The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? Science May Now Have An Answer

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 3, 2010

Often people remark that science and philosophy deal with two different sets of questions.  I’ve heard many times that philosophy (or religion & theology) deal with the “why” questions whereas science deals more with the nuts-and-bolts kind of “how” questions.  But then you run into some questions which are kind of in the middle – and this is the region where philosophers of science focus much effort & ink discussing what they call the demarcation problem: where does science end & philosophy begin?

Let me give you an example of just such a fuzzy question, one which has been asked repeatedly down through the ages: why is there something rather than nothing?  Specifically, why is the universe (and us) here at all?  Why does it all exist?

Now, up until recently, many people would have looked at such a question as being beyond the realm of science, more appropriately categorized as one of philosophy, theology, or religion.  However, as science has advanced, our understanding of very fundamental physics related to the big bang is providing us clues as to the answer.  A little background first…

You see, recently there was a series of experiments conducted at the particle accelerator called the Tevatron at FermiLab just down the road from me in Batavia, IL (here’s a Chicago Tribune article on the experiments).  Specifically, what the physicists were attempting to do was to try to replicate the conditions of the early universe smashing counter-rotating beams of protons and anti-protons together at incredibly high energies (on the order of 1 TeV).  For those who don’t know, an anti-proton is the antimatter version of a proton – you see, the folks at FermiLab have an antimatter generation and storage facility.  Yeah, antimatter as in Star Trek 🙂

Posted in philosophy, physics denial/woo, religion, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

Can Science Answer Moral Questions?

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 1, 2010

I just watched a fascinating video presentation by Sam Harris titled “Science Can Answer Moral Questions” which he gave at the TED Talks this past February.  One of the key questions it addresses is the notion that science & morality (and hence, religion) must, by definition, occupy different spheres of influence.  While I don’t agree with Harris on everything, I certainly think he makes a very compelling argument in this presentation, and I encourage you to watch it.

Hat tip to Phil at Skeptic Money for directing me to this video!

Posted in philosophy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Pat Robertson is an Asshole

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 14, 2010

I’m taking a bit of a departure from my usual routine to state something which should be patently obvious to anyone with even a shred of common, human decency: Pat Robertson is an asshole. Actually, to say as much would be an insult to assholes, but I cannot think of any other way to put it.

Of course, I’m referring to his recent comments regarding how the people of Haiti somehow deserved the earthquake which has killed & maimed so many because it is a punishment from God for Haitian slaves practicing voodoo (and swearing “a pact with the devil”) hundreds of years ago when they revolted against the French.  But don’t take it from me, take it from the Big Asshole himself…

Wow… I… am… speechless… well, not quite.  But these comments are truly shocking in their insensitivity, immorality, and intellectual vacuity.  They are insensitive for obvious reasons.  I contend that they are immoral because Robertson is using this tragedy to push his own narrow, fundamentalist version of Christianity – while neglecting the fact that roughly 85% of the population of Haiti is Catholic!  Of course, some jerks like Robertson will rationalize the argument by saying something like “Catholics aren’t real Christians” (which is a version of the No True Scotsman logical fallacy) while conveniently ignoring the fact that Catholics (with the exception of Eastern Orthodox Christians) were the only Christians for about 1500 years of history!  Arrgh!

**Aside: not that it should matter what the victims’ religious, or lack thereof, beliefs are; basic human decency should sway us to help them in their hour of need.

The comments are intellectually vacuous because they display the logical extension of a worldview rooted in superstition instead of science, reason, and rationality.  In Robertson’s worldview, there is absolute good and absolute evil (personified in his versions of God and Satan), and he creates a false dichotomy of a pure black-and-white world where those who share his beliefs are on the side of good (God) while those who disagree with him are on the side of evil (Satan) – recall how he made similar comments right after 9/11 about how the U.S. “deserved” to be attacked. Of course, his ignores the reality of how the world is rarely so simplistic, and there are complexities & shades of gray that pop up in many aspects of life.

Another aspect of Robertson’s commentary is disturbing: it views the world through the lens of supernatural forces beyond the understanding of humanity.  There isn’t a natural world which can be examined and understood through a reasoned analysis of natural causes (i.e. the scientific method); rather, the world is governed by good and evil spirits.  It’s all about God & angels versus Satan & demons – a view which, more than anything, propagates fear, ignorance, division, and humanity’s most negative tribal tendencies.

Alas, now that I’ve vented my spleen about Robertson’s stupidity, I shall cease cursing the darkness by lighting a candle (to use Carl Sagan’s analogy)… perhaps the best way to deal with assholes like Pat Robertson is to stay rooted in the real, natural world and actually deal with problems using reason & rationality as opposed to moaning about ghosts, goblins, fairies, and other vestiges of superstitious nonsense.  In other words, we are empowered and can actually do something because we realize that we live in the real world and can change it for the better – we are not slaves to supernatural powers beyond our control and/or comprehension.

If you want to help the people of Haiti (and I sincerely hope you do), a good start is to consider making an immediate cash donation to a reputable international relief agency, such as the Red Cross.

Go forth and light candles.

Posted in philosophy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments »

Science, Morality, and Meaning

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 1, 2009

Sometimes people are turned off from science because they view it as a sterile & cold process.  Often the argument is made that if one takes a science-oriented view of the world that it doesn’t necessarily foster a good moral life.  Many argue that only religion, as opposed to science, can offer any guide for morality, ethics, and the philosophy of the good life.  I think those critics of science are wrong.

That is why I wanted to pass along a great podcast from the folks at Point of Inquiry which touches on all of these topics.  On May 1st, D.J. Grothe interviewed Dr. Jeffrey Schweitzer about his book Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World.

Here is a quick summary of the interview…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in philosophy, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Reasoning & Thinking in Science and Beyond

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 22, 2009

I wanted to just take a few minutes to give a quick shout-out to a couple of good blogs, each of which have a recent post about reasoning & thinking.  The first is a post at  Skepticblog about inductive reasoning in science by Dr. Steven Novella, where he takes on an interesting series of questions which are sometimes posed by those completely ignorant of science and/or who want to tear down science…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in philosophy, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

 
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