Sunday, November 23, 2014


“Science arouses a soaring sense of wonder. But so does pseudoscience. Sparse and poor popularizations of science abandon ecological niches that pseudoscience promptly fills. If it were widely understood that claims to knowledge require adequate evidence before they can be accepted, there would be no room for pseudoscience. But a kind of Gresham’s Law prevails in popular culture by which bad science drives out good.” 
- Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

The History Channel's popular pseudoscience and pseudohistory show Ancient Aliens presents the astronomies and astrologies of ancient peoples as though such peoples were in communication and potential contact with extraterrestrial beings.  One of these proffered connections comes from a singular piece of artwork from the tomb of the Mayan ruler Pakal, which ancient aliens proponents claim to be a depiction of Pakal sitting in a rocket which is blasting off into the heavens.  It seems fairly unreasonable to think that the ancient Mayans would know what a rocket would look like, or, even worse, to assume that extraterrestrial beings that could travel through interstellar space to visit us would still have need to use chemical propulsion for rockets to leave the Earth, but it's a fascinating idea and something worth considering for those of us who are interested in the philosophy of science.  

Early Man and the Cosmos

Some years ago I took an undergraduate course at the University of Colorado that dealt with the topic of archeoastronomy (Course Website).  We discussed some of the various ways that people in ancient and modern times have considered their place in the cosmos through their observations of the night's sky: including the megalith constructors of ancient England, Polynesian navigators, the alignment of the Egyptian pyramids, and the mythologies of the aboriginal people from Australia.  I have always found these considerations to be quite fascinating.  From the mythologies built around constellations and the movements of the stars and planets to architectural alignments with the heavens, I think one of our greatest connections with our ancestors from across the planet is our awe and wonder when we ponder the cosmos through the night's sky.  I recently decided to go back and fully read the text that was required for this undergraduate course.  That book, Early Man and the Cosmos by Evan Hadingham, was a bit dry and somewhat dated (published in 1984, when I was only finishing my first orbit around the Sun) but I found it to be an enjoyable and fascinating read.  The book focuses primarily on the megalith constructors of ancient Great Britain, the people of the American southwest (Chumash, Zuni, Hopi), and the ancient Mayans, though the author does a good job of placing these people and their understandings of the heavens within the greater context of our modern knowledge and the development of astronomies and astrologies in various forms through history.  Hadingham presented the brief history of lord Pakal, a Mayan ruler from the 7th century C.E., and his decorated sarcophagus lid in a section of the book subtitled "Lords of Palenque".  Although Hadingham reviewed what real archeologists and historians make of the artwork on the sarcophagus and it's context within Mayan culture, the author made mention of the claim in Erich von Däniken's 1968 book Chariots of the Gods? that the sarcophagus depicts the great Mayan ruler blasting off in a rocket.

Pakal - Mayan Ruler or
The Palenque Astronaut?

K'inich Janaab' Pakal (also known as Pacal) was a ruler of the Mayan land of Palenque beginning some 1400 years ago.  During Pakal's reign over Palenque, he had the Palace of Bàak' expanded and he came to be revered by his people.  After his death, Pakal was deified and many of his descendants would claim their right to rule through their connection with him.  Pakal was entombed in the Temple of Inscriptions, but his tomb was not discovered by modern scholars until 1948.  The iconography in Pakal's tomb depicts the various connections between the great ruler and the mythological considerations of the cosmos by his people, but the iconography in the tomb that has been of the greatest interest to scholars comes from the lid of Pakal's sarcophagus:

(Image created by Wikipedia user Madman2001)

The sarcophagus lid appears to show Pakal at center as he makes his journey into the world of the dead.  Growing around him is a world tree, a common depiction in ancient Mayan art, with its roots growing down into the underworld and it's branches extending toward the heavens.  Around the edges of the lid are depictions of the Sun, Moon, and stars as well as those of ancient nobles, perhaps real Mayan rulers or mythological figures. 

