One of the things that happens to all of us is getting rooted in a static perspective. It is sometimes difficult to see this calcification from our own viewpoint, but it can stand out like a sore thumb to other people. The trick seems to be working furiously to keep our defensive reactions from browbeating other people out of telling us when we seem wrong from their perspective. That, and finding enough people who do the same to keep the input useful.

Long story short: we can all be wrong due to errors in data and thinking. I suppose the best indicator is being slightly uncomfortable at all times from a constant awareness of this. Comfort seems to presage motionlessness unless it is the comfort of temporary respite from hard work with the sure knowledge that shortly it will begin again.

 

More later.

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I want to talk about a subject near and dear to my heart: the fallacy of equivocation. To commit the fallacy of equivocation is a somewhat formal and precise way of saying you have made an error in the way you used a word, specifically with regard to the sense in which you treat its denotative meaning. You might think that this sort of thing is of importance only to intellectuals dwelling among the clouds in firmly shuttered ivory towers, but you would be badly mistaken in this opinion.

If we render it in terms more familiar to the large segment of the population concerned with things like getting enough money to make the rent, or whether or not that cute person is going to call you back, it is most simply expressed by saying that it is a form of lying. It can occur through apathy or by being unclear on what a word means, but most often the cause is that on some level the person who is equivocating wants either to avoid the discomfort of saying something right out, or evade the consequences of speaking plainly–usually manifesting themselves as someone telling them to take their opinion and place it where the sun does not shine.

In other words: the fallacy of equivocation is usually a deliberate misrepresentation intended to get someone else what they want out of you without you objecting to it. This is, as all fallacies are, either the result of intellectual dishonesty or ignorance, either of which is to be pinned down and gotten rid of with a quickness.

The easiest way to avoid accidentally engaging in this fallacy is be sure of your definitions, and be sure you do not use a word in more than one way at a given time. The rule of thumb is: when in doubt, look it up. It matters not at all how smart you are or the degree to which your erudition regularly attracts the adulation and approval of your peers–if you are not sure, look it up. If you are writing anything of consequence, your work will not suffer irrecoverably with the loss of five seconds spent consulting with the Google. If nothing else, catch it  when you edit.

Some examples of this fallacy in action can be found at:

To avoid being fooled by this sort of language, ask a question to pin down the meaning of the statement. The easiest way to do this is by asking for or providing and asking for verification that the sense of the word you are thinking of is what is intended. If the person readily provides you with a more specific meaning, it was probably a mistake–even if it takes them awhile to figure out what specifically they meant to say. However, if all you get is weasel words and ambiguity, or the person tries to change the topic, you have most likely caught them with their hand in the Equivocational Cookie Jar.

This sort of thing is not just for eggheads: you should care about being clear and specific because this kind of thing leads to false expectations, anger, and misunderstandings that can potentially damage or destroy trust and relationships. If you have ever been disappointed by  politician, frustrated by someone who says one thing but does another and squeaks by on a technicality, or misunderstood because someone just assumed they knew what sense of a word you were using–this should matter to you.

As a person who is present to some extent in modern social media, I find that I am exposed daily to an unhealthy dose of bad advice from apparently well-meaning but deeply confused people who want so desperately to be right that they are willing to sacrifice truth to their hunger for the feeling of certainty. One of the more insidious forms of this offense begins with an admonition to “think for yourself.” There is nothing inherently wrong with this advice. It might actually be one of the best pieces of advice one can give, but a number of hideous flaws can creep silently in hiding in its shadow if we are not cautious. The most egregious and abhorrently poisonous of these wretched little gremlins is the notion that doing one’s thinking in a vacuum is the only–or perhaps worse, the best–way to go about the task of figuring things out.

The title of this piece is intended to provide an unequivocal demonstration of why this method is not only disastrously stupid, but so easily repudiated that anyone who cares to can do so inside of a minute or two. Masturbation is an intrinsically solipsistic sort of activity: you need only your brain, your hands, and whatever plumbing nature has supplied you with to conduct it. I will for the moment dismiss the exception of fetishists who require something of outside manufacture to reach a satisfactory level of excitement; it is possible at least in theory for those persons to either substitute sufficient imagination or manufacture the necessary adjuncts themselves which leaves us back at our starting point. The point to be taken away from this is that masturbation does not inherently require a second sentient being, and while it does co-opt the use of various mental circuitry related to reproduction, it does not constitute a functional replication of the reproductive process.

