The Relationship between Science and Skepticism

Greek culture produced hundreds of often contradictory philosophies and worldviews. The sheer number of ideas produced by the Greeks made thinkers like Socrates wonder if any of it could be trusted. One philosopher argued the world was made entirely from the element water; another argued it was made from air; and still another suggested the world was composed of fire. Thinkers did not just disagree about the material that made up the world; they disagreed about things like justice, the ideal society, the role of the gods, love, art, and the meaning of life.

There was a tendency in these early Greek thinkers to emphasize the importance of conclusions as opposed to questions. If you start at the conclusion, without properly testing it first (by asking questions), you risk ending up believing something that isn’t real is real.

For this reason a new type of thinker called a skeptic emerged emphasizing the importance of asking questions and possessing a questioning attitude. Skepticism is a powerful tool of discernment (understanding): skeptics do not go into a problem thinking they already have all the answers. Instead, are humble and keenly aware of how hard it is to truly figure out what is happening when they are studying a problem.

For example, the Greek poet Hesiod asserted things like crops failed or disease broke out because it was the will of the gods. However, skeptics like Thales of Miletus  rejected supernatural explanations in favor of a more scientific approach. When we are practicing science we are not interested in who created the world but what the universe is made of; scientists are not interested not in the assume purpose of a thing but how that thing came into existence. Scientists explain the world in terms of forces like gravity, friction, heat, momentum, etc. and not in terms of the will of divine beings (who may or may not even exist in the first place).

The change of emphasis—moving from who (gods) to what (matter)—contributed to the eventual emergence of skepticism in the Greek world and beyond. The reality is no one had ever actually seen the gods; these divine beings had simply been posited (thought) into existence. Socrates, one of history’s more noteworthy skeptics, argued it made no sense to try to have knowledge about the gods when one did not first understand oneself. The gods, if they even existed, were fundamentally unknowable. Therefore, it was justifiable to have not only doubts about their existence but also their alleged activity on the earth. The physical world, on the other hand, was right in front of us there to be examined and could be induced (encouraged) through tests to give up her secrets.

Skepticism is at root an intellectual position: skeptics possess a questioning attitude; they do not think absolute 100% certainty is possible; they use reason and critical thinking and practice systematic doubt. Systematic doubt is a process where the skeptic asks questions and tests claims systematically. For example, if a belief or claim cannot stand on its own merits or stand up to systematic study (be proven true or false through the scientific method) then that belief or claim is considered untrustworthy and abandoned. This does not mean skeptics do not believe in anything. On the contrary, skeptics believe in all sorts of things; however, what they choose to believe reflects humanity’s intellectual limitations. The skeptic acknowledges that all knowledge at some level is uncertain (even our best tested and proven scientific theories).

Skepticism made its first appearance in the fertile culture of the ancient Greeks. The Greeks developed elaborate philosophical systems and ideas around topics like religion and branches of philosophy like metaphysics. Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with answering questions about the fundamental nature of reality. In other words, Metaphysics deals with big abstract topics like:

  • Can something exist outside of space and time?
  • Is time real or an illusion?
  • What are the laws of Nature?
  • What is causation?
  • Do humans possess free will?
  • Is there any meaning to life?

There are two fundamental issues with metaphysics: firstly, the big questions asked are not falsifiable; secondly, metaphysics focuses on asking questions fundamentally about thought or the way people think (and since different people value or emphasize different things, experiences, etc. differently this becomes a problematic process); and finally, the answers we conjure up using metaphysics (can lead us to hasty, ill-considered conclusions which is an inherent risk of relying on induction alone).

Instead, metaphysicians answer questions through abstraction (imagination) and deduction. For example, neither Aristotle nor Plato conducted a single experiment to prove any of their theories. They used pure reason or logic to develop their theories and supporting ideas. This of course did not prevent them from developing theories about the world. For example, we can credit Aristotle (at least in part) with elaborating on the “geo-centric model” (earth-centered) of the universe; and in the case of Plato he developed his theory of forms where he believed ideas were more real than the actual physical world.

If skeptics, and scientists, did not question assumptions made about the world conjured up by thinkers like Plato or Aristotle we would still: believe sickness was caused by demons; the earth was the center of the universe, flat, and immovable; comets were signs of divine displeasure; human blood sacrifice ensured better harvests; our futures were dictated by the random placement of the stars and planets; and heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. When it comes right down to it, scientific skeptics place a great deal of stock in intellectual honesty and integrity refusing to purposely delude others or be deluded themselves.


