JR'S Free Thought Pages
Only after the last tree has been cut
Only after the last river has been poisoned
Only after the last fish has been caught
Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten
~ Cree Indian Prophecy ~
A list of internal links can be found throughout the text and at the end of this page
Cave ab homine unius libre*
Qui bene interogat bene docet**
* Beware the man of one book **One who questions well teaches well
Greetings Freethinkers ~ Welcome to Johnny Reb's Home Page
Our world is rapidly surrendering to the activities of men and women who would stake the future of our species based on beliefs that should not survive an elementary school education.
Public opinion polls conducted during the past several years have consistently found that one third of Americans believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible while nearly 60% believe that the bloody predictions in the Book of Revelation which involve the massacre of everyone who has not accepted Jesus as the Messiah will come true. When the mass media is not promoting mindless patriotism, it's promoting a particular version of religion, pseudoscience, postmodernist epistemology or New Age irrationalism by capitalizing on the widespread ignorance and credulity regarding the supernatural and the paranormal. In recent years television has commissioned an relentless steam of drivel designed to appeal to the vast market of viewers who believe in ghosts, angels, demons and psychic phenomena. It's scandalous and deplorable that more Americans believe in astrology then they do evolution, three quarters believe in angels and four out of five in miracles and the efficacy of prayer. The American marketing of the Apocalypse (or Rapture) is a well financed multi-media production that capitalizes on fundamentalist Christian paranoia and superstition. More than one hundred million copies of the driving force behind the "end of times" Rapture called the Left Behind series of books have been sold. These books chronicle the second coming and Last Judgment of Jesus and the slaughter of anyone who refuse to believe in him. These books also have an accompanying series of horror stories targeted for children (Left Behind: The Kids) and a full length move.
Just before the 2004 presidential election the journalist Ron Suskind reported a disturbing conversation with a senior Bush aide, who informed Suskind that members of the liberal press were part of what the Bush administration calls the "reality based community" - those who "believe that solutions emerge from judicious study of discernable reality." The aide emphasized, "That's not the way the world works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality - judiciously as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too...We're history's actors...and you, all of you, will be left just to study what we do." In other words, there is no need for the acceptance of a mind independent reality that exists regardless of our beliefs, a fundamental premise of every scientific enterprise. These outrageous remarks show blatant contempt for not only the scientific outlook, but to the notion of metaphysical realism. Reality is just a human construct and can be created by the sheer power of the will. These statements sound as though they have been lifted right out of the latest New Age pseudoscientific rubbish one can find in a #1 selling book called The Secret.
This web site is dedicated to the promotion of free thought, skepticism and critical thinking. The maxim for this endeavor is Cogita tute*(*thinking for yourself) , an activity for which very few people have a natural inclination. It would seem that humans are a credulous lot with a propensity to belief and conformity, accompanied by a low tolerance for doubt. If I may be permitted a useful metaphor: people are sheep in credulity and wolves in conformity. This is fortunate for those in positions of power and unfortunate for the future of freedom, justice and the democratic process. In spite of the stifling influence of the education system, religious institutions and mind-numbing conditioning of mass culture, it is possible to learn how to think clearly and develop a disposition to what I call constructive skepticism. However, this undertaking requires immense intellectual effort, particularly if you have had the misfortune of having been raised in an authoritarian, dogmatic environment. Many people have been unwittingly exposed to a process of indoctrination, and subsequently robbed of their intellectual autonomy, often making it virtually impossible to expose their beliefs to critical inquiry.
Over 2000 years ago Aristotle correctly stated that the ability to doubt is rare, emerging only among cultivated, educated and highly civilized societies. But he also proclaimed, "Man is a rational animal". In my view this latter assertion is clearly false. As the philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes noted, the mind tends to effortlessly and automatically take in ideas and information without intellectual filters. Consequently, a person must learn how to think logically and rationally. If you want to counter today's swamp of commonplace nonsense, misinformation, superstition and paranormal claims you need more than an inherited intelligence or inborn inclination, you need the tools and skills of critical thought.
The philosopher Richard Paul, an expert in logic and critical thought, describes three kinds of cognitive dispositions: (1) vulgar believers, who employ slogans and platitudes to browbeat those holding different points of view into accepting their views; (2) sophisticated believers, who are skilled at using rhetoric and sophistry to provide arguments for what they already believe; and (3) critical believers, who reason their way to conclusions, are willing to expose their beliefs to skeptical scrutiny and listen to divergent points of view. There are many acceptable definitions of "critical thinking". One good one is provided by Wade & Tarvis in their book Critical and Creative Thinking:
"Critical thinking is the ability and willingness to assess claims and make objective judgments on the basis of well-supported reasons. It is the ability to look for flaws in arguments and resist claims that have no supporting evidence or that are entirely based on motivational or emotional appeals. Critical thinking, however, is not merely negative thinking. It also fosters the ability to be creative and constructive, to generate possible explanations for findings, think of implications and apply new knowledge to a broad range of social and personal problems. You can't really separate critical thinking from creative thinking, for it's only when you question what is that you can begin to imagine what can be."
