Knowledge theory

What is truth and what is knowledge? These are questions philosophers have been busy discussing for thousands of years. Knowledge theory is sometimes called epistemology. It is about the nature of knowledge and deals with concepts like truth, knowledge, belief, and justification (of beliefs). This branch of philosophy aims to answer questions like “What do we know?”, “What does it mean that we know something?”, “What makes beliefs justified?”, and “How do we know that we know?”

This treatise on knowledge theory is an historical account as thoughts are usually built upon previous thoughts. It discusses Western philosophy even though many of the ideas presented here have been invented elsewhere too. The reason is that the scientific revolution took place in the Western world and science is based on thinking but also greatly has influenced thinking so this is easiest way to tackle the most relevant topics.

Classical philosophy

The first ancient Greek philosophers speculated about the nature of reality. This is called metaphysics. Some early Greek philosophers believed that reality consisted of four basic ingredients. These are fire, water, earth and air. Later on a few Greek philosophers argued that the building blocks of reality are small particles called atoms that differ in shape and size and that the objects we see are groups of atoms stuck together. This was already close to the modern understanding of reality.

There were other issues that the ancient Greeks were thinking about. Some of them figured that the Earth could be a sphere. They guessed it by looking at the sea. The sea horizon is slightly curbed while boats disappear in the distance before their sails do. A philosopher named Xenophanes began to doubt religion. He realised that people believed that the gods are like themselves. For instance, black people believed that the gods are black while red-haired people believed them to be red-haired. He then argued that we can’t know what the gods are like. This was an early form of scepticism.

And why would you believe in the Greek gods if the Persians and the Egyptians have different gods? If your place of birth determines what you believe then your beliefs probably are false. The sophists were an early group of philosophers who had come into contact with other cultures. They claimed that absolute knowledge is impossible. Everything is subjective, they argued. This is called relativism. Socrates is known for his dialogues in which he debated the sophists.

Socrates claimed that there is absolute truth even though we may not know it. His pupil Plato claimed that ideas are at the basis of knowledge. He believed that ideas are more real than things. This is called idealism. Plato’s pupil Aristotle on the other hand believed that knowledge comes from observations. This is called empiricism. Both approaches have their problems. If you imagine that unicorns exist, you have the idea of a unicorn. The idealist reasoning could be that therefore unicorns exist. On the other hand, if you see a unicorn after eating some mushrooms, the empiricist reasoning could be that unicorns exist for that reason.

The foundations of knowledge can always be called into question. It is for that reason that scepticism emerged. In ancient times there were two main groups of sceptics. The first group argued that nothing is certain. They aimed at refuting the claims of other philosophers. The second group claimed that it often isn’t possible to prove or refute claims and that it is better to postpone judgement until the matter is sufficiently clarified.

These ideas were revived in Europe during the late Middle Ages after the texts of the classical philosophers were rediscovered in Arab libraries. European philosophers of that time like Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham were theologians who believed that there is no difference between theology and science. Over time science and religion became separated as they both come from different sources. Science is based on observations and reason while religion was believed to be based on divine revelation.

Ockham is known for his simplicity principle called Ockham’s razor. It means that simple explanations are more likely to be true than complex ones. It is usually phrased as follows: “If there are several hypotheses that can explain a phenomenon equally, the hypothesis that comes with the fewest entities should be selected.” Introducing additional unproven assumptions reduces the likelihood of the conclusion being true. This argues for minimalism in reasoning. If you want to prove a point it is better not to introduce unnecessary assumptions.

Modern philosophy

Around the year 1500 European thinkers began to realise that Christopher Columbus had just discovered a completely new continent. Traditional knowledge had failed dramatically here. There was nothing in the Bible or other sources suggesting that such a continent exists. At the same time Protestants began to challenge the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. The ensuing religious wars ravaged Europe. They ended without a clear winner. And so the question arose as to how to evaluate the claims of the different branches of Christianity. After all, they can’t all be true.

brain in a vat believing itself to be a person who is walking

These developments spurred a renewed scepticism and a new search for the foundations of knowledge. As our senses can be deceptive, only rational thinking can produce knowledge, philosophers like René Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz and Baruch Spinoza argued. Their view is called rationalism, but it was a new version of idealism. In a thought experiment similar to the brain-in-a-vat scenario Descartes questioned everything the senses register. Your brain could be inside a vat filled with a life supporting liquid and it could be connected to a computer that generates the impression that you are a person who is walking. This is also the theme behind The Matrix. What is beyond doubt, according to Descartes, is that you exist even if you are just a brain-in-a-vat. And you can establish this fact by thinking. “I think, therefore I exist,” he claimed. Other philosophers like Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and David Hume, believed that knowledge comes from observations. This was a renewed empiricism.

