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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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My Friend Mycroft, Part Three: Mycroft on Religion

My Friend Mycroft, Part Three: Mycroft on Religion

Mycroft Holmes

Having discussed the role of science in the life of humanity, my atheist forum friend Mycroft turned to the subject of religion. The points of view were thus: Mycroft=science is a savior; Me=science is a tool for the exploration of reality

Mycroft wrote: “The major organized belief systems are incoherent. Half of mosaic, christian, and muslim theology over the last millennia is devoted to the task of belatedly producing some kind of consistency—often by declaring something impossible a “mystery”, or adding afterthoughts.”

Now, I had never disagreed with Mycroft about the incoherence of some organized belief systems. The irrationality of some of the beliefs I held when I was younger are what led me to look for truth and value both in the scriptures that were supposed to form the basis of my beliefs and beyond.

But here’s the thing: The belief systems current in many religious communities today are no less irrational than our political belief systems, our personal belief systems, our pseudo-scientific belief systems. They are no less irrational than any other area in which human beings make things up to explain, rationalize and make themselves comfortable with cognitive dissonance in a world that seems to change too fast to keep up with.

There is a difference, however, between what the scriptures that we claim to believe say and what we interpret them to say filtered through societal factors and personal desires. Over the valid objections of atheists and others (including religious people), we also extend the pronouncements of scripture into areas they were not intended to address.

The Book of Genesis was viewed by the people to whom it was given as a symbolic history of the Jewish people, not as a literal, material history of humankind. This is why the story of Lilith and the idea that “sons of God” married the “daughters of men” didn’t raise a red flag for Jewish scholars. Only later was the metaphorical account wrested out of that context by non-Jews and taken as a literal creation account and thereby held to be in opposition to scientific theories of evolution.

These days, Genesis is more often taken by believers to be an “age appropriate” metaphor for the creation of life than it is a literal description of that process. The fact that two separate thumbnail sketches of creation appear in the same book with two different timelines that the authors never thought to reconcile is more than suggestive of this. Nor is Genesis the only creation story in existence that is meaningful to huge chunks of humanity, and it makes no sense to insist that it is or that—taken as a metaphorical model—it usurps the role of science. It is not science. It is human beings trying to describe for posterity something they barely have the language to describe.

“But Mohammad,” Mycroft countered, “gave three different versions of the origin of man (he was made from clay, from water, from “semen of despised water”).”

With all due respect to Mycroft’s obvious intelligence, this statement is, to me, an example of the human tendency toward binary thinking. To illustrate, there is a point in the Gospels at which Jesus is trying to describe to His disciples what the Kingdom of God is like. He says it’s like a tree growing from a tiny seed and then that its like a woman kneading leaven into flour.

Many questionsThere are at least two ways to approach this statement.

  1. One can say “Well, which is it? It can’t be both.”
  2. One can choose a description, and take it materialistically, supposing that Christ meant God would physically plant a tree somewhere on earth that would hold all the planet’s birds or turn into a woman and literally knead the leaven of the kingdom into the earth.
  3. One can recognize that a material example is being used to describe something non-material, and can ask “what do these two similes have in common?” What they have in common is that that both the growing of the tree and the kneading of dough are organic processes that take time.

So, what does Muhammad’s use of these elements (one of which is biologically apt) have as a common thread? They are all physical elements that have long been associated with the human body—clay and water; solid substance and fluids—and which every human body is composed of.

Metaphors are also used in scientific literature for the same reason that they are used in religious revelation: we lack the capacity to directly understand the thing we are describing. Scientists talk about stars being born in “cocoons of interstellar gases”, of “black holes”, of “super strings”, of “fields”. Science uses the word “noble” to describe certain gases that do not combine with others. These words are used differently than in a non-scientific setting, but imagine what might happen if someone reading scientific literature took those metaphors literally and believed that stars are like butterflies and are born in cocoons afloat in space, that the phenomenon we call a black hole is really black and really a hole, that there are strings floating in fields (like the Elysian fields or Uncle Fred’s corn field, perhaps) in the void of space, and that some gases are literally more noble than others and therefore the other gases venerate them.

