Monthly Archives: December 2013

How Far Should We Go in Agreeing with Others?

A reader made this insightful comment on my recent post: “On Belief and Skepticism“:

I empathize with this exact scenario. I too am a dedicated skeptic, but find it difficult sometimes to “disagree without being disagreeable.” Many people I disagree with most fundamentally are the ones I love most profoundly. Do you maintain close relationships with people holding drastically different beliefs? It’s hard to separate the person from the ideas they hold especially when there is so much vested emotionally in those ideas. I hate the idea of “agreeing to disagree.” I’m not going to dance around the issue; We are adults and honesty is important. How do you approach these relationships?

I thought these questions so interesting I decided to write a new post addressing them.

As far as “disagree without being disagreeable” I suppose that’s a matter of attitude. You can disagree in a disagreeable manner, but you can also disagree in a non-disagreeable way. I don’t think you can disagree in an agreeable manner, since that would imply you were agreeing. So it’s best to voice your disagreement with the ideas expressed, but not personally attack the person who expressed those ideas.

As far as having relationships with people who hold different views this can be done. There are people in the most intimate lifelong relationships who disagree about politics, religion and other subjects. Still, it’s easier to have good relationships with people whose values and beliefs you mostly share, and marriages are more successful between persons who have similar personalities, as far as I know.

But it’s hard to separate people from their ideas. If I’m progressive and someone is a fascist; or if I’m an agnostic and someone is a biblical literalist, that’s very hard to overcome. In such cases it would be hard to say: “she is ok, but she is also insane because she’s a biblical literalist and that involves holding contradictory ideas simultaneously as well as believing things that conflict with well-established scientific truths.” Yes, people certainly have a lot invested emotionally in their ideas, which in large part explains why they are so resistant to changing them, even in the face of good reasons to do so.

I think the best you can do is to decide when it’s worth it to enter into a polemic. For me that’s when I feel the truth is being distorted, and the issue is important. For example if someone says that Asians are inherently inferior to my racial group and we should kill them all, then that’s something to challenge. If they say that it is generally colder in Florida and than Minnesota and they are really attached to that idea, then it probably isn’t such a big deal to disagree with them, even though they are mistaken.

Now suppose I encounter a gravitational, germ, or evolutionary theory denier. In such cases I should be willing to enter into a polemic because any educated person knows these are well-established scientific truths. Furthermore, to deny them might entail someone’s jumping off a building and thinking they’ll fly; not washing their hands before handling food, or counting on last years flu shot to work this year. (Viruses evolve quickly.) Of course you probably won’t change their minds, since so many persons are willfully ignorant.

Now suppose you encounter a climate change denier. You tell them that the intergovernmental panel of climate scientists now claim with 98% certainty that humans are the main cause of global climate change. But you probably have to leave it at that. The fact that they are mistaken when they don’t believe in it, (and arrogant to think they know more about the subject than the world’s experts), probably doesn’t matter that much. True you might convince them not to vote for a climate change denier, but one vote isn’t that significant anyway and their mistaken view is unlikely to change anyway.

Of course if someone is getting upset or violent then you should agree with anything they say. After all Galileo recanted the Copernican view of the solar system in the face of the Catholic Church’s threatening his life. (Bruno had been recently burned at the stake for advocating such a view.) But among friends—and if someone is willing to kill you over your beliefs they shouldn’t be your friend—I think you just have to decide how serious the issue is, and take each case on an individual basis.

I will say this; as I get older I let a lot more slide than when I was young. And that’s because you rarely change people’s minds because of their emotional attachment to their ideas. After 30 years of university teaching, I can affirm that few people ever change their minds.

But when someone says: “let’s start another war,” or “let’s deny people health care,” well those claims hurt people. And if that doesn’t matter then what does? In such cases you should probably enter into a polemic.

E. O. Wilson: To Young Scientists and the Conquest of Earth


Just finished reading both of E. O. Wilson’s latest books: Letters to a Young Scientist, and The Social Conquest of Earth. There are plenty of reviews out there but here are some brief thoughts.

What struck me about Letters to a Young Scientist was his sincere and honest plea for young students to become scientists. Had I heard his message 40 years ago I would have become a biologist. How the survival of the world depends on society producing individuals who know enough about the biosphere to show us how to halt our destruction of it.

This advice followed directly from the former book, The Social Conquest of Earth. Here he asks the great questions: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? And without spoiling his conclusions the arts and humanities still have something to say about this, but only when informed deeply by modern science. We have as a species conquered earth, but we need future scientists to truly be its caretakers.

