Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Pyrrho and the Skeptical way of life: ignorance is bliss
Why saying, "I don't know," might be the best thing you can do.
- Skepticism is the philosophy that there's very little that we can actually know with any certainty.
- Pyrrho is considered the father of Skepticism, and he believed we ought to suspend our judgment on all those things to which we can never find an answer.
- By giving up the dogmatic pursuit of some kind of resolution, we can be at peace with ourselves and stop getting wound up so easily.
There's always someone, somewhere, who will disagree with you. There will always be a second opinion, a different perspective, or the sliver of a doubt. Sam thinks the war's right, Joe thinks it's wrong. Ella thinks it's warm in here, Toby thinks it's cold. Bob thinks all humans are equal, AJ thinks some are better than others.
There's two sides to everything, and life has no easy answers.
This is the central belief of Skepticism, and two of its greatest thinkers — the Greek, Pyrrho of Elis, and the Roman, Sextus Empiricus — believed that recognizing this is one of the best things that philosophy can give us.
As we've seen with Cynicism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism, Greek philosophy can all too often be misrepresented. Words like "cynical" and "skeptic" have mutated over the years to become entirely new beasts. To be skeptical, today, means to be doubtful. It's to question, challenge, and be somewhat disbelieving of an idea or person. Yet in the ancient world, Skepticism was much more extreme.
According to Pyrrhonism, we waste so much time and effort seeking and demanding answers or resolution where there's only doubt and ambiguity, that we're destined to be unhappy.
Pyrrho is considered to be the first Skeptic philosopher. He began with the simple observation that there are two sides to everything and that we are all invariably bound to our own opinions and thoughts. Thus, we will always see the world differently than others.
It's highly likely that Pyrrho witnessed first hand, or at least had heard of, the Eastern religions that repeatedly made the claim that the world is illusory, knowledge is limited, and human intellect is an infantile, narrow thing. Pyrrho agreed. For him, there's no possible way to determine what's true or "actual."
And yet, we all stubbornly, angrily, and even violently insist that others are wrong and that we are right. According to Pyrrhonism, we waste so much time and effort seeking and demanding answers or resolution where there's only doubt and ambiguity, that we're destined to be unhappy. The key to living a fulfilled, happy, and flourishing life (which is called eudaimonia in Greek and was the end goal, too, of Cynicism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism) is simply to stop the pointless pursuit of resolution. Instead, we ought to adopt a position called epoché, which means "suspended judgment."
For Pyrrho, if someone asks you for your views on some controversial ethical issue, on the latest government spending bill, or what's the greatest movie of all time, you ought to simply demonstrate epoché and say, "I have only my opinion on the matter, as have you, so I shall say there is no answer." Of course, you can debate and happily chat until the cows come home, but Pyrrho's wisdom is just to recognize there will be no hope of a final, absolute, and neat end point to the discussion. Someone, somewhere will always think Dude, Where's My Car is fantastic.
Is everything ultimately an opinion?
Pyrrho himself took things a bit far. His students reportedly had to stop him from walking off deadly precipices or into busy streets because he said he couldn't entirely trust his senses. So, it took a few centuries for Skepticism to develop, and it found its voice again in the Roman, Sextus Empiricus.
Like Pyrrho, Sextus Empiricus didn't place much stock in human knowledge because he thought everything we might claim to know was always open to doubt or challenged. But, Sextus further added the idea that there could be no possible way to resolve such a challenge. For example, let's suppose there are two people who disagree about something. What justification is there for one view being better than the other? For Sextus, both are equally valid.
We might say, "But we can give reasons for our beliefs!" However, this only begs the question: why does a particular reason make a belief stronger? If I think stealing is wrong because it harms someone, I still need to explain why "causing harm" is important.
For Sextus Empiricus, we'll always reach the point of saying, "This is just what I think." At no point is there an ultimate answer. Why, indeed, is causing harm bad?
Into this world of murky ambiguity, Sextus' Skepticism argued that we should live only according to how things seem. This isn't the same as trusting our senses, since even these are open to disagreement. (However, there are no stories of him nearly falling from cliffs.) Some animals can see ultraviolet light, some people hear Laurel and others hear Yanny, and there are psychedelic drugs that can make us see anything at all.
We only have how things appear.
The consolation of Skepticism
For Sextus and Pyhrro, recognizing the very clear limits to our understanding brings great benefit. With the revelation that there are some things — well, maybe a lot of things — that we can never know is deeply comforting. We can give up trying to dogmatically defend views that we have no way to know for sure are correct. We can stop getting so heated in debates where neither party can possibly come to a resolution.
But, this is not to give up trying. "Skeptic" literally translates as "enquirer," and we can still aim for something, while also accepting we may never succeed. To be a Skeptic is to say, "I'll probably never know the answer to this, but I'll try to find out anyway." It's to give up the false hope for easy answers and to find peace in our own experiences, alone.
So, why not try Skepticism? All you've got to do is let out a deep breath, give your best Gallic shrug, and be at peace with how little you really know.
