De omnibus dubitandum
2 Jan 2013
The journey of my perspective on life has been a long one. As a baby I was baptised, which made me officially catholic until that church’s depraved teachings and endeavours disgusted me too much and I had myself stricken from the catholic register a few years ago.
I’d become an atheist long before then, though not after trying to find spiritual truth in a range of different areas, including christianity and what are termed ‘New Age’ beliefs.
None of those attempts at spiritual fulfilment stuck, because they all depend in large part on a suspension of disbelief that I was simply incapable of making. They all required me to abandon evidence and simply believe in something, despite a total and utter lack of proof.
I call myself a skeptic nowadays, and that moniker will likely stick for a while. I realise though that not everyone understands what a skeptical perspective on life actually means – or, specifically, what I take it to mean.
For me, to be a skeptic is to always be critical of any assumption. This applies mostly to spiritual beliefs, but extends to pretty much everything in life. As the motto goes, ‘de omnibus dubitandum‘ – everything is to be doubted.
This means that when a preacher appeals to God, when an energy healer describes auras and chants, or when a homeopath argues that water has memory, these claims should be scrutinised. Does it make sense? Is there any proof? If so, is that proof verifiable? Does the proof originate from a reliable source?
Of course, there are limits to how you can express your skepticism. In extremis, skepticism leads to solipsism, which is a rather untenable philosophy. At some level we have to accept a source’s claim and trust in their legitimacy and authority.
For me, that source is the scientific method. Science is seen by many as this big monolithic entity delivering grand truths from high above (not unlikely dogmatic religion, come to think of it), often accompanied by visualisations of high-tech laboratories and grey-haired bespectacled men in white lab coats.
But science is, at its core, a state of mind. Science is about enquiry and exploration. We all practice science almost every single day, whenever we seek evidence for something and want proof instead of accepting someone’s claim at face value.
More than that, we reap the rewards of scientific progress every single moment of our lives. Things as basic as electricity, running water, medicine and the food we eat, are all the results of science. Our modern lives would be utterly impossible were it not for science.
Science is not a novel invention. Humankind has been doing scientific research at its most basic level for as long as we’ve been using tools. Science – i.e. discovery through experiment and reason – truly is the driving force of human progress.
Also, most importantly, science is anti-dogmatic. Science does not claim absolute truths. The results of science are theories, and they’re called theories for a very good reason. Science doesn’t provide definitive answers, it merely argues the most likely answer, and that answer can – and does – change depending on the evidence.
Science goes where the evidence leads. There are no uncontested truths in science. For example we currently think the universe is 13.7 billion years old because that’s what the evidence suggests. Should there be strong evidence to contradict that, then we’ll change our minds and consider different ages for the universe.
For me, science is the authority in which I place my trust. Science is the most accurate description of reality we have, and has brought progress and enlightenment to the human condition. I trust in the critical evidence-driven approach of modern science to deliver the best answers we can currently acquire.
Science alone is not enough, of course. Science is an uncaring discipline centred on logic and evidence. The human condition is so much more, which is why my skeptic’s motto includes another element: empathy.
We all know what empathy is, so I won’t elaborate much on it. Suffice to say that empathy is what makes us care about others and fuels our altruistic efforts.
For me, empathy provides the emotional ingredient of my skeptical outlook on life. I care about what happens to other people, therefore I strive to contribute – however modestly – to the welfare of others.
So, to summarise, my skeptic’s motto is founded on three pillars: critical thinking, science, and empathy.
I strive to implement these concepts in my every day life, and I hope the wider world similarly embraces these concepts as I truly believe they will help make this an increasingly better world.
11 Dec 2012
I recently realised I’ve been blogging for over a decade. After a few haphazard attempts at blogging using the chosen platforms of the day – Diaryland and LiveJournal – in 2002 a friend gifted me the Adamus.nl domain name and a hosting package to go with it.
Initially I ran the blog on Moveable Type, but migrated it to WordPress after less than a year because it was much more versatile. I haven’t looked back since.
Updates on this blog have never followed a fixed regimen. As a space for my personal rants, I blog here whenever the mood strikes me. Sometimes that’s almost every day, and sometimes it’s just once every few months.