In other words, you are never going to have a baby no matter how much you masturbate. Barring incredibly rare abnormalities like Turner’s Syndrome, you will never be able to become pregnant (especially if you have an XY phenotype body) in the absence of another human sentient. In any case, that sort of exception is physiologically unrelated to masturbation and so even that would not disprove the example. The long and the short of this is that if you attempted to “reproduce for yourself” in the absence of another human, you could spend as long as your heart desired at it without the effort contributing to your goal in the slightest. You may have a fantastic relationship with Rosy Palm and her five sisters, but none of them are going to be your baby daddy, sorry.

It is in precisely the same way that “thinking for yourself” in the absence of evidence will get you nothing aside from a warm, fuzzy feeling. If that is all you are after, allow me to refer you to the former example as it will allow you to obtain that result with significantly more regularity. Merely “citing your thoughts” is mental masturbation. You may always share your thoughts, but as soon as any of them purport to be representative of anything outside your opinion, you may have begun to waggle your intellectual wang, (or started “bluffin’ with your cranial muffin”,) in a most embarrassing manner. Do have a care for any impressionable people who might be exposed to your intellectually indecent exposure.

To get a bit more into the nuts and bolts, when we say, “think for yourself” honestly what we mean is, “examine the evidence for yourself and come to a conclusion that is not biased by another person’s assumptions.” The phrase presupposes that not only is the evidence available in full, but that the recipient is interested in perusing it and constructing his or her own theory to explain it. Or at least examining the available explanations and selecting the one from the source he or she judges to be most likely to be correct. Even the latter method is rife with peril if it is not accompanied by a basic understanding of reality, some fact-checking, and a firm conviction that truth is preferable to comforting sophistry.

I will be blunt: anyone who tells you to rely on your own thoughts and feelings to the exclusion of evidence, skepticism, and communication/cross-checking with other people, that person is either a contemptible lout or a lunatic and more than likely wants to sell you something, be it a used car, a religion, or the dubious privilege of his presence between your thighs for as long as it takes him to do his business. Thought without evidence or logic is like sperm without an egg or a womb and it will get you just as close to producing truth as the latter will to producing a baby.

No matter how many people you get to agree with you that it is otherwise, the facts will remain the facts. So when you say, “think for yourself” you had better bloody well mean it and the rest of you who gobble up that vacuous piffle in the spirit in which it was intended, cut that shit out before civilization collapses beneath your vacant and incurious bulk.

Ille equus mortuus percussus est.

Re: http://studentactivism.net/2012/09/16/cuny-declares-war-on-rebel-english-department-day-two/

This began as an attempt to answer a single comment, but has grown a tad too large to reasonably fit there. SSS will return next Sunday, I promise. Please see the article and Reading Writer‘s first and second comments, as well as the response from CUNY Comp. Instructor.
When one notes the benefits of, “writing across the curriculum” it is critically important to note that these benefits are possible only because such a widespread impetus to write more often and more effectively is *extra*. Consider it the language arts version of taking vitamins. If you reduce someone’s diet to 800 calories a day and then suggest that we ought to look at taking vitamins as making up for it, you will receive the same bemused response from a dietician that you have heard from the CUNY composition instructors. In short: if we try to replace basic fundamentals with measures that were always intended to supplement those basics–we are going to run into huge problems in astonishingly short order.

Just to start with, the instructors in other departments likely have neither the training or the motivation to hold student work to the same minimum necessary standard, because their own education and efforts are focused on their own subject. Further, they are more likely to care primarily about getting students to grasp the topic they are teaching, which is difficult enough to do with native speakers with a vice-like grasp of general English and a decade or more of background in academic English.
I doubt very much that any instructor has even the barest fraction of a desire to hold any student back from the pursuit of learning about something they are interested in, no matter their language level. It is, again, a structural issue. If someone who is incapable of understanding the coursework and further is not capable of demonstrating mastery of the concepts because of communication problems, the result is a horrific bottleneck that the ‘streamlining’ only worsens. Giving instructors less time and less resources to do a tougher job with a wider variance in student ability and expecting it to work out because it looks pretty in Excel is not merely unwise but actively stupid, and destructive to the goal of any educational institution. Especially one whose responsibility is to students who rely on it to help make up for the opportunities they were denied in their youth.

