Month: February 2017

In answer to the question, “How can people believe truths without evidence?”

There are many ways of knowing; evidence is just the most base way, perhaps the crudest–or at least it’s crude to staunchly rely exclusively on evidence–although it’s of course the most effective and incontrovertible (except to the degree that evidence can be misinterpreted, of course). This is why so many people feel that they should base their beliefs solely on evidence and nothing more; it’s based in fear, it’s a retraction. There are various causes for this fear and retraction, depending on the individual.

Some are deathly afraid of the possibility of being wrong about something, on a social level. Believing in something without stark evidence could make them vulnerable, because they can’t support their belief in the face of someone who believes something else, probably strictly on the basis of evidence.

Some have seen the way others are often misled and wrong in their beliefs, such as those influenced by religion, popular misconceptions, sources of intentional deception, wishful thinking and other cognitive biases, etc. etc. They conclude that we just can’t know anything for sure except on the basis of evidence.

Some have recognized being wrong in their own thinking, for some of the reasons listed above, and hence fall back to (retract to) believing only what can be proven.

In actuality we believe many many things in daily life that aren’t and can’t be proven, but some people don’t really reflect on it much in their moment-to-moment activities and believe that they believe things only on the base of evidence. And they do, when it comes to the big truths, just not to the more trivial truths. And the characteristic that it takes on when it comes to the big truths is one of denial / rejection by default of anything mysterious, amazing, extraordinary, or potentially paradigm-changing, or that could get them ridiculed for believing in. It’s not simply a state of non-belief or open-mindedness about a given subject prior to the evidence; it’s still biased, just in favor of the status quo and the mundane.

And of course they’re not actually considering all the evidence available. Just like regular people are afraid of getting laughed at, scientists aren’t free to report positive results in parapsychology and the like because those who do get promptly ostracized from the community and thought of as nut-jobs, regardless of the solidity of their data. So those people who believe they’re basing their beliefs on evidence are actually basing their beliefs on the biases of the scientific community, in some areas of belief. The belief that the practice of science is infallible, vis a vis the fact that scientists are merely human in practice, serves only to reinforce some of the prejudices that already exist in society.

But back to the main point..

Some believe that evidence is the only way of knowing things because anything other way of knowing must be psychic, and psychism is axiomatically impossible because it defies the laws of physics. Of course it doesn’t—it just defies some precepts that the type of people who like science (and the scientific community at large) are typically enveloped in. You can’t actually get from the known laws of physics to a proof that something psychic/parapsychological/paranormal can’t happen or that there can’t be some kind of synchronistic, mystical or spiritual correspondance between two things, etc.

Granted, it is hard to know what’s really true that isn’t proven by evidence. People are notoriously bad at surmising such truths, which is why so many people believe so many crazy things and nobody really agrees with each other on anything they can’t touch. But it’s not fair to leap from the inability of most people to correctly surmise truth to a condemnation or just a dismissal of anybody, categorically, who says they know something that isn’t necessarily or wholly based on evidence. Some people are just more astute than others.

We are not isolated collections of neurons exchanging impulses around in our heads, with our only links to the outside world and truth being via our physical senses. On a spiritual and mental level, we are simply connected, like everything is somewhat “embedded” in everything else. And you don’t have to be a bona fide psychic to utilize this facet of the universe, everyone does through inspiration/imagination/”random” thoughts and intuition to some degree, and on a regular basis.

But I make it sound as if the only way of knowing other than via evidence is via psychism. This isn’t strictly the case. You can surmise things, perhaps intuively, based on experience and patterns, connecting the dots in the tapestry, in a way that you could say is ultimately based on evidence (being that it’s based on experience), but that isn’t directly based on evidence in the sense that the conclusion is provable from experience or in the sense that there’s a more-or-less one-to-one correspondence between a piece of evidence, or a formally identified collection of pieces of evidence, and a given fact interpreted from it. It’s modeling, it’s heuristics, it’s induction, it’s varying degrees of liberty in what one might call “jumping to conclusions,” all of which imply degrees of freedom in what’s concluded.

Of course, in reality an intuitive impression is neither all pattern matching nor all psychic, it’s an interplay of the two.

