How can we make better decision?
How can we improve our lives and the lives of others?
How can we become a better person?
Successful and wise people seek the answers to these three questions.
To make better decisions, one needs to acquire knowledge and the ability to separate truths from untruths.
With improvements in decision making skills, our lives will contain less negative outcomes and be filled with more positive experiences, and therefore, we will experience an improvement in our own quality of life and even gain the skills to improve the lives of the people we care about.
In addition, the application of knowledge requires wisdom, and both, possessing wisdom and the act of seeking it, makes one a better person.
Furthermore, the education by which one gains knowledge, truth, and wisdom, has an intrinsic value, one that comes from the act of learning itself… Enlightenment.
Once gained, knowledge, truth, and wisdom are more valuable than material wealth, for this possession can never be taken away from you, it is yours as long as your mind persists.
But, what is the best way to gain knowledge, truth, and wisdom?
To answer this question, I will need to tell you an incredible story, a journey that spans all of history and includes some of the most amazing people who ever lived, who fought oppression, and who created the modern world we know!
Our journey begins over 2,000 years ago… in the age of antiquity, when mankind began to build the very foundations of how to think, act, and discover truths. They called themselves philosophers which means lovers of wisdom. Building upon this initial foundation, the great thinkers and philosophers of Ancient Greece, Rome, Asia, and the Islamic world unraveled countless mysteries and discovered even more truths throughout the centuries.
However, early on in the development of philosophical methods, some philosophers figured out that truths are best discovered when certain rules were followed.
Thales of Miletus (624-546 BCE ) a pre-socratic philosopher and dubbed “The Father of Science” figured out one of these rules:
Truths are best discovered when supernatural explanations are dismissed, else the search for the true cause, or reasons, will cease to be investigated and may never be determined.
Another important concept to emerge early was that:
No ideas or authorities are above criticism.
Yet, even in the time of great Greek philosophy, in what becomes a pattern in human society for millennia to come…
questioning the superstitions of religion and criticizing authority was seen as a dangerous threat…
In Fact… tragically, Socrates (470-399 BCE) suffered execution for his criticism of authorities and his professed lack of belief in their gods.
Still, there was a time in history when philosophy was held in high regard and this pursuit of wisdom continued throughout the world. Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, and many more great minds ascertained the fundamentals of discovering truths in ethics, math, and the natural world.
Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael. Aristotle gestures to the earth, representing his belief in knowledge through empirical observation and experience, while holding a copy of his Nicomachean Ethics in his hand, whilst Plato gestures to the heavens, representing his belief in The Forms, while holding a copy of Timaeus –Wikipedia
However, after the fall of the Roman Empire, Christianity and fundamentalism gripped the minds of the powerful in the western world…
and, like so often with religion, it was used as a tool to control and oppress the powerless.
As such, the required dismissal of supernatural explanations and open criticism of all ideas and authorities, on which philosophical reason depended, was seen as an offence to the dogmatic ideologists and, more importantly, as a threat to the very superstitions that formed the basis by which power was maintained.
As a result, philosophy was seen as dangerous and ancient philosophical writings were either discarded, banned, hidden, or destroyed. The ancient Greek philosophers were lost to the west…
This leads to what is commonly called the dark ages in Europe.
A time when intellectual and moral progress came to a virtual standstill (even regressing in many cases) and this lasted for hundreds of years.
Thankfully, during this time of intellectual oppression in the west, the Islamic world had avoided the grip of superstitious fundamentalism.
With the ability to dismiss supernatural causes and criticize both ideas and authorities, many in the Islamic world cherished the pursuit of wisdom, and maintained many of the writings of the ancient philosophers. This was the golden age of Islamic philosophy which revealed many truths with accomplishments including Algebra and the beginning of modern healthcare and medicine.
A Brief History of Science: Antiquity to the Late Middle Ages
Then, after many hundreds of years, small cracks formed in the walls of oppression and light pierced the darkness…
The grip of religion and superstition loosened, and gradually, a rebirth was brought forth by the reintroduction of the ancient philosophic writings that had been lost to the west. This rebirth is known as the Renaissance.
With this renewed seeking of wisdom, philosophical reasoning, also simply called Reason, began to flourish once more. More truths were discovered, many by those who studied under a subcategory of philosophy. This branch of philosophers studied the natural world and so, called themselves Natural Philosophers. During the period of the Renaissance, these natural philosophers discovered countless truths, including the fact that we are not at the center of the solar system.
Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543 CE) discovered our place in the solar system and how the bodies of our solar system move.
