Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Power of Skepticism

Like a man trying to photograph a dream, I will try to describe in mere words the cascade of emotions and thoughts running through my brain as I sit here by the beach at 2 am. To do this I realize might be impossible but I unfortunately have no other means of conveying this to you, my dear reader other than words. Even as I reread my last blog post I am still not happy with it, I feel like words are a cheap medium for such powerful topics and I know that I will have to redo it again in the future, and perhaps with no better luck.
Having said that, come join me at the beach, it is two in the morning on Friday night, one or two small clouds, no moon, and seemingly endless stars. Someone once told me that the reason why we love the sound of the oceans waves is that it sounds much like the waters rushing around the womb in which we were born. While I may not know if that is true, what I must agree with is; the sense of calm that the sound of the waves conveys to me. I came here to escape my yeshiva and have a cigarette yet I find myself lost in space, gazing at the stars and lost among them. The awareness of how far the stars are, how big they are, and how insignificant even they are in the universe, is the truest humility I think one can ever truly experience. How tiny are we, evolved slime on a mote of dust orbiting a mediocre star in the outer neighborhoods of an average galaxy? How is it that we know anything? How is it that we CAN know anything? Do we actually know anything?
Last year after reading the meditations by Descartes, I remember having a long conversation with a friend over whether or not we could know if we are dreaming, and if we should even care. My conclusion was; that we cannot know and therefore I do not care, and this is my starting point for the nature of our knowledge. I agree with Descartes that “I think therefore I am” meaning since I am conscious and although everything might be an illusion, I must exist in some form to experience this illusion. However, I do not know that this is not an illusion so I cannot “know” more than that.
There are so many things that confound us in this experience we call reality, that seem so amazing to our semi-evolved mammalian brain. The problem though is that for each phenomenon there are so many explanations, each sounding better than the one before. Therefore, I believe the only proper initial attitude is one of equal skepticism to all claims. Upon further thought though, we may wish to ask that although they cannot all be true, and perhaps none of them are, can we say one is more likely than the other? The answer is yes, we do have a method for sorting out the truth of theories, and it we call it science. It cannot prove a theory correct but, by making predictions based on the theories and observing to see which theory is consistent with observation it can conclusively disprove theories. Once we have done this and weeded out the ones we know to be false, then by default the remaining ones are the most likely to be true. We cannot say more than that, we cannot say we “know”, we can say probably, more likely, less likely, and so on but anything more than that seems to me to be a denial of the nature of our knowledge.
To me when someone says, “I know” I squirm a little bit; I get very uncomfortable when people use such absolutes. I have noticed that the crazier a person is the more certain he is of things that he in no way can be certain about. Have you ever noticed that the person screaming that the world is going to end, or  that aliens implanted chips in his brain, or that god is speaking to him, will almost never use the word maybe. He is absolutely sure, he KNOWS this, as a fact. How many less suicide bombers do you think we would have if Muslims said, “Allah is probably the one god, and Mohammed might be his prophet”, but no, they are sure, 100%, no doubt about it.
I find the opposite to be true as well, the more sane and levelheaded a person is, the more likely he is to say, “I don’t know”. It is a truly liberating three words, it is an acknowledgement that we are human and limited and might not know everything. It is only with this attitude that we might learn new things. It is with this form of mental bookkeeping and keeping track of which things we know little, of which we know more, and of which we know nothing, that we can grow and learn. My hero, Richard Feynman once said
I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers, and possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and in many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about a little, but if I can’t figure it out, then I go to something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.
This is why he is my hero, not for his Nobel Prize winning theories, not for his physics lectures (which I own and love), but for his common sense. His simple attitude of trying to figure out this puzzle called reality, not caring for anything more than that, here is another quote from him
People say to me, "Are you looking for the ultimate laws of physics?" No, I'm not... If it turns out there is a simple ultimate law which explains everything, so be it — that would be very nice to discover. If it turns out it's like an onion with millions of layers... then that's the way it is. But either way there's Nature and she's going to come out the way She is. So therefore when we go to investigate we shouldn't predecide what it is we're looking for only to find out more about it. Now you ask: "Why do you try to find out more about it?" If you began your investigation to get an answer to some deep philosophical question, you may be wrong. It may be that you can't get an answer to that particular question just by finding out more about the character of Nature. But that's not my interest in science; my interest in science is to simply find out about the world and the more I find out the better it is, I like to find out...
                We must not forget how young we are as a species, and how new we are to this. Looking back through time to get a good picture of who we are can sometimes make us forget to look to the future and see who we will become. We are not the final result of evolution; we are a by-product on the way to other better and more intelligent by-products. We may know a lot compared to any other species we are aware of, but there are many species yet to come and they will build off our knowledge and will know so much more. We have discovered science a mere few hundred years ago; we have only begun this true quest for knowledge. 
                Compared to what is out there we might know very little, however we have accomplished a lot in very few years since the scientific method has become commonplace. We have mastered chemistry, electricity, and even some of the nuclear forces. We have discovered relativity and quantum theory. We have the standard model of elementary particles. We understand biology from humans and elephants down to plankton, bacteria, and viruses. We have mapped the genome. We have discovered how species evolve. We have made advances in medicine, increased the human life expectancy, and decreased infant mortality. We can make artificial body parts, we can help the deaf hear, and the lame walk.  We are making serious headway in our understanding of how the brain works. We have invented the car and the plane. WE CAN FLY! How amazing is that? We have gone to space, walked on our moon, and sent spaceships out of our little solar system. We have instruments that can see all the light that our blind eyes cannot, from radio to gamma rays. We have discovered black holes. We know the history of our solar system and to some degree of accuracy we know its future. We have invented the telephone and the computer and now we have them both in one in our cell phones. We have the internet, which allows the entire species communicate with one another (unless your mullah or rav banned it) and we all have access to all the collective knowledge of our species. We can compute on atoms. We have teleported. We can make our own atoms.
                We have accomplished a lot in these few years, yet accomplished almost nothing in comparison to what we can and will accomplish.


