Evolution: Fact or Theory?

Well, it’s actually both, though most people don’t realize that the term theory as used in science is nothing like how it is used colloquially. Indeed, it’s rather common for folks that don’t believe in evolution to predicate their doubt on the fact that evolution is “only a theory.” Even a fact is defined differently by scientists from how it is by a layman: within science, a fact is a verified empirical observation (from which evolution has been determined), whereas in vernacular contexts, a fact is assumed to be anything for which there is overwhelming evidence, a standard that would rule out quite a bit of accepted scientific truth. It is largely – though not exclusively – due to this lack of scientific literacy that nearly 44% of Americans disbelieve in evolution, despite the considerable amount of evidence in it’s favor.

Unfortunately, despite my vast interest in this topic, I don’t have much time to get into it as further as I’d like. However, I did find a great page that concisely discusses the nuances and misconceptions about evolution and scientific language. The link is available here, and I definitely encourage you all to take a look (it’s an all-around good blog for matters related to evolution and biology). By far my favorite excerpt from this post is the following:

The honest scientist, like the philosopher, will tell you that nothing whatever can be or has been proved with fully 100% certainty, not even that you or I exist, since we might be dreaming the whole thing. Thus there is no sharp line between speculation, hypothesis, theory, principle, and fact, but only a difference along a sliding scale, in the degree of probability of the idea. When we say a thing is a fact, then, we only mean that the probability of it being true is high—so high that we are not bothered by doubt about it and are ready to act accordingly. By this use of the term “fact”—the only proper definition—evolution is a fact. For the evidence in favor of it is as voluminous, diverse, and convincing as in the case of any other well established fact of science concerning the existence of things that cannot be directly seen, such as atoms, neutrons, or solar gravitation…

This pretty much sums up the proper attitude to have not only towards evolution but with all matters of truth. Nothing can ever be known with certainty no matter how strongly we feel about it (since feelings and intuitions can just as easily be false or malleable). A true pursuer of wisdom and knowledge will know this, own up to it, but nonetheless still be able to assert what is most likely true, based on what we can thus far determine.

In other words, while it’s often foolish to assume with total  confidence that something is undeniably true, it’s just as untenable to take a post-modernist view of the world and remain unable to commit to anything as a fact. It’s all about basing your position on as much empirical, logical, and rational evidence as possible, and taking an approach towards knowledge that is a fine balance between humility and confidence.

Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives

I’ve had a long day at work, and I am subsequently left with little energy for writing. So, I thought I’d keep today’s entry short and instead share a very illuminating educational series I stumbled upon recently.

Firstly, this isn’t the same Terry Jones who infamously burned a copy of the Quran a few months ago. Rather, he is a prominent Welsh comedian – better known as a member of the Monty Python comedy troupe – who hosted a brief but well-received documentary series on the everyday life of various medieval archetypes. The premise of the show, to borrow from it’s own introduction:

Terry Jones’ mission is to rescue this romanticised era from cliches and well-worn platitudes. Revealing that no one thought the world was flat and dental hygiene was actually better than it is today, Jones will use animation, medieval locations across Europe and new research to bring the Middle Ages to life. The truth behind eight familiar medieval archetypes including the Knight, the Damsel and the King is unravelled, exposing some wonderfully human stories

Indeed, I’m for anything that seeks to  reassess our understanding of a subject and challenge what we think we know. As to be expected from a host of his talents, the series often has a fun and silly tone to it, though that no way detracts from it’s interesting and engaging premise. This is definitely a win for any of my fellow history buffs.

This is a link to the entire season, which could be found on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/show?p=s-Gqsjg9y-8&tracker=show0. While it’s brief, at only eight episodes, I think it does a good job in providing some fresh insight into a little-know and largely misunderstand era of human history. I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did.

My New Found Love of Podcasts.

Despite my semi-regular blogging, I’m nowhere near as tech-savvy as people might think (indeed, I took some time to figure out the very WordPress system I’m currently utilizing).  I tend to adapt new technologies readily, but am unable to make the most of them until quite some time later. Podcasts are a case in point – I’d always heard of them but never really got around to checking them out, let alone downloading any. I tend to be the “streamlined” type – I don’t like a lot of gadgets, features, and other options I’d regard as fluff; I still use my phone as only a phone for example (not to insult any of you who’ve chosen to utilize them as hubs of various entertainment – to each their own after all).

