Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Monday, May 27, 2013

A Little Philosophy Can Be a Dangerous Thing

It’s not really a secret that cults tend to attempt to recruit the college-educated. The reason that crazies often try to prey on the educated is simple: people with more education are generally better able to rationalize insane nonsense and defend positions that they’ve accepted, ultimately, irrationally.

Over the years of having discussions online and encountering a lot of strategies practiced by religious believers of all stripes, I’ve found that probably the most annoying strategies come from religious believers who have come up with elaborate justifications for their brand of jibber-jabber.
Read on for a discussion of the problem with such elaborate justifications.

Frequently, the kind of religious believer who trots out such disingenuous justifications is the kind who appeals to “philosophy.” Now, the word philosophy means, of course, “love of wisdom,” and it traditionally refers to the study of fundamental questions about reality, the mind, human experience, etc. It deals with the way that humans know things, how we draw conclusions, specific conclusions about the world around us, and much more. In a sense, all of our knowledge – all of the practical scientific disciplines, for example – can be considered branches of philosophy, for the foundation of rational inquiry into the world was laid by people who began by asking how we do (and how we should) go about making such inquiries. [This is, of course, not to say that humans weren’t making discoveries about the world since the dawn of time: but my point is that the formal application of science can be considered an offshoot of the philosophical systems of thought that preceded it]

So far, so good. As it goes, there’s certainly nothing wrong with philosophy, in the sense of being the study of such fundamental questions. However, there is a tendency among some “philosophers” not to study reality but to study amusing word games. The (so-called) philosophical “field” of theology, for example, is rife with such games. To take the famous example of Anselm’s Ontological Argument:

1)  God is defined as a being of which no greater being could be conceived.
2) Existence is greater than non-existence.

3) Therefore, God must possess the characteristic of “existence” (otherwise, God wouldn’t be the greatest possible being of which we could conceive…but since he is [see (1), above] he must, by definition, possess “existence” as a characteristic).

4) Therefore, God exists.

See that? Amusing! It’s like one of those riddles you learn as a child, where you think yourself so clever for figuring out a really entertaining way of playing with words.
Of course, any reader with more than two brain cells will have already figured out that the “Ontological Argument” – and other, similar word games – is complete and utter bullshit. For obvious starters, we can’t create a being by defining it into existence. After all, just because a person can construct a valid logical syllogism, that doesn’t mean that the syllogism is based on true premises or maps to anything actually existing. Indeed, the soundness of the Ontological argument’s premises is definitely in question. God is a being of which no greater being could be conceived? Says who? What if God is incredibly humble, like the Tao, and has no problem admitting to being not-so-great? To point to another problem, what about the dubious claim that existence is greater than non-existence? Again, says who? Think of how “great” it would be for a being to be able to create a whole universe while not existing! It may be that non-existence is a far greater state.

For those who are still not convinced, let’s try modifying the words of this “proof” slightly:

1) “My lottery victory” is defined as a lottery victory happening to me of which no greater lottery victory happening to me can be conceived.
2) Existence is greater than non-existence.

3) “My lottery victory” must therefore possess the characteristic of existence.
4) Therefore, I won the lottery.

And, just to be clear, no, I haven’t won the lottery. Defining things as existent in no way means that they actually do exist, which is the whole point I was just making.
Anyway, as you can see, this particular word game comes apart at the seams with only the slightest investigation…but it’s a fun word game, for sure. And, actually, as far as it goes, I have nothing against people entertaining themselves or even making professional careers out of analysing word games like these. Such games may well teach us something interesting about the way our minds work, the way language works, the tricks that we use to deceive ourselves, etc.

But I do have something against people taking these word games and using them to distract themselves from subjects under discussion, and I definitely have something against people using nonsense word games as a smoke screen for defending their poorly-thought-through ideas.
More often than not, religious believers who have studied philosophy and who rely on it in argumentation are insufferable clods who make conversation nearly impossible by bogging it down in distractionary dreck.