This blog has been great to me. It helped me vent frustrations, express admiration, and functioned as a general channel for things that interest me. I’m looking forward to the next ten years.
Here’s a small selection of some of my personal favourite blog posts of the past 10 years:
Dope Me Up – 25 Aug 2005
Back in 2005 I was one of the scarce few who strongly suspected Lance Armstrong was using doping. Now I can finally say “I told you so”.
I hate flying – 4 Sep 2006
And I still do.
The end is nigh! Again! – 18 Oct 2006
Six years on, the PC era has still not come to an end. Though maybe with the dawn of the tablet era, it’s time to get worried?
PeerDrive – 26 Apr 2007
My idea for a satnav variant of p2p filesharing. Nothing ever came of this, unfortunately.
The power of the subconscious mind – 16 Aug 2008
It’s easily one of the most influential books I’ve ever read, and radically changed the way I thought about thinking.
Movie Critics Just Don’t Get It – 01 Jul 2009
Here I admit I basically have no taste. I also admit I don’t give a damn.
Why homeopaths are either thieves or imbeciles – 20 Jan 2010
Another one of my frequent rants against ignorance and pseudoscience, this time aimed at the pervasive homeopathy scam.
The unbearable schizophrenia of the UK’s national identity – 24 Jun 2010
Having moved to the UK in 2009, I struggled coming to terms with the complexities of the British state of mind.
Modern copyright law makes no sense – 19 Aug 2011
One of my frequent laments of the inadequacies of the current legal system.
Philosophy of the gaps – 30 Apr 2012
As a skeptic and adherent to rational thought, I find the mind-curves philosophers wring themselves in to are becoming fairly unpalatable.
Bright does not make right – 14 Jun 2012
Being smart does not make one immune to the pitfalls of human thought. Something we should all keep in mind.
This anniversary post is the 343rd post I’ve published on Adamus.nl. When I hit 1000, I’ll throw a massive blog party.
22 Oct 2012
It’s no secret that I’m a fierce defender of free speech, and that I resist any and all attempts at censorship.
Criticism in all its guises is, I believe, an absolutely vital aspect of a progressive modern society. And in a society that jails people for what they say, free speech is a particularly fragile right.
Fortunately this is not a fight waged by a small minority. In fact, free speech in the UK is a grave concern for many of us. Activists have started the Reform Section 5 campaign which presses for reform of section 5 of the Public Order Act.
This reform is highly necessary, because section 5 allows police to arrest people for “insulting words or behaviour”.
The fact that insults are punishable by law is laughably ridiculous and no country professing to be free should even remotely consider such a farcical law. But nonetheless there it is, in the UK law books. Which is why this law desperately needs to be changed.
Rowan Atkinson puts it rather well in this speech:
Free speech includes the freedom to insult. No one has the right to never be offended.
26 Sep 2012
So reading this rather excellent demolition of the entire popular neuroscience genre was more than a little uncomfortable, though probably very necessary:
“So, instead, here is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form.”
While I do believe that neuro-scientific endeavours will, eventually, provide us with meaningful (if unpalatable for some) answers about the nature of thought and consciousness, it’s good to remind ourselves that this is a science in its infancy and we shouldn’t let ourselves be carried along by overly optimistic commercially-incentivised book writers.
11 Sep 2012
Tomorrow’s parliament elections in the Netherlands will be the first Dutch national elections that I won’t have voted in since I became eligible to vote at age 18.
I used to be one of those shrill democracy-thumpers proclaiming that if you didn’t vote, you had no right to complain about politics. Arrogant with conviction, I figured that the Dutch multi-party system always gave someone the chance to vote for a political party they mostly agreed with, and that every citizen had a duty to exercise their democratic right.
So I’m slightly surprised at myself that in this case, I genuinely don’t think I should vote in these elections. And I’m trying to understand why I feel that way.
First of all, I don’t live in the Netherlands any more, and I have no intention of returning to my homeland any time soon as anything other than a temporary visitor. It’s not that I hated living in the Netherlands – quite the contrary, I loved my life there and the country has given me much.
