Monday, January 2, 2012

5 Great Skeptics in History (And Where They Called Bullshit)

Man cannot live on bread alone: he also needs several truckloads of bullshit. Most of what we say is bullshit (“I’ll be happy to wear a Santa hat, boss!”); most of what we buy is bullshit (“Snuggies!”); most of our politics is bullshit (“This guy’s really gonna shake up things in Washington!”); let’s face it, a huge chunk of everything we concern ourselves with in life is just pleasant, mildly diverting bullshit (“television”).
            We’re so accustomed to bullshit, in fact, that we get our kids hooked on it early. First there’s Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, and Pickles-just-went-to-live-on-a-farm. Then, because it totally makes sense to send mixed signals to five-year-olds, we confess we were just fucking around with them. Ha! Suckers. Then we tell them other stories, about magic gardens, talking snakes, flying chariots, and gods impregnating young girls – and this time, we very calmly explain that if they don’t believe us, they’ll be tortured and burned for an eternity of eternities.            
            As sensible as that sounds, it might be a better idea to help them develop their very own functioning bullshit detectors. Like the ones these guys had.    

1. Wang Chong (c.27-c.100)
Lun-Heng (“Critical Essays”)
            If you lived in ancient China, you probably spent much of your time off from Great-Wall-building engaged in elaborate sacrifices to your ancestors. If you happened to forget these duties, no problem, the pissed-off spirit of Grandad Lao was happy to “remind” you, say by dropping a brick on your head. Even the Emperor had to do his part to keep the world running; otherwise, cosmic devastation would descend upon the whole land. A comet might suddenly appear, as a warning, and no one wanted to find out what follows “giant fireball from heaven” in the gods’ playbook.    
           One man, though, thumbed his Chong at these hoary traditions. Wang Chong showed promise as a boy, and his parents sent him away to a university, where they hoped he would blossom into a fine young cog in the wheel. Instead, he took up dangerous habits like reading books and thinking too much. This grew into a serious addiction for Wang, and for the rest of his life, he always struggled to keep a steady job. But he spent his spare hours writing a huge compendium of essays called the Lun-Heng – which literally means “Discourses Weighed in the Balance,” but a better translation would be “Critical Essays,” or “Wang’s MythBusters.”
            In this book he calmly, methodically disemboweled the superstitions of his day. Wang refused to be swayed by popular belief, making him one of the earliest to realize that thousands of people can wholeheartedly believe something that is complete bullshit. His essays usually begin with some bullshit story he’d heard, like “the Confucians say that rain comes from heaven,” and then he would calmly explain that no, you can actually see water vapor rising up from lakes in the mountains, where it collects into clouds, which float by and dump all that water back down on your ignorant asses.
            Wang’s insistence on the orderliness and predictability of nature contrasted starkly with the Daoist and Confucian belief in a world infested with finicky and manipulative spirits. He asked for trouble by pointing out that the revered writings of Confucius and Mencius suffered from inconsistencies and even outright contradictions. He also scandalized his peers by saying humans are not the center of the universe. As he wrote, “From the fact that a husband and wife do not purposely beget a child, one may infer that heaven and earth do not produce man on purpose either.” We simply find ourselves on this earth, surrounded by other things, some of which we can eat or use, others of which we cannot eat or use, and then we grow old and die. But every bit of this, he realized, is equally true of an earthworm. Both creatures may feel like the whole world is their oyster, but objectively speaking, there’s no reason that either is the center of all existence. Wang was never a popular fellow, though people everywhere continue to Wang Chong tonight.
            Wang’s rationalism makes him a forerunner of the modern scientific method. He wasn’t right about everything – he thought the sun could not possibly be spherical, for example, because fire cannot possibly be round – but even here, the importance of his thinking hinges on his use of observation and rational deduction, and not dragons.

            …On ghosts. His reasons: 1) Why do we never talk about creatures besides humans becoming ghosts? Our bodies are structured the same as other mammals. 2) If it’s because only people have souls, then why do people see clothes on ghosts? Do clothes have a soul?  3) Everything necessary for life and movement has clearly died along with the body.  4) How could a ghost see with no eyes?  5) If every person became a ghost, then the streets would be packed with them. There’d be no empty space anywhere. 6) Say a ghost comes back in order to kill his own murderer. Isn’t he afraid of that person becoming a ghost and continuing the feud? How could you ever stop the killing?
            In a world populated by ancestor spirits, this was revolutionary thinking. But what about all those endless reports of people seeing ghosts? Wang’s response is just as revolutionary: he concludes that ghosts are in fact a psychological phenomenon, “evoked by intense thinking and meditating…the work of our fears and thoughts.”  There is no record of his ancestors exacting vengeance for this remarkable impiety.

