Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Seven Dumbly Sins

       There is so much noise in the world. So many people talking, shouting, writing, screaming... blogging. All these ideas bouncing around competing for space in your head. And I mean that literally; some ideas can be held in tandem with certain other ideas, some cannot. Religions, political leanings, and other such ideas, don't usually play well with other ideas in the same category. You can be catholic and liberal, or catholic and conservative, but you can't be catholic and muslim. Given that we are all busy people, is there any easy way to sift through all of the noise and decide what is true, or at least what actually makes sense? 

      Truth is an elusive beast, but fortunately, hunting nonsense is like hunting cows; you can do it wearing bells and corduroys (zipzip) and carrying a hammer. Here are seven things that you can program right into your BS detector (which I think is an iPhone app now...) 

      Seven Ways to Tell When What Someone is Saying is Bullshit (whether they know it is or not):

1. You aren't allowed to question it. This is the favorite for people who are involved in indoctrinating children into a belief system. Children are natural-born scientists, and will keep asking "Why?" until they get a satisfying answer (sometimes they don't stop there). Somewhere along the way, someone was clever enough to realize that if you simply made questioning anything adults say, particularly about the sacred belief system, a crime or sin or unholy offense, you would never get to that uncomfortable point where you realize you really don't have a very good answer. This is pretty much a corner stone of religious schooling, especially single-faith schools that start working on children at a very early age, but it was also a lingering component of the non-denominational christian liberal arts college I attended. Child abuse usually incorporates elements of this, but I don't think I need to draw any more of a connection than that, given the way that has been playing out in one particular sect for as far back as we can tell. (Can anyone explain to me why the pope isn't in prison like the leader of any other kiddie-porn ring would be? Disgusting.)

2. It invokes something that only they, or a select group of people, have access to. What's amazing about this one is it's own self-defeating logic, but it still gets used fairly regularly. The whole point of "truth" is that it is universal. (Despite the post-modern garbage that has seeped out of the university into popular culture, the notion of multiple truths is unsupported by anything resembling evidence, just "scholars" sitting in chairs making stuff up, and working for grant money based on who can out-ridiculous the other, from Saussure through Derrida, Freud and Lacan, the Marxists and all the gender, race and sexuality specific theories, up to the master of them all, the crazy Slovenian, Zizek). When I see a mountain, you presumably also see a mountain. That is truth, or as close to it as we will ever get. To my knowledge, nothing in the universe has ever been discovered that could only be seen, smelt, tasted, felt, heard, comprehended or understood by a certain group of people, whether that group is linked by gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or by being descendants of a particular guy, or by virtue of all having accepted a certain belief system. If someone tries to pull that on you, what they are really saying is, "I really can't prove this, so I'm just going to pretend that you can't see it (understand it, feel it...)

3. It doesn't take long before they say, "That's just the way it is." At some level, things are what they are, right? (Or, to give The Hoodie his due, "It is what it is.") Yes, that's true, but one can ask, "Yeah, but why?" a surprising number of times before you really start to run into that, unless what you are saying is a complete fabrication in the first place. For example, we know where our species came from and what species it evolved from, we know the process by which life got started and how it continued to evolve and we know why, given certain parameters, evolution isn't just an accident, it is a law of nature, and would happen every time the right materials were in place and the time-line was long enough. All this is explained by biology and chemistry. We also know what the four fundamental forces of nature are, and the fundamental particles, and we know why they interact with each other the way they do, why they have the masses, spins and charges that they have, how they create and are manipulated by the four forces and we even know how they all  naturally came into being from what was seemingly nothing. We are getting very close to unraveling the fabric of space-time and the elegant symmetry underlying it all. All this has been explained by physics. But when you start asking questions of someone working from a fabricated belief system, the 2-3 canned answers that they were taught quickly run out and they start trying to get rid of you. (See Way to Tell Number One.)

 4. It isn't long before they say, "Well, that's just what I believe." This one is the unholy child of Numbers Two and Three, and can be one of the most infuriating. This person is essentially saying, "You've won this argument, I have nothing else to say and clearly I am wrong, but nevertheless I am going to be an ass and stubbornly refuse to admit that to either you or myself and go on believing what I always have, because I never cared about truth in the first place, just what made me feel good."