All this from a wad of gum?
- Researchers recently uncovered a piece of chewed-on birch pitch in an archaeological dig in Denmark.
- Conducting a genetic analysis of the material left in the birch pitch offered a plethora of insights into the individual who last chewed it.
- The gum-chewer has been dubbed Lola. She lived 5,700 years ago; and she had dark skin, dark hair, and blue eyes.
Five thousand and seven hundred years ago, "Lola" — a blue-eyed woman with dark skin and hair — was chewing on a piece of pitch derived from heating birch bark. Then, this women spit her chewing gum out into the mud on an island in Denmark that we call Syltholm today, where it was unearthed by archaeologists thousands of years later. A genetic analysis of the chewing gum has provided us with a wealth of information on this nearly six-thousand-year-old Violet Beauregarde.
This represents the first time that the human genome has been extracted from material such as this. "It is amazing to have gotten a complete ancient human genome from anything other than bone," said lead researcher Hannes Schroeder in a statement.
"What is more," he added, "we also retrieved DNA from oral microbes and several important human pathogens, which makes this a very valuable source of ancient DNA, especially for time periods where we have no human remains."
In the pitch, researchers identified the DNA of the Epstein-Barr virus, which infects about 90 percent of adults. They also found DNA belonging to hazelnuts and mallards, which were likely the most recent meal that Lola had eaten before spitting out her chewing gum.
Insights into ancient peoples
The birch pitch was found on the island of Lolland (the inspiration for Lola's name) at a site called Syltholm. "Syltholm is completely unique," said Theis Jensen, who worked on the study for his PhD. "Almost everything is sealed in mud, which means that the preservation of organic remains is absolutely phenomenal.
"It is the biggest Stone Age site in Denmark and the archaeological finds suggest that the people who occupied the site were heavily exploiting wild resources well into the Neolithic, which is the period when farming and domesticated animals were first introduced into southern Scandinavia."
Since Lola's genome doesn't show any of the markers associated with the agricultural populations that had begun to appear in this region around her time, she provides evidence for a growing idea that hunter-gatherers persisted alongside agricultural communities in northern Europe longer than previously thought.
Her genome supports additional theories on northern European peoples. For example, her dark skin bolsters the idea that northern populations only recently acquired their light-skinned adaptation to the low sunlight in the winter months. She was also lactose intolerant, which researchers believe was the norm for most humans prior to the agricultural revolution. Most mammals lose their tolerance for lactose once they've weaned off of their mother's milk, but once humans began keeping cows, goats, and other dairy animals, their tolerance for lactose persisted into adulthood. As a descendent of hunter-gatherers, Lola wouldn't have needed this adaptation.
A hardworking piece of gum
A photo of the birch pitch used as chewing gum.
These findings are encouraging for researchers focusing on ancient peoples from this part of the world. Before this study, ancient genomes were really only ever recovered from human remains, but now, scientists have another tool in their kit. Birch pitch is commonly found in archaeological sites, often with tooth imprints.
Ancient peoples used and chewed on birch pitch for a variety of reasons. It was commonly heated up to make it pliable, enabling it to be molded as an adhesive or hafting agent before it settled. Chewing the pitch may have kept it pliable as it cooled down. It also contains a natural antiseptic, and so chewing birch pitch may have been a folk medicine for dental issues. And, considering that we chew gum today for no other reason than to pass the time, it may be that ancient peoples chewed pitch for fun.
Whatever their reasons, chewed and discarded pieces of birch pitch offer us the mind-boggling option of learning what someone several thousands of years ago ate for lunch, or what the color of their hair was, their health, where their ancestors came from, and more. It's an unlikely treasure trove of information to be found in a mere piece of gum.
The non-contact technique could someday be used to lift much heavier objects — maybe even humans.
- Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound waves to move matter through a technique called acoustic trapping.
- Acoustic trapping devices move bits of matter by emitting strategically designed sound waves, which interact in such a way that the matter becomes "trapped" in areas of particular velocity and pressure.
- Acoustic and optical trapping devices are already used in various fields, including medicine, nanotechnology, and biological research.
Sound can have powerful effects on matter. After all, sound strikes our world in waves — vibrations of air molecules that bounce off of, get absorbed by, or pass through matter around us. Sound waves from a trained opera singer can shatter a wine glass. From a jet, they can collapse a stone wall. But sound can also be harnessed for delicate interactions with matter.
Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound to move matter through a phenomenon called acoustic trapping. The method is based on the fact that sound waves produce an acoustic radiation force.
"When an acoustic wave interacts with a particle, it exerts both an oscillatory force and a much smaller steady-state 'radiation' force," wrote the American Physical Society. "This latter force is the one used for trapping and manipulation. Radiation forces are generated by the scattering of a traveling sound wave, or by energy gradients within the sound field."
