The “supernatural” does not, and cannot, exist

I might have written about this before, but I think it bears repeating, if only because it’s a point of personal irritation:  there’s no such thing as the “supernatural.”

Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not necessarily saying I think there are no such things as spirits, magic, deities, psychic powers, or the like.  I strongly suspect that none of these things does exist, but my point is about categories of thought and terminology, not about the reality of proposed phenomena, and the term “supernatural” is inherently pointless. Continue reading “The “supernatural” does not, and cannot, exist”

Never hate your interlocutors

There’s a moment in “The Godfather: Part III” when Michael Corleone says to Vincent, Sonny Corleone’s hotheaded illegitimate son, “Never hate your enemies; it affects your judgment.”  These may be some of the most useful words in that whole excellent movie series, words that apply to the world and to human interaction generally, perhaps more than ever before in our modern world of politics and social media.

Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time on social media, at least when dealing with political and social issues, has seen the face of the problem this aphorism addresses.  Anyone who has followed politics has also seen it.  We tend to address our issues and disagreements in the real world as though they are zero-sum games—contests in which there can be only one winner and one loser, where any gain by the “other side” is a loss for “our side.”  Perhaps as an automatic defense against the distress of having to face our fellow humans in such a contest, we demonize our “enemies.”  Unfortunately, this approach quickly becomes counter-productive, because—as Michael Corleone rightly points out—to demonize others, to hate them, impairs our judgment.  If we see another person as inherently reprehensible, then to give him or her any ground, at any level, is to seem to reward what we perceive as evil and, given the zero-sum assumption, to penalize the good. Continue reading “Never hate your interlocutors”

What would you do?

Imagine there’s a person you hate more than you hate any other human being; indeed, this may well be the only person you truly hate, more than Hitler or Stalin, more than Ted Bundy, more than your most loathed and offensive political antitheses.

This person’s every habit disgusts and repulses you.  Their laughter is at best grating, and at worse rings false in your ears, less melodious than a braying donkey.  Their wit is sophomoric, their wisdom trite clichés.  Their physical presence is frankly appalling; they stink, their breath is nauseating, their hair and their body habitus are the quintessence of unattractiveness, their features are disturbingly asymmetric, their ears protrude oddly and unevenly, their nose is off-center, and their posture makes you feel uncomfortable.  Even their flatulence is exceptionally rancid, as though some of their own internal organs have already begun to decay while they still live.

Lest we be mired in the superficial, it’s also clear that this person is horribly selfish, petty, irritable, judgmental, condescending—hateful and misanthropic, nihilistic, dismissive of all possible goodness.  They wish foul and horrific vengeance upon even strangers who commit the most minor of offenses, and were they given power and impunity, they would no doubt leave much of the world a wasteland.

When you see others treat this person with courtesy, with kindness, and even at times with respect, you cannot comprehend how they could be so fully duped.  Do they not realize what a Lovecraftian monstrosity it is with which they are interacting?  Do they not recognize, at some level, how appalling and foul this person is?  Don’t they know that the few seemingly kind, or mildly impressive, things that this person does are merely traps full of inevitable betrayal and disappointment?  Don’t they realize that this person always fails those who rely upon him, always disappoints those who expect anything good from him.  Can’t they see, just by looking, that he’s the living refutation of goodness itself, the very force of entropic chaos made flesh?  Or perhaps that grandiosity pays too high a compliment?  Can they not at least see that he is utterly pathetic, as pointless as any slime mold, but with none of the biological interest and uniqueness that might justify attention or curiosity?

Does not at least some part of them—some deep, animal instinct for self-preservation—cause the hackles to rise on the backs of their necks when they get too close to this person?  Do they not find that he would be worthy of pity if he were not so inescapably repugnant, so completely deserving of each and every bad thing that happens to him?

What if you knew such a person?  What if that person were part of your life, and had been for as long as you could remember?  You’re encouraged to love this person, but that’s akin to someone recommending that you love Jeffrey Dahmer, or Timothy McVeigh, Pol Pot, or the Boston Strangler.  Maybe Jesus, the Buddha, the Dalai Lama, or other similarly elevated souls could honestly find it in their hearts to love this person, but for you…well, for you, a mere mortal, how can your attempts at love not be overwhelmed by all the ways in which this person is unlovable, the things you find impossible to ignore, even while others either brush them aside, or don’t seem to notice them in the first place?

