Religion, Skepticism

Karma

Personally, I really want Karma to be true. I really wish that the concept of karma and re-incarnation were of actual reality. I’d be the first one to rejoice if it were to be so. Because there are some people who actually deserve some real karmic punishment and also I’d be really happy to see them reborn as a snail or a dung beetle over and over again to be eaten alive by a predator, perpetually throughout many cycles. For the things these people have done, you really want them to be punished. Vengeful feelings aside, I’d also want the best for all the loved ones we all have lost. I’d really want my dog to be a re-incarnated form of a close relative or a grandparent I was close to when they were alive.

But reality is not human-centric for Karma to be real. It isn’t even life-centric for re-incarnation to be real, let alone Karma. How do we know in the first place that there is such a comfortable concept to lay claim so confidently? It’s written in a certain scripture, and has been re-iterated by well known wise sages or gurus in some corner of India. Not a very compelling argument. No one has ever demonstrated to validate the concept. So how do we know it’s real unless we are lying to ourselves or others who trust us?

So we just have to bet on the odds for the people who do us wrong to suffer, and have to force us to feel fulfilled if anything bad happens to them. And we call this guilty pleasure, Karma, along with an add-on concept of re-incarnation. A “Tit-for-Tat” mentality, justified by an elaborate metaphysical backstory. All in all, to consciously or subconsciously trick ourselves into believing some sort of escapist alternate reality, away from the harsh, indifferent, uncaring, nihilistic, esoteric and complex truth of the reality we actually exist in. Why can’t we be intellectually honest enough to face the reality we exist in rather than to try and escape from it? Honest in a sense to not confabulate concepts about reality when you don’t understand or know about it, but to admit ignorance and pursue reason and evidence instead?

Egalitarianism, Philosophy, Secular Humanism

Roots….

When people tell me to ‘respect’ my ‘cultural roots’ and say that I’ve got to ‘protect’ the very culture in which I have originated from; Central Asia comes to my mind. Yes. Central Asia.

Tracing back my linguistic ‘roots’ all the way to my earliest ancestors, would take me back to the BMAC complex in Central Asia, east of the Ural Mountains. So maybe by this logic I need to give back what I have owed to Central Asia then? Or rather by this compulsion, I am bound to protect the BMAC culture before the Nepali one? Wait. Wait.

Digging back my roots further into pre-history, my ancestors come from the sub-Saharan plains in Africa. Then maybe I should give back something to Africa before Central Asia and Nepal then? Maybe I should teach my kids by force to draw good cave paintings instead? Tricky!

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A cave painting. (Image: Britannica.com) 

Wait. Hold on. Digging back into my roots further, there was no Africa or Asia. There were no humans, but early upright apes, our common ancestors with modern day apes. There was a super-massive land mass with no continents. So where do I technically originate from? Well at this point my origins are rather obscure and so is indeed very confusing!

Coming back to reality, the whole point behind this post of mine is that there is no compulsion whatsoever for anyone of us to ‘respect’ our cultural roots. Culture is surely important, but it is always in a state of flux and is always malleable, like clay. We assign our own values to our lives, and we share those values with others around us, making our whole inherited social structure into a culture of some kind. But not all of us always share the same values.

From nature worshiping to celebrating Dashain and New-Years to attending Heavy-metal concerts to sharing memes on the internet. These are all human cultures. And no matter how much we protect it or try to protect it, it will always change. In a nutshell, this is why the Dashain celebrated by your ancestors are so very different from the Dashain celebrated by you and this is exactly why your great-great-great-grandchildren will celebrate it differently, or maybe even not at all.

For us to be able to respect our ‘roots’, where and how can we draw a line in the vast expanse of the geographic time scale, in which we Humans are relatively new and relatively puny? This is unclear. How far should we go in order to ‘protect’ our culture? Is culture more important than other human lives? Or do we need to protect specific cultures at the cost of some lives?

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BMAC migration phases shown. (Image source: Unknown)

So I think for me it is important for us to enjoy our one life wherever we are, in whatever way we want to, without adversely affecting others and the environment that we share with them. There is no compulsion whatsoever. Those who want to protect their culture may well do so, those who want to change their culture, or those who want to adopt a different one may well do so too.

