The 'Really' True Meaning of of Christmas: A Brief History
I don't really observe the Christmas holiday. Some people may think I'm a Scrooge, or Jewish, or a jerk, or just anti-social or something. The truth is, I just don't feel very supportive of the holiday's religious aspect, and I despise the excess commercialism that has become wrapped up in it. To many, Christmas represents a time when you're supposed to be with family and friends. That's fine, I have no problem with that, but the flip side is that expectation just makes the holiday even more sad and lonely for those who don't have close relationships with friends and family. December leads the year in depression and suicides. Some of that may be just from the darkness and gloominess. But more on that later.
You hear people talk about the "true meaning" of Christmas. We're inundated by the phrase in movies and Christmas TV specials, for example the perennial Charlie Brown's Christmas special. Usually it's religious types that use the phrase, and what they generally mean by it is they're trying to steer people away from Santa Claus and the secular gift-giving tradition, and more toward celebrating Christ's birth. Of course you're welcome to celebrate your idol's birth any time you want, but the harsh truth is December 25th is extremely unlikely to be the anniversary of Christ's birth for a variety of reasons. The entire holiday is a bit of a mish-mash, with religious aspects and pagan traditions from many different cultures mixed up in a jumbled mess!
This essay sums up the real truth about the holiday. Read it if you dare! Sources for all the facts I'll relate are in the Bibliography.
First of all let's get one thing straight that religious and non-religious can agree on: celebrating Christmas isn't Biblical. The Christian Bible contains no mention of celebrations of Christ's birth, no Christmas tree, no yule log, no wreaths/holly/mistletoe, no reindeer, no caroling, no Santa Claus, or even St. Nicholas, none of it! Although the New Testament documents the life of Christ until he was in his 30s, there's no mention of any birthday celebration for him (or anyone else for that matter). I was taught the Christian religion is based on the Bible. But celebrating Christ's birthday is a completely extra-biblical cultural tradition, assisted by fictional stories, paintings, plays, movies and TV shows. If anything, the tradition grows stronger every year as more and more new Christmas stories contribute to the culture. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back and look at some fundamental issues related to the origin of the Christmas holiday.
Was there a Jesus?
There's plenty of debate among scholars about whether Jesus Christ was a real historical figure or not. The truth of that may never be known for certain. The possibilities range from: everything happened exactly as one of the gospels says; to perhaps there being a real person but that details about him were exaggerated (like the fish that gets bigger with every retelling); to the legend being based on various people conflated into a single personage; and finally, to a completely fictional character. In this essay I'm not going to dwell on this issue. The arguments could probably fill a book, and still not convince someone either way. So I'll take no position on this question, but proceed based on what is said about Jesus in the Bible and what we can verify from non-biblical historical sources. I'll just mention that one certainly can't accept all four gospels accounts of Jesus as being literally true, because there's too much disagreement between them.
We have four Gospels that chronicle the life of Jesus: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Biblical scholars accept that the oldest, first-written gospel is Mark. Mark says nothing about Christ's birth, his story begins in Christ's adulthood. It's interesting that both Matthew and Luke build upon Mark which clearly served as their inspiration, yet they go off into areas Mark didn't address. Only Matthew and Luke say anything about the events of Christ's birth, and they disagree on almost everything! But they're all we have to go on for the following questions.
When was Jesus born?
OK so accepting the Biblical account, when was he born? We'll start with the year, although that's of minor importance for the purposes of this essay. However it's an interesting story because it explains how our modern calendar is calibrated. The Bible contains somewhat ambiguous, possibly conflicting clues as to the year. One might assume, well of course Jesus was born in year 1. However our current calendar wasn't calibrated the way it is now until centuries later. Up until about 1500 years ago the years were counted starting from the founding of Rome. But then a theologian named Dionysius Exiguus calculated that Christ had been born 550 years earlier. Apparently he was able to convince those in power to shift the Julian calendar already in use so that year 1 would coincide with the calculated (presumed) birth of Christ. So the first year in the new Common Era calendar we're still using today was actually year 550, and years 1 through 549 in our calendar system never even occurred! Any date you see today between CE 1 through 549 would have had to be converted from the previous calendar.
Note: in this essay I use modern historical date indications, where CE means Common Era and BCE means Before the Common Era.
Anyway, at the time Jesus was born Herod ruled Judea (according to Matthew) and Quirinius was governor of Syria (according to Luke). Other historical sources tell us Quirinius was governor more than one term, ranging from 6 BCE to CE 9. That's a range of 15 years, not too precise. However his reign from 6-4 BCE is the only period that coincided with Herod's. Therefore if there actually was a person called Jesus and we can rely on Matthew and Luke, Christ must have been born about 5 years before Dionysius Exiguus figured he was, i.e ~5 BCE.
Was Jesus born in December?
Now we're getting more to the point. Again, the Bible doesn't address this question. Which is a little odd, because one would think the book that defines an entire religion based on one person would document the important details about that person a little better, particularly when adherents of the religion are expected to celebrate the anniversary of that person's birth every year! Of course celebrating births isn't common in the Christian religion, it's much more focused on when people die - but more on that later.
Although the Bible doesn't specify the month of Christ's birth, it does provide clues. Luke says the angel that appeared to shepherds telling them of Christ's birth appeared to them as they watched over their flocks by night. Then, as now, shepherds in that area don't watch over their flocks by night during the winter, it serves no purpose and it's too cold out. They watch their flocks by night only in the springtime when the new lambs are being born. So the best indication the Bible gives us is that he was born in the Spring.
Where was Jesus born?
Both Matthew and Luke agree Christ was born in Bethlehem, although they don't give the same reasons for Joseph and Mary being in Bethlehem, and almost none of the other details of their stories agree.
The nativity scene. Was he born in a manger (i.e. stable)?
Matthew says nothing about a manger, no mention of the specific building or dwelling. Only that the magi go to see the child born in Bethlehem. Luke is the only one that talks about a manger.
Who was present, and how did they find out about it?
Matthew says magi, or astrologers, and they were inspired by seeing a star (or heavenly sign) to go to Jerusalem in search of the newborn. Incidentally the Bible says nothing about how many magi there were. Since it's plural we assume it was at least two. But it may just as well have been 20. It's assumed there were three because three gifts are mentioned. So that has become the tradition, even though the Bible isn't specific. Later traditions even assigned names for the three magi, but those names are fabrications.
Note: I use the original word, 'magi.' This is a Persian word, the common translation of this word to 'wise men' really isn't a very good one. The correct meaning of the word is someone who's a follower of Zoroaster, that is, a reader of the stars, i.e. an astrologer. Other meanings would be along the lines of a magician or sorcerer.
Stories, plays and movies often show the magi following a star that moves through the sky and hovers directly over the birthplace, leading them to the exact spot. However that's not exactly what the book of Matthew says. It says initially they saw a sign in the East that told them of the birth of the king of the Jews. So they traveled to Jerusalem and begin inquiring where the newborn king of the Jews is. They clearly only had a vague idea of the region where he was supposed to be, and there's no mention of the star at that point. It was actually Herod who sent the magi on to Bethlehem based on the advice of his priests, and only because that was the prophesy from the Old Testament. No one in Jerusalem apparently had any knowledge about a specific birth that had just taken place. So then once the magi found out the destination was Bethlehem the star appeared again to guide them there. Rather an intermittent star, that!
The star doesn't seem to have been very helpful. Particularly since they came from the East, they actually traveled West to get to Jerusalem, so they couldn't have followed the star they saw "in the East." Biblical scholars interpret this as meaning they saw the star or astronomical sign appear to them where they were in the East that signified an event that had already been prophesied in their own culture and traditions, so they already knew where to go when the sign appeared. The difficulty of actually following a star to a specific location should be obvious.
Luke says nothing about magi or the star. He talks about shepherds who heard about the birth from an angel who appeared to them, and said they'd find the newborn in a manger.
To summarize the two nativity stories:
Matthew: Jesus is born of Mary in Bethlehem, at an undisclosed place. The magi have seen an astronomical sign that leads them (indirectly) to the newborn baby, to which they go bearing gifts. No mention of a manger, no animals, no shepherds, no mention of a census or no room at the inn.
Luke: Joseph and Mary aren't living in Bethlehem, but Joseph is required to return there for a census because that's where he was born. Mary goes with him (there's no independent record of such a census by the way, and it would seem extremely impractical). While in Bethlehem, baby Jesus is born in a stable because there's no room at the inn. Shepherds go to see the baby, because an angel has told them about the birth and where the baby is to be found. No magi, no star, and no gifts mentioned.
Could these two be describing the same event? It's possible, the two accounts aren't completely mutually exclusive, but the differences are fairly blatant considering the two are supposedly describing the same events. By the way, neither Matthew or Luke mentions any camels, donkeys, or any other animals being present at the birth. That tradition in nativity scenes is assumed by Luke's placement of the event in a stable. But if you see a nativity scene that shows the baby Jesus in a manger with a star over it, and it includes wise men, you can be assured someone has been cherry-picking pieces of different gospels and combining them. If it includes camels or donkeys, you know they're simply making things up!
I think that's enough of the Biblical narrative. Christians revere Christ as a very special person (obviously) but to more objective historians he's simply another in a long line of prophets with similar legends associated with them. Here's a list of men who were said to be born of a virgin on December 25th, known to his disciples as the "Son of God", and resurrected three days after his death: Horus (BCE 3000), Attis (BCE 1200), Krishna (BCE 900), Mithra (BCE 600), Dionysus (BCE 500), Jesus (BCE 5), and Quetzalcoatl (CE 600). They all feature these exact same details, there are probably others too. Apparently it's a common meme. I should mention that the Vatican in Rome is built on the exact spot that was the center of worship for Mithra. This is an example of how religions co-opt other religions and traditions.
