Welcome to part 8 of a 10 part series:
How to get smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies
In this article we’re looking at the spiritual side of intelligence and wisdom:
“Meditation will not carry you to another world, but it will reveal the most profound and awesome dimensions of the world in which you already live.” – Zen Master Hsing Yun
This series is about critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies, but it’s also about getting smarter.
Whilst meditation doesn’t necessarily make you smarter (although it often does), it does quieten your mind which makes learning, thinking, decision making, and problem solving, so much easier.
Benefits of meditation
- Decreases anxiety, blood pressure, stress, tension, and worry
- Improves concentration, focus, creativity, intuition, memory
- Improves physical, mental, and emotional health and well-being
- It opens your mind. There aren’t too many closed-minded meditators.
- It quietens the mind and allows you to see and perceive everything more clearly: Yourself, other people, your surroundings, the world
- Recharges your batteries and gives your body and mind a break
How to meditate
One of my favorite Sadhguru meditations (starts at 3:35)
“Real meditation is not about mastering a technique; it’s about letting go of control. Anything else is actually a form of concentration. Meditation and concentration are two different things. Concentration is a discipline; a way in which we are actually directing or guiding or controlling our experience. Meditation is letting go of control, letting go of guiding our experience in any way whatsoever.” – Adyashanti
How to meditate
- Sit upright in a cross legged position with your left leg on the inside with your thumbs and index fingers touching
- Close your eyes and focus on your in breath and out breath to the exclusion of all else
- Alternatively you can watch your thoughts come and go, without attaching to them or resisting them. See them as clouds in the sky – quickly come and quickly gone.
- Don’t believe or disbelieve anything you see – just watch and observe
- Don’t judge or label anything you see – just watch and observe
- Don’t try to control your mind
- Don’t try to achieve anything
- Don’t try to get enlightened
- If you think happy and positive thoughts – that’s OK
- If you think evil and negative thoughts – that’s OK
- If you think about fucking, dying, killing, shitting – whatever – it’s OK
- Continue for 10-20 minutes – longer if possible
When you start watching your mind in meditation you’ll very quickly discover:
- You are NOT thinking ‘your’ thoughts – they simply appear in your consciousness without your permission, whether you like it or not, and you have absolutely no say as to what you will think, or as to what kinds of thoughts will pop into your head (angry, happy, sad, funny, sexual, violent, random etc) also note that often the less you want to think about something the more you do
- How busy your mind is (the average person thinks 50, 000+ thoughts per day)
- How much of your thinking is negative and random and has nothing to do with reality
Eventually when you watch your mind for long enough in meditation, you’ll start to get some space and separation from it, and you’ll start to experience it as something foreign and apart from you.
It’ll be like listening to the voice of a stranger – someone you don’t even recognize. Or watching a movie that you know you’re not producing.
Thoughts will still be perceived by you – but because you’ll clearly see that they’re not being produced by you, you won’t identify with them as much, nor will you take them so seriously.
“Meditation is like giving a hug to ourselves, getting in touch with that awesome reality in us. While meditating we feel a deep sense of intimacy with God, a love that is inexplicable.” – Paramahansa Yogananda
“Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose in the present moment non-judgmentally.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn
One of the biggest mistakes spiritual seekers make is that they divide their lives into:
They’re one person at the ashram, church, or mosque, and another with their friends or at work.
Mindfulness is the art of turning EVERYTHING into a spiritual practice:
- Washing dishes
- Brushing your teeth
- Sitting on the toilet
- Taking a shower
How to practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is simply about being present and paying attention in the moment. It’s about doing everything consciously, instead of being physically present, but mentally absent, like most people.
For example: When you eat, you eat slowly and consciously, focusing on the taste and texture of every bite, instead of watching TV, surfing the net, or thinking about what you need to do that day.
- Consciously focus on being present in the moment. When your mind wanders, bring it back. (This is hard at first because it’s the nature of the mind to wander, but the more you do it the easier it gets)
- Bring conscious awareness to everything you do: eating, walking, listening etc.