But my obsessive lust for knowledge, combined with the mind-numbing boredom of work, drove me to look into what I thought was just a superfluous perk latched onto iTunes. If only I’d been more open-minded, and sooner!

It began when I was getting tired of the lack of stimulus to keep my mind going during the odd hours that I work – usually either early in the morning or late at night. I finally decided to look into what options were available from online, that great repository of solutions and data. Being as busy as I am, and consequently having so little time to absorb all the knowledge I wish to , I realized that I’d do best to condense the two: whenever possible – be it during commutes on the metro, working out at the gym, or working in-between closing hours at work – I would catch up with all the things I wished to learn about, without giving up either work or pleasure at one another’s expense. It was all about time-management, and being able to compromise my hectic schedule with my personal interests (no easy feat nowadays, and as I’m sure most of you know).

Long story short, I took a look at the podcast options on my iTunes and subsequently unlocked treasure trove of knowledge. Just about every topic and subject I could think of – and quite a few that I didn’t – were available, often with multiple podcasts addressing them to boot. I know all this sounds like some plug-in for Apple’s iTunes, but in all sincerity I’m just marveled by the usefulness of such technology.

It’ll never cease to amaze me how much knowledge exists out there, constantly being added to; it’s even more spectacular that it’s all so easy to access. Just logging on to my laptop – or on a device as small as the palm of my hand – can open me up to literally a universe of data, literature, ideas, and innovations. The internet, despite it’s many flaws and it’s amble amount of brain-rotting junk , is invaluable as a source of information. While many kinks still need to be worked out, and much sifting still must done between what is credible and what isn’t, it cannot be understated how important the web is to facilitating a broadening of one’s horizon, once it is utilized properly.

But I’ve gone on this digression before. If anyone is curious, the podcasts I’ve subscribed to so far include:

  • The History of Rome
  • The British History Podcast
  • American Freethought
  • History of the Normans
Yes, there is a bias for history, but that’s the first place I wanted to go. I can’t wait to explore other topics and subjects. I encourage my fellow autodidactics to explore other venues for knowledge, even those often underestimated as such. YouTube may be full of silly and strange memes – nothing wrong with some indulgence – but it also has a number of excellent documentaries, show clips, conferences, and independent educational work courtesy of the online community. There are also plenty of blogs about topics outside of one’s personal life and musings: look for one by your favorite academic or thinker.
Perhaps my post is a bit trivial – I’m not exactly in profound thinking mode right now – but I think it’s always good to stop and appreciate the enlightenment that properly-implemented technology can provide us with. I feel that we’re often quick to note the negative ramifications of our technological progress, without stopping to make the most of the good.
By the way, feel free to fill me in on any podcasts you all enjoy or might find to my liking!

On Indecision and Being Wrong

Why is changing your mind or being uncertain about something so taboo in most societies? I understand there are some things one shouldn’t be agnostic about – such as whether murder is moral – and I know flip-flopping out of opportunism or hypocrisy is unfavorable. But what’s wrong with admitting that you don’t know something, or would rather do more research and be more informed before making up your mind

Furthermore, what’s wrong with changing your mind over time? If, ideally speaking, we become more knowledgeable or mature about something as we grow, then obviously we’d change our beliefs accordingly. If we discover valid evidence and sound arguments in favor of an opposing position, why not take that position? That’s far better than sticking to a belief based on pride, stubbornness, or close-mindedness.

Yet all of that makes us look indecisive or even dishonest. I’m not quite sure why the former is always so bad either. Everyone starts with a clean slate about something. No one is born knowing all the facts, issues, and arguments of a particular topic, and thus we shouldn’t expect people to just take a position from the get-go (at the same, we shouldn’t strongly endorse a perspective we’re not well-versed in). Even those who are pretty knowledgeable about a subject can and should acknowledge their intrinsic limitations: as individuals with limited cognitive and sensory abilities, we’re exposed to only so many different perspectives and data, and can only take in so much. Inevitably, there will be things we simply didn’t know, and otherwise wouldn’t have known, without their introduction to us by others.

However, that’s a tough fact for most of us to swallow, myself included. I’ve always noted how ego and pride can be the two greatest detriments to truth and knowledge. It’s very difficult to admit not knowing something, or to admit having been wrong. In both cases, you feel your integrity is compromised and that people will see you as less intelligent, and may perhaps even take you less seriously.  There’s also an element of game theory involved: you might want to admit your wrong or don’t know, but feel that others – be it your “opponent” or you “audience” – will gloat or take it badly. We’re all raised to accept that making mistakes are a fact of life, and should even be encouraged insofar as you learn from them.

