Category Archives: Social Science

The Puzzle of Consciousness

consciousnessOur conscious experience is so commonplace that we seldom think about how remarkable it is. How does the mind integrate all the sensory information into one coherent picture? How does it seamlessly update the information from moment to moment? How does the perception of the self emerge? The brain is one of the last frontiers of the scientific endeavor. Much research has been done in identifying different parts of the brain and their functions. Although a large amount of progress has been made in connecting behaviors with specific brain activity, consciousness remains elusive. There is still no well-established scientific theory of consciousness.

What is Consciousness?

On the surface consciousness seems simple enough; it is our subjective and individual experience. My consciousness is different than yours and every person has experiences that are uniquely theirs. Clearly the individual brain is fundamental to consciousness, but when we look into the causes or location of consciousness it becomes ambiguous. Philosophers and scientists alike have tried to explain consciousness and tried to explain why they can’t explain it. Philosopher Dan Dennett calls consciousness “An illusion.” Philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers calls it “The hard problem,” as opposed to “The easy problem,” of explaining behavior.

david-eaglemam

Neuroscientist David Eagleman provides an interesting angle to the puzzle of the mind. Rather than focusing solely on an orderly brain map with clear correlations of cause and effect, he views the brain from a holistic perspective. In an excerpt from This Explains Everything, Eagleman writes:

“It [the brain] possesses multiple, overlapping ways of dealing with the world… It is a representative democracy that functions by competition among parties who all believe they know the right way to solve the problem.”

Eagleman is referring to mental functions, yet the concept can also be applied to consciousness. If I had to make a general comment on consciousness, I would say that, “Consciousness emerges from or is the result of multiple processes of the mind and body.” Still it goes further than that.

Some would say that a part of consciousness resides outside the brain, something like a soul. I would partly agree as we have to account for the world beyond ourselves. Consciousness is an emergent property (greater than the sum of its parts), which also includes the outside world (something to be aware of). In a way, consciousness is non-local, as it is the integration of the brain with the outside world. That being said, I am not going to attempt to explain consciousness. However, I hope I can shed some light by analyzing it further.

Observations, Possibilities and Questions 

  • Can consciousness be explained by physical and chemical means? Some people support a purely material view; what we feel as non-physical is solely the result of physical processes. States of consciousness can easily be altered with the use of drugs, brain injury and deterioration, a clear correlation between physical causes and non-physical experiences. A material explanation only provides a starting point. There is still a lot of work ahead to identify the specific mechanisms that give rise to consciousness.
  •  Does consciousness develop? We can’t assume that consciousness is the same for everyone. For instance, an infant can’t have the same awareness as an adult. And at what point does a newborn become conscious? Does it happen at birth or at some time before in the womb? The fact that a person has no memories before the age of 2 or 3 makes me wonder if an infant is even conscious (at least not fully conscious). Does he/she respond only by instinct? It is well-known that the brain is not fully developed at birth, and maybe consciousness also develops over time (a gradual awakening similar to waking up in the morning).
  •  Life has varying degrees of consciousness. How aware are bacteria or worms, fish or birds, cats or dogs? Life does not necessarily equate to advanced consciousness. You would be hard pressed to find someone who thinks trees and flowers are conscious. There is clearly a progression of consciousness in life. And like anything else consciousness had to evolve, which means primitive life was barely conscious, if conscious at all. As life branched out over long periods of time varying degrees on consciousness emerged.
  • How do thinking, imagination, memory and dreams fit in? These mental functions are different than typical sensory perceptions. But how can we deny their role in consciousness? The mind can think of concepts, imagine pictures, have clear memories and vivid dreams. There are often feelings associated with these mental states. We could call this the abstract mind and it is more mysterious than the perceiving mind. Nonetheless, the abstract mind is a piece of the puzzle of consciousness, and clearly affects our experience.
  • Different parts of the mind compete for your attention. We can’t be fully aware of all the potential conscious aspects of the brain at the same time. If I divide the brain in two parts, the thinking brain and the perceiving brain (for the purpose of explaining), we can see how this works. When we focus on our stream of thoughts, our surrounding environment becomes numbed. By comparison, when we focus our senses on perceiving our environment, thinking subsides. The mind blocks out what it does not focus on; consciousness continuously shifts from one state to another. You can’t think about work, taste your coffee, watch a video and hear background noises all at the same time.
  • Does consciousness do anything? We could imagine a world where all human behavior is automatic, completely controlled by the laws of physics. Those that believe in a deterministic universe (with no room for freewill) should have no problem with this. If determinism is real, our subjective consciousness may just be observing the world. We could be like the actors and audience in a play, experiencing events with no power to affect the outcome.
  • The subconscious does more. Who is driving the car when we are thinking of something else? Of course the subconscious takes over to perform previously learned tasks. This is just a simple example of the multitude of actions our subconscious mind and body do every day. Most of our bodily functions are automatically controlled. It is easy to forget that we are also subconscious beings (more so than conscious beings).
  • Consciousness may be our greatest gift. We often here about the gift of life, but consciousness may be our most valuable gift. Of course we need life to have consciousness, but I suspect that the fear of death (losing one’s life) is really the fear of losing consciousness.  Life without consciousness would have no meaning; we wouldn’t know that anything exists. There is also a downside to consciousness. Just as it allows for feelings of pleasure, it also allows for feelings of pain. I guess that is the price to pay for experiencing the fullness of life. Everything that is worth living for would not be possible without consciousness.

 

References: Edge Foundation, Inc., This Explains Everything (New York: HarerCollins Publishers, 2013), 91.

Waking Up with Sam Harris – The Light of the Mind: A Conversation with David Chalmers, Sam Harris, Published on Apr 18, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qi2ok47fFcY

Dan Dennett: The illusion of consciousness, TED, Uploaded on May 3, 2007. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjbWr3ODbAo


 

Interpreting Chance and Probabilities

mixed up cardsMuch of our lives are affected by random events; however, we are not fully aware of them. How could we, there is just too much randomness to keep track of. Despite our best efforts to reach our goals, we can’t eliminate the role of chance and unpredictability. We know that randomness exist, but to what extent? That is when a keen understanding of probabilities can be helpful. Calculating probabilities can determine a course of action and set realistic expectations for outcomes.

The insurance business is built on probabilities, which predict how often unforeseen events occur. That is, unforeseen for one particular individual, but almost a certainty for someone in a large group of people. For example: houses will burn down, cars will crash and people will die unexpectedly; we just don’t know who and where. Unfortunately, insurance cannot protect us from something bad happening (even the things we buy insurance for).

We like to think that we are in control of our lives. We tend to focus on intentions and give credence to willful actions or direct causes. Most of the time, when something works out for us we are eager to take credit. When something does not work out, we find fault by blaming ourselves or others. But I don’t think it’s that simple; success or failure is partly the result of chance (maybe as much as effort). Chance, however, does not mean that all outcomes have an equally chance of happening. Some outcomes are more probable than others, and sometimes it can be calculated.

