Book Review: Michael Shermer’s Heavens on Earth

Opinion

Renowned Skeptic Michael Shermer recently published a new book called Heavens on Earth. The preview indicated that it would concern eschatology and. many hot button issues like AI and transhumanism. Of course before even turning to the first page I assumed I would disagree with much of the contents.

But I also assumed my review would begin with something complementary akin to

“Despite deep disagreements I have developed a new found respect for Shermer.”

Unfortunately once I began to read compliments were the furthest thing from mind. Because this is not a good book. It is not an engaging read. It is boring. Both literarily and intellectually. Much like Michael Shermer himself.

Shermer Is Generally Unpersuasive

Shermer writes in the same manner he debates: poorly. He tries to be witty but it always comes off as juvenile. And his primary debate tactic is to throw as much information at the audience as possible while claiming that everything he’s saying is “just science.” Even though it’s mostly amateur philosophy (which is sad because he’s a professional philosopher). This book mirrors his debating style to a shocking degree.

Because it is not really a book. It feels like a bunch of blog posts stitched together with no cohesive theme or meaning. The book isn’t really about anything in particular. Which would be okay except the individual chapters wander about as well not really landing anywhere. Timothy Keller’s books are collections of his sermons and yet they’re deeply unified and focused. But the intellectual gap between Shermer and Keller is vast.

Galloping from subject to subject

Shermer has a hard time dealing with any subject in a manner that resembles rigor or clarity. Preferring instead to gallop from shallow topic to topic like a child looking through tide pools. At least Shermer is intellectually curious. But he would benefit from some intellectual discipline.

This is on full display at the end of the book’s prologue

“The luminaries we will meet in this book include psychologists and anthropologists and their theories about death and dying and how the awareness of our mortality affects us; archaeologists and historians on who were the first people to become aware of their own mortality and how this awareness led to the creation of myths and religions; Jews, Christians, and Muslims and their monotheistic ideas about heaven and hell, the resurrection of both body and soul, and what happens after we die; spiritual seekers from other religious traditions who seek immortalitythrough altered states of consciousness, including modern spiritual gurus like Deepak Chopra and their belief in transcendent consciousness for eternal life; cognitive scientists in search of explanations for anomalous psychological experiences, and psychic mediums who believe that we can talk to the dead; scholars and scientists who treat near death experiences and the belief in reincarnation as evidence of the afterlife, and skeptics who interpret them from a more materialistic perspective; secular philosophers and scientists in search of immortality through radical life extension, minimal senescence, antiaging remedies, cryonics, transhumanism lifestyles, singularity technologies, computer mind uploading, and other afterlives for atheists; imaginative writers who envision perfect societies; dreamers who attempt to construct utopias; pessimists who lament the decline of civilization; dictators and demagogues who exploit these fears and attempt to rebuild societies in their own imagined fashion of what a paradisiacal state should be, only to see it collapse after the inevitable collision with reality — thus do utopian dreams turn into dystopian nightmares.”

In case you didn’t notice that was one “sentence.” The second to last paragraph of the book’s prologue is a 250 word sentence. Claiming the book will be covering just about every subject under the sun. To responsibly cover all these subjects would take thousands upon thousands of pages of in depth scholarly research. Scores of large monographs have been dedicated to each and every topic listed above. This book would have to be a 5,000 page epic multi dissertation to cover it all. But somehow Shermer managed to deal with everything there is to know about everything in 300 pages? To be able to condense all that info so tightly he must be a genius. A very stable genius.

Shermer is not solely to blame

The problems with this book are not solely Shermer’s responsibility. After all publisher Henry Holt must have an editor or two somewhere? But more importantly someone at that company gave this sprawling snoozer a green light. Of course this is the same publishing house that is responsible for Michael Wolf’s “Fire and Fury.” So clearly their integrity is running a bit thin these days. The purpose behind publishing a work this disjointed is hard to find.

But those style and structure issues aside, the content is also deeply lacking. Shermer is still laboring under the delusion that the concept of an immaterial soul has been debunked by “science.”

“but neuroscience has demonstrated that the mind — consciousness, memory, and the sense of self representing “you” — cannot exist without a brain.”

Neuroscience actually doesn’t study consciousness. It studies brains. Most neuroscientists believe that they study consciousness because they are philosophical illiterates. But the claim here is much stronger than just brain and consciousness are related or even identical. Shermer is saying that it is not possible to have consciousness, memory, or a sense of self without a brain. This kind of conclusion is the exact sort of thing science cannot do. Because this isn’t a provisional statement it’s a metaphysical absolute. Contemporary science doesn’t deal with metaphysics, partially because they don’t think metaphysics are possible.

But maybe Shermer has a good argument for this ridiculous conclusion?