An article which may or may not be relevant to the question, or at least to some of my answer, is “Doubting Doubt,” which was written by a person with an IQ in the top 99.9999 percentile, and can be found in this PDF:

On the Meanings of Words

The meaning of a word is not its definition. If it were, you’d have an infinite regress of definition. You couldn’t know what word A means without knowing what words B, C, D, E, etc. mean where B, C, D, E are words used in its definition, you couldn’t know what B means without knowing what F, G, H, I mean where F, G, H and I are words in B’s definition, ad infinitum.

In actuality, any dictionary is ultimately circular: if you recursively trace the definition of a word long enough, eventually you’ll get nothing but loops of definitional dependency of varying sizes. This has to be the case; the only other possibilities are (a) there are some words in the dictionary which are undefined (so if this were one’s mind we were talking about that the definitions were contained in, the meanings of those words would be unknown, and so would all the meanings of the words whose definitions ultimately depend on those words, and what good would that be?), and (b) all definitions of words in a dictionary are in the form of a tree, where if you get to the bottom of it there’s a (possibly small) set of undefined words that all other words ultimately depend on (this is actually a special case of possibility a).

The same logic, of course, also applies if the definitions were in one’s mind instead of in a dictionary, in order for one to understand linguistic constructions in general. In the case that the definitions are circular, no meaning would ultimately rest on anything; all meaning would just be strings of text; you wouldn’t be able to understand anything any better than an alien, upon reading an entire English dictionary, would understand all of its words. (The alien wouldn’t be helped any more if some of the words in the dictionary were left undefined.)

Yes, if a linguist were given a dictionary from an ancient lost language, he might be able to “break the code” like they have done with other kinds of texts from lost languages (one would assume a dictionary would be even easier), but that relies on a lot of shared experience or references between the users of the ancient language and the linguist, afforded by the mere fact of their both being the same kinds of beings who live or lived on the same planet with many psychological, cultural and physical-environmental things in common. For words’ meanings to be comprised of their definitions, all of that shared meaning would have to exist in the dictionary itself.

There are some exceptions, in that some words’ meanings are no more or less than their definitions. These are highly technical jargon words, and even their meanings ultimately rest upon meaning outside of definition as far as recursively tracing the definitions goes. Also, even among normal, mundane words, some are more readily defined than others, perhaps even coming close to being defined as accurately as jargon definitions in some cases. Note that to clearly and accurately define a word is not necessarily to define it in concrete terms that allow for clear technical analysis or unambiguous classification, for example, when classifying whether something is “art” based on some particularly astute, yet abstract, definition of the word art. Sometimes a perfectly accurate or astute definition of a word is in abstract and potentially ambiguous terms, because the actual meaning of the word is precisely as abstract and potentially ambiguous as the definition is, as many ideas are.

Defining a word is far from being a straightforward thing. It’s actually a talent and an art, and the resultant definition is only an approximation of its meaning. The actual meaning of a word (insofar as there is an “actual meaning”) is actually deeply tied in with profound truths about mind/psychology, culture, and even the nature of existence. To truly effectively define a word, in many cases, would best be done by someone well-versed in psychology, philosophy, etc., in order to really intuit the deeper meanings and nuances of the word. Really, though, more important than his/her education is that the person defining is unusually astute at understanding the deep nature of things, particularly regarding the contents of people’s minds and the words used to express them. The reason this is the case is explained later in this essay where I talk about memetics vis a vis the development words. I’ve seen many dictionary definitions of words that are wholly inadequate failures at truly capturing the essences of those words, because they’re hard things to pin down.

Another part of making a better dictionary that would be better would be to define words in a much more informal way, sort of in the way you would describe any other object, as opposed to the forced form of more or less requiring that the definition be strictly substitutable for the word itself in a sentence. The definitions should also be less brief. Each word could have a short essay talking all about it. This would be invaluable for people trying to truly master a foreign language, and it would be interesting for language enthusiasts. They also absolutely should contain multiple hand-picked examples of usage including sufficient context. That would go a long way toward conferring the nuances of words’ meanings and the ways in which the (currently crude) definitions were actually intended to be interpreted.

