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Tonight at 11: Bullshit defines reality December 2, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
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I’ve seen this story floating around, recently:

Why People Think Total Nonsense is Really Deep

Money shot from the study:

Those more receptive to bull**** are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions [beliefs in things for which there is no empirical evidence (i.e. that prayers have the ability to heal)] and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.

I’m looking at you, Deepak Chopra (who is named in the journal article several time).

onbullshitWhat is “bullshit”? The article starts by referencing a small book(which i own), called On Bullshit, written by philosopher Harry Frankfurt.

It’s a short little book (it’s actually quite physically small, and it resides on my bookshelf atop my study Bible, because I follow directions well, and store it on bullshit.

My mind is strange.

In any case, the article quotes the book is defining “bullshit” as being “something that is designed to impress but that was constructed absent direct concern for the truth.” Not a lie, per se, but without making the effort to be supported by good thinking or skepticism, let’s say.

The article elaborates:

Thus, bullshit, in contrast to mere nonsense, is something that implies but does not contain adequate meaning or truth. This sort of phenomenon is similar to what Buekens and Boudry (2015) referred to as obscurantism (p. 1): “[when] the speaker… [sets] up a game of verbal smoke and mirrors to suggest depth and insight where none exists.”

So, it’s like many conservative talking points, theology (I repeat myself!), or much of postmodernist philosophy. It is words that have syntactic structure which conform to normal communication, but one cannot fathom a meaning except, in the best cases, in some vaguely poetic manner.

And poetry (I’ve been reading Tennyson recently) does often occupy a universe where the limits of normal expression get stretched, but bullshit seems to be the point where it breaks. Charting the difference between these two is difficult, for sure. I’m sure some fans of Deepak Chopra would retort that those of us critical of his “bullshit” are failing to see the meaning due to a lack of imagination or something, but I do think there is a line where poetic expression leads nowhere, and that “nowhere” is precisely Bullshitland.

That is, there is a point where the art of language skews into an expression which cannot be mapped to reality. And yet…

And yet there is this:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

 

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
      The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
      The frumious Bandersnatch!”
This is the first two stanzas of the famous poem, “Jabberwocky.” It exists within a similar universe as bullshit, except is swaps actual words in syntactic formation without any coherent meaning for (to some extent) coherent meaning with words which almost seem real, but are not.
That is, where bullshit seeks to pull us towards the realm of meaninglessness and obscurantism while using real words, Jabberwocky somehow pulls us towards a semblance of meaning while not even using real words. This, more than anything else, unearths the true absurdity of bullshit; it’s deception lies in its ability to use the parts of the real world to try to construct impossible shapes.
And yet…
escher-relativity

 

This is one of MC Escher’s many drawings. It exists in 2 dimensions, and hints at a 3 dimensional world which cannot exist…at least not in the way that it’s depicted. It is using the expected tools of drawing, which is usually a representation of the real world in 2 dimensional form, and breaks the form so that it is, in a sense, bullshit.

But we can glean some kind meaning from it. This meaning, a commentary upon perception, dimension, and form, is one that transcends the media. It supervenes and emerges from it, a true emergent property, and teaches us something about our perception and meaning.

Bullshit does something similar. It defines, for us, the shape, limits, and boundaries of meaning. It is a cautionary tale of how to keep within the bounds of what language and reality can do together, and what they cannot do together.

herebedragonsIt says to us, in a sense, “beyond here are dragons.” It defines the limits of reality, as we can express it in words, and when we verge nearer to it’s boundaries, with poetry, art, postmodern deconstruction of meaning and perception, we start to better define what is real and what is not real.

In a sense, it is true irony. Bullshit is what defines the edges of reality. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that there is anything beyond that boundary.

It’s sort of like how death defines life, but there is nothing beyond it. Believing that the bullshit contains anything meaningful is, conceptually, similar to believing in an afterlife.

There isn’t an afterlife. So eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

 

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