Science is Beautiful

I’m getting kind of tired of people scoffing at the idea that science can make things more beautiful. For some reason, many people seem to think that knowing about something makes it less beautiful. I call bullshit, and it’s very easy to demonstrate my position.

Would the people who think understanding the world develops dullness think the same about people? Do people grow less beautiful the more you get to know them? You see a girl. She’s pretty, but doesn’t necessarily stand out. But as you talk to her and get to know her, does her beauty grow or diminish? In my experience, it’s nearly always the former; the exceptions are those rare occasions when you actually have a pretty ugly and hateful person. Ann Coulter comes to mind.

Why would it be any different for a flower, or a rainbow, or the night school, or the sunrise? Or any of the other endless examples of beautiful phenomena that we encounter everyday. It seems to me that looking staring at a sunrise without really wondering how it works is missing much of the experience. While it’s not necessarily a shallow experience, it’s certainly not as full as it could be.

It’s more meaningful to me to look at something that I have some understanding of and wonder at it. The feelings are intensified through knowledge, not dulled.

Maybe for some people, it’s the opposite. Maybe they view the world fundamentally different. That wouldn’t be terribly surprising. If that’s who they are, that’s reality, and there’s no use denying it. But I really would like you to stop scoffing at my own way, and to assume that you have it all figured out. If there is one thing that true understanding cultivates more than anything else, it’s the humility that you really know very little at all.

That’s something we can all learn from.

Scientific Literacy

Here is a recent article in Seed, written by Thomas W. Martin, entitled, Scientific Literacy and the Habit of Discourse. Excerpt:

Science eventually yields impressive answers because it compels smart people to incessantly try to disprove the ideas generated by other smart people.

Can we make this required reading?

Mr. Martin hits upon another issue I have a real pet peeve about:

In the present cultural climate, altering one’s beliefs in response to anything (facts included) is considered a sign of weakness.

Political races especially have illustrated this perfectly. It’s a side effect of not having any popularly accepted standard of truth. People would prefer to deny reality itself in order to ‘feel-good’ or, in the political arena, appeal to some sub-group of people.

Loneliness

We are social animals. It’s interesting to see how we evolved to that; but we are not unique in that regard. Many other animals out there require much social contact. Primates are a good example, so are different types of birds, and there are others.

We evolved this way because it is advantageous to work through life cooperating with those around us instead of fighting with them, or ignoring them. It’s very rare for the ‘going it alone’ attitude to actually succeed.

With that in mind, it’s no wonder that many people find themselves feeling lonely. Not just alone, but lonely. We all have times where we feel alone. Maybe it’s a holiday, and you’re sitting in your apartment, listening to other people celebrate, because they are too loud for you to go to sleep. Or maybe you’re driving somewhere by yourself, and the radio is out, and you just wish you had someone to talk to. Feeling alone can happen in a variety of ways, but it’s different than loneliness.

Loneliness is a deeper, drawn out feeling of being alone. It’s not something that lasts a couple of hours (or days). It isn’t the result of a choice, either. Perhaps everyone you know is too busy all the time, or perhaps you don’t know anyone. Or perhaps you’re not even alone physically. You could be at a party, or gathering of friends and family, where everyone is having a wonderful time, and yet you still feel like the loneliest person in the world.

Loneliness isn’t merely about not being around other people. It’s about not connecting with other people. It’s about finding it impossible to develop meaningful human contact.

It’s no wonder that we developed all sorts of different coping mechinisms to deal with this. Self Medication, prostitution, spending money, porn, smoking, drugs, exercise, food, obsessions, television – the list is endless. I’ve used a few of those, and I know the dark places where they can lead. Religion for me was another coping mechanism. Who needs meaningful human contact, when you have a relationship with the greatest being that exists? Only, if the meaning in that disappears, where does that leave you?

Or if spending money is a coping mechanism, what happens when you run out?

Or what happens when you eat too much food, and eventually become obese?

Or what happens when you are self-medicating, and alcohol takes over your life?

Coping mechanisms can be helpful, but they can also lead to ignorance of the underlying problem. An alcoholic doesn’t become one simply because they like alcohol. They’re likely trying to fill another void in their life, something they haven’t figured out how to fill any other way.

One symptom of loneliness is the feeling that everyone else has so many friends, they’re never alone. An outsider can look at someone, and see the number of friends, or the closeness to family, and just assume that there is no way the person can be lonely. Both of those statements depend on a fallacy, that loneliness is merely about being alone. For example, I love my family and I love visiting them, but everytime I visit, feelings of loneliness crop up. Why? Because the things that are important to me are not shared by them. It’s difficult to make any sort of deep connection in that circumstance. Loneliness isn’t about loving others, or being loved, it’s about not being able to share your life with someone else.