I have seen some words defined with multiple paragraphs in an unabridged or college Merriam Webster dictionary, but only in cases where there are multiple related words that are almost similar in meaning and the purpose of the elaboration was to differentiate between the multiple words.

While you’re writing paragraphs you may as well include comprehensive etymologies for the words. It would be like an encyclopedia but for words. It would probably best be implemented as a wiki, so that potential good insights can come from a wide base of people.

Another good thing to denote in any word would be the difference between senses that are true to the word’s origin or at least the word’s “real” meaning, as opposed to popular usages that arose out of ignorance, misconception or misinterpretation of the word’s meaning, but that are nonetheless included in the word’s definition because of the philosophy that a dictionary’s job is to reflect common usage rather than to prescribe it. It is commonly argued that language evolves, and hence any new or alternative interpretation/use of a word is just as valid as what the purists say is the “correct” definition, but there is a distinct difference between interpretations/usages of a word that are born of ignorance and stupidity and misunderstanding and interpretations/usages that legitimately evolve for other reasons.

An example is the word “literally.” The millennials’ misuse of the term is obviously just due to carelessness about the analytic/structural/technical meaning of the word, while apprehending an aspect of its emotive content and using it fully for that purpose. More specifically, emphasis is one of the common motivations for using the term “literally,” but if one cares about the more technical level of its meaning at all, it also must imply actuality as opposed to figurativeness. Using it solely for emphasis is simply being careless and stupid, in a contagious way (*hears ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ playing in my head*). It even frequently results in the word being used in the exact opposite way in which it’s intended. That is, because people often use exaggeration for emphasis, and millennials use “literally” for emphasis, “literally” is often used to qualify exaggerated or figurative claims (whereas the correct usage would be used exactly to denote that the claim is not exaggerated or figurative). It’s especially ironic for a word to mean a thing and its opposite when that word is particularly used for the purpose of clarity. And btw, I did hear a rumor that the new usage of the word “literally” is actually included as a sense in at least one dictionary.

Even if one believes that language purism is not necessary, it would be good to denote the difference between legitimate and illegitimate senses of a word just for those people who happen to be interested in it due to being language purists, or just due to not wanting to look stupid when speaking to intelligent people who actually understand the original meanings and common misinterpretations of words.

Another interesting area to explore (or to attempt to explore) in elaborate descriptions of words would be the relationship between the aesthetic of a word (in its appearance or sound) and its meaning. I think people don’t realize or underappreciate just how much the composition of a word corresponds to its meaning in deep and hard to fathom ways. This goes way beyond what we typically classify as onomatopoeia; it applies to all words. It’s just “logical” (for some definition of “logic”) to separate many things and consider them independent by default, such as separating the composition of a word and its meaning, but this is a common flaw in contemporary thought. Or even if not, in this particular case it’s short-sighted.

The reason the sound or look of a word corresponds to its meaning in some deep way is that words are memetic. A word becomes a word when it gains popularity over other possible words to mean the same thing, and one factor determining how much popularity the word gains is how much its sound “makes sense” or feels natural/ergonomic or (to some degree) obvious given what it stands for. One aspect of this is the word’s relationship to all other words in the language, such as phonetical similarities and common word stems, but there are many, many other factors to what makes a word feel natural that all come together in a holistic way. Many of these factors are embedded deeply in the psyche, which is in turn embedded deeply in the natures of biology, psychology, culture, and the cosmos at large. This is why I said earlier that to truly understand and define well the meaning of a word would require deep understanding of mind, etc.

Aesthetics is a very mysterious and intractable field of study, because to truly understand it (and in this case, you can’t understand it much at all without truly/deeply understanding it, because no obvious superficial or scientistic explanations fit the bill) would imply profoundly understanding the underpinnings and elements of human nature (which is a fascinatingly deep and ill-understood subject in itself), as well as—by virtue of the fact that we’re all inextricably linked to and embedded in the greater reality we’re a part of—the cosmos at large. This includes spirituality, the soul, mysticism, God, metaphysics, aesthetics, and everything else. (Though I know many will outright reject that last claim; the argument for it should probably be a subject for another essay.) The reason I mention this is that the process by potential which words for things organically come into being and are selected from by the group—that is, the memetics of it—is wholly aesthetic if nothing else. 

