Thursday, December 27, 2012

Know your scholars: Pierre Duhem

Pierre Duhem (1861-1916) was a French physicist and one of the most important historians and philosophers of science at the beginning of the twentieth century. While he is best known for his indeterminacy thesis and his conjectures about the history of the Middle Ages, Duhem also made notable contributions to thermodynamics, elasticity, and hydrodynamics.

While researching the origins of statics, Duhem uncovered treatises written by medieval philosophers like John Buridan, Nicole Oresme and Roger Bacon. The sophistication of their work shocked him. Duhem consequently rejected the widely held view that the Middle Ages was a dark age devoid of learning.

He also came to believe that these medieval scholars laid the foundation for much of modern science and even anticipated many of the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo. Since he published these ideas, historians of science and of the Middle Ages have largely vindicated Duhem's ideas about the worth of medieval scholarship.

As monumental as his contributions were to history, Duhem played an equally important role in the development of modern philosophy of science. In his opus, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory, Duhem provided scholars with a feast of interesting ideas which are still widely discussed and debated.

One of the the most thought provoking of these ideas was Duhem's challenge to classical reductionism. If you are unfamiliar with classical reductionism, it is the thesis that specific laws of science will be shown to be logical extensions of more general laws. In this sense, they are deduced like a sound conclusion in a mathematics or logic problem. For example, Isaac Newton claimed that he deduced his law of universal mutual gravitation from Johannes Kepler's laws of planetary motion. This led Newton to believe that Kepler's laws are nothing more than his own more general principle expressing itself in a certain situation. 

Duhem challenged this assessment by arguing that Newton's law contradicted Kepler's. More specifically, he explained that the interplanetary mutual gravitational perturbations caused deviations from Keplerian orbits (in layman's terms: Kepler's planetary orbits are slightly thrown off by other forces acting on them. This can include tugs from other planets or resistance from an atmosphere. Newton came up with the calculus and physics that demonstrates this). Since deductive logic requires that we cannot derive a false conclusion from true premises (or if we are trying to show that Newton's law is deduced from Kepler's, a conclusion from contradictory premises), Duhem thought that Kepler's laws could not be deduced from Newton's.

His biggest challenge to reductionism, however, was the Duhem Thesis. This thesis argued that reductionism is not possible because of the methodological differences between physics and the other sciences. Given that physics is the only field in which a single hypothesis can be isolated and tested, Duhem argued, there is no way the other sciences can be reduced to it. They are simply too different in their techniques and experiments to be subsumed into physics. This thesis is often mistaken to be the same as a similar one proposed by the American philosopher, Willard van Orman Quine (1908-2000).

Despite the popularity of this, the two men had very different views on science. Quine's thesis argues that one must make assumptions about a number of ideas to test a hypothesis. For example, one must assume things the laws of optics and planetary motion to test their hypothesis about the rings of Saturn. This means that no hypothesis, not even those of physics, can be done in isolation. Quine is also a realist who accepted the existence of scientific objects like atoms. Duhem, on the other hand, assumed that unobservable things like atoms were "useful fictions" used to make predictions.

While Pierre Duhem's legacy may today be partially (or largely) forgotten, he was a key figure in the history and philosophy of science. His work highly influenced a number of scholars in both history and philosophy, including the great Thomas Kuhn (1922-96).

Monday, December 24, 2012

Why you should about skeptical of "Ancient Aliens"

If you own a tv, you have probably seen the wild haired host of The History Channel's hit show, Ancient Aliens. This man is Giorgio Tsoukalos. Like Erick von Daniken before him, Mr. Tsoukalos argues that aliens helped mankind progress culturally and technologically in the past. For example, aliens could have helped ancient Egyptians in their construction of Stonehenge. Despite being laughed off by professional historians, anthropologists, Mr. Tsoukalos' "ancient astronaut hypothesis (from now on, the AAH)" is taken seriously by large hunks of the public.

To his credit, I think Mr. Tsoukalos' case is a lot more plausible than many other fringe beliefs like astrology and homeopathy. This is because the aliens he posits are entirely physical beings whose existence would not prove scientific naturalism is incorrect. Another reason why it cannot be ruled out a priori is because astrobiologists and the men and women at SETI believe that there is more than likely other intelligent life in the cosmos. This is something that other believers in odd (but natural) beings like bigfoot cannot claim.

