Posts Tagged ‘skepticism’

Coming back to basics again, we had our previous posts on how to find knowledge through intuition, rationalism, and observation.

Nice follow-up thoughts from Filipino Free Thinkers on rationalization and skepticism:

In rationalization, the belief which was “originally arrived at through a different mental process” comes first and then rational arguments are later formed to support this belief. But as for rationality, the data comes first and analysis comes second before reaching a conclusion – if it even comes to that. And here I am reminded of a brief introduction to skepticism.

Freethought is more related to skepticism than atheism or agnosticism. Along with skepticism, freethought is a method, a way of thinking and forming beliefs; atheism and agnosticism, on the other hand, are more like the “positions” at which the freethinker or skeptic arrives.

But to people whose present beliefs are still those formed long before they were capable of rational thought, it is amazing to see how they try to rationalize now in the absence of solid evidence. They start off with a position based on religious doctrine and try to use rational arguments to back up such position. This is very hard to do considering they are performing the scientific method backwards, and I cannot help but admire the ingenuity of those who were able to keep their claims from being falsified outright. Of course, they could not prove their claims, but for one who has no real evidence, a technical stalemate is already a great achievement.

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“Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless handheld”

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An avid duck hunter was in the market for a new bird dog. His search ended when he found a dog that could actually walk on water to retrieve a duck.

Shocked by his find, he was sure none of his friends would believe him.

He decided to try to break the news to his most skeptical friend, inviting him to hunt with him and his new dog. As they waited by the shore, a flock of ducks flew by; they fired, and a duck fell.

The dog responded. It did not sink, but instead walked across the water to retrieve the bird, never getting more than his paws wet.

The friend saw everything but did not say a single word.

On the drive home the hunter finally broke the silence, asking, “Well, what do you think of my new dog?”

The other guy was quiet for a moment, then said, “Can’t swim, huh?”

The closed-minded man misses the obvious.

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Inspirational soup for aspiring critical thinkers:

Bill Maher: What is so hard about saying the words: I DON’T KNOW?

Karen Armstrong: Belief… [is] self-indulgent guesswork about matters nobody can be certain of one way or the other but what makes people quarrelsome and stupidly sectarian.

George Carlin: Bullshit is the glue… that binds us as a nation. But we believe them because they’re pounded into our heads from the time we’re children.

David Attenborough: Explanation[s] of how we came into the world… they can’t all be right, some of them [have] to be wrong… so which are right? In face of such conflict, why don’t we look at the world around us? This evidence is the same everywhere.

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Taleb has taught us that history can lead to probabilistic fallacies since it is only one possible path events could have taken, which necessitates a practical skepticism on our part on the appreciation of historical events. Although this can be enough to make us critical of historical assumptions, I think it is only a partial framework in evaluating ideas.

Thankfully, K.M. gives us a complimentary angle which can help us in our critical thinking: on evaluating an ideal from a moral or philosophical standpoint apart from a historical (i.e. empirical) one–which we already know from Taleb is only a partial insight.

K.M. differentiates between political ideals and political systems, and which of the two can be approached from a philosophical or moral standpoint and which can be approached from the (imperfect) historical one:

political ideal is a moral ideal, not an economic one. A political system is an economic/organisational structure that attempts to realize political ideals. A political ideal of economic equality leads to a political system of communism (example: The Soviet Union). A political ideal of ‘equality of opportunity’ or ’social justice’ leads to a political system of socialism (example: India until the 90s). A political ideal of national superiority leads to a political system of fascism (example: China). A political ideal of liberty leads to a political system of capitalism (example: the early USA).

There is no such thing as the success or failure of a political ideal.Ideals do not succeed or fail. They are accepted or rejected. While the failure of a political system might cause some people to reject (or at least question) their ideals, the failure does not prove that the ideals are wrong. As long as one still holds the same ideals, the failure of a particular political system is simply useful empirical data for constructing a better political system.

For me the implications of this insight bolster the argument for an active, rather than passive appreciation of knowledge. People whom Taleb calls naive empiricists: will simply rely on evidence and history to allow them to discern the value of an idea in practice, and leaving the theory or philosophy behind the practice neglected (a sign of intellectual laziness). What K.M. explains is that despite a concept’s failure or success in history (i.e. the system), it still is separate from the philosophical or moral value of the idea–which still bears critique. Although as he says, ideals can never be wrong but they can be rejected.

There is another angle here that bears caution: the invention of the computer and internet has brought more data and evidence at the access of more people than ever experienced in history. So while this can help critical thinking in finding historical empirical support for ideas, this can also lead to the “sharpshooter fallacy” which we described earlier–where an observer simply looks at history and ignores the theoretical framework of any concept.

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In 1990, the Voyager 1 spacecraft completed its primary mission, having completed its Saturn fly-by. One of the last instructions sent to the spacecraft by NASA was for it to take photographs of all the planets in the Solar System from its present position.

One photo–that of the Earth from approximately 4 billion miles away, has become one of the most popular photographs in our times. On the grainy image, the Earth barely appears as an insigificant blue dot–a indicator of our place in the vast universe and the fragility of the totality of human experience.

Many videos have since been published to honor the photograph. I’ve selected the two videos below to give a better appreciation of the photo. The first is a finalist at the Portobello Film festival in London, and the Concorto Film festival in Italy 2007. It ends with a quote from Sagan about the importance of maintaining a skeptical mindset, which is very appropriate for this blog. The second video below features an actual speech from Carl Sagan on his thoughts about the Pale Blue Dot.

A transcript of Sagan’s speech from wikipedia: (read in the second video above): (more…)

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In 1996, Carl Sagan was interviewed on the Charlie Rose Show where he warned about the dangers of being ignorant of science in an age when society is practically based on science and technology. When the general public is ignorant of science, who makes the decisions on science and technology?

Sagan also describes the proliferation of psuedo-science (e.g. UFOs), superstition, and literal interpretations under religion as problematic to society. He encourages skepticism as a way forward both to accumulate knowledge, and as a way to keep society from self-destructing.


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In one of his last public addresses, astronomer Carl Sagan discusses how his wonder about the universe was awakened by the stars and the sun. He continues on issues regarding Science, superstition, religion, faith, education, skepticism, and Humanism.

Sagan describes how science rewards those who disprove ideas, which is the ideological opposite in politics, religion and other social constructs: which reward those who reassure or reinforce existing ideas–which is the fundamental reason why science has progressed so much, while other social constructs have stagnated.

He speaks of the internal corrective mechanism in science: that all scientists acknowledge fallibility of ideas. He says: “be willing to surrender your ideas” meaning criticism and critical thinking is at the core of science.

He also talks about the dangers of pseudo-science, which has a tendency to crowd out genuine science in the popular imagination.

Further parts follow: (more…)

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Dr. Tim Keller is a noted pastor and author and he speaks about the place of belief in God in an age of skepticism and idea of an exclusive truth in a pluralistic society.

He reacts to the notion that exclusivity, say in organized religion–is divisive in a democratic society and possibly leads to conflict. He talks about how to justify faith and exclusive beliefs in a democratic society.

Dr. Keller talks in the Veritas Forum at University of California, Berkeley.

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Michael Shermer sets up scenarios to challenge and measure Vedic Astrologer Jeffrey Armstrong’s ability to read people. Although by no means exhaustive, the results are very interesting.

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Michael Shermer discusses Carl Sagan, science, pseudoscience, and the paranormal on PBS’s Charle Rose, during his book tour for Why People Believe Weird Things.

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