2. Titus Lucretius Carus (99 bce – 55 bce)
De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”)
            If ever a book deserved to be given the Dan Brown adventure treatment, it’s Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”). A mysterious book, written in unrhymed verse, containing the secrets of the universe and lost for a thousand years. A conspiracy to suppress his ideas that actually extended into the 20th century. A mysterious writer who some say was driven fatally mad by a love potion. All we need is an explosion or two and Tom Hanks with a mullet.
            The goal of Lucretius’s long, epic poem was simple: to demolish all superstition, to drag humankind, kicking and screaming, out from the darkness of fear and submission. Superstition and religion do nothing but provoke fear in us: fear of the world, fear of strangers, fear of our own bodies, fear of the pursuit of knowledge. Even when religion tries to instill good behavior, it can only do so with threats of punishment. It’s embarrassing, Lucretius insisted, and we can do better: “Piety is not to draw near altars, to fall prostrate upon the ground, to stretch out our hands to the shrines of the gods, nor to pile vows upon vows; piety is rather the ability to contemplate all things with a serene mind.”
            He followed the work of an even older thinker named Epicurus, whose name has become associated with something that doesn’t actually describe him (this happens sometimes in history, as we also see with Thomas Crapper, who did not actually invent the crapper, or Julius Caesar, who was not in fact a salad). Neither Epicurus nor Lucretius believed in excess or orgiastic free-for-alls. The idea was actually closer to modern libertarianism – you are free to do anything you want, so long as you don’t hurt either yourself, or anybody else: because those are the two parties whose existence can be demonstrated, and whose needs therefore should be respected. Lucretius flatly denied all supernatural influence on human life and the world as it stands. He posited a mechanistic world, in which we could trust our senses but not always our minds. So, for example, our eyeball tells us there is a bright blob moving across the sky. But when we tell our bros that aliens must be invading because, holy shit, we just saw their motherblimp flying around like a radioactive sombrero, that’s our mind at work. The eyes were right, the mind was wrong.
            He also called bullshit on the “four elements,” saying instead that everything – you, me, the ocean, these bacon bits, Kim Kardashian’s ass – all are fundamentally composed of the same basic “stuff.” He called this basic building block by the scientific Greek term “atom,” which we might translate into English as “atom.” All generation and decay is explained by these “atoms” endlessly combining and recombining, coming together and falling apart, in a neutral and mechanistic world. Why be afraid of death? No one is afraid when they think about the vast amount of time that passed before we were born. Why should we fear the blank expanse of time that will follow our deaths? You are alive now. Rejoice in it.        
            Lucretius’ voice was drowned out in the fourth century when Christianity overwhelmed European society for good. He was all but forgotten for a thousand years, and even several hundred years after his rediscovery, no one wanted to translate Book Four, in which Lucretius talks candidly about another quintessentially natural and human topic – sex.  
            …On dreams as messages from supernatural powers. Dreams puzzled ancient thinkers, but everybody agreed they were important messages from some unknown party. Exciting! Your dream might be from God, who conveniently spoke in elaborate riddles. But it could come from other sources too. Maybe you dreamed about shagging the baker’s wife on a bed made of dough: this wasn’t because you imagined shagging the baker’s wife on a bed made of dough. Rather, the wife was probably some kind of bread-witch channeling her brain-possessing rays into your house at night. The ancient world simply had no concept of the subconscious: the dreamer himself clearly wasn’t responsible for the dream, since he was asleep at the time, so someone else had to be.
            Lucretius believed instead that dreams were just caused by dumb, random, free-floating images that bounced around in our heads.  Of course no one listened to him, because that’s seriously fucking boring compared to a bread-witch.