As one example of how the aesthetics of a word corresponds to its meaning, an example that may or may not be atypical in some way, consider the word “poop.” The lip movements that make the “p” sound correspond to the opening of the sphincter, the following “oo” sound corresponds to the poop sliding out of the sphincter while it’s open (note that to make an “oo” sound your mouth is open in a relatively round formation), and that’s followed by another “p” sound corresponding to the closing of the sphincter. The closing and opening of the sphincter are inversely symmetrical with the expulsion in the middle, and correspondingly the word “poop” is palindromic. Additionally, the appearance of the letters “oo” in the word is abstractly similar to that of butt cheeks. (Sorry for picking such an unsavory word for description, it’s just that it’s the only aesthetics-meaning relationship for a word that I know of off the top of my head. I heard it from a passionately naturalist philosopher, who is now deceased, killed by his brother, in IRC many years ago.)

Of course, none of the facts described above, such as the audial-related vs. the visual-related components, are in competition with each other as possible reasons for the word’s popularity, since they all (and likely many more) work together to contribute to its popularity in a holistic way. This same principle applies to all organic things, such as the human body for example: an organ, hormone or other chemical, or what-have-you can serve many purposes at once, the multiple purposes of all those parts working in intimately interlocking ways.

On the Term “Supernatural”

I dislike the word “supernatural.” It’s used to describe things that are extraordinary in the sense that they defy intuition or mundane/gross patterns of causality, but such things (assuming they happen/exist) are not actually “supernatural.” Whatever is real is natural, though nature may not behave according to the rules and limitations that we like to ascribe to it.

One might argue that this is a purely semantic concern, as people are not using the term “supernatural” to denote anything outside of reality/existence, but the word fosters the sense of a stark division between two layers or sets of phenomena or overarching principles, the natural and the supernatural, while in reality it’s all one thing—everything is natural. Perhaps the one thing has many interplaying principles of operation and maybe there are various levels or realms to it, but the levels are not necessarily starkly delineated or incompatible, nor are there necessarily exactly two of them (the “natural” versus the “supernatural”).

Also, the term encourages the discrediting of any phenomena that fall under its umbrella, because the aesthetic impression is of a realm way higher than anything conceivable, or phenomena or beings that somehow defy the natural coherency of the universe. In other words, the term ‘”supernatural” conveys a sense that the phenomenon or object in question somehow eludes the natural order of things, which would be preposterous. And so skeptical/atheist/academic/scientistic/physicalist types are prone to dismissing the idea of anything “supernatural” as non-existent, whereas using other words for those things might be conducive to seeing them as more characteristically different rather than categorically different, which could help open their minds to seeing that there may be natural principles behind them that interweave more readily with scientifically known principles and physicality.

Sometimes taking a word to its logical extreme, such as defining everything as natural, defeats the purpose of using the word. I think this is the case if we claim that everything is “natural,” in the sense of being “earthly” or “environmental,” on account of the idea that that humans evolved within nature and are a part of it therefore all of our creations, including LSD and skyscrapers, are just as “natural” as a monkey using a stick to get insects out of a tree. Even though there’s no categorical distinction between what’s “natural” in this sense and what’s not, and even though there are plenty of in-between cases where it would be hard to decide, the word is useful to describe things that clearly fall within the general theme of products of geology, evolution, etc. that are not man-made, which is obviously a very different arena by characteristic. (See also this essay on why we shouldn’t take the term “natural” to its logical extreme.) But this is not the case with the greater sense of the word “natural” as the opposite of “supernatural.” This sense of the word “natural” as I’m suggesting using it is in opposition to the term “supernatural” which could be said to be a self-contradictory characterization, rather than being in opposition to “artificial,” so it may rightly include anything that’s real. 

One might object that “natural” describes everything by definition then it means nothing, but it actually only describes real things, and we know that the word “real” is valid and useful. One might then argue that we might as well just use the word “real” instead, but the point here isn’t so much to use an alternative to the word “real” as to eliminate the use of the misleading term “supernatural.”