When tiny particles encounter this radiation, they tend to be drawn toward regions of certain pressure and velocity within the sound field. Researchers can exploit this tendency by engineering sound waves that "trap" — or suspend — tiny particles in the air. Devices that do this are often called "acoustic tweezers."
Building a better tweezer
A study recently published in the Japanese Journal of Applied Physics describes how researchers created a new type of acoustic tweezer that was able to lift a small polystyrene ball into the air.
Tweezers of Sound: Acoustic Manipulation off a Reflective Surface youtu.be
It is not the first example of a successful "acoustic tweezer" device, but the new method is likely the first to overcome a common problem in acoustic trapping: sound waves bouncing off reflective surfaces, which disrupts acoustic traps.
To minimize the problems of reflectivity, the team behind the recent study configured ultrasonic transducers such that the sound waves that they produce overlap in a strategic way that is able to lift a small bit of polystyrene from a reflective surface. By changing how the transducers emit sound waves, the team can move the acoustic trap through space, which moves the bit of matter.
Move, but don't touch
So far, the device is only able to move millimeter-sized pieces of matter with varying degrees of success. "When we move a particle, it sometimes scatters away," the team noted. Still, improved acoustic trapping and other no-contact lifting technologies — like optical tweezers, commonly used in medicine — could prove useful in many future applications, including cell separation, nanotechnologies, and biological research.
Could future acoustic-trapping devices lift large and heavy objects, maybe even humans? It seems possible. In 2018, researchers from the University of Bristol managed to acoustically trap particles whose diameters were larger than the sound wavelength, which was a breakthrough because it surpassed "the classical Rayleigh scattering limit that has previously restricted stable acoustic particle trapping," the researchers wrote in their study.
In other words, the technique — which involved suspending matter in tornado-like acoustic traps — showed that it is possible to scale up acoustic trapping.
"Acoustic tractor beams have huge potential in many applications," Bruce Drinkwater, co-author of the 2018 study, said in a statement. "I'm particularly excited by the idea of contactless production lines where delicate objects are assembled without touching them."
Australian parrots have worked out how to open trash bins, and the trick is spreading across Sydney.
- If sharing learned knowledge is a form of culture, Australian cockatoos are one cultured bunch of birds.
- A cockatoo trick for opening trash bins to get at food has been spreading rapidly through Sydney's neighborhoods.
- But not all cockatoos open the bins; some just stay close to those that do.
Dumpster-diving trash parrots
In a study about these smart birds just published in Science, researchers define animal culture as "population-specific behaviors acquired via social learning from knowledgeable individuals."
Co-lead author of the study Barbara Klump of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, Germany says, "[C]ompared to humans, there are few known examples of animals learning from each other. Demonstrating that food scavenging behavior is not due to genetics is a challenge."
An opportunity presented itself in a video that co-author Richard Major of the Australian Museum shared with Klump and the other co-authors. In the video, a sulphur-crested cockatoo used its beak to pull up the handle of a closed garbage bin — using its foot as a wedge — and then walked back the lid sufficiently to flip it open, exposing the bin's edible contents.
Major has been studying Cacatua galerita for 20 years and says, "Like many Australian birds, sulphur-crested cockatoos are loud and aggressive." The study describes them as a "large-brained, long-lived, and highly social parrot." Says Major, "They are also incredibly smart, persistent, and have adapted brilliantly to living with humans."(Research regarding some of the ways in which wild animals adapt to the presence of humans has already produced some fascinating results and is ongoing.)
Clever cockie opens bin - 01 youtu.be
The researchers became curious about how widespread this behavior might be and saw a research opportunity. After all, says John Martin, a researcher at Taronga Conservation Society, "Australian garbage bins have a uniform design across the country, and sulphur-crested cockatoos are common across the entire east coast."
Martin continues, "In 2018, we launched an online survey in various areas across Sydney and Australia with questions such as, 'What area are you from, have you seen this behavior before, and if so, when?'"
Word gets around
Credit: magspace/Adobe Stock
Although the cockatoos' maneuver was reported in only three suburbs before 2018, by the end of 2019, people in 44 areas reported observing the behavior. Clearly, more and more cockatoos were learning how to successfully dumpster dive.
As further proof, says Klump, "We observed that the birds do not open the garbage bins in the same way, but rather used different opening techniques in different suburbs, suggesting that the behavior is learned by observing others." One individual bird in north Sydney invented its own method, and the scientists saw it grow in popularity throughout the local population.
To track individual birds, the researchers marked 500 cockatoos with small red dots. Subsequent observations revealed that not all cockatoos are bin-openers. Only about 10 percent of them are, and they are mostly males. The other cockatoos apparently restrict their education to a different lesson: hang around with a bin-opener, and you will get supper.
Thanks to the surveys, the researchers consider the entire project to be a valuable citizen-science experiment. "By studying this behavior with the help of local residents, we are uncovering the unique and complex cultures of their neighborhood birds."
The few seconds of nuclear explosion opening shots in Godzilla alone required more than 6.5 times the entire budget of the monster movie they ended up in.