How Do We Quantify Chance?

Although there are many unnoticed causes that we cannot quantify, there are situations when we can calculate chance. For example, a coin toss, the role of a die, and the dealing of playing cards. In simple situations, intuition is a reasonable guide. Simple mathematics instantly reveals the odds: There is a 1 in 2 chance of a coin landing on heads. There is a 1 in 6 chance of a die showing a six. There is a 1 in 52 chance of a turning over the ace of spade.

Problems arise when situations get more complicated. For instance, how many different possible outcomes are there for a 7 game series between 2 sports teams? From one team’s perspective, one outcome could be: win, win, loss, loss, win, loss and win. Like most probability questions, it can be calculated, but the answer is not immediately obvious. Assuming that all 7 games are played, there are 128 possible outcomes. In reality the outcomes are less, because after one team wins 4 games the series is over.

In fact, intuition is usually misleading. Why is that? 1) Humans are good at recognizing patterns, and often find patterns when there are none. 2) We tend to give more weight to recent events and stronger memories. 3) We are bias and notice what we look for. 4) Short-term results don’t always match actual probabilities, which will show up in larger sample sizes. The following are examples of how scrutinizing randomness can reveal surprising results.

Winning Super Bowls

Patriots teamAs a New England Patriots fan, I have enjoyed many exciting football games. For many years the Patriots were a perennial favorite to win the Super Bowl. From 2011 to 2015, they played in 5 consecutive AFC Championship Games (semi-finals). In those 5 years they won the Super Bowl once (the 2014 season). As an emotional fan, 1 Super Bowl victory in 5 semi-final appearances felt like a missed opportunity. They should have won more, I thought.

So was my initial reasoning sound? As it turns out: not really. I applied probabilistic thinking in 2 ways:

  1.  5 Consecutive AFC Championship Games (semi-finals): With 4 teams remaining at the end of the season, the chances are 1 in 4 that a chosen team will win the last two games. That’s assuming the 4 teams are equally talented, which is not always the case. But with a large sample size it should average out. In some years the Patriots were slightly better and in other years not as good. Nevertheless, the short-term result of 1 Super Bowl victory in 5 years is not surprising (the odds are 1 in 4).
  2. Team History: Then I considered the over-all team history. The Patriots have played in 12 AFC Championship Games in the Super Bowl Era. This includes a period, from 2001 to 2004, when the Patriots won 3 Super Bowls. The total numbers indicate that the Patriots have won 4 Super Bowls in 12 semi-final opportunities. That makes it 1 in 3, which beats the odds. So, what felt like an under achievement is actually a slight over achievement. Keep in mind that I am only calculating from the point of semi-final appearances. 5 consecutive AFC Championship games and 12 in total is way above average for a 32 team league.

The Monty Hall Problem

Let’s Make a Deal was a popular TV game show, which air in 1963 and ran for many years. The host was Monty Hall, and here is the problem: Monty Hall gave a contestant a choice, pick 1 of 3 doors. Behind one door was a valuable prize, and behind the other two was something far less valuable. Let’s say the contestant was playing to win a car. After the contestant picked a door (for example door #1), the host (who knew where the car was) opened one of the two remaining doors. Monty always opened a door with a dud prize (for example door #2).

Monty Hall ProblemThis is the point when the Monty Hall Problem arose. He gave the contestant the choice to change his/her mind. Should the contestant stick with door #1, or pick door #3. Without careful analysis, it seems that it makes no difference. Both door #1 and door #3 have an equal chance of winning the car. However, that is incorrect. The probability of winning is twice as high if the choice is switched.

The reasoning is very simple, yet it eludes many people. With the original choice, the odds are 1 in 3 that the car is behind the chosen door. That means that it’s 2 in 3 that the car is behind one of the other doors. When the host opens one of the dud doors (which he already knows has a dud prize), he is giving new information. He has eliminated one of the bad options. Therefore, there is a 2 in 3 chance of winning the car by switching doors (for example door #3), but only a 1 in 3 chance of winning by staying put.

We can exaggerate the game by imagining 100 doors. The contestant chooses 1 door and the host opens 98 doors without revealing the car. Remember that the host knows where the car is. The obvious choice here is to make the switch. There is only a 1 in 100 chance that the first choice is correct. That means that there is a 99 in 100 chance of winning the prize by switching doors.

Sharing a Birthday

birthday cakeIf you are hosting a party, what is the likelihood that two people will share the same birthday? Worded another way, how many people need to show up for the odds to be higher than 50%? Once again, intuition is shaky. One would think that the number would be quite high, as there are 365 days in a year. The answer is surprisingly low: just 23 guests will give a better than even chance of two people sharing a birthday.

The reason is that there are many possible combinations in which people can share a birthday. Each guest is not limited to matching a specific date on the calendar. Every arriving guest has the chance of matching a birthday with all the people already at the party. By the time it gets to 23 people, every guest has 22 chances of sharing a birthday with another guest.

My three examples above are fairly straight forward. Life is not as simple. Although we tend to feel responsible for the events in our lives, we should not underestimate the role of chance. Of all the possible outcomes, we don’t know how each day will turn out. We clearly can’t predict what will happen in life; however, there are isolated situations when information can help us determine the most probable outcomes. We need to figure out which facts apply and which facts do not apply. And unless we think it through, we can easily be fooled by surface information. Probabilistic thinking requires that at times we set our emotions and intuitions aside and let the numbers take over. Sometimes the numbers will reveal surprising results.

 

References: Leonard Mlodinow, The Drunkard’s Walk, (New York: Pantheon Books, 2008).


 

The Agricultural Revolution

For much of human history foraging for food was the norm. For nearly 200,000 years people lived on what they could find in their natural environment. This meant gathering food from the land and hunting wild animals. This way of life meant that relatively small groups of people were subject to what their environment could provide. They could either find sustenance in one area or move as needed. If their present location was insufficient in resources, they could follow migration patterns of wild animals or look for more naturally fertile areas.

What Changed?

Agriculture originated in about 9,000 BC. What follows is a brief time line of the early stages of agriculture:

  • Around 9,000 BC agriculture begins east of the Mediterranean in the place known as the Fertile Crescent. Relatively close by agriculture also appears in the Nile Valley. Wheat is the crop of choice in these regions.
  • Then in about 6,000 BC there is evidence of rice farming in China, and in Papua New Guinea they are growing yam and taro.
  •   After a few thousand years in roughly 2,000 BC framing pops up in scattered regions of the world: In West Africa sorghum and millet are being harvested, South America is cultivating potatoes and Central America is now growing maize and squash.