One might still argue that if everything that’s real is “natural” then calling it “natural” as a characterization is meaningless, but I would say that sometimes words that apply to everything that exists by definition (such as, for example, God, by some people’s accounts) confer implications as to the fundamental qualities or nature of everything (such as sacredness, divinity, holiness, meaning, consciousness, etc.), thus giving the word meaning. But then, it’s not even really necessary that defining everything as “natural” imparts special meaning, when the point is only to defy the use of the term “supernatural” as a sort of self-contradicting category which one can use to dismiss anything unseen.

Anyway, back to the subject… some people actually go so far as to define “natural” as pertaining to the physical and the so-called laws of physics. (I say “so-called laws” for reasons explained in this essay and this essay.) This definition is even reflected in one of the senses of “natural” in Webster’s dictionary. (That’s not necessarily a justification or obligation to use the word this way, as a dictionary is descriptive, not prescriptive, and it’s only one of many alternative senses.) You could argue that definitions are neither correct nor incorrect, they’re just a basis for further communication, but there are implications involved, and how you frame things matters. To define “natural” as physical is to imply that what’s non-physical is unnatural and is therefore adverse and potentially unthinkable. And, as I’ve advocated for above, some people may see the natural as being all there is, so defining “natural” as physical borders on making the unfounded, scientistic assumption that nothing non-physical exists. If the non-physical is not seen as unnatural per se according to this definition (perhaps it’s seen as “supernatural” instead, whatever implications that might carry), it’s at least seen as categorically different and separate from everything we naturally know. It wooifies the non-physical.

Either way, it’s wrongheaded, mundanifying, magic-killing and life-suppressing thinking. The idea that the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution have demystified the world is a myth: the world is still fundamentally mysterious; the only thing that’s changed is that our thinking has become more narrow-minded and relegated to a thin, overlaying stratum of perception, relation, mind and its faculties. See also Notes on Science, Scientism, Mysticism, Religion, Logic, Physicalism, Skepticism, Etc.

“How gibbering man becomes, when he is really clever, and thinks he is giving the ultimate and final description of the universe! Can’t he see that he is merely describing himself, and that the self he is describing is merely one of the more dead and dreary states that man can exist in?” -D.H. Lawrence

Why I’m Not Pro-Choice (Even as a Non-Religious Democrat)

I’m not religious or even Republican, I’m far left wing, but I have a mind of my own and I don’t side with every individual stance of the Democrats just because I’m a Democrat. One of the ways in which I don’t stand with my fellow democrats is that I’m pro-life.

Being pro-life isn’t about misogyny or trying to control women’s bodies. It’s about not standing for murder in its grossest form. Those who accuse of pro-lifers of misogyny or trying to control women’s bodies are using manipulation, slinging insults that seem like they could be true but aren’t necessarily the case, pitting those people directly against the current progressive and PC momentum, in order to distract from the moral questionability of their own choices. The reason pro-life versus pro-choice tends to be divided along gender lines isn’t so much because it’s about men wanting to control women, but because of the two genders, women are obviously the ones who would have the largest interest in committing homicide of this form.

The very name we give the pro-choice ideology is misleading and manipulative, as it paints pro-lifers out to be some kind of fascists out to squash our freedoms of choice, when it’s really about the choice to commit murder. To speak theoretically/unrealistically just to draw an analogy, if the term weren’t already being used for this, a school of thought might as well have arisen that says that we should be able to murder anyone we want at any time, and they could have also conveniently called themselves “pro-choice.”

It’s murder in its grossest form because it’s the murder of a child who did not yet have the chance to breathe, to be seen or to make a case for its life, by the one person who was meant to be the archetype of caring and nurture for this individual. It’s murder by reaching into the very vehicle with which this nurturing is supposed to take place and destroying the child from within before it gets to see the light of day. Only humans would do something this foul. I guess it’s all too convenient to murder your child while it’s still in the womb because then you don’t have to see it living, breathing and laughing so you don’t have to face the immediate heartbreak to the same degree.

The argument that a woman should have the right to do what she wants with her own body doesn’t stand to reason because the question in this case is whether killing a fetus is homicide (and if it’s homicide, then it should be considered murder). If it’s homicide, it doesn’t matter whether the fetus happens to be within her body or not. It’s slick to try to define anything that’s biologically dependent on her and living inside her as part of her, but that’s not necessarily the case: why isn’t it possible that another living being can have the qualities of being biologically dependent on somebody else and also living inside them?

