What you are about to read are my notes from an academic presentation that I gave at Ridgeview Classical Schools as Plenary Speaker for their Humanities day.  I gave this talk along with Shawn Lorenzen who covered 2 more mistakes. While this is not my normal blog fare, for those of you majoring in science or philosophy, I hope it stimulates some discussion!  Enjoy!

Download the companion prezi presentation here.


Top 3 Mistakes Smart People Make

Smart people are those who have or are inclined toward knowledge and especially discerning things which are true over things that are false.  Put simply, smart people are those who have the intellectual ability or understanding (esp. with regard to quickly understanding) in one or more areas that distinguish them from “average” or “normal” knowers.

Mistake #1: Smart people often assume that Skepticism is the default intellectual stance.

Skepticism historically understood claims that we know something only when we have certainty about the thing which we claim to know.  It is a positive stance about how we come to know things – and it promotes the idea that knowledge absent of certainty is impossible.  Whatever is not certain, we should remain skeptical of and wait for certainty.
The historical criticism of skepticism was based in the fact that certainty is lacking from most of what we claim to know – and in fact most skeptics of old recognize that we cannot even be certain that skepticism is true.
Michael Shermer, the founder and editor of Skeptics magazine and the face of modern skepticism says this:
“Skepticism has a long historical tradition dating back to ancient Greece, when Socrates observed: “All I know is that I know nothing.” But this pure position is sterile and unproductive and held by virtually no one. If you were skeptical about everything, you would have to be skeptical of your own skepticism.” (www.Skeptic.com)
But Shermer is a skeptic, and adamantly so.  For the purposes of my talk, I felt that it would be most helpful to analyze modern skepticism since it is probably the most widely held form of skepticism today.  But what is modern Skepticism?
From Michael Shermer:

“Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, which involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions. Some claims, such as water dowsing, ESP, and creationism, have been tested (and failed the tests) often enough that we can provisionally conclude that they are not valid. Other claims, such as hypnosis, the origins of language, and black holes, have been tested but results are inconclusive so we must continue formulating and testing hypotheses and theories until we can reach a provisional conclusion.” (Emphasis mine)

In Mistake #2 we will look at whether science and skepticism can be used together.  For now, I want to stay on the point of modern skepticism as a foundation for knowledge.

The key to Modern skepticism is to continuously and vigorously apply the methods of science to navigate the treacherous straits between “know nothing” skepticism and “anything goes” credulity.  Here is Shermer in his own words: (skip to 4:50)



It is important to note that, as Shermer says, Skepticism is a positive assertion about how we are to obtain knowledge.  Even Shermer acknowledges that Skepticism isn’t a default stance.  That is to say, if we are going to accept Skepticism, we have to have good reasons for doing so among other competing views of knowledge such as Coherentism and Foundationalism.

(I should note also that, according to Shermer, there is an ethical commitment that we “should” adopt Skepticism among competing theories.  Smart people often feel obligated to tell others what they should or should not believe.)

Shermer acknowledges that the criteria for Cartesian skepticism is far too strict, (“that we can be skeptical of skepticism”) and I think that he is right.  Ironically, the very reasons he gives to reject Cartesian or Methodological Skepticism are the same reasons we think that Shermer’s skepticism is untenable.

To begin, we believe that Skepticism in any form is self-refuting.  A self-refuting statement is where  the criteria offered in the statement negates the truth of that statement.  For example: Writing english sentences is impossible. or I do not exist.

But Modern skepticism falls under the same sword.

We have seen that traditional skepticism is self refuting.  “Anything that we cannot be certain of cannot be known” <— how can we know this?

“Anything that cannot be proven by science cannot be known” <—-this statement cannot be scientifically proven!

But let’s lower the bar a bit.  Maybe what Shermer means is something like “Anything that cannot be proven by science, we should be skeptical of” <—-we still cannot prove this by science and thus we should be skeptical!

This is important because, as Shermer acknowledges, Skepticism is a positive view on knowledge and it must be able to promote a view that is not only coherent, but true!  However, as we can easily see, both Methodological Skepticism and Shermer’s more science based Skepticism are self-refuting or at best self-defeating – they set up criteria for truth of which they themselves cannot bear the weight.