However, religion and superstition still lurked in minds of men…
Giordano Bruno (1548- 1600 CE) was a poet and mathematician that was inspired by Copernicus. He believed that the universe was much larger than anyone had previously suspected, that the stars were other suns, and that they had their own planets. He also speculated that these other planets could potentially contain life.
For these beliefs, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake by the church!
Later, support for the theory of a heliocentric, or sun centered, solar system, got another one of these Natural Philosophers in hot water.
His name was Galileo.
In another move of intellectual oppression perpetrated by religion…
Galileo was forced to publicly recant his support for the theory of a heliocentric solar system, and subsequently put on house arrest as punishment.
As we begin to transition out of the Renaissance, it is another one of these natural philosophers who’s discoveries and truth seeking methods would change the world…
Among countless scientific achievements, Newton invented calculus, and then went on to discover the mathematics of motion and the first working laws of gravity!
Today, we would call these natural philosophers like Issac Newton and Galileo… Scientists.
Here we can see that is was philosophy that provided the initial inspiration and the very intellectual backbone upon which modern Science is built.
Newton would not only give rise to a revolution in science, but also would inspire a very different kind of revolution…
Philosophers and thinkers of this post Renaissance period who studied ethics, government, and economics took notice of the power of Science and its capacity to discover truths. It was not lost to them that Science was built upon those rules of Reason: Dismiss supernatural explanations and openly question ideas and authorities.
They saw that mankind could use Reason to gain wisdom and not only did they do it without the explanations peddled by the powerful church, in fact, Reason was a much more superior tool in the pursuit of wisdom than the supernatural dogma used so often by the powerful to oppress the powerless.
And, as if in an eternal entangled dance, this time, it was Science that inspired Philosophy, returning that initial favor first granted over one thousand years earlier.
Philosophers and great thinkers questioned the church and their monarchy, and its absolute power over the people. Perhaps with Reason, they thought, the people could govern themselves, and if they could, perhaps they ought to, as this would make them more free. Newton and Science kick started the spread of ideas on freedom, including the freedom to choose ones religious beliefs, way of life, pursuit of happiness, and to choose their own representatives in the government.
This was the birth of the so called Age of Reason, also known as The Enlightenment. The Darkness that was overcome by Light, for which the Enlightenment is named, was Religious and Superstitious thinking…
Superstitious thinking was now demonstrably poor at discovering truths, but also understood to require the suppression of questioning supernatural explanations and religious authority to maintain its power, which in turn, always leads to the immoral oppression of the powerless by the powerful and prevents moral progress by its disregard for the power of REASON.
The philosophers and thinkers who inspired The Enlightenment, like Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke, were very influential on the founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The Enlightenment leads directly to the American revolution, independence, the United States constitution, and the (re) emergence and spread of the fragile experiment we call representative government and democracy.
This concept is so important that I must restate it!
The Philosophers of antiquity figured out that there are rules, that when followed, provide the best probability of discovering truths. Two of which are dismiss supernatural causes and question ideas and authorities. These rules are so important that when they are not allowed, human progress, including science, technology, and moral progress, come to a standstill or even go backwards.
However, when these rules are allowed, they are so powerful that it leads to the discovery of Algebra, Calculus, Gravity, our place in the solar system, and how the planets move!
Furthermore, the power of these rules lead directly to the ideas of FREEDOM and DEMOCRACY!
It’s amazing that a revolution in science leads directly to the Enlightenment! A movement built from the rejection of superstitious and religious thinking as tools to discover truths, which, then evolves into a rejection of supernatural and religiously derived ideas of morality and society.
This is because those Enlightenment thinkers, and by extension, the founding fathers, recognized this danger-
Superstitious and religious thinking historically leads to the oppression of the weak by the powerful, leaving the weak no recourse to fight the oppression.
Since The Enlightenment, countless other moral victories were won, in part, due to the use of reason including the ending of slavery, civil rights protections, and women’s rights.
Furthermore, science and technology made great strides…
in the discovery of microscopic pathogens and subsequent life saving vaccines and antibiotics. There was also a revolution in agriculture which produced food to feed those that would have otherwise perished.
The industrial revolution birthed machines that made farming and manufacturing safer and more productive, which in turn, lowered the cost of food and necessities for everyone. The industrial revolution also lowered the cost of, what were previously luxuries only enjoyed by royalty and the extremely wealthy, like electricity, refrigeration, and transportation.
Norman Borlaug the man who saved a Billion lives. An American biologist and humanitarian who invented new types of wheats and rice, and who led initiatives worldwide that contributed to the extensive increases in agricultural production termed the Green Revolution. He received the Nobel Prize for his work.- Wikipedia
Now we find ourselves in an incredible time of human flourishing.
