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Carl Edward Sagan – An astronomer who had the right stuff

Carl Edward Sagan (1934-1996), best known as Carl Sagan, was an American astronomer and media figure.

Русский: Карл Саган у модели спускаемого аппар...

Carl Sagan with a model of the Viking lander (Photo: Wikipedia)

His interest in science began at a young age. Getting his first public library card at age 5, he spent considerable time asking the librarian questions and reading up on topics that his family and friends were not so enthusiastic about.

The young Carl got bored at public school because it wasn’t challenging enough. But his family didn’t have the means to send him to a private school for gifted kids.

Nevertheless, Sagan went on to do great things as an adult. He published hundreds of scientific articles, served as an advisor to NASA, and wrote books and hosted a TV series, Cosmos, that popularized science and particularly the idea that we are not alone in the universe.

Sagan differed from many UFO hunters in that he never abandoned his healthy skepticism. An advocate of SETI (The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), his method was couched in the science of his era. Some see that as a strength, others as a limitation.¹

He also made several accurate predictions about the nature of our solar system, contributed to robotic space missions and, slightly ahead of his time,

perceived global warming as a growing, man-made danger and likened it to the natural development of Venus into a hot, life-hostile planet through a kind of runaway greenhouse effect.²

Sagan taught a course on critical thinking at Cornell university and didn’t believe in an anthropomorphic God nor a God to which one would pray to. His vision of God was more in line with the supposed laws of the universe. For Sagan, it made no sense to pray, for instance, to the law of gravity. Gravity would behave the same way, prayed to or not.³

Traditional theologians would say that Sagan confused creator with creation, as so many do. But his popularity in America and abroad was phenomenal and he received many medals and awards. And entertainers like Johnny Carson regularly parodied his sound bytes and unique accent, especially with the phrase “billions and billions.”4

¹ For instance, people convinced that they can psychically connect with ETs will likely not find any kind of proof by looking through large telescopes or by listening to radio signals from outer space. The proof for them, if there is any “proof” at all, might come from situations working out in a positive way by virtue of an apparently helpful psychic ET connection. This, of course, could be further questioned from different angles. But this is beyond the scope of this entry.


³ “In reply to a question in 1996 about his religious beliefs, Sagan answered, ‘I’m agnostic.’ Sagan maintained that the idea of a creator God of the Universe was difficult to prove or disprove.” Ibid.


Related » Occam’s razor

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Erwin Schrödinger

English: Photograph of physicist Erwin Schrödi...

Erwin Schrödinger early in his professional career. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) was an Austrian physicist who attempted to overcome the apparent particle- wave duality with his now famous wave equation.

Various interpretations of Schrödinger’s wave equation have arisen. For some, particles are seen as wave packets. Others suggest that the particle is similar to a standing wave—a relatively stable energy formation that doesn’t travel through a medium.

While some like to see science as some kind of solid rock that tells us the “truth,” the ambiguity surrounding the interpretation of Schrödinger’s work tells us just the opposite. Science involves speculation, myth and a lot of limitation and uncertainty.

However, to sum up the latest consensus on what the wave equation means to people today, we could say that the whole idea of “matter” is recognized as a construction of the senses, mind and society. Underneath that social construction of reality,¹ we just have energy, for lack of a better term.

English: Wave particle duality p known

Wave particle duality (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

New Age enthusiasts tend to champion this idea, suggesting the entire universe is merely energy. Meanwhile, some old school theologians still talk about the reality of matter and the (supposed) indisputable authority of Aristotle‘s views on that topic. Some even go as far to say that animals do not enjoy an afterlife because they do not have souls and are made entirely of matter.²

A better approach, however, would consider the replacement of the old idea of “matter” with that of “energy” but also look to spiritual experience as somewhat mysterious yet qualitatively different from energy.³

For his outstanding work in quantum mechanics Schrödinger won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1933, sharing it with Paul Dirac.

Image via Wikipedia

¹ I’m alluding to the sociological classic, The Social Construction of Reality by Berger and Luckmann.

² Others say that animals do have souls, but still do not enjoy an afterlife. See these links.