At the time there were great advances in the natural sciences driven by thinking but these advances themselves also spurred thinking. The combination of observation and thinking created scientific progress. This worked more or less as follows. Assume you plan to investigate the effect of gravity on the motion of objects. You can do this by dropping an iron ball from a tower from different heights and measure how long it takes for the ball to hit the ground. The table below shows the measurements.

Height (in metres)Time (in seconds)
0.050.10
0.500.32
1.000.45
5.001.01
10.01.43
50.03.19

It takes some thinking to figure out that the relationship between height and fall time is reflected in the following mathematical formula: fall time = 9.81 * √ (2 * height). For instance, 3.19 = 9.81 * √ (2 * 50.0). If the tower is only 50 metres high then it isn’t possible to measure how long it will take for the ball to fall from 100 metres. But if you know the mathematical formula of the relationship then you can calculate the fall time without measuring it, so: 9.81 * √ (2 * 100) = 4.52 seconds. It is observation and thinking combined that made this possible.

Finding the mathematical formula that matches the data is a bit like fitting the pieces of a jig saw puzzle. This type of reasoning is called induction, which usually is formulating a general rule based upon observations. You can never be sure that the outcome is correct. For instance, on the basis of your own observations with the help of induction you might conclude that all swans are white. On the other hand, deduction is logical reasoning from assumptions to conclusions. If all assumptions are true, and the rules of logic are followed correctly, then the conclusion must be true. Deduction usually is about applying general rules to specific situations. An example is: all men are mortal (first premise) and Socrates is a man (second premise) then Socrates is mortal (conclusion). Also, if the relationship between height and fall time is reflected in the mathematical formula: fall time = 9.81 * √ (2 * height) (first premise), and the height is 100 metres (second premise) then the fall time is 4.52 seconds (conclusion).

Immanuel Kant realised that knowledge arises from observation (empiricism) but that it is impossible to have knowledge without thinking (idealism). Observations have to be interpreted. Thinking imposes a structure upon observations. For example, we do not perceive trees or gravity. These are categories of human thought that we attach to the world. We do not know and cannot know what reality is like (relativism). The things themselves remain unknown so metaphysical speculation about the nature of reality is pointless, for instance asking yourself whether or not gravity is real or imagined. This was one of the greatest advances in knowledge theory in 2,000 years. It is a synthesis of previous thoughts that can be seen as a higher level of insight. Such major leaps in philosophy are extremely rare.

Subsequent idealist philosophers argued that absolute knowledge is possible because the mind creates reality. They argued that reality is subject to the mind so reality can be uncovered with reason. For instance, the fall of a ball is subject to mathematical laws invented by the human mind. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel believed that history is a dialectic process resulting in progress. In science and philosophy a reasoned debate of ideas in the form of argument and counter argument could lead to a higher insight called synthesis. It doesn’t seem an accident that Hegel came up with this just after Kant had upset knowledge theory by coming up with such a synthesis.

Contemporary philosophy

Kant more or less had ended metaphysics or the speculation about the nature of reality. Philosophers became less ambitious. One reaction was pragmatism. Evolution theory suggests that we hold the beliefs that help us to survive and reproduce. American thinkers such as Charles Sanders Peirce and William James viewed thinking as a means of solving problems. They weren’t interested in truth or the nature of reality. Another approach, hermeneutics, with thinkers like Wilhelm Dilthey and Martin Heidegger concerns itself with interpreting human communication. Dilthey argued that natural sciences are about interpreting observations while humanities are about understanding meaning expressed in communication. Heidegger goes a bit further by claiming that the essence of human existence is understanding.