Despite being more plausible than a lot of other bunk out there, the AAH still seems to be bunk. Like other fringe beliefs, the proponent of this idea are not formally trained in history, anthropology, or archaeology. Von Dankien was a motel operator. Mr. Tsoukalos has a degree in sports communication. Their theories have also been vehemently rejected by the community of scholars. While these signs do not prove that the AAH is bunk, it should cause us to raise our red flags. My concerns, however, are not historical (those criticisms are out there if you are interested in them). Instead they stem from two major pitfalls that all variation of the AAH I have seen share. 

The first pitfall is that it commits the "alien of the gaps" fallacy. Much like the god of the gaps fallacy, the AAH is nothing more than finding a gap in our understanding and plugging it with a super powerful being. Don't know how the pyramids were built? Aliens did it. Have no idea how the heads were moved at Easter Island? Aliens levitated them. Like all other arguments from ignorance, the alien of the gaps fallacy takes the form of "I don't know how x happened. Therefore, it was y."

Unfortunately for the alien proponent, not knowing how something happened is not evidence for any hypothesis. It is merely a statement of ignorance. To justify the leap to "aliens did it," Mr. Tsoukalos is going to need positive evidence. After he has this, he is going to have to show that the AAH adequately explains it. This demand is very similar to what many philosophers of science, like Gregory Dawes and Maarten Boudry, expect from intelligent design advocates. If the AAH is the best explanation, then it should possess the following traits (source) :
  1. Testability: better explanations render specific predictions that can be falsified or corroborated.
  2. Scope (aka “comprehensiveness” or “consilience”): better explanations explain more types of phenomena.
  3. Precision: better explanations explain phenomena with greater precision.
  4. Simplicity: better explanations make use of fewer claims, especially fewer as yet unsupported claims (“lack of ad-hoc-ness”).
  5. Mechanism: better explanations provide more information about underlying mechanisms.
  6. Unification: better explanations unify apparently disparate phenomena (also sometimes called “consilience”).
  7. Predictive novelty: better explanations don’t just “retrodict” what we already know, but predict things we observe only after they are predicted.
  8. Analogy (aka “fit with background knowledge”): better explanations generally fit with what we already know with some certainty.
  9. Past explanatory success: better explanations fit within a tradition or trend with past explanatory success (e.g. astronomy, not astrology).
Since the AAH does not possess these traits at the present, we are more than justified in not accepting it. If you are interested in researching this topic more, philosopher of history C.B. McCullagh beautifully elucidates how explanations work in history in Justifying Historical Descriptions.

The second flaw in the hypothesis can be understood through a challenge. I submit to Mr. Tsoukalos that "there is an alien in my garage" and dare him to disprove this statement. If he were to walk to my garage and open the door, he would point of there is no alien. I would respond by saying that "the alien is invisible." Next he would try to feel it. I would allege that the alien is incorporeal. Finally, he would say "lets try to detect its body heat." I would state that the alien has on a shield that emits no heat.

Much like the alien in my garage, the AAH can always add ad hoc (auxiliary) assumptions to avoid being proved wrong. For example, a retired construction worker named Wally Wallington has single-handedly built a Stonehenge replica in his backyard (link here). What makes this interesting is that Mr. Wallington used nothing but very simple tools that would have been available at the time of the Celts. This shows that one can move and erect very heavy stones without the assistance of ancient aliens.

Do proponents of the AAH take this as evidence that their hypothesis is wrong? Of course not. Like my garage dwelling alien, the AAH can be insulated through tacking on auxiliary assumptions. The aliens proponent will respond to Mr. Wallington's Stonehenge by saying "OK, well how about this other giant thing?" or "well, the aliens helped them do the step before that." The problem with this strategy is that prevents the AAH from being testable in any meaningful way. Since this sensitivity to testing is one of the core characteristics of science, the AAH falls into the same pit of bunk as creationism and Freudian psychology.

The AAH proponent may respond to my charges by saying "that does not conclusively disprove that there was no ancient aliens. It is still possible." I agree with this statement. Despite being a bad explanation and that suffers from being untestable, it is still possible that there were ancient aliens. This response, however, misses the point. Science does not seek to know that is merely possible. This is because everything that is not logically impossible is possible. This includes the possibility that hyper-dimensional beings are living inside your butt and that there is an actual, undetectable alien living in my garage.