So let’s just think deeper, the next time we impose it unto anyone that they need to ‘protect’ or ‘respect’ their culture. Culture, is just an idea. And it is not good for any idea to be above scrutiny, and definitely not good for any human life to be below dignity!

Charlatans, God Men, Nepal, Pseudoscience, Rationalism, Science, Skepticism

Nine days without oxygen or nine days without honesty?

Lately there has been quite a buzz around the the Nepali internet community regarding some Sidhha Baba Krishna das, who, along with his disciples and followers, has been claiming to have survived underground in a sealed compartment without food or oxygen for 9 days!

Now it surely is quite an astonishing achievement, defying human physiological limits, if what he’s claiming to have done is actually true.

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Krishna Das commencing his 9 day long oxygen less slumber. Image: Annapurna post

At first, when I read the news on some online portal, I thought about leaving it as it is without debunking it, owing to the negative reputation among the public regarding online portals. It’s always a tedious work to debunk something that sounds so obviously farcical. But when I noticed big shot national daily newspapers such as the Annapurna post and National television such as NTV News cover Krishna Das’s story, the conscious part of me noticed that something was not right and thus I was motivated to write a debunk-blog on this.

Without wasting more time, let us examine his claims straight away, systematically.

The Claims made

  1. Krishna Das claims supposedly on 25th Chaitra 2072 (7th April 2016) that he can survive without oxygen and food for 9 whole days.
  2. He and his disciples and followers stage a demonstration on the above mentioned date where he was to supposedly sleep inside a polythene-sealed supposedly air-tight wooden compartment for 9 days.
  3. Annapurna post goes on to report that the air-tight compartment was placed underground under observation of doctors and press (unclear about how many of them were present and whether or not they are affiliated to Krishna Das and his motives).
  4. The sealed compartment was to be buried under 1 foot of soil and sand on top of which holy grass (Jamara) is to be grown, probably just to show that the lid to his compartment was not tampered with.
  5. He claims he would be able to do so by the help of a certain unnamed yoga aasan and meditation, which allows him to stop his heart beat for 9 days!
  6. He projected to wake up on 3rd of Baisakh 2073 (15th April 2016) at exactly 9:35am whence he shall be unearthed from his transient burial.
  7. As promised he does wake up and is uncovered from the compartment at the said date and time.
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Krishna Das supposedly woke up from his claimed suspended animation. Image: Annapurna post

If we were to only look at his side of the story, and also as reported through various Nepali media outlets, then whoa! This seems to be nothing but a miracle! Chamatkar! But, as with every other Godman and charlatan, there always remain some loose ends and loop holes while they make some extraordinary claim out of the blue to garner public attention and media coverage. Because we should realize that 1) most televangelists, godmen and religious leaders seek mass media for publicity and 2) we live in a superstitious country where national daily newspapers have serious daily segments on astrology and Vaastu Shastra. So it is nothing new for even reputed news portals to come up with credulous stories on some mystical babas or gurus performing some random magical stuff.

What troubles me, and urges me most to write this blog is especially a statement made in the NTV 8:00pm news report today, at a time when a great many people nation-wide are hooked to their TV screens for this segment. The news reader said “Baba claims that his success has demonstrated that Scientific medicine still has not been able to prove anything of this sort and needs more investigation in this sector.

It’s a matter of concern in itself to see major media houses giving room to trivial news in place of the more important ones. It’s also very sad to see them portray some random charlatan as something worth considering, instead of trying to skeptically examine their activities as unbiased press is supposed to do. So I write….