It’s no different than where we were a hundred thousand years ago. Back then, we needed each other in order to just survive. We hunted in groups, gathered in groups, everything. If we left the group, we would likely die. Today, it’s not our physical lives that are in danger, though, but our mental ones. It’s no longer about hunting mammaths in order to eat, but it’s still about facing our lives.

The Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything!

We all know that answer is 42, right? Well, perhaps not.

But what is the answer? Why are we here? What is the meaning for our life?

I have my own answers to those questions. People will disagree – that’s great. I’m not going to demand that you live your life according to my standards, but I am going to demand that you pay me that same respect.

When I look at the universe, I see beauty that is indescribable. We can talk about it, but the experience of seeing that beauty is something I cannot find the words to communicate completely.   But even with all that beauty, there is some cold hard facts that I (and I believe that since they are facts, others should as well) have had to come to terms with.

The universe has no absolute purpose, as far as we can tell.  This is different than saying that it definitely has no purpose, just that there is no evidence for purpose.  In other words, we cannot know that the universe has purpose.

Our lives have no extrinsic meaning.  We are not here for a purpose set by someone or something greater than ourselves.  Please note once again, I’m not saying that no such purpose exists, only that there is no evidence that such a purpose exists.

With those two facts in mind, what possibly could be the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?

Well, if purpose and meaning are not set by some external source, then we must set our own purpose and meaning.   This is an incredibly powerful idea.  We can decide what our lives will mean.  We can decide the purpose of our actions – the purpose of our existence.

For myself, I find meaning in discovery.  I need to know how the world works.  I need to know why I find it so beautiful.  I need to share those discoveries with others who are interested in them as well.

Where do you find your meaning, really?

Marco Polo’s Dilemna

From a blog entry about psychiatry:

“When Marco Polo saw the exotic one horned quadruped, his frame of reference required that it could be none other than a unicorn, even though it did not conform exactly to his prior conception of it. Marco Polo made his observation fit his existing paradigm of zoology. While superficially (and in retrospect) this may seem silly and arbitrary, it is in fact the opposite, Marco Polo believed the only thing he could believe—because the alternative was to believe he had discovered an entirely new, unheard of, creature.

While the original post dealt with psychiatry directly, I think there is a wider lesson to be learned here. Our assumptions about knowledge and authority can lead us down the wrong path.

What does the Prisoner’s Dilemna Teach us about Morality?

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a classic non-zero-sum game in game theory. I know that can sound a little intimidating, but I’ll lay it out in it’s simplest terms, because it really is quite simple to grasp, and quite valuable to understand.

As a former Objectivist, I really understand the power of selfishness and what it entails. Everyone is basically selfish – in fact, it’s impossible to be completely altruistic. However, that explanation depends on very rigid definitions of both altruism and selfishness, and those definitions are rarely used outside of Objectivism. The main point is that most people, most of the time, will look to maximize their own gain, and I think that most people will agree with that. Objectivism states that this can be a very valuable tool for the betterment of everyone, and there is a lot of evidence that backs that up. The problem is that it never takes into account non-zero-sum games, such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

To illustrate what I mean by a non-zero-sum game, let me explain the Prisoner’s Dillemma. Imagine two people who committed a crime together. When they are arrested, they are seperated into two different rooms, and the prosecuter comes in to talk with each of them. The situation is explained to them. If they betray the other person and turn states evidence, they will get away scot free. If they stay silent, while the state can’t convict them for the original criminal act, they can easily get a conviction for a smaller act committed later. The options each person is facing are these:

1. Stay silent, get convicted for the smaller offence, serve 5 years in prison.

2. Turn states evidence, betray their partner and serve no prison time.

It seems pretty obvious that option (2) is the best option. However, there is a twist. The other person is also getting the same deal, so the situation is more complicated. The possibilities are now this:

A. Both stay silent, both serve 5 years in prison.

B. One talks while the other stays silent, and so one goes free while the other spends 10 years in prison.

C. Both talk, where they both serve 10 years. In other words, if they both turn states evidence, there is no need for a deal, so they both go to prison.

Now the Dilemma should be clear. If they both take option (2) from above, they will both serve 10 years prison time. However, if one stays silent, they risk the other turning states evidence and getting off free while they serve 10 years prison.

What would you do?

Given that situation and the options given to each, I’m going to define option (1) as altruistic in nature, and option (2) as selfish in nature. If both people act purely selfishly, as our tendencies are, they both lose greatly. If only of them acts altruistically, they risk being screwed into something pretty bad. The best option now becomes for them to both act altruistically, seeking cooperation instead of self-preservation.