³ What do I mean by this? Well, I recall conversing with someone who liked to work out. He enjoyed his endorphin rushes after vigorous exercise. I used to be a long distance runner, so knew what he was talking about. Since my running days, however, I have experienced what C. G. Jung and others call the numinous. And what Catholics (and other Christians) call the indwelling of The Holy Spirit. In those essentially spiritual experiences I have noticed a range of difference. And all of the spiritual experiences were qualitatively different from an endorphin rush (which we can assume more closely correlates to chemical changes than, say, sitting in a church).

Related » George Berkeley, Philipp Lenard, Particle, Wave, Thomas Young 

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David Hume's statements on ethics foreshadowed...

David Hume (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Science [Latin scientia = knowledge] (revised Aug 17 2016)

Hard and Soft

Science has, at the very least, two meanings. The first meaning is most commonly found in the natural and physical sciences. In these so-called “hard” sciences, science develops laws and theories from the systematic observation of nature.

These laws and theories, according to most definitions, may be supported or disproved. This is made possible by the fact that, once published, scientific results become public. As public knowledge, new findings (and the theories derived from them) are subject to peer review and, when appropriate, replication.

The other meaning of science is far more opaque, usually cropping up in the so-called “soft” social sciences.

Political science, sociology and psychoanalysis, for instance, rely on theories. But these theories often depend on selective, scant or questionable empirical research. And they tend to use correlational or multivariate instead of causal experimental designs.

Correlational studies merely tell us that, in certain circumstances, two variables of interest occur together in some degree of statistical probability, whereas multivariate designs look at any number of variables and attempt to determine their probability of occurring together.

Most agree that no definitive causality can be claimed with either correlational or multivatiate designs.  However, this is some debate on this issue. Many agree that causality cannot be demonstrated in the social sciences. But we can point to the reality of “strong” and “weak” correlations—hence the important offshoot of science, statistics and probability.

Critiques of Science


English: Science icon from Nuvola icon theme f...

Science icon from Nuvola icon theme for KDE 3.x. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Theological critiques of science have two branches. On the one hand, some theologians warn against adopting a false moral neutrality that some scientists apparently advocate. This debate usually makes headlines whenever stories about abortion or same sex marriage arise.

The other branch relates to the theological claim that conventional science cannot account for nor predict revealed, infused or illuminated forms of knowledge. And to complicate matters, some theologians say theology, itself, is a science. And not only that. It is the “noblest” science.¹


Without getting too deep, it is important to take a step back and question some of the assumptions that science rests upon or, perhaps, implies. This is what philosophers tend to do.² For example, they ask does our world always operate in a uniform and predictable manner?

Critics also maintain that science cannot explain everything. Human experiences like love, free will, morality and identity are somewhat mysterious. We might be able to trace brain patterns, chemical interactions and response times in a lab. But this is only looking from one perspective, and from the outside.

And most would agree that correlational and multivariate studies in any branch of science do not adequately explain why things happen. We often hear the word “link” in scientific reporting. For instance, “Scientists Find Link Between Dopamine and Obesity.” But this does not tell us what causes what.

“It’s possible that obese people have fewer dopamine receptors because their brains are trying to compensate for having chronically high dopamine levels, which are triggered by chronic overeating,” says Wang. “However, it’s also possible that these people have low numbers of dopamine receptors to begin with, making them more vulnerable to addictive behaviors including compulsive food intake.”³

Other critiques highlight the role of human bias, usually called experimental or experimentor bias. In a nutshell, human bias influences the selection, observation, interpretation, analysis and presentation of data.

Also important is Karl Popper’s argument that scientific truth claims can only be disproved, never proved.4

English: The OWNER of this passport picture of...

The OWNER of this passport picture of Willard Van Orman Quine is Dr. Douglas Quine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Sociological critiques of science do not ignore philosophical issues but tend to focus on the role of social power in shaping, legitimizing and reproducing scientific truth claims within the broader context of a given society’s sense of normality.

Some writers, like Broad and Wade, report cases where scientific credentials have been forged and results fabricated.5 And some cultural theorists, particularly postmodern, see science as just another conceptual game, fiction, strategy, agenda, or discourse posing as truth.

From this it’s clear that science is far more complicated than what the media usually portrays. But the word “science” still has power to sway the masses, a power arguably out of sync with the realities of its complexity.