Second, as if it weren’t bad enough that Shermer’s skepticism is self-refuting, his new Skepticism collapses into complete relativism where objective truths simply don’t exist or at best are unknowable.  Remember, his criteria:

“A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement”

Here I would point you to Robert Chisholm’s article on the Problem of the Criterion where he asks: 1) How do we come to know things, and 2) How do we know when we know something?  Because Shermer’s method only offers temporary agreement, nothing is ever known for sure because their is always the possibility of it being disproven- Even modern Skepticism!  What is so amazing is that Shermer seems to begrudgingly admit this, and thus abandons Skepticism as it is traditionally known.  Listen to what he says in his Skeptic’s Manifesto:

Skepticism is itself a positive assertion about knowledge, and thus turned on itself cannot be held…Nor does skepticism produce progress. It is not enough simply to reject the irrational. Skepticism must be followed with something rational, or something that does produce progress.

And if that weren’t bad enough, he quote Carl Sagan in the same way:

“An anti-something movement displays a purely negative attitude. It has no chance whatever to succeed. It’s passionate diatribes virtually advertise the program they attack. People must fight for something that they want to achieve, not simply reject an evil, however bad it may be.”


Mistake #2: Smart people often assume that Science can reveal all truth about reality.

In his seeming abandonment of real skepticism, as we have seen Shermer finds rest in the sciences.

After various attempts to define what he calls a “rational skeptic” he lands with:

One who questions the validity of particular claims of knowledge by employing or calling for statements of fact to prove or disprove claims, as a tool for understanding causality.

In other words, skeptics are from Missouri — the “show me” state. When we hear a fantastic claim we say, “that’s nice, prove it.”

Again, the only reason why I assume Michael Shermer doesn’t feel the need to prove skepticism is because he assumes it as a default stance.

This sort of modern empiricism manifests itself in statements similar to what we would expect to hear from Shermer “Science or the scientific process can reveal anything and everything that we need to know about reality.”

This conviction that science can resolve all questions is known as “scientism”

I hope by now you are starting to see that Shermer has shifted tactics on you.  The questions he starts out asking, are philosophically different than the questions he ends with.  He starts by trying to convince you that Skepticism is the best epistemological view (or philosophy of knowledge) that you can (and should) adopt.  But he ends by affirming that Skepticism falls short and abandons his philosophy for a scientific methodology – and that any knowledge gained by science is small and slow.  In short, I can see Shermer serenading the Scientist with the classic Aaron Neville song:  “I don’t know much, but I know I love you…”

Let’s look a bit deeper then at Scientism.  Some other versions of Scientism include:

Epistemic Scientism – The view that the only reality that exists is the one science has access to.

Ontological Scientism – entails epistemological scientism, but that nothing is real but material particles and their interaction.

Value Scientism – The view that moral values can be explained in terms of science.

Whichever form of Scientism is affirmed, the basic idea is that reality is known only through the sciences. Shermer makes the claim that science is the method by which we escape our own biases and rely only on results – thus giving us a true picture of the world whether we like that picture or not.

The big picture here seems to be experience, refined by science = reality.

Shermer has been on the hot seat long enough, so let me use a few other examples from prominent intellectuals.

Alex Rosenberg, a Duke University professor, and unashamed scientismist says that “Evangelical Scientism rests on three main ideas:

