Category Archives: Science

The Unrecognized Beginning of Modern Man

In her book, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, Barbara Tuchman described the worldview-altering effect of the Black Death, the devastating spread of bubonic plague across Europe that killed 50 million people in the years 1346 to 1353: “Survivors of the plague, finding themselves neither destroyed nor improved, could discover no Divine purpose in the pain they had suffered. God’s purposes were usually mysterious, but this scourge had been too terrible to be accepted without questioning. If a disaster of such magnitude, the most lethal ever known, was a mere wanton act of God or perhaps not God’s work at all, then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings. Minds that opened to admit these questions could never again be shut. Once people envisioned the possibility of change in a fixed order, the end of an age of submission came in sight; the turn to individual conscience lay ahead. To that extent the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.”

Before the 14th century, most people believed disasters—earthquakes, floods, plagues—were punishment from God for their sins. But it is a sign of progress that we mostly understand now that the universe does not exist and operate merely to teach us a lesson.

It is good and right to gather wisdom and strength from the experience of life but, as the protagonist’s wife in the 2000 movie, Remember the Titans pondered, “Sometimes life’s just hard, for no reason at all.” It takes courage to deal with the realization that, as Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.

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The Last Blossom from a Dying Plant?

In Never at Rest, largely regarded as the standard biography of Isaac Newton, Richard Westfall describes the moment in history when Newton and others reached a tipping point for how modern man would evaluate the truth of ideas:

“The antipodes of alchemy with its eternal and exasperating secretiveness was mathematics, the very claim of which to be called knowledge rested on demonstrations open to all. Where the one made its way deviously with allusion and symbolism, the other proceeded in the cold light of rigorous logic. The diversity of the intellectual world of the seventeenth century has perhaps no better illustration than the coexistence of two such antithetical enquiries, both apparently in flourishing condition. Only to later ages would it be clear that seventeenth-century alchemy was the last blossom from a dying plant and seventeenth-century mathematics the first blooming of a hardy perennial. Whatever the state of alchemy, certainly it was manifest in 1661 that mathematics was a flourishing enterprise.”

But clearly, each generation confronts its own ideas which live by “exasperating secretiveness” and “[make their] way deviously with allusion and symbolism.” What was manifest more than 350 years ago must be made clear again and again.

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Getting Better, IV

Max Roser, an economist working at the University of Oxford, said that at the close of 2015, only 6 percent of Americans surveyed believed the world was getting better when, in fact—by many significant measures—it is:

According to Future Crunch, the year 2016 saw:

  • The discovery of potential cures for Parkinson’s, AIDS and sepsis, the rollout of a cheap vaccine for cholera, and dramatic declines in malaria death rates
  • Big wins for LGBT activists in Japan, Finland and Slovenia, and women’s rights in India and Iceland
  • Global declines in executions
  • Drops in income inequality in the US and China
  • Increases in German employment (despite huge refugee intakes)
  • Big conservation wins for tigers in China, elephants in Chad, bees in Europe, forests in Cameroon and oceans in Indonesia
  • The accelerating death of the fossil fuels industry and the incredible explosion of renewable energy around the world

…but these stories were vastly underreported.

“Forget fake news,” Future Crunch said. “Our real problem is balance. Respectable news outlets say they’re giving us an objective view of the world, yet drown us in a daily deluge of conflict and negative headlines. It’s manufactured drama and we can’t tear our eyes away. Bad news is great for business…because it’s an addictive product. That’s why it’s everywhere.”

Roser gives three more reasons for these overwhelmingly negative erroneous views:

  • It is hard-wired in human psychology to watch for signs of danger.
  • The 24/7 structure of the media highlights negative subjects.
  • We are unaware of how inconceivably exceptional our current living conditions are from the perspective of our ancestors.

Each of us controls the information we consume and the worldview we form as a result. Are you brave and discerning enough to recognize how far we’ve come and help continue to make things better?

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Getting Better, III: Cherish the Forces of Civilization and Enlightenment

In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker insists that the conventional “romantic nostalgia [that] longs to turn back the clock”—to a time when things were great—is profoundly misplaced.

He admits that we can be reminded of the misery inherent in the daily lives of many of our ancestors—infested with lice and parasites; living above cellars heaped with their own feces; eating bland, monotonous, and intermittent food; laboring from sunrise to sundown before being plunged into darkness—and the absence as well of “the higher and nobler things in life, such as knowledge, beauty, and human connection.” But Pinker contends specifically that the basis of our most vehement appeal to return to the past—”the profusion of modern violence” (muggings, school shootings, terrorist attacks, wars)—is wrong, and that, in fact, the level of violence in our world has never been lower.

