Friday, November 30, 2012

Non Sequiturs as a Cultural Rule

I'm sure, if any of you follow any of the other atheist blogs, you've probably seen by now the recent furor over a textbook being sold in Indian schools which attempts to espouse the virtues of vegetarianism.  The grounds for their advocacy are mostly religious, and among the awesomely hilarious arguments they use include that God did not include meat among Adam & Eve's diet (because death didn't exist until after the fall, this apparently includes the death of animals).  Among other things, the book claims that the Japanese live very long because they're largely vegetarian...  Huh??  That claim, of course, is patently false, as Japanese eat more fish per capita than any other culture.  Hell, I've been to Osaka, and I was at my wit's ends trying to find any real substantial -- read : "meals", and not snacks/desserts -- items that were really vegetarian (shojin-ryori) to eat half the time.

The one really bizarre claim that stood out was the claim that people who eat meat are more likely to curse, lie, cheat, steal, commit violent crimes, rape, you name it.  In other words, eating meat apparently causes you to be a bad person....  or so the writers are brazenly willing to insinuate.

Now to anyone who reads that sort of claim, they're sure to scratch their heads and wonder how on Earth one follows from the other.  That's because it doesn't.  It never possibly could.  But then, this sort of non sequitur is nothing new.

Say you're an alien, and you are hearing the condemnations of gay sex for the first time ever, yourself coming from a race of beings which for some reason or other would not have any way to hold some analogous context of your own.  Well, you'd certainly hear a lot of screams about homosexuality being evil, and that allowing gay marriage will cause the downfall of society.  Of course, there's something missing here.  How do you connect one to the other?  There's nothing there.  There never has been, and there never will be.  About the only reason why this argument even carries any weight with the populace at all is because the majority is Judeo-Christian enough, even if they otherwise disagree with the sentiment, to have some cultural context for homosexuality being "an abomination."

At no point, though, does anyone get into the question of how you get from point A to point B.  Not even the people who otherwise advocate gay marriage.  The standard answer from the religious right is simply to continue making unfounded assertions and/or to quote the Bible.  But of course, it still really explains nothing.  Now in practice, it's useless to even bother trying to actually extract out the reasoning from these people, because they never reached their positions by reason in the first place.  And this is why even advocates never go down this path.  We, as members of the society in which we are, are just used to hearing the same shpiel by now that it isn't coming off weird.  To a complete outsider (hence, "alien"), there's no part of this that makes sense.  They would plainly see that one idea does not in any sense follow from the other.

Speaking of aliens, I'm fairly sure that the majority, when looking at the Ancient Aliens hypothesis of Giorgio Tsoukalos and his ilk would probably find it pretty ridiculous.  I mean, Bill O'Reilly ridiculous.  Can't explain that!  Therefore, ALIENS!!!  Anybody would see that this is absurd.  But the reason the majority of people can recognize the absurdity in this proposition is because we have no cultural context for aliens as part of our normal experience.  The concept of gods definitely exists as a pervasive construct that is offered as an explanation for just about anything.  Not so much so for aliens.  When some Vaishnavite zealot is willing to tell me that Rama actually shot an arrow through a row of trees, I'm pretty well prepared to call him an idiot, because I know better.  I have a context (namely, physics) that contradicts that position by having the math to show that it's impossible no matter how strong you want to pretend Rama could have been.  When someone like David Childress comes along and says that the reason he could do that is because Rama is from another planet and therefore has unimaginable technology...  now just about anybody is ready to call him an idiot.

But this time around, it's not just the contradicting belief anymore.  Now, you're no longer framing it in something familiar like divine providence.  Now, you're taking it out of that comfortable zone of "stuff we just accept" so that people are able to see it for the ridiculous contrivance that it is.

I long await the day this happens to astrology.  Why does anyone even consider giving astrologers the time of day?  Astrology, once again, is one of those old traditions that just hangs around for no better reason than the fact that people have done it forever.  I come from a culture where astrology is deeply ingrained in daily life.  We have a 1-and-a-half hour period during every day of the week where businesses do not engage in any decision making because it's astrologically unsuitable.  We have CEOs who pick their exact times to deal based on when the stars are right.  We're required to consult astrologers before getting married.  Today, of course, we are not in a position not to know better.  Where Mars is in its orbit at the time of your birth has an influence?  Bullshit!  The only influence it could possibly have had is gravitational, and we know well enough to know that the doctor who pulled you out of the womb exerted a greater gravitational influence on you than Mars ever could.  Sure, Mars is more massive, but the doctor is a lot closer.  I, while typing this blog entry exert a stronger gravitational as well as electromagnetic field on any of my readers then every single star in the sky save for the sun.  Again, because I'm closer.

To anyone who does know a thing or two about astronomy, the very idea of astrology is planet-shatteringly absurd.  The stars are nothing more than a enormous orbs of swirling superheated plasma undergoing nuclear fusion under gravitational pressure several hundred to several million light years away.  Of course, because the distances are so far away, there's no apparent parallax, so they all look as if they're equally distant to the naked eye.  So when it looks like the sun or the moon are in a particular constellation, it's really that the lines of sight just line up.  Now to anyone who isn't already brought up in a culture steeped in astrological bullcrap, how are they going to react to the very idea of astrology?  Once again, let me remind you that astrology is the proposition that the lines of sight to extremely distant balls of gas shining with the glow of nuclear fusion when projected against the loci of the lines of sight of the planets in our own solar system (in addition to the sun and moon) when viewed at the time and place of your birth has a determining influence on your personality and future.  The nicest thing that could possibly be said is to call it a non sequitur fallacy.  Exactly how is it in any way even remotely possible for the latter to follow from the former?  Maybe...  just maybe...  it's a load of garbage dreamt up by ancient people who didn't know any better and didn't have any secret knowledge or any deeper insights.  While many of these people were surely our intellectual superiors, that is not quite the same thing as saying that their knowledge was greater.

And yet here we are in an age where even the most technologically developed of nations will likely never get rid of the horoscope section in their local newspapers.  Here we are in an age where someone like Louie Gohmert can actually be elected in spite of being a veritable non sequitur generation algorithm.  Could there be a way for any outside observer to really see the logic here?  But we're so used to it because conspiracy theories about how "liberals likely feel that jihadists should gain special rights to participate with our government as a way to punish America for it's greedy success and its greedy free markets"* is just old hat for right-wing fear mongering.  Yeah, it makes no sense, but neither do a lot of things we take as "normal."  I wonder how an alien would feel seeing that a TV network called "The Learning Channel" has among its fine programming...  Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo.  I think the alien would feel as physically ill as I do just coming to that realization.

If only "normal" actually meant people had their heads on straight all the time.  I know...  keep dreaming.  Y'know.  If there were any aliens who have visited our planet, chances are they probably all killed themselves because the sight of our race is just that depressing.

* Yes, that actually is a word for word quote.  And yes, he was dead serious.