  1. The facts of microphysics determine everything under the sun (beyond it, too);
  2. Darwinian natural selection explains human behavior; and brilliant work in the still-young brain sciences shows us as we really are. Physics, in other words, is “the whole truth about reality”; we should achieve “a thoroughly Darwinian understanding of humans”; and neuroscience makes the abandonment of illusions “inescapable.”
  3. Morality, purpose and the quaint conceit of an enduring self all have to go.
Richard Dawkins from Oxford University and author of the NY Times Bestseller “The God Delusion” spends the first chapter of his book entitled “The Deeply Religious Non-believer” showing that any “credible” scientist wouldn’t dare affirm anything but naturalism/materialism/scientism.
I only say all this to reassure those of you are are thinking “Clearly, people don’t really believe this.”  Yet, this is the prevailing view in the academia.
And even though I feel Shermer and his disciples haven’t cleared things up in the way of skepticism, we still need to ask – Is scientism valid?  Why are Shermer, Dawkins, and Rosenberg so eager to accept it?  What are the advantages, if any to scientism?
I am afraid things don’t look so good:  Take Shermer’s quote about science, which more or less defines scientism:
“Science or the scientific process can reveal anything and everything that we need to know about reality.”
Contra Rosenberg et al, we find food for thought in Dallas Willard:
“The professor who invoked physics is surrounded constantly with things and events for which no physical explanation yet exists, nor even the beginnings of one. Just look at the physics texts and see. A most obvious case is the existence of the physical universe itself, as well as of life and human consciousness. When confronted with the de facto inability of physics in this respect, the academically sanctified dodge is to invoke chance, along with huge spans of time, for everything to “work,” and further, to invoke the promise of what science (really, physics) supposedly will be able to explain in the future as it continues to make progress. But chance is not something that can produce or explain anything. Rather, it is invoked precisely at the point where there is no known explanation or cause. And if something is, indeed, impossible, it will not help to have more time to get it done. We need a demonstration of the possibility, for example, of life’s emerging from the inorganic, and then we can talk about time. But the assumptions of this “scientific” evasion are so complicated and culturally protected that most people confronting it do not realize they have been handed intellectual sawdust instead of bread.” (http://www.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=104)
This is the sentiment of fellow scientismist Peter Atkins, author of numerous chemistry textbooks and popular science publications.  In this clip, he is in a debate with one of my former professors Dr. William Lane Craig. The question of whether science provides and explanation for everything.  William Lane Craig  disagrees.


Mistake #3: Smart People often don’t think that they live by faith.

We will define faith in the following way: Faith is a kind of belief, trust, reliance upon something.
Now, the goal for us as knowers is the line out beliefs up with what we know.  Knowledge, as it were, is the best foundation for our beliefs and our telos for our beliefs should be to line them up with what we know.
Thus, when our beliefs are lined up with knowledge, it turns out that we have faith when we trust our beliefs to the point of relying on them to be true.  Notice also that faith involves using our reason to decide which beliefs we should live in reliance upon.
Blind faith is a belief of reliance in something we cannot or simply do not know, – and thus isn’t grounded in knowledge.
Notice, that I am not defining faith as a profession of something that you do not believe in, nor am I defining faith in any particular religious context.
Important for this is the notion that your beliefs are always tied to what you are willing to act upon.  So belief and action are never distinct.  You sit in your chair because you hold the belief that the chair will hold you up.  If you didn’t believe it would hold you up, then you would act accordingly and not sit in it.
One of the burdens of our education system should be to understand that holding true beliefs results in a substantially better life than holding false beliefs – or suspending beliefs which are good.  That is, refusing to believe things that you know to be good.  We might call this the ethics of belief.
The examples we have looked at (Shermer, Dawkins, Rosenberg, et al.) work off the notion that faith is imaginary or at least irresponsible.
But Shermer, Dawkins, and Rosenberg are not ignorant of their critics.  Each of them have engaged publicly in debates with those who disagree with their respective world views.  There is no doubt that Rosenberg and Dawkins understand that Scientism is a philosophy, not a scientific fact.  So, why do they accept it to be true?  Because of the overwhelming evidence in physics?  To date, there is none.  Because of the observational evidence – the “Seeing is Believing” kind that they so quickly recite those who believe in God?  Nope, no one has ever observed someone’s personality in their brain – or even a single subjective experience out of the millions we have each day.
So on what foundation do they accept their scientism?  By faith, of course.  As Willard says, “Most of the “faith of unbelief” that exists today in the concrete form of individual personalities is morally irresponsible — because not rationally sustained — and would be recognized as the superstition it most often is, but for the fact that it is vaguely endorsed by the socially prevailing intellectual system.  One might be rational, as above defined, and not believe, in my opinion.  But I think that is highly unlikely, and am sure it rarely ever actually occurs.” (www.dwillard.org)

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