That deserves quite a bit of meditation. As in the Tragedy of the Commons, the best option for both the group and the individual over the long run is more altruistic behaviour than purely selfish behaviour. However, where as the tragedy of the commons can be addressed through private ownership to a point, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is more about interaction, which can be more difficult to really grasp, and I think relevent to morality. Where-in Objectivism holds selfishness as the highest moral principle, it does not necessarily reflect reality. Obviously, altruistic behaviour can lead to an even greater gain, depending on the situation. Those situations are non-zero-sum games.

Given that gaining and keeping resources is good for the individual, we can now derive a moral principal. In a non-zero-sum game, it is morally best for an individual to act altruistically, and immorral to act selfishly.

Okay, you might be wondering why I’m taking the time to write something so blazingly obvious to anyone. As an atheist, I’ve been accused as being a moral relativist, or even worse, completely lacking in morals. This is obvious to the accuser because morality can only come from god. I have now answered those accusations. I have demonstrated the creation of a moral principal using only reason, and without invoking the supernatural. What’s more, it can be applied equally to everyone, and it’s reasoning is available to everyone. It is not dependent on revelations to the elite, or an ancient and contradictory book. It something you can learn, here and now.

This is not something new. It’s not something I did completely on my own. This has been explained over and over again, and as I mentioned, there is a whole field dedicated to the study of such situations. Richard Dawkin’s has done a documentary on the subject called ‘Nice Guys Finish First,’ which explains the subject much better than I can hope for.

Love and Compatibility

About two weeks ago, I had a discussion about love with my friend Tara about love, and it’s launched me into considering it a bit more lately.  Then today in my blogroll, I saw this article pop up from Psychology today, which threw a wrench into my thoughts to say the least.  If you don’t want to click on the link, it’s entitled “The Truth About Compatibility.”

The main point of the article is that we tend to give compatibility too high of a place in our priorities for finding love.  Here are a few quotes that I found especially enlightening:

“There is no such thing as a compatible couple. All couples disagree about the same things: money, sex, kids, time. So, it’s really about how you manage your differences. If there is chemistry, then the whole courtship is about convincing yourself and others that you are compatible. But, really, you create compatibility. And then, eventually, maybe in 25 years, you will become soul mates.” —Diane Sollee, founder and director, Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education

“People might agonize and think, Do we have the same likes and dislikes? But people are not aware of how powerful self-fulfilling prophecies are. We have expectations in a relationship, and we tend to make them come true. The most satisfied couples are those with overly rosy views of each other.” —Lisa Diamond, assistant professor of psychology and gender studies, University of Utah.

These are both very interesting takes, and put that way, I can’t help but think that they are probably right.  I mean, what are the chances that someone will agree with you on everything, and yet not share most of your faults as well?  What’s more is the question, do you really want someone 100% compatible?  When I really examine the question, I realize that having 100% compatibility would be undesirable.

A relationship should be a non-zero sum situation.  Each side should be able to augment the other.  As one person from the article put it:

“People assume compatibility as a baseline requirement, then want more. “I want him to fit in with my family and do all the things I love to do—and he should be sexy, and he should take me out to cool places.” I think you can have an even more fulfilling relationship if you respect each other’s worlds, and learn a little bit from each other. I always think of the phrase, “You’ve met your match.” You really do want someone who challenges and spars with you.” —Nancy Slotnick, dating coach, founder of cablight.com

Challenge is the right word.  Sparing can conjur negative images, but I think it’s apt too.   You become better at something by overcoming.  I think a ‘Significant Someone’ would be there to help you along, press you, and face hurdles with you.  Compatibility no doubt plays an important part, especially in the early stages, and perhaps in a different emphasis that what we usually give it.  Over-all, though, perhaps there are more important things.

Love is truly complicated.

What is Scientific Skepticism?

I’ve been a scientific skeptic for over nine months now, and I’ve discovered that most people don’t really know what this means. So, I’m going to attempt to explain it.

You can boil down the concept of scientific skepticism down to one single concept: we know things based on empirical evidence. But what does that mean? It means that the only evidence acceptable in support of something is that evidence that is available to everyone and can be verified by anyone.

When looking at the phrase ’scientific skepticism’ it’s important to focus on the first word. A scientific skeptic uses science and the scientific method to verify or discover new evidence.

There are many famous scientific skeptics you probably already know about. Here is a short list: Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, James Randi, Penn & Teller, and even the Mythbusters crew.

Using the scientific method, there are several things already know. We understand the effects of gravity (but are still working on how it works), the concepts of thermal-dynamics, the workings of the atom, evolutionary biology.