A time when basic human rights are championed by the masses, life expectancy at its highest, extreme poverty is at an all time low in human history, as well as child mortality, violence, and even war at their lowest levels ever. Furthermore, technology and the internet has allowed for the faster spread of wisdom and learning than ever before.
Yet, even with these amazing accomplishments, there remains significant challenges and problems to be solved.
The burning of coal and fossil fuels that followed the industrial revolution released so much carbon dioxide into our atmosphere that we now face global warming…
This warming threatens to change the relatively stable climates we’ve enjoyed throughout modernity and upon which we’ve organized our civilization, including where we grow our food, where we build our cities, and how our infrastructure is designed. Changing climates will affect the amount of food we can grow, creating food shortages, and disrupt the infrastructure we use to transport food with extreme weather events and rising sea levels. In addition, rising sea levels threaten to displace billions of people and cost the economies of the world trillions of dollars. Moreover, even life itself is in danger, as organisms are unable to adapt to the rate of warming, causing such a large loss of biodiversity many scientists now believe we are witnessing the 6th mass extinction in the history of life on this planet, and it is our fault!
Unfortunately, just as we attempt to take on these challenges, the very technology which has allowed for the unprecedented spread of knowledge, also allows for the unprecedented spread of Misinformation.
This misinformation typically plays off our natural cognitive biases,
When combined with poor reasoning skills, these biases have consistently been responsible for the prejudice, discrimination, racism, sexism, oppression, and violence, which has stood in the way of the acquisition of wisdom and truths throughout human history.
It is for this reason, now, more than ever, we must figure out the best methods of thinking and learning!
Methods which seek to separate good and bad arguments, expose poor reasoning, identify and debunk misinformation… Methods which encourage the shedding of dogmatic ideology, and which discover the ideas that are the most likely to be true.
In addition to these skills, this way of thinking should teach us to value challenging our own strongly held beliefs! Forcing us to to examine whether or not those beliefs are based on the same standards of good arguments, reasons, and evidence we ought to judge other ideas with.
If not, it should teach us to hold even greater value for discovering our undeserving, unsupported, and biased beliefs.
Once discovered, these methods should value the humility in admitting to being wrong, and, with great pride in our ability to do so…
Changing Our Mind!
Furthermore, once we value this for ourselves, we should value it in others, especially those we choose to be our teachers, leaders, authorities, and representatives.
Luckily, there is, in fact, ways of thinking that were designed to do exactly this!!!
A trio of overlapping skills:
One: Critical Thinking– the skill of separating bad reasons from good reasons to believe something, built on the wisdom of modern philosophy and logic, with its roots stretching back to Antiquity.
Two: Science– also built on philosophy and logic, rejects supernatural explanations and gives you the skill to avoid biases while knowing objective truths about nature, the planet, and the universe. It also gives us an understanding of where we came from and how we are connected to life and the stars. An understanding of science gives us the incredible ability to predict the future with unprecedented accuracy, to shape our planet, and even to leave Earth and explore outer space!
Three: Skepticism– often defined as a combination of science and critical thinking, with the shared values of reasoned and evidence based beliefs, provisional beliefs which are continuously examined and subject to change as new and better evidence is discovered.
Yet, I claim that skepticism is different from critical thinking and science in how it delves deeper into the study of the many ways humans can be deceived into believing strange things, the way our brains can be tricked, and most importantly, how to defend against deception. In addition, skepticism differs in the fact that it is also a social movement which strives to teach critical thinking and science as a form of self defense and includes skeptical activism in order to defend the vulnerable from deceit. Furthermore, skepticism differs in its champion and celebration of science. Not only for its technological capacity to solve problems, but also for the purely intrinsic value to discover truths about the universe and the stars.
Our society must never forget…
the journey in human intellectualism in which, through trial and error, we developed the best methods of discovering truths, methods that empowered individuals through learning How to Think (rather than being told what to think by the authorities), and the subsequent hard fought battles against oppression, disease, and the human condition… battles won by REASON and SCIENCE!
For I fear, if we do, we surely will not maintain our fragile, yet unprecedented, forward march of TECHNOLOGICAL and MORAL PROGRESS.
It seems to me, that now, we stand at a pivot point on the scale of human endeavor. To avoid sliding backwards, we must create a society which values learning, intellectualism, wisdom, and truth, and that cherishes the proven methods of Critical Thinking, Science, and Skepticism!
When we create and maintain this value in our society, so that we can come together to solve some of our largest challenges yet, this incredible human adventure will have taken us…
From Antiquity To The Stars.