Instead, science wants to know what ideas and explanations are the most probable. This is how science came to embrace its most important ideas, like evolution, the periodic table, and thermodynamics, and reject things like astrology and Tarot cards. It is also how any cogent form of inductive reasoning works and how we judge events at our college and jobs. If the AAH wants to be taken seriously, it must conform to these standards because they are the most successful ones we have.

If you would like to know more about the AAH and many other ideas, I highly recommend Guy P Harrison's 50 Popular Believes that People Think are True. This book is very fun to read and contains lots of recommendations about further resources.

Friday, December 21, 2012

46 Failed Doomsday Predictions

As I am posting this entry, the date is December 21, 2012. This is noteworthy because this date was predicted by many people to be the end of the world. Since I am still alive, however, I thought I would create an entry that catalogs many failed doomsday predictions. The next time your friend claims that the world is going to end because some ancient tradition a geocities website says so, point them here. 

It should be noted that these are not my words. Aside from numbers 45 and 46, the following dates are taken word-for-word from James Randi's An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural (some are slightly condensed though). If you want to read more fascinating entries about related topics, I recommend purchasing Mr. Randi's book. 
  1. B.C.-A.D. According to the New Testament, The End should have occurred before the death of the last Apostle. In Matthew 16:28, it says: Verily, I say unto you, there be some standing here which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.
  2. A.D. 992 In the year 960, scholar Bernard of Thuringia caused great alarm in Europe when he confidently announced that his calculations gave the world only thirty-two more years before The End.
  3. December 31, A.D. 999 The biblical Apocrypha says that the Last Judgment (and therefore, one supposes, the end of the world) would occur one thousand years after the birth of Jesus Christ.
  4. A.D. 1033 Theorists pressed to explain the A.D. 999 bust decided that the 1,000 years should have been figured from the death of Christ rather than from his birth. Bust number two followed.
  5. September 1186 An astrologer known as John of Toledo in 1179 circulated pamphlets advertising the world's end when all the (known) planets were in Libra. (If the sun was included in this requirement, this should have occurred on September 23 at 16:15 GMT, or at that same hour on October 3 in the new calendar.) In Constantinople, the Byzantine Emperor walled up his windows, and in England the Archbishop of Canterbury called for a day of atonement. Though the alignment of planets took place, The End did not.
  6. A.D. 1260 Joaquim of Flore worked out a splendid calculation that definitely pinpointed A.D. 1260 as The Date. Joaquim had a bent pin.
  7. February 1, 1524 This was one of the most pervasive Doomsday-by-Flood expectations ever recorded. In June of 1523, astrologers in London predicted that The End would begin in London with a deluge. Some 20,000 persons left their homes, and the Prior of St. Bartholomew's built a fortress in which he stocked enough food and water for a two-month wait. When the dreaded date failed to provide even a rain shower in a city where precipitation is very much to be expected, the astrologers recalculated and discovered they'd been a mere one hundred years off. (On the same day in 1624, astrologers were again disappointed to discover that they were still dry and alive.)
  8. 1532. A bishop of Vienna, Frederick Nausea, decided a major disaster was "near" when various strange events were reported to him. He was told that bloody crosses had been seen in the skies along with a comet, that black bread had fallen from midair, and that three suns and a flaming castle had been discerned in the heavens. The story of an eight-year-old girl of Rome whose breasts, he was told, spouted warm water, finally convinced this scholar that the world was due to end, and he so declared to the faithful.
  9. October 3, 1533, at Eight A.M. Mathematician and Bible student Michael Stifel (known as Stifelius) had calculated an exact date and time for Doomsday from scholarly perusal of the Book of Revelation. When they did not vaporize, the curiously ungrateful citizens of the German town of Lochau, where Stifel had announced the dreaded day, rewarded him with a thorough flogging. He also lost his ecclesiastical living as a result of his prophetic failure.