  1. Are you saying you are perfectly ok with not having answers to the universe as long as you admit that you don't know more, as opposed to others who constantly repeat their opinion that they 'know'? Does that mean that you expect them to be like you? Besides, everyone has the right to possess their own truth.

  2. Yes, I am saying just that. I would rather be honest with the rest of the world and myself by not exaggerating the extent of my knowledge. I would rather know the limits of my knowledge than fool myself. The only way to learn anything new is to admit first what you do and do not know. After all why would you go explore and learn about something that you already “know”. I do not expect everyone to be like me; however, I would really appreciate the honesty if they would. So would they, it is quite refreshing to admit that we do not know, we don’t have to know, we only need try to learn a little more.
    Regarding your last point, I do not deny that we do have personal truth; however, it is limited. I view truth as halving to different types. Personal truth (statements about subjective reality) and empirical truth (statements about objective reality), and the way to obtain them is as different as the statements themselves. An example of the former would be that rock is better than rap; an example of the latter would be that gravity is the curvature of space-time caused by the presence matter. The way to reach these truths differs as follows, for the former you need only ask yourself, for the latter skepticism and science is the only way we know. You can have your personal truth, so long as it is only a statement about yourself. As soon as you leave the realm of the personal and subjective, and enter the realm of the empirical and objective, personal truth has no value. It means nothing to say, “To me, gravity is caused by tiny tiny men running back and forth at the speed of light dragging two objects together”. However, it does mean something when I say, “To me rock is the greatest form of music and rap is not even music”.

  3. I should add that there is one exception, the arts. In the arts truth is never anything more than personal truth and everything and anything should be and is permitted.

  4. I would still respect everyone's truth.

    1. everyone's opinions maybe, but once you call it "truth" in the empirical (objective) sense it is not a question of respect, it is a question of true or false

  5. this is hypocritical.

    if others do not accept what you accept - then THEY are just wrong.

    according to your doctrine, you have to allow others to belive as they wish, and respect them for it. your not.

    worse, if someone takes that stand, you put them on the path to "crazy". your worse than what you critisize and you dont even see it!