Equivocation is a common technique used by these people. For example, if I say that “Santa Claus isn’t real,” it’s perfectly obvious what I mean, but religious believers often insist on equivocating on the meaning of “real.” I have, in the past, had online discussions with religious believers (including Christians, mind you), who have argued fiercely about the meaning of “real.” It is not uncommon to argue with such people for several pages of a discussion thread about the question of whether a fictional character, like Santa, is “real” in some sense or another. The game seems to be that if they can establish that “real” is ultimately indistinguishable from “make believe,” then nobody has any grounds to “disprove” their retarded fantasies about gods or magic powers or whatever. It’s particularly brutal when discussing these subjects with dumbasses who have imbibed a little bit of Thelemic thought: “Truth is what works!” they’ll claim, ignorant of the fact that one has to first establish that something actually does “work” to begin with before making this claim (along with the fact that it is impossible to establish whether something works if it is impossible to distinguish between reality and make believe).
This is what I mean by the title of my post: religious believers sometimes learn a little philosophy – that is, they learn a little bit about playing really silly word games – and it’s dangerous because it feeds into their ability to talk themselves into believing insane nonsense.

When we turn toward a group of religious believers known as occultists – and a certain subset who practice a supernaturalist religion loosely based on Thelema which they insist on describing as “Thelema” – we find a particular tendency to insist, nearly as a point of dogma, almost as a point of pride, on their inability to distinguish reality from fantasy.
I’ve seen these kinds of religious dumbasses sincerely argue that they don’t know what the difference is between reality and imagination. I’ve had imbeciles pester me for definitions” of “real” and “imaginary,” eager to shoot down any definitions as “circular” or “incomplete,” apparently unaware that any  and all definitions can be so designated by someone interested in playing word games instead of discussing the subjects under discussion.

Recently, over at, I got into a discussion with someone interested in talking about a “fully worked out naturalistic framework for Thelema.” He also made a number of strange comments, including that “I’m not sure it would be trivially easy [to distinguish between reality and fantasy], as you [Los] say.” In response to my (hopefully) uncontroversial claim that a person totally incapable of distinguishing between fantasy and reality is sick in the head, he said that I was “begging the question.” And other weird things.

I’m not going to call this guy a dumbass because I think he just honestly hadn’t been exposed (before speaking to me) to the point of view that philosophy, in the form of using wordgames to confuse oneself, is inane and stupid.
I don’t have a strict “framework” in the sense of precisely-defined nifty word-games that are immune to other reductio-ad-absurdum word games of the sort that the “philosophical” love to play.

My approach to Thelema is predicated on the ability of a person to distinguish (the kind of thing we commonly call) reality from (the kind of thing we commonly call) fantasy. That’s it. One doesn’t need precise definitions of “reality” or “fantasy” to do this. Every single person does this every single day. Right now, you – and by “you,” I mean “the person reading this post” – are capable of distinguishing your experience of reading these words from your thoughts about these words and the images that they’re generating. You’re capable of distinguishing a real conversation you have with a friend from your feelings about that conversation and the internal narrative that gets generated on the back of those feelings. You’re capable of distinguishing your experience of yourself in a given moment from the way you think about yourself (and the entire narrative you’ve spun about the “kind of person you are”). You’re capable of distinguishing a bus coming down the road from a daydream you have about a bus coming down the road.
The kinds of things discussed in the above paragraph are broken down into two categories (things we can conventionally call “real” and “imaginary”). It’s trivially easy to distinguish between these categories, yet for many people, it becomes difficult to separate out, for example, one’s thoughts about oneself from one’s experience of that self in the moment. Hence, the whole need for Thelema. Thelemic practice, then, consists of developing one’s natural, everyday ability to distinguish between real things and fantasy things. The primary way of developing this ability is the training of the mind to pay better attention to what’s going on, and one of the many ways to do this is to gain elementary magical experience.

The problem, of course, is that most people who get into the “occult” treat magick as an excuse to engage in mental masturbation. They want to pretend that they’re really chatting to demon buddies or really contacting space aliens by concentrating hard on a crappy painting or really “influencing reality” by blowing their load on an awful drawing or really attaining anything at all by going on guided imagination exercises.
These things are, of course, all just examples of playing make believe, but someone who insists that it’s impossible to distinguish make believe from reality will insist that these things are “just as real” as doing anything else and as long as they (subjectively seem to) “work,” then they must be just as “true” as the discoveries of science. After all, these idiots ineptly reason, all science does is come up with “models,” and all people do is come up with “models,” and all models are constructs of the mind, but hey, reality is a “construct of the mind,” so all models must be true, so even the most absurd magick-fantasies are just as true as science! So suck on that, Mr. “Scientist”! We don’t need your books and hard work…we’ve got the awesome power of make believe and pretending that it’s reality!