The proponents for the existence of ancient aliens see the depiction on Pakal's sarcophagus as being something different.  They suggest that the lid shows Pakal sitting within a spaceship, with exhaust coming out of the back of the capsule, Pakal's hand on controls, and his foot on some kind of a pedal for controlling the ship.  It sounds like a connection that could only be made once the space age began and that it exactly the case: Erich von Däniken suggested that the image depicts Pakal as a spaceman sitting in a pose similar to that of the Mercury astronauts from the early American space program.  

The Ancient Aliens show and the claims from proponents of those ideas are pretty easy to debunk.  Indeed, Chris White has a great 3-hour film where he breaks down most of the ideas of ancient aliens.  The film and relevant information for each major claim from ancient aliens can be found at White's website Ancient Aliens Debunked.  White has a fantastic breakdown of the claims about Pakal's sarcophagus. Since posting this back in 2014, the video link I used to have to White's videos no longer works (but definitely check out the website). However, here is a pretty awesome video from Hoax Factor considering Pakal's tomb:  

White definitely shows that the ancient aliens hypothesis in the case of lord Pakal has very little ground to stand-on.  None of their claims fit within the broader context of the known mythologies, history, or artwork of the ancient Mesoamerican peoples.  Indeed, this one image can be viewed as though it's a picture of Pakal in a spaceship, but that viewpoint doesn't appear to have any historical legitimacy.  Why then do proponents of ancient aliens continue to proffer this bogus idea?

Seeing Faces and Hot Rods of the Gods

As many of us know, it's a natural human tendency to see what we want to see when we look at our world.  We have a proclivity for seeing things like faces in burnt toast, in clouds, and in inanimate objects in our lives.  When we have mental filters in place for what the world around us should look like, we are then more likely to view the world in that way.  It's not too hard to see then how a fairly uneducated person like Erich von Däniken could look at Pakal's sarcophagus and see an image that reminded him of the reclined Mercury astronauts blasting off in their space capsules.  The Mercury program had been widely known at the time that 
von Däniken wrote his first book on the subject.  Erich von Däniken has long stood by his claims (he even built a theme park to present his ideas as though they are fact), but it's seems like the real problem is that von Däniken can't see past his own personal experience having spent most of his life in the 20th century.

It's a good exercise in critical thinking to try to step away from the world we know and to attempt to view the cosmos through the lens of another culture at another time in history.  That's part of why I enjoy learning about ancient peoples and their considerations of the heavens.  As a scientist, I work within the current paradigm of scientific thought and application, but to truly appreciate what modern science is and how it works, it's good to think about all human endeavors to understand our universe.  The final words from Evan Hadingham in Early Man and the Cosmos iterates this point beautifully:

"When we consider ancient astronomy, we begin to value the complexity and logic of other schemes of thought besides our own.  We realize that our framework of ideas developed from only one system of thought out of many that have passed into obscurity.  The perspective of other peoples, sometimes glimpsed across a gap of countless generations, reminds us of the shortcomings of our own outlook, and there are indeed many others.  Such an awareness may be essential for our own survival"

Worthwhile Gobbledygook?

“Deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.” 
- Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

Many of us can sometimes be too quick to judge proponents of the ancient aliens ideas.  Much like people who believe in ghosts, fairies, gods, faith healing, homeopathy, or the power of prayer, the proponents of the ancient aliens hypotheses have viewpoints about our world that they feel are justified and they are trying to make sense of the world for themselves within those viewpoints.  The separation of science from pseudoscience comes in the rigor and method of acceptance and denial in science and the lack thereof in pseudoscience, yet it has been a complicated and non-trivial affair for philosophers of science and scientists to truly determine how the demarcate science and how to fully describe science.  Science itself covers a range of approaches and considerations.  Who's to say that the science we practice now will be anything like the science practiced by people to come centuries or millennia from now?  In some ways, we scientists are also guilty of building up mental filters that control how we allow ourselves to see the universe.  Although ancient aliens ideas have no legitimacy in the sense of the history they present, they are still important concepts in our modern history as they represent the growing want of many people to know what extraterrestrial life may be like and whether or not we are alone in the universe.  If anything, I wonder if some of these ancient aliens ideas may be a way for some people to try to build a connection with the greater cosmos.  Those of us who consider ourselves communicators and educators of science should approach such ideas as ancient aliens in that respect and show the public that we can know about our connection with the universe through science.  Even though we haven't yet discovered any evidence for alien life to exist and there's most assuredly no evidence that aliens have ever visited the Earth, that doesn't mean it's not fun to think about the possibilities for other life in our universe.

