The Most Astounding Fact About the Universe

During an interview with TIME Magazine, Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, a prominent astrophysicist and public advocate of science, was asked a good but rather loaded question: “What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?” Below is his answer, courtesy of Vimeo. The man certainly has a way with words.

I think it’s a fantastic response, and it shows why Tyson has become so successful in popularizing science for the masses (much the same way the great Carl Sagan did). He makes you appreciate the depth and scale of the universe around us, and how seeking to understand it all through a scientific approach only enhances it’s beauty. Most importantly, it gives lie to the widespread notion that the nonreligious, and those who hold to science and reason in place of faith, lack any sort of imagination or wonderment towards life.

A scientific and naturalistic view of the world needn’t be cold or emotionless – if anything, the more we come to accept the remarkable material mechanics that lead to our universe, the more we can marvel at it’s very existence, as well as our own. There is no less meaning in a natural, divine-less existence.

You can find similar reflections on this subject here. It’s pleasant to see that so many of us can still experience awe and joy in the absence of a transcendental, supernatural belief. To each their own, but I’ll never let anyone think that a lack of faith precludes me from experiencing an appreciation for life that is akin to spirituality.

Questions for Opponents of Gay Marriage

A skepticism blog called Unreasonable Faith has posted five questions for gay marriage opponents to consider. These were in response to a series of questions poised to homosexuals – and their “supporters” – by Christian Apologetic and Research Ministries (CARM). For responses and counterpoints to all 28 of their questions, click here.

These are inquiries I’ve often presented to homophobic and anti-gay marriage individuals myself. They’re as follows:

1. What is natural?

A lot of people like to say that homosexuality is unnatural. I read these statements on my computer, a device made of substances not found in nature and requiring tremendous amounts of human industry to create, maintain and power.

What are our standards for determining what is natural and what is unnatural. Is toilet training natural? Is civilization natural?

2. Is unnatural always immoral?

Consider the old saw, “If God had meant man to fly, he’d have given us wings.” Does the fact that we don’t have wings make flight immoral? Perhaps not immoral, but unwise?

If nature is good and unnatural is bad, how does this square with the common Protestant notion that nature is fallen? To quote Katherine Hepburn, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above. ”

3. Is the Bible the basis for morality?

Perhaps the most common argument I hear among Christians is about how the Bible relates to homosexuality. Is the Bible “against” homosexuality? Let’s leave aside issues of historical context and translation for the moment.

Consider this: sections like 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 are frequently cited against gay marriage. However, in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul advises his readers against getting married at all. He states, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman,” and while he accepts marriage, it is clearly as the lesser good to celibacy (or perhaps as the lesser evil to fornication.) In my experience, this section is basically ignored.

Is there a systematic means of interpretation that leads to accepting chapter 6 as holy writ but rejecting chapter 7 as irrelevant? Or is it just “common sense”?

4. Why is gender treated differently than race?

Consider the following quote:

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay, and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” (Judge Bazile, 1965)

The above comes from the Caroline County Circuit Court in Virginia, in one of the cases leading up to Loving vs. Virginia. Judge Bazile was siding with the prosecution, who were using Biblical stories like the Tower of Babel and Noah’s Flood the same way that gay marriage opponents use the story of Adam and Eve.

I’m assuming that most of my readers will disagree with this reasoning. Why?

5. Who defines marriage?

Social historians, like Stephanie Coontz and others, have noted that the institution of marriage has been undergoing major changes over the past two centuries or so. Briefly: marriage is changing from a social obligation to a personal contract within the couple. We now look askance at someone who would try to strengthen their community or family by marrying for money and political connections. Most of us believe that marriage should be for love between individuals.

So marriage is becoming more individualized. This is both subtle and profound; it leaves the outward marriage much the same but changes the very basis of marriage on the inside. My marriage may look like my grandparents marriage, but my understanding of the purpose and what my marriage means is completely different.

One of the consequences of this shift is that marriage has become more of a mutually agreed upon contract between two people than something enforced from outside. That makes it difficult to oppose people who want to marry on their own terms: who are you to tell two people that they can’t be in love?

