My Son the Skeptic

“All the idols made by man, however terrifying they may be, are in point of fact subordinate to him, and that is why he will always have it in his power to destroy them.”—Simon du Beauvoir

Aaron: why’d Achilles die the way he did?
Me: because his mother Thetis dipped him by the foot in the River Styx so he wouldn’t die young. The water made him immortal. But his ankle was not immersed so he remained vulnerable there.
Aaron: why not turn him over, dip him in the water completely and finish the job? Or switch feet and hang him by the other side?
Me: because Achilles would not have been nearly as interesting if they did that I guess.

This exchange got me thinking: all myths–whether produced by the ancient Greeks or by we moderns–never stand up to even the simplest most childlike question. Myths persist precisely because human ignorance and credulousness continue to make such fertile soil; by simply inventing answers to mysteries we are not actually increasing our knowledge but moving further away from reality. So your belief in homeopathy, acupuncture, astrology, etc. all anesthetize the intellect making one a slave to both mindless abeyance and absurdity.

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Let’s Go to the Banca

If you need money then go to the “banca.” In the 14th century, when capitalism was emerging through the work of a growing class of merchant bankers in Italy, these bankers exchanged money at the “river bank” where they met traveling merchants to exchange currency. Hence, the name “bank” is a reflection of a centuries old Italian “riverbank” financial exchange. We are surrounded by words, ideas and concepts whose origins have passed into memory and then into complete obscurity; we presume they’ve always existed in their current form (a form we’ve inherited) giving our worldview an unjustified veneer of sophistication, meaning and purpose.

This is one of the reasons why knowledge and literacy are so important: knowledge increases a person’s awareness of where things come from (increasing the possibility of change and improvement) while literacy provides a person with the means to continue unlearning the nonsense their well-intentioned parents, teachers and parent culture taught them.

If You Seek Wisdom Drop Your Opinions

The Buddha observed that if you seek wisdom you should drop your opinions. Experience has taught me an additional truth: if you seek wisdom develop your capacity to empathize, perceive and see issues from someone else’s point of view. Specifically, just because an idea or issue isn’t important to you (or doesn’t affect you directly) this doesn’t mean that that idea isn’t worthy of consideration or that the issue isn’t important in principle.

Too many of us, without even realizing it, think and operate from a narrow position of egocentrism or self-interest; we think we’re informed, and we hold strong opinions, but–instead of seeing the 1s and 0s that make-up reality like Neo from The Matrix–we are ultimately just making things up as we go along. We are being arbitrary. This kind of thinking follows the formula: if I don’t personally approve of X, or if I don’t like X, I appeal to a combination of my dislike, and fundamental ignorance, as a sort of evidence in support of my opinion on X. The problem, though, is your like or dislike has absolutely nothing to do with anything whatsoever.

I’ll explain.

I make mistakes in reasoning all of the time. I know for a fact I reach conclusions without having all the necessary information or without taking time for proper consideration. So why, I wonder, should I ever hold an opinion or view so strongly I am unwilling to change my mind? Moreover, should my experience ever be the standard by which everything else and everyone else is measured? I’m thinking, no.  I understand people are going to form opinions (that’s inevitable). Yet, isn’t it possible to form more thoughtful, nuanced, and principled opinions? I think so. But we must practice more empathy and more humility. We have to drop some of our opinions.

Former American Vice-President Dick Cheney was an outspoken opponent of the LGBTQ community for decades. Then, suddenly, he changed his mind…when his daughter came out as a lesbian. Now he supports gay rights. Gay rights are human rights. Women’s rights are human rights. The rights of people of color are human rights. Rights don’t just belong to my tribe. Cheney should’ve supported gay people, not because his daughter is gay (and he is now personally affected), but because reasonable people should seek to operate from a consistent set of principles and beliefs. If you do otherwise, you are just making stuff up as you go and living incoherently (worse still you’re imposing your incoherence on others).

 

According to the Buddha, when we form opinions we are creating not discovering reality. We construct a narrative that both makes sense to us personally and which agrees with whatever political culture we just so happen to belong to by the accident of our birth. Arguably, we need to create meaning; doing so helps us navigate and make sense of the world; nevertheless, in the process of creating meaning we would do well to avoid becoming a sort Dr. Frankenstein giving life to a monster (an opinion) reflecting our vanity on to an unwitting world; rather, we have a certain ethical responsibility to ourselves and others to think and contemplate well; and, if you can, give life to opinions reflecting principles that are self-evidently true rather than to ones satisfying the need to win arguments or mock others. In the end, there’s more that links us than separates. Perhaps if we forget some of the things we were taught, or that we’ve taught ourselves, we can in principle work towards building better and happier communities.

My Credo

I personally identify as a book reading liberal in the 18th century sense of the word: I like my church and state separate; I prefer constitutions to kings and dictators; I favor the notion of morality not being dictated to me by some infallible priest. I also accept, without any qualification whatsoever, that I have a civic and ethical responsibility to respect my fellow citizens, their life choices, and to preserve a society which embraces diversity. I view social change as a good and not as some sort of disease to be eradicated. I also really, really like watermelon, chocolate, bananas, peanut butter, and music.

Elections 101: Russian Lambs & Political Theatre

1). The popularity of a Russian leader, historically speaking, increases proportionately in relation to how much that leader is disliked or criticized by the international community. Their popularity increases the most when their country is at war or invaded.
 
2). Said Russian leader assassinated very publicly a former Russian spy in the UK using a nerve agent that intelligence services in Britain would certainly trace back to the Kremlin. Putin wants everyone to know it was him who ordered the attack.
 