To people who study comparative religions, Matthew's story of Christ's birth seems plagiarized from the legends of the origin of the Hindu deity Krishna. On the other hand, Luke's account is lifted straight from Horus, a god of the sun and sky of the ancient Egyptians. The stories of Horus date back thousands of years to the time of the pyramids. To keep this to a reasonable length I'll leave the exercise of researching the stories of Krishna and Horus to the reader. The main point I've tried to make is that there's some doubt about the veracity of one and possibly both stories of Christ's birth, and if he did actually exist, it's unlikely that he was born in December. So why do Christians observe the birth of Christ on December 25th? Let's do some digging.
Pre-History winter celebrations
There are several natural events that take place in the Fall that conspire to create a time of celebration around November and December. For one, the wine from grapes picked in Spring and Summer has now fermented sufficiently to begin drinking to good effect. Also, in countries with colder climates it begins to snow, grass isn't available for grazing animals. There won't be sufficient fodder or food for many of the domesticated animals, particularly ones that have been added to herds from the births of the previous Spring. To avoid many of the animals merely starving to death and going to waste for no purpose during the height of Winter, it's common to slaughter some of them at this time, prior to Winter fully taking hold.
Crops can't be grown in Winter in much of the World, and the grains and other crops have all been harvested and are now stored away. Because of the combination of fewer animals to take care of as well as no crops to be tended, all of a sudden farming peoples have a lot more free time on their hands at this time. This free time combined with plenty of freshly-harvested crops, fresh meat, and new wine, is the perfect recipe for feasting and partying for a practical people. Maybe primitive people learned to fatten themselves to some extent for the Winter too, whether consciously or not. There even may be an evolutionary pressure for humans to bulk up and put on some additional pounds of insulating fat for Winter -- it may be embedded in our genes. In any case the same feasting traditions at this time of year are seen all over the World, certainly at the higher latitudes.
Thousands of years before Christ, many cultures celebrated the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. In our Julian calendar this occurs on December 21st or 22nd each year. People like the sunlight, they don't like the dark very much. When you consider that thousands of years ago all people had was candles for light and fires for heating, you can imagine that days with longer sunlight were even more appreciated then than they are now with all our modern conveniences.
Not only is it a matter of just appreciating longer days, the shortest day having passed by heralds the coming of spring, with crops growing, animals bearing young. In short, a greater supply of food soon to be on the way. Many primitive cultures came to recognize the Winter Solstice as the turning point where nature began to start over and celebrated it for that alone. There's a reason December is considered the last month of the year, and January the start of a new one, and it has nothing to do with the Christian religion.
Even simple people with only a rudimentary calendar to keep track of years passing can identify the point where days will get longer again. One can imagine primitive people, concerned that the days might just keep getting shorter and shorter until the sun goes away completely, being greatly relieved when they notice the days getting longer again. They might even be moved to offer prayers and sacrifices to the sun as it approaches the Winter solstice, to appease it in order to help ensure its return. It's not surprising that people would celebrate the 'rebirth' of the sun. After the solstice the days start getting longer again by a few seconds each day, or about 1 minute after one week. December 25, the day of celebration in many, many religions, being four days after the solstice is just about the amount of time it might take someone with simple, but fairly accurate timekeeping instruments to verify that the days are in fact getting longer again.
The ancient Egyptians used a calendar with years based on 12 months of 30 days each. This accounted for 360 days, leaving five days unaccounted for at the end of the year. This 5-day period was called 'Sothis' and didn't belong to any month. The 5 days of Sothis were marked by much partying and revelry. Converted to our calendar, Sothis would be December 26th through the 31st, making the last day of the Egyptian 12th month occur on our December 25 (surprise)! Keep in mind this calendar predates the time of Christ by thousands of years.
Centuries later the Romans were keeping the end of year celebration tradition going with a festival called Saturnalia. The Romans retained the 12 months of the Egyptians (although they had taken the extra five days of Sothis and incorporated them into the other months). Saturnalia was a combination of a harvest festival and a celebration of the returning sun. It took place near the end of December, the same time period as the Egyptians' celebration. The calendar was different, but not the timing with respect to the sun and seasons. Saturnalia was marked by much feasting and drinking. The Romans even set the date of December 25 as the official day for the high point of the festival, by law.
Birth of Christ
The traditional nativity story was covered above. Bear in mind that up to this point we're still talking about celebration traditions thousands of years old, long before Christ. We've established that December has been a time of revelry dating to antiquity, and the date of December 25 being singled out for special recognition even before the Julian calendar. So regardless of what religious people might claim, any tradition of celebrating in December predates Christianity by many centuries.
So where does the modern Christmas tradition come from? The strongest indications are that the legends of Santa Claus (or more properly, St. Nicholas) and his celebration came first, and co-opting the occasion by Christians to honor the birth of Christ came later.
Origin of Santa Claus
Our modern Santa Claus is a conglomeration of pagan and Christian traditions. The name Santa Claus comes from the Dutch 'Sinterklaas'. Many people may have heard there really was a person named Nicholas at the heart of the Santa Claus character, but they may not realize how old the story is. The actual man lived in Greece from the years CE 270~340. He had inherited wealth and by all accounts was generous with it. He eventually became a bishop in the church. Nicholas had a reputation for fondness of children and frequently gave them little gifts, often secretly. After his death legends spread widely about him, with miracles attributed to him that would shame Jesus! He was said to have had control over storms and the seas, healed sick children, fed multitudes of people miraculously, and so on. So he was made a Saint in the Roman Catholic church. His reputation continued to spread widely, to Russia and Asia Minor. Dutch sailors spread the legend to Western Europe.
Like most saints, St. Nicholas has his own feast day which is December 6. That's the day the children in many areas in Europe receive their presents. In those areas St. Nicholas is believed to visit every house in the World on St. Nicholas Eve, and children leave their shoes out on the night of December 5 every year to receive a treat from him, placed in their shoes.
St. Nicholas (notice the Bishop hat).
Eventually the St. Nicholas character melded with another character, Father Christmas. But I want to keep this chronological so we'll come to that in a moment. Bear in mind that so far we're talking about a legendary figure, but a legend that was based on an actual person -- a religious figure to be sure, but a saint rather than Christ himself.
The Reformation and Enlightenment
Around 1520 Martin Luther started creating the rift in the Catholic Church that would lead to the birth of the Protestant sect of Christianity. Protestantism became popular first in Germany, Luther's home turf. The new Protestants didn't like the idea of celebrating St. Nicholas' day, a Catholic holiday. They looked for a hero to replace Nicholas, and came up with Jesus Christ himself. There quickly grew up a "Christkindl" or Christ child cult in opposition to the Catholic tradition honoring Nicholas on December 6. Apparently they felt they needed a different date for their celebration so they wouldn't be appearing to celebrate the Catholic one. It's not clear why they fixed on December 25th, but the pre-existing widespread celebrating on that date must have influenced it. It's interesting that they'd rather join in celebrating alongside pagans than Catholics! Or it's even possible this represented an intention of co-opting or taking over the pagan holiday.
Initially Protestant children were told that it was the Christ child himself that traveled around on the night of December 24th and delivered presents to all the good little boys and girls. However this concept failed to really catch hold in the culture (it was probably somewhat confusing to try to explain how Jesus died on the cross as an adult, ascended to Heaven, and is now a child again). In any event this cultural tradition gradually died out and was replaced with a reversion to the St. Nicholas character melded with some pagan legends.
On the pagan side of Santa's genealogy we have the character of Father Christmas, a non-historical (fictional) character based on the god Woden from Germanic paganism (Odin in the Norse mythology). Woden/Odin even flew through the air on a magic, winged horse and did the whole naughty and nice thing. Father Christmas typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, but was neither a gift bringer nor particularly associated with children. He was traditionally shown as a jolly bearded man dressed in green. The Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol was a representation of Father Christmas. The legends of St. Nicholas' and Woden's abilities and actions were so similar it was easy for them to combine over time and become the same character.
Father Christmas / Ghost of Christmas Present (1843)
Santa Claus in America
You might be surprised at how recent our modern image of Santa Claus is. The first reference to an American St. Nick is from a fanciful 1809 book by Washington Irving, A History of New York (basically a collection of tall tales). In the story related by Irving, the teller of the story met St. Nicholas in a dream. Irving had St. Nicholas riding in a wagon that could fly over the treetops, but provided no other indication of what kind of wagon or what provided the motive power. But he gave us the fact that St. Nick smoked a pipe, and the gesture of the finger beside the nose as a conspiratory one.
The earliest surviving record of Santa Claus being associated with December 25th rather than December 6th is a poem from 1821 by William B. Gilley, A Children's Friend. This poem mentions a reindeer providing Santa's transportation, but it's singular, i.e. one reindeer. Most of America's modern ideas about St. Nick/Santa Claus came from a poem published anonymously in 1823, "A Visit From Saint Nicholas," also sometimes called "The Night Before Christmas." (Clement Moore claimed authorship of the poem several years later but his authorship isn't certain -- the family of writer Henry Livingston also claims credit for the piece).
The 1823 poem borrowed a few aspects of Irving and Gilley, but added the detail of St. Nick's transportation being a sleigh pulled by 8 reindeer, their names, landing on the roof and coming down the chimney with his bag of toys, and a general description of his appearance: having dimples, red cheeks, and a long white beard. But take note that he's still described as a tiny man, an elf. The poem specifies that it's a miniature sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer. Also interesting that the poem describes St. Nick as being dressed all in fur, not just fur trim on his clothing. And take note there's no mention of a tree in the house, only the stockings on the fireplace. The poem predates the Christmas tree tradition.