Social transitions like this are never uncontested, but this one seems to have lots of inertia behind it. Do you feel that this shift is good, bad or indifferent? Would you support laws that attempt to reverse some of the trends, like strengthening anti-divorce laws?

Since many of these individuals tend to define themselves as constitutionalists steeped in the American values of liberty and freedom, I would also ask why they support restricting the freedoms of others. If you don’t like homosexuality, than feel free to do so. But where do we draw the line as far as what moral imperatives should be imposed by the government?

Should we pass laws against infidelity, atheism, and other anathemas to Judeo-Christian morality? Would this not present an issue as far as promoting small-government and the pursuit of happiness is concerned? It’s contradictory to stand for individual freedom and responsibility, yet expect the government to involve itself in the private matters of millions of its citizens.

I often wonder how many opponents to gay marriage actually reflect upon their own position. Do they simply defer to the Bible or the teachings of their religious leaders? If so, do they follow everything the Bible says consistently? If not, then how to they discern which parts to apply and which to ignore? Have they at least considered the scientific and ethical arguments? These are questions I would add as well, since doing so is largely what convinced me to change my position all these years ago.

In fairness, I’d ask supporters of LGBT rights and gay marriage to question their own position too. On what basis do they form their approval? Is it also visceral and intuitive, or do they have deeper ethical and philosophical considerations informing them? No belief, especially as it pertains to the rights and concerns of other human beings, should be adopted without proper reflection and dialectic.

Critical Thinking

The ability to think critically is perhaps the most important skill that any person could utilize. Critical thinking is applicable to almost any profession, scenario, or lifestyle – all of us inevitably find an instance or situation in which higher reasoning is vital. It can solve problems and disputes both external and internal. It helps us pick the right course of action to take on any given by, be it a career choice, a plan of study, or even relatively mundane decisions such as what to do on a given day.

Critical thinking is particularly relevant in the present day, as we’ve become saturated with knowledge and overloaded with too many claims and positions to sift through. Determining who to believe, which source to trust, and what argument is valid is difficult enough without being constantly bombarded with a stream of raw data. Thinking well allows us to discern flawed arguments from good ones, filter out sources that can be identified as unreliable, and allow us to properly weight various claims and assertions so as to reach a decision based on reason and logic.

Such thinking is also imperative for the proper functioning of democracy: people need to know the issues, policies, and political rhetoric that could make or break their nation’s future. We need to understand the implications of certain proposals, be able to tell the valid political platforms from the untenable ones, and make informed decisions about the choices we make at the ballot. With the current era of pervasive stagnation and polarization, critical thinking remains even more important: reasonable people are needed to transcend the vitriol and focus on the pertinent issues and what makes for good policy.

Finally, critical thinking is empowering. It inoculates you from hucksterism and manipulation, and makes you resistant to dishonest persuasion  or flawed arguments. It ensures that you understand the world better, and allows you to build a stronger foundation for your beliefs, practices, and political positions.

Of course, thinking critically is easier said than done. Anybody and everybody could claim to do it – indeed they often do so, as you hardly meet anyone who admits to not being a critical thinker. I like to think I’m a critical thinker, or at least as best as I can be. I’m sure I lapse at it just like anyone would. But for the most part, I try.

Critical thinking isn’t foolproof either: you could still fall for bad rhetoric, believe nonsensical things, and become manipulated. I don’t want to give the impression that it is a magic bullet against any and all though-provoking obstacles one may face. But it could certainly help, and having some inkling of it is better than none.

Thankfully, there are plenty of good resources out there to help us develop our higher mental faculties. Among my favorite is a site known as the Critical Thinker Academy, which includes the Critical Thinker Podcast. These resources are concise, easy to understand, and cover all the basics (and far more, if you’re willing to pay for membership).

There is also a site run by two professors and based out of Hong Kong that covers the topic rather well. It includes a lot of tutorials, practical scenarios to follow, and a glossary of related terms (recognizing various logical fallacies or what the different forms of argumentation are).

Finally, among my favorite reference is an old but timeless piece from the Skeptical Inquirer, A Field Guide to Critical Thinking. It sets out a list of guidelines and principles that are the foundations of good reasoning. It makes for a great and relatively short “How To” guide to thinking well. I definitely recommend a quick look at the very least.