Here's all 3 hours of Ancient Aliens Debunked:

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Plutarch Dies at the End

Wallowing in my own self-pitty last night due to the continued presence of my runny nose, cough, and stuffed-up sinuses from this damned sickness I've had, I sought out a horror film to watch alone and in the dark.  I came upon John Dies in the End while searching through my Netflix queue.  I had added said film because it sounded promising, though I couldn't recall having ever seen a trailer or read any reviews.  So I jumped to the ol' Google and found the film's trailer to be enticing.  The film is definitely worth a watch for anyone who enjoys humorous comedy, but I'm not offering a review of the film here.  Rather, I'm writing this because of one interesting part of the film: the prologue.  

The opening of the film presents a simple thought experiment in a not-so-simple and enjoyably quirky way:

What do you think?  If you're anything like me, the first answer that comes to your mind is an obvious "no".  The axe has been completely re-constructed, so the original parts that were used to behead the now-rotting, corpsified zombie-dude are no longer in your possession and are most likely just adding to the mass of waste at some local landfill.  

However, that's not the reason that I think the answer of "no" is astoundingly obvious (you might not have caught the primary reason for the answer being "no" on your first watch of that video; if so, watch it again.  Good to go?  Awesome).  Hopefully you saw that the primary reason that the answer to the question is "no" is because what slew Swastika-Tongue in the first place was one, some, or all of the eight bullets that you had shot him with before using the axe to remove his head (like I said, it's a simple riddle).  However, if you take away the obvious answer and just allow yourself to assume that the real question of the riddle is whether or not the axe you now hold in your hand in the presence of Zombie-Swastika-Tongue is the same one that you had used the previous winter to remove the head of his former self, then you have another riddle that is really a re-hash of a much older thought experiment: The Ship of Theseus.

The Ship of Theseus is a thought experiment proposed by Plutarch in the first century C.E.  It goes something like this: the ship in which the hero Theseus and the young Athenian men returned from Crete (see the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur) was honored by Athenians and kept in good repair in the harbor of Athens for many centuries.  Over time, as parts of the ship would degrade, they were slowly replaced, so eventually there were not many of the original parts of the ship remaining.  The question then became "Is the ship, after replacing part for part over time, still the Ship of Theseus?"

The thought experiment, as it stands, really questions the value an object has based upon its parts.  It's a question of philosophical identity.  

There are other versions of this thought experiment.  Some of them predate Plutarch's Ship of Theseus.  For instance, there is a version in which Socrates and Plato each slowly exchanged the parts of their carriages such that the parts that once were in Plato's carriage have been completely replaced with parts from Socrates' carriage and vice versa and then the question is posited as to whether Plato is now using Socrates' carriage or if he's still in his own.  

Other variants of the thought experiment have come since the time of Plutarch (with some interesting additions).  The version that appears most similar to the prologue from John Dies at the End is the one known as "My Grandfather's Axe": my grandfather had an axe which he gave to my father.  My father replaced the haft before giving the axe to me.  I had to replace the head.  Do I still have my grandfather's axe?

One of the more interesting variants of this thought experiment was proposed by Thomas Hobbes, the 1700's English philosopher and author of Leviathan.  Hobbes' addition to the thought experiment works this way: you have the Ship of Theseus.  You slowly take one piece of the ship off and replace it with a new piece.  The old piece you keep.  You continue in this manner, replacing pieces of the ship and saving the removed pieces.  As this is happening over time, you take the pieces that had been removed and use those pieces to build a new ship, of exactly the same structure and design.  By the time you have replaced the final original piece of the ship, you now have two identical ships.  Which one is the Ship of Theseus?