- Watch your thoughts and emotions come and go like clouds in the sky
- Consciously focus on your breath, the inhale and exhale, the rise and fall
- Pay attention to your thoughts, emotions, words, and actions, in the moment – without judging anything as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (if you feel angry that’s OK, but try to watch your thoughts and emotions without being carried away by them)
Benefits of mindfulness
- It makes you smarter: You learn a lot about yourself, other people, and everything around you, simply by paying attention
- It makes you happier: It feels good to stay in the present moment without resisting it
- It makes you more conscious and aware
- It makes you more patient and less reactive
- It improves your relationships. When you really listen to someone and try to see things from their perspective and understand where they’re coming from, they feel understood and appreciated
- It’s good for your physical and mental health and well being
Mindfulness, like meditation, is a habit, and like any habit, the more you practice it the easier it gets.
Mindfulness is a Superpower
Key takeaway: “You should learn how to respond wisely to things that happen to you, rather than just reacting blindly.” – Dan Harris
Meditation and mindfulness go hand in hand.
The more you meditate, the easier mindfulness becomes.
The more mindful you are, the easier meditation becomes.
Both meditation and mindfulness allow you to get some space from your mind, and they allow you to see, perceive, and think more clearly.
13. Psychedelics: Ayahuasca, DMT, LSD, Magic Mushrooms, Peyote etc.
“I think of going to the grave without having a Psychedelic Experience is like going to the grave without ever having sex. It means that you never figured out what it is all about.” – Terrence Mckenna
IMO: You cannot call yourself a truth seeker unless you are prepared to experiment with psychedelics such as Ayahuasca, DMT, LSD, Magic Mushrooms etc. at least once in your life.
My experience with psychedelics
My experience with psychedelics (specifically Ayahuasca and San Pedro) began in 2014 when I was travelling the world completing my bucket list. I was in Peru and decided to try both San Pedro (Spanish for “St Peter”) and Ayahuasca (meaning “Vine of the dead”) to have my first psychedelic experience. It was life changing.
I’ve now drunk Ayahuasca over 60 times over the last 3 years. San Pedro over 20 times. I’ve yet to try Magic Mushrooms or LSD (but I will) and I plan on smoking DMT soon.
I’ve had far too many experiences to mention here, but in a nutshell:
- Out of body experiences
- Out of mind experiences – even better than OBE’s – but impossible to describe
- Experienced spiritual beings and other dimensions
As I said in an earlier article: “It’s impossible to describe what an Ayahuasca experience is like to someone who has never done it before. I don’t say this to be vague, secretive, or mysterious, but because it’s true.
It’s like trying to describe sight to someone who cannot see, or thought to someone who cannot think. Nothing can prepare you for what you’re about to experience because it’s like nothing else you have ever experienced.”
If you’ve never had a psychedelic experience before, here’s an example of what one can be like from the movie Dr Strange:
I encourage all seekers of truth to try psychedelics such as Ayahuasca, DMT, LSD, Magic Mushrooms etc. at least one time in their lives for the following reasons:
Benefits of psychedelics
- Ayahuasca, DMT, Iboga, LSD, Magic Mushrooms, MDMA etc. can help you to break addictions (alcohol, coffee, drugs, fast food, porn, sugar, weed etc.) and overcome anxiety, depression, phobias, PTSD, and even the fear of death
- If you’ve never had a real, unmistakable, spiritual experience, they can provide it
- Every religion was founded and built upon some mystical, spiritual, or supernatural experience of the founder. But why read about the spiritual experiences of others when you can just have your own? Believe me it’s one thing to read about the spiritual experiences of Jesus or Muhammad and another to have your own.