Ancient agricultureInterestingly, most of the plants that feed humans today were domesticated before the first century. From these initial regions framing would continue to spread around the globe. Why did humans change their way of life after so many years of foraging? One factor worth considering is that agriculture developed independently in unconnected parts of the world. What could account for this fact? It happens that the beginning of agriculture coincides with the end of the last ice age. This was a global phenomenon; as regions warmed framing became possible.

Another factor was increasing population. In a scarcely populated planet it would have been much easier to find fresh areas to forage even if some distance had to be covered. As population grew it became more difficult to keep up with rival groups coveting the same lands. At this point, the best option was to settle in one area and farm. Once this happened population continued to grow and villages sprang up.

Settling down had an exponential effect on population; mainly because woman no longer needed to travel with children. As you can imagine, all this was a gradual process. The earth warmed over time and not all people adopted framing at once. Around 10,000 BC the earth had somewhere between 5 to 8 million foragers; by the first century only 1 to 2 million people were foragers and farmers consisted of 250 million people. With the adoption of agriculture a threshold in human development had been reached.

The Birth of Civilization

Adopting agriculture initiated a huge shift in how humans lived. When groups of people made the decision to settle in one region, a whole series of events followed. Along with agriculture came the domestication of animals; the most docile and fattest species were chosen. These animals could be used for their skin, fur, meat, milk and eggs. Some farm animals were also valuable for labor. Perhaps land that could not be harvested before could now be plowed with the aid of domesticated animals.

old farmhouseOnce villagers became dependent on agriculture for sustenance, they now had something very valuable to protect. Their lives depended on farm land, animals, and crops. The notions of property, state, law and quite possibly economics can be traced back to the early agrarian villages. What’s more, in time the shift to agriculture made cities and empires possible. With the first crops came questions that did not previously exist. Who manages the land, animals and crops? How will the area be protected from other humans and pests? If there was a surplus of food, should it be traded and who acquired the wealth?

Not All its Cracked up to be   

farmerIn most cases development come with a cost; the adoption of agriculture was no exception. As you can imagine, the life of foragers was probably not an easy existence. However, it does not mean that early farmers had an easy time of it. Framing with primitive tools was hard work and as societies emerged a hierarchy was created. This usually meant that a large group of people toiled for the benefit of the higher class. I can’t help but think that if it were not for agriculture, would slavery have existed in the same way? And let’s not forget the fate of farm animals, who in effect, have been enslaved for thousands of years. At the hands of humans, some of these animals have been subjected to cruelties too numerous to mention.

Along with farming came villages and cities. Larger groups of people living in close proximity were more susceptible to disease than in the past. At a time when little was known about infectious disease, the early agrarian societies had to deal with sickness that could spread like never before. Also vulnerable was the food supply itself. Now dependent on a successful harvest, what then if crops failed? They could stock pile grain if there was a surplus, but a succession of poor growing seasons could mean starvation. Still today we celebrate Thanksgiving at harvest time, because a good harvest meant so much for so long.

Even if growing seasons were stellar, the invaluable farm land needed to be protected. War was a natural consequence of agriculture because territory became more valuable than ever before. Think for a moment of how many wars have been fought over territory. The idea of controlling or owning land was a game changer in human behavior, and not always for the best.

 A New Way of Thinking About the Future   

Looking ahead and planning is something we all do without much thought. Thinking about the future is virtually a necessity in the modern world. The life of foragers would have been far more present oriented. They would have likely consumed most of the meat they hunted on a particular day, saving only a little extra. Their foraging needs would have been best served by picking daily. There is no better preservative than nature. The food supply was out there, in the wild. Realistically, how far ahead could they really plan for?

Agriculture made it necessary for humans to foresee into the future (more so than before). Cultivating land, planting and harvesting are future oriented endeavors. Working for a pay off several months down the road requires planning. From the moment humans began the ambitious task of farming, our lives were destined to become more complicated. Farming led to civilizations; which entails governments, laws, economics and a multitude of complications. On the other hand, this future mind-set has allowed us to progress far beyond what the early farmers could have ever imagined. Nevertheless, it was their venture into agriculture which started the ball rolling on a path to civilization.

 

References: Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens (Canada: Signal Books, an imprint of McClelland & Stewart, 2014).

Why Was Agriculture So Important? | Big History Project, Published on May 19, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hx6-m510hjU.

Mankind: The Story of All of Us: Birth of Farming | History, Published on Dec 2, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhzQFIZuNFY.


 

The Scientific Revolution

On July 20, 1969, the first humans landed on the surface of the moon. This was an incredible achievement. The Apollo spacecrafts were guided by technology that had less computing power than a modern smartphone. The equations used to plot the course to the moon were devised by Isaac Newton in the 1600s. The lunar landing is a milestone that links the Scientific Revolution of the 15th and 16th hundreds and 20th century science. For science to have progressed this far, it had to be rescued from centuries of insignificance.

The Scientific Revolution refers to an era when mankind developed the methods that led to our modern scientific view. Ancient Greece started the scientific process, and then it stalled during the Middle Ages when human progress remained at a standstill. The Scientific Revolution occurred mainly in Europe, and it coincides with the Age of Enlightenment. This was an age of reason, when individuals searched for truth by their own means. The revolutionary scientists (natural philosophers) did not blindly accept old ideas; they came to their own conclusions.

Breaking the Spell of Tradition

middle age cathedralFor much of human history, tradition was the authority. The rules were set by the state or the religion of the time and they were strictly enforced. During the Middle Ages the Catholic Church was the unquestioned intellectual authority. Free expression of ideas was not tolerated and the main source of knowledge was church doctrine. This not only applied to spiritual matters, but also to nature and the universe.

Progress was not deemed to be possible by human methods. Only God had the power to intervene and change the direction of human life. The goal of the church was to maintain the ideals outlined in scripture, and not to question whether new ways could make life better. I suspect that a large portion of society had accepted their lot in life; however, some free thinkers questioned the authority of tradition. A new way of thinking about humankind’s ability and responsibility for directing life began. This was the impetus for the Scientific Revolution.

The Methods and Mathematics of Galileo and Newton

Galileo died in 1642, the same year that Newton was born. These two men were probably the most influential scientists of the Scientific Revolution. Both men have been called “the father of science.” This may be an oversimplification of history, as there was surely a movement, which many contributed to the scientific cause. Nevertheless, Galileo and Newton stand out with both their discoveries, and their methods.

If relying on old books and tradition was not sufficient, a new way was needed to understand the world. Galileo came before Newton: Galileo established observation and experiment as the pillars of science. In order to determine if something was true, it had to be tested. Even the senses were considered unreliable in some cases. He also used mathematics to calculate the motion of objects. The idea that nature could be described using numbers was revolutionary. The scientific method had taken root.

