Skeptics and True Believers by Chet Raymo

As is probably evident from this website, I love to buy books. I am not sure what it is exactly but I just love the feeling of finding a book and taking it home with you. Perhaps I like to think that owning all these books makes me smarter or more sophisticated; maybe I am trying to wrap myself in knowledge to cover insecurity. Whatever the reason, I buy a lot of books; so many that I despair of reading them.

To try and avoid going broke I often look for ways to feed my addiction without spending a lot of money. One way to do this is to hit the bargain bins at bookstores. Recently, I was doing just this at a local Barnes and Noble when I stumbled upon Skeptics and True Believers by Chet Raymo. This seemed like a good book for me as I often find myself struggling with the tension between reason and faith (see here for example). The book’s subtitle, The Exhilarating Connection Between Science and Religion, seemed to offer insight.

After reading the book, I must say I am disappointed. The book offers very little in the way of insight and far too much in the way of science cheerleading and cheap shots at belief. Unless you already hold to a view much like his own, I doubt Mr. Raymo (an author, Boston Globe science columnist, and professor of physics and astronomy at Stonehill College) will change your mind.

The basic premise is simple: there are two types of people skeptics and true believers. Skeptics allow for doubt while true believers do not. In Raymo’s mind skepticism is clearly the better side. He is a thoroughgoing naturalist who only believes what science tells him. Having grown up Catholic, however, he can appreciate the mystery and wonder of religion. He admits that cold hard facts rarely give comfort. People can’t live on science alone. The problem is that if true belief were given free reign all of the hard fought gains of science would be thrown overboard. Things like medicine and technology can only function in a scientific society, says Raymo. If we give in to the Luddites and fundamentalists we will be deprived of those advances. His solution is a blending of science and wonder; a way to be skeptical and yet be sensitive to the awe and wonder of the universe. In this way we can avoid the extremes of a scientific or religious fundamentalism.

On some of the smaller issues Raymo makes some good, if mundane, points. He is at his best when he is debunking pseudo-science or revealing the faith of those scientists who look for a universal answer within science. Yes, pure faith can lead to trouble. Yes, there are people out there using science as way to sell all kinds of wacko beliefs. And yes, scientists often become far too enamored of their own ideas and their ability to explain everything. Unfortunately, Raymo goes on and on and on about these subjects. He all to often falls to the temptation to tell another story or use another example when simple argument will do. He obviously has a lot of anecdotes and issues from writing his columns but we don’t need to rehash them all. I increasingly found it tiresome to read through his stories and discussions to try to get to the larger point.

This rambling tendency, however, is merely a symptom of the larger problem: there is no deep insight involved. When all is said and done, what Raymo really offers is a worship of science; a sort of weird existential pantheism where science is the hymn book and bible. He posits no fundamental basis for deciding what is true. He offers no real argument for what has meaning. Instead the entire book is written as if the only things we can possibly know are the facts we learn in science.

Despite his insistence that wonder, awe, and the sacred are important and necessary parts of what it means to be human, he constantly asserts that man is a tiny speck of dust in an almost infinite cosmos without soul or spirit beyond the makeup of his DNA. Whenever the two clash, science wins. The result is that God, faith, religion, and anything not explained by science are left out in the cold. What Raymo worships, what he finds so awe inspiring and wonderful, is the universe itself and the constant search to plum its depths. Rather than just admit that he is an atheist that finds joy in scientific discovery; that he is a naturalist that finds joy and awe and depth in nature; rather than admit his obvious perspective Raymo attempts to couch his views in the language of the sacred, the mysterious, and the spiritual. This deception is a giant flaw running throughout his commentary.

What Raymo refuses to acknowledge is that perhaps science doesn’t encompass all areas of knowledge. Perhaps, reason outside of science can help us know things about what it means to be human that cannot be understood through science. Philosophy, literature, theology, and art for example can speak to us and inform us in ways that are not truly explained by science. Obviously, Raymo is aware of this because he liberally quotes poets, theologians, and artists. But he never explains quite how these genres fit within science or how they can be fit into his skeptics and true believers mould.

It is not outside the realm of possibility that there is a aspect of human nature that is not physical or natural and thus is beyond the bounds of science. In fact, Raymo himself hints at it when he discusses the need for more than mere cold hard facts. And yet he never really explains why humans need more than science to be happy. It is just in our DNA I guess. In this way, he tries to offer a science that appeals to our softer side without a real explanation as to why. If we are really just incredibly complex molecular computers why shouldn’t we strive to get rid of our sentimental habits and learn to appreciate science for the ultimate truth that it is? In the same way, if we really are bound to our DNA why should we not hold onto comfortable beliefs about God as long as they don’t hurt anyone? What is the harm in religion if it can be kept within tolerant and humane bounds (which it largely has in modern America). If religion helps people feed the poor and avoid depression, why throw it out just because it seems to go against science? Raymo offers no real reason except the empty threat of losing our technology and medicine. This is hog wash, there are obviously millions of fundamentalist Christians who believe in a literal Bible and yet go to the doctor, drive cars, and use the most sophisticated computer equipment in their daily lives.

In the end, Raymo’s philosophy is simply too muddled. The reason, ironically, is because in order to be consistent with his science as truth model he would need too move to far down the path of the true believer he so fears. If science is the only source of truth, the mystic beliefs Raymo seeks are not an option. He can’t accept the faith of his childhood and he rejects the cold scientism that Dawkins and others offer, so he is left to an odd mixture of both. It is not a satisfying brew.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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