Up until the start of the 19th century the name was still always St. Nicholas. Then began a fairly long period where the names Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus were both used side-by-side, most likely based on the religious persuasion of the particular writer. Protestant aversion to the St. Nicholas name finally seems to have begun taking hold in the later half of the 19th century. The change to adopt an Americanized pronunciation of the Dutch 'Sinter Klaas' may have been helped by the character being featured in commercial art and advertising. It may be that advertisers realized that using a religious-based figure would appeal to a more limited, select audience so they were more inclined to promote the less-religious Santa name.
At any rate the Civil War cartoonist Thomas Nast drew Santa Claus for Harper's Weekly in 1862; though he was depicted exactly as St. Nicholas had been depicted and described: a small elf-like figure dressed in fur or skins. Nast continued to draw Santa for 30 years and along the way changed the color of his coat from tan to red, but still as a dwarfish character.
There's a common belief that Santa wears red because that's the Coca-Cola company color but it isn't true, Nast had already started drawing Santa Claus in red before Coke was a product. However it may have been images of Santa Claus created for Coca-Cola ads by artists Haddon Sundblom and Norman Rockwell that helped cement the idea of the modern, chubby but full-sized, rosy-cheeked character as he's usually depicted now. Coca-Cola was primarily accepted by the public as a cool drink for hot weather. Coca Cola started an advertising campaign in 1931 to connect Coke to the Wintertime, and they commissioned several paintings for ads showing Santa Claus drinking a Coke. The original model for Sundblom's painting was a man named Lou Prentice, a retired salesman.
This is the Santa Claus we know today. Even though the poem The Night Before Christmas is still featured and widely reprinted in connection with the holiday, most people don't actually pay attention to the words and don't notice that the character described in 1823 really bears almost no resemblance to the Santa image today!
The Christmas Tree
The practice of tree worship around the winter solstice seems to have started with the ancient Egyptians. They regarded evergreen trees as fertility symbols, and decorated their homes with palm fronds. The Romans later used fir boughs. The origin of the Christmas tree was a gradual thing, beginning in Europe. The first record of a tree being brought indoors and decorated with candles is from Europe in the 1700s.
The first thing approaching the traditional Christmas Tree in the United States was started by German immigrants in the 1800s. There is no mention in the Christian Bible about using trees, boughs, twigs, holly, or anything else to celebrate Christ's birth. Many years ago Christians tried to justify the tradition by launching the idea that Martin Luther created the Christmas tree, but there's no evidence for this, plus the pagan traditions predate Luther anyway.
It's amazing that this pagan ritual has become so entwined with the holiday observed by Christians. Not too many years ago I was asked by a coworker if I had a Christmas tree at my home. I responded in the negative, to which they exclaimed, why not, aren't you a Christian? I had a chuckle at that, and they probably never figured out why.
The practice has been common for thousands of years. Long before the Common Era, in Roman times it became customary to curry favor with kings and public officials by presenting gifts to them. The Magi didn't bring presents to the baby Jesus in Matthew's account because they wanted to start a new tradition for Christmas, they did it because presenting gifts to any new king is simply what one did.
Something to note is that except for Jesus, Christians don't celebrate the birth of any of their leaders -- that tradition comes from the pagan Romans, who celebrated the birthdays of their Caesars. Christians invariably mark the passing out of this life and into the next as much more important (witness Easter).
Wassailing was a popular tradition that involved a group of people going from door to door, begging for food, drink, or money. This was the origin of Trick or Treating. We may think of this idea as 'cute' today, but it probably wasn't appreciated much at the time -- drunken ruffians going to every house, and making threats if they weren't given something. Most Western cultures shifted this part of the tradition to Halloween, although the tradition still survives at Christmas in the form of caroling. In England, the last vestiges of the wassailing tradition live on at Buckingham Palace, where every year local carolers gather in front of the Queen's residence, and she passes out mugs of hot cocoa.
Christmas and Government
This tradition of Winter celebration has had its ups and downs not only in terms of popularity, but legality. Many good Christians considered all the rowdy and raucous celebration to be sinful and sacrilegious. Many were opposed to these festivities. But there were exceptions, the Anglicans liked celebrating. However the Protestant Puritans strongly opposed any observance. Many churches had rules specifically prohibiting any Christmas celebrations, as being irreverent and sinful. Those rules became law in some areas where the church had sufficient influence. In the mid-1600's in the United Kingdom under the rule of Oliver Cromwell, it was illegal to celebrate Christmas. Ministers and their congregations were actually arrested for having Christmas services.
The same thing was going on in the colonies. From 1659 to 1681 it was illegal to observe Christmas in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Even after the law was repealed in 1681, celebrating was strongly discouraged in New England for decades afterward. A church having a Christmas service was likely to result in protests and riots. Tempers ran high, a few people were even killed over this issue. Though not illegal any longer, the popularity of Christmas declined even more after the Revolutionary war. The holiday was felt to be associated with the Anglican church in England, and the new Americans didn't like things perceived as being English.
It wasn't until the mid-1800s that Christmas seemed to be allowed to begin influencing government. In fact it seemed that government was thawing to the idea of observing Christmas before many churches did. US Congress didn't start taking a recess for Christmas until after 1856. However at that same time, the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist churches still weren't open on December 25th, they didn't deem it a holy occasion. Congress declared Christmas a legal holiday in 1870 (but federal employees didn't start getting the day off until 1885, oddly). The US Post Office delivered mail on December 25th until the 1920s.
Most of what we accept as the modern Christmas tradition is not in fact traditional, but is a rebirth, or re-imagining if you will. The tradition we celebrate today is an almost entirely ficticious one, largely created by a fairly small group of people including Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, and other writers and artists. The 'olden-times' we so long for and want to remember at this holiday time was all based on fiction and never actually occurred. We're treasuring a false memory! In a way, celebrating Christmas in the 'traditional' way is like celebrating and paying homage to any fictional story, such as Star Wars or Harry Potter.
Although some Christians declare there's a war against Christmas by secularists, the evidence is a bit weak for that, considering its popularity as a holiday has never been higher than now. Of course, popularity in anything waxes and wanes, the fact that Christmas has been riding high for the last several decades may signify a coming decline. All it would take is one or two charismatic public speakers, perhaps a pastor of a megachurch, to declare that celebrating Christmas is an insult and doesn't honor Christ, and the holiday would likely decline in popularity again.
On the plus side, I used the fact that I had no other obligations this December 25th to research and write this essay!
Patricia Bunning Stevens, Merry Christmas!: A History of the Holiday (New York: Macmillan, 1979)
James S Henry, Why I Hate Christmas New Republic (December 31, 1990):21
Tom Flynn, The Trouble with Christmas. (New York: Prometheus, 1993)
Healthcare, Nanny Government, Patriotism, and the Humanism of Gene Roddenberry
The title of this article may seem a little odd... It might not immediately be apparent these things are related. But trust me, there's a connection.
The original Star Trek TV series was broadcast from 1966-1969. I was a youngster, still in elementary school when the show began. I was too young to be interested in it -- it was too intellectual, the stories were too oriented to adult themes. During that time I was more interested in watching cartoons and sitcoms like 'I Dream of Jeannie' and 'Gilligan's Island'.
However by the time I was entering high school Star Trek was in reruns on the local TV station every weekday afternoon. Once I began to appreciate the show, I started rushing home from school every day to get my dose of intellectual stimulation. There were only about 90 episodes total so it didn't take long to cycle through all of them. I saw them all, again and again. Several luminaries of science fiction contributed to writing the shows, including Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, Gene Coon, D. C. Fontana, and others. But 80 episodes were written by Gene Roddenberry himself. The show was nominated for several Hugo awards, the highest accolade for science fiction. By today's standards the writing on Star Trek may not be considered stellar, but I saw it as an intelligent, literary oasis in a sea of low-budget soap operas and canned laughter.
That show is where I gained much of my adult understanding of morality and ethical behavior. Others have commented on the evident humanist values of the show's creator, Gene Roddenberry. The characters in his show relied on their own wits, and each other. These are admirable humanistic values, then or now.
I've been mulling over the change in the American mindset in the intervening 44 years since Star Trek first premiered. Although the USA celebrated its 200th birthday just a decade after the premiere of Star Trek, the US Federal government in 1976 could still be considered to be of a modest size -- it was still in the process of evolving into the bloated, bureaucratic quagmire it has become today.
Almost every US President campaigns on a platform of a smaller, more efficient Federal government, yet almost every one ends up increasing the size of government even further once they're in office (with the support of Congress of course). With every new president the American people cede a little more of their autonomy to government oversight of one kind or another, the people become slightly less free, and a little bigger chunk of their paycheck must go to taxes to support the expanded infrastructure. Oh, the actual income tax rates may not go up every year, sometimes the costs are hidden but they inevitably go up.
The most recently installed President apparently felt an irresistible need to do something to get the government more involved in healthcare. At his urging, Congress passed H.R. 4872, The Healthcare and Education Reconciliation Act. This was a piece of legislation most of my humanist friends seemed to support (I'm not entirely sure why, since even now several months later, almost no one knows everything that's contained in it yet, but I digress).
I myself had grave concerns about this bill. My friends asked me how I could not be supportive of legislation that would ensure medical coverage to those that are unable to obtain it otherwise. I had a difficult time articulating a clear answer to that question. Of course the main concern was that literally no one knew what was in it, even the legislators who were supporting it (apparently they liked the name). Congress passing a bill that no one had read sounded to me like a bad Saturday Night Live sketch, that would have only gotten a few chuckles because it was too implausible a concept -- there has to be an aspect of believability in satire in order for it to be humorous.
Another aspect implicit in the question is the assumption that the bill would actually accomplish its stated purpose, which is certainly open to debate. Many bills never accomplish what we're told they're intended to. But I'll pass over that. Another question relates to the morality of having some people pay for the healthcare of others, through taxes. I certainly have an ethical problem with that, but even that isn't really my main problem with the bill. As a way of addressing my main objection, I'd like to reference two episodes of Star Trek that reflect my thinking on such topics.