Examining the claims in the same order

  1. [Krishna Das claims supposedly on 25th Chaitra 2072 (7th April 2016) that he can survive without oxygen and food for 9 whole days.] Krishna Das has surely claimed to be able to live for 9 days without oxygen and food, but he is not the first. There have been many claimants such as this one, some who have even claimed to have done so for 15 days let alone just 9! This still doesn’t validate his claim however, as it suggests more than ever of a likelihood of some slick trick up their sleeves. Another one is that of this guy, who claims to have been living for 70 years without food and water. One thing constant in such cases is that these Babas carry out their demonstrations only in the presence of their devotees or disciples and most of the time refuse to participate in controlled experiments to be carried out by neutral third parties, when invited.
  2. [He and his disciples and followers staged a demonstration on the mentioned date where he was to supposedly sleep inside a polythene-sealed supposedly air-tight wooden compartment for 9 days.] His samadhi takes place at his place of choice amidst his followers. It has been said that the whole thing was carried out in the presence of a few unnamed reporters and doctors. It’s not like in a country such as this that doctors and reporters cannot be bought. It’s also wrong to assume that a few doctors and press reporters could not even have been hoodwinked or deceived right there. Unless and until we are to be shown the details as to how the plastic was applied and how the compartment was designed, the whole demonstration loses its credibility.
  3. [The air-tight compartment was placed underground under observation of doctors and press] This is simply not enough. As I have said before, doctors and reporters are people as well and can be easily deceived owing to the overwhelming presence of devotees and disciples. A better way to observe would be to place cameras both on the inside as well as the outside, that are able to provide us with continuous non-interrupted recordings. What makes me doubt is the compartment being made out of wood and placed just a foot under porous soil and sand, which may not seal air completely. The method by which the plastic seal was applied is not very clear as well.
  4. [The sealed compartment was to be buried under 1 foot of soil and sand on top of which holy grass (Jamara) is to be grown, probably just to show that the lid to his compartment is not tampered with.] Nice try, but Jamara and sand are not enough in my opinion. One could easily cover pores with them and they too are not able to make the setup completely air-tight.
  5. [He claims he would be able to do so by the help of a certain unnamed yoga aasan and meditation, which allows him to stop his heart beat for 9 days!] A lot of sadhus and babas have claimed to have been able to do so, simply with the help of yoga and meditation. The most popular claim is them being able to stop their heartbeat completely. The same claim is made by Krishna Das as well. When invited to a fair, unbiased and controlled experiment, most of them refuse or do not attend for one or other reasons. In an experiment, when some claimants were observed under ECG while they meditated, their heart did not stop at all.
    • The average human body cannot survive without oxygen for 3 to 6 minutes.
    • The longest time breath held voluntarily recorded, is 24 min 3.45 secs and was achieved by Aleix Segura (Spain), in Barcelona, on 28 February 2016. This was done under a controlled setup by Guinness world records.
    • Yoga and meditation experts have been shown hold their breaths for longer than the average person who doesn’t do Yoga, but that is still not enough to hold it for a whopping 9 days as we are talking only in terms of minutes.
    • So it is impossible to be able to live even for more than a day with absolutely no oxygen, so 9 days is too extraordinary a claim!
  6. [He projected to wake up on 3rd of Baisakh 2073 (15th April 2016) at exactly 9:35am whence he shall be unearthed from his transient burial.] Well, this is not hard to understand. To be able to predict for exactly how long one can go without oxygen is very unlikely and dubious.
  7. [As promised he does wake up and is uncovered from the compartment at the said date and time.] But certainly if the entire setup is staged, then there would be no trouble in doing so. Anyone can do that. Not surprising.

Let’s come to the science part

Obviously a random blogger such as myself debunking Krishna Das’s claims logically is not enough to disprove him. But that still doesn’t give his demonstration any validity again. What is necessary is a controlled experiment to examine his claims. Because just as Carl Sagan has put it ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. The more profound a claim is, more rigorous should an experiment be in order to try and test the claim. If it passes after such unbiased observed scrutiny then the claim could be considered valid. If valid, such findings would possibly aid the human race with further research in order to be able to hold breath long enough for deep sea diving or maybe even outer-space explorations. If not, then it becomes just another claim without evidence in the market.

So I have designed an experiment for this purpose, which will be able to test Krishna Das’s claims accurately, that also will be immune to any foul play or trickery.

