Unusual Superpowers

I recently read an article in The Guardian about people who have a superpower I had never heard of. They are “empaths” — people who are “capable of feeling someone else’s feeling in their own body.”

Here is a sample experience from the article:

[An empath named Noah Berman and his friend] were sharing a joint when [the friend’s] sister came in looking distressed; Berman told his friend that her sister had been sexually assaulted by a person they both knew, and that she would disclose this in three weeks’ time. His premonition was correct.

Sometimes being an empath is a burden, as when one young empath was “bullied by his classmates, who were freaked out when he intuited information about them.”

This got me thinking about unconventional superpowers. If you could be granted one superpower other than the ones you’ve seen in movies (so no flying, combat skills, invisibility, or shape-shifting), what would it be? Here are some choices to get you started.

The ability to sing or play music that would evoke any desired emotion in those who hear it. The sirens of Greek myth had this ability, but only for the purpose of luring sailors to shipwreck on their island. Imagine if they had used their power to produce love, humility, patience, magnanimity, or other virtues!

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The Brief Window of Human Knowledge

al-haythamHuman science as we now recognize it began in earnest when Ibn al-Haytham, working in the 11th century, formulated the scientific method: proposing hypotheses and attempting to refute them.

The epistemological tools that al-Haytham advocated took us beyond the superstition, appeals to authority, and baseless speculation that had been the foundation of our so-called knowledge until that point.

Almost every scrap of knowledge we have that is beyond the obvious has been gathered in the thousand years since al-Haythem lived. However, in less than a tenth of that time, the window of human knowledge acquisition will close.

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What People Are Really Searching For

Isn’t it obvious that the more consequential an opinion is, the more careful we should be about forming it? Yet one of the mysteries of human behavior is that we often do the opposite.

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How the Pre-Scientific Mind Can Fall into Dogmatism

There is snow at the North Pole. Where there is snow, bears are white. What color are bears at the North Pole?

You probably knew how to navigate that logic before you were 10 years old. However, when researcher Alexander Luria asked Russian peasants to complete that syllogism in the 1930s, a typical response was, “Well, I’ve only seen brown bears. And only if a person came from the North Pole with testimony would I believe that the bears there are white.”

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It Doesn’t Matter. What a Relief!

At a recent gathering of the philosophically minded, a friend lamented that she has been troubled by the sense that our lives don’t matter. Some of us around the table suggested that the way we live affects the people we love, which surely matters. “But eventually,” she countered, “the impact of even the best of us dissipates to nothing.”

Our wish to matter for the long term is very strong. Our ancestors who were apathetic on that point … well, they’re not our ancestors because they lost the competition to reproduce.

We also want to be connected to something more consequential than our individual lives: a tribe, a religion, or a Great Cause. This, too, has been bred into us as members of a species whose ecological niche is “animal that is individually weak but is an apex predator by dint of cooperation and intelligence.”

So what happens when that animal becomes so intelligent that it is able to see through the whole game — when it realizes that no tribe is better than another, that its religions are man-made, and its Great Causes will become utterly moot long before a dying Sun vaporizes the planet?

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God versus the Multiverse

When I lost my belief in God, the near-universal reaction from my Christian friends was to sweep a hand at the marvelous world around us and say, “Where did all this come from, then?” For them, God was the only possible explanation.

The Hidden RealityAmong scientists, the hypothesis that our universe was born from a larger multiverse has steadily been gaining credence. There are several ways this could be true. As one possibility, the Big Bang could have been a quantum fluctuation in another universe, which in turn could have been born in the same way from its parent, stretching back forever. With this model, the multiverse is like an eternal froth of bubble universes. There are other models, too. I recommend Brian Greene’s book, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos if you’re curious.

As an answer to “Where did all this come from, then?” the multiverse model may seem to be on equal footing with “God did it.” By definition, we cannot reach out and touch other universes to prove they (and therefore a multiverse) exist, much less can we prove that our universe arose from the multiverse by some natural process.

It’s true that we can neither prove that God did it, nor that the multiverse and the laws of physics did it. But as I outlined last time, just because competing explanations are uncertain does not mean they are on equal footing.

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What Makes a Good Explanation?

Today, we all know that the Moon’s gravity causes the tides, but what did people think before Sir Isaac Newton discovered that gravity is a universal force? I recently heard Jonathan White interviewed on NPR; he is the author of Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean. It turns out that serious people used to hold all manner of fanciful explanations for the tides. Three that I remember from the interview are:

  1. A woman is lifting her skirt and lowering it.
  2. A very large beast in the depths of the ocean is breathing in and out.
  3. The rays of the Moon heat rocks below the ocean, which causes the depths of the ocean to boil. Boiling in the region below the Moon causes the water level to rise.

Of course, these explanations are all wrong but some of them are better attempts at the truth than others. Put yourself in the time when the correct answer was not known. Which explanation would you prefer, and why?

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