The very first installment in the Star Trek series never aired as it was filmed -- it was the pilot for the show, called The Cage. (when production of shows got behind schedule later in the series the pilot was dusted off, recut and combined with new footage to create the 2-part The Menagerie.)
In the original pilot episode The Cage, the Enterprise is lured to a remote planet by a distress call. Upon reaching the planet the distress calls turns out to have been a ruse in order to obtain a human subject for a kind of zoo. Captain Christopher Pike (played by Jeffrey Hunter) is offered to be fed, housed, and his every want and need assured, and with every desire satisfied through vivid projections into his mind. The caveat is that his physical body will remain in a cage for the rest of his life, on display as a curiosity for the planet's inhabitants. He rebels against this concept, and eventually escapes.
In another episode of the show, Let that be Your Last Battlefield, the Enterprise is trapped by a powerful alien force. No escape is possible. Having the upper hand, the alien demands that Captain Kirk begins following the alien's orders. Instead, and with the full support of the other officers, Kirk engages a self-destruct mechanism for the Enterprise rather than cede control of the ship. When the alien realizes it isn't a bluff, the Enterprise is allowed to continue on its way, and the self-destruct sequence is terminated.
Do you see the parallel between these two stories, and also how they relate to the human spirit and a 'nanny' government? We human beings are contrary cusses, especially Americans! We don't like other people pulling our strings, controlling our destiny. This is why the colonists initially left Europe in the first place: to get out from under the thumb of imperialist England, and rule by kings. "Don't tread on me buster!" was the motto on the first flag of the colonies. In 1759, before the nation even existed yet, Benjamin Franklin wrote:
"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
That statement has been quoted endlessly in recent years, most often by Libertarians. The language is a little archaic but to me it clearly captures the idea that people have to be allowed to succeed or fail on their own. In addition to this being an attribute of merely being an adult, I consider this a defining aspect of being a patriot of the United States. Anyone who has raised a child knows that at some point you have to let them leave the nest and strike out on their own. There can be no personal success where there is no risk of failure.
Look at what has transpired since Franklin wrote those words above and even just since Roddenberry created his very independent cast of characters on the Enterprise 200 years later. It appears we're on the way to an imperialist government, bent on controlling every moment of our lives. Why am I opposed to nationalized health care? You may as well ask why Captain Pike wouldn't agree to being kept comfortable, safe, and entertained in exchange for giving up his freedom. You may as well ask why would a captain of a ship scuttle it rather than allow it and her officers to be taken over and controlled by external forces. Of course those were fictional stories but they reflected the very real humanist values of Roddenberry and the show's other writers.
So what happened? Did the idea of what 'Humanism' is change in the last 40-some years? Or was Roddenberry a 'rogue' Humanist, exhibiting a more conservative bent than other humanists of his day? That's a question I can't answer. But it does seem clear that Humanists today are anchored more firmly in the liberal, or 'progressive' camp.
If you're not a fan of Star Trek or you don't like my analogy, then just ponder why the Pilgrims left England to take their chances in a new land, in the face of unknown and uncounted dangers. And ask yourself if it was so that within a few generations, there would be a new authoritarian government come into being, controlling its citizens and redistributing their wealth, just as it was in the land they left?
The vast majority of Humanists I know were in favor of the Healthcare bill. To me this raises logical contradictions: the very mantra of Humanism today is perhaps best expressed by a simple phrase Dan Barker uses: "No gods, no masters." But when the government controls all the important aspects of your life, how can you say you don't have a master? How can you claim to be a humanist and at the same time want to turn over control of your life to others?
There's another, entirely different area of concern that arises when government becomes responsible for maintaining my health: it then becomes their business to control my actions and activities even more than they already do. The requirement to wear a safety belt while in a car. Or a helmet when riding a motorcycle. The next steps are restricting or even outlawing dangerous sports, like bungee jumping or skydiving. Or even more subtley, perhaps controlling my means of travel from one place to another, to ensure that I use the mode of travel that's most safe.
Then there's food products: sodas with sugar, and foods that are deemed unhealthy. There's little disagreement that consuming excessive amounts of sugar and fat isn't good for people's long-term health. The government already requires disclosure of ingredients on food products (which I support). But how long before the government actually begins limiting consumption of unhealthy items? Think I'm building a strawman here? Think I'm resorting to baseless hyperbole and 'slippery slope' arguments? As I write this the San Francisco city government has just passed a law outlawing the McDonald's Happy Meal targeted at kids. We're not talking about labeling here. We're not talking about mere disclosure of nutrition (McDonald's already does that for their products). We're talking about outlawing food! If that precedent doesn't concern you, you may not be paying very close attention. You might want to ponder that a little bit.
Because of government bureaucracy where the right hand doesn't necessarily know what the left hand is doing, we're now in the bizarre situation where legitimate food items are being restricted, but the government allows food supplements to be openly sold with all kinds of claims about them treating this or that disease. Some of these supplements contain a different amount of the active ingredient than claimed, or none at all. Worse, some contain dangerous, harmful substances. And of course the Federal government continues to subsidize tobacco production, while at the same time it buys advertising time on television to tell people not to smoke! If that isn't a clear indication of a government having no direction, and failing in its mandate, I don't know what is. The next step will be for the government to start paying McDonald's not to make Happy Meals, in the same way they pay farmers not to grow crops!
By way of conclusion I'll just offer one more quote regarding restrictions by government:
"Laws to suppress tend to strengthen what they would prohibit. This is the fine point on which all the legal professions of history have based their job security." -Bene Gesserit Coda
October 1, 2010
Whats in a Name?
(or why Im not an Atheist)
What's in a name? wondered Shakespeare's Juliet. Well, possibly quite a bit actually! I'm a member of a group of people variously called skeptics, atheists, humanists, rationalists, freethinkers, naturalists, and many other names including the ill-fated brights espoused some years back (more on that later).
I include myself as a member of this general group of people, but I don't particularly care for most of these appellations. Lets start with the word atheist -- what's the problem with it? The problem is it literally means not a theist, i.e. not a believer in the Judeo-Christian God. It's a word that members of that particular faith created to refer to people outside their group. Pretty much all groups or tribes have an equivalent of this. For example, Jews call someone who isnt Jewish a goy. Mexicans may refer to someone who isn't Mexican as a gringo. The Japanese have their term "gaijin". And native Hawaiians might call the same person a haole. The term barbarian originated with the ancient Greeks, meaning anyone who wasnt Greek (it took on its negative connotation later). Even in the fictional Harry Potter universe, wizards call non-magical people muggles. And so on. The examples I've used here aren't even the more derogatory ones.
But it would be foolish for me to refer to myself using any of these terms. For one thing, the list of things I'm not is a very long one, much longer than the list of things I am. For another thing, the word atheist is inherently negative. People will argue that the word has lost its negative connotation through common usage, but I disagree. The word is negative down to its roots -- 'not a theist'. And why should I use some other group's description for me rather than my own anyway? Expecting me to use the term atheist to describe myself makes as much sense to me as for me to call myself a non-black person. Or to introduce myself as a 'muggle'!
Another problem with the word atheist is that it generally is used to describe someone who says, "there is no God." That's quite an extreme statement to make, and somewhat at odds with scientific skepticism. The strongest position that a genuine skeptic should be able to take on the subject of a God is that of the true agnostic, as intended by Thomas Huxley who coined the term: it's impossible to know. It's impossible for me to know, and impossible for you to know.
So I avoid the term atheist in describing myself. I generally call myself a humanist, or sometimes freethinker. However both of these are kind of vague terms that dont conjure up a clear image to many people.
The common problem with all three of these terms, atheist, humanist, and freethinker is they only address the religious aspect of our philosophy, and say nothing about the 'scientific skepticism' aspect. Someone may not believe in a god but they may still believe in aliens and UFOs, ghosts, ESP, healing magnets, and so on. And of course the reverse is also true.
So in addition to using one of the above terms to communicate my lack of a belief in a deity, I also need to use a second term to reflect my lack of other superstitious beliefs. The most common word for that is 'skeptic'.
Many people disagree with what a skeptic is. This is a word that may or may not have started out with a negative connotation, but is certainly considered a negative term by many people now. Too often, skeptic is equated with denier: someone who blindly refuses to consider any new ideas or information. This is very different from the meaning I intend when I use the term. So I also tend to avoid the name skeptic in describing myself.
Finally we come to the term 'naturalist'. I know a couple of people in our community that use the term to describe themselves. It's a fairly descriptive term, it communicates the intended meaning fairly well within the proper context. That's one of its problems: the term is most frequently used to refer to someone, typically a scientist or researcher that studies nature and wildlife. Look up famous naturalists and youre likely to find names like John James Audubon, or maybe even nature photographers like Ansel Adams. But you won't find people like William of Occam, or Carl Sagan. To specify the kind of naturalist were talking about, it needs to be combined with a second term: methodological naturalist, scientific naturalist, or epistemological naturalist. None of these terms are very convenient to adopt for the name of a movement.
The second problem with the term naturalist is that it's just two letters away from 'naturist' which has a completely different meaning -- a nudist. There shouldn't be anything negative about that, I personally have no problem with nudists or nudism. But I think many people are afraid of the association.
So it would be nice if there was a single term that encompassed the idea that one doesn't accept the supernatural or superstition of any kind, that could catch hold in the popular culture. One might consider crafting some kind of hybrid term, like humano-skeptic, or skepti-thinker, etc.. However such efforts are cumbersome and unlikely to take hold.