  10. 1533 Anabaptist Melchior Hoffmann announced in Strasbourg, France, a city which had been chosen by him as the New Jerusalem, that the world would be consumed by flames in 1533. He believed that in New Jerusalem exactly 144,000 persons would live on while two characters named Enoch and Elias would blast flames from their mouths over the rest of the world. The rich and pious who hoped to be included in that number saved destroyed their rent records, forgave their debtors, and gave away their money and goods to the poor. How those commodities were to be used among the flames was not explained, nor did anyone point out that such sacrifices so near The End were hardly meritorious.
  11. 1537 (And also in 1544, 1801, and 1814) In Dijon, France, a list of prophecies by astrologer Pierre Turrel was published posthumously. His predictions of The End were spread over a period of 277 years, but all were fortunately wrong. He had used four different methods of computation to arrive at the four dates, while assuring his readers that he had strictly orthodox religious beliefs——a very wise move in his day.
  12. 1544 See 1537.
  13. 1572 In Britain, a total solar eclipse and a few impressive novas seemed to signal something important. Considerable panic ensued, to no avail.
  14. 1584 Astrologer Cyprian Leowitz, who had the distinction in 1559 of being included in the official Index of prohibited writers by Pope Paul IV, predicted the end of the world for 1584. Taking no chances, however, he then issued a set of astronomical tables covering celestial events all the way to the year 1614, in the unlikely event that the world would survive. It did.
  15. 1588 The sage Regiomontanus (Johann Müller, 1436-1476), posthumously a victim of enthusiastic crackpots who delighted in attributing occult and magical powers to him, was said to have predicted The End for the year 1588 in an obscure quatrain, but in 1587 Norfolk physician John Harvey reassured his readers that the calculations ascribed to the master were faulty, and the resulting prophecy false. Harvey was right.
  16. 1624 See 1524.
  17. 1648 Rabbi Sabbati Zevi, in Smyrna, interpreted the kabala to show that he was the promised Messiah and that his advent, accompanied by spectacular miracles, was due in 1648. By 1665, regardless of the failure of the wonders to appear, Zevi had a huge following, and his date was now changed to 1666. Citizens of Smyrna abandoned their work and prepared to return to Jerusalem, all on the strength of reported miracles by Zevi. Meeting a sharp reversal when arrested by the Sultan for an attempted coup and brought in fetters to Constantinople, the new Messiah sat in prison while followers as far away as Holland, Germany and Hungary began packing up in anticipation of Armageddon. Unfortunately for these faithful, the Sultan converted the capricious Zevi to Islam, and the movement ended.
  18. 1654 Consulting his ephemeris and considering the nova of 1572, physician Helisaeus Roeslin of Alsace decided in 1578 that the world would surely terminate in flames in another seventy-six years. He did not survive to see his prophecy fail. That should have been an evil year indeed. An eclipse of the sun was predicted for August 12 (it actually occurred on the 11th) and that was also widely believed to bring about The End. Many conversions to the True Faith took place, physicians prescribed staying indoors, and the churches were filled.
  19. 1665 With the Black Plague in full force, Quaker Solomon Eccles terrorized the citizens of London yet further with his declaration that the resident pestilence was merely the beginning of The End. He was arrested and jailed when the plague began to abate rather than increasing. Eccles fled to the West Indies upon his release from prison, whereupon he once again exercised his zeal for agitation by inciting the slaves there to revolt. The Crown fetched him back home as a troublemaker, and he died shortly thereafter.
  20. 1666 See 1648.
  21. 1704 Cardinal Nicholas de Cusa, without Vatican endorsement, declared The End was to arrive in 1704.
  22. May 19, 1719 Jacques (also Jakob I) Bernoulli, the first of a famous line of Swiss mathematicians who made their home in Berne, predicted the return of the comet of 1680 and earth-rending results therefrom. The comet did not come back, perhaps for astronomical reasons, but Bernoulli went on to discover a mathematical series now called the Bernoulli Numbers. He is renowned for this and for the eight exceptional mathematicians his line produced in three generations, but not for Doomsday nor for his astronomical calculations.
  23. October 13, 1736 London was once again targeted for the "beginning of the end," this time by William Whiston. The Thames filled with waiting boatloads of citizens, but it didn't even rain. Another setback.