  • Hypothesis:
    • Survival without oxygen (0% Oxygen i.e zero partial pressure of Oxygen)
    • Duration of claimed survival: 9 days (216 hours)
    • Claims this can be done by meditating in a Yogic aasan, which temporarily stops heart beat, while being deprived of Oxygen for 9 days.
  • Set-up and materials required
    • A completely air-tight (or vacuum) chamber that fits an adult human, made up of
      • Preferably hard plastic with air-lock system
      • that is preferably transparent and has a vacuum outlet to remove all air from within the chamber and vacuum it.
      • if transparency is not desired, then a go-pro or any camera system fit on all corners of the chamber inside as well as outside, that records video on continuous shot for 9 straight days

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        Air-tight see-through hard plastic container large enough for an adult human to fit in, with air-lock and preferably a vacuum outlet connected should be used
    • a team of significant professionals (certified medical doctors, journalists and technicians) not known to have been affiliated to Krishna Das in any way whatsoever.
    • an ECG (or vitals) monitor placed within the transparent chamber or that which can transmit signals wireless from within the air-locked chamber.
    • A pulse oxi-meter that displays oxygen saturation in the subject, to check if the subject is well and alive just in case his ECG becomes flat as he has claimed his heart will stop in his yogic aasan.
    • A system to monitor oxygen levels within the chamber
    • Camera angles outside the box should be adjusted such as the entire surface of the box from all sides, top as well as bottom, should be visible.
    • A method for immediate termination of experiment should the subject be under serious health hazard.
    • No one apart from the experimenters should be allowed within 10-20 metres of proximity of the setup.
    • The entire experiment is to be televised on a continuous shot with the help of multiple cameras simultaneously able to do so for 9 days continuously.
  • Procedure
    • Setup is prepared accordingly.
    • Cameras roll in a continuous shot able to last for 216 hours straight.
    • Subject (Krishna Das) is allowed as much time needed to carry out the preliminaries (Puja, Yogic practices etc) required for him to prepare himself before commencing.
    • Subject not be allowed to take into the chamber with him any equipment or instrument that helps or aids breathing, his clothing and garments and body surfaces are to be thoroughly checked by the examiners.
    • When everything is ready, subject enters the air-tight chamber with ECG and Pulse oximeter monitors in-situ.
    • Cameras inside the chamber (if any required) is initiated into recording.
    • Air-lock is applied, chamber is vacuumed, subject’s vitals checked and oxygen level inside the chamber checked.
    • No one is allowed within 10-20 metres of the setup.
    • Unless the subject’s condition worsens to critical level or if the subject voluntarily signals for termination, the experiment will not be terminated until the 216th hour is over.
  • Safety considerations
    • Pulse oximeter in-situ.
    • First-aid setup with stretcher.
    • Well-equipped ambulance on the ready.
    • Cardiopulmonary resuscitation setup with the provision of cardiac defibrillator and trained personell.
    • Quick de-vacuumizing setup.
    • Oxygen mask, oxygen cylinder, ventilator setup (machine/bag-mask).
    • Abort:
      • if Oxygen saturation (SPO2) is less than 80% with flat or almost flat ECG.
      • if SPO2 is less than 70% without flat ECG.
      • if SPO2 is less than 60% with or without flat ECG.
      • if subject signals for abortion.

Conclusion

Anyone thorough with high school science can understand this experiment and anyone equipped with the necessary budget and time can carry this out flawlessly. It’s a simple experiment anyone can design and perform.

If Krishna Das agrees to take part in this experiment or a similar controlled one, then maybe his claims are worth considerations and worth the time and effort of all the professionals involved. If he refuses, just like other previous babas and sandhus, then he goes straight into the archive of charlatans, frauds and con-artists. Period.

Reference

  1. Annapurna post [Nepali] – Commencement of Krishna Das’s venture
  2. Annapurna post [Nepali] – Krishna Das wakes up from his samadhi
  3. Can yogis stop their heart? [English] 
  4. Experiments in India on “Voluntary” Control of the Heart and Pulse
  5. Bihar ‘godman’ out of sealed pit after 15 days without water; doctors say it’s impossible
  6. Longest time breath held voluntarily
  7. Man claims to have had no food or drink for 70 years

 

Rationalism, Skepticism

The Dragon In My Garage

by Carl Sagan

Dragon

“A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage”

Suppose (I’m following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you.  Surely you’d want to check it out, see for yourself.  There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!

“Show me,” you say.  I lead you to my garage.  You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle — but no dragon.

“Where’s the dragon?” you ask.

“Oh, she’s right here,” I reply, waving vaguely.  “I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.”

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.

“Good idea,” I say, “but this dragon floats in the air.”

Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

“Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.”

You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

“Good idea, but she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.”  And so on.  I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.

Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?  If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists?  Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true.  Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder.  What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.  The only thing you’ve really learned from my insistence that there’s a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head.  You’d wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me.  The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind.  But then, why am I taking it so seriously?  Maybe I need help.  At the least, maybe I’ve seriously underestimated human fallibility.  Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded.  So you don’t outright reject the notion that there’s a fire-breathing dragon in my garage.  You merely put it on hold.  Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerge you’re prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you.  Surely it’s unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative — merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of “not proved.”

Imagine that things had gone otherwise.  The dragon is invisible, all right, but footprints are being made in the flour as you watch.  Your infrared detector reads off-scale.  The spray paint reveals a jagged crest bobbing in the air before you.  No matter how skeptical you might have been about the existence of dragons — to say nothing about invisible ones — you must now acknowledge that there’s something here, and that in a preliminary way it’s consistent with an invisible, fire-breathing dragon.

Now another scenario: Suppose it’s not just me.  Suppose that several people of your acquaintance, including people who you’re pretty sure don’t know each other, all tell you that they have dragons in their garages — but in every case the evidence is maddeningly elusive.  All of us admit we’re disturbed at being gripped by so odd a conviction so ill-supported by the physical evidence.  None of us is a lunatic.  We speculate about what it would mean if invisible dragons were really hiding out in garages all over the world, with us humans just catching on.  I’d rather it not be true, I tell you.  But maybe all those ancient European and Chinese myths about dragons weren’t myths at all.

Gratifyingly, some dragon-size footprints in the flour are now reported.  But they’re never made when a skeptic is looking.  An alternative explanation presents itself.  On close examination it seems clear that the footprints could have been faked.  Another dragon enthusiast shows up with a burnt finger and attributes it to a rare physical manifestation of the dragon’s fiery breath.  But again, other possibilities exist.  We understand that there are other ways to burn fingers besides the breath of invisible dragons.  Such “evidence” — no matter how important the dragon advocates consider it — is far from compelling.

Once again, the only sensible approach is tentatively to reject the dragon hypothesis, to be open to future physical data, and to wonder what the cause might be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange delusion.

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Carl Sagan
Astrology, Nepal, Pseudoscience, Skepticism

Let’s question Astrology

Astrologers (ज्योतिषी) universally claim that there exist some wave-energy (विद्युतीत तरंग) relations between planets of the solar system and individual Human beings (some like ‘Dr’ Sunil go even further to state the same for plate tectonics and earthquakes) which they say is what makes their ancient disciplines work.

You can get into their nerves when you go on to politely inquire into their reasonings with arrays of rational questions such as:-

– “What is the average or usual frequency of this wave?”
– “What is the nature of this wave?”
– “Can you measure this wave you are talking about?”
– “If you can’t measure or detect it, how do you know it exists?”
– “Which part of the body acts as the receptor of such waves?”
– “What are the respective frequencies of waves from the different planets?”
– “Why are Neptune, Uranus, Pluto, Ceres along with millions of asteroids in the asteroid belts not taken into account? Do they not affect Human lives if such relations exist?”
– “How is your prediction better at it than the event happening due to chance?”
– “How do you take into consideration the periodic axial tilt of the Earth which changes the viewing angles of the constellations?”
– “What is the basis in your discipline to take planet Earth as the centre of the universe when evidence clearly shows that it is not even at the centre of the galaxy?”
– “Would you like to contribute to genuine scientific knowledge by agreeing to take part in a controlled experiment to test the prediction power of your discipline?”

They’ll either be offended or defensive straight away, not accepting any sort of intellectual critique. They’ll refuse to answer your questions. All because they very well cannot, staying within the boundaries of reason.

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
– Carl Sagan
“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”
– Christopher Hitchens

So I can justly and rationally say that Astrology doesn’t work and is not significant in reality. Unless of course you are deeply passionate about remaining gullible!

(Refer to the image below. It’s an article on ‘Vastu Shastra’, branch of Hindu astrology dealing with superstitious architecture, from a national newspaper. The author claims in Nepali that ‘keeping broken televisions or electronics inside our homes will increasingly make the women angrier and will adversely affect health’ without any basis. Why women in particular?)

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Atheism, Philosophy, Science, Secular Humanism, Skepticism

Quest For Skepticism

“Ubi dubium ibi libertas: Where there is doubt, there is freedom.”