There was also a renewed search for the foundations of knowledge. Analytical philosophers like Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein believed that the main tools of philosophers are language and logic. Their aim was to develop a new method to gather certain knowledge of reality. They assumed that there is an outside world and claimed that language can be used to express facts that correspond to elements of reality. This is called realism. It is related to empiricism. They claimed that there are justified true beliefs. So if Jane believes something to be true, and it is indeed true, her belief is justified. The main problem here is that this doesn’t clarify which facts are true and justified.

Karl Popper then came up the concept of falsification, which was a significant advance in knowledge theory. He believed that ideas can never be proven but that they can be falsified if there is contradicting information. For instance, you may believe that all swans are white until you spot a black swan. From then on, you may believe most swans are white and some are black. This is how knowledge progresses. The belief that most swans are white and some are black is closer to the truth than that all swans are white, even though it may still not be true if there is a red swan somewhere out there no-one has ever seen.

This is also how science progresses. Scientific theories must be falsifiable, meaning that they can be used to do predictions that you can check. For instance, the mathematical formula reflecting relationship between height and fall time can be used to predict the fall time from 100 metres. And if you do an experiment and the outcome is different than the formula indicates, the theory is falsified, unless your measurement is inaccurate, which is probably the case.

Edmund Gettier attacked the notion of justified true beliefs. For instance, if Jane looks at her watch and it says that it is two o’clock she may believe that it is two o’clock. What she doesn’t know is that her watch stopped exactly twelve hours earlier. Her belief is therefore not justified. But because the watch stopped twelve hours ago it accidentally gives the correct time so that her belief is nevertheless true.

As our knowledge increased over time our understanding of reality also changed. These changes are often driven by scientific discoveries. This also applies to science itself. Thomas Kuhn noted that the history of science is characterised by a succession of paradigms. Only 500 years ago most people in Europe believed the Earth is flat, a few thousand years old, and at the centre of the universe. The ancient Greek discovery that the Earth is a sphere was known to educated people. When Columbus set sail to the West, he expected to end up in the Indies (Indonesia). Now most people in Europe believe the Earth is a sphere, billions of years old, and an insignificant spot in the universe.

Post-modernism claims that great stories like religions and ideologies are dead and that there is no absolute knowledge. Words like reality and truth are even seen as totalitarian concepts by post-modernists. There is still room for small stories and fragments of reality but they depend on perspective. A great source of inspiration for postmodernism is Friedrich Nietzsche who proclaimed the death of God and heralded the end of the classic Christian story of God’s people on the road to Paradise that gives meaning to our existence. Postmodernism is just renewed relativism. This view was, not surprisingly, criticised by philosophers who claimed that post-modernism makes it appear that truth is subjective.

And so we are more or less back at the point where Socrates was refuting the sophists. And with the simulation argument the speculation about the nature of reality or metaphysics re-emerged. We could all be living inside a computer programme created by an advanced humanoid civilisation. And so it may seem that knowledge theory has gone nowhere. At least it is obvious that, while our knowledge increased dramatically during the last 2,000 years, knowledge theory didn’t progress accordingly.

Takeaways

There are a few takeaways from what has been discussed so far:

  • The truth or falsity of a statement may depend on whether or not it accurately describes (some part of) reality. With the help of empiricism and induction you may arrive at correct conclusions.
  • The truth or falsity of a system of statements may depend on its logical consistency. Contradictions are evidence of errors. With the help of idealism and deduction you might arrive at correct conclusions.
  • Assertions can always been called into question as the foundations of knowledge itself are questionable. Empiricism and induction as well as idealism and deduction can lead to wrong conclusions.
  • Plausibility can be used to support theories. An assertion is plausible if there is evidence supporting it and there is no evidence contradicting it. In science it often means that the theory hasn’t been falsified.
  • Pragmatism implies that usefulness is more important than truth. For instance, religions make larger scale cooperation possible. Religions allow tribes to grow larger and muster more men for war.
  • Minimalism argues for using as few assumptions as possible to prove a point and not to engage in unnecessary speculation.
  • Finally, there can be progress in thought. Two contradicting arguments can both be correct as there may be a higher level of truth that resolves the contradiction. For instance, the simulation argument can resolve the contradiction between creation and the big bang and evolution theories.