  24. 1757 Mystic/theologian/spiritist and supreme egocentric Emmanuel Swedenborg, ever willing to be a center of attention for one reason or another, decided after one of his frequent consultations with angels that 1757 was the terminating date of the world. To his chagrin, he was not taken too seriously by anyone, including the angels.
  25. April 5, 1761 When religious fanatic and soldier William Bell noticed that exactly twenty-eight days had elapsed between a February 8 and a March 8 earthquake in 1761, he naturally concluded that the entire world would crumble in another twenty-eight days, that is, on April 5th. Most suggested that the date should have been four days earlier, in tune with the probability, but many credulous Londoners believed him and snapped up every available boat, taking to the Thames or scurrying out of town as if those actions would save them. History records nothing more of Bell after April 6, when he was tossed into London's madhouse, Bedlam, by a disappointed public.
  26. 1774 English sect leader Joanna Southcott (1750-1814) had the notion that she was pregnant with the New Messiah, whom she proposed to name Shiloh. History records that her pregnancy "came to nothing," nor did the world end as she had prophesied. She left behind a box of mystical notes that were to be opened only after her death with twenty-four bishops present. Perhaps because of a failure to interest that many ecclesiastics of high rank to attend the occasion, the box was not opened and vanished somewhere. She was succeeded by several minor would-be prophets, all of whom tried other End-of-the-World predictions, with the same result. One successor, John Turner, we will meet up ahead.
  27. 1801 Astrologer Pierre Turrel (see 1537) chose this date, along with three others, for The End. His first two had already failed by this time. Again, no luck.
  28. 1814 Astrologer Pierre Turrel (remember him?) chose this last date for The End. His three others had already failed, and, again no luck! As author Charles Mackay wryly noted, "the world wagged as merrily as before."
  29. October 14, 1820 Prophet John Turner was leader of the Southcottian movement in Bradford, England. The specialty of this sect was End-of-the-World prophecies, the first one having been made by the founder of the group, Joanna Southcott, whom we have already met back in 1774. His failed prediction turned his congregation against him, and John Wroe (see 1977, up ahead) took over the movement.
  30. April 3, 1843 (And also July 7, 1843, March 21 and October 22, 1844) William Miller, founder of the Millerite church, spent fifteen years in careful study of the scriptures and determined that the world would conclude sometime in 1843. He announced this discovery of what he called "the midnight cry" in 1831. When there was a spectacular meteor shower in 1833, it seemed to his followers that his prediction was close to being fulfilled, and they celebrated their imminent demise. Then, as each date he named failed to produce Armageddon, Miller moved it up a bit. The faithful continued to gather by the thousands on hilltops all over America each time one of the new dates would dawn. Finally, on October 22, 1844, the last day that Miller had calculated for The End, the Millerites relaxed their vigils. Five years later, Miller died, still revered and not at all concerned at his failed prophecies. The movement eventually changed its name and broke up into a number of modern-day churches, among them the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which today has over three million members.
  31. 1874 A date calculated by Charles Taze Russell of the Jehovah's Witnesses (which see) for The End.
  32. 1881 Those who delighted in measuring the various passages of the Great Pyramid of Giza, presumed to be the tomb of Cheops, calculated that all would be over in 1881. Careful remeasuring and some imagination gave a better (but not much better) date of 1936. That was improved upon by other students who decided upon 1953 as the terminal year. Further refinements and improvements of technique are still being made. If we get a new date, we'll let you know.
  33. 1881 Mother Shipton is supposed to have written: The world to an end will come in eighteen hundred and eighty-one. The prediction, as well as the rhyme, are faulted. A book titled, The Life and Death of Mother Shipton, written in 1684 by Richard Head, was reprinted in a garbled and freely "improved" version in 1862 by Charles Hindley. In 1873 Hindley admitted having forged that rhyme and many others, but his confession caused no lessening of the great alarm in rural England when 1881 arrived.The world not having ended in that year, the above spurious verse has since been published in a refreshed version which substitutes "nineteen" for "eighteen" and "ninety" for "eighty." The world, according to most authorities, did not end then, either.