A Debate on the Nature of Belief

A Debate on the Nature of Belief 
The medieval philosopher Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 AD) argued faith in something was evidence for the existence of the thing believed in. Anselm was a scholastic philosopher who didn’t worry about whether or not the argument was logical so much as it supported established wisdom (Church doctrine).. Once such doctrine was put forward by the Apostle Paul when he remarked in Hebrews 11: 1 that faith was “evidence in things not seen.” There is a fatal flaw affecting Anselm’s approach though: simply believing something exists does not make that thing exist any more than disbelieving in the existence of a thing makes that thing cease to exist.

Being a scholastic philosopher Anselm was not worried about anything other than preserving the Church’s authority and maintaining respect for Church teaching; therefore, he explained away the above contradiction by constructing the following supporting argument (which eventually came to be known as the Ontological Argument), e.g. we would not even have an idea or concept of “God” in our mind in the first place if this Being did not exist.

William of Ockham’s Reponse to the Ontological Argument
A century and a half after Anselm, the monk and philosopher William of Ockham (1287-1347 CE) refuted the Ontological Argument (also known as the “argument from necessity”).

First off, it should be noted William of Ockham (1079-1142 CE) was not an atheist. He shared a lot in common with the famed medieval thinker Peter Abelard: a person should not place unqualified faith in the power of belief but test claims and go wherever the evidence takes you. truth (not faith or belief). William also appreciated Thales of Miletus’ (624-546 BCE) approach to learning about the world. Thales was an ancient Greek philosopher who, unlike Anselm, did not just employ reason alone, but actually conducted experiments to test whether his ideas had merit. There was a tendency in Thales’ time to invoke the  gods to explain the mysteries of the physical world. Thales did not invoke the gods. Instead he looked for material and logically consistent explanations for why things worked the way they did.

When it came to disproving Anselm’s Ontological Argument, William used a combination of logic and an appeal to experience. In the great scheme of things, the existence of God simply is not falsifiable. William therefore addressed whether or not Anselm’s argument was logically supportable by testing its plausibility.

William put forth the following counter-argument, i.e. if faith was evidence for the existence of things unseen then faith in the existence of, say, unicorns would likewise be proof of the existence of a one-horned white horse. Ockham pointed out that while faith in God supported the idea of God, it did not support the reality of God’s existence. In other words, it would be absurd to conclude that the simple idea of a unicorn was proof for a unicorn’s existence. We can quite literally conceive of a million different “things” that exist in mind only but do not exist “out there.”

Therefore, to be consistent William rejected the idea that belief in God was evidence of anything; he asserted with equal vigor that believing God did not exist also did not cause God to cease to exist. In the end, God did not depend upon a person’s belief to exist at all. Further still, God could not be postulated out of existence by simply disbelieving in Him. His existence was entirely independent of a person’s belief or lack thereof. Logically, this led William to the following conclusion: God, you, your friend, that cat over there, even that chair, etc. all exist despite of our belief and not because of it.

Yet, for William to successfully refute Anselm he had to tackle Anselm’s supporting idea, e.g. How would the idea or concept of God enter the human mind if it did not already exist in reality?

William used the following two arguments to place the ontological argument in to doubt: firstly, there is a difference between a concept and a thing. For example, an actual thing like a white horse or a single-horned goat do exist in reality. This is an indisputable fact. But there is no such thing as a horse, as defined, that has a horn.

Let’s look at another example: while short Irishmen most certainly exist, it is doubtful that if you chased one down they’d necessarily give you a pot of gold (as per a leprechaun). Yet, the concept of a leprechaun exists. But this concept is just a variation and recombination of things that do exist, e.g. pots, gold, Irish people, short people. The reason the concept–leprechauns, unicorns or God–is a lack of critical discernment on the part of the believer. We literally believe in the power of belief (and frequently do not know what we do not know).

The same logic applies to the existence of any mythological creature. Actually, every single mythological creature—even space aliens—is just a recombination of multiple animals people have first hand experience with; that is, we “copy” and then “paste” the parts of one animal on to another animal to create a new concept. For example in Thale’s time harpy’s and the Chimera were believed to be real. The concept of a harpy most certainly can exist but short of some significant cosmetic surgery a “hawk lady” is simply not possible.

harpy and chimera

In the case of aliens, just think of the way they are represented in film: they’re essentially “little green men” who just look like a weird version of us. They are believed to be uber-intelligent and logically get represented as having extra large heads and eyes. Logically speaking, why would aliens necessarily look like us? The funny thing is on the planet Earth there are stranger looking things than aliens when compared to humans. Consider how different snakes and viper fish are from one another or humans; it stands to reason then that an alien, a being from another planet millions of light years distant, is going to evolve to be at least as different as a viper fish is from a human being (if not more so, e.g. why are both aliens and humans bipedal?).