In addition to observing the rules of logic, Wade and Tavris provide eight guidelines one should follow.
An important component of critical thinking involves the assessment of the soundness of arguments - a difficult task that demands skill in employing the rules of logic. The unpleasant truth about the intellectual life is that first rate inquiry and critical thinking require an enormous amount of effort, anxiety and even desperation. From a practical perspective, critical thinking involves three components: (1) An analysis of the meaning of arguments, their statements and words employed in those statements. An argument may be unclear because of the statements or words used in the argument. For example, presenting arguments for the existence of God is inconsequential without a clear definition of the concept "God". (2) Determining the truth or falsity of statements or, at the very least, their plausibility. Many arguments fail on the basis of the falsity or implausibility of premises. (3) A knowledge of the types of reasoning - both inductive and deductive, the variety of inferences and an analysis of the validity and coherence of the logic or reasoning process. These three components may be referred to as interpretive, verification and reasoning skills.
Critical thinking is an invaluable skill in today's world in which we are continually bombarded by useless data, bias and seriously flawed logic. We are constantly inundated by arguments designed to convince us of some conclusion that we would otherwise find unacceptable. Groups who have less than honorable intentions such as corporate advertisers, televangelists, preachers, politicians, special interest groups and a plethora of organizations and religious groups claiming paranormal or supernatural powers attempt to persuade us to believe what they want us to believe. One of the series of satires etched by the Spanish painter Goya is entitled "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters". Goya believed that many of the follies of mankind resulted from the "sleep of reason". There are always people telling us what we want, how they will provide it, and what we should believe. Convictions are infectious, and people can make others convinced of almost anything. We are typically ready to believe that our ways, our beliefs, our religion, our politics are better than theirs, or that our God-given rights trump theirs or that our interests require defensive or pre-emptive strikes against them. In the end, it is ideas for which people kill each other. Goya's full motto for his etching is, "Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the source of her wonders." That is how we should take it to be.
As Voltaire once said, "those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities", and the infamous history of religion certainly supports Voltaire's astute assertion. I sincerely believe that religion has been and continues to be a colossal negative force, causing great suffering and conflict and standing systematically in the way of most of mankind's efforts at moral progress, freedom and flourishing. Moreover, everything from the various creation myths of religions to the logical incoherence and inconsistency of the idea of miracles and supernatural agencies is, to anyone with even the most rudimentary understanding of science, pure nonsense. Most religious entities and pronouncements are no more plausible or intelligible than my claim that there are invisible green goblins hiding out in my back yard or that pigs can fly.
But then I could be wrong!
Learning to think critically is a matter of self-respect and intellectual integrity. We are diminished intellectually when we allow others to do our thinking for us and when we are incapable of uncovering logical flaws in another's arguments. Without these logical skills we leave ourselves vulnerable to becoming slaves to the ideas and values of others. Most of the arguments from the aforementioned groups are emotionally charged and completely lacking in rational support. Although it is important to be open-minded it does not imply that any opinion is as good as any other. Sometimes people justify mental laziness by proudly telling you that they are 'open-minded.' "It's good to be open-minded", replies philosopher Jacob Needleman, "but not so open that your brains fall out."
This page and subsequent linked pages are committed to assisting you on the path, not only to becoming an independent freethinker, but thinking clearly and critically - to become genuinely educated and free from dogma and closed systems of thought. Aristotle believed that the purpose of education is to enable us to make noble use of our leisure and he genuinely believed that the ultimate criterion of the quality of a culture is what its citizens do with their leisure time. He believed this entailed the cultivation of an enlightened autonomous thinker who will develop a lifelong active intellectual life beyond formal schooling. In this endeavor our education system has been an abysmal failure.
I concur with Leo Tolstoy's conception of a freethinker as one who is willing to use his mind without prejudice, bias and fear in order to understand ideas that may clash with his own customs, privileges or treasured beliefs. Bertrand Russell once proclaimed that " to be worthy of the name freethinker, one has to be free of two things...the forces of tradition...and the tyranny of our own passions." Robert Ingersoll [1833-1899] explains his transformation from a credulous child to the status of freethinker:
"When I became convinced that the Universe is natural -- that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world -- not even in infinite space. I was free -- free to think, to express my thoughts -- free to live to my own ideal -- free to live for myself and those I loved -- free to use all my faculties, all my senses -- free to spread imagination's wings -- free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope -- free to judge and determine for myself -- free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the "inspired" books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past -- free from popes and priests -- free from all the "called" and "set apart" -- free from sanctified mistakes and holy lies -- free from the fear of eternal pain -- free from the winged monsters of the night -- free from devils, ghosts and gods. For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought -- no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings -- no chains for my limbs -- no lashes for my back -- no fires for my flesh -- no master's frown or threat -- no following another's steps -- no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds."