What a complete load of crapola.
Anyway, I’m publishing below an edited version of my post on Lashtal that addresses this point and indicates, in a little more detail, exactly what’s wrong with confusing oneself with philosophy, in the negative sense that I’ve been talking about. Enjoy.

A little philosophy can be a dangerous thing, primarily because the field of philosophy, oftentimes, seems less to be the “study of knowledge” than it is the study of amusing word games that serve to conceal, rather than reveal, what’s actually going on.

In the above conversation on this discussion thread, the other poster said that it seemed to be “begging the question” to say that I’m able to distinguish between real things and imaginary things without rigorously defining the terms “real” and “imaginary.” That is to say, if I claimed that the goblin I’m picturing in my mind is imaginary, without a strict and rigorous definition of “imaginary,” this other poster might say I’m begging the question. Now, “begging the question” is a logical fallacy that means that an argument assumes something it’s trying to demonstrate: so the other poster would be saying, in that specific example, that the statement “The goblin I’m picturing in my mind is imaginary” must be one of my premises, that I’m defining the goblin as imaginary without providing a reason to conclude that it is (since I don’t provide a rigorous definition of “imaginary” by which we could judge the goblins to be so). Thus, as a result, the conclusion that “The goblin I’m picturing is imaginary” begs the question and fails to actually demonstrate that the goblin is, in fact, imaginary.

Here’s the problem with the above. By playing a similar amusing word game, one can demonstrate that making any claim whatsoever is “begging the question.” For example: take the claim “This is a hat” Very well, but if one is to make this claim, one must have a precise definition of “hat” (otherwise one is begging the question). And how do we define “hat”? A shaped covering for the head. Very well, but one must have precise definitions of covering and head (otherwise one is begging the question). And how do we define covering? A thing used to cover something else, typically to protect or conceal it. And how do we define head? The upper part of the human body, or the front or upper part of the body of an animal, typically separated from the rest of the body by a neck, and containing the brain, mouth, and sense organs. Very well, but one must have precise definitions of thing, to cover, to protect, to conceal, upper, part, human, body, animal…

Etc., etc.. On and on and on. We could obviously keep going until we eventually got a word that was in one of the definitions earlier, and we could thereby “prove” that our definition of “hat” is circular and that we don’t have a good definition of “hat” and that therefore the statement that “This is a hat” is not a valid claim after all since it begs the question (because we don’t have a rigorous, clear definition of “hat” that doesn’t involve circular definitions).

But there’s one huge problem with the above: we certainly can identify a hat when we see one, and identifying a hat does not depend in any way on having a rigorous definition that doesn’t “beg the question.”

And in just the same way that we can reliably identify a hat as such, we can reliably identify an imaginary thing as such.

Certainly, a person can use an amusing word game to “prove” that we can’t identify a particular thing – just as a person can use math to “prove” that walking across a room is impossible – but in fact, such “proofs” address one particular idea of how identifying works, one that doesn’t map to the way that identifying actually works in the real world.

In large part, the philosophical tendency to concentrate on word games reiterates a similar tendency revealed during the debate between Erwin Hessle and Ian Rons a few years ago on these forums over the question of knowledge [link]: Ian argued that knowledge is “impossible,” and Erwin correctly observed that Ian’s critique was aimed at one particular idea of knowledge, one that doesn’t map to the way that knowledge actually works in the real world.

As ever, the problem is that philosophy tends to pay attention to its own little word games instead of bothering to observe how things actually do work: pretty much nobody in the real world identifies anything by coming up with a rigorous definition and forming precise, airtight syllogisms. To criticize the process of identifying on the basis that it doesn’t form a precise, airtight syllogism is to miss the boat entirely, to critique one’s own “fancy picture” of identification while ignoring how it actually works in the real world.

This problem actually replicates in miniature form the error that Thelema sets out to help an individual resolve: an individual, Thelema teaches, spends all of his time preoccupied not with reality (particularly the reality of his own Nature), but instead with his (usually faulty) ideas about reality. In a similar way, students of philosophy can sometimes spend all of their time preoccupied not with the reality of [the particular matter under discussion] but with their idea of the matter under discussion (or their idea of how it should work).

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