“The only experience which counts is your own experience. Everything else is irrelevant. If flying saucers were to land on the lawn of the White House tomorrow, it would not matter to you as much as if you smoked DMT tonight, because that’s YOUR your experience.” – Terrence McKenna
- Psychedelics are the fastest way I know of to open your mind (followed by travelling the world, meditation, and seeking out the best arguments and evidence against your beliefs). Psychedelics will open your heart, open your mind, and open your eyes. You will never see life, other people, yourself – anything – the same way again.
- Psychedelics allow you to escape the prison of your perspective (and it is a prison), to see things from other perspectives, through the eyes of other people, and they allow you to see and perceive things you can’t ordinarily, in ways you wouldn’t ordinarily. They definitely allow you to “think outside of the box”.
- Psychedelics allow you to see the “bigger picture” and put things back into perspective (unlike your mind which loves to blow things out of proportion, make mountains out of molehills, and worry over nothing)
- Psychedelics quieten the mind. The day after Ayahuasca I feel amazing, incredible, so happy, peaceful, and content. I feel so clean and pure physically, mentally, and energetically. There is such a separation from my mind that I can see everything clearly, without distortion or the minds constantly incessant commentary. It’s the exact opposite of a night of alcohol or weed where you feel hungover, tired, and/or depressed. PS: Food tastes amazing afterwards. Music sounds incredible.
- If you’re confused, stuck in a rut, and not sure what to do next with your life, psychedelics can break you out, show you the way forward and tell you what to do next. They are plateau breakers and tunnel busters.
- There are certain things that would probably take you a lifetime to learn. Things that just never would have occurred to you in a million years. Questions you would have never thought to ask. Places you would never thought to have looked. Psychedelics can reveal them to you instantly. They can literally save you decades of time.
- Psychedelics reveal your blind spots and make the unconscious, conscious. They reveal:
- Things you might have noticed, but that you maybe hadn’t yet realized the full significance of (childhood traumas you haven’t healed from, or maybe a bad habit, or a personal, health, or relationship problem that is spiraling out of control)
- Things that others can see about you, but that you can’t see, or don’t want to see. e.g. addictions, attachments, approval seeking behavior, bad habits, depression, defense mechanisms, mental/psychological problems etc.
- Things about yourself that you don’t know, and no one else does either
- They show you where you’re currently going wrong in life and what you should do differently
- I met an American woman at an Ayahuasca retreat in Peru who was raised in a sex cult where she molested and raped from her childhood until her teenage years and was forced to see children and teenagers being molested, raped, and murdered (shot in the head) in front of her. I asked her how she was able to function? She credited the healing powers of Ayahuasca and MDMA.
- Ultimately psychedelics such as Ayahuasca are one of the most powerful and effective ways I know of for personal growth and transformation. When done right (with the right mindset, in the right setting, with the right people) they’re good for your physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. They destroy your ego and make you more humble (which is a good thing), and they make you a better person, more accepting, compassionate, kind, loving, open minded, understanding, forgiving etc. You gain a new appreciation for life and other people.
There is a reason why some of histories most famous people: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Francis Crick, Richard Feynman, Aldous Huxley, the Beatles etc. have all described their experiences with psychedelics as life changing, and why people in Silicon Valley are microdosing psychedelics like LSD and Magic Mushrooms – they work.
“John [Lennon] and I had decided that Paul and Ringo had to have acid, because we couldn’t relate to them any more. Not just on the one level – we couldn’t relate to them on any level, because acid had changed us so much. It was such a mammoth experience that it was unexplainable. It was something that had to be experienced, because you could spend the rest of your life trying to explain what it made you feel and think.” – George Harrison, The Beatles
“Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life.” – Steve Jobs
Travelling the world is awesome, but for me: Psychedelics > Travelling the world.
What psychedelics can’t and won’t do
- Force you to change if you don’t want to
- Do the changing for you
- Prevent you from going back to your bad habits and addictions if you really want to
Notes about psychedelics
- You cannot control the experience. For this reason, I do NOT recommend psychedelics to anyone that cannot, or is unwilling, to let go and give up control. If you are not prepared to let go and let it take over (because it will), the experience is likely to be overwhelming and terrifying. You just have to trust it and let it happen.