There is difference between proof and evidence. In common language these terms are used interchangeably. Proof is a final verdict that removes all doubt whereas evidence only supports a particular explanation. Proof is usually achieved by deduction while evidence is often used in induction. Proof is an idealist concept. For instance, in mathematics proof is possible when it comes down to pure deductive reasoning that doesn’t involve an outside reality. Evidence is related to empiricism. Applying idealist concepts like proof to reality is problematic. General rules like the relationship between height and fall time used in deduction are usually attained through induction so proving something about reality is problematic. At best we can support meaningful claims about reality with evidence.

Featured image: Owl eyes. Brocken Inaglory (2006). Public domain.

Other image: Brain-in-a-vat. Alexander Wivel (2008). Public domain.

Declassified Pentagon UFO footage

The ufo mysteries

In April 2020 the Pentagon released three declassified videos showing pilots running into unidentified flying objects. This vindicated people who believe that extraterrestrials visit us from time to time. This is credible evidence. Now think of crop circles. Not all of them may have been the work of pranksters trying to poke fun of the UFO crowd.

A few months later Netflix tried to resuscitate the once popular documentary series Unsolved Mysteries that was already dead for a decade. Most of its episodes aren’t mysterious to the point that the so-called mysteries can’t be credibly dubbed unsolved. But one particular story is keeping people awake at night. It is about the Berkshire UFO sightings that allegedly took place on 1 September 1969.

Four unrelated families are said to have been picked up by a UFO and moved by a ray of light on that fateful date. Apart from a few personal experiences there hardly is any recorded evidence that this really happened. Not even the local newspaper did report about it. This omission is compensated by the documentary. It drags on and on, telling a ten-minute story in forty five minutes. But at least this is a mystery worthy of being labelled unsolved.

What may strike you about the accounts of the people involved was that they are credible. Thomas Reed, who was nine at the time, claimed he and his family missed more than two hours of their lives while driving in their car. Reed says his family saw an amber glow on both sides of the road. Then everything got really calm. It was like being in the middle of a hurricane. After that they found themselves back inside the car, but his mother and grandmother had switched spots.1

Reed also said that he saw the then 14-year-old Melanie Kirchdorfer aboard the UFO. She backs up his story. Tommy Warner, who was a child back then, claimed he was also abducted that same evening. His babysitter Debbie corroborates his account, saying that she saw him vanish into a bright ray of light. The people involved weren’t eager to tell their stories as they would made them a laughing stock. This Unsolved Mysteries episode has left many viewers feeling on edge.2 There are more alien abduction accounts, not all of them as convincing as this one.

The question remains whether or not this is proof of aliens from advanced civilisations visiting us. It may seem the most plausible explanation, but it is not. There is a wider array of unsolved mysteries, like evidence of reincarnation, mysterious coincidences, and premonitions. These things can’t be explained by aliens visiting us. But it may be possible to explain all these phenomena as this universe is itself could be created by an advanced civilisation. And it may not be alien. It may be humanoid. We may only exist for entertainment. At first sight that may seem disturbing but it also gives us a purpose.

Featured image: Declassified Pentagon UFO footage

1. 1969 Berkshire UFO Event Gains Recognition. Jim Levulis (2015). WAMC. [link]
2. Berkshire UFO sightings: Unsolved Mysteries episode is spooking viewers – but what happened next? Jacob Stol (2020). The Guardian. [link]

The law of large numbers

Coincidence or not?

On 11 November 2017 (11-11) I went to Groningen with my wife and son by car. While driving I noticed the date and time on the clock. The date was 11-11 and the time was 10:35. “Wouldn’t it be nice to look at the clock at exactly 11:11 today because it is 11-11,” I was thinking. Then within a second I noticed the distance recorder standing at 111.1. It had been 111.1 kilometres since the car was last filled up. That is curious. Peculiar coincidences can happen by chance. With seven billion people living on this planet, and so many things happening all the time, remarkable incidents happen.

That is easy to see. Imagine you have five dice. Imagine that a remarkable incident is like throwing five sixes. Such a remarkable incident seems very unlikely. If you throw the five dice only once, the remarkable incident probably won’t happen. On average it only happens once every 7,776 times. But if you throw the dice a million times, it almost certainly happens more than once. You should not be surprised to see it happen 120 to 140 times.

Welcome to the law of large numbers. If we intend to make the case that this universe is a virtual reality running a script, and use meaningful coincidences as evidence, this is a big hurdle. A list of strange coincidences isn’t evidence of a script, even if they are very strange. That is because strange incidents like throwing five sixes happen by chance.