The false claim that the characteristics of the modern world—global trade, ethnic inclusion, racial and economic diversity—make it more violent, less safe and less personally rewarding is a transparent attempt by a few to increase control and power at the expense of the many, based on fear and hate. Much like those who refused for a century and a half to acknowledge the truth that the sun does not revolve around the earth, these fear mongers refuse to acknowledge the truth that the world no longer revolves around them.

The evidence of progress, for Pinker, is motivation to be grateful and continue working for even more progress. He says, “For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline of violence is an accomplishment we can savor, and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible.”

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Getting Better, II

getter-better-chart

It has become a recurring theme for me to dwell on the belief that, in the grand scheme, things are truly getting better. I’m now considering a previous post to be Getting Better, I and this as a second installment.

Last month, Max Roser of Vox.com shared what he considers proof that life is getting better for humanity. Listed here and depicted by the chart above is my summary of that information:

  1. Percent of people living in extreme poverty:
    • 1910 – 82%
    • 1950 – 72%
    • 2015 – < 10%
  2. Percent of people dying by age five:
    • 1900 – 36%
    • 1940 – 24%
    • 2015 – 4%
  3. Percent of people literate:
    • 1900 – 21%
    • 1950 – 36%
    • 2014 – 85%
  4. Percent of people in democracy:
    • 1900 – 12%
    • 1950 – 31%
    • 2015 – 56%

May this data affirm that our efforts—large and small—do have a positive effect and motivate us to keep on keeping on to make the world better for as many people as possible.

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Complete Fanaticism

I'm not at the center? Wait...what?
In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus pulled the rug from under the worldview that had dominated Western thought since ancient times by contending that the earth was not the center of the universe.

Thomas Kuhn said in his book, The Copernican Revolution, that the idea that everything revolved around us had been “the basis of everyday practical and spiritual life” for centuries. So, for the average citizen, being told that the earth is just one of several planets that move around the sun, which is just one of an infinite number of stars, brought his identity under attack. Many were upset when they found themselves no longer, cosmologically at least, at the center of things.

Naturally, since the adoption of Copernicanism threatened to disrupt thinking in fields from religion and morality to art and philosophy, bitter opposition to it rose quickly—and persisted for a century and a half. The uniqueness and stability of the earth were deep-seated concepts that would not be surrendered easily. Indeed, throughout history, a number of ideas that reordered our view of ourselves first met with vehement opposition before reluctantly being accepted, as evidence supporting them became irresistible.

For centuries, Western thought has also been dominated by the worldview that the social order revolves primarily around rich, straight, Christian white men. But that idea is currently being challenged to a greater extent and from more sides, perhaps, than ever before. And vehement opposition to the change is present as always. Many in that group are upset that they are no longer seen as the immovable center of all things.

But just as Copernicus made it inevitable In the sixteenth century that the way man understood his place in the cosmos would be transformed—despite opposition and calls for the perpetuation of the existing order—it is inevitable in the twenty-first century that white men will no longer be able to stake an exclusive claim to the center of the social, economic and political universe. Calls for the perpetuation of this existing order will fade away just as the belief in an immovable earth eventually did, passing, as Kuhn said, from “an essential sign of sanity to an index, first, of inflexible conservatism, then of excessive parochialism, and finally of complete fanaticism.”

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Can You?

In the movie, I, Robot, based on Isaac Asimov’s story collection, Will Smith’s character Detective Spooner engages a particular robot, named Sonny, in a conversation about what distinguishes a human being from a robot:

Spooner: Robots don’t feel fear. They don’t feel anything. They don’t eat, they don’t sleep.
Sonny: I do. I have even had dreams.
Spooner: Human beings have dreams. Even dogs have dreams, but not you. You are just a machine, an imitation of life. Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot turn a canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?
Sonny [with genuine interest]: Can you?

The exasperation on the detective’s face betrays his answer to the robot’s question: “No, I can’t…but I’m still a human being, and you’re still just a machine.” But if few humans can separate themselves from machines by the symphonies they write or the canvases they turn into beautiful masterpieces, what separates the rest of us?

A conscience? Hope? A need—to be respected, to be rewarded, to belong?

Maybe we’re defined by the unpredictability of our natural language communication. We consider regular, uniform patterns and inappropriately rote behavior to be “machinelike.”1 Alan Turing suggested that if a machine can carry on a text conversation that convinces people that it thinks like a person, it has passed a significant test of what it means to be human.

Even for a human, it can be very hard to pass that test.

Can you?


1With that in mind, people who worry about having their job taken by a machine would do well not to do their job like a machine.

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