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Conspiracy Theories, Writing and Logic 103

Conspiracy Theories, Writing and Logic 103

Guest Blogger

In editing a piece of promotional work for someone one morning, I was reminded again of the many similarities between writers, who tell fantastic stories for a living and have no intention that they be taken as fact, and conspiracy theorists, who tell fantastic stories for a variety of reasons with every intention that they be taken as fact.

In Truther circles, as in plotting a story, the narratives often become increasingly elaborate as they expand. Take Jade Helm, for example, or the Birther Movement, or Sandy Hook, or 9/11 or any one of a number of conspiracy theories that have grown up over the course of the last decade. These theories often become increasingly byzantine as the conspiracists seek to answer the inevitable logistical and logical questions that their theories evoke.

For example, with regard to Jade Helm (which is either a mundane and regularly held military exercise or a plot to take over Texas) one might ask the following:

Where will the US military put the Texans they so fear while taking over that sovereign nation . . . er, embattled territory . . . uh, I mean, federated state?

Well, there are several empty Wal-Marts in various locations in various cities in Texas. That’s where the enemies of the Federal Government will be taken.

But how shall they be gotten to and from these centers without anyone noticing?

Ah, there are underground tunnels that connect the empty Wal-Marts to train yards or other points of dispersal.

Dispersal to where? Where would an incursion of prisoners not be noticed?

Obviously, to FEMA camps set up in unpopulated areas of the country so isolated that no one knows they’re there.

This line of questioning could go on for some time, but I’ll stop there.

battleshipAs I suggested in the previous post in this loose series, a question that is seldom asked (or, if asked, is treated superficially as if it, too, was a matter of simple logistics) is WHY? Why does the US military wish to forcibly “take over” one of the states that is already part of our Union?

Answer: Because the Feds want them to do it.

But this only leads to yet another WHY: why does the Federal government want to capture rank and file Texans?

Answer: Because the POTUS wants it to.

As you can see, we’re no closer to the Big WHY. WHY does the POTUS want to militarily take over a state that is already part of the Union of which he is the presiding executive, and imprison random Texans (at great expense)?

Answer: I’ve heard it’s because he hates America (why?) or that he wants ISIS (or the Chinese) to take over the country (why?) or because we suspect he’s a Muslim (why?) or because . . . Well, you get the drift.

At this point, “just coz” simply doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in the real world in any real sense. It doesn’t even work in fiction. In fiction, far more than in real life, we expect coherent patterns to emerge and coincidence to be a non-factor. Above all, we expect to be able to understand the motives and rationales of the characters, else we cannot follow their story lines, much less empathize with them. There must be an actual motive that merits the scale of the events the writer proposes occurred.

diffuse-an-argument-800x800The trick to writing readable stories in just about any genre is to make the characters’ logic accessible to the reader even if that logic is flawed, based on false premises, ethically and morally bankrupt, or completely alien. A character’s motives—their Big WHYs—must make sense to readers on some level or readers will be unable to suspend their disbelief or follow the narrative. Their reaction may be much like my reaction to conspiracist logic: “Wha—? You’ve got to be . . . LOL. . . . Wait a minute. Seriously? OMG, I can’t even . . . Oy. Headache.”

A phrase that’s been floating around the blogosphere for awhile is “word salad”, which is the verbal outcome of thought salad. An article I read a while back referred to this verbal incoherence as a “sentence-like string of words”. It also described trying to extract real meaning or logic from these strings of words as “a category error”—as in, you are attempting to understand logically something that is not logical, but is merely a logic-like string of thoughts. The author likened it to attempting to polish a duck.

I believe writers of fiction and non-fiction (journalists, pundits, statesmen) owe their readers more than something that only seems like a logical thought because it’s set in what looks like a real sentence describing a real Thing.

Perhaps there are writers clever enough that they can get away with murder (literary murder, at any rate) because their sentence-like strings of words sound enough like the real deal to dazzle readers into thinking they have experienced a coherent idea, felt a particular emotion, or discovered a truth.

salad_platterSome polemicists, for example, make such good use of evocative phrases and emotionally charged words that they give the perception that they’ve said something factual, when no facts have changed hands. Some politicians are especially adept at stringing together evocative words that, if confronted with those words later on can—in all honesty—say, “No, I didn’t say that.” And, by golly, a careful reading of what they wrote or said reveals that they didn’t actually say what people thought they said. This form of plausible deniability allows every reader or listener to take away from the sentence-like string of words whatever they wish.

I’d like my stories—whether fictional or fact-based—to contain real sentences that grow out of coherent thoughts. I’d like to give my readers the real Thing, not a semblance of that Thing, even at my most ambiguous. And that’s why when I begin to turn ideas into stories, I ask myself WHY; why would my character do this, say this, feel this?

If the answer is “just coz” I’d like them to, I’m not doing my job.