Here's a fantastic breakdown of the original Ship of Theseus thought experiment and the Hobbes version from Wireless Philosophy:

The thesis of Joseph Butler, as reviewed in that video and suggesting that "objects persist in only a loose and popular sense", seems like a nice way to shrug off the problem as not being a problem in the first place.  This is usually a fun approach to a lot of philosophy problems since a lot of the time it seems like there's no resolution to a lot of philosophy problems.  

The reason I like this thought experiment, be it after replacing axe parts following your unexplained need to slay and behead some dude with a swastika tattooed on his tongue or replacing pieces of Theseus' ship, is because it questions identity.  We are constantly shedding cells and gaining new ones, so are we ever identical with who we were previously?  Darth Vader was almost fully replaced by mechanical parts, so was he still Anakin Skywalker?  The philosopher Wittgenstein might have thought these questions were balderdash ("Roughly speaking: to say of two things that they are identical is nonsense, and to say of one thing that it is identical with itself is to say nothing") and, if that were the case, he might have been right.

It would be interesting if we could just say that something is such because people agree to call it such.  Maybe the Ship of Theseus is really just whatever anyone decides to call "the Ship of Theseus".  Maybe Darth Vader is Anakin Skywalker because someone calls him so.  If that were the case, then the answer to the thought experiment as proposed in John Dies at the End might be that the axe you're holding in your hand is the same axe as the one that beheaded Swastika-Tongue because his zombie has now said that it is the same axe (it might be a good conclusion since chances are you should be more worried about dealing with said zombie before considering philosophical puzzles anyway).  

However, I still feel like the answer would be "no".  Even if you had killed the dude with an axe in the first place (and not with one, some, or all of those eight bullets), the original axe has been completely replaced.  The answer feels like "no" because none of the original axe remains and there are only two major parts of the axe to replace.  When the problem is introduced as in the case of the Ship of Theseus, where the object is replaced a small amount at a time, that's when it gets harder to decide when to even consider the ship to no longer be the original.

Maybe one of the more interesting answers comes from those who like to add the temporal dimension to the consideration, such as in the Worm Theory as presented in the video above.  When we question the temporal aspect of an object along with it's identity, we start hinting at a possible answer to the question (see Temporal Parts at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).  We can say that any one thing is only ever fully identical to itself at one point in time, but then at other points in time it can only be similar to itself.  Then using a name to define something falls back to the "loose and popular" context that Butler suggested.  That sounds just about right, honestly.  The answer that would suggest then is that the Ship of Theseus was only the same ship in the sense that it bore similarity to itself over time and that people still called it the Ship of Theseus is the only thing that made it the Ship of Theseus.  In that case, the axe that hewed the head laden with a swastika-marked tongue and the axe that you now have to defend yourself against the zombie at the door are only similar, and maybe you would call it a different axe since you know you've replaced the parts but the zombie calls it the same axe since it looks similar to the original.  Not a very rewarding answer, but an answer nonetheless (and now you can get on with hacking down the zombie as he is more than likely about to come at you).

There's rich food for thought there.  Maybe Wittgenstein is right and it's nonsense to even worry about two things being identical.  That seems to fit well with the answer that considers the temporal aspect to mean that an object has unique temporal parts during its existence (look up perdurantism).  Whatever anyone's consideration of this little thought experiment may be, I think we can all agree that it's a lucky thing we don't truly live in a world where a guy can get shot 8 times and have his head chopped off with an axe but then still find a way to come back from death and then sew his head back on before coming to find us with the likely intent of exacting revenge.

Update (22 October 2017): I re-shared this recently and have had several people ask if I've read the book John Dies at the End. Happily, I can say, yes, I have, and I've also read the sequel, This Book is Full of Spiders. A third book in the series, What the Hell Did I Just Read: A Novel of Cosmic Horror, just came out this month. Looking forward to reading that as well!