– Latin Proverb

From the moment that I decided that I would dedicate my life to scientific skepticism, critical and creative thinking; I have faced many incidents of dissent, profanity, threats, insensitive ad hominem, indecency, wrongful allegations, accusations of being condescending, trying to stir unrest, and many ruined relationships with people, young and old. People consider skeptics like me arrogant and proud, a know-all, a cynic. Their reason: we simply dare to disagree with established notions and claims.

Charvaka/Lokayata is the ancient school of Indian materialism. Charvaka holds
direct perceptionempiricism, and conditional inference as proper sources of
knowledge, embraces 
philosophical skepticism and rejects VedasVedic ritualism
and s
upernaturalism. So if anyone says that ‘science’ and ‘skepticism’ are  purely
‘western’ concepts, then 
they are mistaken. Many other independent skeptical and
empirical schools have been known to have risen across many different and
isolated human cultures at numerous instances in ancient history.

I admit that it is hard to become a skeptic. Many people choose to live their lives not wanting to invite argument and trying to become as amiable and affable as they can be, saying arguments have ‘no point’. And I confess that I still have much to learn and maybe I’ve made mistakes in the process of all this, but if I stop with what I’m doing, it will prevent me from further improving my reasoning skills. If I become discouraged, I will loose confidence in all other aspects of my life. And out of everything else, sound reasoning skills and clarity of thought are of utmost importance not only in my daily life to obtain untampered, unbiased information; its important even in my career as a nascent practitioner of (scientific) medicine.

Aristotle, pioneer of the scientific method.

Argument is an important entity of human civilization. Both on philosophical and practical levels. I just do not agree with those people who back off, trying to avoid imminent outcries against dissent, by avoiding arguments. I believe that people who think arguments ‘have no point’ have failed to understand the very definition of the term itself. An argument happens when someone doubts someone else’s assertion, claim or idea. An argument, if logically sound and backed by observable and reproducible evidence, may help to denounce or disprove established notions for them to be replaced by new credible ones. But an argument just for the sake of quarrel, blinded by ignorance and belief-preservation, may be able to convince quite a many for a certain length of time, but in light of overwhelming evidence and reason, will eventually perish. It’s the latter type of argument that have ‘no point’, the former type are full of viable points. And that is what skeptics like me try to do. We argue, we doubt, we express opinions all trying to stay within the forever-expanding boundaries of reason and science.

Take this lesson from history as a case scenario. For centuries majority of humans and majority of cultures held the belief that the Earth was the center of the universe, and all the heavenly objects including the sun and the other planets revolved around it. From a common sense perspective, it was valid. At every dawn the sun came up from the east and at every dusk, it set towards the west. And observers on the surface of the earth remained stationary. So it was obvious that the sun was moving wasn’t it? Common sense. That idea had remained unchallenged until the time of Copernicus, when he proposed a ‘heliocentric’ model for our ‘heavens’ which stated that it was the Earth (and other planets) which revolved around the sun, and not the other way round. He established the element of doubt, and started an argument. He backed his claims with evidence, observations and calculations based on changes of seasons and transitions between day and night and parallax. And about a century later, Galileo argued with the Roman catholic church backed by his observations trough the telescope and his calculations. Though Galileo was forced to recant his postulations by the Pope, the idea of Heliocentric model for the solar system flourished as other scientists and observers realized the ample evidence in favor of it. We can realize the importance of argument and skepticism to human beings from this historic example itself.

Heliocentric model of our solar system [Not to scale].

One of my favorite intellectual personalities, late astronomer Carl Sagan, explains about the nature of skepticism and relation of skeptics with the public, in his book The Demon Haunted world (Chapter 17 ‘Marriage of Skepticism and wonder’). 

“In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public 

concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore 
the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and 
pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the 
skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what 
our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant 
with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they 
need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with 
kindness. None of us comes fully equipped. 
 
