definitely agree with you on that.

Nevertheless, Shermer’s summary of the roots of modern science is not necessarily unique to an atheist position and atheist assumptions—which the ENV article claims. There are non-atheists (such as various types of deists) which would agree with Shermer’s summary.

It is certainly true that Shermer has a poor grasp of the history of modern science. I’ve noticed many such examples from his writings.

Shermer is a trained historian of science, but one whose very strong political and (anti-)religious glasses do sometimes help him see poorly. To be fair, the very limited space one usually has in an online column (a standard practice that I didn’t accept when I wrote for BioLogos, one of several reasons I agreed to do so) makes it awfully hard to engage in persuasive, substantive analysis, and perhaps Shermer would nuance things a bit more if he were given more words. Then again, he might not.

Regardless, Shermer wholly ignores the fact that early modern natural philosophers often engaged in thoughtful reflection and even in debates about what “natural laws” are and what is their ultimate source. He also might be simply ignorant of the fact that some naturalistic philosophers of science today, such as Nancy Cartwright, have frankly admitted that “natural law” is an inherently theistic concept that (in her opinion) needs to be jettisoned by scientists precisely because its theistic implications are too strong.

Overall, to be as frank as Cartwright, I’m quite pleased that Shermer’s days as a columnist for Scientific American are ending. That magazine long ago took an openly hostile stance toward religion(s), the very stance Shermer echoes in this piece, which channels Peter Atkins and Carl Sagan and Daniel Dennett. I stopped reading it years ago, and go to it now only when someone tells me I should, such as when they published a splendid piece about the Jesuit astronomer Riccioli by Dennis Danielson and Christopher Graney, both of whom actually know something about early modern science and religion. (See https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-case-against-copernicus/) The general anti-religious bias of Scientific American led me in 2005 deliberately to send an article of my own elsewhere, to American Scientist (IMO a superior magazine for both literary and ideological reasons), where my article was still “trending” as of 2017: https://www.americanscientist.org/blog/from-the-staff/2017s-most-popular.

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