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Great Courses Review: Professor Michael Shermer.

From their web page:

Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” These words are no less insightful today than they were when he wrote them in 1985. Despite our best efforts, we are all vulnerable to believing things without using logic or having proper evidence—and it doesn’t matter how educated or well read we are. Our brains seem to be hardwired to have our beliefs come first and explanations for our beliefs second. And although we are skilled at recognizing the cognitive biases in other people’s thinking, we often have blinders on when it comes to our own.

We too, when we thought about it, have been “fools” many times. That tendency stood Homo sapiens well in its struggle for survival. But times have changed because of our great intellectual ability has enabled them. We can indeed understand why the sun, earth and moon are round, why lightning strikes and even strikes twice, not to mention the origin of earthly species. Taming the atom came about from a logical progression of hypothesis tested, found wanting, discarded and new ones posed until some were found that improved understanding. Ultimately, the atom became friend or foe, depending on what it is used for. The world will never be the same. This particular event was enabled by progress in science and technologies it bred, enabled by engineering and mathematics. More immediate has been the march of medicine that has dramatically extended the lives of most of us.

This course is a cogent and hard-hitting and logical description of the Mythos / Logos divide. Logos leads to progress while Mythos leads to stasis. In his approach, Shermer seeks to understand. In so doing, he finds many kind things to say about Mythos. It was after all quite efficient at advancing survival in Stone-Age times. Reading the seasons, for example, led to greater security for families, tribes and nations. Social development followed the same course, more or less. Seeds of Logos, planted by the Greeks, gradually became fruit of the loom for the likes of Galileo and his mentors. You can read about how these folks kick-started modern times by recognizing the amazing usefulness of the most abstract of concepts, infinity and zero in Infinitesimal.

In summary and nut shell, Shermer writes:
“The brain is a belief engine. Once beliefs are formed, the brain begins to look for and find confirming evidence in support of these beliefs, which adds an emotional boost of further confidence in the beliefs and thereby accelerates the process of supporting them; round and round the process goes in a positive feedback loop of converting beliefs into truths.”

It is easy to see how many beliefs formed just this way could be life saving throughout evolutionary times. It is just as easy to see why denial of evolution as well as today’s global warming can arise in otherwise normal, good and logical people. All this and more comprise the 18 chapters of this course. We recommend it highly.

Finally, Shermer takes great care to define his terms while providing an extensive bibliography for those who would dig deeper. He has a lot of company. For some pages and a series see, Peace Via Nature's Way for a summary and the following for some specifics:

The basic nuts and bolts provided by Jacob Bronowski in a BBC / Time-Life documentary in 1973 puts science in a human perspective:

"We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible."


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