Imagine some people even offered or suggested methods by which you could physically, neurologically, change how you respond to this person.  But that would surely be akin to imbibing Marx’s opiate of the masses.  Do they really think you would consider it a good idea to blind yourself to the presence of such a negative force?  Do they really think that such ignorance could ever be bliss?

They don’t know what you know.  If they did…well, if they did, they would share your loathing.

Imagine you knew such a person.  Imagine this person worked in the same place you worked, shared your commute, watched the same videos, read the same books; imagine you could never be free of this person’s reactions to these things, that you could never not be given their commentary on whatever you tried to enjoy, that their enjoyment made you suspicious that your own enjoyment was inappropriate, or even prurient.

Imagine that this person was with you wherever you went, waiting for you when you awakened in the morning, and still there when you finally were able to get them to stop annoying you enough that you were able to get to sleep—for too short a time, giving too little rest.  You never know a moment’s peace or freedom from this person in your waking life, and they often invade even your dreams.

There is no way you can escape from this person while you are alive, no way you can live free from the presence of the most loathsome, the most pernicious little odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the Earth, no respite from the disgust engendered by this person’s presence…

…because that person is you.  That person is yourself.

What would you do?

Dr. Pedantic speaks…or, well, actually, he writes.

At work yesterday, I was listening to the song “What You Came For (featuring Rihanna)” on our office music source.  This is not a rare occurrence; the song gets played at least once daily.  It’s one of those songs that has only a few lyrics, frequently repeated, but one doesn’t mind too much because the tune is catchy, Rihanna has beautiful voice, and listening to her voice conjures the image of Rihanna herself, which is never a bad thing.  The words, limited though they are, are evocative, and despite having heard them an uncountable number of times before, today one of the lines struck me, specifically, the declaration that “lightning strikes every time she moves.”

This sounds like the description of someone well worth avoiding.  I mean, if lightning strikes every time she moves, she would indeed be a very dangerous person.  Just how dangerous would depend on how we interpret “every time she moves”.  Does it count even if she merely twitches her finger?  Does breathing count as moving?  Imagine the carnage, to say nothing of the ozone, that would surround such a woman!

Then I thought more carefully and realized that I was drawing unwarranted conclusions.  After all, the lyrics just say that lightning strikes every time she moves.  They don’t say that lightning strikes where she is, every time she moves.  If we assume that lightning is striking somewhere on Earth at nearly every instant—and if that’s not quite true, it’s surely striking on Jupiter, and possibly also on Neptune, if not on Earth—it can honestly be said of pretty much anyone that lightning strikes every time that she, or he, moves.

It’s a bit like that old statement about drinking early in the day:  It’s always five o’clock somewhere.  Now, this at least cannot be strictly true.  It would only be precisely true every hour on the hour.  But one could make the statement accurate just by saying that it’s always after five somewhere, and that would take care of the nitpicking.

This led me to wonder just what generalizations that sound dramatic might be true in a trivial sense pretty much anywhere.  It didn’t take long to come up with some.  One could, for instance, make the seemingly terrifying statement that “everyone who pisses me off dies,” and be telling the truth (unless the transhumanist movement is correct, and some of the people who are currently alive will never die because of advances in technology).  Still, even if people end up extending their lives to a tremendous degree, it seems likely that the universe itself will eventually arrive at a state where no life of any kind is possible.  This is probably an inescapable consequence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics (see here).  If there is no escape allowed by the laws of physics from this eventual universal heat death, it’s not unreasonable to say that everyone alive will eventually die.  Thus, it is a true statement—as far as it goes—that everyone who pisses me off dies.  It’s also true, unfortunately, that everyone who doesn’t piss me off dies.  But when you’re trying to be scary, I guess you’re not required to make full disclosure.