To be a little more specific, this ‘streamlining’ attempts to get instructors to teach something they do not specialize in to people who do not necessarily understand the instruction and if they do, are not necessarily capable of proving that they are, in fact, learning with any degree of efficiency. The result is to force instructors to spend less of their time teaching–that is, less time preparing students to succeed in the modern economy–and proportionately more time providing remedial education that the instructors are not necessarily trained to provide; all while inside the context of a system where classroom time and supporting resources are steadily shrinking.

The result is that everyone loses. The professor has done a disservice to students by not conducting as thorough and informative a course as possible. The students who are at the minimum standard or beyond it are paying for their time to be wasted watching people play catch-up, and the people who are forced by circumstances that are more than likely not their fault to begin with to play catch-up are paying to play catch up in an environment not necessarily well-suited to maximizing their gains in performance and understanding. Everyone has less time, and spends less of that time doing what they intended to do.

The point is not, as you seem to think, “holding them back” until their ability is “where we would like it to be” but rather wasting as little time as possible in getting students who are operating at a disadvantage up out of the hole and maximizing their potential. No serious teacher at any level believes that an ESOL student is any less intelligent than a student who happens to speak English natively; the belief is that ESOL students are better served by a dynamic network of instructors and classes designed specifically to identify where they are on the path, help them move along it as rapidly as possible with targeted and specific instruction, and let them skip any steps along the way that their out-of-class experience has made redundant.

In short: they do deserve content, and they deserve people who care about getting it to them in a timely manner that respects their personal challenges and abilities. Simply tossing an ESOL student into the deep end and expecting it to work every time without involving the rest of the student body or instructional cadre is nonsensical. If anything, the answer is a series of partial-credit remedial courses designed with the express intent of using teamwork between ESOL students to promote confidence, communication, and learning and to replicate the content present in entry-level courses in a more measured way focused on developing subject-specific English comprehension and a grasp of fundamentals.*

Sadly, this sort of thing benefits students and massively increases efficiency; but alas, it is not conducive to maximizing profits. Ille equus mortuus percussus est.

 

*Obviously this is not my specific field, so I suppose I could be wrong.

Part 2:Well then, what now?

(Read Part 1 here, a short essay on the aftermath of 9/11/01)

If I may, I would like to preempt the criticism that might be brought to bear against what I said in, “Remember, But Be Thorough” by reminding readers that the first step in solving a problem is becoming aware that it exists. Unless some form of heretofore unknown prescience lurks in the gene pool of homo sapiens and an equally unknown capacity to come to infallibly functional and comprehensible conclusions does likewise, it would seem that our particular branch of the primate tree is inextricably bound to do things the hard way. Fortunately for us, we have evolved to the point where the disinterested universe and its wasteful and bloodily meandering cycles of reproduction no longer represent the only available route.

In the absence of a proven superior method, the arduous and time-consuming work of figuring out how to move ourselves forward falls to humans. The first task that must be undertaken is figuring out what we ought to want. After that, we must ascertain the limitations reality places on our ideal. Lastly, we must apply ourselves in the task of making the two intersect, focusing our attention primarily on working to find ways to bend the latter in the direction of the former in spite if the difficulty of that path and the beguiling artlessness and ultimate futility of its antithesis.

In the end it will remain more effective to wrestle cultural and social reality into confluence with our commonly professed morality than to enlist ourselves into an endless succession of conflicts fought within the microcosm of the individual while armed only with the clumsy instruments of governance. Leave the transformation and salvation of the souls of man to those who are content to profess a belief in them, and spend our limited resources in the pursuit of those goods which are detectable and demonstrably extant in the reality we share.