Galileo & chruchGalileo’s confrontation with the church is well-known and is an iconic turning point in history. For 1500 years the church supported an earth-centered model of the universe; it was considered heresy to challenge this view. In 1632, Galileo published his most famous work, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. He wrote a dialogue showing both sides (earth-centered model and sun-centered model) hoping it would avoid church censorship. However, it was clear that Galileo supported Copernicus’ model from an earlier publication in 1543. This model placed the sun stationary at the center, with the earth, planets and stars orbiting the sun. The church banded the book and sentenced Galileo to house arrest, where he spent the last decade of his life.

Galileo came to his conclusion because the evidence led him to do so. Truth was not a matter of faith, belief or tradition. Ultimately, objective evidence was the determining factor. Using a telescope, which he built, he observed 4 moons orbiting Jupiter. This was proof that not every celestial body circled the earth. He also observed the phases of Venus (similar to lunar phases). The phases were caused by Venus’ orbit around the sun inside the Earth’s orbit. He concluded that the Copernican Model of the universe was the correct model. Galileo was right, and the world eventually agreed with him.

NewtonIf there was any doubt that science could explain the world, by the time Isaac Newton was done it had been dispelled. According to some present scientists, Newton was the most brilliant scientist that ever lived. In 1687, he published the Principia Mathematica, where he disclosed his law of universal gravitation and the three laws of motion. With Newton’s laws one could calculate the motion of objects in both the heavens and the earth, including the trajectory of a spaceship flying to the moon. For Newton, God’s hand was present in the laws of nature.

Although not as publicized, Newton also made influential discoveries in optics. He discovered that white light is a mixture of the different colors of the rainbow. White light can be spread out into a spectrum of colors. This phenomenon would prove to be critical in charting the universe a few centuries later. We now know a tremendous amount about the large-scale universe because scientists can decode light. Information can be extracted from the light of distant galaxies. This is done by studying the fine details of the spectrum.

Galileo, Newton and the revolutionary scientists showed that the book of nature was accessible to human understanding. And the avenue was the scientific method and mathematics. This was just the beginning, as Newton realized:

“I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

Discovering the Laws of Nature

The early scientists were like the pioneers that sailed to discover the New World. The explorers were trying to claim and settle new lands, but they could not predict the types of civilizations that would follow. Similarly, the initial goal of science was to understand how nature worked. The applied sciences would come later. Newton never imagined that his equations would be used to place a man on the moon. The physicists of the early 1900s that studied the atom did not foresee the internet and smartphones.

telescpoeThe first step was to discover the laws that governed the universe. Then gradually it became apparent that nature could be manipulated for man’s benefit. Science had a say in the philosophical questions by challenging long-held beliefs, but it also changed humanity’s way of life. In the last 500 years the world has seen more changes than any other time period. This is mainly due to the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial and Technological Revolutions that followed.

Transforming the World

It is ironic that some of the technologies, which have transformed human life in positive ways, have also led to negative side effects. In first-world countries most people are better off in areas such as: health, nutrition, poverty, famine, longevity, infant mortality, leisure time and economic prosperity. Many of life’s ailments that were once considered normal have been eradicated. That being said, the natural world is being altered in the process. Just as it would be impossible to enjoy our modern way of life without science, it would be equally impossible to significantly damage the environment without science.

A half-century ago no one imagined that human activity could product climate change. Now the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that greenhouse gasses are responsible for rising temperatures, melting arctic ice sheets, and producing severe weather patterns. The present trends cannot continue indefinitely. Unless a change in direction occurs, the survival of the human race will be jeopardized.

The mainstream use of slave labor, as well as the horse and cart are things of the past, which will surely not return. Will new science and technology transform the world again? This seems like the most probable way out of the environmental crises. If history is to be repeated, something like the Scientific Revolution has to take hold. Perhaps the next step will be a Green Revolution. For better or worse, the future will be shaped by forces we have not yet conceived. Given how far science has progressed in the last 500 years (and even the last 100 years), the possibilities are endless.

References: Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens (Canada: Signal Books an imprint of MeClelland & Stewart, 2014).

Brainy Quote, http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/i/isaac_newton.html, 2001-2015 BrainyQuote, June 14, 2015.

Sparknotes, http://www.sparknotes.com/history/european/scientificrevolution/context.html, 2015 SparkNotes LLC, June 14, 2015.

Nova – Galileo’s Battle for the Heavens (PBS Documentary, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VnEH9rbrIkk, Published on Sept. 30, 2014.

Secret Life of Issac Newton (HD) – New Full Documentary, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPRV1h3CGQk, Published on June 9, 2014.


 

The Birth of Science

ancient greeceThe origin of science is generally credited to the ancient Greeks, starting around 500 BC. There were surely other civilizations that applied scientific thinking, as cultures often evolve similar methods independently. It is well-known that other cultures tracked the motion of the stars and natural cycles. For example, Stonehenge and the Pyramids at Giza are aligned according to solar alignments at specific times of the year. In order to build these and other ancient sites, some fairly advanced technology would have been required. It is also possible that some discoveries and knowledge have been lost through the ages. One can conceive a number of ways this could happen, such as poor documentation, political strife, religious suppression and various conflicts.

What to Make of Cause and Effect?

For much of ancient history, there were essentially no recognizable patterns in nature. No cause and effect mechanisms could be discerned from the random and chaotic events that surrounded humans. Gods were assumed to be in control of nature, and humans could gain favor or disapproval from the Gods. When the Gods were pleased people experienced fine weather, peace, plentiful food and health. When the Gods were displeased people suffered from disease, war, famine and natural disasters. The only form of cause and effect that they considered was how their actions appealed to the Gods.

The birth of science occurred when patterns in nature began to be recognized and attributed to natural laws. This was a huge shift in thinking, which considered explanations outside the realm of the Gods. The idea that the world could be explained by physical principles (partly accessible to humans) has had a long an arduous road. It is easy to see how this would have met resistance, as it has to this day in some circles. Nevertheless, the Greeks were the first to systematically document ideas that resembled modern science.

The Seeds of Science

The classical period in Greece is famous for influencing the development of western civilizations, including scientific thought. The region of Ionia, a colony of Greece located across the Aegean Sea, was the birthplace of Greek science. Thales is believed to be the first person to accurately predict a solar eclipse, one that occurred in 585 BC. It is uncertain whether he actually made this prediction, but the fact that this story exist shows that the Ionians were thinking scientifically.

greek mathThe Pythagorean Theorem also originates from Ionia, stating the mathematical relationship between the three sides of a right triangle (the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides); the theorem is named after Pythagoras. He is also credited for having calculated the relationship between the length of a string and the specific sound it makes in a musical instrument. Archimedes discovered laws governing levers, buoyancy and light reflection. And perhaps the greatest insight came from Democritus, who proposed the existence of atoms as the fundamental particle of matter. Democritus reasoned that if you cut an object into piece, there would be a limit to the process. The word atom means “uncuttable.”