If we apply just some of these well-known critiques to recent trends about Climate Change, a virtual hailstorm of criticism will likely descend. In a sense, science really has become the new religion. Simply use your mind to question data selection, application, interpretation and presentation and you might not be labelled a “heretic” as in the Middle Ages. No, in the 21st century, you will probably be called a “denyer,” a term which ironically rests on (weakly scientific) psychoanalytic assumptions relating to a theory of “denial.”6

Anima and Animus – from concepts developed by Dr. Carl Jung, who tried to integrate psychology and spirituality (via Pinterest)

Depth and Transpersonal Psychology

Contemporary depth and transpersonal psychologists and those hoping to integrate science, religion and spirituality say a new form of science, beyond immediate biological, behavioral, psychological, social and environmental factors, is required to better account for the workings of the psyche in relation to the universe and God.

Some preliminary attempts at integration have been made. But the process is still in the germinal phase. Considering the vastness and mystery of life, the universe and beyond, this is not surprising. What is surprising is how dogmatic groups in possession of social power can sway the masses into thinking they have everything figured out. To me, this is not only ludicrous. But sometimes dangerous.7

¹ Recently TVO did a segment where two believing American scientists talk about science and religion. There’s no great depth here, and some of the statements wouldn’t wash in Canada, which arguably in matters of world faith and multiculturalism is several decades ahead of the USA. But it’s worth watching.

² David Hume goes so far as to critique the entire idea of causality. I think Hume’s critique is quite convincing, to the extent that it seems reasonable to say that most everything comes down to belief instead of knowledge.

³ Scientists Find Link Between Dopamine and Obesity in Brookhaven National Laboratory, February 1, 2001 »

4 Perhaps a bit too detailed for the bulk of this entry, Willard Quine says empiricism (which science rests upon) contains “two dogmas.” One dogma is the distinction often made between Kant‘s analytic and synthetic propositions. In the simplest terms these are, respectively, intellectual constructs understood to be true in themselves vs. intellectual constructs taken to be true by virtue of how they relate to the world. Quine’s second dogma is reductionism, the belief that naming and meaning are the same.

5 Betrayers of the Truth, 1982. And more recent examples of outright fraud in science:

Sir John Houghton speaking at a climate change...

Sir John Houghton speaking at a climate change conference in 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6 Global Warming activists/alarmists also overlook the reality that scientific research in support of the prevailing global political agenda have a much better chance of getting funding than those that question the data collection and interpretation behind it. This does not represent a scientific attitude, one that wants to get at truth. Rather, it’s yet another example of societal power-players hoping to reinforce whatever views they find important, and for whatever reasons they may really have.

In psychiatry, for example, some doctors prescribe medications (arguably a legitimizing term for drugs) without really knowing whether they are doing more harm than good. See

Related » Archaeology, Aristotle, Chakras, Emic-Etic, Fundamentalism, Galileo Galilei, Ideal Types, Myth, Particle-Wave Duality, Phenomenology, Postmodernism, Poststructuralism, Saint-Simon (Comte Henri de), Scientism, Semiology


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sea turtle – Test Tube – Gummy bear contamination! (Please note: No gummy bears were harmed or consumed in the making of this photo shoot) via Flickr

Scientism has two meanings. One refers to the (almost religious) belief that science may eventually understand and solve all natural and human problems. This kind of scientism has also been called “scientific fundamentalism.” Wikipedia gives a good outline of this approach:

Scientism is belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most “authoritative” worldview or the most valuable part of human learning – to the exclusion of other viewpoints. Accordingly, philosopher Tom Sorell provides this definition of scientism: “Scientism is a matter of putting too high a value on natural science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture.”¹

The second meaning refers to the partial and/or deceptive use of methods generally recognized as scientific.

Put simply, some people actively deceive or try to appear scientific for personal, economic or political gain. For examples of this see Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Hall of Science by W. Broad and N. Wade (1982). More recent examples can be found here:

Related to the second meaning, a specious argument may be given a scientific gloss to make it seem legitimate. We find this in so many TV ads where professional actors wear white lab coats, trying to look like authoritative scientists or medical professionals while selling products ranging from automobiles to toothpaste.