On Belief and Skepticism

My very bright youngest daughter told me about a matrix in which our home state of Washington ranked 49th out of the 50 states on some educational matrix. Naturally I was skeptical, since the American south ranks lowest on virtually every educational measurement, and most other measures of well-being. Of course I didn’t tell my daughter I didn’t believe her, but that I would be very surprised if Washington ranked so low in some such matrix. It turns out that my daughter was correct and here is the source:

“Washington is the nation’s No. 1 STEM economy and has the highest concentration of STEM jobs in the United States. Yet, the state ranks 49th out of 50 states in the mismatch between the skills required for available jobs and individuals with those skills.”

In retrospect what I should have said was “since you are very bright and read a lot and since there are so many different measurements that can be taken there is probably some measurement by which any given state ranks first in the middle or last.” Perhaps I expressed too much confidence that I was correct. (Interestingly though, this measurement says more about how many high tech jobs there are in the Seattle area than anything about the state’s specific educational shortcomings.)

Still skepticism is important in a world in which people are so credulous—it is the basis of critical thinking. I can’t accept something someone says because I like or even love them. Claims stand and fall on the evidence. In this case, if you have background beliefs about the education in the US, you will know that on virtually any measurement regarding education states in the American south will be near the bottom. (They will be near the top on measures of violent crime, divorce, and church attendance.) Without a healthy skepticism we will believe virtually anything, ignoring our obligation to only believe things for which there is good evidence. And that’s because our ideas affect other people. So the reason I am a skeptic is not because I want to irritate people. I am a skeptic because I want to know what’s true. I have a truth fetish. If we don’t care about the truth we become credulous, encouraging others to lie to us with impunity. So many of the world’s troubles are caused by lying, and believing the lies told to us.

The Meaning of Tennyson’s “Ulysses”

Maybe the key to the meaning of life is not in our answers, our hopes, or our wishes, but in our struggles. This is a salient theme in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, which tells the story of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, and his ten-year journey home after the end of the long Trojan War. Odysseus’ tribulations on his homeward journey are legendary, as he battles giants, monsters, storms, and the sirens of beautiful women who call sailors to their death. After finally reaching home, reunited with his wife and his kingdom, Homer suggests that Odysseus desired to leave again, an idea picked up centuries later by Dante.

In the nineteenth century, Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809 – 1892) expanded on this theme. Tennyson was the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom during much of Queen Victoria’s reign, and one of the most popular poets in the English language. His poem Ulysses, Odysseus’ name in Latin, famously captured Ulysses’ dissatisfaction with life in Ithaca after his return, and his subsequent desire to set sail again. Perhaps nothing in Western literature conveys the feeling of going forward and braving the struggle of life more movingly than this poem.

Tennyson begins by describing the boredom and restlessness Ulysses experiences after finally returning to rule his kingdom.

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

Contrast these sentiments with his excitement that his memories elicit.

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honoured of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers;
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.

He’s nostalgic about his past, but he also longs for new experiences. He describes those feelings with this powerful imagery:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. 

For there is more to do in life than wait to die.

Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

The lure of the sea, of another journey, is calling again.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:

There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

Finally, he gathers his fellow sailors and leaves the safety of the harbor for the thrill of new adventures. Tennyson describes the scene and the sentiment with some of the greatest lines in the English language.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Ulysses found joy and meaning, not in port, but in his journeys, in the dark troubled sea of life against which we wrestle. There we find the thrill and the meaning of our lives as we battle without hope of ever finding a home. For Ulysses, the struggle was the meaning.

On My Daughter’s 30th Birthday

Thirty years ago today my wife and I welcomed into the world a beautiful daughter. I cannot begin to express how successful she has been or what joy she has brought to us. And to think that now, thirty years later, she has her own beautiful infant daughter. Having children is life renewing itself. Still, my wife and I are thirty years older too, and all of our parents, who themselves were proud grandparents, are no more. Not all is good.

All this makes me think about is the process of having and raising children, how you have influence but not control over the outcome. For try as you may you find the forces of society, culture, history, genes and fate transcend, and often undermine your efforts to care for them. What if war, disease, or violence strike? How will you protect them then? Yet even without such calamities, parents enter uncharted waters. How we wanted all of our children to be perfectly happy … and yet no one is. All of this has reminded me of some simple poetry I read as a teenager:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable. ~ Kahlil Gibran

However, the situation is even worse than this, for there is no supreme archer. As parents, you are the archer, and your most careful aim will surely miss your mark, which will certainly cause sadness in later years. Still, if you have done your best to aim well, you will have hit the target even if not the bulls-eye. In this, you should take consolation. You did your best and you did not miss completely. And if life as a whole continues to do this it will get closer and closer to the bull’s-eye. At least let us hope so.

Happy 30th birthday to a most beautiful daughter. Continue to be strong and happy and brave, the traits that express your most true self.

I love you, Katie.