3. Sextus Empiricus (c.160-c.210)
Pyrrhōneioi hypotypōseis “Outlines of Pyrrhonism”
            Not much is known about Sextus Empiricus, though we can safely assume from his name that he was the most prominent porn star of his day. He lived at the height of the Roman Empire, a time when various schools of philosophy were hurling their doctrines at each other like kids egging a house. Some, following Plato, thought we could reach Ultimate Truth with brainpower alone, while others, like the Stoics, said all we needed to reach it was self-control and virtue. Meanwhile, anti-intellectuals like Tertullian abandoned science and humanism in favor of a supernatural Truth, based on stories they’d heard about a magical Palestinian man-god.  
            In response to all these people claiming access to some Higher Truth, Sextus decided to undertake a grand thought experiment. He said, let’s pretend we are the very first people who ever looked around and observed anything. Now, what can we say is “true”? Sextus’s answer, disconcertingly, was “absolutely nothing.” That’s right: Sextus Empiricus called bullshit on everything that anyone had ever said, or written, or thought about. Ever. Because he was Sextus Empiricus. And then he stole your woman and punched a shark.      
            His problem with everyone’s supposed “knowledge” was this: for every method that we have of determining truth, there is a kernel of uncertainty lodged inside of it. Take induction, for example. This is when you make a general rule based on specific cases, such as “the sun rises every day” or “what goes up always comes down” or “Nicolas Cage is a terrible actor.” Each of these statements is demonstrably true, based on a lifetime’s worth of repeated, regular observation. Sounds like we’ve reached Truth, right? Not so fast. Sextus realized that we cannot dogmatize, ever, because new evidence could always appear. That’s why, even in modern science, all propositions – even ironclad ones that have never been seriously questioned and probably never will, like gravity or Nicolas Cage’s inability to express emotion with his face – must still be treated merely as a “working theory.” This rejection of dogma sets modern science drastically apart from religion. It also sets Sextus apart from everyone who came before him.
            Remember how Lucretius had mistrusted the brain, but fully trusted the senses? Sextus went a step further, and rejected them as unreliable too. What if that bright thing in the sky wasn’t a “thing” at all, but an after-image, or a hallucination? I am tall next to one person, but short next to another. A pebble is smooth from a distance, but rough when viewed closely. Chocolate tastes good, unless we have too much of it. Poo smells awful to us, but delightful to a dog. A moving object will seem perfectly still, if we’re moving with it (Einstein later got really excited about this one). Human sacrifice is normal in some cultures, reprehensible in others. Homicide is forbidden, unless you’re a gladiator. Where is the “truth” in all of this? Whatever “truth” might lie underneath this sensory cacophony, we don’t have access to it. All knowledge rests on the shifting sands of relativity.
            By undermining the roots of our knowledge, Sextus Empiricus basically aimed to reboot Western philosophy, clearing out centuries of accumulated junkmail and spam. He wasn’t out to “prove” anything, unlike the Academics and Stoics and Christians. With the self-possessed apathy of a Buddhist monk or a stoned hippie, Sextus said we should just let things be. Don’t grasp at things, don’t cling to any supposed “truths.” Just be. Sadly, this idea gained few converts in a world craving dogmas, slogans, and certainty. But the problems he raised about human knowledge went on to inspire some of the greatest philosophers in history, including Kant, Hume, Wittgenstein, and Keanu Reeves.
            …On astrology. Nowadays, of course, astrology is only used for picking up women and branding cars. But back in the day, many people really believed that your destiny was determined on the day you were born. Sextus debunked this idea with his usual scientific method of just looking around and noticing shit. If people born under Virgo are supposed to be fair-skinned, how do you explain everyone in Africa? If certain “signs” determined our destinies, then why isn’t every king born in the same month, or everyone who dies in a shipwreck? Besides, he said, it’s absurd to say that people born under Leo have lion-like qualities, because that is not really a lion up there in the sky, it’s a bunch of stars that someone played connect-the-dots with. And by the way it doesn’t even look like a goddamn lion.