The Greeks developed some advanced concepts in geometry, which was their main form of mathematics. Other disciplines such as algebra, trigonometry and calculus, would only come many years later. Science being still in its infancy, they made little headway in describing actual natural phenomena using mathematics. Today, mathematics can be viewed as the language of science, as it is the cornerstone of many scientific theories.

The Absence of a Scientific Method

PhilosophersThe early scientists were as much philosophers as anything else. In fact, the term scientist was only coined in the 1800s (previously they were called natural philosophers). The Greeks’ method for describing patterns and principles in nature was mainly through reasoning. In other words, they had the idea that natural laws existed, but had not yet devised a method for testing them. Either they did not see it necessary to provide experimental evidence for their conclusions, or they believed it was fundamentally beyond their capabilities to do so. Or maybe they thought it was sufficient to understand the world by reason alone.

Although the Greeks were developing scientific ideas, there were disagreements, specifically because there was no way to settle conflicting ideas. According to Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design:

“So if one scholar claimed an atom moved in a straight line until it collided with a second atom and another scholar claimed it moved in a straight line until it bumped into a cyclops, there was no objective way to settle the argument”

Clearly the cyclops is an exaggeration to make a point. But the fact is that explanations about the physical world were a matter of opinion, and based on an individual’s line of reasoning. There was no objective truth. Aristotle saw little need to test his theories. His approach was focused on why nature behaved in certain ways, rather than how nature behaved as it did. The term natural philosopher was fitting for the time.

Even though predictable patterns were being noticed, an idea persisted that nature had intentions. It was up to man to figure out what those intentions were, or what rules nature followed. There seemed to be an uneasy relationship between physical reality and some form of higher power. Perhaps they were trying to replace the Gods as an explanation for the world, but they had not yet achieved the means.

Modern science is done by observation and experimentation. Any scientific theory is only validated when data shows that a prediction about nature is indeed true. Modern science tries to understand how things happen, and gives little attention to why things happen. In ancient times the scientific method had not yet been devised, and there were no clear road maps that showed scientists the way forward. In his book, To Explain the World, theoretical physicist and Nobel Prize winner, Steven Weinberg comments on the mindset of early scientists:

“It is not only that our predecessors did not know what we know about the world – more important, they did not have anything like our ideas of what there was to know about the world, and how to learn it.”

If this was true about scientists of past centuries, it was especially true during Classical Greece. From a standstill, ancient Greece broke the inertia and set the wheels in motion towards scientific discovery. Given rudimentary mathematics and insufficient tools for making precise measurements and observations, their insights were impressive. However, much of their ideas lay dormant for centuries following the fall of the Greek and Roman Empires, only to be revived or rediscovered later. The scientific torch would be picked up at the turn of the first millennium in the Middle East, and continued 500 years after that in Europe (it has become known as the Scientific Revolution).

 

References: Stephen W. Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2010), 22.

Steven Weinberg, To Explain the World (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015).

What the Ancients Knew – Greece (Published on Dec 30, 2012), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJRFLXBlsmA


Memes that Make the World

dnaMemes are the cultural equivalence of biological genes. The term meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in the 1976 publication of The Selfish Gene. The premise behind The Selfish Gene is that Darwinian natural selection acts at the level of genes; ultimately, it is genes that guide evolution by controlling the traits in bodies that contain the genes. In order for natural selection to work, there needs to be something like DNA and genes in which information is replicated. There also requires some copying errors so that small variations can occur from one generation to the next. Memes also fit that description.  Memes are ideas that survive in human brains, and similar to genes they can be copied and passed on.

There are many different types of memes: for example, songs, hairstyles, phrases, beliefs, words and manners. In today’s world the word meme has become popular on the internet. Whenever we here that something has “gone viral,” it is often referred to as a meme. In most cases the meme is something trivial, such as a piece of music, a surprising story or a silly video. It spreads rapidly, but usually it will not last very long. However, other memes have a far greater impact on society, and become part of cultural evolution. Or you could say that the memes guide cultural evolution, much like “the selfish genes.”

The Meme Codes

Language may be the key ingredient that allows memes to spread. Like a DNA code, language is also coded information. It comes in the form of letters and words. Speech is one variation of language, which is surely copied, but written language is even more stable as a replicating code.

We can all recall numerous instances when an event is passed from one story-teller to another. In most cases the details in the story changes until we have conflicting accounts. The information is transferred from one individual brain to another, but memories are not perfect and the copies are not exact. However, written language can exchange hands without the story being altered. The stories still have to resonate in people’s brains and the interpretations will vary, but the fidelity of the written word is higher than the spoken word.

Music is another meme that has two routes of transition. 1) Tunes are passed on by hearing the sounds and attempting to duplicate them. If a tune sounds appealing there is a higher chance it will be copied. As time passes the tune will change a bit. 2) Music can also be written in sheet music using mostly symbols. Like written language, the written music will remain close to the original form. One piano player following a sheet music may sound slightly different from another player. But as the song is played by many piano players it will not change significantly.

MathematicsMathematics is a meme of numbers, symbols and diagrams. It is more accurately copied than language, because there is less ways it can be altered. 2 plus 2 will always equal 4. There is an order in mathematics that is self-correcting, although concepts evolve over time with new applications. Language, music and mathematics are coded information that are replicated and evolve in human brains.

Marching on Through the Generations

The idea of generations is different for memes than it is for genes. A different generation for a gene is an offspring, which will carry some of the same genes. For memes, there is a double meaning for a generation. A meme can be passed on from person to person in a single day, or survive for many years. For instance, I tell you an idea, and you share it with someone else. That’s 3 generations, from me to you to someone else. In this scenario the meme could evolve like microbes, where mutations can occur in a matter of days or weeks. The idea will spread quickly, but each person could add to it or leaves something out; these would be mutations of the original idea.

There are also memes that are handed down in the traditional sense of generations, that is, from a father to a son. These memes are long-lasting and could become cultural norms or traditions. For example, holidays are memes that have survived for many years. In many cases the original customs and purposes behind the holidays are lost or changed (at least by some people). Still the celebrations continue and millions of people observe the holidays. Do we know why the colors of Christmas are red and green, or why the Easter Bunny gives out eggs, or why children get candies at Halloween?

Memes Working Together

Similar to a single gene, a single meme has a minor impact. Genes are effective when they combine with other cooperative genes. Memes also combine with compatible memes and also compete with other memes for attention in human brains. One could think of different ideas as a meme pool, which people select (consciously or subconsciously). The memes that work well together will be more likely to be copied. A meme-complex could be copied because it benefits society, but it could also be copied because it aids the propagation of itself. It is not a guarantee that humans will make the best possible choices; there are equal reasons to believe that we will choose unwisely.

football stadiumA sport is an example of a well-established meme-complex. The North American culture is fascinated with sports on a daily basis. Many play sports at local venues; many more watch sports at stadiums and on televisions. What memes could be working together? How about this list: (memes for running, throwing and catching), (memes for competing, winning and losing), (memes for watching, cheering and analyzing). Any stable and self-replicating cultural norm will consist of mutually beneficial memes.