A way around it may be to see if the most important historic events are tainted by peculiar coincidences. That may be more telling for two reasons. First, there are only a few major historic events, so the law of large numbers may not apply. Second, if major historic events are tainted with peculiar coincidences, it would more plausibly suggest that someone is ‘writing’ history because these events are significant. Even then the argument remains problematic. You may need to answer questions like what are the most important historic events and what are peculiar coincidences?

Probability

And we run into another problem. Humans are good at attributing a cause but bad at guessing the likelihood of an event. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman came up with an example. It is about a study of the incidence of kidney cancer in the 3,141 counties of the United States. The research revealed a remarkable pattern. The incidence of kidney cancer was the lowest in mostly rural, sparsely populated counties in traditionally Republican states in the Midwest, the South, and the West.1 So what do you make of that?

You probably came up with a few reasons why kidney cancer is less likely to occur in these counties, such as a healthy rural lifestyle or low pollution levels. But you probably didn’t think of randomness. Consider then the counties in which the incidence of kidney cancer is the highest. These counties were also mostly rural, sparsely populated, and located in traditionally Republican states in the Midwest, the South, and the West.1

The apparent contradiction can be explained by the fact that those counties all had small populations. And with smaller populations greater deviations from the average can be expected. Our intuition easily makes connections of causality but our reason doesn’t come into action to check whether or not it could just be randomness. We like to think that some cause makes unusual things happen while these could just be random events.

One might call this the law of small numbers. So if we consider the most important events in history, and use this as a sample to prove a cause like someone ‘writing’ history, we are running into this issue. Perhaps it is not possible to prove that there is a script. It might still be possible to make the case more convincing.

Endless possibilities

In the summer of 1913 the ball fell on a black number twenty-six times in a row at the roulette wheel at the Casino de Monte-Carlo. Some people lost a fortune by betting that the ball would fall on a red number the next time. They didn’t realise that the chance of the ball falling on a red number never changed. The ball doesn’t remember where it fell the previous times. If we represent black with a B and red with an R, and assume for simplicity’s sake that there is no zero, it is possible to represent falling twenty-six times in a black number like this:

B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B

The probability of the next twenty-six numbers being black is one in 67,108,864. That’s a long shot. What might surprise you is that the following combination of black and red numbers is exactly as likely to occur:

R B B R B R R B R B B R R B R R B R B B R R B B R B

You wouldn’t be thrilled if that happened unless you became a millionaire by betting on this particular sequence of twenty-six. And even then you didn’t think of the 67,108,863 sequences that didn’t materialise. We tend to consider only the things that did happen, but we rarely think of all the things that could have happened but didn’t. That might explain why events like the ball falling on a black number twenty-six times in a row impress us. And I am even more impressed because twenty-six just happens to be my lucky number.

Try to imagine all what could have happened but didn’t happen. Imagine the probability of you sitting here and now reading this page on a tablet or a mobile phone, but as a prediction from 3,600 years ago. Imagine Joseph telling the Pharaoh: “I see (your name comes here) reading a pile of papyrus pages, not real papyrus pages, but images of papyrus pages appearing on something that looks like a clay tablet. It is named The Plan For The Future. But don’t be afraid, dear Pharaoh, for it will happen 3,600 years from now. But if we don’t set up this grain storage, there will be no Natural Money based on this storage, and this money is required for that particular plan, so we must do it. And by the way, Egypt will starve when we don’t.”

The odds for this prediction to come true weren’t one in 67,108,864, and also not one in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 either. Even if you add considerably more zeroes to that number, the odds still remain far smaller. The probability is so close to zero that nobody can tell. Nevertheless you are sitting here reading this text. So how could this happen? The answer to this mystery is that so many things could have happened but didn’t happen, but something had to happen, and that’s what happened. It would have been impossible for Joseph to make this prediction unless the future is predetermined.

The licence plate on Franz Ferdinand’s car

So what to make of the reference to the end date of World War I on the licence plate number on Franz Ferdinand’s car? There are not many events in history as important as the start and end of World War I so the law of large numbers may not apply. It could still be a freak accident. A chance event helped the perpetrator. Franz Ferdinand’s chauffeur took the wrong turn after three conspirators had already failed. This gave the assassin the opportunity to strike. He was hindered by the crowd surrounding him so he couldn’t aim well. Nevertheless he managed to kill both the archduke and his wife with just two shots. This sequence of events is already remarkable.