The things that there isn’t empirical evidence for are the things that the skeptic rejects. Examples of these things include: homeopathy, psychic readings, telepathy, and faith healing.

Sometimes the question arises about things everyone feels that they know, but we don’t really have evidence for. There is a scene in the movie, Contact, that illustrates this. The main character is asked to ‘prove’ that she loved her father. The point is that this was something she knew was true, but couldn’t really prove.

But is this a proper application of the skeptic epistemology?

There are several ways I’ve approached this problem. The first goes something like this. Personally, she has a lot of evidence for the fact that she loves her father. She has no problem knowing beyond all doubt that it is a simple fact. However, getting proof to this fact demonstrable and verifiable to a third person would be a bit more difficult. Some say that it would be possible for her to be hooked up to an MRI or EEG machine and readings of her brain to be taken. Or perhaps measurements of her body chemistry and how it reacts to thoughts of her father. In the end, however, there is an important thing to note that makes all of this rather pointless. She’s not trying to get other people to believe that she loved her father. It doesn’t really matter what anyone else believes. If she were to take on the task of trying to get other people to believe, perhaps then it would be necessary to provide such evidence.

When approaching a new idea, a skeptic will take a neutral stance and then look at the evidence. If the evidence contradicts the idea, then the idea is wrong, or incomplete. If the evidence is not enough to render a judgement either way, the skeptic will withhold judgement. This is an extremely important point. Skeptics are more tied to the method of knowledge discovery than to the knowledge itself. If contradictory evidence appears, the original idea is discarded and the search for a new one begins, one that fits with the evidence. Sometimes such new ideas are easily located, others may forever be out of our reach.

Teaching and the Socratic Method

One of my many passions is teaching.  I love to learn new things, and as an auto-didact, I am always discovering something new and exciting.  I love this new knowledge so much that I can’t help but have a strong desire to share it.  Most of my knowledge comes from field outside of the common range of knowledge.  Lately, I’ve been studying Quantum Physics, Relativity, Sleight of Hand, Skepticism, and Evolution.  These are not things the common person knows much about.  So many times, when I’m trying to share this knowledge with someone, what I’m really doing is teaching this new idea to them, whether it’s recognized as such or not.

One of my greatest joys, however, is teaching in front of a class.  Over the course of my life, I’ve taught music classes, physics classes, and computer classes.  I think the physics classes were my favorite because they were the most hands-on.  I taught model rocketry and the physics behind it.

My classes were very different than other classes.  Instead of writing information on the board, I asked questions.  Eventually, it was the class that provided the answers, even though they did not previously know the answer.  This is the most powerful way to teach, and it is known as the Socratic Method.

Plato / Socrates believed that the Socratic Method worked because we already contained the entire knowledge of the universe, we only had to access it for the first time in order to know it.  This was an extension of their ‘Theory of Forms,’ in which our knowledge of the physical world was merely a reflection of some sort of abstract form of things.

Though I love the Socratic Method, I completely reject this sort of reasoning.

Why does the Socratic Method work, then?  Because man is a reasoning being.  We are capable of logic and building upon previous knowledge in order to gain new knowledge.

The students I had in the rocketry class had little concept of the newtonian equations, but they could very easily figure out the equations for velocity and acceleration, and from there we could derive the rest.  Physics was no longer “hard” for them, it was something they were able to come up with themselves!  Here is an account of a man teaching a third grade class binary math using the Socratic Method.

I don’t think you can top that.  Most college students have trouble with Binary math.

I detest how most classes are taught today.  Some information is written on the chalkboard, or – if you’re really unlucky – a powerpoint presentation, and you’re expected to memorize it.  Most students my age have no concept of expanding their own knowledge mere through thought because of this.  They expect the knowledge to just be given to them whenever they need it.

It can be very frustrating, and that is part of what has led me to be much more cynical.  It’s hard to have faith in the human mind when people are too ignorant to figure out and remember how to cut and paste on a computer, or do any sort of other extremely easy task.

Do you have a brain?  Use it, for crying out loud!  When I have a question, or I wonder how something works, or I need to know how to do something, depending on what it is, I tend to do one of these things:

1. Start Expirementing with different things
2. Take something apart and put it back together
3. Look it up in Google and/or Wikipedia
4. Look at the situation from different points of view (literally or figuratively)
5. Other

I had to add the last category in there because there isn’t a real set of things.  All these are concerned with one thing: getting more information.

So think and question things!  When you hear something new, ask yourself if it is inline with your own observations and if it’s possible if your own point of view could be incorrect.

After all, what good is having a mind if you never use it?