Also, the representation of statistics may be disproportional to actual results. Sometimes we find bloated or extended bar graphs that make results look more significant than they really are—another common advertising trick that falls under this kind of scientism.

Because the entire definition of science is problematic, one could say that the idea of scientism, itself, is also fraught with difficulty. Science is a human enterprise. And in my opinion it’s often a fine line between science and scientism. Or maybe a gray and blurry one.


Related » Advertising, Athleticism, Chance, Marx, Marxism, Politics, Postmodernism, Power, Religion, Science, Thomas Szasz

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Semiology (or Semiotics)

Dimitri dF discriminación

Semiology (or Semiotics) is the study of signs. The term was coined by Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), and semiology was originally taken to be a science.

But more recent theorists in several disciplines have questioned the entire notion of the “scientific enterprise,” which some regard as just another sign.

Indeed, semiology includes or, one could say, branches off into postmodern deconstruction, an approach which questions the distinction between denotation and connotation, along with many other culturally implied truth claims, normative structures and practices.

Some argue that pioneering semiologists like Roland Barthes contained the seeds of what would become known as a postmodern approach.

Funnily enough, Wikipedia on one page argues that

Semiotics (also called semiotic studies; [is] not to be confused with the Saussurean tradition called semiology which is a part of semiotics).”

But in the link to Ferdinand de Saussure Wikipedia combines the two:

“He is widely considered one of the fathers of 20th-century linguistics[4][5][6][7] and one of two major fathers (together with Charles Sanders Peirce) of semiotics/semiology.

Related » Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, Signified, Signifier, Structuralism, Wittgenstein

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Rupert Sheldrake

Rupert Sheldrake (1942 – ) is a former Cambridge biochemist raised in a British Methodist family. His work aims to integrate science and spirituality.

Rupert Sheldrake, Toward a Science of Consciou...

Rupert Sheldrake, Toward a Science of Consciousness, Tucson, Arizona (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Seven Experiments Which Could Change the World (1994), Sheldrake outlines low-cost experiments that readers are encouraged to perform.

One experiment deals with ESP perception as a form of “looking.” Sheldrake asks why we sense somebody looking at us from behind or even at some distance (e.g. through a window). He suggests that some type of intuitive instead of conventional perception is involved. This idea is followed up in Dogs that Know When Their Owners are Coming Home, and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals (1999).

In keeping with this hypothesis, his subsequent book was called, The Sense of Being Stared At, And Other Aspects of the Extended Mind (2003).

Sheldrake conducted controlled experiments on telephone precognition. He found significant results suggesting that people knew when others were about to call them on the telephone, with a sample size of 63. A similar kind of precognition was also found with an e-mail experiment, with a sample size of 50.

In 2009, at the time of the last update of this entry, his website asked: “Have you thought of someone who then sends you a text message?” inviting visitors to report their observations through the web.

Sheldrake continues to publish books containing his interviews and dialogues with other notables in the New Age / Holistic Health circuit. He also replies to critics who say he’s lost touch with recent theories in neurobiology and, indeed, abandoned science in favor of so-called magical thinking.

I almost changed the world today – PhotoGraham

However, not all scientists are at odds with his views. The late physicist David Bohm said Sheldrake’s ideas are in keeping with his own about an “implicate and explicate order.”

More recently, Sheldrake critiques scientists for being authoritarian and narrow-minded in his 2012 publication The Science Delusion (Science Set Free). Wikipedia notes:

In the book Sheldrake proposes a number of questions as the theme of each chapter which seek to elaborate on his central premise that science is predicated on the belief that the nature of reality is fully understood, with only minor details needing to be filled in. This “delusion” is what Sheldrake argues has turned science into a series of dogmas grounded in philosophical materialism rather than an open-minded approach to investigating phenomena. He argues that there are many powerful taboos that circumscribe what scientists can legitimately direct their attention towards.[80]:6–12 The mainstream view of modern science is that it proceeds by methodological naturalism and does not require philosophical materialism.[81]

English: Photograph of David Bohm, taken from ...