5. They tell you that whatever they are talking about is "undetectable." This is the common fallback of someone who believes in ghosts, souls, chi, a mind that is separate from the brain, mystical energies, whatever it is dowsing rods (they are sticks! sticks!) are supposed to detect, and so forth. The problem with this argument is fairly obvious, if you think about it for two seconds. Supposedly, all of these things are undetectable to science, since science has spent centuries looking very, very hard for all of these things, and never found anything even remotely conclusive that supported their existence. So the claim is, "Well, your science just can't detect them because they don't interact with the physical world in the same way." Science is in the business of detecting things in the physical world. For example, we've detected the neutrino, which has a mass of 0.0000000000000000002403265995 joules (that's really small). So, it is pretty safe to say that if there is something in the physical world, we're pretty good at finding it. (In fact, we're working on detecting things outside our observable universe, such as dimensions beyond the usual four.) So what about this idea, of things that don't interact with the physical world? Well, if they don't interact with the physical world... how do they interact with the physical world? How do ghosts knock vases of shelves, and minds and souls move limbs and toes, and mystical energies move dowsing rods? Either it interacts with the physical world and we can detect it, or it doesn't, and maybe it exists in some far off nowhere, but it can't be responsible for the things people claim it is responsible for here. 

6. They say, or feel, that you are an agent of the devil sent to tempt them. Obviously, this is generally a religious manifestation, but as they love to remind you, the devil takes many forms (which you should know since you are one, but logic isn't really the strong suit here), and others may resist you in this way as well. This defense mechanism is the one truly ingenious invention of religion, the idea that anything that causes you to doubt the doctrine is from the prince of lies and the more sense it makes, the more you have to shut it out. In the more extreme cases this is where you have people claiming that an all-loving god planted fossils of species that never really existed here just to deceive us and make us doubt his word so that the truly faithful could be saved, and he could send the rest of us to eternal torment for being evil enough to be fooled by an infinitely intelligent being, and other such nonsense.

And lastly, 7. They are killing people over it. This is the last resort of people who know they really don't have a point. When truth becomes absolute and possessed by a select group of people, but they know that  they really have no concrete way of sharing that with others, especially others who have a contradictory truth, the simplest way to eliminate a rival idea is to eliminate the brains that carry it. In the battle for idea-space in brains all over the world, eliminating enough of the brains carrying opposing ideas doesn't usually win you many converts (though the depravity of humans is surprising), it does prevent that rival idea from making the jump to other brains. (The inestimable Christopher Hitchens wrote a recent piece on political violence that touched on this a bit.)

      If you've read to here, you'll be frustrated to know that I probably could have saved you half an hour by simply leading with this quote by the only man worth voting for as president- It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry. -Tom Paine


  1. An addition I might make to number 6 is that it need not be "the Devil" it just has to be whatever the identified enemy of their belief system was. After my visit to Cambodia, and while stuck in Bangkok for a day I read a biography of Pol Pot. When the system started to fail miserably it wasn't that a bunch of academic radicals that had never worked a non-government job in their lives were incapable of preforming central planning for an entire nation with a system that couldn't measure demand let alone create output- it was simply postulated that "enemies" (capitalists, CIA, KGB, Vietnam) were working to make their project fail. I had always believed that much of that commentary was just a cover for the crimes they committed, but on reading this, it appears that at least in part there was an actual belief that it was not the system that could fail but only through sabotage of these imagined enemies did failure come.

    My point is that this is not just a religious phenomenon, it takes place any time there is absolute faith that a model of reality is correct in the face of reality itself. Temptation from the enemy is the fall back of the ideological extremes as well as religious ones.

  2. No, you're absolutely right, and I intended it as such. I didn't elaborate because I was trying to keep it brief.

    I have plans for a post about how stupid political ideologies like fascism and communism are faiths just like religion and fail for the same reason. That is essentially Ferris' point as well.

    1. And what about capitalism? Is it still working?

  3. Its nice to actually get to read some of your writing after 30 years. I made some accurate assumptions on most of your beliefs, etc. I think it kind of speaks to our brotherly relationship of just knowing how the other one pretty much feels. But its nice to read about it, keep it coming.

  4. Hmm. Yeah, and rooming together for how many of those years? 23?

    Those words mean a lot to me. There are few people whose opinion I value as much. Glad you are reading and enjoying.

  5. "Supposedly, all of these things are undetectable to science, since science has spent centuries looking very, very hard for all of these things, and never found anything even remotely conclusive that supported their existence"

    What are "all of these things"? Are you specifically referring to the "God mumbo jumbo" that all those bigotted people try to drill into you? If so, it would be really intersting if you provide some details of that....I have "great doubt" that any scientist (mainstream scientist that is) has ever embarked on such an effort. But you are welcome to clear that ....errr...."great doubt".