Ambiguity vs. Clarity

This post is incomplete, but made available as a work-in-progress preview for my pal jazzman. Updated at 11:25 PM, PST…and again at 12:50 PM, PST…

Ambiguity vs. Clarity
A Reconciliation of Meaning

1. Jazzman, our impasse over the propriety of the ambiguity of the common usages of ‘belief’ doesn’t stem merely from a matter as trivial as dictionary definitions – although an observing third party might think so. It’s more than that: it’s about the “quiet universes” of personal meanings “that can be probed but not occupied.” (I stole that prose, as you’ll shortly see below…)

On and off for the past many weeks, I’ve been stumbling my layman’s way through a terse but illuminating book called How Brains Make Up Their Minds by brain scientist Walter Freeman. You’d like him: he’s among those who dissent from the sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists. One early sentence is simply this: “I hope to encourage the belief that people have power to make choices.” It’s there to distinguish his conclusions from the “ultra-Darwinists” (like Dawkins, Wilson, and Dennett) who seem enthralled by the fatalistic notion that we’re little more than automatons owned and operated by our genetic legacy and by the biological impulses that legacy has ‘hard-wired’ (now there’s a phrase I’m sick of reading in biology!) into us.

Freeman’s book details what the neuron clusters of the human brain spend so much time and energy doing: creating meaning. Meaning, he indicates, is the brain’s first business, because without the ability to create meaning, communication through speech, or even body language cues that infants are first exposed to, would be – well – meaningless.
On page 9, he writes, “Meaning is a kind of living structure that grows and changes, yet endures.” He then spends much of the book explaining how an individual’s brain’s ‘plasticity’ gives rise to the individual’s aggregations of meaning.
“The dynamics isolates the meaning in each brain from all others, endowing each person with ultimate privacy, and loneliness as well, which creates the challenge of creating companionship with others through communication. I call this condition ‘epistemological solipsism,’ to conform with the philosophical term for a school of thought that holds that all knowledge and experience is constructed by and within individuals. (This view differs from the extreme called ‘metaphysical solipsism,’ which holds that the whole world is a fantasy of each individual.)” (Freeman, pp.9-10)

“Meanings have no edges or compartments. They are not solely rational or emotional, but a mixture. They are not thought or beliefs, but the fabric of both. Each meaning has a focus at some point in the dynamic structure of an entire life. Meaning is closed from the outside by virtue of its very uniqueness and complexity. In this sense, it resembles the immunological incompatibility of tissues, by which each of us differs from all others. The barrier between us is not like a moat around a castle or a fire wall protecting a computer system; the meaning in each of us is a quiet universe that can be probed but not occupied.” (Freeman, p.14)

If the tone of my responses to you has seemed overly acidic, I apologize. What I recognize now from rereading the early pages of How Brains Make Up Their Minds is just how much emotion my own meanings involve. Our exchanges over ‘belief’ have been, I suppose, a mutual probing of our own ‘quiet universes’. In other posts, I’ve used the metaphor: ‘concepts = lenses’. Allow me to offer a telescope to you, allowing you – perhaps – if my lenses allow your eyes the same clear images they allow me – a glimpse into my quiet universe.

One of my universe’s central galaxies looks something like this: “I prize clarity over ambiguity.” But do the universes of others prize clarity as I do? Perhaps not.
I prize mystery in fiction – especially in fantasy, my favorite genre – but I don’t prize it in the ‘real’ world, since according to an analysis flowing from my ‘universe of meaning’, the world’s many mysteries have been ‘explained’ by ‘sages’ and ‘prophets’ whose teachings – grounded in the societies and cultures of their times – endure today in what my universe classes as inhumane attitudes, polices, and actions. Thus, when I want to feel the tingle of mystery, I typically retreat to fiction, be it writing or reading. Or, more frequently, into nature, which to me, even after absorbing the countless explanations of science, remains mysteriously wondrous, and wondrously mysterious.
But that very acknowledgment implies that mystery isn’t undesirable even to me. Many people, I opine, seem to prefer a significant sense of mystery in their day-to-day ‘real world’ lives. And since one of my universe’s most recently emergent galaxies reads like this, “refrain from judgment whenever you sense the urge to do it” (it’s harder to live up to than just that!), who am I to take issue with the preference for mystery evident in others?

2. Battling “universes of meaning”?

If meanings are ultimately local – wholly subjective by virtue of their isolation within the minds of the thinkers – then how can we communicate? Confrontation? I suppose it’s one way, and I suppose also our seemingly persistent impasse is at least somewhat confrontational. But I rather like the word Freeman uses, “probe”. We’ve been probing one another’s universes of meaning, and despite our impasse, I think we’re both actually finding that our “probes” are “returning to base” with valuable intergalactic – no, make that inter-universal – data.