To foster this transformation there are positive actions you can take to reduce your vulnerability to the authority, influence and dogma of power structures and privileged elites. For those who are interested in learning more about logic and argumentation you may want to visit my logical argumentation pages. I created this document for use in an advanced placement calculus course I taught to enable students to learn basic rules of logic as well as how to think clearly about concepts and recognize flaws in arguments. In spite of the fact these young people were a highly motivated intelligent select group none of them had been exposed to any course in logic during their high school years.
About JR: ( yeah - that's me!)....Check out my pretentious Photo Album here
(1) Biggest Influences: My Mother, my younger brother Mark, a few inspiring teachers who were courageous enough to transcend the boundaries of the mediocre curriculum and Bertrand Russell....Here's a terrific photo of an elderly Bertie:
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), eminent mathematician, philosopher, intellectual, social critic, author of over 70 books and hundreds of essays. Russell won the Nobel prize for literature for his History of Western Philosophy and was the co-author with Alfred North Whitehead of Principia Mathematica. He was married four times, intervened personally in the First World War, Cuban missile crisis and the Sino-Indian border war, survived a plane crash at the age of 71, and was an active protestor against nuclear weapons well into his 80's. He died at he age of 98. His 3 volume autobiography published in 1967 is a fascinating read.
Prologue to Russell’s Autobiography
"What I Have Lived F
The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way. Persecution is used in theology, not in mathematics because in mathematics there is knowledge, but in theology there is only opinion.
If you think your belief is based upon reason, you will support it by argument, rather than persecution, and will abandon it if the argument goes against you. But if your belief is based upon faith, you will realize the argument is useless, and will therefore resort to force or persecution or by stunting and distorting the minds of the young in what is called "education"
(9) For some recent annoyances with the state of the world:
If you found these stimulating, click here for a compilation of more of my favorite quotes.
(11) Favorite Conundrum: What was God doing before he created the Universe, why would he bother and why did he screw up so badly? Moreover, why would an omnipotent deity find it necessary to rest after the sixth day? For more, check out my skeptical ruminations page.
To quote Spinoza, "Anything excellent is as difficult as it is rare"... and critical thought is no exception. Your starting point must be to release your mind from its lengthy exposure to the onslaught of the indoctrination and cultural conditioning of the education system and corporate media. One must unlock the mind from its hermetically sealed state. My suggestion is to start with the following:
How People Believe by Michael Shermer
The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan
Why We Know it Isn't So by Thomas Gilovich
Thinking Straight by Antony Flew
Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland
Logic and Its Limits by Patrick Shaw
Think by Simon Blackburn
Skeptics Tool Box by Barry Beyerstein (SFU Psychology Dept.) Note: Adobe Acrobat File
Periodicals such as : Skeptical Inquirer, Skeptic Magazine and Free Inquiry.
You will want to expose yourself to mind expanding classical writers such as David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche or John Stuart Mill and contemporary social critics such as Noam Chomsky, Michael Parenti, Howard Zinn, Barbara Ehrenreich, Christopher Lasch, Chriis Hedges, Christopher Hitchens and John Ralston Saul. These writers are capable of unlocking the closed mind. An open mind is surely an intellectual virtue, but one should recognize the distinction between open-mindedness and a hole in the head. A "hole in the head" implies that we abandon all standards of critical inquiry and be willing to assimilate uncritically anything thrown into it. There is as much difference between an "open-mind" and a "hole in the head" as there is between "tolerance" and "anything goes."
Avoid, as much as possible, the useless
drivel and distortions served up by the corporate media. Its right wing
bias, lack of objectivity, unbalanced coverage, third rate writing and scarcity of critical analysis will only anesthetize your
already inert brain. One of the main reasons
and other agendas of the World Trade Organization and their notion of unfettered
global capitalism have been ostensibly endorsed by the masses is because no platform was
available in the media for dissent or rebuttal. As Thomas Mann, the late
great German writer proclaimed, "It is impossible for conflicting ideas to
compete in the marketplace if no forum for their presentation is provided or
available." It never fails to amaze me how the herd blindly accept what
they read in the media as holy writ, thoughtlessly
relinquish their rights
relinquish their rightsand obediently submit to the rule of law as though it were written with their interest in mind. One must never confuse morality, ethics and justice with the legal system. The founding fathers of the constitution were rich landowners, merchants and slave owners who wanted political democracy but not economic democracy. The economic injustices that existed before were simply regularized and maximized and are now guaranteed by the rule of law and facilitated by corporate lawyers and clever accounting practices. Now we have set in motion unbridled global capitalism, a new world order concerned with promoting greed, expanding the domain of market dynamics and removing checks and balances to enable those who have the wealth to acquire even more.