4. François-Marie Arouet, a.k.a. Voltaire (1694-1778)
Dictionnaire philosophique (“The Philosophical Dictionary”)
            The French Revolution was a tumultuous time in history. As we learn from historical sources like Netflix, starving peasants were protesting and rioting, but Kirsten Dunst ignored them to play in a punk band, until she was beheaded off camera and the monarchy finally collapsed. But French intellectuals like Voltaire had actually been stoking these fires for decades, spreading their radical and dangerous doctrine of social equality, civil liberties, freedom of speech, and religious tolerance.
            Most of us remember Voltaire only for writing Candide, a cute story that skewers people who respond to human tragedy with limp platitudes (“Your house exploded? It’s all part of God’s plan”). This would be like remembering Michael Jordan for hitting the laundry basket with some balled up socks. Voltaire, in fact, was an unstoppable beast with the quill. He wrote novels, stories, essays, pamphlets, plays, histories, poems, scientific treatises, and thousands of letters. About the only thing he didn’t write was porn. Oh wait, he wrote porn too. Okay, well, it’s not like he invented science fiction or anything. Oh wait, he did that too. A century before Jules Verne.
            But Voltaire’s sharpest, most scathing piece of writing was a collection of essays he called the “Philosophical Dictionary.” Its title sounds innocent enough. Wealthy aristocrats and powerful churchmen probably opened it expecting some sort of historical reference work. What they found instead was a blinding shitstorm: a meticulous, unrelenting assault on their own superstitions, vanity, and hypocrisy. Voltaire basically donned a pair of combat boots and stomped all the fuck over their priceless collection of sterling silver bullshit.
            The book is organized into short, alphabetically-arranged articles, because Voltaire wanted to appeal to average readers, who, as modern magazine editors know, are hungry for knowledge but have stunningly short attention spans. Voltaire included articles on pretty much every topic he could think of, with a special emphasis on matters of religion and sociology. He exposed the pomposity of philosophers (“Antiquity had great discussions about the sovereign good. It might as well have been asked, what is the sovereign blue, or the sovereign walk?”), lampooned the superstitious (“It is ridiculous to think that fever and hailstones are in some cases a divine punishment and in others a natural effect”), jabbed the intolerant (“it is lamentable that to be a good patriot we must become the enemy of the rest of mankind”), lambasted the blindly faithful (“What can be said in answer to a man who says he prefers to obey God than men, and who subsequently feels certain of meriting heaven by cutting your throat?”), pitied the credulous (“Men have always had the habit of examining what a thing is, before they know whether it exists”), promoted reason and critical thinking (“it is no proof of the truth of our religion that there are martyrs who have died for it”), and celebrated human virtue (“a hermit may be sober, pious, and dressed in sackcloth: very well, let’s call him holy – but I will not call him virtuous until he’s done some good for his fellow man”).
            All this was done in a pretty original way, too: with humor. His tone is conversational, witty, and irreverent, rarely descending into polemical contempt or bitterness. There is no snobbery, or self-promotion. Like a modern political satirist, Voltaire knew that a single ironic turn of phrase can often inflict more damage than a full-scale assault, and that sometimes the best way to puncture the pretensions of a bloated, oppressive regime, is to laugh at it.

            …on theophanies; that is, personal messages from God to humans on earth. Voltaire was neither Christian nor atheist, but a Deist, like many other intellectuals of his day. To him, the world was like a humongous clock, ticking along with sweet, rational precision. He reasoned that a humongous clockmaker must be responsible for constructing it. It’s an understandable position, considering he knew nothing of the revolutionary scientific discoveries of the following century. For him, it was the only religious position that didn’t rely on faith, but solid reason. As such, it did not need the support of miracle stories.
            According to Voltaire, if the universe is rational, then it can’t sometimes behave irrationally. The Deist position cannot tolerate a god who designed the Earth to perfection, but then sometimes decides to tinker around with it, to change the rules unpredictably like an unsatisfied child. So Voltaire called (or better, insinuated) bullshit on all the people in history who claimed to be divine, or to have received divine messages: including Abraham, Moses, every Jewish prophet, every Pope, every Dalai Lama, Krishna, Jesus of Nazareth, Paul of Tarsus, Constantine, Mohammad, Joseph Smith, David Koresh, and every American politician since 1981, just to name a few.

