June 23, 2013

New Freethinkers

Owl & Ibis – A Confluence of Minds represents one among many new approaches being tried alongside contemporary and more popular freethinker groups. This new direction derives from and has its precursors in the humanistic thinking of John Dewey, Paul Kurtz, Isaiah Berlin, and many others. Owl & Ibis, as a learning endeavor, is interested in and respectful of all civilizations, societies, cultural traditions, and belief systems but professes to none. It holds in high esteem secular-scientific thinking yet is committed to pluralism and tolerance regarding all other modes of thought. At the same time, it will critically assess and when necessary vigorously challenge the beliefs and values of persons and groups that advocate and carry out harm* against persons, peoples, and Humankind as a whole. This includes challenging efforts to place religious beliefs in the curricula of public-funded science classrooms, and in legislation drafted by otherwise secular governments. Both actions, when successful, are regarded as harmful to Humankind. 

Many freethinkers often become zealous about their views regarding science and atheism, and descend into "scientism" and religion- and believer-bashing. When this occurs freethinker understandings of science’s methods become dogmatic and science’s provisional knowledge becomes misconstrued as absolute. Such a freethinker worldview becomes similar to that of the very religious fundamentalists they most abhor such that both defend their respective beliefs as absolute truth and their methods for arriving at them as superior to all others.

June 22, 2013

Ultimate Knowledge

Philosopher in Meditation by Rembrandt

by Stephen Wolfram

The importance of this article is its accurate description of the great promise of applying the natural sciences and mathematics to human behavior, AND their limitations. Wolfram's comment toward the end on taking a certain comfort that there will most likely never be an ultimate, totally predictive knowledge of human behavior and the processes of the universe should not cause discouragement. Nor should the unlikely attainment of such a perfect knowledge cause us to abandon the focusing of the natural sciences on Humankind. Acceptance of the unlikely emergence of a complete, deterministic natural science of man is an acceptance of the reality of the complexity of the universe and in turn the complexities of the affairs of Humankind. I am comforted by the provisional scientific knowledge we continue to build, not by a desire or need for an absolute knowledge. The former seems a better fit for the provisional, evolving universe we are in.

June 21, 2013

Natural Science, Certainty, And Widget Factories

by Gary Marcus

My posts against scientism are cautionary comments motivated by my love of and respect for science and Humankind. It is disheartening that so many of my fellow humans, such as Donald Brooks mentioned in the essay linked above, take criticism of neuroscientism as a justification for condemning and ignoring the important work and findings of the brain sciences.

It is becoming more and more apparent that we in the West, and most acutely those of us in the US, have sunken into an age of reactionary extremes where certainty, bombast, and outrage are our favored and most often only modes of expressing our views and reacting to the views of others. Umbrage, indignation, and knee-jerk conclusion jumping, such as that of Mr Brooks and others such as politicians, are in vogue and too often taken as signs of the correctness of the position taken by such persons regardless of whether they have any expertise in the matter they speak of or not. Fortunately, discerning minds easily recognize cautionary comments for what they are and can look beyond the bluster and fury of self-appointed experts and windbags.

All will eventually be well and this age of certainty, determinism, and absolutism - among the believers AND secular-scientific thinkers, and among the left AND right - will pass into another age. Hopefully, it will be an age of tolerant pluralism where we must work harder at finding common ground and ways forward for Humankind and forsake the easier work of expressing certainty, outrage, and intolerance. We will need many more discerning minds to express themselves than are currently doing so to take us toward a new age with a viable and sustainable global morality and civilization at its core. The current age of zero-sum certainty and bombast is divisive, inclined toward conflict, and intellectually sterile. Humankind can and will do better, if we don't self-destruct along the way.

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Materialism, reductionism, and determinism are essential to the scientific method. But also essential to scientific methodology is the recognition that complex structures and functions, beyond atoms, molecules, tissues, and organs and what they do, represent and require different and more complex levels of analysis.