Indeed, this list is hardly exhaustive. There is a lot of good material out there, just in the web alone, about how to be a better thinker. Ultimately though, what’s most important isn’t merely the capacity to think critically, but the desire to even care  in the first place. Without a commitment to truth, honesty, and knowledge, there is little reason to concern one’s self with the tools of enlightenment. The thirst for knowledge is the only thing more valuable than critical thinking, for the latter could not exist without the former; though the former cannot get far without the latter.

Logic, Reason, and Emotions

We readily assume that rationality is necessarily contingent upon our ability to suppress or suspend our emotions. In other words, we view emotion as an enemy of reason, and believe that both are mutually exclusive. To be more reasonable means to be more calculating, emotionless, and detached; to be emotional is to be erratic, reckless, and unstable.

This formula is pervasive across popular culture, entertainment, and media. The individual that exercises logic, critical analysis, or some other form of higher intelligence is usually portrayed as having suspended all feelings, to the point of being cold and aloof. By contrast, the more passionate and expressive character is often hot-headed, unreasonable, feckless. They’re two sides of the same coin, complementary in some cases but otherwise intrinsically in conflict.

This Manichean perception is widely held among most people and is arguably intuitive. In fact, I once prescribed to it as well, and only as I delved into topics like politics, science, philosophy, and other disciplines (mostly in the humanities) did I come to realize the beneficial synergy of my emotional proclivities and my intellectual ones. I now find myself battling this stigma that holds that any demonstration of logical or rational thinking is indicative of callousness or arrogance.

Many people even regard the use of inquiry, skepticism, and analysis as symptoms of an unethical and immoral worldview; those who take such approaches are stereotyped as mechanical utilitarians looking strictly at the efficiency or cost-benefit nexus of a given issue, dismissing the “human” element (though such methods of analysis aren’t necessarily heartless in and of themselves, but rather only when applied without ethical considerations). Maybe it’s just a confirmation bias on my part, but I’ve encountered it frequently enough in both media and personal experience to find it to be a relatively widespread notion.

For one, there is an issue of semantics. Emotions need not be personified strictly in their most explicit forms: being emotional isn’t only about being sensitive, quick to anger, or manic, as the average person would think. Emotions pervade every thought, action, and belief. When we’re saddened or perturbed by poverty, for example, we’re in a technical sense being emotional. If we feel a strong sense of justice and fairness, then we’re demonstrating an emotional investment: contentment at seeing justice prevail, compassion at making sure it does so, and anger if it’s violated. In both these examples, we’re also displaying the crucial emotion of empathy, which I’ll get back later.

Moreover, there is psychologically no such thing as distinct, inseparable components of either emotion or reason. No normal human being could ever completely shut down or suppress one or the other, nor would doing so  strengthen one at the expense of the other.  Displaying one’s emotions and exercising one’s higher thinking faculties is not necessarily a zero-sum game. Certainly, we all have varying degrees with which we utilize either one, depending on the subject, mood, or individual (as well as numerous other externalities that shape our minds, such as chemical imbalances, how we were raised, neurological pathologies, and so on).

In reality, the two areas are inseparable, and often even dependent upon one another. We need an emotional capacity for our rational minds to operate. Without emotions, we have no deep-seated sense of right and wrong. We’re naturally capable of being passionate about truth, justice, the well-being of others, and other moral and ethical considerations. Therefore, we need these emotional considerations to feed our desire to think critically and determine what is right from wrong, or to figure out what course of action is best for benefiting ourselves, our loved ones, and our sense for virtue.

Too often, we assume being logical and rational means you must be cold, mechanical, and even inhumane. On the contrary, a more intellectually and philosophically developed mind is far more suited to developing a reliable basis for justice and morality, provided that our heart is also in the right place. Generally speaking, however, a well-developed and critically-thinking mind is more adept at weighing the many options of a given choice, or of knowing the deeper details of topics pertaining to law, politics, psychology, and other crucial areas dealing with human well-being in some form or another.