But that’s difficult to put into practice when we seem to view “being smart” as being “right” and knowing everything. Your credibility becomes discounted by others, which is something no one wants. It’s clear that we need to change the way we look at intelligence, and the way we define what is “smart.” For me, intelligence isn’t constituted by being a repository of raw data, having all the answers, and being consistently accurate about all your views. Being smart is about being open-minded, reasonable, willing to listen and discuss, and obtaining a rational and empirical basis for why you believe what you believe. It’s about being curious and inquiring, and having the ability to explore alternative views, opinions, and positions.

Of course, I don’t want to convey the impression that I’m coming from another extreme either. I don’t expect, nor desire, that people change their minds on a whim. No one every accepts being wrong or having a change of ideas too quickly, whether they’re ignorant or erudite. The path to greater knowledge and truth is incremental and requires reflection, re-confirmation, and contemplation. You don’t want to change your entire view on something too readily – it’s better to test it, think on it, re-evaluate, and so on.

As with most things, it’s all about balancing between confidence and humility. The over-confident will never learn anything because they will insist they know it all already. Even if they know deep down that they don’t know something, they’ll continue to save face for the sake of their reputation. The overly humble will seek to be tolerant and accepting of all views for the sake of appearing open-minded (or perhaps to simply be a nice person), but in doing so will never allow themselves to be definitively grounded in any ideology, making them flighty and uncommitted. The key is to find that middle-ground, to be open-minded but weak-minded, to be enlightened but arrogant about it. As with most things, all this is easier said than done. But it’s a start at least.

The Information Age

A philosopher is a lover of wisdom, not of knowledge, which for all its great uses ultimately suffers from the crippling effect of ephemerality. All knowledge is transiently linked to the world around it and subject to change as the world changes, whereas wisdom, true wisdom, is eternally immutable. To be philosophical one must love wisdom for its own sake, accept its permanent validity and yet its perpetual irrelevance. It is the fate of the wise to understand the process of history and yet never to shape it.

-Shashi Tharoor, former UN Under-Secretary General for Communications and Public Information

Unknown to many of us, the era we live in is known as the Information age, and it began only 29 years ago. As it denotes, this is a period characterized by the sheer force and propagation of knowledge and we’re living only in its infancy, many of us having grown up with

We live in a world of unparalleled knowledge and research, where every day –  if not every hour at times – some knew discovery is made or a new project is being undertaken. More unprecedented, however, is the great diffusion of knowledge: for the first time in history, nearly all the sum of the world’s knowledge thus far is out there and available for many to absorb. The internet undoubtedly bears a huge responsibility for this, with its invention being the marker with which the information age began (in fact that was the original idea of the Worldwide Web as proposed by Sir Thomas Berners Lee, its inventor, in the 1990s). Suddenly, we can type anything that comes to mind in a myriad of search and info sites and get a list (if not pages) of information, as well as reference points. More books are published every day and more periodicals and journals are established every few months. Heck, speaking by experience, 5 years ago, when I first started majoring in International Relations and Political Science, there were only about  3 major magazines on the subject: now I’ve seen about 12 at my local Barns and Nobles (much to my dismay, I can only afford to subscribe to so many :P). Universities and libraries are popping up everywhere, especially in many rising nations and now even cell phones and MP3 players can access repositories of knowledge.

Most important of all, the unprecedented link that we’ve established—our capacity to communicate with one another across borders and vast distances—has bred an exchange of ideas and knowledge that was scarcely imagined at any point in human history. This constant trade of knowledge has become a global market place where theories, political ideas, philosophies, cures, recipes, health diets, lifestyles, religion, and everything we can humanly process is just flowing all around us, often stacking with one another and breeding even newer concepts that are further passed along. We’ve created a melting pot of information that more and more of the world (as communications technology spreads) is both adding to and taking a piece of. The formation of multination corporations, international research teams, inter-university partnerships, and more globalized media are the symptoms of a world increasingly more connected in its pursuit—and its access to-knowledge.  Some even speak of this knowledge bringing down oppression and dictatorships, as more people (especially the Chinese, a good case-study of this) become exposed to ideas that, try as they might, their repressive governments cannot totally stifle in a world of quickly developing and improving communications. Revolutions can be guided by mass knowledge of injustice and fueled by ideas like liberty than by sheer angst and poverty (where were the original catalyst historically).