The licence plate number makes it even more inconceivable. It might be possible to guess the end date of World War I by chance if you know that it starts and when. If you assume that the war wouldn’t take longer than twenty years, a random guess of the end date would be right one in 7,305 times, presuming that you know it will start not more than twenty years before 1918. But something doesn’t add up here. The assassination succeeded after a series of mishaps, so if it was a prediction that accidentally turned out right, it would also imply a prediction of the assassination succeeding, Franz Ferdinand being killed in this particular car, and this act being the trigger for World War I.

That’s really, really, hard to do. And so Mike Dash in the Smithsonian noted: “This coincidence is so incredible that I initially suspected that it might be a hoax.”2 And because it isn’t a hoax, investigative minds could have probed other options. The only escape is believing that this really, really, is a coincidence. Conspiracy theorists didn’t take notice either, even though this incident fits into their schemes perfectly.

There is a story about a Freemason named Alfred Pike, who allegedly disclosed a secretive plan of the Freemasons to bring about the New World Order. He predicted both world wars with uncanny precision already in 1871. Alas, nobody ever heard of this plan before 1959. It is hoax. In the Netherlands they call it a monkey sandwich story. The licence plate number could have added some credibility to it. But then again, the truth is overrated. It matters more what people believe.

Seeing meaning when there isn’t any

“Everything is just random,” pundits are eager to explain, “but because your mind is wired to see meaning, you see meaning. AIII 118 is just a random sequence of characters, but you attach meaning to it.” There is a problem with this. This text might be a random sequence of characters too, and yet you think it isn’t. Are you delusional because you read words and see that these words have meaning in the sequence in which they are written? Others might argue: “The language of Austria is German. Armistice in German is Waffenstillstand, so why doesn’t it read WIII 118, or even better, W1111 1918?”

If someone gives you a message, you don’t quibble about such details. If I say ‘hello’ to you, you are not going to discuss with me why I didn’t say ‘hi’ instead. That is, unless you are a philosopher with a lot of time on your hands. Great Britain, the United States and France, which were all major participants in the war, all use the word armistice. It might be better to ask yourself how many sequences of characters with a length of six to eight are possible, and how many of them could refer to date of the armistice ending the war? That’s only a small portion for sure.

The law of small numbers

Everything is random and weird coincidences happen by chance. This is the law of large numbers. Pundits use the birthday problem to demonstrate that weird coincidences happen more often than we think. If you happen to share a birthday with another person in a small group, it might strike you as odd, but the chance of someone sharing a birthday with another person is already 50% in a group of 23. What they don’t tell you, is that the chance of you being one of those persons is a lot smaller. Weird coincidences are likely to happen, but less likely to happen to you. So if they happen to you all the time, that would be hard to explain as mere randomness. Wellcome to my life!

And the law of large numbers may not apply to the licence plate number on Franz Ferdinand’s car. It applies to large numbers. How many historic events are out there that equal the importance of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Armistice of 11 November 1918 or D-Day? The answer probably is not many. It is less likely that meaningful coincidences happen to such major historic events. To make it even harder to believe, the licence plate number coincidence may not only imply a prediction of the end date of the war, but also the success of the assassination attempt, and this event being the trigger for the war, at least if it isn’t chance.

Only a few historic events equal the importance of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the end of World War I. Perhaps this is just randomness like the incidence of kidney cancer varying wildly in small population samples. There are only a few historic events of similar importance. D-Day is one of those events, and the scheme surrounding D-Day is even more puzzling. This is a bit like four people out of a population of six suffering from kidney cancer and this population being the royal family of the country. Perhaps it is just randomness, but an experienced physician would consider other options.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was predicted. The coincidences surrounding the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 are truly dumbfounding. So if you are God, and you want your minions to notice, then what are your options? Framing the question like this makes the answer appear obvious. Indeed, there are countless other options, but asking why this particular path is chosen is as meaningless as asking why I said ‘hello’ instead of ‘hi’. If you took a certain course of action to a certain aim, there are countless others you didn’t take. So if God wants us to take notice, then we live in interesting times.

1. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman (2011). Penguin Books.
2. Curses! Archduke Franz Ferdinand and His Astounding Death Car. Mike Dash (2013). Smithsonian. [link]

Halloween cat from Poland. User Silar.

Ghost stories

People believing in ghosts are often seen as nutty or even delusional. But perhaps there is more to ghosts than science can explain. In the summer of 2014 a couple asked the regional news channel Fox43 in the United States to visit their haunted house in Hanover, York County.

When the team entered the house their photographer Nick Petrillo received a scratch that he couldn’t explain. He had to admit that the ghostlike phenomena at least felt real.

There are countless testimonies of similar encounters, not all of them equally reliable, but the sheer number of them justifies further investigation. There are several television series about ghosts, for instance Ghost Adventures.

Is it mere suggestion? If you look at Ghost Adventures then you might think otherwise. The crew uses instruments to demonstrate that the phenomena can be proven. The show is bloated with suggestion. It hardly ever happens like that, an investigator in the paranormal claims.1 Only, he doesn’t deny that ghosts exist.

It appears that the laws of physics don’t always apply. If this universe is a virtual reality created by an advanced civilisation then the evidence for ghosts can exist together with the laws of physics. In a similar vein reincarnation stories indicate that memories can be transferred to another person. It would imply that we are just as real as ghosts.

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Featured image: Halloween cat from Poland. User Silar (2012). Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

1. Why those TV ghost-hunting shows are transparently fake. Scott Craven (2019). The Republic. [link]

NASA mission control celebrating successful return of Apollo 13

History’s oddities

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams

US Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were both involved in drafting the US Declaration of Independence that was signed on 4 July 1776. Henceforth, the forth of July became Independence Day in the United States. Jefferson was Adam’s Vice-President until he himself became President in 1800. They were the last surviving members of the American revolutionaries. They had been bitter enemies but were also friends for many years. Both died on 4 July 1826, fifty years after the Declaration of Independence.1

Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler

Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler were the only two persons that ever conquered nearly all of Europe. There is a series of parallels between them. Napoleon and Hitler both came to power by a coup ending an unstable republic. They both turned Europe into a battlefield. They both ventured into Africa and both were repelled in Egypt. They both waged a war on two fronts because they both attacked Russia while England had not been defeated.

Napoleon was born on Corsica, an independent island that became part of France. Napoleon became the leader of France. Hitler was born in Austria, an independent country that became part of Germany. Hitler became the leader of Germany. Napoleon came to power after a coup to overthrow the government on 9 November 1799. Hitler was involved in a failed coup to overthrow the Weimar Republic on 9 November 1923.

The Titanic

The Titanic was the tallest ship in the world. It had compartments that could be sealed remotely. For that reason it was deemed unsinkable. Nevertheless the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage. In 1898 Morgan Robertson wrote the novel Futility. It described the maiden voyage of a transatlantic luxury liner named the Titan. Although it was touted as being unsinkable, it struck an iceberg and sank with much loss of life. In the book the month of the wreck was April like in the real event.2

The similarities between the Titanic and the Titan are striking:

  • similar names of the ships
  • both were described as the largest craft afloat and the greatest of the works of men
  • the sizes were similar: the Titan was 45,000 tons and the Titanic was 46,000 tons
  • both were deemed ‘unsinkable’
  • both had a triple screw (propeller)
  • both had a shortage of lifeboats
  • both struck an iceberg: the Titan, moving at 25 knots, struck an iceberg on the starboard side on a night in April, in the North Atlantic, 400 nautical miles from Newfoundland while the Titanic, moving at 22½ knots, struck an iceberg on the starboard side on the night of 14 April 1912 in the North Atlantic, 400 nautical miles from Newfoundland.
  • both sank and most of the passengers and crew died.2

In April 1935, the cargo vessel Titanian sailed in the North Atlantic. A sailor claimed that he had an uneasy feeling because of the similarity of the ship’s name with Titanic. That caused him to sound a warning. He claimed to have done this before ice was seen and that the vessel stopped just in front of an iceberg. Reports showed that the Titanian was slightly damaged on the voyage.3