Earlier I mentioned the name 'brights'. According to Wikipedia the brights movement was co-founded by Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell in 2003, although I associate it most with Daniel Dennett, who seems to be its biggest champion within the skeptical community. I called it an ill-fated name because the history of the intervening years since it was suggested have shown a reluctance of many toward using it. I believe there may be a couple of groups around the US currently using the name but it certainly hasn't caught on with any substantial fraction of our movement. The reason is clear: the term bright is already understood as a colloquialism for someone of above-average intelligence. To co-opt the adjective to refer to members of a certain group can be seen as somewhat arrogant. I myself would never refer to myself as being one of the brights for fear of appearing conceited to those who may not understand the re-purposed definition of the term.
However the general idea behind the word brights is good, that a short, simple word is needed to describe our group of people, similar to the successful adoption (more or less) of gay with regard to homosexuality (although there are still many people who resent the redefining of the word gay). A word that's already an adjective is a possible choice, but I think we can establish as a general rule that the name for our community shouldnt be a word already used as an adjective to describe an attribute of people.
Likewise, a name that implies that we're more learned or that we've found some kind of higher truth is going to be equally offensive because it suggests that others are foolish, ignorant, or gullible. Here's where we run into trouble with the word 'rationalist'. Again, if I declare I'm a rationalist and I say you aren't one, aren't I implying that you're irrational, that is, illogical or gullible? So it becomes a divisive, elitist term.
As a first attempt at a new name for our movement, I briefly considered a name based on a surname of one of our heroes. I tried Sagan, Popper, Occam, Randi, and a couple of others. They need an agentive ending (ite, ian) in order to work for a member of a group: Saganite, Popperian, Occamite, Randian, etc. This gets a little messy. A problem with all of these names is that although they're meaningful to us, they probably wouldn't mean anything to the average person on the street. The other problem with using the name of one of these people is separating the humanist and skeptical part of their personality from their political views, or other philosophical views not related to skepticism. If I call myself a Randian, that might imply that I share all his political views, which I may or I may not.
Other than people's names, the other options are to either re-purpose an existing word or invent a completely new one from scratch. The primary requirement of a brand new word is that it isn't already a word in any known language. This is sometimes done for company names and logos, for example Kodak and Exxon are two made-up words for use in business. I'm not going to make an attempt to coin a new word, maybe someone with a stronger linguistic background might like to take a stab at it. New words can also be formed by acronyms, but the acronym created still needs to be a concise, pronounceable word.
Finally, I thought long and hard and asked myself, what is it that's special about members of our group? It's not that we're smarter, or better-educated, or physically superior to anyone else. The difference is we dig and delve and weasel and worm into a subject until we can understand and explain it, and expose any falsehoods or leaps in logic by others. We cut like a knife into the heart of matters whereas others may be satisfied with the surface common knowledge on a topic. So then I started thinking of digging and cutting, and synonyms for those kinds of actions and tools. And then it hit me:
This is a short, simple, well-known term that has never been used to refer to people or a group of people that I know of. Until now.
Razor: one who doesn't accept paranormal or supernatural explanations for any observation, including the origin of the universe, the solar system, human life, or phenomena such as UFOs, ghosts, ESP, Qi (chi), feng shui, alternative medicine, and so on. Notice this doesn't say some of these things aren't real phenomena, it merely rejects supernatural explanations for them.
I'm a Razor. I'm one of the Razors (note the capitalization)
If Razor was just another synonym for a knife it would be merely OK from that standpoint, but not any better than any other synonym. However I especially like the reference to Occam's Razor, probably the greatest tool in the skeptical toolbox. So it's a great reminder of one of our movement's founders and the tremendous tool he gave us, both rolled into one word.
Notice that the definition above doesn't include any kind of political bent -- I have my own political views (i.e. the political views expressed on this site) but I didn't want to wrap that up into this term. I'll suggest that a second word can be paired with the word Razor to add an indication of politics or other philosophical views unrelated to the naturalistic definition above. I may address some word pairings for subsets of our community in a future essay.
The word Razor also meets the criteria that it doesn't suggest any kind of superiority over someone who isn't a Razor, and it would be hard to use it as an insult -- it's neither complimentary nor derogatory to a person when interpreted in its existing, accepted definition. If I call myself a Razor, you won't think me conceited, whether or not you understand the reference (though you might think me odd or confused, or you might actually intuit the meaning). If I called you a Razor and you didn't understand the reference, you wouldnt be offended or flattered, you'd just say, huh?
I've also toyed with the idea of coming up with four or five words that would describe our philosophy and the words would form RAZOR as a backronym. About the closest I could get is "Rational Agnostic Secularists for Reason" (RASR). I have to weigh the pros and cons of creating such an acronym and a new word, versus using an existing word that everyone knows.
Anyway that's my proposal I'm running up the flagpole. I know this name Razor sounds a little odd as a name for a group, but give it a chance, let it roll around your tongue a little. I'm going to personally try 'test-driving' this term when people ask me about myself, I'm going to start telling them I'm a Razor, and see how they respond. I look forward to the day I meet someone, identify myself as a Razor, and they know what I mean by it. If one day someone responds with "I'm a Razor too," it will really make my day!
For more background on the term 'brights' see:
Since writing the article above, two other, existing names for our group of people have been brought to my attention: 'Zetetic' coined by Marcello Truzzi, and 'eupraxsophy'coined by Paul Kurtz.
My reactions to these names: Both these names certainly predate my recent proposal.The term Zetetic has been in use for decades, and was in fact the name of the first journal published by CSICOP when Marcello Truzzi was involved with the organization. On the down side, it doesn't have any intuitive link to what it means, you have to look it up. Even if one has heard the word used to describe someone in the past, when the person hears the word again a year later, they'll remember that they've heard the word before but aren't likely to remember what it means.
Now to 'eupraxsophy'. To start with it's a difficult word, in fact I'm not confident I can pronouce it properly myself as intended. It's also not a very memorable word, in fact I only had a vague recollection of how to spell it, and had a difficult time looking it up online in order to research it for this update. It took me a few tries, and a few spellings, and ultimately I had to look up Paul Kurtz on Wikipedia and found it there! Here's the definition of the term on Wikipedia (or part of it):
"A eupraxsophy is a nonreligious lifestance or worldview emphasizing the importance of living an ethical and exuberant life, and relying on rational methods such as logic, observation and science (rather than faith, mysticism or revelation) toward that end."
The word is clearly intended to define a philosphy, or viewpoint. What is one to call a follower of this particular philosophy? A eupraxsophist? I think if I were to use either of the words eupraxsophy or eupraxsophist in casual conversation, the listener would have no idea how to spell them, so they wouldn't be able to look up a definition anywhere.
In addition, the definition above suggests some aspects of the worldview that remind me somewhat of Humansim, or at least Humanism as reflected in Kurtz' views. The word "exuberant" for example. Is it a requirement of a skeptic to be "exuberant"? Can I not be a member of this group if I'm not exuberant? Inside the front cover of every issue of Free Inquiry magazine there's a summary of the points of Secular Humanism. A few years ago this standard 'template' that appears in every issue was updated to include statements about preserving the Earth and the Environment, and similar kinds of 'Green' mandates. Those may be laudable goals and good things for people to believe in, but in my personal view those things don't have anything to do with Secular Humanism -- the lack of belief in the supernatural. This is an area I considered going into when I talked about Humanism in the main article above, but didn't in order to keep the size reasonable. I feel better now that I've expressed this concern. Both the terms Humanism and eupraxsophy seem to be tainted slightly with some specific political baggage that makes them undesirable from my standpoint.
The Arizona Senate Bill 1070 Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act.
Humanist, skeptic, and freethinker blogs and social networks have been all abuzz for the last couple of months about Arizona Senate Bill 1070. This is a bill passed by the Arizona State Senate and signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer on April 23, 2010.
There's been quite a bit of publicity and discussion in the popular media about the bill, much of it inaccurate. It's been called racist, discriminatory, and unconstitutional, among other things. I have yet to see evidence presented that supports any of those three accusations. I was somewhat taken aback when President Obama said "the recent efforts in Arizona ... threaten to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans." One can only assume he hasn't become personally acquainted with the details of the new law, or he's simply resorting to usual political rhetoric.
I was downright appalled when US Attorney General Eric Holder admitted during testimony to the U.S. Senate that his comments about the Arizona law being unconstitutional and contributing to racial profiling were made prior to his reading the law (or having it read to him). I hope I need not dwell on the inappropriate nature of comments by a public official about something they haven't read.
So that I don't fall into the same trap, I recently made the supreme sacrifice and worked through all 16 pages of the bill to verify for myself what it actually says. I don't want to be responsible for propagating misinformation. It wasn't that difficult. I've had no formal legal education, and I understood it.
So first, let me dispel some false information. To the charge of racism:
1. 'Mexican' is not a race any more than 'American' is a race. Mexican is a nationality. There are many races and colors of peoples in Mexico, just as there are many races of peoples in America. There are white Mexicans, black Mexicans, and all shades in between. Therefore even if the bill contained anti-Mexican sentiment, it would not constitute 'racism', by the definition of the word. Use of this term represents an attempt to generate an emotional response, which tarnishes the criticism. Maybe I'm nitpicking here, but words have meanings and I believe in using them properly. It trivializes real racism to call something racism which clearly isn't. The race card has been played much too frequently lately.
2. OK, so the law isn't racist -- is it xenophobic or 'nationalist', and if so is that wrong? My opinion on that wouldn't be of any greater value than anyone else's, so I'll merely point out that many of America's policies have reflected nationalistic tendencies, for example favoring Israel over Palestine. If you have no argument with that bias, then it seems hypocritical to find fault with a nationalist bias against Mexico if it actually exists in this law. Which brings us to...
3. In fact neither the word 'Mexico' nor 'Mexican' appears anywhere in the text of the bill. It only addresses 'illegal immigrants' it doesn't distinguish between the country of origin of said immigrants. It doesn't differentiate between illegal immigrants from Mexico and those from Canada, Cuba, South America, Europe, Asia, or any other geographic area. So it's a little difficult to support the claim that the bill takes special aim against Mexico and Mexicans. You might be thinking, sure it doesn't actually say Mexico, but that's why the law was written. And maybe that's true but it's a weak argument. Complaints about a law should be based on its contents, the 'what' of the bill. The 'why' represents misdirection -- a tangent.