History-Making Memes

Recorded human history is a story of culture. The ideas that populations believed in mass, whether real or imagined, has fueled the events of history. The most influential ideas (memes) have won out over other ideas. Not always because they were better ideas, but because they were more effective at spreading from brain to brain. Historian Yuval Harari writes in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind:

… history’s choices are not made for the benefit of humans… There is no proof that cultures that are beneficial to humans must inexorably succeed and spread, while less beneficial cultures disappear.

Religion symbolsThe cultural enterprises that have dominated human life contain large numbers of memes. Such examples are: religion, war, agriculture, kingdoms, art, music, politics, nationalism and science. No one can tell if the history-making memes (or meme-complexes) took the best course of action for humanity. Some did and others did not. Nevertheless, they had the attributes to enter human brains and to be imitated. Our modern culture is formed by memes with the same qualities as the historical memes. That is, copying fidelity, with variation, and wide-spread selection from the meme pool.

 

References: Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Canada: Signal Books, an imprint of McClelland & Stewart, 2014).

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 30th anniversary edition, 2006).

Richard Dawkins | Memes | Oxford Union, Published on Feb. 26, 2014. 

Susan Blackmore sobre memes e “temes” – TED Legendado, Published on Jul. 13, 2013.


Free Will: A Great Paradox

In the modern world we are faced with an almost unlimited amount of choices. We all make numerous decisions each day, whether we are aware of it or not. Many of our choices are relatively insignificant, such as: What will we wear today? What will we eat for breakfast? Will we stop at a coffee shop on our way to work? Then there are more important decisions we might tackle at work, depending on our occupation and position. Outside of work leisure time opens up another series of choices.

fork in the roadThen there are the big decisions, which can alter the course of one’s life. Good or bad outcomes often follow based on the decisions we take. For example: The partner we choose, the career we pursue and unforeseen events that will force us to choose the next path. As the saying goes: “When you reach a fork in the road, take it.”

An Introduction to So-Called Decision-Making 

Can we account for the decisions we make? Of course it is easy to rationalize why we do what we do, but what’s behind a decision? Most of us feel that our decisions are ours alone. But is that true? First let us look at different types of decisions (or perceived decisions).

  • Instinctual: There are actions we take that could be perceived as decisions but in reality aren’t. They are actions that are basically reactions to the outside world. For instance, if we cross the street and a car is racing at us, we will get out-of-the-way. Or if a ball is thrown at our face we will try to catch it with our hand.
  • Appetites: My favorite pie is pumpkin pie. As a dinner guest I am sometimes offered a choice of pies. If pumpkin is on the list, I will always choose it. I may have a gene that makes pumpkin pie taste better to me than other pies. Therefore, is my choice of pie actually a decision or a mere consequence of my genes?
  • Desires: Much of our life journey is a response to desires we can’t account for. These include career choices, sexual attraction, hobbies, leisure activities and more. We simply do not know why we are interested, or pushed in the directions we are. Our desires are a complex mix of genetics and cultural conditioning.
  • Contemplative: This is the slow pros and cons type of decision-making, when we take the time to weigh our options before we choose. For example, let’s say we are shopping for a new car. We will look at different models and probably tests drive a few vehicles. Weighing quality and cost we come to a final decision on a new car.

Of the four examples above, the last listed (contemplative) looks and feels most like a true decision. The other three fall more in a grey area where one can’t be sure how much decision-making is involved. As you will see later, even the contemplative type may not be what it appears to be at first glance. That brings to the table the idea of free will.

Free Will

free willWhat do we mean when we say free will? Free will is the idea that we have the ability to make decisions independent of our genetics and conditioning. Another way to think about free will is the belief that we could have done differently than we did in a given circumstance. And likely, the only way we could have done differently, is if we were different at the time. That is, if our genetics and conditioning were different.

We are who we are due to a long series of events not of our choosing. To account for the actions we take, one has to consider evolutionary history. The human brain (presumably key to decision-making) is a product of evolution and each unique brain is genetically based. Also parenting and social conditioning have a significant effect on human development and behavior. One could even conclude that in order to have free will the universe would have to be different.

The Universe on a Pool Table

Let’s do a simple thought experiment. A pool table is used as a model for the universe. In this experiment only one shot is considered (the break). The table represents all of space and the fundamental forces. The billiard balls act as the particles (atoms, sub-atomic particles and so on). The cue stick is the force behind the big bang. At the break, the cue ball is struck and from that point on everything else follows.

pool ballsAs an observer one has to wait and see how the balls will collide and bounce around, but it can only turn out one way. It was all determined by the brake and the way the table was setup. The movement of the billiard balls are a consequence of the characteristics of the balls, the break and the nature of the table. One could say that it is a closed system; after the initial conditions nothing can intervene in the process.

Now let’s look at the actual universe. The big bang created spacetime, the fundamental forces and particles. All the particles behave as a consequence of the conditions at the big bang (the break) and the acting forces. Can anything after the initial conditions intervene in how the universe unfolds? The universe is also a closed system, it just happens to be unimaginably larger that a pool table. We should be mindful not to confuse our ignorance of the future with the prospect of altering it.

A Game of Dice

What I just described is a deterministic picture of the universe. It is sometimes referred to as the Newtonian view or classical physics. Here the universe unfolds like clockwork. If the present conditions are known, then the laws of physics can be applied either forward or backwards in time with great accuracy. Nevertheless, it needs to be mentioned that another set of physical laws described by quantum mechanics seems to contradict the classical picture.

At the scale of the atom randomness is introduced and outcomes can only be predicted in terms of probabilities. There is no sure way to determine what a single sub-atomic particle will do. Only if a sufficient number of identical experiments are run, will the aggregate of outcomes reflect the assigned probabilities. So what we are left with is a deterministic framework at the large-scale and a probabilistic understanding for the small-scale.

Some people believe that quantum mechanics seems to erode determinism and opens the door for free will. However, I would argue that randomness and probabilities doesn’t get us any closer to free will. If the universe is essentially deterministic, or on occasion tosses a dice, how does any of this grant us free will? Whether classical or quantum laws apply, the universe is presumably still subject to those laws, and so are we.

The Great Paradox

 Does something change when consciousness arises?  Conscious beings are made of the same kind of particles that permeate the universe. There is no reason to think that brains are any different. If our thinking faculties are caused by natural forces acting on particles in our brain, how can we conclude that our decisions are ours alone?