5. Samuel L. Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain (1835-1910)
Miscellaneous Short Stories and Essays.
            Everything that’s good and important about America you will find in the pages of Huckleberry Finn: the rugged individualism, the pragmatic ingenuity, the lure of wilderness, the spirit of exploration, the disdain for cultural elites, the clever ways of getting other people to do your work for you. Huck was stamped with Twain’s personality, and America was quickly stamped with Huck’s.
            But another, lesser known aspect of Twain’s personality emerges here too: his skepticism. At one point, Huck meets two traveling shysters, who claim to be royalty, and self-proclaimed experts in fortune telling and phrenology. Huck isn’t fooled for a second: “these liars warn’t no kings nor dukes at all, but just low-down humbugs and frauds.” There has, in fact, always been another, less flattering side of the Land of Opportunity: the charlatans, the hypnotists, the quacks, the gurus, the faith healers, the televangelists, the psychic hotlines, the late night infomercials with their solutions to problems you didn’t know you had. Twain’s contemporary P.T. Barnum knew this side well, and exploited it. Twain also knew it well, and was sickened by it.
            All of Twain’s works are in fact sprinkled with his attacks on blind faith, junk science, and general human gullibility. But he comes most alive when writing about the conflict between blind faith and morality. He saw how frequently the Bible was used to justify actions that were subsequently considered immoral. “During many ages there were witches,” he wrote. “The Bible said so. The Bible commanded that they should not be allowed to live. Therefore the Church gathered up its halters, thumb-screws, and firebrands, and set about its holy work, and washed the Christian world clean with their foul blood. Then it was discovered that there was no such thing as witches, and never had been. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry.”      
            There was another example closer to home. Twain grew up in Missouri, a slave state, where pious slave-owners had absolutely no doubt that God was on their side. Like the witch hunters, they didn’t even have to look hard. Hebrew scripture directly sanctions slavery, and the Christian missionary Paul speaks of it approvingly, even overseeing the return of a runaway slave. Who would dare go against the word of God?
            As Twain wrote in 1904, “It shows that that strange thing, the conscience – the unerring monitor – can be trained to approve any wild thing you want it to approve, if you begin its education early and stick to it.” The Bible, or any scripture, cannot ever be the foundation of morality, because it’s only as moral as the person interpreting it. It is filled with internal contradictions and inconsistencies, and even a clear, precise statement can be interpreted variously (It's literal! It's metaphorical! It applies to everybody! It applies to this one specific case!)
            For Twain, human relations must be always be cherished above performing rituals and placating deities. No god will make us be kind to each other: we have to do that ourselves. Among Twain’s most personal, thoughtful, and funniest works are a pair of stories collectively called “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” a re-telling of Genesis in which, for the first time, the characters receive actual human emotions. Adam’s diary begins like this: “Dear Diary. This new creature with the long hair is a good deal in the way. It is always hanging around and following me about. I’m not used to company. Cloudy today, wind in the east.”  Eve describes her own first impressions: “I was afraid of it at first, for I thought it was going to chase me, but by and by I found that it was only trying to get away, so I tracked it along, several hours, which made it nervous and unhappy. At last it was a good deal worried, and climbed a tree. I waited a while, then gave up and went home.”
            Domestic dramas ensue, like a modern sitcom. Eve adds helpful signs like “This way to the whirlpool” and pleads with Adam to stop going over the waterfall in a barrel (“I supposed it was what the falls were for. But she says they were only made for scenery, like the rhinoceros and mastodon”). Eve introduces death into the world deliberately, out of compassion for the lions, vultures, and other meat-eaters who had been slowly starving on their diet of grass. Shared trials and sufferings bring the two close together, and only with this can true love finally arise. “After all these years,” muses Adam, “I see that I was mistaken about Eve in the beginning: it is better to live outside the Garden with her, than inside it without her.”  

            …On phrenology. Phrenology is like an old-fashioned version of racial profiling. People have always wished they could identify criminals just by looking at them, because bad guys stubbornly refuse to use helpful monikers like Dr. Doom or Mr. Sinister. In the 19th-century, some scientists thought they noticed that all criminals’ skulls were misshapen in the same way. Finally! Now we can tell whether you’re going to commit a crime, just by measuring your forehead!
            Twain observed a phrenologist at work when he was a boy. Charging 25 cents a head, the skull-reader “was always wise enough to furnish his clients with character-traits that would compare favorably with George Washington’s.” Twain later conducted his own experiment: visiting a famous phrenologist under an assumed name, he patiently waited as the expert examined the contours of his head (“he found a cavity in one place that represented the total absence of the sense of humor”). Several months later, he returned to the same expert, this time under his own name. “Again I carried away an elaborate chart. It contained several sharply defined details of my character, but it bore no recognizable resemblance to the earlier chart.”

*          *          *

            What would these five truth-seekers think of the world today? Would they be depressed to find the same old humans, gorging on the same old dreck, year after year, century after century? Would they be enraged? Or somehow comforted?
            We’ll never know, because they’re all dead. Most of them would probably be out of work. But I personally like to think of them banding together, Avengers-style, into a high-octane superhero task force. Battling the forces of bullshit.