Oscar Wilde once said that to disagree with three quarters of the British public was a prerequisite of sanity. Although Jonathan Swift probably put the idea better when he wrote that one can recognize a true genius by the following sign: all the dunces are in a confederacy against him. Wilde and Swift agree that a mere disagreement is no reason to change one’s own beliefs. They agree that if you find yourself up against a large number of people who think you’re wrong, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you are. That seems a matter of common sense, but why? (more…)
Scientists go about trying to collect evidence that can be brought to bear on disputes between rival theories. If I accept the abiogenic theory of petroleum origins, whereas you accept the biogenic theory, then there is a simple way we can settle our dispute. We can try to find evidence of petroleum originating deep in the Earth’s crust, in a layer that cannot plausibly contain fossil deposits. This evidence would favour the abiogenic theory over the biogenic theory, and our dispute would be settled. But of course, there is more to science than just collecting evidence. Scientists don’t just collect evidence and write up papers for peer review; they also come up with the theories in the first place. And while the quest for relevant evidence is largely methodical, rational and logical, the creation of a new theory is largely spontaneous, whimsical and imaginative. (more…)
Once upon a time, in 1610, Galileo pointed a telescope at Jupiter and discovered that Jupiter had four moons. This event is commonly regarded as the first real triumph for the Copernican theory—the theory that the Sun, and not the Earth, sat at the central point of the Universe. The discovery of Jupiter’s moons was revolutionary, unexpected and mysterious. It turned thousands of years of cosmology on its head. (more…)
Many points of religious doctrine look like knowledge claims.
For the last few months an online conspiracy called “Pizzagate” has been brewing. Proponents of the Pizzagate Conspiracy believe that the hacked John Podesta emails, released via wikileaks, contain a code according to which all references to “pizza”, “pasta”, “cheese”, “hot dogs” and the like, are in reality references to various kinds of child sex and sadistic or satanic torture rituals.
Mystics argue that they are able to have ineffable experiences of a deeper fundamental reality, and that the experience is so vivid, so convincing, that little could convince them that their experience was the by-product of neural circuits misfiring. It’s no by-product. It’s the real deal.
All religious cultures get involved with divination, at some point in their histories.The 1952 edition of the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge defines “divination” as ‘the supposed art of discovering the will of the gods, of forecasting the future from indications ascribed to them, or of deciding from phenomena supposedly supernatural the correct course of action to be followed.’ (450) There is some object of the divination that acts as a sign. This object and its behaviour is taken to impart special knowledge to the practitioner of the divination.
Yesterday, conspiracist radio show host Alex Jones raised a theory that had hitherto only been percolating in the deep and dark recesses of internet conspiracy forums. Despite the recurrent lunacy of Jones’ rants, he has a large following in the United States, especially among the so-called “patriot” movement and survivalists. It will be interesting to see what effect Jones’ words will have on public opinion.
Ludwig Wittgenstein is often regarded as the greatest philosopher of the 20th Century. He wasn’t.