It is the position of myself, and I daresay all secular humanists, that the result of spending of $100 to save the life of a child from preventable illness is superior to that of $100 spent on reassuring that child’s parents that their beloved youngster is in a better place now. Until the presence of a soul can be confirmed, I remain of the opinion that an evidentially grounded sense of responsibility for the common good of mankind’s living, breathing bodies, and active minds is superior to one based on the presupposition that the world we know is a sham.

Pursuant to this collection of notions, I have decided to label this post and the first with the category, “The Golden Path,” in allusion to the writings of Franklin Patrick Herbert, Jr. wherein the characters Paul Atreides and his son Leto Atreides II use their prescience to predict the possible future downfall of humanity. Obviously I am not possessed of the abilities of the Kwisatz Haderach and neither is anyone else at least thus far. Obviously the point of my invocation of Herbert’s work is not to say that we need to desperately begin searching the galaxy for a source of spice melange–but I think that there are definitely things which a thorough read of the Dune epic can grant us which will be of significant assistance.

So let me break out the old literary analysis toolkit and begin to sketch out a rough and ready reading of the Dune epic, at least as it relates to the topic of what humanity and more specifically America, ought to be working at. The “Golden Path” that Paul “Mua’Dib” Atreides and his son Leto II chart out is the result of prescience, or more specifically developed in response to the existence of it and their possession of it as a consequence of a multi-millennial breeding program involving the Navigator’s Guild, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, and the Mentats–three powerful and influential groups possessed of unique powers granted to them by the incredibly rare and precious spice mined on the planet Arrakis.

Arrakis is a profoundly harsh desert world whose lethality is matched only by the stark beauty of its sands and the relentlessly tough self-sufficiency of the planet’s human population, the Fremen. It is the single place in all the galaxy where spice can be found, and as such is a place of inconceivable value to the Human Empire. Much like the colonial South Africa and its diamonds or perhaps colonial Iraq, the planet is dominated by a powerful group granted supremacy over the land by agreement of the Emperor and the Noble Houses of the Empire, (loosely analogous to the colonial powers of Europe), and brutally segregated between marginalized Fremen and workers and the stunningly wealthy nobility.

While the setting itself could support its own interpretation, the long and the short of it is essentially that spice is a kind of ‘X factor’ that unlocks potential in humans and changes them in a manner consistent with their effort. Arrakis is therefore the hub about which the entire Human Empire turns.  It provides the Spacing Guild’s Navigators with the means to transform themselves into misshapen but potent creatures that can “fold” space with their minds and move the giant ships that allow the Empire to maintain its cohesion. It helps the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood to gain access to a kind of “genetic memory” of all past human women as well as granting them The Voice, which is a sort of quasi-mind control which can compel obedience from those who hear it, depending on the strength of the Sister and the willpower of the individual. Lastly, spice melange grants the Mentats phenomenal cognitive powers ranging from eidetic memory to rapid synthesis of huge amounts of data including lightning-fast calculations.

All of these groups benefit additionally from significantly extended life expectancy, and suffer to some degree or another from spice addiction. In light of the dark period in endogenous history during which sentient machines nearly annihilated humanity, spice addiction is a small price to pay for these sorts of replacement for various technologies. The system works. People live their lives in relative peace, the government generally functions, and trade occurs. Here is where we begin to come back to the original thrust, having done a somewhat frightfully shallow skimming of the basics–allow me if you will to enjoin you to partake of the series itself and of my future exploration of its corpus. To put it as simply as I can, humanity in the Dune universe has begun to become stagnant. The familiar primate drives for love, sex, territory, power, safety, and resources have ceased to propel the species forward.

Humans have become reliant first on spice, and second, on special and powerful groups like the three I have mentioned to take care of business. Paul and his son are the rare inheritors of both prescience and what is called the, “no-gene” which shields them from prescience. The “Golden Path” to which I refer is the end result of a determination to avoid the final destruction of humankind by an unknown enemy who might possess the same sort of prescience. The curious thing which separatesDune from most tales and Paul and his son from most heroes is that Herbert’s dystopian future narrative is decidedly ruthless in its egalitarian approach.