In a similar vein, one could threaten someone into doing what one wants by saying to them, “If you don’t do exactly what I say, you are going to die.”  This, again, is a true statement, even if the speaker never has any intention of killing or otherwise harming the person being addressed.  What’s more, even if the person does exactly what you say, they are still going to die.  It may take years—a dozen, a hundred, a million, a trillion, who knows?—but it’s a reasonable assumption that eventually each person will die.  That’s probably a better assumption even than the guess that lightning is always striking somewhere whenever a woman in a song moves.

The dread super-villain, Dr. Pedantic, might well choose to elaborate on his threats, saying, “If you do not do as I say, you will die.  And I don’t just mean that you will eventually die, but that you will die sometime within the next seventy-two hours, approximately, and it will be a painful, violent death at my hands—figuratively speaking—unless something else, by chance, kills you before I have the opportunity to do so.  And, of course, barring any intervening events that make it impossible for me to carry out a violent act upon you, such as my own death or capture.  However, these are relatively unlikely events, and though past performance is not a guarantee of future results, I have not yet failed to carry out such actions when they were warranted against someone who failed to obey my commands.  And to be clear, there have been other such people.”

Dr. Pedantic gets a bit boring sometimes, and his would-be victims occasionally lose track of what he’s trying to get them to do; he doesn’t quite get the art of using intimidating rhetoric.  Neither does he grasp the intention of such poetry as the statement that lightning strikes every time a woman moves; he doesn’t understand that the song is actually just saying that she is such a “striking” figure that, no matter what she does, she almost always seizes the attention of those who happen to observe her.

In any case, as the song says, whether or not lightning literally strikes every time she moves, it’s not that important, because even when everyone’s watching her, she’s looking at you.  Aren’t you lucky?  At least, you’re lucky if the words are figurative, much more than than you would be if she were, literally, emitting large bolts of discharged static electricity with every movement.

But even if the statement is meant in an entirely figurative sense, you’re still not safe.  After all, no matter what you do, everyone is going to die some day.


We shouldn’t assume that we know other people’s motives and character based on limited data (and it’s almost always limited)

I have a long and very important letter to write today (I haven’t been this nervous about writing something since college), so I’m going to keep this relatively short, but I did want to write something, at least.  It’s on a subject that troubles me quite a bit, that apparent tendency—at least on social media—for people to act as if they were telepathic or clairvoyant regarding other people’s motives and thoughts.

It happens so easily, and probably without much thought (probably without much ill-intent).  We see a post or declaration, or a political or social statement, and we infer from it all sorts of things about the source’s character, intentions, and morality.  It’s remarkable that we imagine we’re so good at such interpretations, since most of us very rarely have any idea what our own motivations and deeper thoughts are.  It’s apparently true that often we can recognize by facial expression and body language how our friends and colleagues are feeling more clearly than they recognize it themselves, but this is broad and crude.  Recognizing that someone is sad or angry before they realize it themselves doesn’t give us any reason to think we know why someone is sad or angry.

Yet if a person posts a meme supportive of the Second Amendment—or conversely, one supportive of stricter gun control—those who see this meme often seem to draw far-reaching conclusions, straw-manning the person and their supposed motivations.  The sharer must be a right-wing, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, anti-government bigot, say; or alternatively, they must be a “regressive leftist,” communist, SJW, crusading vegan, who wants to emasculate all men.

How many people in the world would meet those descriptions accurately?  There are probably a few—there are a lot of people in the world, after all, and the Gaussian is broad.  But surely, most people don’t honestly fit into any such broad stereotypes.

Of course, maybe I’m making my own error by guessing that people perform such acts of unwarranted attribution based on limited statements and data.  Maybe I’m straw-manning the people online.  Certainly, there are many to whom I’m being unjust—or would be if I were thinking of them.  But mostly, I’m thinking of the people who respond to trolling and counter-trolling, and the ones who take part in internet-based debates that rapidly, or immediately, degenerate into name-calling matches of which most six-year-olds would be ashamed.