- Once the trip starts you’re going for a ride and you cannot stop it. Don’t try to resist it or stop it because you are likely to trigger a terrifying experience (a “bad trip”)
- The BEST and WORST experiences of my life have been with Ayahuasca. That’s the nature of psychedelics: You can experience the deepest bliss, the greatest ecstasy, or the worst kind of terror imaginable. You might experience heaven and hell on the same night.
- No two psychedelic experiences are the same. Every experience is unique and impossible to predict. The “trip” can go in an infinite number of directions, and often does.
- Don’t take psychedelics if you’re feel anxious, depressed, sad etc. or any other ‘negative’ state because they’re likely to amplify it and make it worse
- Don’t take psychedelics with someone you don’t trust or feel safe with, or anywhere you don’t feel comfortable or safe
- Psychedelics give you what you need, not necessarily what you want, which is good, because the ‘medicine’ actually has a much better idea of what you need than you do
- Psychedelics don’t do what you want them to do, they do what they want to do. You might have a question about your childhood, which is ignored in favor of information about your career, your relationships, or a past trauma etc.
- Communication takes place telepathically, not in words
- Time is different in that realm. Seconds feel like minutes. Minutes can feel like hours. Hours can feel like days. (Which is awesome if you’re having a “good trip” but horrible if you’re having a “bad trip”)
- I don’t believe that psychedelics lead to enlightenment (I’ve never met an enlightened shaman) but they do help you to open your mind, wake up, and become more conscious nonetheless
I’ll be writing about my experiences with Ayahuasca in depth in an upcoming series of articles, but for now if you want to learn more about psychedelics…
Probably the best psychedelic channel on YouTube is psyched substance
Here is a great 18 minute trip report from the movie DMT: The Spirit Molecule
James Randi, a famous magician and scientific skeptic, has offered a prize of one million dollars to anyone who can demonstrate “under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power.”
Why has no one claimed the prize?
Answer: Because no one really has spiritual or supernatural powers.
In part one of this series, I said that one of the benefits of critical thinking was improving your bullshit detector, and being able to sort fact from fiction, truth from lies, reality from fantasy etc.
It’s important that all critical thinkers can distinguish science from pseudoscience (fake science).
Real science is based upon:
- Consistent, reliable, and reproducible results
- Empirical evidence
- Experimentation (especially double blind experiments)
- Peer review
- Falsification and testing
- Verification and replication
- The scientific method
Pseudoscience however, is fake science pretending to be real science.
Examples of pseudoscience:
- Alternative medicines
- Anti-aging creams
- Astrology & horoscopes
- Bermuda Triangle
- Crop circles
- Faith healing
- Flat earth society
- Healing crystals
- Natural cures that “they” don’t want you to know about (Kevin Trudeau)
- Prosperity gospel (televangelists like Benny Hinn, Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland etc. that tell Christians to give them money “plant a seed” in order to receive a “blessing” or a “harvest”)
- Psychic predictions
- Tarot cards
- Telepathy (Mind reading)
- The Law of Attraction/The Secret
How to spot pseudoscience
How do you tell the difference between real science and pseudoscience?
How to spot pseudoscience
- Something you would find in a mind/body/spirit or new age bookstore e.g. astrology, numerology, tarot cards etc. instead of in a scientific journal
- Something which makes claims which defy the laws of nature and physics, especially those of a magical, mystical, spiritual, or supernatural nature, and are greater than what modern medicine and science can provide e.g. a cure for AIDS or cancer (When it is pointed out that the pseudoscience makes claims which go against science or scientific findings, it might be said: “science doesn’t know everything” and/or “science has been wrong before”)
- Avoids peer review and outside verification by experts and scientists in the field
- Claims to be based on “ancient wisdom” (as if that were superior to modern science)
- Cherry picks evidence and information to support it’s claims, and is quick to deny, dismiss, explain away, or ignore, any contradictory or inconvenient evidence or information (pseudoscience only counts the “hits” but not the “misses”)
- Fails almost all tests (e.g. psychic predictions), doesn’t give any meaningful or specific predictions, also tends to blame failures and lack of results on outside circumstances or the lack of faith or belief of others
- Is based upon very weak evidence e.g. Anecdotal, hearsay, rumor, blurry photos, shaky videos etc.