While Paul Atreides is lucky enough to be the scion of one of the Empire’s foremost families, in the first novel his family is thoroughly betrayed by one of their most trusted servants and the entire house sans Paul and his mother are slaughtered essentially to the last man, woman, and child. Furthermore, if one takes the time to explore beyond the initial book, we realize that Paul is in fact not the Kwisatz Haderach and is in fact only a partial success and the result of his mother’s deliberate disobedience to the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood’s orders in the face of her love for Duke Leto Atreides. Mua’Dib himself comes to his power not by being granted a special magical sword, by being the ‘chosen one’, or by inheriting a position of power and privilege that he eventually becomes worthy of during the story.

If I must summarize in brief, Paul is completely cut off from his privileged nobility and thrust into the lethally harsh landscape of Dune, and is forced to earn his way into the equally demanding company of the Fremen. He receives no special magic, makes the acquaintance of no luckily placed bearer of profundity, and has no particular advantages to start with. His prescience is the source only of confusion and fevered dreams until he puts forth the massive effort to develop it, doing so only at extreme risk from Spacer Guild Navigators, and while he is skilled in combat, he worked for years to attain that ability and did not suddenly transform from simple farmer into master at arms during of a five minute montage that takes place within two days of endogenous time.

Paul Mua’dib at least, is one of the rarest breed of heroes: the sort whose roots dig haltingly into the basest soil of human nature and grows only by dint of painful and sustained effort. Imperfect and often troubled by it, the foremost hero of Dune neither accepts nor transcends the geas of the ‘destinies’ laid upon him by the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, the treacheous House Harkonnen, the Padishah Emperor, or even his own noble family, House Atreides. In spite of and perhaps due to his own human failings, he instead grasps the reality in front of him and accepts the destiny he writes for himself: the tortuous and agonizing path of doing what is right, no matter the price in convenience, comfort, or even life itself.

Having made what might seem a startling number of wide-reaching assertions without citation, I can almost hear the keening lamentation of my many wonderful teachers, professors, and TAs echoing through the aether to my ears. To those formidable persons I direct this brief request for forbearance: consider the previous piece my introduction and this the first portion of exposition necessitated by my choice in allegorical framework. The meat and potatoes will be attended to, and the depths of the texts rigorously plumbed for support. It is just going to take awhile to do properly.

Until next time, thanks for reading.

I am somewhat prone to referring in a mildly disparaging way to franchises such as Star Wars and Star Trek as, “fantasy with lasers.” However this is not an intrinsically negative term by any means. It is disparaging only when it is used to describe things which bill themselves as “science fiction” but are, in fact, not. A future BBB post will deal with my personal categorizations, but for today’s purpose I wanted to establish that work such as Dickson’s Forever Man sets the bar for quality FWL, though I will readily concede that it straddles the line between FWL and science fiction so well that it was difficult to assign it a category.

You can obtain a plot summary elsewhere, so I will constrain myself instead to, as is the intention of all BBB posts, telling you why you should read the book!

The main character begins in a fairly standard situation, but gradually through well-crafted and acceptably smooth increments the notional reality of the setting is turned on its head and introduces us to the surprising depth of possibility latent in a single change in what we think of as reality.

Although he writes Forever Man in a somewhat lighter tone than he did the Childe Cycle, the sense of a close kinship with practical and meaty philosophy remains firmly mixed into the ink. Despite the relative paucity of directly scientific or technical considerations, the novel retains the speculative form inherent to all science fiction–thus the FWL/speculative fiction label.

I find such stories inspiring to my sense of wonder and curiosity, even if they lack the direct emotional impact that simpler (if lengthier,) tales like the Harry Potter or Twilight. I think that at least for Dickson’s work, the value lies not in getting the reader to ask, “what happens next?” but rather, “what could happen next?”

Military personnel and civilians alike will appreciate the two main characters and their interactions, and might gain some level of appreciation of one another seeing elements of themselves reflected in the story. All in all, the story is definitely worth your time.

Sorry for the delay, I know this is perhaps not the ideal start to my venture into the world of internet content creation, but in light of my desire to avoid copyright issues and my desire to make certain everything is of reasonable quality, I delayed myself drawing visual aids for and re-recording the episode.