I wonder how people can feel comfortable engaging in such interactions on a regular basis.  Perhaps the anonymity, or pseudo-anonymity, of the online world helps people let slip their baser natures more easily.  We are free from the subtle cues of body language and expression that, as I stated above, give us a sense of how our interlocutor feels.  Also, the nearly-automatic echo-chamber effect of social media tends to reinforce our sense of identity as a member of a particular group, and that leads us to be more inclined to react to perceived outsiders as enemies—this is probably both defensive and a matter of “virtue-signaling,” or what would probably be better understood as tribe-signaling.  We are declaring to those in our tribe that we are members in good standing, and thus should remain welcome.

A similar phenomenon might be behind why a lot of people, many of whom don’t honestly subscribe to the tenets of their stated religion, continue to go church (or mosque, or synagogue, or whatever) on a regular basis.  They demonstrate not their actual beliefs, but that they are committed members of the tribe.

This is, I suppose, often relatively harmless.  But it is anathema to honest discourse.  And it’s only through honest discourse (as far as I can see) that we can come to an ever-improving model of the world, to come nearer to truth and understanding.  We can see how tribalism and partisanship, a reflexive judgmentalism and name-calling, has poisoned much of our political system, creating deadlocks even in a government currently dominated by a single political party.  Nothing gets done—or at least very little does—when those involved are just trying to demonstrate their “virtue” by assailing those on the other side.  At least, it seems like that’s what they’re doing.  Maybe I’m misjudging.

I don’t know what the fix for this tribalism is; it seems to be something innate in the human character.  But it’s surely not the only thing, or we would never have created modern civilization.  Perhaps a place to start, a small step, would be for us to try to curtail our instinct to lead or to respond with accusation and insult.  If we think we know someone else’s motives, we should stop and think again before believing ourselves.  If we want to bring a point of criticism to their attention, instead of reflexively spewing, “It’s gross!  It’s racist!” we might start by saying, “I don’t know what your intentions are here, but when you say something like that, it comes across—to me at least—as racist.  Is that what you wanted?”

I don’t know if that will work better or not, but I’d love to see the experiment tried on a large scale.  In the meantime, remember, just because you infer something doesn’t mean that it was actually implied.

Tweets and memes on complex themes

Okay, well, I’m feeling under-the-weather today, so I’m not sure how good this post will be, but I wanted to maintain my recently-instituted policy of writing at least one post per week, on Sundays, so I’m going to charge forward.

I had a hard time deciding what to write about today, given the above problem; I have a list of many one-to-two-line ideas for blog posts in my cell phone (I jot the ideas down there when they occur to me, and come back to them later when deciding what to write), and I chose to stick with something simple, but which I consider important.

The topic is a pet peeve of mine about Facebook-style memes relating to political and social issues, and it involves the poor quality of reasoning one often sees in such posts.  Obviously, a meme—or a tweet—is not going to be the ideal medium through which to convey detailed and careful reasoning on any deep subject, which is why I write blogs, relying on language rather than eye-catching pictures designed to trigger an emotional response (see last week’s post to read what I think of relying on emotions to decide important matters).  But memes are often disappointingly lacking even for what they are.

The meme that caught my attention today consists entirely of words, with no underlying picture, but still demonstrates the problem I see in so much of modern discourse.  It’s a meme I’ve seen before; it starts by detailing the consequences that might be met by a person illegally entering North Korea, Afghanistan, or Iran.  Then it introduces a strawman-style, exaggerated statement about the many benefits available to illegal immigrants in the U.S., and concludes with something along the lines of, “No wonder we’re a country in so much debt,” which is almost—though not quite—a complete non-sequitur.

This meme blatantly shoots itself in the foot by comparing the United States’ immigration policy—in clearly intended unfavorable light—with that of three of the most benighted and oppressive regimes in the world today.  Is this really expected to convince anyone, or to sway a reader’s thinking?  I suspect that even most conservatives, toward whom this meme is likely directed, wouldn’t consider North Korea, Afghanistan, or Iran to be role models on the national or international stage.  Why on Earth would anyone bring them up for such a comparison?  I almost suspect that this meme was made by a troll from the Left, intended as a caricature of Right-wing arguments, but it was shared, with all apparent earnestness, by someone who is clearly conservative.