“Clearly there are limits to the uses of skepticism. There is some 
cost-benefit analysis which must be applied, and if the comfort, 
consolation and hope delivered by mysticism and superstition is 
high, and the dangers of belief comparatively low, should we not 
keep our misgivings to ourselves? But the issue is tricky. Imagine 
that you enter a big-city taxicab and the moment you get settled in 
the driver begins a harangue about the supposed iniquities and 
inferiorities of another ethnic group. Is your best course to keep 
quiet, bearing in mind that silence conveys assent? Or is it your 
moral responsibility to argue with him, to express outrage, even to 
leave the cab – because you know that every silent assent will 
encourage him next time, and every vigorous dissent will cause 
him next time to think twice? Likewise, if we offer too much silent 
assent about mysticism and superstition – even when it seems to 
be doing a little good – we abet a general climate in which 
skepticism is considered impolite, science tiresome, and rigorous 
thinking somehow stuffy and inappropriate. 
Figuring out a prudent balance takes wisdom.”

With relation to his idea, I do not expect to influence and make aware a whole lot of people at once. I tend to be realistic. But in my opinion, even if I can successfully influence at least two people in my entire lifetime, I become successful in showing them their hidden ability to think for themselves and to question everything, even established beliefs and scientific theories with reason and evidence at their disposal. I do not expect skeptics like me to change the world overnight, but I think that to change even two people’s way of thinking is a big achievement. The same two people could at least influence other people in their lifetime, and teach them how to think. And the idea of critical thinking could grow like a cell through mitosis. And of course it’s not just about spreading ideas, its about teaching the people the ‘art of being right’ by being able to think for themselves, to question everything and anything and to put up logical arguments. That is what critical thinking is about. To learn to remove our biases, to learn from our’s and others’ errors and to substantiate any claims with reason and evidence. Self-improvement of the mind.

Carl Sagan

Skepticism is not a belief. Its an efficient and fool-proof method to acquire sound knowledge with the use of critical as well as creative thinking. Critical aspect to acquire unbiased information and Creative aspect to be able to apply that knowledge and to be able to think out of the box. And everyone needs this skill. From simple home-makers to make a decision on efficiently finishing household chores, to scientists while doing their research; when buying a pen worth the cost and comfort of your fingers, to buying a satisfying used vehicle for the right price, all for good reasons. It teaches us to question everything, from politics to religion. Skepticism and science are vital tools for any democracy and democracy always thrives on freedom of speech which in turn is essential for critical thinking and science. There’s a triangular relationship between Science, Critical thinking and Democracy. One of them could not exist properly on its own without the other two. Science needs absolute honesty and transparency for it to function properly, and that can only be achieved with freedom and clarity of thought. And freedom needs logical evidence-based arguments and rational decisions to protect itself, and that can be effectively achieved with the help of science and rational thinking.

Thomas Jefferson, one of the key architect of free-speech and modern democracy.

Let me quote a relevant notion put forward by Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers and engineer of the constitution of the United States of America, in his Notes on Virginia: 

 

“In every government of earth is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy, which cunning will discover and wickedness insensibly open, cultivate and improve. Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved…… “

He intends to tell us that people’s minds must be ‘improved’ for the proper functioning and preservation of any free and just democratic society. As Thomas Jefferson was a well-known rationalist, a free lance scientist of his time and an advocate of free speech, we can be almost certain that the ‘improvement of minds’ he talks about, is actually a reference to our critical thinking capabilities. And why not? If there is anything that can guarantee the improvement of human cognition, this is it. So let us all keep asking questions, try to find out the answers on our own and think rationally as well as creatively. Maybe one day human civilization will be equivalent to the Vulcan civilization portrayed in Star Trek? We never know….

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” 

– Leo Tolstoy

ONLINE COURSES ON CRITICAL & CREATIVE THINKING

I’m leaving with several links to free online courses on critical and creative thinking. If any of you are reading this blog, please do consider taking any one of these courses. If online courses are not for you, then do read these two books any time in your life (‘You are not so smart’ and ‘You are now less dumb’ by David McRaney). Trust me, critical thinking is eye-opening and life-changing. I suggest all of you to give it a shot. It’s not rocket science! (However rocket science requires it dearly!). 


1) Critical Thinking Web, Hong Kong University (My personal best!) 


2) Foundation for Critical Thinking (criticalthinking.org)


3) Oxford’s free course, Critical reasoning for beginners

4) ‘Future Learn’ Free online course on Logical and Critical thinking – From university of Aukland