Granted, with all those ‘positive’ ingredients come the toxic ones, the ones that breed war, international terrorist networks, and nationalism. Evil forces use this free flow to propagate their own agenda, to recruit people into their nefarious schemes and even exploit them. Regimes censor and control the media in their nations, and however difficult their task, often succeed (though this is debated, especially in its permanence). Hated, fear, and angst can flow as freely as their positive counterparts, and can often be just as tempting. In a more technical sense, hackers and other digital dissidents can infiltrate this system and corrupt and destroy it, exploiting our increasing dependence on communications technology to transmit everything from billions of dollars to pornography.

We don’t realize it, but in such a world as described, anyone of us has the potential to be a scholar and intellectual, to know whatever we want should we choose to open our minds to it. So many of us ‘average’ people make intellectual quips, judge human nature, and question existence and the metaphysical, when such musings were, for the bulk of human history, reserved for a negligible percentage of the world’s population. While ignorance and stupidity, of course, remain, as they always will, they are nowhere near the levels they once were, especially as every generation becomes wiser and more informed than the preceding. Who knows what are children and grandchildren will know in their lifetimes?

To think that for much of human history, knowledge and even literacy for that matter, was the domain of a paltry few elites and aristocrats. Now it has become the domain of the common man and woman, conspiracy theories notwithstanding. Universities have become less for the privileged and more for the average person. Public universities, such as my own FIU, have boomed in both their influence and their admissions. The gap between high-culture and low-culture have been closing in fast, as everyone from skinheads to sports junkies embrace art and human activism, while WASPS and old-money elites enjoy video games and reality television. With this free flow of data comes the exposure to different outlooks and interests never before known and the elimination of subcultures and, to some extent, class (after all, class divisions are as much dependent upon knowledge and educational attainment as they are to money and power).

Knowledge has become so widespread and available that we scarcely see it as anything special. Education and data have been taken for granted by their sheer availability and widespread acceptance as a human given.  We mustn’t squander these opportunities people! Indeed, many of us aren’t, as our ambitions have risen with our knowledge: more and more people want to ‘save the world’ and do their part. Causes against poverty and injustice become a given to nearly all college students, at least nominally. With knowledge comes the desire to apply that knowledge and the understanding of the problems and conditions of the world that must be addressed.

We are approaching, if not having already arrived, at the precipice of human history. The world is dying and on the verge of collapse in the face of environmental degradation, over consumption, international discord, and our usual petty conflicts. Never have we come so close to destruction (although that’s debatable) and never have we had the means, the information, to do something about it.

All this knowledge can be overwhelming and disparaging though. Nothing is ever true for long it seems, and there is always a new study or discovery that disproves something we’d just learned about, or worst still, always thought we knew was true. Age-old conventions we grew up with and lived by are broken and doubted. Everything becomes so impermanent or ambiguous and nothing seems to have a clear cut answer any more (and if it does, it gets challenged or disproven at some point). This making solving are all individual and national problems, if not the myriad global problems we face as a whole, all the more daunting and seemingly impossible. We can’t find a consensus to deal with this economic crisis, with terrorism, with global warming (which some people can’t accept the existence of), with poverty, with finding love, with healthcare…and so on and so forth. We even start to question existence itself and God and the human condition. And being bombarded with all this knowledge everywhere we go doesn’t help: we feel overwhelmed, unable to take it all in, or to make up our minds. The free flow of knowledge becomes chaotic and more reminiscent of a storm. Ironically we face the increasingly cliché notion that the more we know, the more we realize we don’t know, and suddenly we feel lost and unsure in a world we don’t really seem to understand anymore.

We think the world is more violent and troubled than it really is, if only because we know what is going on everywhere all the time. We’re exposed to so many images and reports of war, human rights abuses, violence, rape, disaster, and death that we feel it’s all coming to an end, when we’re actually LESS violent and worse off than every before. Its not that the world is worse than ever, but merely that we’re more informed than ever.

All of this confusion can breed nihilism and a sense of despair and powerlessness, as we are too uncertain—or too exposed to negative ideas that also flow around us—to act. We start asking what’s the point, why bother knowing? Why live in truth and knowledge when ignorance is bliss and that bliss is really all that should matter? Why believe in this when there is that? Why trust or believe in anything anymore, period? Paradoxically, it is through asking questions that we get answers, and yet is through getting answers that we ask questions.

Ah, who knows! Just keep your minds open, however daunting that may be. I don’t really know what else to say but that.