It would have been much better—more effective in getting an argument across, and possibly even thought-provoking—if the poster had compared our immigration policy to that of, say, Canada or Japan.  These nations are modern and high-functioning and enact at least some policies which we might consider better solutions to specific problems than those we apply in the U.S.  I’m not making the argument that their situations are the same as ours, nor do I mean to start a discussion about the benefits and detriments of their policies relative to those of the United States.  I’m just saying that citing those examples would probably have been a more effective means of eliciting actual thought on the matter, even from those who might lean to the Left.

I’ve quoted a conservative post above because it’s the one I last encountered, but I find similar dubious posts—often even more egregious in their seeming manipulativeness and illogic—shared from Left-leaning sites such as “Occupy Democrats” and “The Other 98%”.

Memes—and tweets, even with their now-doubled character-length—seem to be the ultimate distillation of the lamentable phenomenon of “sound-bite as news”.  I’m not broadly against Facebook, Twitter, et al.  I use both social media platforms.  But they are rarely venues in which to gain or to share deep arguments about complicated problems (at least, they’re rarely used that way, though they do occasionally produce high quality discussion).  They could, however, easily be venues in which honest thought is at least provoked in someone who reads a tweet, or a meme, perhaps leading such a person to investigate some matter more thoroughly than they had in the past.  They can also link to articles and other sources that further explore interesting issues.  Unfortunately, as far as I can see, they are usually used for coarse, ham-handed virtue signaling and name-calling.  I’m not sure how often a given person changes his or her mind in response to being insulted; in my experience, it almost never happens in real time, at the very least.  This is likely especially true when the quality of the call-out is so logically faulty and ill-conceived as memes like the one I reference above.

Reality is messy.  Most issues are complex.  That’s the nature of the universe in which we find ourselves.  This shouldn’t surprise us; we ourselves are ridiculously complicated Rube Goldberg machines cobbled together over the course of eons from the spare parts left lying around by prior biology.  That anything works at all is probably more a testament to the brutally sharp and ruthless character of natural selection (at all levels) than it is to any clever or efficient design of the systems we have put in place.  Given this, it’s going to be a rare case indeed in which a single picture with overlying words (and not very many of these) is going to capture, or meaningfully contribute to, any debate about substantive issues.  Any such simple solution or argument is a low-hanging fruit that likely would have been plucked long ago, if it were available.

Such tweets and memes, in many cases, seem simply to serve as virtue signals, calling out to others of like mind with the sharer.  If that’s all you want to do—to display your tattoos on the prison rec-yard so you can be welcomed into the gang most likely to protect you—then I suppose that’s fine.  But if you want to try to understand, and to spread understanding of, complex scientific, social, or political issues, with an eye toward fostering improvement in society and civilization, then you’re going to have to do more work.  At bare minimum, you should try to make your memes as honest and as rational as you can and to maintain that policy in choosing the memes you share.

Otherwise, you might as well just stick to sharing jokes and picture of kittens.  The latter, at least, usually tend to improve the moods of those who see them…and that may just make them ever-so-slightly more considerate and less reactionary in their own posting.

It’s a place to start.

Stop respecting emotions so much

I’ve said it before in other venues, but it bears repeating:  as a society, we need to stop giving so much respect and deference to emotions.  I’ve gotten push-back on this idea before, but it’s really not that radical, nor that negative, a proposal.

I’m not recommending that we abandon emotions altogether (if that were even possible), or try to suppress them, a la the Vulcans in Star Trek.  Emotions are a real, and significant, part of the experience of life.  Everyone has them, and they are interesting and important.  I don’t want to deny the validity and reality of any person’s emotional experiences, nor to dismiss the real pain and joy that emotional reactions can entail.  The human experience is an emotional one, and emotional states can be useful in many ways.  Joy over a success can lead one to try to repeat it in the future.  Outrage over injustice can drive a person to act against it.  Fear, as Gavin deBecker has eloquently pointed out, can protect us from real danger, which still exists in the world despite all our advances. Continue reading “Stop respecting emotions so much”