It’s just that I don’t miss it. I miss my family and my friends – I miss them tremendously and I really should keep in touch with them much more often than I actually do – but I don’t miss the country. There are some rather unpalatable aspects of the Dutch national identity that have become much clearer now that I have the luxury of an external perspective. I won’t go in to specifics here – maybe at some stage I’ll write about it in a separate post – but suffice to say that I no longer wholeheartedly embrace my Dutchness.
Combined with the fact that I don’t have a significant personal stake in the outcomes of Dutch elections, and much of my reluctance to vote is explained.
Secondly, the direction the Dutch political debate is heading towards is one that I vehemently disagree with. In years past, it seemed that Dutch politics was more or less a rather stately affair. Politics wasn’t vicious, debates weren’t full of personal attacks, and parties were not personality cults.
None of that is true any more. And I think that’s a Very Bad Thing. The Americanisation of Dutch politics is, frankly, revolting. And worst of all, on the whole people think this is a commendable trend. ‘It makes politics more accessible‘, they say, ‘it encourages public participation‘.
It probably does, and that’s the problem. For public participation in politics to be commendable, it requires an informed public. A public that understands the issues and uses reason and empathy to guide its electoral decisions.
Unfortunately, the Dutch public is, on the whole, dreadfully misinformed. And that means that, as a people, the Dutch make horrendously bad decisions when it comes to electing politicians.
Additionally, I don’t think wild-eyed propagandists are necessarily the right type of people to govern the country. Foamy-mouthed critics are fine on the sidelines, but that’s where they should stay. You just shouldn’t give any real power to someone whose raison d’etre is finding the nastiest populist sentiments – racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia – and capitalising on them. That’s a recipe for national disaster.
As a counter-argument, I can think of one reason why I should vote in the Dutch elections: my family and friends live there, and I care a great deal about what happens to them. I want nothing but the best for them, and I should vote for a party whose policies I feel would benefit them most.
But, thanks to my indecisive musings, the election ballot is still sitting on my kitchen table, 30 hours before it should be at the international electoral offices in The Hague. Barring a very expedient (and expensive) FedEx courier, it’s simply going to be too late to be counted.
5 Sep 2012
Raymond Tallis is, at first glance, a bit of a contradiction.
A bit of background first. Tallis is a philosopher and a prominent mover in British Humanist circles. A staunch atheist, he is a regular contributor to New Humanist magazine, in which pages I first learned of him.
In addition to being a fierce critic of religion, Raymond Tallis is also, as it turns out, a fierce critic of science. Or, specifically, of certain aspects of neuroscience. Which is ironic, as he used to be a neuroscientist.
Tallis rejects the reductionist perspective – increasingly embraced by neuroscientists – that the brain and human consciousness are the same thing, that consciousness is inextricably linked to neural activity in the brain. He even devoted an entire book to this argument, titled Aping Mankind, in which he attacks ‘neuromania’ and ‘Darwinitis’.
What Tallis actually attacks, however, is the simplified portrayal of neuroscientific discoveries in the media, and the sweeping statements journalists like to make in eye-catching headlines. But Tallis fails to make that distinction, instead preferring to use this convenient straw man to criticise all of neuroscience and what he perceives as its reductionism with regards to consciousness and free will (or lack thereof).
Prolific in his criticisms, Tallis however fails to offer any opposing theory as to what consciousness and free will then really are, if not material properties of the brain.
Now I’m not one to denounce a critic for failing to provide an alternative view (that would be rather hypocritical of me) nor for the viciousness of his criticisms (again, pot, kettle & black), but what strikes me most is that Tallis’s criticisms fly in the face of an ever growing mountain of scientific evidence.
Tallis is essentially rejecting empirical scientific evidence without providing any counter-evidence. That, to me, seems a rather untenable position, especially for someone who once declared science to be “the greatest achievement of that community of minds called the human race”. He is intent on maintaining the specialness of human consciousness, without any supporting evidence.
Considering the fact that Tallis is a ridiculously intelligent man and a defender of scientific rationalism in general, this all combines in to a rather contradictory picture of the man.
Or does it?