Thus, exercising our higher faculties requires a level of emotional commitment. There is no reason to think critically or rationally about the nature of injustice or the solutions for poverty without some emotional investment – compassion, altruism, disgust with unfairness – to promote it in the first place.  If I don’t care about living a virtuous life, or helping others to flourish, why think about it in the first place?

This is not to suggest that one must be a sage to be capable of just or good behavior. Plenty of smart people can be well-versed in absorbing the raw data of knowledge, but be less keen in their ability to perform the requisite critical thinking needed for understanding and developing a moral/ethical worldview; similarly, they may also have less empathy, or have failed to apply their higher faculties for good causes.

Thus, the key to being a good person – defined here as being knowledgeable, virtuous, and compassionate* – is to dispel this false choice between being emotional and being rational. Sure, lacking self-control of one’s emotions can be detrimental, just as thinking too much can lead to indecision or detachment from a subject. But that doesn’t mean that being emotional or reasonable is, in principle, a matter of choosing one and rejecting the other. Humans are meant to display emotions. It’s healthy and necessary, and it makes life better for us. But we’re also meant to be problem solvers, to use our unique capacity to think, analyze, and reason to address any number of obstacles – practical, ethical, existential – that inevitably come our way.

As a great philosopher once said, an education of the mind without an education of the heart is no education at all. Indeed, the same works the other way around. We must utilize the best aspects of our minds, and take a holistic and balanced approach to how we better ourselves, our loved ones, and the world around us.

On Gossip, Back-Talking, and Hypocrisy

Those of you who know me well enough are no doubt aware of my fascination with this topic. Aside from my innate interest in sociological and psychological behavior, I also find it engaging due to it’s ubiquity and pervasiveness: there is not a single human on this planet that hasn’t at one point  been involved in gossip, talking behind someone’s back, or some other form of duplicitous behavior. And yet,  strangely, there is also not a single person on this planet that doesn’t claim not to partake in this act.

In other words, everyone does something that everyone claims they don’t do or don’t approve of. We are all – barring for the sake of certainty  the possibility some very exceptional cases – hypocrites.

Of course, this isn’t just limited to speaking poorly about people when they’re not around. Ask any average person who isn’t mentally suspect in some way, and they’ll claim to be opposed to lying, stealing, infidelity, killing, and any other vice. If pressed on it more, they may even claim never to engage in these things (though most people will do so hesitantly when it comes to more common immoral acts like lying or stealing). If any of this were true, there’d be little to no crime, corruption, or grounds for distrust in our society.

And that is what really intrigues me. Who are we fooling when we claim to be guiltless? How can we take ourselves seriously when we fault others for doing things we do all the time? Does anyone have the legitimacy to call out other people for wrongdoings? If we’re all guilty, who do we trust as a proper judge of morality and character? It’s almost as if everyone is just lying for the sake of some third-party – a hypothetical observer  (much like God, though not omniscient) that is keeping watch on all of us and judging us.

Indeed, that’s basically what we call “society” – the sum of every other individual we know, ourselves included, that is nonetheless basically treated as if it one whole, personified entity. Once we break it down, we may start to realize that ultimately, it doesn’t matter what “society thinks” – it’s nothing more than the aggregate opinion of numerous people more-or-less like you who have probably done at least one of the bad things you’re being judged on.

What about ourselves? We often separate “selfs” into two components: we talk to our own minds and try to justify to it why we did what we did. “It’s okay Romney, you’re just lying this one time for a good reason”  or “I’m not really gossiping, I’m just talking about a concern I have with him while he’s not around, nothing like what other  people do.”  It’s almost like one side of us is trying to get the other side on board, even if we don’t see it that way (I hope this makes sense – I know it’s not easy to articulate, so bear with me).

This isn’t strictly a sociological or psychological phenomenon, however. Some studies suggest that there is a biological – specifically neurological – origin to why we behave in this way. In short, our brains are in fact “modular” in nature, meaning that there are many components within our single “self” that each work in their own way and promote their own thoughts, behaviors, or habits. Sometimes these modules work together, sometimes in conflict, and sometimes completely independently.  So while a part of us engages in a certain behavior, another part may struggle to contain it, or continue to act on it’s own and promote better behavior, thus creating the duplicity we take as being “fake” or dishonest. It’s a bit complex, and still only recently discovered, but it makes a lot of sense.