Producers of alien movies today are an analogue to the scholastics of Anselm’s time: scholastics deal with concepts but not in reality. The philosophy of humanism, which William of Ockham most certainly later influenced, gave people better tools of logical discernment and methods of testing reality.

Secondly, William argued that the creative capabilities of the human mind made people capable of imagining things in to existence that simply did not exist; that being, opinions can exist on things that do not. Therefore, a concept or idea was only evidence of a particular way a person thought about the world; it revealed little about how the actual world operates. So if you believe witches can cast spells then witches cast spells.

Again, a concept is not a “thing” in and of itself; and things do not need us to believe in them to exist. In the end, a concept is just an opinion; and the existence of opinions—or ideas—are not evidence of anything other than the existence of a thought bumping around in a person’s mind; and, again, opinions can exist on things that do not.

William of Ockham was not an atheist. He was a Catholic monk. He also wasn’t even a Renaissance writer and thinker; however, his work anticipated both the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. This is because he was one of the first scholars (in a long line including Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, and eventually, Albert Einstein) who wanted to see the world as it actually was as opposed to how it was believed to be.

The Study of History: The Medieval Model versus the Humanist Model

The enthusiasm people had for the Greeks and Romans during the Renaissance was largely because people started looking at history differently.

The way people think about the past reveals a lot about how they think about themselves. For example, medieval scholars divided history into two periods: an ancient world before the time of Christ (which was a time of darkness) and then the period after his resurrection (regarded as a time of light). We have not thought in these historical terms—times of darkness and light—for a long time. Nonetheless, up until about 1998 CE the majority of scholars still organized time by directly referencing the birth year of Jesus, e.g. Julius Caesar was assassinated om 44 BC (or 44 years before the birth of Jesus) or the Emperor Constantine died in 337 AD (337 years after birth).

In an effort to establish secular (or non-religious calendar), historians now use the acronyms BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era) instead of BC and AD. Interestingly, despite the fact Western society has not believed in the medieval view of history for centuries the BC/AD structure is still sometimes used exerting a continued and subtle influence on the way we think about history.[1]

Renaissance-era historians were humanists. Humanists were less preoccupied with religion compared to medieval writers. For this reason humanist historians formed a different model of history. Unlike their medieval counter-parts, Renaissance historians did not divide history into two but three periods:

  • The first age belonged to the ancient Greeks and Romans (it was regarded as a period light characterized by a flowering of culture and progress)
  • The second age, or middle-age, was a time of darkness or a “dark age” (humanists like Petrarch branded it as an age of cultural decadence and barbarism)
  • Humanists represented their own age as a new historical era of a special kind: a renaissance[2]—an age of light after darkness, an awakening after sleep, a rebirth after death

According to the humanist model of history, once Rome disappeared all that was good and beautiful was lost. However, light returned to the West once Petrarch (1304-1374 CE) re-introduced the world to the writings of Virgil and Cicero. Petrarch valued the literature of the Greeks and Romans above any other culture because of their emphasis on reason and logic in the pursuit of knowledge.

Another humanist thinker named Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536 CE) re-envisioned the history of religion in humanist terms. He argued that in the early days, the Catholic Church was a “beacon of light” surrounded by a sea of “pagan darkness”; however, the fall of the Roman Empire and flood of barbarians steered the Church from its true path. Erasmus observed the Church became so concerned with preserving its worldly power it forgot its original purpose: to preserve the simple message of Jesus as presented in the Gospels. Erasmus also blamed the Church’s problems on ignorant monks and mind-numbing scholastics (like Thomas Aquinas). He argued the clergy had become ineloquent and fixated with superstitions and medieval scholasticism[3] as opposed to Jesus’ simple message. Erasmus was optimistic though: he believed the rediscovery of Classical Greek and Roman literature meant the Church might possibly return to the simplicity and purity of its past.

Medieval historians believed they were living literally at the end of an age. Humanists, by contrast, felt they were living at the beginning of a new and brilliant period in human history. This filled them with a sense of optimism about the future. So while humanists knew both the Church and society needed reforming, they looked hopefully to a future Golden Age. This would be a time when Roman eloquence and Greek philosophy would be re-established; and this, it was reasoned, would revive a purer form of Christianity. Medieval historians and thinkers by contrast were not optimistic; they looked at the world as broken (full of sin). The world to medieval scholastics was something to be escaped, not celebrated or rediscovered.

The Importance of Analyzing & Criticizing History
If someone wanted to accurately forge (copy) a piece of writing created two hundred years ago they must know enough history to avoid anachronisms.[4] For example, if while reading an account of the Battle of Yorktown (1781 CE) the historian explains the Americans defeated the British by dropping atom bombs you should be skeptical, i.e. the first atom bomb was dropped in 1945 on Imperial Japan. Also, the Thirteen Colonies dropping nukes on England would be anachronistic because the technology (nukes) did not exist in the 18th century.