I can summarize the intent and effect of the law very simply: it allows Arizona State police to enforce existing Federal immigration laws. It does not enact any more strict immigration policies than are already on the books. Many criticisms have been based on the idea that the law allows police to stop someone and ask for identification, merely because of their appearance. This is false. The bill adds Article 8, beginning with Sec. 11-051 (A) which specifies: For any lawful contact made by a law enforcement official.... Randomly stopping people as they go about their business would not constitute a lawful contact. This is an area of law defined very clearly and explicitly by the US Supreme Court, and any bill that flouted that ruling would be quickly struck down. I'm sure the bill's authors knew that.
Other critics (the ones who don't resort to lies about profiling) have argued state police have no business enforcing Federal laws. However the enforcement of Federal laws by state police isn't without precedent. For example laws regarding civil rights of minorities are Federal laws -- would these same critics argue that state police and state courts shouldn't be enforcing Federal anti-discrimination civil rights laws? Even more to the point, the U.S Federal government has required states to enforce the Federal highway speed limit in order to receive their share of highway funds. Rightly or wrongly, this is fact. So it's perhaps not so strange for a state or local police to enforce Federal laws, particularly when the impact on the local region is so important, and the fact that Federal police aren't adequately enforcing them.
The Libertarian View
I'm nominally a supporter of libertarian philosophy. The classic Libertarian view is apparently that there should be no national borders anywhere that people should be free to move about anywhere in the World as they desire. North America is tremendously rich with natural resources. Absent any government interference, i.e. if there was complete anarchy everywhere in the World, there would be no benefit to a person living North or South of the current border between the U.S. and Mexico. So it must be something related to governmental structure or influence that makes America special, and desirable as a place that people want to relocate to. Many people believe it's largely the free services available in this country that attracts immigrants. That's undoubtedly part of it. But these free services are only part of the tremendous wealth made possible by a governmental structure that allows business to flourish and people to prosper. Ultimately, I believe this success may be traced to the U.S. Constitution, and the freedoms and rights of the people it guarantees. This is what has created the huge wealth of the U.S., and the tremendous standard of living that we enjoy here compared to many other nations.
The utopian Libertarian concept of no borders anywhere might actually work if every nation of the World strongly embraced Libertarian values. Or if every nation at least embraced the same values, Libertarian or not. For example, if there were not states with repressive, discriminatory and corrupt political systems (like Mexico) adjoining states with greater freedom and generous social programs (like the U.S.), there would be no reason for people to want to relocate from one geographic area to another, other than they just wanted a change of scenery or climate.
Because of the guaranteed freedoms and success of America, people in other nations are often either envious of our freedoms, or perhaps believe that America is decadent and undeserving of its success. If every nation of the World were to adopt an exact duplicate of our godless Constitution, we wouldn't be likely to have disputes with other nations; they wouldn't attack the US, there would be no need for war, and there would be minimal need to have national borders or enforce them. But of course that's not the case, and I'm not so naive as to assume that ever would be the case. The World as a whole will not adopt the US Constitution. The World as a whole will not ever completely embrace Libertarian principles, or non-interventionist policies in general. Hell, America isn't likely to embrace any stronger Libertarian principles than it does right now, which is to say, not very much!
So until such time as all the nations of the World adopt policies that are consistent with regard to human rights, and tolerance for disparate and minority views, we will have people who will want to do harm to other societies, including the U.S, and therefore borders are required to protect the peoples of various nations from external threats.
I get the impression many of my friends have great sympathy for illegal Mexican immigrants. I think they have the mental picture of these poor, downtrodden people leaving their homeland with next to nothing, and making a heroic journey, enduring tremendous hardship simply in order to better the lives of themselves and their families. And this may be true for many of the people coming to the U.S. illegally. But what of the immigrant that is trafficking in illegal drugs, or is a fugitive from justice in Mexico? As well as the poverty-stricken peasants, there are undoubtedly people coming across the border from Mexico in order to elude authorities in their own country. These people may include thieves, murderers, rapists, and child molesters. There are certainly gangsters and murderous thugs, because some of them have been caught. According to statistics released by Rep. Steve King of Iowa in 2006, 12 Americans are murdered every day by illegal aliens. If those numbers are correct it translates to 4,380 Americans murdered annually by illegal aliens -- more than the U.S. death toll of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
In addition, there are certainly people coming across the Southern border of the U.S. that are not from Mexico, but merely using that avenue because it's poorly protected. They may be coming from anywhere else in the world, including from the Middle East and other areas where people wish to do real harm to American interests. These people don't deserve our sympathy. This is the segment I'm personally most concerned about. One might wish to distinguish between these types of people: those merely seeking a better life, versus those intent on harming America and Americans. But without a secure border, there can be no distinguishing, because everyone is allowed free entry without a checkpoint of some kind there's no way to determine which of these groups someone may be a member of. A secure border is an obvious prerequisite to any immigration policy, regardless of how strict or lenient it may ultimately be. Even if you wanted to allow workers to commute freely back and forth between the US and Mexico daily, you still need some checkpoint to keep tabs on the people coming and going. If you don't have that, it's like debating whether someone should be let out of prison, when there isn't even a fence around the prison and that prisoner is long gone!
A Border Fence
Most often, the people I encounter that are most vocal in condemning Arizonians in their current problems with crime are liberal Californians. This may simply be because I live in California, and most of my friends and colleagues are Californians that are liberal in their politics. Now, bear in mind that California has the benefit (?) of a border fence along its entire border with Mexico. We not only have Federal police at the border, we have another immigration checkpoint about an hour's drive north of the border on Interstate 5 in San Onofre. California also has a checkpoint on the I-15 freeway near Barstow, about an hour's drive inside the border from the Nevada state line. This is called an agricultural checkpoint, but stated simply is also there to protect the interests of the state.
It seems to me fairly elitist and more than a little hypocritical for my fellow Californians to tell Arizona they shouldn't try to prevent the influx of illegal immigrants from the south, while California has a patrolled border fence and multiple manned checkpoints! Their argument would be stronger if they were campaigning just as strongly to dismantle the border fence and these checkpoints in California. The Arizona law gives Arizona state peace officers the ability to check on someone's immigration status. What are the officers doing at the border in San Diego and the checkpoint at San Onofre? Isn't it this exact same thing? Why is it acceptable for officers to check citizenship and immigration status at a checkpoint within California, but not for State police to check people's immigration status within Arizona? If Arizona had a secure Southern border, they could examine the documentation of travelers at the border, just as is done at California's Southern border. Then there would be no need for a law like SB 1070!
I recently engaged in discussion with a friend who claimed that tests of potential border fence designs have failed to find one that was immune to compromise or circumvention. The implied conclusion was that it's therefore useless to attempt to build a border fence. I see a logical flaw there -- "since it hasn't been discovered yet, it never will be and it's useless to try." I'm not sure if there's a name for this particular logical fallacy, it's probably a variant of the Argument from Ignorance. But I'll call it the fallacy of the assumed future.
We have secure facilities within our nation that have fence protection around them that seems to be fairly effective: prisons, military compounds, and nuclear power plants, just to name three. Perhaps an even more appropriate facility to use for an example of security is an airport. If you look at the typical airport these days you'll find that they're surrounded by walls and fences for security. Why? Ultimately, to prevent criminals and terrorists from being able to get weapons onto airplanes. This same security around foreign airports prevents enemies of the U.S. from being able to bring weapons onto U.S. soil. If one accepts that this is a good and proper thing to do, then why in the world do we not provide at least this same level of protection at our nation's borders? Conversely, if you argue that we don't need security at the nation's border, then why do we need it at an airport?
One might argue the security around the types of facilities named above is only made reliable by having a large amount of manpower monitoring the perimeter in addition to the fence itself, and that this same level of security couldn't be achieved over a border a thousand miles long due to the manpower required. This may be true. However one could surmise that modern technology may offer us help here: smart fence technology, that while it may not keep 100% of intruders out, it may at least be able to detect compromise attempts and alert authorities to breaches, which would allow human guards to respond to that location. I think technology offers the ability to automate the monitoring of a border fence so it wouldn't require an inordinate amount of infrastructure and expense.
However let's assume it may not be possible to build a fence that people can't knock down, or get under, or get over. Even a poor fence still acts as a deterrent. With no fence, people can wander across the border innocently. When challenged, they can plead ignorance of the border. Just as a locked door doesn't prevent a determined car thief or house burglar, a lock still does help keep an honest person honest as the saying goes, by removing temptation. A border fence need not be electrified, or topped with razor wire so as to maim would-be trespassers, in order to be of usefulness. Even a poor fence has this argument -- someone can't go over, under, or through a fence claiming the innocent or ignorance excuse. Being caught in the act of breaching a fence is strong evidence of wrongdoing, and is therefore a big advantage to having no fence at all.
As I write this, Arizona bill SB 1070 is being challenged in court on multiple grounds. The situation shows no signs of being resolved any time soon. Polls show 70% support for the law among the public. Another recent development is that Florida is now planning a similar law, and the proponents are claiming it will be on even more solid legal footing than the Arizona law.
Apparently I'm not in line with the traditional Libertarian values, for the reasons I've described in this note. I look forward to the day when U.S. policies arouse no ire of any other nation's peoples, so they have no reason to want to harm this country. Then we could relax our scrutiny of people entering it. In the meantime I think at least some type of fence on US borders is a good idea. A secure perimeter restricting entry would go a long way toward eliminating the need for laws like Arizona's SB 1070. If someone objects to the Arizona law and is also opposed to securing the border, it seems somewhat hypocritical to me. It makes one wonder what their motivation is.