So how many of us could righteously and un-hypocritically call anyone else out on their dishonesty or double-standards?

Well, while we’re hypocrites to a certain degree, clearly some people are more guilty in this regard than others. Sure, everyone talks about one another behind their backs, and as I’ve demonstrated, I have no delusions about that. But there is a clear difference between speaking about someone’s bad habits or abrasive tendencies, and delighting in discussing their petty personal business or making ad hominen attacks. There is also a difference in intent: to vent or share a concern is one thing, while to to spite, lie, or engage in schadenfreude is a whole other. I’d rather people talk about how loud or obnoxious I tend to be, than spread slanderous rumors or make unfair assumptions about my character. Obviously, I’d rather none of us ever talk about one another in secret at all, but obviously that it is unrealistic expectation (on both ends).

With that said, I will not pretend I am historically guiltless in this regard. As far as I can tell through my own reflections, I no longer take perverse  joy in making fun of other people. Even when I let my petty side get the best of me, which happens to all of us at some point, I at least reflect on it, feel guilty, and know that what I did was wrong. I’ll be sure to make amends and promise myself to avoid conflict with said individual as best as I can.

The problem is more with people who engage in this behavior systematically, without any sense of guilt or empathy for the other person (or other people in general for that matter).What’s most troubling is when this happens between close friends, as I’m sure we’ve all had the displeasure to experience. How we are capable of  simultaneously loving and cherishing one another while indulging in such harsh and judgmental criticism is a remarkable and mind-boggling phenomenon  (though the modular brain notion once again applies).

I think it all comes down to the development and maintenance of two things: empathy and reason. Building up our capacity to relate with and understand other living things is the foundation of integrity and compassion, which in turn dilutes petty inclinations to speak ill of others. If you care about other people, and could sympathetically put yourself in their position when tempted to speak ill of them, you’ll know better.

As for reason,  I believe we’re too quick to make assumptions and draw conclusions, often ad absurdum, about other people. This is the biggest issue in my opinion: a tendency to be visceral, reactionary, and emotional towards one another and our differences. Instead of measuring or reflecting on what we may hear – or are thinking – about others  many of us just lose control of our higher faculties. We should always measure up the claims being made, and reflect on what we feel or think about someone, why we do so, and whether it has any validity. We should also scrutinize our own attitudes and behavior, and determine which course of action is best: is it really justified or right to talk badly? Should we not address the source of conflict directly? What of the consequences to your reputation, or if that person were to find out?

Once again, I find that mixing compassion, empathy, and reason can help address another social ill. One can only hope enough people learn to exercise the better part of their faculties – or that those that do can at least learn to move past such petty and needless habits.

Qualia Soup

Once again, I  am pleased to have found a good dose of wisdom on YouTube, courtesy of a user known as Qualia Soup. He posts a series of Flash-animated videos that crisply address several scientific and philosophical topics, particularly arguments in favor of freethought, reason, and skeptical inquiry; and a critical dissection of religious dogma, illogical thinking, and pseudo-scientific ideas such as intelligent design.

Personally, I find the videos to be of great quality and are well presented, with good narration and structure (his scholarly English accent certainly helps). What I like most is the way he addresses his given topic in a clear and concise manner, dealing with common misconceptions and presenting the material in a way that engages those viewers with little understanding of the topic without being patronizing. I respect anyone that can find a balance between properly explaining a subject and doing so in a way that is easy to understand (especially when it comes to relatively difficult topics such as logic, evolution, morality, and so on). My only (minor) criticism is his tendency to move a bit too fast sometimes.

The following are a few of my favorite, though I haven’t seen them all:

 

 

 

I encourage you to look into more of his work. I think even my religious friends could appreciate some of the interesting arguments he presents, and could no doubt agree with at least some of the irrational arguments and beliefs he invalidates.  At the very least, I hope this encourages some reflection and open-mindedness, whether you agree with the arguments or not. As always, my purpose is nothing more but to share certain philosophical and logical positions that appeal to me, either to enlighten others or to initiate a discourse (be it with me, my resources, or within your own mind).

Hope you all enjoy.