“When portions of the brain die as a result of injury, stroke, or Alzheimer’s, the corresponding functions we call “mind” die with them. No brain, no mind; no body, no soul.”

This has been Shermer’s standard line for years. And it’s still false. This is the sort of pseudo intellectualism that Shermer is infamous for advocating. His evidence doesn’t even logically match onto his conclusion. In practice Shermer constantly begs the question of whether or not Mind exists. But I’ll try to formulate a non question begging syllogism for him.

P1: If a mental state correlates to a brain state then mind and brain are =

P2: mental states are correlated to brain states

C: Therefore mental states are not possible without brain states

This isn’t question begging. But it is still false. And I’ll admit it looks like a straw man argument, but sometimes the straw man is the right man because the scarecrow ain’t got no brain. In any case P1 is false. Especially if P2 is true, and I don’t know of anyone who doubts P2 except for those that go completely reductionist. They would say there are no mental states just brain states.

In any case Brain states and mental states are metaphysically different from each other and showing correlates between them actually underscores that they are different. I don’t know how you could correlate something to itself.

Also I’m not entirely certain what Shermer’s overt Phil Mind position is but the skeptic community seems pretty dead set on simply debunking forms of dualism because it serves other purposes like debunking ghosts etc. This means that they have basically drunk the materialist cool aid. But maybe Shermer hasn’t gone quite this far.

Since he referred to mind as a function maybe he’s some sort of functionalist. In which case my syllogism and response would be too simple.

But despite dealing with soul/mind stuff a lot in the book it’s never really clear what his position is. So I stand by my original syllogism. Because he’s basically given an argument like that in the past, and his consistent position over the years has been something similar to this simple minded equivocation between mind and brain.

If you want to see him get Shellacked in a debate on some of these issues (watch any debate he’s been in, he’s a very poor debater) check out this one with Jeffrey Schwartz.

In any case that argument (or something like it) is so bad that the conclusion doesn’t even follow from the first two premises. The best one could hope for is something like “it is possible that mental states do not exist apart from brain states.” If we assume P1 and P2 are true (despite the difficulties that presents) it doesn’t even make the assertion probable merely possible. Because even if P1 were true then the function at play (brain/mind stuff) could be replicated without a brain. Something Shermer might actually believe is possible! In other words it’s not good.

Not all bad

It’s not all bad. Shermer is no idiot. For example he actually does a decent job on the cosmology of ancient Israel. But when he gets to eschatology things start to unravel. He equivocates on what “resurrection” means so it’s never clear what he’s referring to. I think this is because he suffers under the same delusion that afflicts contemporary western Christians that “Heaven” and “resurrection” mean the same thing.

Otherwise I don’t see why he would compare the Christian idea of resurrection to the Osiris cult in Egypt. The word resurrection means something very specific and it has little to do with most notions of “heaven.” It is the idea that at the end of time God takes what is left of your body (hence the unique Abrahamic dedication to burial) and reunites it to your spirit with a new kind of life. Biblical eschatology is about this earth, and “heaven” is a future state where the resurrected live on a renewed earth in perfect immortal unity with God.

Christians haven’t always done the best job of making this clear but it is attested to as the orthodox teaching of the church for 2,000 years. The nicene creed is unambiguous on this point. And despite Shermer’s protestations to the contrary Pope John Paul II did not revise it.

Why is Shermer so sloppy?

I think Shermer makes mistakes like this because he is so dependent on the contemporary counterpart of phrenology: evolutionary psychology. He spends large portions of the book dealing with this nonsense. The basis of evolutionary psychology is materialism. This means that humans are just matter in motion and our beliefs are something we have no control over. They are produced entirely by circumstance. So from Shermer’s perspective theology cannot have a consistent internal character because that would require conviction and will. For Shermer the sources of our beliefs are ultimately beyond our control and so must be analyzed like a crime scene instead of a conversation.

This might be the unifying theme of the book. But if it is he makes little attempt to explain that to the reader.

“As a historian of science, I, too, find this diversity a delectation, but for the scientist such variation of beliefs is indicative of the likelihood that none of them are “true” in any ontological sense. It is not just that they are so obviously culturally bound and geographically determined, but also that there are no means of determining which ones are more or less likely to match reality.”

This is of course ironic because Shermer is trapped within this same socially constructed polymorphous worldview prison. In other words the more he proclaims that certain ideas are culture bound and determined by circumstance the more he proves the binding of his own mind.

Conclusion

Having never read a Shermer book before I can’t say it’s better or worse than his previous outings. But since I wish him no ill will I highly recommend the book to fans of Shermer and his brand of intellectualism. If you think Shermer’s take on things is interesting then I’m sure you’ll like this book. But I rate it 6/10. Kinda wish I hadn’t preordered it.

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Educator, podcaster, & writer

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A.C. Gleason

A.C. Gleason

Educator, podcaster, & writer

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