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About the Big Bang Theory (and I mean the TV show, not the theory)

About the Big Bang Theory (and I mean the TV show, not the theory)

Albert E+

It’s been quite a while since I last made a contribution to Common Ground.  For those of you who care to know, I have been very busy over the past several months doing research, teaching, and occasionally traveling to certain international locations.  While I’ve already got plans to do more of the same—now that things have finally settled down a bit—I’m now in position to compose some random thoughts on something “useful” to discuss.  With that, I hope to make several new contributions to Common Ground in the near future.

For now, though, I have a much more “tongue-in-cheek” entry to give you, with an important moral at the end.  If nothing else, I hope it at least puts a smile on your face!

I happened to see an old episode of “The Big Bang Theory” on TV some weeks ago that caught my attention in more ways than one.  For those of you who have no idea what this show’s all about, it’s a very funny TV sitcom about two smart and geeky physicists from Caltech named Dr. Leonard Hofstadter and Dr. Sheldon Cooper, along with their equally geeky Caltech friends, an astrophysicist from India named Dr. Raj Koothrappali and his Jewish best friend, an aerospace engineer named Mr. Howard Wolowitz.  I should note that, as the only character among the four without a Ph.D., Howard is the recipient of much comedic torment from the other three geeks, a recurring theme on the show.

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New Atheism and the Bahá’í Faith—a talk by Courosh Mehanian

New Atheism and the Bahá’í Faith—a talk by Courosh Mehanian

Today’s blog is an audio-visual presentation within an audio-visual presentation. The video is from a presentation Courosh Mehanian gave on New Atheism and the Bahá’í Faith in a private home. These are not professional recordings, so please do pardon the (ahem) interesting initial camera angle. I assure you, Courosh is not a table lamp :), though he does hope to shed some light (ar-ar) on the subject of how he views New Atheist ideas through the lens of the Bahá’í Faith.

Courosh is, however, Principal Scientist at Charles River Laboratories. He studied physics at Cornell University and currently lives in Redmond, Washington.

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Your Faith is Still a Joke: The Goal of the Exercise

Your Faith is Still a Joke: The Goal of the Exercise

Maya Bohnhoff

When I opined on another forum that indulging in mockery, ridicule and disrespect for someone based on assumptions about their beliefs was a form of verbal bullying and that it was hurtful, counter productive and irrational, I was informed that “Showing disrespect for people and showing disrespect for books of spurious origin are two very different things. Books and traditions are not humans, they don’t have unalienable rights or feelings.”

It’s a nice-sounding argument, isn’t it? Mocking someone’s beliefs isn’t mocking the actual person, right? It’s not as if you told them they bore a striking resemblance to Moby Dick or their clothes were weird or their name was funny-sounding. People’s beliefs don’t mean that much to them, surely.

I must take exception to this for a number of reasons, but chiefly because it still comes down to justifying abuse of another human being’s feelings about something. Does it matter if that something is their weight, their clothing, their name or their faith?

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The “New Atheism” 14: Literalism

The “New Atheism” 14: Literalism

Ian Kluge

One of the new atheists’ major problems from a Bahá’í perspective is their consistent literalism in reading Jewish, Christian and Muslim scripture. They read scripture in its explicit and most obvious sense and reject non-literal understandings. Dawkins rails against theologians who “employ their favourite trick of interpreting selected scriptures as ‘symbolic’ rather than literal. By what criteria do you decide which passages are symbolic, which literal?” 106 Assuming there is no rational answer, he simply continues his literalism, a practice supported by Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. In this sense, the new atheists resemble their fundamentalist opponents who also have a strong tendency to literalist readings of scripture.

There are two kinds of problems with new atheist literalism. The first concerns their neglect of centuries, indeed, millennia of non-literalist interpretation of scripture. This is not the appropriate place for a survey of scriptural interpretation, so we shall be content with two examples from Christianity. Already as early as the 5th Century A.D., Augustine in his “The Literal Interpretation of Genesis” states that the creation story does not refer to seven actual days and that the time framework is not to be taken literally. The story conveys a spiritual meaning not a scientific account that can be expected to replicate modern cosmological findings. In more recent times, we have developed existential ways107 of reading scripture as well as Bultmann’s de-mythologizing which understand scripture as dealing with the possibilities and conditions of human existence and decision-making.108

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Terms of Faith 8: Sleight of Tongue

Terms of Faith 8: Sleight of Tongue

Maya Bohnhoff

I was accused recently of Sleight of Tongue. Someone with whom I was having a dialogue on an atheist forum asked me what it would take for me to disbelieve in God. I thought about it and replied that I really didn’t know. There wasn’t any one thing, or if there was, I hadn’t encountered it yet. She applauded my sleight of tongue, using the term to mean she thought I was trying to be evasive.

For the record, I wasn’t being evasive. Nor do I use the term to refer to simple evasiveness. To me, sleight of tongue means that the writer or speaker has suggested something hypothetically, then imperceptibly (whether gradually or suddenly) begun to speak as if the once-hypothetical situation is now established fact.

Here’s how it works: The writer posits a hypothetical situation of what “might have happened,” then subtly changes the language from the conditional or theoretical (“might have,” “could have”) to the positive until they are speaking of the hypothetical incident or situation as if it had actually happened. Suddenly the scenario is no longer hypothesis, it is fact.

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