Humanists valued historical accuracy. For this reason they developed methods to test a document’s reliability. For example, who would be more of an authority on Christianity—the Apostle Paul who actually lived in the First Century or Pope Leo X (a pope living in the 16th century CE)? The humanist historian would argue Paul is the greater authority: Paul was closer in time to Jesus than Leo X; therefore, Paul was positioned better both historically and intellectually to discuss events related to Jesus’ time and thought. Lorenzo Valla (1406-1457 CE) used newly developed investigative techniques to prove that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery. The Catholic Church argued they received a “donation” in the 4th century from Emperor Constantine giving them control of vast parts of Italy. Valla looked at the language of the Donation document discerning it had actually been written in the 8th century, not the 4th. He pointed out that the word “fief” occurred in the document but this word was first used in the 8th century. Thus, there was no way Constantine—a person living in the pre-feudal 4th century—could have given Italy as a “fief” to the Catholic Church.

Erasmus applied similar critical techniques to studying the Bible. He translated the New Testament from Latin into Dutch and published it in 1516 CE. In his translation, he left out the following verse (commonly referred to as the Comma Johanneum) from the First Epistle of John that is the scriptural basis for belief in the existence of the Trinity. The text of 1 John 5:7-8 reads as follows:

And there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood, and these three agree in one.

Erasmus, like Valla, proved the first verse was not authentic. In particular, he found the reference to “the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost” was absent in all of the oldest available Greek editions of John’s epistle (letter); the verse was also absent in all the oldest available Latin manuscripts. Lastly, upon investigation he discovered that this verse was entirely unknown to any Christian writer before the Fourth Century CE (300s).

Erasmus argued, by appealing to the available evidence, that if the verse had existed, it certainly would have been quoted by writers at a time when the doctrine of the Trinity was the center of a theological controversy. The controversy about the Trinity actually threatened to tear the early Church part. The majority of Christians did not believe in the Trinity. Instead, most Christians—called Arians—believed in the idea of dualism, e.g. Jesus was the adopted not actual son of God. The Arians argued that the Holy Spirit was not a distinct person; it was just a quality Jesus and God shared in common. So, Erasmus reasoned, those who supported the idea of the Trinity would certainly have appealed to 1 John 5: 7-8 as evidence to disprove the Arian view. But they did not. They could not. They could not because John’s verse did not exist (yet). The controversy over the nature of God was eventually resolved in favor of the Trinity at the Council of Nicaea (325 CE). Erasmus concluded that the Catholic Church must have added the verse after the council ended to give scriptural authority to the doctrine of the Trinity.[5]

Textual criticism of this kind represents a more scientific approach to understanding history that emerged specifically during the Renaissance. Scholastics would have found a way to explain away the change to Epistle of John. Erasmus being a humanist believed truth was more important than appearances. Nonetheless, Renaissance-era historians were far from perfect: they tended to write in a flowery style sometimes sacrificing accuracy to elegance; they looked at history differently than we do; that is, they looked at it as a branch of literature (not its own branch of knowledge). Nonetheless, advances made by humanist historians helped secularize[6] historical writing and thinking. People still saw God at work in history; but they no longer automatically reverted to discussing God in order to make sense of events.

Renaissance historians were more secular in their outlook and conception of history compared to medieval thinkers. Medieval historians were convinced the course of history was simply the fulfilling of scripture, e.g. a savior was promised, a savior was born, and the world was saved. History demonstrated God’s dominion over humanity. In the humanist view history was a guide to life. You could learn from the past and apply those lessons to the present and the future. The study of history, according to the humanists, should inspire one to act virtuously while discouraging living a life of vice; history trains future statesmen in politics and war; it is the mother of experience and the grandmother of wisdom. Old men are said to be wise because their judgement rests on the accumulated experience of a lifetime; therefore, a right reading of history makes people wise. Thus, the new humanistic history emerging during the Renaissance was a secular description of the past; it focused on worldly matters, not God. The causes of events were not explained in terms of God’s will. Causes and motives were explained solely in human terms. The humanist approach remained the preferred model of historians well into even the 20th century.

Source: this article was created in part using Eugene F. Rice’s book The Foundations of Early Modern Europe, 1460-1559 (pages 79-83).