Celebrated physicist David Bohm supported Sheldrake’s agenda (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sheldrake questions conservation of energy; he calls it a “standard scientific dogma”,[80]:337 says that perpetual motion devices and inedia should be investigated as possible phenomena,[80]:72–73 and has stated that “the evidence for energy conservation in living organisms is weak”.[80]:83 He argues in favour of alternative medicine and psychic phenomena, saying that their recognition as being legitimate is impeded by a “scientific priesthood” with an “authoritarian mentality”.[80]:327 Citing his earlier “psychic staring effect” experiments and other reasons, he stated that minds are not confined to brains and remarks that “liberating minds from confinement in heads is like being released from prison”.[80]:229 He suggests that DNA is insufficient to explain inheritance, and that inheritance of form and behaviour is mediated through morphic resonance.[80]:157–186 He also promotes morphic resonance in broader fashion as an explanation for other phenomena such as memory.¹

Sheldrake’s website currently offers a telephone telepathy test and a joint attention test, research anyone can participate in.²

For more on his work, see Morphic resonance, Morphic fields, Morphogenetic Fields and articles relating to Sheldrake.


² The telephone test is limited to those with the required technology and geolocation.

Related » Wim Kayzer

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E. O. Wilson Accepting TED 2007 Prize 1 of 2: advencap / Class V

E. O. Wilson Accepting TED 2007 Prize 1 of 2: advencap / Class V

Sociobiology is a fairly recent development in biological thought that goes back to the 1940s. It made the headlines with the publication of E. O. Wilson’s, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), which stresses both heredity and environment in species development.

During the 1970s there was an unspoken agreement in some areas of the Humanities that human beings were capable of anything, being born with a proverbial “blank slate” instead of with genetic variations. Many academics and activists, alike, believed we are all born the same, and that our environment shapes us. So, improve the environment, and we improve the species. All very simple.

However, more recent research into genetics suggests it’s not quite that simple. Today, most researchers embrace a “nature/nurture” paradigm.¹ But in the 1970s, Wilson questioned the idea of the blank slate and was physically attacked for doing so, along with facing much vocal criticism from professors and organized protest from activists.²

Sociobiology looks at social behavior from an evolutionary perspective. It has sparked debate over the well-documented altruistic behavior of some individual organisms. In a nutshell, altruistic individuals sacrifice their own fitness for that of another individual within the species, even to the point of death. Instead of accounting for this in the traditional way (as a sacrifice for the group), sociobiology believes the organism is genetically programmed to make a sacrifice that maximizes net benefit, even if the individual organism, itself, does not receive that benefit.

Animation created from Lord of the Ants, 2008 Windfall Films. (Fair Use / Fair Dealing Rationale).

Animation – 2 – from Lord of the Ants, 2008 Windfall Films. (Fair Use / Fair Dealing Rationale).

From an evolutionary standpoint, organisms are said to be biologically programmed to carry and reproduce genes. Some say the altruistic individual is behaving “selfishly'”(concerned with replicating its genes) because it seeks to transmit the highly similar genes of its kin. Complicated arguments have arisen to defend this view in light of the equally complicated realities of animal behavior.

Critics say that sociobiology reveals a selective use of data; they also question the inference of an abstract yet innate principle in which genes mechanistically reproduce themselves. Another critique of sociobiology centers on its generalizing from the insect and animal to the human world, a method that many would probably find interesting but limiting.

E. O. Wilson’s research and pedagogical methods sometimes leave something to be desired. In the animation above, we see him holding a living ant in a pair of pliers. He continues to forcibly probe the dying ant in order to squeeze liquid from its abdomen. This seems to be pretty strange and cruel behavior from an adult claiming to be fascinated by the ant world. For more incongruous images, see

Alabama on offense during the annual Iron Bowl...

Alabama on offense during the annual Iron Bowl against rival Auburn University. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a recent PBS video, Wilson likens an Alabama football game to an insect war, saying that the fanaticism and wild emotion of sport spectacles reveals a genetic desire to fight, kill and be victorious.

¹ Most still tend to ignore the possibility of “spiritual” factors, but that’s beyond the scope of this entry.

² We find a similar kind of “knee-jerk” reaction to anyone who now questions the idea of climate change from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Most are convinced it’s a net negative. Simply questioning this assertion usually makes the sparks fly. See for instance, the ludicrous combination of scientism and dogmatism on this topic at