Skeptical About Skeptics


In a column in Scientific American (Nov., pg. 34) appropriately enough called “Skeptic,” Michael Shermer (publisher of a journal that bears that name) tells us what is wrong with the recent spate of scientific investigations into the efficacy of prayer. “The ultimate fallacy is theological: if G-d is omniscient and omnipresent, he should not need to be reminded or inveigled into healing someone.

You’ve got to sort of wonder how people who do not believe in G-d often claim to know so much about Him, and how He works.

My favorite example of this kind of chutzpah comes from the late Stephen Gould, at the American Museum of Natural History, and one of the most articulate and cogent spokespeople for the Modern Synthesis. In the eponymous essay within The Panda’s Thumb, Gould sets out to prove the non-existence of G-d through a series of biological oddities. If G-d could really do anything He wants, why didn’t He give the panda a real opposable digit? It seems odd that all He apparently did was use a bony projection in the hands of related animals, and elongate it. Similarly, if He can do whatever He wants, why didn’t He create a real show-stopper for the Venus fly-trap. Closer study shows that all He did was adapt a common petal, available to so many plants, and tinkered it into a trap-door for flies. Why would G-d have to make good with biological odds and ends He found in His garage, rather than build everything ing new?

For Gould as well, predicting how the G-d he does not believe in should act is reason enough to reject him when the prediction does not hold true. Not having ever taken the religion of his birth (you guessed it – Judaism!) seriously, there is much that Gould missed. What to him is “proof” of G-d’s non-existence is for us the polar opposite. We know (especially according to the Zohar) that the very makeup of our limited, physical world is a refraction of what Hashem is all about. In the final analysis, He is a perfect Oneness, unlike the oneness we can observe any other place. It makes perfect, predictable sense that His handiwork would reflect His utter simplicity. One of the clearest hints to His presence is that all the vast complexity of Nature can be reduced to a very small group of principles. All diversity in Nature flows from his Unity!

Perhaps I’m coming down to harshly on Shermer. Perhaps the religious traditions that he rejected see Man as providing some benefit to G-d by serving Him, and Shermer can’t see how prayer tells Him anything He doesn’t already know. B”H, we purer monotheists recognize that Man cannot really give anything to a perfect Being. Because we Jews understand that whatever HKBH asks of us can only be for our benefit, not His, we can easily understand the beauty of prayer in terms of what it does for us, how it deepens our dependence upon Him, and therefore our connection with Him.

Perhaps Shermer, then, has an excuse.

Perhaps. But I would remain skeptical.

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