[1] The modern world continues to make use of all sorts of primitive or medieval notions. For example, the ancient Greeks believed the white cloudy substance in the night sky was the milk of the goddess Hera. We still call our galaxy the “Milky Way” but no one believes Hera exists any longer. Also, we still use terms like “sun set” and sun rise” which reflects an ancient belief in a flat earth. In reality the sun neither sets nor rises; rather, the earth spins revealing the sun during the day and concealing it during the night.

[2] The term “Renaissance” was first prominently used by the French historian Jules Michelet in 1858, and it was set in bronze two years later by Jacob Burckhardt when he published his influential work The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.

[3] Scholasticism was represented by a school of thinkers who believed in the importance of preserving the power and influence of the Catholic Church above all else. For this reason they stressed the importance of making all human knowledge conform and agree with Church teachings and a literal reading of scripture. The problem with scholastics is they did not pursue knowledge for its own sake; instead, they were more concerned with preserving the appearance of the Church being the unquestioned leader and authority on science, on politics, economics, the law, and religion.

[4] An anachronism is a thing belonging to or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists, e.g. Romans did not have smart phones; therefore, if you were to read a “historical” account of Julius Caesar texting his friends on his smart phone this would be an example of an anachronism.

[5] Various editions of scripture have been changed or altered for different reasons. Martin Luther, for example, disliked the Epistle of James because it stressed the value of completing good works to “earn” salvation. Thus, Luther left James out of his German translation of Erasmus’ translation.

[6] Secularize: to separate from religious or spiritual connection or influences.

Mitch McConnell, the Bill Buckner of Politics, Drops Ball Again

Mitch McConnell just responded to Trump’s latest racist tweets. Here’s what McConnell said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [and women of conscience] to do [or say] nothing.”

Well done, good sir! So glad to hear human decency at least isn’t negotiable….oh wait…he didn’t say that. He actually refused to comment.

When is the breaking point, do you figure, when people stop giving such unqualified support to the President? You’re supposed to be loyal to the Constitution (not a Person). It’s okay to be critical of the government (even the administration you voted for…in fact…you’re kind of expected to do this to keep the whole democratic experiment and rule of law functioning as intended).

Technology is Perplexing

Perplexing. Technology shrinks the globe and enables “democratic” movements like the Arab Spring. But does it also shrink the world and enable governments or oligarchies to control the denizens of the globe that much easier…?

Love Wins

The following is the commencement address I gave for the graduation ceremony at LCBI High School. I wanted to share it with everyone because I believe firmly in its central message: we are all part of a single human family and love will overcome hate.

Distinguished guests, faculty, colleagues, friends, families, and of course, the graduating class of 2019, welcome. I’d also like to acknowledge those who could not be with us today. You are in our thoughts and occupy a special place in our hearts.

You’re a special class: there’s a world ranked racquetball player in there somewhere; a budding poet, essayist, teacher and engineer or two; there are artists, athletes, musicians, mechanics, thinkers and builders; a provincial hockey champion; a soccer player turned slam dunk artist; the host of a popular hunting channel on YouTube; and of course, a sleepy and bespectacled would-be theoretical physicist whom we’ll call Stephen. I see you’re organized into rows: have you figured out which rows contain the smartest students yet?

All kidding aside, you’re a fun, quirky, insightful, frequently feisty and intelligent group of young people. I look forward to working with and challenging you every day. I’ve particularly enjoyed our time spent in English together: there’s something about this particular classlikely the philosophical and theological aspectsmaking me feel what we were doing is meaningful and important (even necessary).

Over the last 20 years I’ve taught at a variety of schools; and in that time I’ve come to appreciate schools are a lot like people: each one has a unique personality. Some you like more than others. Some you look forward to seeing every day while others you’d just as soon avoid. LCBI is one of those places a person looks forward to seeing; and I take a lot of pride in what we do here, and what God accomplishes through us. Despite teaching here so long though, I’ve found it nearly impossible to explain why this place means so much to me. I’ve always felt I loved it here but for one reason or another failed articulating exactly why (like when you fall in loveit just sort of happens, no conscious explanation is necessary).

At the end of the second semester back in 2014, I gave my senior English students an opportunity to write an exit essay. The essay’s question was “What does LCBI mean to me?” There was no minimum or maximum length. The essay wasn’t for marks. I just wanted to give students an opportunity to reflect on their time here knowing that, at least in my experience, it can be difficult for many to say goodbye. In the process there were a number of wonderfully written and heartfelt responses. One such response, in particular, has stood out for me over the years. Kayden Johnson wrote a single word: family.

In a single word KJ captured perfectly what makes LCBI so special. Whether you identify as Christian or not, whether you practice a religion or not, we are part of the same family, you and I; as the Apostle Paul observes in First Corinthians we are brothers and sisters belonging to a single family brought together by Christ Jesus; and that family is built on faith, hope, and above all, love.