The claim that they have the right to kill the infant because it’s within their body reminds me of two little kids, sitting in a car. One takes a pencil and stabs the other until he bleeds. The parent gets very angry, of course, and the kid’s only excuse is “His arm was on my side of the seat!”

People who justify feticide on the basis that “it’s my body” are using a fact so basic and obvious (i.e. that the fetus is located within the person’s body and is integrated with it), that there should be no point in mentioning it, and the only purpose in doing so could be to put some unwarranted spin on it, such as when people justify owning guns by saying “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

Going back to the issues of the fetus’s biological dependence and its existing within the women’s body, should it be legal to kill an infant as long as you first stuff it into a person’s womb? Obviously not, so that takes care of the “it’s inside my body” argument. As for the biological-dependence argument, there’s no good reason that it’s not possible that a person who exists independently in terms of beingness could be dependent on another in terms of biology. Conjoined twins are often biologically dependent on each other, does that give one the right to murder the other? And why should biological dependence be categorically different (with respect to the right to kill) from, say, financial dependence or emotional dependence? I.e. kids are often financially dependent on their parents, should that give their parents the right to kill them?

We have laws against homicide, including homicide of infants. Now it’s not clear whether the body inside the womb is “alive” or “human”, or whatever rule you want to use, or not. But let’s use a bit of logic here. Would it be right to, one second after a baby is born, kill it? That would presumably be wrong and would definitely be illegal and would be considered murder, but what magically happens as soon as a baby is born that fundamentally changes it and makes it a human being unto itself? Obviously nothing, it’s the same whatever-it-was one second or even one week before it was born, the only difference is one of legal standing.

So the obvious question is raised: at what point during gestation does the fetus become a real, live, human being? That’s a hard question to answer definitively. There are some convenient answers like “as soon as its heart starts pumping blood” or “as soon as it starts moving on its own,” but we don’t know which of those is the truth or if any of them is. (And no, it’s not merely a matter of how one defines it. As in Nagel’s famous essay, “What is it like to be a bat?”, either there is or there is not something that it is like to be that fetus. If there is, then it’s a being unto itself.)

Since we don’t know the answer to this question, we can only err on the side of caution and not allow the killing of any fetuses to avoid murdering a human being. If you invented a machine that killed someone but with only a 20% likelihood, would it be legal to use it? Of course not! So it only makes sense that the law should err on the side of caution in this case too.

Even if we decided *not* to be extremely cautious on this matter, it’s obvious, as I argued above, that in the latest stages of pregnancy the fetus is and should be considered as a living being unto itself, so there should be a (conservative) limit on how late in the term an abortion is allowed to happen. Although we can’t know for user if life starts when the blood starts pumping or the brain develops or it starts moving on its own, etc., if we were to throw caution to the wind and allow feticide up to a certain stage of pregnancy then it would be prudent to use one of these measures as the dividing line.

Pro-choice advocates argue that there are parents who aren’t fit to raise children, and/or can’t afford it, or the child might be a rape victim, or might be born with a serious mental or physical handicap, etc. etc., but these arguments don’t stand as reasons to be pro-choice either. The argument against this line of reasoning is simple: if the child were already born, i.e. if we were talking about an infant as opposed to a fetus, would we, and should we, have the right to kill it for *any* of the above reasons? Obviously we wouldn’t, and as I’ve argued above, what legal protection should apply to an infant should also apply to a fetus, at least once it shows the first sign of life.

EDIT: The argument “If I’m not willing to raise the baby myself that the mother would be forced to carry to term then I have no right to prevent her from having an abortion” doesn’t work either. The argument falls apart when one considers the corollary, “If I’m not willing to raise the baby myself that the mother just gave birth to then I have no right to prevent her from killing it.” The same principle was applied, yet obviously in that case it would be disagreeable because it’s clearly and legally murder, so the principle doesn’t hold clout. (The very question at hand is whether feticide is in fact a form of “murder,” which depends on whether the fetus is a being unto itself as mentioned earlier.)