Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Guest Post: Goldenmane's Third

Well this is a treat and no mistake.

I have a friend with whom I've been interacting for about a decade. We first encountered each other on the now-defunct Richard Dawkins forum, and it  quickly became clear that we shared many interests, not least of which is the subject of today's guest post. 

We've long talked about doing something public and significant with our interests, and we've finally decided to pull our respective fingers out and get on with it. As a result, my friend, Geoff 'Goldenmane' Rogers has kindly rewritten this as an introduction to our upcoming project, details of which are to follow.

There are some fundamental underpinnings to the way a sceptic approaches ideas, voiced by many over the years, not least the inestimable Calilasseia, who we met in Radionuclide Dating is Rigorous. It has evolved, but began with the simplest of principles: Ideas are disposable entities. This carries a corollary principle, namely that bad ideas exist only to be disposed of.

What follows began as a joke of sorts, but quickly took on a life of its own, and has been cited in blogs and rationalist forums the world over in the intervening time. It deals with a particularly bad idea but, in the interest of not waffling on and giving away the plot, I'll shut up now and cede the floor to my inestimable colleague.

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It's a kind of magic.

We are in the business of ideas. Having them, receiving them, inspecting, investigating, evaluating and dissecting them. 

It's a business that gets pretty goddamned meta, as the kids are wont to say, because it involves examining and dissecting the hows and whys of ideas about ideas, if you catch my drift. It's the sort of thing that can keep you going all day, and for some of us, fucking decades. 

Now, one or two of you might have noticed a rather... informal cast to the above paragraph. It's not because I'm being lazy (although I am, as the unattended breakfast dishes will attest) but that I want to introduce to you an idea about ideas: Goldenmane's Third Rule of Public Discourse – Swear a lot. 

See, some people get upset when you say words like cunt, fuck, piss and shit, and Rule Fucking 3 (as it has become known) serves as a way of distinguishing between those capable of addressing arguments rationally and those mired in intellectual vacuity. It serves as a remarkably accurate litmus test, because the very notion of swearing is rooted in magical thinking. See? Ideas about ideas. Let's elucidate. 

Think for a moment about the words used to refer to swearing (including swearing). Almost the entirety of the vocabulary devoted to it draws from religious/magical patterns of thought. '
Cursing'. 'Profanity'. A curse is a magic spell, and you cannot have the profane without the notion of the sacred. To swear draws from the notion of the oath, calling upon the supernatural to bind one to an outcome. 

What renders the whole notion of bad language truly ludicrous is that words are just effectively arbitrary collections of sounds (or letters, if written down). Start with 'c'. Add a 't': 'ct'. Add a 'u': 'cut'. Wow, we now have a word that we recognise. There's nothing bad about the word, just as there's nothing bad about the letters it is made from. Now add an 'n': cnut. 

That should, properly, be rendered Cnut, it being a proper noun. Chap is famous for arguing with the sea, or something. The sea, of course, ignored him, because words aren't actually magical. Changing Cnut around a little makes him a cunt. Where's the fucking magic? 

The fact is, words aren't magical. The power they have is the power of communication, not the power of sorcery or the spiritual. Those things don't fucking exist. You cannot combine phonemes and force the Universe to change course to suit your will. Whilst a cunt is a magical and wondrous thing, and the word cunt is viscerally satisfying to utter, there is no thaumaturgy involved. 


It has often been thought that words and sounds have magical power. A short wander through various sorcerous traditions reveals that this seems almost to be a default expectation of the human system. Chant the right mantra, recite the incantation, find someone's true name, learn neuro-linguistic programming; the list is fucking endless, really. And Rule Fucking Three exists to highlight this.

See, those who give credence to the ludicrous notion that certain sounds are bad or evil or grotesque almost certainly are steeped in other ludicrous notions that don't stand the light of scrutiny. Hell, we all are, really, because monkeys in shoes have puny organic brains with all the limitations that entails, but that's no reason not to pursue something more akin to a legitimate understanding of what we will, for the purpose of brevity, call reality. Goldenmane's Third was conceived and born in the process of combating the intellectual vacuity of religion. Those who cannot sustain rational discourse frequently seize upon the purported profanity as an excuse to avoid addressing the charge that their regurgitation of the Kalam Cosmological argument is bullshit because they cannot provide a valid example of something beginning to fucking exist. 


What is truly, astonishingly, outright fucking hilarious about Rule Three is that the very explanation of it contains the prediction so often borne out about what happens next. You swear a lot whilst dismantling bollocks ideas, proponent of said bollocks objects to you saying naughty words, you point them to an explanation of Rule Three (which includes not only an explanation of why their objection is fucking idiotic but also the prediction that they will still use it as an excuse to leave the discussion in high dudgeon) and they fucking leave the discussion in high motherfucking dudgeon. 

It's like it was scripted, every bloody time. 

Now, there exists a Corollary to Rule Three, and it is this: to really apply Rule Three, you have to avoid personal attacks and focus exclusively and explicitly on the ideas you are vivisecting. The notion that some cockwomble named Yeshua was the avatar of the creator of the Universe and chose to appear in a benighted backwater province of ancient Palestine and signally failed to explain the existence of fucking bacteria is, truly, perversely fucking stupid, and if you point it out like that your interlocutor will almost certainly take tremendous offense and storm off, denouncing you in some extremely personal and vindictive fashion. But Rule Three only works if you refrain from calling them a cockwomble and reserve that epithet for their pathetic Lord. (That, of course, is not a personal attack because Jesus doesn't fucking exist.) 


The upshot of all this is simply the following: if someone is capable of grasping that the word fuck is not a magic spell or personal attack, there's a good chance that they've the flexibility of mind to grasp other ideas that are new to them as well. Which is to say that if you understand Goldenmane's Third, then you're probably not a complete cockwomble. 

Rule Three does not, of course, exist in a vacuum. Few things do (or, given certain interpretations of some rather abstruse areas of physics, all things do. Or could do. Or probably will do. Please forgive me, I've been reading stuff about Hawking singularities). 


The point is, we all have cognitive biases of various kinds, because of the kind of animal we are. We're an evolved social ape. As a species, our specialisation is culture. We incline toward hierarchies and are prone to authoritarian behavioural patterns. We believe what our parents tell us, because the monkeys that didn't listen when mum told them about the tigers got eaten. We believe whatever fits with what we already think we know, because evolution didn't predict robust education systems and information and medical technologies, and the fact that we can collate, store, transmit and absorb enormous amounts of knowledge whilst not dying in infancy is an ecological spandrel that we're not really collectively wired to take full advantage of. 

But we can become aware of these biases, these cognitive misinclinations, and in becoming aware of them we gain some degree of capacity to compensate for them. Rule Fucking Three isn't magic. It is a reminder, though, that magic is always hovering at the outskirts of thought, ready to be inserted into our ideas. Insidious bugger.

Oh, yeah, Rules 1 and 2? Stick around. You'll find them eventually.

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And with that, I'm pleased to announce an upcoming project, a decade in the making; our new podcast 'Third Rule', which you can expect the first episode of in the coming weeks as we hammer out the final details.

If you want to keep abreast of news of this, please follow @ThirdRulePod.

Also, follow @Goldenmane3.

To find a rendition of the original version of this, originally posted at the forum of RDFRS, please visit the AFA Forum.