With that said, and based on how big of a weirdo some of y’all can be at times, there’s something else about this school making me feel particularly at home and at ease. Martin Luther observed we are free because we are fully forgiven children of God. We are no longer compelled to keep God’s Law out of fear in order to obtain salvation. Paul tells us we cannot earn salvation anyways; it’s an underserved gift given freely to us through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross by the grace of God. “A Christian,” Luther wrote, “is perfectly free, subject to none.” Yet, Luther presents us with a caveat: although we are “subject to none” we still have a responsibility to look after and care for one another.

The freedom of being Christian comes with responsibility. Thus, if you’ll permit me, I’d like to share some of my thoughts relating to that responsibility to love one another as members of a single human family.

Several years ago someone in Pakistan placed an ad in a newspaper offering a reward to anyone who killed a Canadianany Canadian. The ad was likely a response to then Canada’s involvement in the War in Afghanistan. Interestingly, an Australian dentist published an editorial responding to the strange request. He wanted to define what a Canadian was so non-Canadians would recognize them whenever they encountered one. I’d like to share part of that response with you today:

A Canadian [the Australian writes] can be English, or French, or Italian, Irish, German, Spanish, Polish, Russian or Greek. A Canadian can be Mexican, [Nigerian, Congolese, Cameroonian, Kenyan, or South African]. They can be Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean…Iranian, Asian, Arab, Pakistani or Afghan. A Canadian may also be an [Inuit], Cree, Metis, Mohawk, Blackfoot, Sioux, Dakota, or a member of one of the many other peoples known collectively as First Nations.

A Canadian lives in one of the most prosperous [countries] in the history of the world. The root of that prosperity can [in part] be found in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which recognizes the right of each person to [pursue their individual happiness in a society governed and secured under the rule of law].

A Canadian is generous and Canadians have helped out just about every other nation in the world in their time of need, never asking [anything] in return. Canadians welcome the best of everything, the best products, the best books, the best music, the best food, the best services and the best minds. But they also welcome the leastthe oppressed, the outcast and the rejected.

These are the people who built Canada.

You can try to kill a Canadian if you must…but in so doing you could [well] just be killing a relative or a neighbor. This is because Canadians are not a particular people from a particular place. [Canada is an idea.] Canadians are the embodiment of the human spirit of freedom. Everyone who holds to that spirit, everywhere, [is] a Canadian.

Now to my reckoning being Canadian means becoming a citizen of the world. Also, I think, as this short article implies, to be Canadian is to try and make a positive difference in that world. For example, in the wake of the Vietnam War in the 1970s, Canada accepted over 50,000 Vietnamese escaping communism. In 1956 Hungary unsuccessfully attempted to push out the occupying forces of the Soviet Union. Soviet tanks ruthlessly crushed the uprising displacing tens of thousands. Canada provided a haven for 50,000 Hungarians fleeing the subsequent reprisals and political repression.

During the middle of 20th century hundreds of thousands of people from every continent immigrated to Canada in the hope of making a new life for themselves and their families. Between 1890 and 1914 approximately two million people from countries like China, Japan, India, Ireland, Scotland, England, America, Poland, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Ukraine immigrated to Canada; they helped build Canada while contributing to the evolution of a new kind of countryone not founded upon the Old World model of “blood and soil” but one constructed upon the New World principles of freedom and liberty.

It’s vitally important to possess an understanding of our history, like the process followed by our ancestors who made Canada their home, in order to appreciate what’s happening in the present. However, at the risk of sounding pessimistic and to quote Hegel, if there is one lesson history teaches us it is we do not learn from our history.

In 2011 a civil war broke out in Syria displacing millions. Between 2016 and 2017 Canada welcomed 40,000 Syrian refugees fleeing an absolutely brutal conflict. Many Canadians felt a combination of compassion and unease in the wake of this particular wave of immigration. I’m not naive. I understand current events well enough appreciating the risks, actual and perceived, associated with Canada opening its borders in this way. Some Canadians, ones calling themselves nationalists, cautioned we shouldn’t accept so many Muslims. Nonetheless, the idealist in me, the Jesus in me, believes we did the right thing (despite the fear mongering).

And do not underestimate how thankful these men, women and children are to Canada for giving them a home. In May of 2016 a wildfire devastated the City of Fort McMurray. Rita Khanchet Kallas, a Syrian refugee who arrived in Calgary with her husband and son in December of 2015 wrote a message in Arabic on a Facebook page for a Calgary-based Syrian refugee group. “Canadians,” she wrote,”have provided us with everything and now we have a duty. We must help the people who lost their homes and everything in a fire in Oil City. Get ready, it’s time to fulfill.”

