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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptical Inquirer > Nov/Dec 2018 > Grand Illusions and Existential Angst

Grand Illusions and Existential Angst

Natural illusions have impeded civilization’s progress toward enlightenment for millennia. Here’s an inventory of a few prominent illusions that have had a tenacious grip on our collective wisdom.

The great promise of a hyper-connected society having the world’s knowledge at its fingertips was better decisions and a more enlightened citizenry. The great disappointment proliferation of fake news and ways to confirm to ourselves what we already felt to be true— whether that is the case or not.

In many ways, society progresses only when people question what is already known; as Thomas Paine proclaims, “It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry” (Paine 1737–1809). The scientific apparatus is, arguably, the best tool for such inquiry. It has been laying waste to social hubris and human arrogance by identifying illusions for centuries.

It was common knowledge that a heavy rock falls to the ground faster than a small, lightweight pebble—until Galileo questioned such knowledge. Acknowledging our propensity for self-deception is an unparalleled route to enlightenment.

Overcoming self-deception is at the heart of science, maintains physicist Robert Muller. “A layman is easily fooled and is particularly susceptible to self-deception. In contrast, a scientist is easily fooled and is particularly susceptible to self-deception, and knows it,” he says (Muller 2017). Here are some more grand illusions science has revealed.

We curse the bedpost when it reminds our big toe of its solid rigidity. But the post is mostly empty space, as is our toe. Atoms are 99.99999999999 percent empty space. Soothing our big toe injury by consuming a dessert drink, we notice that a vacuum seems to pull liquid up the straw, which is, in fact, not the case! Outside air pressure pushes the liquid up.

For millennia people believed Earth was the center of the universe. Twenty-five percent of people in the United States still believe the Sun goes around the Earth (Neuman 2014), which calls to mind Isaac Asimov’s statement “Scientific apparatus offers a window to knowledge … scientists spend ever more time washing windows” (Asimov 1988). The Earth also seems quite flat, though scholars have known it to be spherical since the days of the ancient Greeks.

The scientific apparatus has been laying waste to social hubris and human arrogance by identifying illusions for centuries.

Our intuition suggests that something needs to be pushing an object for it to remain in motion. The brilliance of Isaac Newton told us otherwise: objects will continue moving for all eternity if left unimpeded by outside influences.

When you look at a yellow lemon on a pixelated electronic monitor, there are no yellow-colored pixels being shown! A gyroscope seems to magically defy gravity. As for magic, magicians don’t practice magic. They practice illusion. As you turn left in your car, you sense a force shoving you right, though, there is no such force.

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A SKEPTICAL LOOK AT UFOS AND ALIENS Arthur J. Cramp: The Quackbuster Who Professionalized American Medicine Grand Illusions and Existential Angst