Category Archives: philosophy

Sagan’s Cosmos on the Scientific Method and Uncomfortable Ideas

I’m cur­rently watch­ing Carl Sagan’s excel­lent Cos­mos: A Per­son­al Voy­age. I feel com­pelled to post the fol­low­ing quote from epis­ode four, Heav­en and Hell, as it stood out for its eleg­ant argu­ment for the strength of sci­entif­ic ideas and for not reject­ing uncom­fort­able (if incor­rect) ideas:

There are many hypo­theses in sci­ence which are wrong. That’s all right. It’s the aper­ture to find­ing out what’s right. Sci­ence is a self-cor­rect­ing pro­cess. To be accep­ted, new ideas must sur­vive the most rig­or­ous stand­ards of evid­ence and scru­tiny.

The worst aspect of the Velikovsky affair is not that many of his ideas were wrong or silly or in gross con­tra­dic­tion to the facts. Rather, the worst aspect is that some sci­ent­ists attemp­ted to sup­press Velikovsky’s ideas.

The sup­pres­sion of uncom­fort­able ideas may be com­mon in reli­gion or in polit­ics, but it is not the path to know­ledge. And there is no place for it in the endeav­our of sci­ence.

We do not know before­hand where fun­da­ment­al insights will arise from about our mys­ter­i­ous and lovely sol­ar sys­tem. And the his­tory of our study of the sol­ar sys­tem shows clearly that accep­ted and con­ven­tion­al ideas are often wrong and that fun­da­ment­al insights can arise from the most unex­pec­ted sources.

And if you think this only applies to wacky astro­nom­ic­al ideas or insights about our sol­ar sys­tem… well, then you’re delud­ing your­self.

I can­’t wait for the updated Cos­mos presen­ted by Neil deGrasse Tyson; it’ll be the best thing on TV since sliced bread.

Strangers and Friends: A Shared History and Less Graciousness

Ryan Hol­i­day asks a very good ques­tion: why do we extend patience and tol­er­ance to strangers, while sim­ul­tan­eously treat­ing those closest to us less gra­ciously?

It’s an inter­est­ing ques­tion with some equally inter­est­ing pos­sible answers (is it a sub­con­scious and inef­fi­cient way of attempt­ing to ease our daily lives by telling those we spend the most time with how we want to be treated?). I like the con­clus­ory piece of advice: we should give every­one “the gra­cious­ness of meet­ing them fresh each time”.

Some weirdo says some­thing to you in the gro­cery store and you smile and nod your head, “Yup!” Just to avoid a scene right? You have a meet­ing with a sales rep and indulge the friendly but point­less chitchat even though you hate it. But a friend mis­pro­nounces a word and we leap to cor­rect them. Your girl­friend tells a bor­ing story and you’ve got to say some­thing about it, you’ve got to get short with her. What kind of bull­shit is this? We give the bene­fit of cour­tesy to every­body but the people who earned it.

Think of how much patience we have for total strangers and acquaint­ances. But what a short fuse we have for the actu­al people in our life. In the course of our every­day lives, our pri­or­it­ies are so very back­wards. We do our best to impress people we’ll nev­er see again and take for gran­ted people we see all the time. We’re respect­ful in our busi­ness lives, cas­u­al and care­less in our per­son­al. We pun­ish close­ness with cri­ti­cism, reward unfa­mili­ar­ity with polite­ness.

This is a great example of why I read Ryan’s work: he’s adept at point­ing out the every­day hypo­cris­ies that we rarely notice.

Together, Unconscious: We All Sleep

One con­stant that con­nects us all in some way is that–at the end of our day–we lie down and slowly slip into a state of reduced or absent con­scious­ness and become at the mercy of our fel­low man. Every day we fall asleep: we have done so for mil­lions of years and will con­tin­ue to do so.

This hum­bling thought was inspired by Dav­id Cain’s short dis­quis­i­tion on how the act of sleep­ing is some­thing that unites us togeth­er, all around the world. Dav­id’s post did­n’t quite take the route I was expect­ing after read­ing the (won­der­ful) excerpt below1, but is still def­in­itely worth a read.