Within hours of posting the group was mobilized assembling food hampers, toys, clothes, and furniture to aid the families of Fort McMurray. This act was particularly gracious. You have to understand, the small Syrian community in Calgary had very little themselves. But they understood first hand what it meant for an entire city to lose their home. That’s something they could easily relate to because they went through the exact same thing themselves.

History teaches us is we do not learn from our history.

Social media is definitely new, but xenophobia (or hatred of the foreigner or the alien) is not.

I’ve watched, dismayed, as some Canadians with European sounding last names post fear-based stories to their social media timelines while complaining about how people with Syrian sounding last names were going to ruin the country.

We’ve been here before: many of the same Canadians complaining about Syrian refugees today are themselves the descendants of immigrants who were likewise labelled dangerous, strange, people who were going to wreck the country. The irony of this should not be lost on anyone possessing either a modicum of compassion or a basic knowledge of their own history; and just so we’re clear I’m not trying to be provocative or mean or single out how either this or that person is bad. I am just observing which, I suppose, is something of a resident hazard of being a historian.

And so we forget our history (particularly when times are difficult); and a country without a sense of its history is doomed to repeat its past mistakes.

There has been an unmistakable rise in the forces of nationalism and tribalism in the Western World over the last ten years; and it appears democracy and pluralism is in retreat everywhere. Populist governments are gaining more and more support because people can’t seem to come together to solve their problems. I find it troubling so many of us seem to be coming increasingly more tolerant of things a decade ago would’ve seemed impossible. I worry most in this moment for my Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters. I wonder what the future holds for them if hatred and hate speech is ever again allowed to go mainstream or become “normal”.

A friend of mine was working at a fruit stand when a lady came up and asked if any of the cherries were grown by Muslims. She was asking because she didn’t want to support Muslim businesses. This is how you destroy the democratic spirit: unlike dictatorships which end with the death of a single tyrant, democracy dies the death of a 1,000 such wounds.

This Muslim cherry episode reminds me of how Roman emperors once persecuted Christians whenever Rome’s economic or political situation wasn’t favourable. If Romans were focused on hating Christians they’d spend less time worrying about the emperor’s ineptitude.

Does that sound eerily familiar? History doesn’t necessarily repeat but it seems to rhyme.

Since the American presidential election in 2016 Canada has seen a 30% increase in the number of hate groups in the country (six of which are right here in Saskatchewan); and hate crime rates are correspondingly increasing–jumping a staggering 47% in 2017 alone, according to Stats Canada, and there’s no indication of this trend reversing any time soon.

Homo homini lupus. This Latin phrase first appeared in the Third Century BCE but could just as well have been written in 2019; translated into English it means “man is a wolf to man.”

Whether we’re talking about the ancient or the modern world, societies continue reverting to the politics of division; they do this so complex social issues like immigration or identity can be boiled down into simple solitudes and simple hatreds. The two recent attacks on synagogues in the United States, and the mosque attack in Quebec last year, point disturbingly to the reality the West has a long way to go after all when it comes to justice.

To the Graduands: St. Augustine once observed “hope has two daughters whose names are Anger and Courage: Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see they do not remain as they are.”

Therefore, do not be apathetic when hatred shows its cowardly face; do not allow yourselves to become accustomed to or accept hate speech or meanness as normal; what and how we say what we say matters; and I’m not trying to be politically correct. I’m appealing to common decency and Jesus’ commandment: love one another as I have loved you.

Do not turn a blind eye to injustice: evil only succeeds when men and women of good conscience sit back and do nothing; be willing to think in nuances, not platitudes; do not dismiss out of hand those who disagree with you. Too many of us are too easily offended; understand disagreement doesn’t make us enemies, it makes us human. So don’t argue to win, argue to learn. Be willing to change your mind…

It occurred to me there’s another reason why I love LCBI: Jesus. Jesus taught me, more than anyone else, to include the excluded; to fight for the underdog; to defend those incapable of defending themselves; to show compassion, patience and understanding; to delight in the success of others; to encourage because I’ve been encouraged; forgive because I’ve been forgiven; and to love because I am loved. Be fearless then, and courageous, in the face of prejudice and discrimination wherever you encounter it; and if you remember only one thing from our time together this afternoon, and it is implied by the quote written so boldly on the wall behind me, remember this: love wins.

“Let us realize”, Martin Luther King, Jr. observed, “that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Thus, if you’re ever unsure what to do when confronted with any of the situations I’ve talked about the right answer is always to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Before closing I have one favor I’d like to ask of everyone gathered here this afternoon: whether you know them or not could you take the hand of the person or persons sitting next to you?