Luis and Walter Alvarez
Luis and Walter Alvarez

In a scientific setting, after the initial shock of a new paradigm being set, it is deemed rational to adjust one’s worldview to incorporate new information. Think of the uproar over Luis and Walter Alvarez’s theories about the KT boundary and dino die-off before it became the new paradigm. I would think that my friend Mycroft and others who share his worldview would be gratified to see religious thought being similarly refined and adjusted by the new discoveries we make about our world and ourselves. Alas, such is not the case. What is considered rational behavior in one context is seen in the other as irrational dithering.

In the Bahá’í scriptures, Bahá’u’lláh (the Prophet-Founder) and Abdu’l-Bahá (His son and appointed interpreter) have written copiously about reason and the importance of the acquisition of knowledge both spiritual and scientific. Religion is revealed in these writings as an organic thing, meant from its very inception to evolve even as mankind and everything else evolves. I doubted that principle once upon a time, and that doubt caused me to study the scriptures I had grown up with in a far more comprehensive and rational way than I had before. I read the biblical texts—especially the words of Christ—with an eye to extracting information. I realized, as I never had before, that Christ (and indeed, Buddha, Krishna, Muhammad and other claimants to divine revelation) had also tried to frame the teachings of Their faiths as part of an evolving process.

“Religion must be living, vitalized, moving and progressive. If it be non-progressive it is dead. The divine institutes are evolutionary; therefore [their] revelation must be progressive and continuous. ..Sciences of former ages and philosophies of the past are useless today.  Ancient laws and archaic ethical systems will not meet the requirements of modern conditions… In view of this, shall blind imitations of ancestral forms and theological interpretations continue to guide the spiritual development of humanity today? Shall man gifted with the power of reason unthinkingly adhere to dogma which will not bear the analysis of reason?” — Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity p. 83

When it came to my discourses with Mycroft, I was bemused to discover that he—the atheist—was the one who insisted that all scripture must be taken literally and that evolution was a non-starter.

Irony can be pretty darned ironic.

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Part 4 of Religion – the Most Harmful Agency on the Planet?

Part 4 of Religion – the Most Harmful Agency on the Planet?

No Faith is Final — Religious Claims to Absolute Truth

David Langness
David Langness

When a religion claims to have access to the absolute truth, religious scholar and writer Dr. Charles Kimball explains, those rigid truth claims can form the basis for demonizing and dehumanizing those who differ:

A human view of truth, one that is dynamic and relational, enables religious people to embrace and affirm foundational truths without necessarily solidifying the words into static, absolute, propositional statements.  Conversely, religious convictions that become locked into absolute truths can easily lead people to see themselves as God’s agents.  People so emboldened are capable of violent and destructive behavior in the name of religion. — When Religion Becomes Evil, p. 70.

We’ve all seen this concept play out gruesomely in the modern world, as fundamentalist and overzealous “believers” wage war on each other, become terrorists who randomly kill innocent people and insist, through violence, intimidation and “holy war” that they are right and everyone else is wrong.  This kind of divergence from the originally peaceful and loving teachings of faith can happen to any religion, and fundamentalist sects of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have all fallen prey to such religious violence and terror.

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Investigating Reality (Part 2): Faith and Reason

Investigating Reality (Part 2): Faith and Reason

Rosary on BibleIn the churches I attended as a child, there was a broad belief that the Bible was inerrant and infallible. I have never been able to determine from my repeated readings of the Biblical text, where this idea came from. There is not even one book in the Bible whose authors make a claim of either inerrancy or infallibility.

A related idea is that adding to the Bible (i.e. claiming a newer revelation as Muhammad and Bahá’u’lláh have done) was a grave sin. I felt compelled to investigate and found the text from which this idea originated in the last book of the Bible—the Revelation of St. John:

I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book. — Revelation 22:18-20

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Science Wins! (Rerun!)

Science Wins! (Rerun!)


