Monday, October 15, 2012


D O U B T: When French philosopher René Descartes published Meditations on First Philosophy in 1641, he helped establish the rationalist ideology of foundationalism. As a distinct school of thought in Western metaphysics, foundationalism purported that all beliefs must be justified in order to be considered valid. And justification of a belief only occurred in two ways: first, by existing independently of other beliefs, i.e., a belief that falls outside the realm of existence, and second, by being derived from other preexisting basic beliefs. Perhaps the most famous basic belief that Descartes derived from his methodology of doubt was Cogito ergo sum or "I think, therefore, I am." As a self-evident axiom, this phrase effectively captured the true essence of Cartesian doubt, which by definition, meant ridding oneself of all the opinions that one had acquired over time and starting anew with a basic (foundational) belief system. Like Immanuel Kant, who came about 150 years later, Descartes primarily concerned himself with how human beings acquired knowledge (epistemology). Was it merely through sensory perception (sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch)? Or was there something more empirical to the knowledge acquisition process? In his Philosophical Fragmendts (1844), Kierkegaard criticized Descartes' Cogito as presupposing the logical idea of existence. In short, he believed the phrase should be reversed: "I am, therefore, I think."

Monday, October 1, 2012

Rachel Carson: Reacting to Experts

Rachel Carson: Reacting to Experts: Much to the American chemical industry's dismay, Carson published Silent Spring in 1962. Trained as a marine biologist, she voiced concern about the effects of DDT (and Dieldrin) on birds and fish (anything that laid eggs). Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, DDT and Dieldrin were widely used by American farmers as insecticides. They especially killed fire ants, gypsy moths, lice and mosquitoes (which carried diseases like typhus and malaria). In fact, these insecticides proved so effective that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) ("the experts") began large-scale aerial spraying programs over American farmlands. Carson believed the potential downsides (long-term consequences) of these insecticides had not been properly studied. Having worked for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, she witnessed the negative impact of DDT firsthand. And because birds and fish were turning up dead in areas that received aerial spraying, the Kennedy administration's Interior Secretary Stewart Udall began to pay serious attention to the controversy that Silent Spring had caused. But the mammalian toxicity of DDT was actually quite low, as its effects on humans were not overly noxious. The primary problem with DDT was its bio-accumulation, which meant it remained in the soil (and sat on crops as a residue). Therefore, Congress banned DDT in 1972, yet other insecticides with lower bio-accumulations simply replaced it.