It’s an inter­est­ing quirk of Moth­er Nature — that she insists on tak­ing us down to the ground like that, every day, no mat­ter who we are. For all of us, the act of leav­ing con­scious­ness is the same, it’s just our set­tings and situ­ations — which bookend that uncon­scious­ness — where we dif­fer.

via Link Banana

1 I was expect­ing the post to con­cen­trate on the first sen­tence (leav­ing con­scious­ness), rather than the second sen­tence (sleep as a con­nect­or).

Our Self-Centered ‘Default’ Worldview: DFW’s Commencement Address

Recent talk of the cor­res­pond­ence bias (here) reminded me of pos­sibly the best com­mence­ment speech that I’ve not yet writ­ten about (and I’ve writ­ten about quite a few): Dav­id Foster Wal­lace’s com­mence­ment address to the gradu­ates of Kenyon Col­lege in 2005.

The speech, often cited as Wal­lace’s only pub­lic talk con­cern­ing his worldview, was adap­ted fol­low­ing his death into a book titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Sig­ni­fic­ant Occa­sion, About Liv­ing a Com­pas­sion­ate Life and is essen­tial read­ing for any­one inter­ested in per­son­al choice: the choice of think­ing and act­ing in a way con­trary to our self-centered “default” world­view.

Actu­ally, scrap that, it’s just essen­tial read­ing for every­one.

Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long check­out lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a con­scious decision about how to think and what to pay atten­tion to, I’m gonna be pissed and miser­able every time I have to shop. Because my nat­ur­al default set­ting is the cer­tainty that situ­ations like this are really all about me. About MY hun­gri­ness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like every­body else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repuls­ive most of them are, and how stu­pid and cow-like and dead-eyed and non­hu­man they seem in the check­out line, or at how annoy­ing and rude it is that people are talk­ing loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and per­son­ally unfair this is. […]

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the free­way, fine. Lots of us do. Except think­ing this way tends to be so easy and auto­mat­ic that it does­n’t have to be a choice. It is my nat­ur­al default set­ting. It’s the auto­mat­ic way that I exper­i­ence the bor­ing, frus­trat­ing, crowded parts of adult life when I’m oper­at­ing on the auto­mat­ic, uncon­scious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my imme­di­ate needs and feel­ings are what should determ­ine the world’s pri­or­it­ies.

To read the speech I recom­mend the ver­sion from More Intel­li­gent Life linked above as it is true to the speech as it was giv­en. If you prefer a slightly more edited read, The Wall Street Journ­al’s copy and The Guard­i­an’s copy may be more to your taste.

First We Believe, Then We Evaluate

When presen­ted with a piece of inform­a­tion for the first time, do we first under­stand the mes­sage before care­fully eval­u­at­ing its truth­ful­ness and decid­ing wheth­er to believe it, or do we instead imme­di­ately and auto­mat­ic­ally believe everything we read?

In an art­icle that traces the his­tory of this ques­tion (Descartes argued that “under­stand­ing and believ­ing are two sep­ar­ate pro­cesses” while Spinoza thought that “the very act of under­stand­ing inform­a­tion was believ­ing it”), an ingeni­ous exper­i­ment con­duc­ted almost twenty years ago by Daniel Gil­bert, author of Stum­bling on Hap­pi­ness, describes how Spinoza was cor­rect: when we first encounter inform­a­tion we believe it imme­di­ately and without thought, only to fully eval­u­ate its truth­ful­ness moments later provided we are not dis­trac­ted.

Obvi­ously it is import­ant to be aware of this beha­viour, as to be dis­trac­ted while read­ing crit­ic­al inform­a­tion of ques­tion­able vera­city could cause us to not eval­u­ate it fully or at all. How­ever this beha­viour has fur­ther implic­a­tions, accord­ing to the art­icle, sug­gest­ing that this may “explain oth­er beha­viours that people reg­u­larly dis­play”, includ­ing:

  • Cor­res­pond­ence bias: this is people’s assump­tion that oth­ers’ beha­viour reflects their per­son­al­ity, when really it reflects the situ­ation.
  • Truth­ful­ness bias: people tend to assume that oth­ers are telling the truth, even when they are lying.
  • The per­sua­sion effect: when people are dis­trac­ted it increases the per­suas­ive­ness of a mes­sage.
  • Deni­al-innu­endo effect: people tend to pos­it­ively believe in things that are being cat­egor­ic­ally denied.
  • Hypo­thes­is test­ing bias: when test­ing a the­ory, instead of try­ing to prove it wrong people tend to look for inform­a­tion that con­firms it.