- Like a religion, pseudosciences don’t change or evolve in response to contradictory or superior evidence and information. The first edition of a book is the same as the last. Even if centuries or millennia have past. Astrology, numerology, palmistry etc. is the same now as it was 2000 years ago.
- Makes claims which cannot be proven, verified, falsified, tested, or reproduced
- Uses a lot of psychobabble and other meaningless scientific-sounding terms, or misuses actual scientific and technical terms and jargon in meaningless ways or out of context
- Uses terms such as: “Alternative medicine”, “all natural”, “holistic”, “traditional” (just because something is natural, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily healthy or safe e.g. disease and death is natural)
Carl Sagan’s baloney detection kit
In addition to the tips above, Carl Sagan shares his “baloney detection kit” (how to spot bullshit and pseudoscience) in his great book: The Demon Haunted World.
Here’s a summary of his tips:
- Arguments from authority carry little weight—“authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
- Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof, has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
- Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
- Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
- If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) – not just most of them.
- Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
- Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable, are not worth much. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.
- Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
- Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view
You can read the whole article here: Carl Sagan, The Fine Art Of Baloney Detection
“Occasionally, I get a letter from someone who is in “contact” with extraterrestrials. I am invited to “ask them anything.” And so over the years I’ve prepared a little list of questions. The extraterrestrials are very advanced, remember. So I ask things like, “Please provide a short proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem.” Or the Goldbach Conjecture. And then I have to explain what these are, because extraterrestrials will not call it Fermat’s Last Theorem. So I write out the simple equation with the exponents. I never get an answer. On the other hand, if I ask something like “Should we be good?” I almost always get an answer.” – Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World
Michael Shermer baloney detection kit
Professional skeptic Michael Shermer also provides a very good Baloney Detection Kit:
Michael Shermer Baloney Detection Kit
- How reliable is the source of the claim? (PS: I only partially agree with this because of the genetic fallacy. You should examine the statement and the evidence – not the speaker)
- Does the source make similar claims? (I.e. if a person believes in a certain new age claim, do they believe in everything new-age-y? If so, they may be more susceptible to magical thinking)
- Have the claims been verified by somebody else? (If you make a bold claim, somebody else has to be able to go out and test it to make sure it’s legit, and they should be able to get the same results as you.)
- Does this claim fit with the way the world works? (e.g. the Nigerian inheritance scam promising you, a complete stranger, $20 million dollars, if you’ll just send them some money. Really? Is that the way the world works? A pile of money for nothing? Nope.)
- Has anyone tried to disprove this claim? Or has only supportive evidence been sought? What are the counterarguments against it? What else could explain it? What would your critics say or think about that you didn’t? Try to disprove your claim.
- Where does the preponderance of evidence point? Does the majority of evidence point to the claimant’s conclusion or to a different one?
- Is the claimant playing by the rules of science? Is the person making the claim using logic, reason, empirical evidence, testing and corroboration etc. as scientists do, or are they just trying to make a case for their particular claim that leads to the desired conclusion?
- Is the claimant providing positive evidence in favor for their theory? Or are they only denying the evidence for the other theory? It’s one thing to criticize and provide a list of problems for someone else’s theory, and another to provide positive evidence for your theory.
- Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory? Anyone can find a few anomalies that the current prevailing theory doesn’t seem to account for, but can this new theory explain all of the other things that the previous theories explained or just one little thing?
- Are the personal beliefs, biases, ideologies, worldview etc. of the person making the claim, is that what’s driving the research, or is it the data and evidence?