  34. 1936 One set of Great Pyramid measurers came up with this date.
  35. 1914 One of three dates the Jehovah's Witnesses promised The End. The others were 1874 and 1975.
  36. 1947 In 1889, "America's Greatest Prophet," John Ballou Newbrough, said that for sure in 1947: all the present governments, religions and all monied monopolies are to be overthrown and go out of existence. . . . Our present form of so-called Christian religion will overrun America, tear down the American flag, and trample it underfoot. In Europe the disaster will be even more terrible. . . . Hundreds of thousands of people will be killed. . . . All nations will be demolished and the earth be thrown open to all people to go and come as they please. It wasn't a great year, but it wasn't all that bad.
  37. 1953 Again, a group of Great Pyramid nuts with their tape-measures figured out this year as the last. Back to the King's Chamber, guys.
  38. 1974 Interestingly enough, the conjunction of heavenly bodies that occurred back in 1524 was far, far more powerful than the more recent one described in a silly book titled The Jupiter Effect, written by two otherwise sensible astronomers who, in 1974, predicted dreadful effects on our planet as a result of a March 10, 1982, "alignment" of planets. Other astronomers denied that any effect would be felt, and when the date came and went, as you may have noticed, no one noticed. One of the authors reported that some earthquakes which had occurred in 1980 had been the "premature result of The Jupiter Effect," and the public yawned in amazement.
  39. 1975 One of the several dates promised by the Jehovah's Witnesses as The Date. Wrong.
  40. 1977 John Wroe, who is described by the kindliest historian we can find as a "foul-mouthed, ugly, dirty lecher," in 1823 inherited the leadership of the Southcottian sect in England when an End-of-the-World prophecy by John Turner failed. Learning from the example, Wroe took no chances. He made his Armageddon prophecy for 1977. A 1971 book, Prophets Without Honor, says of Wroe: At a time when thermo-nuclear powers face each other across the Iron and Bamboo Curtains, it is well to remember that——as far as can be judged from the scanty records——John Wroe, indeed, was a true prophet!
  41. 1980 A very old Arabic astrological presage of doom specified that when the planets Saturn and Jupiter would be in conjunction in the sign Libra at 9 degrees, 29 minutes of that sign, we could kiss a big bye-bye to everything——camels, sand, mosques, the whole bag. That astronomical configuration almost took place at midnight of December 31 (new calendar), 1980, a date calculated by astrologers many years ago as the one spoken of. Jupiter was at 9 degrees, 24 minutes, and Saturn was at 9 degrees, 42 minutes, so the calculation was close to correct. However, nary a camel blinked an eye.
  42. 1980s The unsinkable Jeane Dixon, ever optimistic and daring, predicted in 1970 that a comet would strike the earth in the "mid-80's" at a place that she knew, but did not deign to tell. That information was to be held until a "future date." Perhaps she is now prepared to tell us? She said of this event that it "may well become known as one of the worst disasters of the 20th century." But then Jeane also said that, "I feel it will surely be in the 1980's that [an un-named person] will become the first woman president in the United States." Back to that ephemeris, Jeane.
  43. 1996 It has been reasoned by biblical scholars that since one day with God equals one thousand years for Man, and that God labored at the creation of the universe for six days, Man should labor for six thousand years and then take a rest. Thus, using other scripturally derived numbers, the world should end sometime in 1996. It didn't.
  44. July 1999 In Quatrain X-72, Nostradamus declared: The year 1999, seven months, From the sky will come a great King of Terror: To bring back to life the great King of the Mongols, Before and after Mars to reign by good luck.
  45. May 21, 2011 American preacher Harold camping predicted that Jesus would come back on this day and the apocalypse would begin. Despite sounding crazy, he convinced many of his followers to sell all of their possessions, quit their jobs, and to donate their life saving to his group. Camping later admitted that this date was incorrect and he had been wrong. 
  46. December 21, 2012 Members of the New Age movement interpreted the end of the Mayan Long Count Calendar to indicated the end of the world. This end was postulated to come through many different mechanisms, including solar flares and a mysterious planet X. It should be noted that Mayan scholars argued that these predictions were a brutal misinterpretation of the Mayan calendar.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