One must always be diligent and skeptical of salvation plans or simplistic facile answers to complex questions. What explains everything explains nothing. Moreover, miracles are a dime a dozen. All we need to do is observe that human egoism, credulity, fraud, myth-making and simple mistakes are too common to let us take such reports at face value. Fraud and psychological explanations provide the best way of viewing the evidence for outrageous claims. If there is any miracle in the universe, it's that so many people still actually believe in the existence of Gods and other supernatural entities.
In addition to the lack of instruction in critical thinking, logic and emphasis on conceptual understanding in mathematics and science, one of the many serious deficiencies of the education system is the failure to teach students a basic understanding of probability and statistics. Probability and statistics, like logic, is not just for mathematicians anymore. It permeates our lives. One of the disturbing outcomes of these serious deficiencies is the prevalence of belief in the supernatural, paranormal phenomena and other various forms of pseudoscience. In a culture where genetic engineering, stem cell research, laser technology, astronomy and particle physics are daily adding to our understanding of the world, it's especially sad that a significant portion of the adult population still believes in astrology, psychic phenomena, angels, creationism, ghosts, gods, alien abduction and the efficacy of faith and prayer. Students also need to be taught more of the history, philosophy and methodology of the scientific enterprise, focusing more on conceptual understanding and less on mindless memorizing of factual information. The more science one learns, the more one becomes aware of what is not known and the provisional nature of much of what is known. This contributes to a healthy skepticism toward claims about how things are or should be. This general intellectual humility, this awareness of the tentative nature of knowledge and of how difficult it can be to genuinely know something with certainty, is an extremely important benefit of scientific thinking.
Magical or mystical thinking is one of those chimerical human appellations, usually reserved for the other person’s religion. It is deemed acceptable for Saskatchewan farmers to offer Christian prayers to God for rain, but superstitious nonsense for a native Cree Indian, for example, to dance in the name of the Great White Spirit for the same blessing. I am one-eighth Cree (my great grandmother was a Northern Alberta Cree) but I have never considered the religious beliefs of my Cree ancestors any more or less inane than the Christian religion promoted by the dominant culture. If people would use the same arguments and critical skepticism they employ in repudiating and subsequently rejecting the beliefs and myths of competing religions and apply the methodology to their own beliefs and myths they would undoubtedly have to come to the same conclusions.
People tend to believe what they want to believe and generally fail to search impartially for evidence. I contend that the litmus test for the intellectual integrity of a belief is this: strip away all the reasons you have for wanting a belief to be true and then ask yourself if you would still believe it. Humanities oldest pathologies are egocentrism and the quest for certainty. Truth is not synonymous with social usefulness - and when beliefs persist with no evidence or supporting arguments in their favor, one should examine causes and motives. Irrational beliefs will continue to flourish so long as there are psychological and social forces to maintain them. I invite you to see my short essays titled People of Faith as well as Religion, Morality and Hypocrisy on the viability of religious ethics.
The will to believe can be very strong. Consider the case of holocaust victim Elie Weisel who had his faith literally shattered when his entire family was wiped out in the Nazi death camps. Yet after returning to normalcy following the War he curiously resumed his faith in a benevolent omnipotent God. Weisel's book Night (1961), by the way, is a profound and most fascinating account of those horrifying holocaust experiences.
Although it is said that faith can move mountains, experience shows that dynamite is better.
The best site on skepticism of which I am aware is the one run by the philosopher Robert Todd Carroll called "The Skeptic's Dictionary". It's truly an amazing piece of work with many excellent references and links.
Internal Links: Click the feather icon following the description to open the links
II Bertrand Russell
Advantage of Cowardice: On Authority in Ethics: Essay on Bertrand Russell in Free Inquiry:
Russell Essay Collection: (A Free Mans Worship, In Praise of Idleness, The Philosophical Consequences of Relativity, Has Religion
Made Useful Contributions to Civilization, The Russell Einstein Manifesto, What is the Soul?, Why I'm Not A Christian - Adobe Acrobat Format))
Russell and CUNY: (Russell's 1940 prohibition from teaching at City University of New York - Adobe Acrobat Format)
III Native American History
IV A C Grayling
V Logic, Skepticism & Critical Thinking
Constructive Skepticism: Indoctrination: Belief and faith: Critical Thinking Guide: Logic Guidelines:
Intellectual Barriers to Belief: Influence and Authority: Commonplace Nonsense: Logical Argumentation:
VI Religious, Philosophical and Scientific:
2. Critiques of Religion and Ethics
Acts of God: Confessions of a Lonely Atheist: My God Problem: On the Perils of an Afterlife:
VII Historical, Sociological and Political
2. Spanish Civil War
3. North American Politics and Culture
4. Cultural and Sociological