  6. I do not contest anyone’s right to believe anything. I contest their right to claim facts. You can claim whatever you want so long as you claim it as an opinion, and as such do not forcibly impose it on anyone else. As soon as you cross either of those two lines, I have a right to object and protest it. Furthermore, I do not have to respect anyone’s opinion I have every right to say that it is a stupid or harmful opinion, I will however, respect your right to hold that stupid or harmful opinion.
    About me calling people crazy, I went out of my way to say things like; it seems to me, in my view, in my experience, I have noticed. I am not saying that they must be crazy; I am not locking them up, I am saying that this is how they come across to me. Maybe they are right and the world will end on Dec 21 2012, maybe Allah is the one true god, I just don’t see how they are so sure, and their emphatic proclamation of absolute knowledge in the face of no evidence, does make ME question their sanity.

    1. they believe they have the facts on their side. you believe the facts are on your side.

      there is no such thing as objective facts. you ever sit in a courtroom? 3 different views over what actually happened, what the "facts" are

      facts are stupid things (i mean stubborn things)

      you contest the "right to claim facts" - i dont even know what that means

  7. sorry my bad i meant to say that i contest their right to claim as a fact something for which they have no evidence for.

    secondly, of course if they do have evidence then they are not crazy or wrong, but in fact correct. however if they have the proof and are not willing to share it, then i have no reason to assume that they have the evidence.

    about your court example, of course there is such a thing as objective fact. welcome to science f=ma e=mc2... we have objective laws. courts on the other hand are meant to arrive at conclusions notwithstanding the lack of clear evidence. there can only ever be one objective fact, our conclusions may be unclear until we have sufficient evidence, but in reality there can only be one way. for example in a murder case, the court may never know whether or not the defendant actually killed the man in question, however in reality it is a yes or no, it only happened one way. there is an objective reality of either the guy killed or he did not.

    finally i do not believe the facts are on my "side". i simply say i will only accept as a working assumption that which has been proven scientifically. in other words i do not have an opinion and then go look for facts... i look at the evidence and THEN draw conclusions

  8. you dont have evidence for everything that you claim as a fact.

    further, aren't there things in the world that do not require evidence? There are plenty of "things" that we use other methods to get to the truth, aside from evidence. evidence is good in math, but even science uses things like theories...

    secondly, the court example was meant to illustrate that 2 people can witness the exact same event and claim different facts. how is that possible?!?! i though only 1 set of facts exist?

  9. if i do not have evidence i do not call it a fact. even when i do call something a fact, what i mean is "the best working assumption"

    further, what is there that is a statement about reality that does not require evidence? there is none.

    you mention theories, but i think misunderstand what they are. theories are used to describe a collection of evidence, and must predict other things which can be verified experimentally.

    finally your point about the court is a fantastic proof that just because someone says its a fact doesnt mean it is one. only hard evidence can give us our best shot at determining reality. not say so, not conjecture, not assumptions, nothing but hard scientific evidence.

  10. i am happy
    you are ugly
    i feel a sense of purpose to my life
    i love my wife
    i believe that there is something greater than me out there

    1. Your happiness and sense of purpose is quite evident in your rapid departure from logic to senseless ad hominem attacks. I can only humbly submit to your superior arguments and thank you for enlightening me with your unquestionable wisdom.

      For the sake of humanity I sure hope you are correct and there is something greater than you, we are utterly doomed if you are our greatest.

  11. Well written post on a complicated subject. I mirror your acceptance of being at peace with "I don't know."

    I just wonder when one should lie down their gauntlet and remain at peace with not knowing, and when one should strive to know. There would be no science if we just stayed with I don't know. Alternatively there are things, I think which we can not know. And there are things we don't try enough to know. Knowing the difference is quite elusive.

    1. I feel like although I will never "know" I always strive to know a little more. Im not trying to "know" because, that seems almost impossible to me. To me its about the next little step, the next little tidbit of information, and improving my knowledge a little bit, and that never ends.

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