What do skeptics believe in?

When my fellow skeptics or I interact with believers, we are almost always asked the question: “Well if you do not believe in x, what do you value or believe in?” For some reason, people assume our answer will be: “Nothing. I do not appreciate anything or believe that there is anything interesting left to say about life.”  Since this stereotype is as popular as it is inaccurate, I decided to outline my own response in this post.  If you are a skeptic and also have a blog, I recommend you take the time out of your day to sketch out your own response.

I believe in the negative value of philosophy.
While philosophy may not give us knowledge, it provides plenty of wisdom.  This wisdom helps us realize how worthless many popular fetishes and activities really are.  This realization comes about through philosophy’s insistence that we need to think deeply about things like God, free-will, and right and wrong.  Since contemporary culture consists almost entirely of quick and shallow answers, philosophy’s contrary way of thinking helps us see through its vanities quite easily.

After fetishes like reality TV shows, celebrity gossip, chain restaurants, and New Age self-help nonsense are all cleared away, we can prioritize those things that are left.  Since I started doing this, I have accomplished things ranging from learning how to cook better to studying abroad in Russia for a semester.  I have also read a book a week (on average) for over ten years.  You would be surprised what you can do in the extra time you have from not watching so much television.

The “negative” value of philosophy will become even more important in the United States (and the world for that matter) as its population becomes increasingly nonreligious.  Philosopher Richard Taylor outlined this need in his book, Metaphysics.

When religion can make no headway, in the mind of the skeptic, ideology came sometimes offer some sort of satisfaction to much the same need.  Thus many persons spend their lives in a sandcastle, a daydream, in which every answer to every metaphysical question decorates its many mansions.  The whole thing is the creation of their brains, or even worse, of their needs—it is an empty dream, for nothing has been created except illusions (Taylor, 5).  

These beliefs, such as New Age philosophies and reality TV shows, are just as shallow as the traditional beliefs systems they are replacing. Like Richard Taylor, I believe this becomes apparent when we study philosophy.  

quotes by Socrates
Since Socrates, philosophy has been about tearing down destructive aspects of Western culture.

I believe that the cosmos is wonderful without making stuff up about it.
Since I was a child, stars and planets have filled my imagination. I had posters of the planets all over my walls and read encyclopedias to learn everything I could about space. The beauty and size of the cosmos blew my young mind and induced a feeling of great awe. Since this time, I have never had these feelings replicated by anything else.

Despite what many New Age'rs and creationists think, understanding the science which underlies the workings of the universe does not undermine my cosmic awe. On the contrary! Science lead me to the profound truth that we are all connected “to each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.”

This shows that one does not need to turn to astrology or our tarot cards to feel the majesty of the universe. In fact, celestial courts are quite tame in comparison to the true wonders of space. The beauty and power of pulsars and quasars is wilder than anything dreamed up by an ancient soothsayer.  Like other space geeks, I’m rocked to my very core by the images and data retrieved by the Hubble telescope. Its images put any man made piece of art to shame. 

I believe if this sort of information was available in the past, almost all great works of art would be popularizations of science. Can you imagine a universe where Leonardo Da Vinci would have seen these pictures? I think he would have given up his other works and spent the rest of his days working on telescopes, painting palace ceilings with black holes and galaxies, and running the first ever Florence Astronomical Society.

I believe that critical thinking can be learned
When I was a teenager, I believed in all sorts of weird things. This stemmed from me never going past surface level depth in traditional religion. Unlike many Americans, I was never taught the Bible or theology, but a moot Christianity. In 8th grade, I began exploring the marketplace of ideas. For a while, I was what could have been described as a New Age'r. I routinely visited pagan chat rooms and read material on occult.

As I grew older, my education began to get in the way of my belief in weird things. In particularly, reading Michael Shermer. By 2008, I could no longer separate the way I thought in oceanography and symbolic logic from my everyday thinking.  Critical thinking had infected my mental faculties, which induced my first real intellectual crisis.  This soon changed as I started to explore skepticism through the internet.  I came to love the works of James Randi and other skeptics.

The way they used logic and scientific thinking to explain psychics, UFO’s, and big foot struck me as a potent way of viewing the world.  By applying these logical and scientific rules of thumb, I started to notice the nonsense on tv almost immediately. Things like political and pseudo-scientific scams became transparent and I no longer fell under their sway.  I officially began to forsake comforting fantasy for clear thinking and reality.

Despite the alarming beliefs of most Americans, I believe that critical thinking can be taught. I and the countless other members of the skeptic movement are proof.  Our demand for belief has greatly enhanced our lives. Clear thinking gave me and other skeptics a greater appreciation of reality. As Carl Sagan once said, “it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”

Concluding thoughts:
In conclusion, I and many other skeptics believe a lot of things, such as the value of philosophy, the beauty of the cosmos, and that critical thinking can be learned.  If you want to know what else I believe, I recommend you read through the other posts on this blog or read through Carl Sagan’s classic, Demon Haunted World.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Excellent skeptical documentary

The Enemies of Reason is a 2007 skeptical documentary that was hosted by Richard Dawkins and produced by the BBC. It covers many anti-scientific and pseudoscientific beliefs like homeopathy, astrology, spiritualism, dowsing, and postmodernism. If you are looking for a way to get your friends into skepticism, this documentary is fun to watch and highly informative.