To examine this question let’s do another thought experiment. Let’s say you are asked to name the first city that comes to your mind. After a few seconds of reflection you say Rome. Can you account for why you did not think of Paris, or any one of hundreds of other possible cities? Even if you were given a little more time and asked to choose a city, you would still be limited to a list that your mind could produce. It would appear to me that we fundamentally do not choose our thoughts, they simply arise. How can we get to free will if we don’t choose our thoughts? I suppose one could make the argument that from a collection of thoughts that do arise, we can then choose and that constitutes free will. However, that would mean that our decisions are influenced by a stream of thoughts that our conscious mind does not produce.

Scientifically and Philosophically, the idea that we have free will makes little sense. Some people realize this, but if we adopted this principle on mass, it could be the collapse of society as we know it. The idea of free will touches everything we do. Without free will (or we could call it personal responsibility) everything about our society would change. We would have to rethink our justice system, religions, morality and relationships. Nevertheless, if we all agreed that decisions are caused rather than made, it would undoubtedly lead to a more compassionate world. We would probably still have to hold people accountable for their behavior, but we would be less inclined to be judgmental, angry or resentful.

From a personal decision-making stand point, without free will, we would also be easier on ourselves for perceived bad decisions that often lead to regret. This we can do right now, regardless of how society at large thinks about free will. Nevertheless, going forward we are confronted with an unavoidable paradox. How can we possibly go through the normal decision-making process without the feeling that we are in control? And there lies the great paradox. Even if one accepts that free will is an illusion, I don’t see any other reasonable choice (a choice that is fundamentally not ours) than to live as if we have it.

 

References: Sam Harris on “Free Will”, Published on March 27, 2012https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCofmZlC72g.

Free Will — What Sam Harris Gets Right and Wrong, Published on April 10, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pJXt3LclcY


 

The Rise of Homo Sapiens

From about 2 million years ago until about 10,000 years ago, the world was populated by at least 6 different human species. They evolved from a common ancestor in East Africa, a hominid called Australopithecus (Southern Ape). Over thousands of years these primitive humans migrated to regions in North Africa, Europe and Asia. It is likely that environmental changes initiated the exodus, and as time passed new opportunities opened up in other lands. The diverse environments caused humans to evolve different survival traits, eventually branching out into several species.

For many years vast distances separated each species, which allowed them to survive independently. For instance: Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals) occupied regions in Europe and the Middle East, and Homo denisova (Denisovans) settled in Asia. Homo erectus (Upright Man), the human species with the most longevity (around 2 million years), populated eastern Asia. And a few species, including Homo sapiens (Wise Man), continued to evolve in East Africa. How closely related to Homo sapiens these other humans were is difficult to assess. How were they genetically different? What were their mental capabilities? And how complex were their social structures?

Homo sapiensNevertheless, starting at about 70,000 years ago Homo sapiens began moving north from Africa; they spread into the Arabian Peninsula and Eurasia. This led to direct competition with other humans. It is difficult for anthropologist to piece together what actually happened in the ensuing millenniums. But the Neanderthals became extinct about 30,000 years ago, and all other humans also disappeared (except for the sapiens). The extinction of Homo floresiensis in Indonesia (13,000 years ago) ended the last of the other human species.

Two Possible Theories

1) The Interbreeding Theory: When Homo sapiens encountered other humans they coexisted peacefully. The species were genetically close enough that they could have interbred. The result being that today’s human population is not pure Homo sapiens, but rather a genetic mix of humans that lived 70,000 to 30,000 years ago.

2) The Replacement Theory: In this scenario, the genetic difference between species was too great to allow for interbreeding. Or possibly the sapiens’ way of life was drastically different from the others, and they had no interest in mingling with them. Or more likely, there would have been an intense competition for resources. Homo sapiens were the winners in a battle for survival. One could entertain a number of possible ways in which the battle could have been fought and won.

New Evidence

Recent evidence has shed light on the competing theories. In 2010 Neanderthal DNA was extracted from fossil remains. Enough genetic material was still intact to map out the Neanderthal genome. A comparison with modern human DNA revealed that 1-4 % of the DNA of people from the Middle East and Europe is Neanderthal DNA.

Several months later a similar analysis was performed from another primitive human. A sample from the Denisova cave in Siberia showed that about 6% of its DNA was found in modern Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians. The Neanderthal and Denisovan findings prove that some interbreeding did occur, but the amount of DNA in modern genomes is still small. This suggests that interbreeding was not the whole story.

The species may have been at a transition phase, in which they were not completely separate species, but merging of populations was rare. The replacement theory still carries a lot of weight in explaining why about 95% of our DNA is pure Homo sapiens. The conclusion being that sapiens essentially drove the other species to extinction. But what was the crucial difference that resulted in one species dominating the landscape?

The Story of Homo Sapiens

When scientists are uncovering evidence from per-historic times there are bound to be gaps in knowledge. Therefore, a fair amount of speculation comes into play. The rise of Homo sapiens from an insignificant animal to one that claimed the globe is remarkable. Especially when you consider that other humans, as far as we know, started out with the same opportunities.

What unique attributes enabled Homo sapiens to become the only human species? Although we are so accustomed to a world with only one human species, it is the rarest of exceptions in nature. In the animal kingdom there are many species of cats, birds, turtles, and whales. Only in modern humans do we find a single unique species.

In the book, A Brief History of Humankind, historian Yuval Noah Harari identifies one critical sapiens trait that allowed our human ancestors to conquer the world. He calls it The Cognitive Revolution. According to Harari, prehistoric sapiens had evolved a rare ability to cooperate in large numbers, and to do so flexibly.

Homo sapien huntersIt was the development of complex language and social structures that set them apart from other humans. They could communicate everyday practical information, such as where and how to hunt and gather berries. In addition, myths, gods, legends and religions emerged at this time. Whether fact or fiction, storytelling allowed large groups to unite and work for a common cause. Stories also made it possible to pass on knowledge and wisdom to the next generation.

Other animals also work together in groups, but their behaviors are inflexible. In order for significant changes to come about, genetic changes have to occur through the process of evolution. This takes a long time, and that is why animal behavior remains consistent from one generation to the next. But this is not the case for modern humans. Our history reveals an unprecedented pace of change with each generation. For the first time in the history of life sapiens were able to adapt using cognitive abilities. Today, humans are the only species that can survive in all land environments (from rain forests to desert to the arctic). This is mainly due to our adaptability.

 Taking Over the World

Neanderthals

Neanderthals

When the first wave of Homo sapiens arrived in Neanderthal territory, about 100,000 years ago, the Neanderthals forced the sapiens to retreat. Evidence shows that the Neanderthals had large brains, muscular bodies, could withstand cold temperatures and lived in groups. But it is likely that they could not organize in large groups, or share knowledge in the same way sapiens did. 70,000 years ago a second wave of sapiens left Africa and overran the Neanderthals. This time there was no turning back; Homo sapiens gradually settled much of the globe, and all other human species disappeared.