June 9, 2013

The Two Greatest Inventions

Printing Press With Movable Type, Johannes Guterburg, c. 1440

The above link takes you to the opening essay of the New York Times Magazine, Innovations Issue of June 9, 2013.  The answer to the Times' rhetorical question about the greatest invention in history shouldn't surprise you.  No, it isn't the printing press with movable type pictured above.  The greatest invention ever was the first stone chopping tools used by our ancestors 2.6 million years ago.

Olduwan Stone Chopping Tools, East Africa

These simple, modified pieces of rock in themselves are not so great to us modern humans when we compare them to subsequent inventions, innovations, and discoveries.  It is true that fire usage, metal tools, the wheel, writing, mathematics, architecture, industrial manufacturing, electricity, the internal combustion engine, airplanes, atomic energy, medical science and technology, electronic computation, and others have been greater in terms of their power to manipulate the environment and their ability to improve human living conditions.

The greatness of these first hominin (humans and their close extinct relatives) tools is in what they contributed to if not on their own precipitated - a new type of survival strategy in the natural history of animals commonly known today as "human cultural adaptation."  These rudimentary tools our ancestors made, used, became dependent on, and gradually improved upon stand as our most important invention, ever.  The subsequent impact of this new hominin way of life of which tool use was inseparable is still being powerfully applied to Earth, its environment, and all its life forms.

Stone chopping tools, used for butchering scavenged carcasses in East Africa 2.6 million years ago, are the oldest of our ancestors' tools to be preserved and later discovered in the archaeological record.  Stone tool manufacture and usage helped initiate an unprecedented evolutionary adaptation in the natural history of animals.  Hominin cultural adaptation did not emerge suddenly or fully formed.  It is a set of innovations in hominin evolution comprised of the following:  tool manufacture and reliance, upright walking, high protein consumption, social group innovations, increased brain size, and language.  It is this adaptation complex - an ecological-behavioral niche that we gradually created and continue build upon - that allowed us to survive and upon which we still depend today.

This complex is an emergent baseline bio-cultural foundation that made possible and sped up the emergence of all subsequent human inventions, innovations, and discoveries.  Without the advent of this tool-centered adaptation complex the subsequent social, technological, and scientific advances humans have made would have been unlikely if not impossible.  For further reading on how Phase I, the human cultural adaptation complex, came about and what it has led to see The Driving Forces Of Human Evolution - A Reading List and The Case For Human Evolution, Science And Reason - A Reading List.

June 3, 2013

Scientism And The Humanities


"Our glittering age of technologism is also a glittering age of scientism. Scientism is not the same thing as science. Science is a blessing, but scientism is a curse. Science, I mean what practicing scientists actually do, is acutely and admirably aware of its limits, and humbly admits to the provisional character of its conclusions; but scientism is dogmatic, and peddles  certainties. It is always at the ready with the solution to every problem, because it believes that the solution to every problem is a scientific one, and so it gives scientific answers to non-scientific questions. But even the question of the place of science in human existence is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical, which is to say, a humanistic, question.

"Owing to its preference for totalistic explanation, scientism transforms science into an ideology, which is of course a betrayal of the experimental and empirical spirit. There is no perplexity of human emotion or human behavior that these days is not accounted for genetically or in the cocksure terms of evolutionary biology. It is true that the selfish gene has lately been replaced by the altruistic gene, which is lovelier, but it is still the gene that tyrannically rules. Liberal scientism should be no more philosophically attractive to us than conservative scientism, insofar as it, too, arrogantly reduces all the realms that we inhabit to a single realm, and tempts us into the belief that the epistemological eschaton has finally arrived, and at last we know what we need to know to manipulate human affairs wisely. This belief is invariably false and occasionally disastrous. We are becoming ignorant of ignorance."

June 2, 2013

Science And Morality

A must read complement to Michael Shermer (The Science of Good and Evil) and Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape) on science and morality.  All three are excellent treatments of this subject.