[Promote a figurative “crossing of the aisle” between the rows separated by the center aisle.]

One of my favorite moments in A. A. Milne’s The House on Pooh Corner is when Piglet is trying to catch up to his friend, Winnie the Pooh.

“Pooh?” Piglet whispers.

“Yes, Piglet?”

“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”

Building a better world means, at least in part, removing the barriers to our understanding and accepting one another. The awkwardness you’re possibly experiencing right now, holding the hand maybe of a complete stranger, captures perfectly the nature of that barrier towards building a better world: it is a mental and psychological one. Change our thinking and we can change the world. My challenge to you, right now, is to weaken that wall by turning a potential stranger into a friend. So gently squeeze the hand of your neighbors and reassure them, “I am sure of you.”

The transcendental quality of lovethrough even the simplest of gesturesfills me with hope because, even if you try to improve the world in some measure and fail, you can still take some consolation you’ve allied yourself with Something greater. I suspect love, in a certain sense, even survives the Cosmos’ end: hugs transcending time; joy outliving the joyful; gentleness and acceptance persisting past the end of all things; and the gravity of a deep upwelling of feeling flows even past the bounds of a finite physical universe.

And so here we are, at the end: grads do you recall back in September when I told you today would come faster than you thought? I told you not to be in too much of a hurry to finish the year because endings, when it comes to LCBI, are particularly emotional experiences. I know this because I’ve said goodbye to my fair share of colleagues and students who I miss, love, and who occupy my thoughts whenever the sentimental impulse takes me. Thus, “I will not say do not weep,” J. R. R. Tolkien’s Gandalf explains to his friends while preparing to leave Middle Earth forever for the Gray Havens, “for not all tears are an evil.”

Be thankful we’ve had this time together understanding that when one one door closes so opens another.

Thank you.

The Propaganda Value of

Evolution News is an arm of the Discovery Institute (DI). The DI is not a science-based institution but a creationist think tank from the United States. The DI, and their proxies like Evolution News, are well-known for promoting pseudoscience. Two of the most influential ideas coming from the DI are intelligent design—really a watchmaker argument for God—and Michael Behe’s “irreducible complexity”, e.g. something as complex as the human eye could not possibly evolve over time because the rods, cones, retina, and such are, well, irreducibly complex.

Both intelligent design and irreducible complexity were used in the mid 2000s as part of the Discovery Institute’s “wedge strategy” for getting creationism taught alongside evolution in science classes in the United States. Unfortunately for the creationists, they can offer nothing but rhetoric in support of their positions, i.e. they have not conducted a single viable or peer reviewed experiment supporting their hypotheses (because their hypothesis is really just a fancy way of saying God did it which is entirely unfalsfiable). Since the DI offers nothing tangible in the way of research to back up its assertions they lack scientific credibility. I would not go to this site for scientific reasons; however, I would go to this site if I wanted to learn more about the “culture wars” raging in the United States. Sites like Evolution News don’t dabble in science but in theological and philosophical hand waving; it is a fundamentalist propaganda website.

Here are a couple links you might find illuminating as they relate to the DI (and by extension to Evolution News):

1). The “wedge strategy” I mentioned before is an important thing to be aware of, i.e. since the DI has repeatedly failed to use courts to push creationism into biology classrooms they have changed tactics. The tactic is now to attack science itself generally (not just evolution). If public confidence in science can be sufficiently eroded, the thinking is then evolution can be weakened and in the space created creationism can be seen as a more viable explanation. Wedge strategy – Wikipedia

2). For legal context, check out the Wiki on the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School Board case. This was, I believe, the most recent attempt by the DI to get creationism into science classrooms. The DI failed, again, because they offer nothing concrete in the way of experiments, tests, and so on. Here’s a link to that case: Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District – Wikipedia. Interestingly, I read a book written by one of the biologists who was called to testify in this case on whether or not irreducible complexity and intelligent design were “scientific” theories. The biologist’s name is Ken Miller—a Catholic who believes in God by the way—who argued that these were not scientific theories because they could not be falsified, i.e. a genuine science question must be capable of being either proven or disproven. Intelligent design, for instance, is really the equivalent of just saying “God did it” when it comes to life on Earth. You cannot prove or disprove the claim. Anyways, Miller wrote a book called Only a Theory. He talks about the case and about Behe and so on in this book.

If you aren’t the reading type, you could download and listen to the podcast Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe (episode 190). Dr. Steven Novella interviews Miller and I believe they discuss the Kitzmiller decision and Miller’s role. Here’s the link to that: The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe.

Again, Evolution News is nonsense from a scientific standpoint; it is an example of propaganda and little else.