You can read the whole article here: Michael Shermer Baloney Detection Kit
The dangers of pseudoscience
“You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.” – Tim Minchin
What’s the danger of pseudoscience anyway?
Can’t people believe whatever they want to believe?
The problem with believing in pseudoscience:
- You’re believing a bunch of bullshit
- Those beliefs affect the way you live your life
For example: You might choose to take alternative medicine with no real benefits or faith healing and prayer (which doesn’t work) over modern medicine.
Or if you believe in the debunked pseudoscience that vaccines cause autism, you might choose to reject getting vaccinated yourself, or to reject vaccinating your children, and that can lead to suffering, disease, and death.
Skeptism vs pseudoskeptism
One last word on pseudoscience and skepticism.
You want to be a skeptic not a pseudoskeptic.
What’s the difference?
A skeptic is skeptical of extraordinary claims, but will still investigate and follow the evidence wherever it leads.
A pseudoskeptic however, is closed-minded and dismissive of anything they don’t like. They’re quick to deny and dismiss when only doubt has been established. They won’t be convinced by any amount of evidence.
PS: You should be aware of “Junk Science,” which is when a scientist or group of scientists are paid to cherry pick results, in order to further corporate or political interests e.g. Scientists hired by drug, oil, or tobacco companies.
Science is awesome. It has transformed the world we live in and given us so much: computers, the internet, electricity, medicine, phones, TV, cars, planes, space shuttles etc. Let’s be honest: It was science and technology, not prayers or religion, that pulled us out of the dark ages.
Scientism however, is the belief that science, specifically the scientific method, is the ONLY reliable method of acquiring, discovering, and knowing the truth. It’s the belief that if something isn’t measurable, weighable, and/or testable in a scientific lab, it isn’t verifiable, and shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Scientism in a nutshell: If it can’t be counted – it doesn’t count.
Harvard Professor and Psychologist Steven Pinker has this attitude:
“The acquisition of knowledge is hard. The world does not go out of its way to reveal its workings, and even if it did, our minds are prone to illusions, fallacies, and superstitions. Most of the traditional causes of belief—faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge. To understand the world, we must cultivate work-arounds for our cognitive limitations, including skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests, often requiring feats of ingenuity.” – Steven Pinker
So did Stephen Hawking who famously claimed “philosophy is dead”:
“What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator? … Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” – Stephen Hawking
Science and the scientific method isn’t the only way to know truth
“The idea that the concepts of truth, falsity, explanation, and even understanding are all concepts which belong exclusively to science seems to me to be a perversion.” – Hilary Putnam
I disagree with Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Stephen Hawking, Steven Pinker etc. and many other great minds on this point however.
Although I’ll be the first to admit that it’s difficult to argue or find fault with the scientific method especially when it’s been so successful and given us so much.
I have to ask though:
What if there is more to reality than what is revealed by the scientific method?
What if there is more to reality than what we can count, measure, weigh, and/or test?
Don’t get me wrong – I think the scientific method is awesome.
I think it’s easily the “best” and most reliable method we’ve discovered (so far) to discover and know the truth about objective reality and the world around us.
But again: What if something can’t (yet) be counted, measured, weighed, or tested?
Does that mean it’s not real or true, or that it doesn’t exist, or didn’t happen?
Of course not.
I think there are lots of things (millions) that can’t (yet) be counted, measured, weighed, or tested, and aren’t (yet) scientifically verifiable, or reproducible, but that doesn’t mean they’re not real or true, or that they don’t exist, or didn’t happen.
“Not everything that can be counted counts. Not everything that counts can be counted.” – William Bruce Cameron (this quote is often misattributed to Albert Einstein)
The limits of the scientific method
William Lane Craig (Christian philosopher) listed 5 things that science can’t prove, yet are rational to accept, in his debate against atheist Dr. Peter Atkins:
- Logical and mathematical truths cannot be proven by science. Science presupposes logic and math, to try to prove them by science would be arguing in a circle.