I’m going to *aim* for weekly, but I care more about making sure that Friendly Contrapologist episodes are well put-together* than I do holding to a schedule whose tightness I did not realize when I proposed it–so I might fall to biweekly. In any event I will do my best, and I hope you enjoy the fruits of my labor.

Because I worked very hard (I am no artist and was working with a laptop trackpad) to create the visual aids, I would request of you that if you copy any of the images from the video, please give me attribution. As long as you are not trying to sell them as your own work, (though why you would do so with stick figures of dubious merit I have no idea,) it is probably covered in Fair Use.

Cheers, and here is this last/this week’s episode!

*Not professionally obviously, but not purely slapdash either. I hope the effort shows. 🙂

Transcript:

Episode #2: Natural vs Supernatural
Hello hello, and welcome to Contrapologist Int’l Studios. I am Contrapologist, your friendly neighborhood Atheist. In this episode, I want to continue with definitions, but first a quick note as a follow-up to last episode’s commentary on language:
 
    Words can have multiple shared meanings as well as having different meanings to each individual. So it is possible to get confused in yet another way by not knowing the “sense” in which someone is using a word.
    For example, if you are at the beach and someone says, “cool” yet the sun is beating down on you both, you probably understand them to be referring to something which is cool in the sense of entertaining and awesome rather than using “cool” in the sense of temperature.
    The example provides context, so you can figure it out. Another problem we run into in speaking of complex and important things is that everyone has different context cues, so your view of reality might affect the way you interpret what someone else is attempting to communicate.
    I see this a lot from religious people who translate, “I’m an atheist” into, “I hate God!” or translate, “I support the separation of church and state” into, “I want to deny you your religious freedom!” While I cannot and will not claim to speak universally for all atheists, I personally have no particular feelings about any god or gods in the same way the average churchgoer has no particular feelings about Zeus, Odin, Shiva, Osiris, Epona, Amaterasu, Wotan, Marduk, the Great Spirit, Svarog, Quetzacoatl, and so on and so forth practically ad infinitum.
    So you must always keep in mind that your default way of understanding, be you atheistic or religious, might not be the intended ‘sense’ of the word. In the words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. “
Back to business.

Natural — When we speak of “nature” we mean essentially all phenomenon that occur in the world that are, at least in principle, accessible to us in some way. For example, anything on the Earth is natural, so is space, all the planets, stars, and so on. A galaxy we can’t see is still natural because it is possible for us to fly a rocket there, at least in theory. It might take a few hundred thousand years to get there, but it isn’t impossible.
    I know this might seem like splitting hairs, but I want to be very precise about what I mean by natural. A car, a watch, a skyscraper: these are all natural in this sense of the word that we must use when we make use of the natural-supernatural dichotomy. They are natural in the sense that they exist independently of individual human perception and conform to what we call the laws of reality.

Supernatural — This word just means “Beyond the natural.” The trouble with it is that any time anything exists in the natural world, it is instantly defined as natural. So for something to be supernatural it has to be inaccessible to our senses and experience. Essentially this means that any time you claim something is supernatural, you are also implicitly admitting that you cannot know anything about it.
    I’ll re-state this with an example so it makes more sense. Let’s say you want to claim we have souls and that souls are supernatural, and so therefore we can interact with the supernatural. As soon as you claim that souls are a detectable part of reality or in any way connected to reality, they have become natural–not supernatural. Therefore if you can interact with the supernatural, it is not supernatural but natural, and therefore accessible to science at least in principle. In other words, if there are supernatural rabbits, and you claim to have seen one, you exist in the natural world, so you must have seen a natural phenomenon we do not yet understand and not a supernatural one.
    Now, it is also possible to maintain that there are natural and supernatural dimensions, but if you make that assumption and maintain that we have souls, you have to at some point be making a fairly self-absorbed and arrogant assumption about yourself. Namely, if we all have souls and you can interact with the supernatural due to your soul, then why can we not ALL interact with the supernatural, and do so under laboratory conditions?
    
    To summarize, if we use natural and supernatural together, the sense of those words that allows it and lets them fit together is necessarily that natural means anything humans can experience while we are alive, and supernatural means anything we cannot experience while alive.
    

That’s all for today from your friendly neighborhood atheist, Contrapologist. Thanks for listening.