Meet a Freethinker: Pecier Decierdo

No two freethinkers are exactly alike; a group of freethinkers contains a great diversity of perspectives, so there is no one, official perspective shared among all of them. This makes the freethought community a truly vibrant source of ideas and opinions!

In this light, Meet a Freethinker is our series featuring freethinkers of all backgrounds and perspectives. We want to introduce you guys to the people who make up the proverbial melting pot of this growing movement.

Our next Freethinker is Pecier Decierdo. Pecier works at The Mind Museum and is a member of the Philippine Astronomical Society. His formal training is in theoretical physics, but he is also a sucker for maps, geology, analytic philosophy, science fiction, and Discworld novels. Like Troy and Abed from “Community”, he still hopes for the return of Joss Whedon’s science fiction series “Firefly” on air.

How would you define a freethinker?

When a person holds the scientific mindset, he is skeptical and forms his beliefs on the basis of empirical evidence and logical consistency. Notice that this is also the definition of a freethinker. I therefore think that a freethinker is just someone who thinks scientifically. For me, you cannot think scientifically and not be a freethinker and vice versa.

What belief system do you subscribe to?

I am what Douglas Adams calls a radical atheist. More positively, I am a secular humanist. I also believe that the principles of utilitarianism serve as excellent rules of thumb for ethical living, which is why I am left-leaning in my politics and economics.

In other words, I think that believing in myths and delusions of an afterlife make many otherwise good people believe in really awful things, which can lead them to do some truly bad things. Hence, I think humanity will be in a better state and people will be more able to deal with the pressing problems of civilization if religion becomes a thing of the past. I also think that everyone is better off if fewer people in the world are poor, hungry, or discontented.

What was the funniest or most interesting question you got from a person after you told him or her that you were a freethinker?

A former student once retorted, “So, you never get a penny for your thoughts?”

In what way has being part of a freethinking community benefited you?

Before I was part of Filipino Freethinkers, I was a very bitter, angry atheist. Well, I still am an angry atheist, because there are still lots of reasons to be angry. But being part of FF has taught me many creative ways to be indignant. Because I have people with whom I can share my anger, I discovered that I need not be somber in order to be serious and that laughter and a sense of fun can be great weapons against the forces of irrationality.

What’s the biggest challenge you face as an educator, and how do you address this?

It’s the students’ fear of being wrong. Many students dread experimenting and making mistakes in undergoing the learning process. This is unfortunate because science is all about discovering all the many ways to be wrong so that you inch your way into being right. The fear of error is debilitating to a learner because it prevents the development of independent thinking, making it impossible for critical thought to evolve. When you are afraid to make mistakes, you are afraid to think for yourself; in short, you are afraid to think.

I address this by reminding students that science is not a finished story but a continuing pursuit. There are many things that we still don’t understand, and our understanding of the few things we know about can still undergo revision. This is why we value the questions more than the answers. Encouraging people to ask questions and, if possible, pursue the answer by themselves are good places to start in addressing our science education problem. Students should be reminded that knowledge is valuable only as a tool to thinking critically and critical thinking always involves the risk of being wrong.

As a science educator, how do you deal with shitheads who act like Deepak Chopra, putting facts beneath feelings?

When I am talking and the shithead in question is not around, my first instinct is to make a joke about him. When I see that my audience does not appreciate the joke, then I know I have to worry. Anyone who was properly educated in science should see through the claptrap most pseudo-scientists peddle, because scientifically minded people are skeptical by default. The principle that fantastic claims require fantastic evidence is etched in the heart of a skeptic.

However, I also understand that human beings have a biological tendency to be gullible. As Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” Part of being a skeptic is keeping this in mind all the time, and the best way of training people to be skeptical is to hammer this principle into their heads.

How about when the shithead in question is right in front of me? I guess my first instinct is play the role of the “O rly?” owl. The skeptical third world kid is another hero of mine.

As a physicist, can you give us a brief rebuttal of the First Cause and Fine Tuning arguments?

According to the First Cause argument for the existence of a god, the universe has to be the effect of a cause that is beyond nature. The reasoning behind this is that natural phenomena are always caused by something. Hence, the very first cause should not be a natural phenomenon but should be supernatural.

This argument was made obsolete by quantum mechanics. In quantum theory, the idea of causation takes a different and subtle form; the same goes for the concept of nothingness. For example, we now know that it is possible for quantum nothingness to, without the help of an outside agent, give birth to a universe. You want evidence? Well, at the very tip of your nose, billions upon billions of virtual particles spring into existence right this very instant. Something different but similar happened 13.7 billion years ago to quantum nothingness. Of course the jury is still out on the details of how nothingness became this messy place we call the cosmos. However, the mere fact that a disembodied, supra-cosmic overmind is not necessary in explaining the existence of the universe is more than enough to discount the role of a universe-creating god. Compared to the other options, the god hypothesis is fantastically unlikely.

The Fine Tuning argument says that many properties of the universe, such as how strong gravity is or how heavy the electron is, all have values that make life as we know it possible. To those who subscribe to this argument, this is terribly unlikely to be a conincidence; the universe must therefore be designed — “fine-tuned” — so that life is possible.

There are two ways to rebut it. First, there’s the multi-verse hypothesis. Although it’s still in the realm of cosmological speculation, it is increasingly becoming a real scientific theory. However, I would go for the second way, which is simply to point out the inherent arrogance in the Fine Tuning argument. Even if there is only one universe and even if life as we know it is astoundingly unlikely, explaining the fact of our existence by positing a supernatural cause that created the universe for the express purpose of making us exist is not a valid explanation at all. Far from being an explanation, the Fine Tuning argument is an abnegation of scientific inquiry into the origin of the universe.

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