As Homo sapiens discovered new lands they found an abundance of large animals. This may have been fortunate for the humans, but not for the animals. The archeological records show that roughly 1/2 of the large land mammals became extinct during this period. Climatic or environmental changes may have contributed to the extinctions, however, the human invasion is hard to ignore. In every corner of the world, from large continents to remote islands, extinctions followed humans arriving for the first time.

Large prehistoric animals, such as ground sloths, saber tooth cats and mammoths could have been victims of the sapiens success. This was the first wave of extinction caused by human activity. But they could not have known the full impact of their actions, nor could they have imagined the evolution of human civilizations that would follow. Today, our unique cognitive ability separates us from all other animals. It was developed thousands of years ago in an epic battle for world supremacy.

 

References: Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens (Canada: Signal Books, an imprint of McClelland & Stewart, 2014)

The Nature of Things: The Great Human Odyssey, (2015).


 

From Superstition and Myth to Scientific Explanations

Modern humans (Homo sapiens) have walked the earth anywhere from about 150,000 to 200,000 years. The span in years depends on the definition one uses to classify modern humans. By the way, the term Homo sapiens comes from Latin meaning wise man. Despite the distinction of wise man, human progress was slow in ancient times as compared to the last few centuries. Of course there were some discoveries and innovations through the years. One can imagine the development of stone tools, improved hunting techniques, agricultural advancements and other rudimentary progress. However, humans would only live up to their Latin name when they were able to find explanations for the natural world.

Bad Explanations

The ancients almost certainly desired a better way of life, for themselves and their children. They would have wanted to know more about the world. Why do crops fail? How does disease come about? Is the water safe to drink? In ancient times questions of this kind could not be answered with any degree of certainty. Of course they tried to find adequate answers, but for the most part failed in doing so.

Without the ability to decipher the intricacies of nature, ancient societies often turned to superstition and myth for answers. This method would have provided explanations for a number of mysterious happenings. However, they would have been mostly bad explanations because their approach was flawed from the start. Why were they so prone to such explanations? For starters, without an established scientific method in place, they would have relied on their senses to a large extent. This was probably quite adequate for what could easily be observed. But when it came to the unseen world they were mostly at a loss.

The Birth of Superstition

Michael Shermer, editor in chief of Skeptic magazine, offers an interesting explanation as to how superstition creeps in the human psyche. It goes something like this: Imagine that you are a Hominid (a distant human ancestor)  living in the African Savanna about 3.5 million years ago and you here a rustle in the grass. Are you better off to assume it’s a dangerous predator or just the wind? If you think it’s a predator and it turns out to be just the wind, then there is no harm done. If you think it’s the wind and it really is a predator, then you may become lunch. Natural selection would have been more likely to select individuals that tended to assume that mysterious noises might be predators. To remain safe in this environment it was best to assume the worst, rather than take the time to investigate.

What is the difference between a dangerous predator and the wind? A predator has intentions, it is looking for food and you may become its target, whereas the wind is an inanimate force. The wind has no concerns for you whatsoever. In the fore mentioned scenario, assuming that mysterious noises have intentions is a survival trait. We are descended from primates which would have been more likely to assume intent, whether it was real or not. And that is just fine for everyday life in the Savanna. It only becomes a problem when this principle is applied to a wider range of unknown phenomenon. When a host of natural occurrences, not well understood, are perceived to have intentions then we have superstition. When these intentions are personified, then they may become part of myth.

A Way Out

We are perhaps hard-wired by evolution to make snap decisions and assumptions in certain situations. However, most of us no longer live with immediate dangers at hand. Science is the best remedy to what ailed our ancient ancestors. We no longer require superstition in our lives, because we now have better explanations (real explanations).

The scientific revolution that swept Europe in the late 1500s to the 1700s is referred to the beginning of modern science. Men like Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo, Isaac Newton and many others led the way to a deeper understanding of nature. From that point on human progress would happen at a much faster rate. The Scientific Method (the catalyst for progress) had at long last been discovered.

The Scientific Method

beakerWhat is the best way to know how something works? A good place to start is with a well thought out question. And then we can proceed in looking for the answer. The scientific method could be described as the process between the question and the answer. Science arrives at answers by observation and experimentation. Scientists can make predictions that nature will behave in a certain way based on observation (known as a hypothesis). Then the experiments will either confirm or disprove the original hypothesis. If the hypothesis is verified then it becomes a theory. The theory is then subjected to analysis by other scientists, and if it holds up, it becomes accepted as scientific knowledge.

The knowledge base is still subject to being altered or expanded on by more complete explanations, but by similar methods in which it was first discovered. The book is never completely closed; however, by now we are far along in the process and many explanations about nature are unlikely to change significantly. Scientific knowledge exists on its own merit, not because of traditions or the word of authorities. In fact, it can be said that there are no scientific authorities.

The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (better known as the Royal Society) was founded in 1660. It is a fellowship of some of the world’s finest scientists and is perhaps the oldest scientific academy in existence. Its motto reads in Latin Nillius in Verba, translated in English to mean “On the word of no one” or “take nobody’s word for it.” I would say, don’t blindly trust authority or people of stature and see for yourself.

Progress 

It can be debated as to what constitutes progress, but there can be little doubt that modern science is a significant contributor. In the developed world we live more comfortably than previous generations; with conveniences that ancient societies could not have imagined. This is largely due to the scientific endeavor.

AtomWe now know about microorganisms and their role in disease and infection. We have a greater understanding of weather systems and can reasonably predict their effects. The discovery of electricity has eased our way of life significantly. The unlocking of the atom has made possible a multitude of information technologies. This is but a sample of what scientific discovery means for us.

Beyond the practical aspects we can’t ignore what science offers in terms of explanations. For instance, the ancients did not have a natural explanation for a solar eclipse. Some cultures believed that the sun was being devoured by a celestial dragon or some other creature. It was common for people to join together and bang on pots and pans, and make noise in order to frighten the beasts in the sky. Of course in due time the sunlight would return, reinforcing a false pattern.

We now understand that a solar eclipse is caused by the moon’s position obscuring the sun. No celestial creatures are required for an explanation and no amount for pot banging makes any difference. Today there are numerous things we can know about reality that are mostly taken for granted. However, our experience is greatly enhanced by the efforts of past and present scientists. We truly live in a special time, because for the most part, science has supplanted superstition.

 

References: Best of Michael Shermer Amazing Arguments And Clever Comebacks Part One, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQ8gasKQEWM, May 7, 2014.

David Deutsch: A new way to explain explanation, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=folTvNDL08A, Oct 26, 2009.