But regardless of whether there's ever an expanded Federal presence at the U.S. Southern border, I support the right of a state to its own autonomy, its right to enforce its own border, which in the case of Arizona's Southern border just happens to coincide with the nation's border. If the Arizona state officials had been a little more clever, they wouldn't have framed the bill using terms like illegal immigrant (meaning U.S. immigrant), but instead address people that have unlawfully crossed the border of the state. No one can argue they don't have jurisdiction over that. When challenged by the Federal government the response to them could then have been, we're enforcing our state border, on all four sides -- we can't help the fact that on the Southern side it just happens to also be the U.S. border. To emphasize this point they could even mark the Arizona state border well inside the U.S. border, say 100 yards further in, or even more. They could then let the Federal police guard the actual U.S. border, but post their own state-employed guards along the designated Arizona State border inside the U.S. border.
However in closing I'll just point out that Article 4, Section 4 of the United States Constitution states: The United States shall guarantee every state a Republican form of government and shall protect each of them against Invasion." That seems fairly clear. If Federal officials are derelict of this duty and don't guard the U.S. border, that's a problem to be dealt with by the electorate at the polls.
Some links of relevance:
(most of these are hyperlinks within the article, but collected here also as a bibliography).
Poll shows 70% of citizens support Arizona bill.
AZ Sen. Sylvia Allen describes the horrible situation with crime in Arizona, leading to passing the law. http://www.gouverneurtimes.com/atx-front-page-news/15413-stand-with-arizona.html
Florida version of Arizona law announced.
U.S. Constitution Article 4, Section 4. "The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened) against domestic Violence."
reprinted from Newsweek. http://www.newsweek.com/id/191400
Mention the name "Texas" and the word "schoolbook" to many people of a certain age (such as my own) and the resulting free association will come up with the word "depository" and the image of Lee Harvey Oswald crouching on its sixth floor. In Dallas for the Christian Book Expo recently, I had a view of Dealey Plaza and its most famous building from my hotel room, so the suggestion was never far from my mind.
But last week Texas and schoolbooks meant something else altogether when the state Board of Education, in a muddled decision, rejected a state science curriculum that required teachers to discuss the "strengths and weaknesses" of the theory of evolution. Instead, the board allowed "all sides" of scientific theories to be taught. The vote was watched as something more than a local or bookish curiosity. Just as the Christian Book Expo is one of the largest events on the nation's publishing calendar, so the Lone Star State commands such a big share of the American textbook market that many publishers adapt to the standards that it sets, and sell the resulting books to non-Texans as well.
In many ways, this battle can be seen as the last stand of the Protestant evangelicals with whom I was mingling and debating. It's been a rather dismal time for them lately. In the last election they barely had a candidate after Mike Huckabee dropped out and, some would say, not much of one before that. Many Republicans now see them as more of a liability than an asset. As a proportion of the population they are shrinking, and in ethical terms they find themselves more and more in the wilderness of what some of them morosely called, in conversation with me, a "post-Christian society." Perhaps more than any one thing, the resounding courtroom defeat that they suffered in December 2005 in the conservative district of Dover, Pa., where the "intelligent design" plaintiffs were all but accused of fraud by a Republican judge, has placed them on the defensive. Thus, even if the Texas board had defiantly voted to declare evolution to be questionable and debatable, its decision could still have spelled the end of a movement rather than the revival of one.
Yet I find myself somewhat drawn in by the quixotic idea that we should "teach the argument." I am not a scientist, and all that I knew as an undergraduate about the evolution debate came from the study of two critical confrontations. The first was between Thomas Huxley (Darwin's understudy, ancestor of Aldous and coiner of the term "agnostic") and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (third son of the great Christian emancipator William) at the Oxford University Museum in 1860. The second was the "Monkey Trial" in Dayton, Tenn., in 1925, which pitted the giant of Protestant fundamentalism, William Jennings Bryan, against Clarence Darrow and H. L. Mencken. Every educated person should know the arguments that were made in these transatlantic venues.
So by all means let's "be honest with the kids," as Dr. Don McLeroy, the chairman of the Texas education board, wants us to be. The problem is that he is urging that the argument be taught, not in a history or in a civics class, but in a biology class. And one of his supporters on the board, Ken Mercer, has said that evolution is disproved by the absence of any transitional forms between dogs and cats. If any state in the American union gave equal time in science class to such claims, it would certainly make itself unique in the world (perhaps no shame in that). But it would also set a precedent for the sharing of the astronomy period with the teaching of astrology, or indeed of equal time as between chemistry and alchemy. Less boring perhaps, but also much less scientific and less educational.
The Texas anti-Darwin stalwarts also might want to beware of what they wish for. The last times that evangelical Protestantism won cultural/ political victoriesby banning the sale of alcohol, prohibiting the teaching of evolution and restricting immigration from Catholic countriesthe triumphs all turned out to be Pyrrhic. There are some successes that are simply not survivable. If by any combination of luck and coincidence any religious coalition ever did succeed in criminalizing abortion, say, or mandating school prayer, it would swiftly become the victim of a backlash that would make it rue the day. This will apply with redoubled force to any initiative that asks the United States to trade its hard-won scientific preeminence against its private and unofficial pieties. This country is so constituted that no one group, and certainly no one confessional group, is able to dictate its own standards to the others. There are days when I almost wish the fundamentalists could get their own way, just so that they would find out what would happen to them.
Perhaps dimly aware that they don't want a total victory, either, McLeroy and his allies now say that they ask for evolution to be taught only with all its "strengths and weaknesses." But in this, they are surely being somewhat disingenuous. When their faction was strong enough to demand an outright ban on the teaching of what they call "Darwinism," they had such a ban written into law in several states. Since the defeat and discredit of that policy, they have passed through several stages of what I am going to have to call evolution. First, they tried to get "secular humanism" classified as a "religion," so that it would meet the First Amendment's disqualification for being taught with taxpayers' money. (That bright idea was Pat Robertson's.) Then they came up with the formulation of "creation science," picking up on anomalies and gaps in evolution and on differences between scientific Darwinists like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. Next came the ingratiating plea for "equal time"what could be more American than that?and now we have the rebranded new coinage of "intelligent design" and the fresh complaint that its brave advocates are, so goes the title of a recent self-pitying documentary, simply "expelled" from the discourse.
It's not just that the overwhelming majority of scientists are now convinced that evolution is inscribed in the fossil record and in the lineaments of molecular biology. It is more that evolutionists will say in advance which evidence, if found, would refute them and force them to reconsider. ("Rabbit fossils in the pre-Cambrian layer" was, I seem to remember, the response of Prof. J.B.S. Haldane.) Try asking an "intelligent design" advocate to stipulate upfront what would constitute refutation of his world view and you will easily see the difference between the scientific method and the pseudoscientific one.
But that is just my opinion. And I certainly do not want it said that my side denies a hearing to the opposing one. In the spirit of compromise, then, I propose the following. First, let the school debating societies restage the wonderful set-piece real-life dramas of Oxford and Dayton, Tenn. Let time also be set aside, in our increasingly multiethnic and multicultural school system, for children to be taught the huge variety of creation stories, from the Hindu to the Muslim to the Australian Aboriginal. This is always interesting (and it can't be, can it, that the Texas board holdouts think that only Genesis ought to be so honored?). Second, we can surely demand that the principle of "strengths and weaknesses" will be applied evenly. If any church in Texas receives a tax exemption, or if any religious institution is the beneficiary of any subvention from the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, we must be assured that it will devote a portion of its time to laying bare the "strengths and weaknesses" of the religious world view, and also to teaching the works of Voltaire, David Hume, Benedict de Spinoza, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. This is America. Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a thousand schools of thought contend. We may one day have cause to be grateful to the Texas Board of Education for lighting a candle that cannot be put out.
There was a recent episode of Larry King with guests Rachel Harris, Seth MacFarlane, and the inimitable Penn Jillette. The topic of the "Tea Party Movement" came up. Out came the usual criticism including charges of racism, which prompted this article.
Part of the problem with the Tea Party movement is also its advantage: it's a grass-roots, ragtag collection of a lot of angry and marginalized folks. Its real appeal to the common man is that there isn't some powerful organization with an agenda driving the group (although this is disputed by detractors). But the grassroots nature is also a serious problem. What is the mission statement of the Tea Party people? There isn't one. What are their views on issues of the war and foreign policy? Religion and the Separation of Church and State? Race? There is no official position on any of these questions, because there isn't any official organization to state it!
According to Wikipedia there are now several different groups riding on the coattails of the Tea Party movement: The Tea Party Patriots, the Tea Party Express, Tea Party Nation, and finally the newly-formed National Tea Party Federation. It's this last group that recently invited Sarah Palin to speak at a gathering, which prompted a lot of news coverage, mostly negative. Which of these groups is the most representative of the movement as a whole? Who can say, I certainly won't attempt a guess.
The one unifying factor of all these groups is that they are said to be against large government, bailouts of large corporations, and other perceived Socialist government reforms. They demand compliance with the US Constitution and its limits on the power of federal government. Many tea party supporters have been inspired by Rep. Ron Paul, an outspoken advocate of the libertarian view of small government and personal responsibility and freedom. I'm in general agreement with these principles. So I like to say that I support the Tea Party movement.
But wait a minute, I'm not much of a fan of Sarah Palin. In fact I don't particularly think she embodies the stated goals of the movement. A poll recently revealed what I'd already suspected: there's a good-sized schism in the movement, with a large segment made up libertarians, objectivists, and Ron Paul and Ayn Rand fans; and the other major segment made up of extreme right-wing, conservative, 'religious-right' folks – folks who admire George Bush Jr. and Sarah Palin. About the only thing these two sects have in common is they're both unhappy with the status quo, and don't like the Socialist overtures undertaken so far by the Obama administration with the support of a Democrat-controlled Congress. Strange bedfellows indeed!