My apologies for posting a rerun. I hope to have new blogs soon. I’m about a month out from knee surgery and the time I’m not spending doing physical therapy, icing down my leg and taking care of family necessities, I must write and edit to make a living. A thousand pardons, and I will try to answer any comments … eventually. 🙂

“Science Wins!”

This was the headline on a another blog site I frequent. It was in reference to Stephen Hawking’s  latest book, in which he proclaims that because there is such a force as gravity, therefore the universe sprang into being through spontaneous combustion—er, I mean “creation.”

Okay, that was my sarcasm sneeze for the day. Glad I got that out of my system.

I questioned the meaning and context of the declaration that “science wins,” asking what was the field of contest and who the opponent. What, I asked, did science win?

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How We Know Stuff: Faith, Reason and Relative Pitch

How We Know Stuff: Faith, Reason and Relative Pitch occurred to me as I was writing a piece on what it means to say “I know” something that I will never be able to grasp, on my own, certain scientific or mathematical concepts.

Black holes, dark matter, imaginary numbers and mathematical proofs are doors closed in my face. There are other things I can grasp and can articulate, and some I grasp but cannot articulate.

When it comes to the things I cannot grasp, I must accept the testimony of someone who claims the he does have the ability to grasp those concepts, do those experiments and understand their results. I can only hope that they can describe these things to me such that I can reason put whether or not they might be correct. I have no way to prove for myself the existence of such things as black holes or dark matter or neutrinos or imaginary numbers.

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Reason, Religion, and Divine Revelation #1: Introduction

Reason, Religion, and Divine Revelation #1: Introduction

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbMen at all times and under all conditions stand in need of one to exhort them, guide them and to instruct and teach them. Therefore He hath sent forth His Messengers, His Prophets and chosen ones that they might acquaint the people with the divine purpose underlying the revelation of Books and the raising up of Messengers, and that everyone may become aware of the trust of God which is latent in the reality of every soul.


May 27, 2013. Today, we launch a new set of blogs – Reason, Religion, and Divine Revelation. These blogs will discuss the great Enlightenment themes outlined in the 26 blogs of The Enlightenment Vision of Science and Religion published over the last six month on Common Ground. It will examine some of the ways these great themes are approached in modern society – both in secular thinking and by modern religious thought – and how they are addressed by the teachings of the Baha’i Faith. We will show that the Baha’i teachings directly and powerfully answer most, if not all, of the major concerns of the enlightenment, and that they offer a serious, realizable, indeed unavoidable, approach to addressing and resolving the problems of the day and the age.

An Outline of the New Series of Blogs

The blog, in broad outline, will address the following major topics.

  • Natural Religion vs. Revealed Religion
  • European Enlightenment and the Background to Modern Thought
  • The Problems of Today
  • Progressive Revelation and the Solution to Today’s Problems

Let me briefly outline each topic.

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If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Another

If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Another

Gold yin-yangHuman beings seem to like to think in binary.

“If not A, then B.”

“If it’s not one thing, it’s another.” (A statement that, ironically, has multiple meanings.)

“It’s an either/or situation.”

We answer “yes/no” questions.

We decide if we want this or that.

We think in ones and zeroes—literally, if we program computers down to the machine language level.

Yet, in the squishy world of reality, binary thinking is one of the most significant obstacles that we place in the path of human progress. There are issues in which this is glaring apparent.

One is EITHER pro‑choice OR anti‑abortion. That is, either one believes abortions should be available for any reason from dire necessity to “oops” and that it is just another form of birth control OR one believes that no woman should, under any circumstances, have an abortion. Ever.

One is EITHER a gun‑lover OR a gun‑grabber. You are pro‑gun or anti‑gun. You are for the Second Amendment, or you are against it. You either respect gun rights OR you want to take them away from everyone.

One is EITHER a liberal (aka progressive) OR one is a conservative. One EITHER believes in the welfare state OR in individual sovereignty.

One is EITHER a hero OR a villain (or believes someone else is either a hero or a villain).