One hundred years later a luxurious Italian cruise ship, the Costa Concordia sank after hitting a rock. The accident was on Friday 13 January 2012. The ship had thirteen decks. Some passengers claimed that the Titanic theme ‘My Heart Will Go On’ was playing in a restaurant when the ship hit the rock.4 On 27 February 2012, another cruise ship of the same parent company, the Costa Allegra, ran into trouble near the Seychelles.5

The John F. Kennedy assassination

“We’re heading into nut country today,” President John F. Kennedy said to his wife on the morning of 22 November 1963. She had just seen an advertisement of the John Birch Society in the Dallas Morning News suggesting that he was a communist. The advert was bordered in the black of a funeral announcement. “But, Jackie, if somebody wants to shoot me from a window with a rifle, nobody can stop it, so why worry about it?”6

A few hours later he was killed by someone shooting him from a window with a rifle. The date of the assassination, 22 November (22/11), consists of two multiples of eleven. There are some parallels between John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln:

  • Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846. Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946.
  • Lincoln was elected President in 1860. Kennedy was elected President in 1960.
  • Both Presidents were concerned with Civil Rights.
  • When Lincoln became president in 1861, one of the persons that worried about his safety was John Kennedy, Superintendent of Police in New York. When Kennedy became president in 1961, one of the persons that worried about his safety was Evelyn Lincoln, his personal secretary.
  • Both presidents were shot in the back of the head in the presence of their wife.
  • Lincoln was shot in the Ford Theatre while Kennedy was shot in a Ford Lincoln.
  • They were both shot on a Friday.
  • Both assassins were killed and not brought to trial.
  • Lincoln’s successor was Andrew Johnson, born in 1808, while Kennedy’s successor was Lyndon Johnson, born in 1908.7

It has been suggested that these similarities are a coincidence and that there are similar similarities between other US Presidents.7 Perhaps there is more to it. Some coincidences are more peculiar than others. That both were shot on a Friday is less remarkable than that Lincoln was shot in the Ford Theatre while Kennedy was shot in a Ford Lincoln.

These coincidences may be part of other schemes of peculiar coincidences too. Kennedy’s brother Senator Robert F. Kennedy was shot a few years later. He died in 1968 on June 6 (6/6), just after Martin Luther King was murdered on April 4 (4/4). That is a bit odd because of the coincidences surrounding D-Day (6/6/44). For that reason the series of tragedies related to the Kennedy family that is called the Kennedy Curse may not be mere accident or bad luck.

The Lincoln connection

The son of President Lincoln, Robert Todd Lincoln, had his share of coincidences too. A few months before John Wilkes Booth murdered his father, he was rescued by Edwin Booth, the brother of John Wilkes. The Booth family and the Lincoln family were not neighbours, which makes the incident remarkable. Robert Lincoln was in the vicinity when his father was shot. He was also present at the assassination of President Garfield in 1881 as well as the assassination of President McKinley in 1901.8

From William Henry Harrison through John Kennedy, every President elected in a year ending in zero died in office. The presidencies of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, Warren Harding and Franklin Roosevelt all ended prematurely. The pattern has been called The Zero Year Curse. It ended with Ronald Reagan who survived an assassination attempt. First Lady Nancy Reagan reportedly had hired psychics and astrologers to protect her husband from the curse.9

Apollo 13

The number 13 is often considered to be an unlucky number. The voyage of Apollo 13 was haunted by accidents. The launch was on 11 April 1970 at 13:13 CST from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The departure time combined with the number of the spacecraft appears to be an attempt to challenge fate. The lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded on 13 April. The crew made it back alive.10

Featured image: NASA mission control celebrating successful return of Apollo 13. NASA. Public Domain.

1. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams die. History.com (2009). [link]
2. Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan. Wikipedia. [link]
3. Titanian – Echo of Titanic. Encyclopedia Titanica (2004) [link]
4. Costa Concordia disaster. Wikipedia. [link]
5. MS Costa Allegra. Wikipedia. [link]
6. Three surprising details from the JFK assassination – and why they matter. James L. Swanson (2013). The Globe and Mail. [link]
7. Lincoln–Kennedy coincidences urban legend. Wikipedia. [link]
8. Robert Todd Lincoln. Wikipedia. [link]
9. Curse of Tippecanoe. Wikipedia. [link]
10. Apollo 13. Wikipedia. [link]