Why Study History?

‘The answer is because we virtually must, to gain access to the laboratory of human experience. When we study it reasonably well, and so acquire some usable habits of mind, as well as some basic data about the forces that affect our own lives, we emerge with relevant skills and an enhanced capacity for informed citizenship, critical thinking, and simple awareness. The uses of history are varied. Studying history can help us develop some literally “salable” skills, but its study must not be pinned down to the narrowest utilitarianism. Some history—that confined to personal recollections about changes and continuities in the immediate environment—is essential to function beyond childhood. Some history depends on personal taste, where one finds beauty, the joy of discovery, or intellectual challenge. Between the inescapable minimum and the pleasure of deep commitment comes the history that, through cumulative skill in interpreting the unfolding human record, provides a real grasp of how the world works.’

– Peter N. Stearns (1998) Why Study History? American Historical Association Continue reading

Los Caprichos No. 43

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters is an etching by the Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco Goya. Created between 1797 and 1799, it is the 43rd of 80 etchings making up the suite of satires Los Caprichos.

The full epigraph for capricho No. 43 reads:

“Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her (reason) , she (fantasy) is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.”

Why Facts do not Matter

Social scientists have some intriguing explanations for why people persist in misjudgements despite strong contrary evidence. In fact, studies conducted over the past 30 years show that attempts to refute false information often backfire and lead people to hold on to their misperceptions even more strongly.

A 2015 behavioural science article examined the puzzle of why nearly one-third of U.S. parents believe that childhood vaccines cause autism, despite overwhelming medical evidence that there’s no such link. In such cases, the study noted, “arguing the facts doesn’t help — in fact, it makes the situation worse.” The reason is that people tend to accept arguments that confirm their views and discount facts that challenge what they believe.[1] Continue reading

Conversations: Eradicating Religion

I would argue that one of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns—about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering—in ways that are not flagrantly irrational.

Absolutely. We desperately need a public discourse that encourages critical thinking and intellectual honesty! Unfortunately, it is probably true to say that nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith.

Surely, you would be the first to admit that the prospects for eradicating religion in our time do not seem good? Continue reading

Conversations: Interfaith Dialogue

It is a truism that devout religious people tend to view questions of public policy and global conflict in terms of their affiliation with their religion.

That is exactly why it seems profoundly unlikely that we will heal the divisions in our world through inter-faith dialogue. Devout Muslims are as convinced as Christians are that their religion is perfect and that any deviation leads directly to hell.

However, it should be noted that representatives of the major religions occasionally meet and agree that there should be peace on earth, or that compassion is the common thread that unites all the world’s faiths.

True, but there is no escaping the fact that a person’s religious beliefs uniquely determine what he thinks peace is good for, as well as what he means by a term like “compassion.” For instance, there are millions—maybe hundreds of millions—of Muslims who would be willing to die before they would allow a Christian, Jewish or Hindu version of compassion to gain a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula.

How can interfaith dialogue, even at the highest level, reconcile worldviews that are fundamentally incompatible and, in principle, immune to revision? The truth is, it really matters what billions of human beings believe and why they believe it.

(Based on: Harris. S. 2006. Letter To A Christian Nation p. 27-28)

The Laws of Reward

(Part I, Chapter VI)

‘Although we usually call reward and punishment the two hinges upon which all government turns, yet I could never observe this maxim to be put in practice by any nation except that of Lilliput. Whoever can there bring sufficient proof, that he has strictly observed the laws of his country for seventy-three moons, has a claim to certain privileges, according to his quality or condition of life, with a proportionable sum of money out of a fund appropriated for that use: he likewise acquires the title of Snilpall, or legal, which is added to his name, but does not descend to his posterity. And these people thought it a prodigious defect of policy among us, when I told them that our laws were enforced only by penalties, without any mention of reward. It is upon this account that the image of Justice, in their courts of judicature, is formed with six eyes, two before, as many behind, and on each side one, to signify circumspection; with a bag of gold open in her right hand, and a sword sheathed in her left, to show she is more disposed to reward than to punish.’

– Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726)

Conversations: Intelligent Design?

Here is what we know. We know that the universe is far older than the Bible suggests. We know that all complex organisms on earth, including ourselves, evolved from earlier organisms over the course of billions of years. The evidence for this is utterly overwhelming.

For example, there is no question that the diverse life we see around us is the expression of a genetic code written in the molecule DNA, that DNA undergoes chance mutations, and that some mutations increase an organism’s odds of surviving and reproducing in a given environment. This process of mutation and natural selection has allowed isolated populations of individuals to interbreed and, over vast stretches of time, form new species. Continue reading

There was such a thing as HUAC

Established in 1938, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives that conducted investigations through the 1940s and 1950s into alleged communist activities.

Its actions resulted in several contempt-of-Congress convictions and the blacklisting of many who refused to answer its questions. Highly controversial for its tactics, it was criticized for violating First Amendment rights.

The following transcript of an excerpt from the interrogation of screenwriter John Howard Lawson by HUAC chairman J. Parnell Thomas gives an example of an alternative wording of the question and a sense of the tenor of some of the exchanges: Continue reading