(Putin has publicly killed his enemies for the sake of consolidating his domestic strength on three occasions, e.g. the most recent attack in the UK, the use of Polonium against Litvinenko, and the shooting of Boris Nemstov (an outspoken Putin critic) on the steps of the Kremlin. The numbers go up considerably when we include all of the journalists he’s killing in his country.)
 
3). International community predictably plays its part in the narrative by reacting with outrage. Russian citizens circle their wagons around the puppet master and defend Putin.
 
4). Putin wins election in two days by landslide as the populist leader and defender of the mother country.
 
5). Democracy in Russia continues not to exist for at least another 4-5 years. Minorities in that country continue to suffer and we get to continue on with the Cold War 2.0 and a suicidal arms race preparing for a third world war no one can actually win.

The Problem with Deduction

Scholastics were medieval theologians and philosophers who focused their efforts on protecting the teachings of the Catholic Church from being challenged and replaced. They never tested anything empirically.[1] Instead, scholastics emphasized the importance of “revealed truth” in figuring out what was right from what was wrong. This means they relied on God Himself to talk to them and reveal truth to them. The problem with relying on revelation was determining whether God was actually talking to you or you were simply talking to yourself. There was no way to scientifically test where the voice (and ideas) were coming from; it was, after all, quite possible scholastics were just convincing themselves God was inspiring them. Ultimately, scholastics had one purpose—to defend Church teachings from challenges by freedom seeking kings, questioning scientists and troublesome philosophers.

Scholastics relied on not only their inner voice but also the use of logic and deduction. [2] Deduction is a powerful tool because you can use it to create a big idea from little information. For example, in the 20th century we finally had telescopes powerful enough to look outside of our galaxy. A Catholic priest named Georges Lemaître (1894-1966 CE) was the first to notice galaxies were either tinted blue or red. Thus, he deduced light was cast from these galaxies like sound traveling from a car to a person standing still (as in the Doppler Effect). When a car approaches a person standing still the sound is low but when the car passes by the pitch becomes higher. Light, Lemaître deduced, must also change when it is traveling towards and away from us, i.e. if a galaxy was “blue-shifted” it was flying away from the Milky Way but if it was “red-shifted” then that galaxy was flying towards us. Deduction, as illustrated in the example above, can be quite a powerful tool; however, it is not without its problems.

Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 CE) was an important scholastic and theologian who was responsible for creating something fancy called the “ontological argument” for the existence of God. The word ontology has Greek roots and is roughly equivalent to the English word necessity. Anselm deduced that it was necessary God exist. He reasoned that he could picture the most perfect and powerful being in his mind. The only way this was possible was if God actually existed (because, Anselm argued, the concept of a God had to point to the object God). In other words, it was necessary God exist because otherwise a concept of this being would not be possible. The problem with Anselm’s argument is it is easily disproven. Another thinker came along about 150 years later named William of Ockham (1285-1347 CE). William, like Anselm, was a theologian and worked for the Church. William, however, unlike Anselm was not made a saint by the Catholic Church. Instead, William was persecuted for doing things like absolutely disproving Anselm’s proof for the existence God. Specifically, William reasoned he could conceive in his mind of the most perfect and powerful unicorn; however, he concluded that just because he had a concept of a unicorn in his mind this didn’t necessarily mean the unicorn actually existed; and that’s the problem with scholasticism, really: it was never based on evidence, it was based on a series of self-reinforcing assumptions about reality.

In the 17th century, the Church was successfully challenged by scientists and philosophers. Science represented a new way of looking at the world. The scholastics looked at the world spiritually; they explained the word spiritually. Scientists looked at the world materialistically and explained physical reality by appealing to laws of nature rather than to a God pulling strings behind the scenes. Scientists didn’t rely on revealed truth like scholastics; rather, they literally tested their assumptions against physical reality; it was the work of early scientists, like Galileo Galilei (1564-1642 CE) and Isaac Newton (1643-1727 CE), who nudged science in the direction of finding patterns in nature; and from these patterns they developed laws like the Law of Gravity, the Law of Planetary Motion and the Laws of Thermodynamics. The Church was also challenged by modern philosophy because philosophers like Rene Descartes (1596-1650 CE) and John Locke (1632-1704 CE) encouraged people to “doubt systematically.” When someone doubts systematically they ask a series of questions, and conduct a series of logical tests, to determine whether or not a belief is valid or if it is fallacious. The best philosophers, like Descartes and Locke, also used scientific knowledge to inform their thinking. This is because intellectuals were more focused on finding patterns in nature, patterns in human societies, etc. and from these drawing conclusions about their meaning and significance. Scholastics, on the other hand, started with the meaning and significance and then explained what they saw.

Humanist philosophers used logic and deduction, as well. However, while scholastics designed arguments simply to defend Church teachings and authority, humanists were motivated out of a genuine desired to describe and understand truth for its own sake. This doesn’t mean humanists did not believe in God; on the contrary, virtually every humanist, scientist and philosopher during the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment periods believed in God. God wasn’t in question. The Church’s doctrines, teachings and authority were; and the Catholic Church’s authority gradually grew weaker and weaker over time.

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[1] Testing something empirically means testing it by means of observation or experience rather than through theory or pure logic.

[2] When we only have a little bit of information we use deduction to work from what little we do know to create a larger picture. The problem with this approach is it requires a lot of imagination and basically no testing or experimentation. Aristotle, for example, used deduction to explain why objects “fell” downwards. He didn’t appeal to the existence of gravity but instead deduced it is in the nature of an object to “want” to fall down. The strange thing about thinkers before the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution is they believed objects actually had intentionality, e.g. magnets were explained as not being attracted due to a force called magnetism but that they had “souls” that sought one another out.