- Metaphysical truths like there are other minds other than my own, or that the external world is real, or that the past wasn’t created five minutes ago with the appearance of age.
- Ethical beliefs about statements of value are not accessible by the scientific method. You can’t show by science whether the Nazi scientists in the camps did anything in the camps that is evil as opposed to the scientists in western democracies.
- Aesthetic judgments cannot be accessed by the scientific method because the beautiful, like the good, cannot be scientifically proven.
- Science itself. Science cannot be justified by the scientific method. Science is permeated with improvable assumptions. For example, in the special theory of relativity, the whole theory hinges on the assumption that the speed of light is constant in a one-way direction from any two points between A and B. It cannot be proven, we simply have to assume that, in order to hold to the theory.
“Scientism is self-refuting. Scientism tells us that we should not believe any proposition that cannot be scientifically proven. But what about that very proposition itself? It cannot itself be scientifically proven. Therefore we should not believe it. Scientism thus defeats itself.” – William Lane Craig
“Consider the statement: We should only believe what can be scientifically proven” – Can that statement be scientifically proven? Obviously not.” – William Lane Craig
Science is in fact, permeated with unprovable assumptions that cannot be scientifically proven, but that are reasonable to believe because they’re effective and they work.
PS: I know science deals in empirical evidence, probabilities, and theories, not “proofs” (like logic and mathematics) but please look to where my finger is pointing.
Science also can’t prove undeniable one time only events such as your own personal thoughts and experiences (science requires events to be reproducible in order to test them), nor can it prove historical events prior to the time of video cameras.
“There are many many things, in our world, and in our lives, which do not possess, the kinds of reproducibility, that science requires in order to carry out it’s methods. I think the most obvious example is to think about history. How do we know the truth of the statement that Julius Cesar was assassinated on the steps of the Roman Senate on the Ides of March in 44 BC? Not by repeatable observations. Not by experiments. No. And yet we do know that. That is a real fact. History has real knowledge. It’s just not scientific knowledge.” – Ian Hutchinson, MIT Professor
Also sometimes you just know things intuitively – even if you can’t prove them.
e.g. Intuitively I know “I” exist, I’m “me” and not “you”, I’m “here” and not “there”.
I can’t prove this mathematically or scientifically. Yet I know it to be true.
The Is-Ought problem
Science is also (so far) limited, because as Scottish philosopher David Hume noted in his famous “Is-Ought” problem, you cannot get an “Ought” from an “Is”.
In other words:
Science can only make observations about how things ‘are’, it cannot tell us how they ‘ought’ to be.
Sam Harris is right however, when he says that science can tell us how to maximize human well being.
Beware of “scientific” studies
I’d also like you to be skeptical of any “scientific study” published by the media.
Because science has rightfully earned itself such a good reputation, these days there are a lot of things being branded “scientific” by advertisers, the media, religions etc. which are not scientific at all.
Not everything said by a scientist is a scientific statement of fact
Finally, I’d like to remind you that just because a scientist says or believes something, that doesn’t mean that it’s a scientific statement of fact, nor does it necessarily represent the general consensus of the scientific community.
Stop blindly believing things just because Bill Nye, Lawrence Krauss, Neil DeGrass Tyson, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking (RIP) or some other scientist said it.
Scientists are only human and have crazy beliefs and opinions just like the rest of us.
This is not an attack on science, nor the scientific method, it’s simply the truth.
I think the scientific method is easily the best method of discovering and knowing truth we have so far, but for the reasons outlined above, it’s definitely not the only way to discover or know truth.
PS: I think AI (Artificial Intelligence) will probably advance our current scientific methods and make them look laughably primitive within our lifetimes.
This is part 8 of a 10 part series:
How to get smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies
Let’s do a quick recap of this weeks points:
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If you would like to read the other parts in this series here they are:
Or if you would like to read my other articles: Life Lessons All Articles
Eckhart Tolle image credit: Kyle Hoobin James Ranhi image credit: James Randi Educational Foundation