Apparently Tallis at the age of 15 suffered from great depths of personal despair, which is not particularly uncommon in adolescence. He overcame this depression when he discovered philosophy, which provided him with “a sense of overwhelming joy at the complexity of the world.”
Aha. Suddenly it all makes sense.
Philosophy, Tallis’s intellectual soulmate, is at its core an embrace of the concept that fundamental truths of the universe can be discovered by thought alone. Philosophy has put all its eggs in to the basket of conscious thought, as that is the source from which its knowledge springs.
And that was perfectly fine, right up until science – and neuroscience in particular – started shooting galaxy-sized holes in to the presumed superiority of consciousness and free will.
Neuroscience has not (yet) disproved the existence of free will, nor has it managed to explain what consciousness is.
But the science has made massive strides towards finding answers to those pivotal questions. And the direction of this progress points towards an absence of free will and a rather peripheral role of consciousness in the bigger picture of our mental faculties.
That, I believe, is the true axe Raymond Tallis has to grind. Like so many philosophers he has placed conscious thought on an artificial pedestal, and like many he is seeing that pedestal undermined by the continued progress of biological science.
So in an effort to preserve his adolescent and enduring love affair with philosophy, he rejects any attack on the sanctity of conscious thought. He opposes the materialist notion that we are our brains, regardless of the scientific evidence.
You’d almost feel sorry for the man. So keen to cling to his deeply entrenched cognitive biases, he cannot face the possibility that his beloved philosophy is perhaps nothing but a deeply flawed emanation from our imperfect, materialist brains. And he will go to any length of shrieking irrationality to preserve this personal delusion.
I suppose it just proves once more that even the brightest among us are not the perfect superhumans we’d like them to be.
7 Aug 2012
I used to like TED. In fact I loved it so much I linked to it in this blog’s sidebar (where only truly loveable links dare tread), and recommended the site – and a number of specific TED talks – to people regularly.
But gradually I fell out of love with TED. It seemed to me that the substance I perceived in those early TED talks, the powerful meaning they conveyed and the strength of their messages, were all diminishing.
TED talks have become more about style, about delivering a story in as powerful a way as possible, regardless of the actual worth of that story. They became exercises in propaganda speeches.
In a recent article for The New Republic, professional cynic Evgeny Morozov reviews three e-books from TED’s publishing division, and his commentary on the whole TED movement is eloquently scathing:
“Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void.”
In the same article, when reviewing TED’s decision to publish short e-books instead of properly sized tomes, Morozov is equally dismissive:
“When they launched their publishing venture, the TED organizers dismissed any concern that their books’ slim size would be dumbing us down. “Actually, we suspect people reading TED Books will be trading up rather than down. They’ll be reading a short, compelling book instead of browsing a magazine or doing crossword puzzles. Our goal is to make ideas accessible in a way that matches modern attention spans.” But surely “modern attention spans” must be resisted, not celebrated. Brevity may be the soul of wit, or of lingerie, but it is not the soul of analysis. The TED ideal of thought is the ideal of the “takeaway”—the shrinkage of thought for people too busy to think.”
I find it hard not to agree with the man. When I saw my first few TED talks, I genuinely believed that this sort of thing could help change the world. Now, I fear, it’ll primarily help to dumb us down.
It’s not just TED where this trend of techno-global-fetishism is taking hold. I’m subscribed to the UK edition of Wired magazine, and recently I’ve become a little disenchanted with their ceaseless sycophantic reporting on internet start-ups and the incestuous Silicon Valley venture capitalist circles in which they move.
It’s not about actual worth any longer – it’s about hip stories on cool tech (ideally with some connection to Apple’s shiny devices) with substance an optional ingredient. Again, Morozov describes it perfectly:
“The recipe is simple. Find some peculiar global trend—the more arcane, the better. Draw a straight line connecting it to the world of apps, electric cars, and Bay Area venture capital. Mention robots, Japan, and cyberwar. Use shiny slides that contain incomprehensible but impressive maps and visualizations. Stir well. Serve on multiple platforms.”
This is not an encouraging trend. Especially when you look at related trends in the technology world, such as the over-valuation of Facebook and their $1bn Instagram deal, the signs are there: it’s a whole new bubble, filled with metric tonnes of effervescent hot air.