If you are one side of any of the above binary pairs, you are all that is good; if you are on the other side, you are unmitigated evil. Which is which depends entirely on which side you are on.

It is a zero sum game—there must be an absolute winner and an absolute loser.

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The Scientific Spirit #3: Russell on Unity and Plurality

The Scientific Spirit #3: Russell on Unity and Plurality

Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell

One of the most convincing aspects of the mystic illumination is the apparent revelation of the oneness of all things, giving rise to pantheism in religion and to monism in philosophy. — Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays, “Unity and Plurality”

Thus Bertrand Russell begins a chapter on Unity and Plurality in which he explores the metaphysical or mystical concept of “oneness”.

The words “unity” and “oneness” are much-used in both religion (or mysticism) and philosophy, but are also prominent in science. As Baha’is believe in the unity of God and the oneness of mankind, physicists seek a “grand unified theory”, a principle of everything, as they seek the origins of the Universe we inhabit. It would be easy to argue that these two related terms do not mean the same thing within these disciplines. Easy, but possibly inaccurate.

Russell comments that:

An elaborate logic, beginning with Parmenides, and culminating in Hegel and his followers, has been gradually developed, to prove that the universe is one indivisible Whole, and that what seem to be its parts, if considered as substantial and self-existing, are mere illusion. The conception of a Reality quite other than the world of appearance, a reality one, indivisible, and unchanging, was introduced into Western philosophy by Parmenides, not, nominally at least, for mystical or religious reasons, but on the basis of a logical argument as to the impossibility of not‑being…. (ibid.)

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The Spirit of Science #2: Russell, Reason and Intuition

The Spirit of Science #2: Russell, Reason and Intuition

Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell

Of the reality or unreality of the mystic’s world I know nothing. I have no wish to deny it, nor even to declare that the insight which reveals it is not a genuine insight. What I do wish to maintain—and it is here that the scientific attitude becomes imperative—is that insight, untested and unsupported, is an insufficient guarantee of truth, in spite of the fact that much of the most important truth is first suggested by its means. It is common to speak of an opposition between instinct and reason… But in fact the opposition of instinct and reason is mainly illusory. Instinct, intuition, or insight is what first leads to the beliefs which subsequent reason confirms or confutes; but the confirmation, where it is possible, consists, in the last analysis, of agreement with other beliefs no less instinctive. Reason is a harmonising, controlling force rather than a creative one. Even in the most purely logical realm, it is insight that first arrives at what is new. — Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic


Anyone who has ever heard or seen Neil DeGrasse Tyson speak on astrophysics or has read Einstein holding forth on relativity would not doubt, for a moment, Bertrand Russell’s  assertion that “much of the most important truth is first suggested” by insight or intuition. The above sentence, which kicks off his chapter on reason and intuition, about sums up my own sense of the relationship between mysticism and logic, reason and intuition. It also pretty accurately sums up the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith as voiced by Abdu’l‑Bahá.

Every subject presented to a thoughtful audience must be supported by rational proofs and logical arguments. Proofs are of four kinds: first, through sense perception; second, through the reasoning faculty; third, from traditional or scriptural authority; fourth, through the medium of inspiration. That is to say, there are four criteria or standards of judgment by which the human mind reaches its conclusions. — Abdu’l‑Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, Talk from 16 August, 1912


 Abdu’l-Bahá takes each of these types of “proofs” in turn, arriving at the conclusion that any one of them alone is not sufficient.

Consequently, it has become evident that the four criteria or standards of judgment by which the human mind reaches its conclusions are faulty and inaccurate. All of them are liable to mistake and error in conclusions. But a statement presented to the mind accompanied by proofs which the senses can perceive to be correct, which the faculty of reason can accept, which is in accord with traditional authority and sanctioned by the promptings of the heart, can be adjudged and relied upon as perfectly correct, for it has been proved and tested by all the standards of judgment and found to be complete. When we apply but one test, there are possibilities of mistake. This is self-evident and manifest.  Abdu’l‑Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, Talk from 16 August, 1912

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