So is this a 'racist' movement? Allegations have been made that at Tea Party protests racial slurs have been directed at President Obama as well as other African Americans, however photographic and video evidence of this is fairly skimpy – according to an Associated Press article from April 13, Andrew Breitbart is offering a $100,000 reward to anyone who can provide a video that backs up the claims of three African American congressmen about an incident on March 20 as they walked to the Capitol. A fourth Congress member, Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina, who is white, was initially quoted as being a witness to the slurs, but issued a statement later that said he was misquoted, that he didn't witness the slurs and never told anyone he did. So as so often is the case in Washington, the truth may prove to be elusive.
Certainly the burden of proof is on those making the allegations of racism to back up their claim. There are at least two reasons they might be wrong. For one, several web sites and online articles openly discuss plans to infiltrate and tear apart the movement from within. Who is a 'real' member of the movement and who is a trouble-making impostor? This is hard to tell due to the loose organization -- there's no uniform, or even a membership card!
The other reason to question the racism charge is because it's such an easy claim to hurl when you have no other argument. This is the first step in any conflict throughout history: dehumanize and demonize your opponent. Very basic and simple, right out of Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky. So I hope my friends will excuse me for demanding some fairly good evidence before I turn my back on the movement.
I have little doubt there are racists within the Tea Party movement, just as they can be found within any large group, including Democrats and Republicans. But is it a high percentage of the supporters? And even if it is, does that necessarily make it a race-driven movement? Or just a movement that includes some immature or ignorant bad apples?
How would one back up the claim that the Tea Party movement is motivated by a racist agenda? You would have to find some aspect of the charter of the group that has racial aspects to it. And since the movement is so fragmented and unorganized, that would be somewhat difficult. But just from the standpoint of the stated goal of a small, constitutional federal government, it's not obvious why race would be a factor in that. I don't see Tea Partiers protesting Mr. Obama because of his race, I see them protesting him because they disagree with his policies.
In conclusion, all I can say is that I'm not a racist and I don't support any type of racism, in any form. This means I don't support people being judged differently because they have black skin. It also means I object to “reverse racism” in the form of “Affirmative Action”, the NAACP, the United Negro College Fund, or any organization that would confer a benefit to anyone based on their race or the color of their skin. Such policies are abhorrent to me, as they should be to any thinking person in the 21st century.
The Scientific Method
David Richards, March 2010
"It has often been said that the greatest discovery in science was the discovery of the scientific method of discovery." -- Dr. James K. Feibleman, author of Scientific Method (1972)
As a freethinker, humanist, and skeptic, I base my life on scientific principles and knowledge. But what do I mean by 'science'? The comprehension of science by many people may be limited to vague recollections of K-12 science classes. Typically those classes are more about memorizing equations and science 'facts' and deal very little with learning the actual underlying principles of science. If experiments are done at all, they're likely to be simple, quick, and fun, where the student follows a specific recipe or 'script'. They're designed to attract the student's interest in the overall subject, rather than actually paving any new ground in scientific knowledge.
I actually just used a redundant phrase above, 'scientific knowledge', because by its strictest definition, the word ‘science’ means simply knowledge (from the Latin scientia). But most often when we use the term, we use it to suggest the use of the process known as “the scientific method.” The scientific method is a procedure for investigating the true facts related to a particular subject while excluding preconceived notions and observer bias. Incidentally the scientific method is also the standard for evaluating any new medical drug or procedure, an area where we can’t afford mistakes.
The scientific method evolved over many centuries, with several famous names contributing to its refinement. Aristotle was one of the first to start us off, with Empiricism. Empiricism says that everything we believe should be based on observation. In the 13th century Roger Bacon added some specifics to the empirical concept.
In the 14th century, William of Ockham (or Occam), contributed Occam’s Razor, or the concept of “parsimony”. This concept simply says don’t make an explanation any more complicated than it needs to be in order to explain the observations.
Others helping us along toward the scientific method were Francis Bacon and Descartes in the 17th century.
As recently as the 20th century Karl Popper contributed the key element of “falsifiability,” that is, the idea that it should be possible to conceive of an experiment that, if positive, would prove a hypothesis false. For example, the hypothesis explaining the gravitational attraction of two bodies would be falsified if we conducted an experiment where an object was dropped and it flew upward, or sideways, instead of downward. However not all scientific philosphers agree falsifiability is an absolute requirement – they say that in some cases a hypothesis may be correct, even though it's not falsifiable. However I'm unaware of an example of this.
At any rate, we eventually arrived at the modern scientific method, consisting of the following steps:
Observation (witness an event or phenomenon, collect evidence)
Hypothesis (speculation about an explanation for the phenomenon)
Experimentation (testing the hypothesis)
Provisional Model or theory
For many people with a passing acquaintance with science, that represents the end of the process. However there are a few additional key steps that are a necessary part of the process:
5. Communication of results (publication in journals for consideration by others)
6. Replication (duplication of the experiment by others yielding the same results)
7. Final Model or Theory, peer-reviewed and accepted.
Each of these steps is important, as is the order in which they appear. It should be emphasized that steps 1 through 4 may be repeated many times until the particular topic is fully understood and explained, prior to going on to the later steps. Even then, many a researcher has been confident in their results when they reached step 4, only to have their hypothesis fall apart when others attempt to replicate experiments. “Cold Fusion” described by Pons and Fleischman in the 1980s is a good example of this.
Many people also put a lot of stock in step 5, hence the extensive practice of providing references to previous papers in any new work. However publication by itself isn't proof of anything – its only real value is to serve as a stepping stone to step 6. This is a warning to not put too much value in a published paper.
As an example that made it all the way through the scientific process, let’s continue to look at the “discovery” of gravity by Sir Isaac Newton (discovery is in quotes because everybody already knew gravity existed, it’s just that no one had bothered to attempt to measure it or explain it). Newton’s work in this area began with an observation of a falling object, an apple according to legend. What Newton did that no one else had prior to that time was to form a hypothesis about the nature of gravitational attraction, and proceed to test that hypothesis with experiments.
Until the work of Newton, the popular belief was that heavier objects fell faster than lighter objects. Newton determined through many tests that this wasn’t true. He devised a gravitation equation that corresponded to, and even predicted the results of experiments. It wasn’t until that step had been reached that Newton’s hypothesis then became eligible to be considered a provisional scientific theory. But it didn’t lose the 'provisional' aspect and become accepted as a 'true' theory until the results were verified by others.
What are the requirements for a theory to be scientifically valid? In my view it must exhibit all of the following traits:
It must answer some question or provide some useful function.
It makes accurate predictions of results that can be measured (it’s testable).
Nothing about it precludes future correction if new facts are discovered.
It’s not any more complicated than necessary to explain the observed result (complies with Occam’s razor).
It’s falsifiable, in other words I can conceive an experiment that would prove it false.
It gives the same results every time it’s applied, to everyone who uses it.
It doesn’t require aspects of faith, luck, magic, or anything supernatural (unexplainable) in order to be utilized.
If a hypothesis violates any one of these criteria, it is not scientific and cannot be accepted as a scientific theory according to my definition.
Let’s stay with Newton’s law of gravitation and test the hypothesis using the criteria given above. Is the concept useful? Yes, it’s used daily, for everything from designing bridges and other structures that must carry weight, to calculating orbits of spacecraft.
Does the hypothesis make accurate predictions that can be measured? Yes, by knowing the mass of an object I can calculate the gravitational forces that will act on it (its weight) at any altitude on Earth, or in space (or near another planet). Also using Newton’s law (along with his laws of motion) I can calculate and thus predict with great accuracy how long it will take a falling object to travel a given distance, or the trajectory of a ballistic missile.
Is it falsifiable? Yes. If we conducted an experiment in which we dropped an object and it hovered in air, moved sideways, moved upward, or was attracted downward with a different force than calculated by the equation, it would invalidate Newton's gravitation theory.
Is the theory capable of being revised? Yes, in fact Albert Einstein’s work in the early 20th century essentially revised Newton’s laws of gravity and motion under the special conditions of very massive bodies and objects moving at velocities near the speed of light (however Newton’s work is still plenty accurate for most day-to-day work).
Is Newton’s law more complicated than necessary? No, his theory doesn’t require trivial information on the object under consideration, such as its shape, color, texture, or chemical composition – he was able to isolate the only important issues that are needed to calculate the gravitational effect: the masses of the objects being attracted and the distance between them.
Does it give the same results every time? Yes, every time someone uses Newton’s equations with the same values for input they always get the same answer, and the same result is obtained in spite of the user’s particular cultural background or religious beliefs (or lack thereof).
Does Newton’s law rely on faith, luck, or magic to give results? No, the same results are obtained with his equation regardless of whether or not a magic wand is waved, an incantation is recited, or fingers are crossed.
I considered including a second hypothesis here concerning a paranormal or supernatural effect or event, and contrasting it with the gravity theory. But I think the point is sufficiently made so I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader. I'd like to suggest you might try applying these same tests to the hypothesis, “I have a dragon in my garage that's invisible and undetectable,” the example Carl Sagan used in his book The Demon Haunted World –Science as a Candle in the Dark. A little thought on the tests above will show that such a statement is impossible to evaluate using the scientific method and therefore outside the realm of science.
I'd also like to suggest that the reader considers applying the same criteria to the hypothesis that there is substantial warming of the globe caused by human activities, specifically CO2 production, and that by modifying human behavior the effect may be stopped or reversed. Unfortunately, I'm not aware of a concise, clear statement of this hypothesis that contains any specific values or makes specific predictions, so I'm not sure one can even begin to apply the scientific method to the hypothesis. Perhaps over time there may be a concise statement available that would allow one to proceed on that question.