Sunday, October 11, 2009

Why I Think What I Think (Part 2)

Continuing my list of people who have greatly influenced my worldview:

Robert T. Carroll

Robert T. Carroll was a teacher in the philosophy department at Sacramento City College until he retired in 2007. I first came across Bob's writings through his website, The Skeptic's Dictionary. This was in the mid 1990's, and his website was much smaller than it is today. The Internet, or at least the WWW part, was still a relatively new phenomenon, and I spent a lot of time surfing the web. It was during a late night surfing session that I stumbled upon The Skeptic's Dictionary, but I don't even remember what the specific topic was that led me there. At any rate, I knew I had stumbled upon a rare gem for that time: a website full of articles on a wide range of subject which were all well written and rational. While I knew what "skeptical" means, this was my first real introduction to skepticism as analytical tool. I enjoyed the first couple of articles I read so much that I started at the beginning and read all of his articles in order. There were probably fewer than a hundred articles when I started, and I've been pretty good at reading new articles as they've been added since.

Many of the articles were about what I expected, and poked holes in ideas that I already was skeptical of myself, like BigFoot and the Loch Ness Monster. Others were more challenging for me because they dealt with things I either hadn't considered from a skeptical perspective (multi-level marketing, false memory), or I had believed (or hoped) were true at some point in my past, (UFOs, god, etc.). It was through these articles, as well as Bob's writings on philosophy and critical thinking, that I learned to apply the same rigorous tools in evaluating things I perhaps even wanted to believe as I did to things I already thought were suspect.

All this came at a time in my life where I had come to reject a lot of things I had been taught growing up and was still searching for the tools to make sense of the world. I sometimes wonder if I would have been receptive to Bob's ideas when I was 15 or even 20. Would I have been able to save myself a lot of stumbling around in the dark had I had access to something like The Skeptic's Dictionary earlier on, or would I have avoided it as something designed to weaken faith. I don't know, but I'm eternally grateful that I came across it when I did.

Carl Sagan

I first really discovered the writings of Carl Sagan in my late twenties as I was rediscovering and reinterpreting the world in non-religious terms. I had known of Sagan from his television series Cosmos, but hadn't really read any of his books. It was largely the respect and admiration that Bob Carroll gave him and his writings that sparked my curiosity. The first Sagan book I read was The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. This book helped me to examine the things I believe and had believed, and taught me how to ask the right questions when it came to claims of the paranormal.

When I find an author I like, I have a tendency to stick with him until I've read as much of his work as I can get my hands on. Sagan was no exception. I read everything I could find, including works he had written with his wife Ann Druyan. They opened my mind to a naturalistic universe, one that did not require an intelligent designer, though it did not exclude one. Suddenly the universe became an enormous place, far larger, and far more fascinating than I had ever imagined. As much as the science and logic of his writings, though, I've been greatly influenced by his optimism. Far from being adrift in a universe where nothing matters, I found in his brand of skepticism and even atheism, a real hope that we, as humans, can work things out for ourselves, and that we still might not be alone in the universe. Through Sagan's writing, in part, I found the naive faith and hopes of my youth replaced with awe and new kinds of hope, and a new kind of comfort about the world around me.

I was greatly saddened when Sagan died in 1996. It was as if I had just met the man and he had been taken away. I wonder what new insights we might have, had he lived through the last decade.

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