Archives for posts with tag: communication

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.

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. 🙂


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.

From the feedback I have gotten so far, it seems

  1. People would prefer the videos to be longer. Same content, but spaced out more.
  2. Audio quality not terrible but also not great. (Tinkering with microphone to try to address this)
  3. Video quality could be better. (I can re-upload a higher resolution video with almost no effort, I just didn’t want the video to be too large, but given it ended up being about 10mb, I think I can afford to boost the resolution.)
  4. A couple of you expressed interest in going into more depth as well

Feel free to comment here or youtube, or email me at google’s mail service under the the name of the blog. (Stated that way to avoid spam)

Today I’ll be posting the first in a series of short videos aimed at providing an approachable, reasonable, and generally friendly introduction to critical thinking. It will probably be redundant for some people, but I hope it will be beneficial to theists trying to understand atheists, and to people who might be questioning their own beliefs and looking for some way to get traction on the issues.


Transcript below:
Episode #1: Why should I care about language?
    Hello, dear viewer. Thank you for giving me a bit of your time. In the interest of of avoiding wasting any of it, I will simply say: let’s begin.
    First, a bit on language. There are many languages, about seven thousand at the moment. Depending on how you define them, there might even be thousands or tens of thousands more, but the thing we have to understand about what we call a “language” is that it all boils down to this: a language is a pseudo-fixed reference point by which we can communicate by reference to shared meanings.
    So to communicate about quite literally anything, we absolutely must share definitions to as close to perfectly as we can. In the interest of ensuring that you understand what I am trying to communicate, I am going to do my best to lay out the definition of some terms that are commonly used. Please be aware that as a person with an English Literature degree, language is what I do, I value it and I value communication immensely. So I will be making reference to dictionaries, which are the physical representation of our shared meanings.
    If by any chance you feel that my definition does not match yours, that is perfectly fine, but remember that if you want to communicate with me, or anyone else, you are obligated to provide a definition for the terms you use if it varies in any degree from the “standard”.  That isn’t to say that the standard is the end-all be-all–deviation from the standard is fine so long as you explain exactly how you differ from it so we can all communicate effectively.
    In short, if a spade is a spade, but by “spade” you mean “milkshake” it is your responsibility to tell everyone else, “hey when I say the word spade, I mean what you think of as a milkshake”.

Now to definitions of some basic terms:
Atheist — An atheist is a person who holds no positive belief in a god or gods. That is all the word means. You can expand and get more detail by asking whether they hold the “strong” or “weak” atheist position.
    Weak Atheist — Also called “negative” or “soft” atheism.
    This position, shared by the majority of atheists, is that while an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, neither is it evidence of presence. In other words, if you make a claim and show me no evidence, I am simply choosing NOT to believe. It can never be said that the weak atheist position requires faith because it is literally the negation of faith–it is the ‘default’ position. No weak atheist claims to be able to prove a God or gods or transcendent magical sky fairies do not, in fact, exist–a weak atheist simply says they choose to act as though these things do not exist until a preponderance of evidence can be produced to show that they most likely do.
    Strong Atheist — Also called “positive” or “hard” atheism.
    This rare and bizarre position is that a god or gods do not exist and that this is definite. Virtually no atheist holds this position. Let me say it again: virtually no atheist holds this position, because it is also a position that requires belief. Curiously, for some reason most religious folks seem to think that this position is what all atheists ‘believe’. For the obvious reason, the vast majority of atheists do not hold this position because it is a position that is not based on evidence. It cannot be emphasized enough that saying that all atheists hold this position is outright untrue and on par with saying that all black people are thugs, all white people are Nazis, all Americans are obese, or all French people are cowards. It simply is not true.

Agnostic — Where “atheist” deals with belief in a god or gods, agnostic is a word that deals with knowledge. So it is quite possible to be an agnostic atheist, and in fact the majority of atheists are in fact agnostic atheists: they readily admit that they simply do not possess the knowledge to claim that a God or gods exist or do not exist. The problem that this term creates is that the religious often claim that they DO know and will try to get weak atheists to admit that it’s possible a god or gods exist, then try to put a probability on it.
    This is silly for a couple of reasons: first, it is essentially a category error. Because the supernatural is by definition not accessible by humans since we are part of the natural world, trying to put a probability on the existence of a being that we cannot have any knowledge of is like trying to assign a probability to whether love is blue. It is possible to state in words, but the proposition is meaningless. The set of things we know absolutely nothing about and can know nothing about is not capable of having the property of being probable or improbable. It simply is not possible–it could be that God is the noses of undetectable duck-billed platypuses–but we cannot really assign it a probability.
    Second, even if we could assign a probability, the incredibly vast preponderance of evidence is that no supernatural force intervenes in the natural world. So any probability we assign would be vanishingly low. I’ll talk more about this in a future episode.

Deist — I include this for completeness. A Deist is a person who believes in a god, but is agnostic about that god. In other words, while they believe that a supernatural force created reality, they do not believe that they can know anything about that force. This absolutely rules out any Abrahamic tradition like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc. and also rules out Shiva, Zeus, Thor, so on, so forth. Nothing whatsoever can be known about the attributes of the supernatural creator if you want to qualify as a Deist. This is not to say they can have no beliefs, but they admit that they cannot know it as an absolute truth.

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