I can’t say exactly how it developed, but one of the earliest ‘structures’ of meaning inside my little universe was this: the primary meaning of ‘belief’ is “the mental acceptance of the truth of actuality of something”. No, I didn’t own my American Heritage when that meaning formed, since it was imparted to me by parents and teachers at a very early age. My college dictionary only articulated it particularly aptly, according to the standards of my preexisting meaning. Moreover, my AHD’s other two definitions seemed only variants of that ‘primary’ concept. It offers no ‘burden of proof’ clause such as this from Merriam-Webster Online:
“3 : conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence”.

Jazzman, you’re already aware that M-W O’s meaning no.3 is similar (but functionally stronger in its sense of ‘conviction’) to my new concept of ‘plause’. I’m glad I wasn’t familiar with the M-W O’s definition prior to coining plause, because otherwise I might not have so easily recognized that one can proceed through one’s life and pursuits without convictions. The very existence of the forthcoming sentence’s words – or more specifically, the concepts they mark – are ample evidence that one can proceed provisionally rather than (to coin yet another new word) “convictively”.
‘Premise,’ ‘estimate,’ ‘preliminary conclusion,’ ‘reckoning,’ ‘suspicion,’ ‘impression,’ ‘inference,’ ‘inclination,’ ‘persuasion,’ ‘surmise,’ ‘conjecture,’ ‘speculation,’ ‘sentiment,’ ‘hunch,’ ‘inkling,’ ‘guess,’ ‘musing,’ and the fount of them all: ‘thought’.
Science employs a method that, among other things, is essentially the process of proceeding provisionally rather than ‘with conviction’. I’ve been trying out ‘belief-free’ thinking for the past 10 or so months, and haven’t fallen off the edge of the earth (yet). I am, however, the only person I’m currently aware of seemingly capable of conceptualizing ‘belief-free’ thinking. I very much hope that others discover the same freedom I’ve been enjoying. Yes, it has caused me to rethink my use of words, but that’s not all it is. It isn’t mere rhetorical trickery. Dependency on belief is optional, I’ve found, not mandatory. Otherwise, we could never proceed from guesswork, from conjecture.
And it isn’t necessary – ever – to convert one’s conjectures and deductions into ‘beliefs’ – i.e., convictions. The very decision to do so is tantamount to strapping oneself into an intellectual and emotional straightjacket.
All of this, of course, is valid in my personal, quiet universe of meaning.
Are my lenses working for you yet?

When we began this impasse some 10 or 11 months back, I can promise you I was desperately frustrated by what I interpreted to be a transposition of your meanings onto mine. Like an invasion of aliens from another planet (or universe).
Now, my memory might well be faulty. But it irked the living crap out of me that you seemed to have the temerity to tell me that my understandings of my own ‘personal universe of meaning’ was simply wrong. In response, I’ve been trying to undermine the certainty from which your opinion of my ‘wrongness’ seems to spring.
I’m fast reaching the ‘I no longer care’ stage, however, because in my efforts to analyze and critique the common ambiguous meanings of ‘belief’ that begin at the hard right wall of faith and spread to the left, toward the uncertainties of guesswork and all its close synonyms, I’ve gained increasing confidence in the overall desirability of my arguments.
Notice I used ‘desirability’, not ‘correctness’, or one of its synonyms. ‘Desirability’ is subjective, not objective.
I consider my arguments desirable not only because I prize clarity over ambiguity. It’s not a purely personal whim. It’s pragmatic instead. It seems to me that communication between people’s differing meaning-universes is facilitated by clarity and hampered by ambiguity. As a writer, I pay attention the evolution of a words such as dashA short stroke of the pen or to rush? …both words come from the same source, Middle English daschen, which could mean both to strike and to rush. The earliest meaning was to strike something violently”. One spelling, two words. One word, two distinct meanings. Two distinct meanings that have descended from one simple ancestor-word.
Fluent English speakers and readers can discern from context the meaning of ‘dash’ the speaker or writer intends. However, if the communication over the course of our impasse indicates anything, it sure should indicate that I can’t always fluently discern what meaning you intend from your usages of belief. This isn’t mere boneheadedness on my part. It’s a structural difference between our two meaning-universes. The ‘natural laws’, as it were, in your universe differ from those in mine (you really should give Lee Smolin’s books on physics a spin).

Now, I’m not saying that your meanings are in the minority. In fact, I’d wager that in contemporary English, more meaning-universes resemble yours than resemble mine. The question though isn’t whether mine is ‘right’ and the others ‘wrong’, it’s whether one is less ambiguous than the other.
I’m arguing for increased clarity, based on refining meanings (or by “more finely grinding our conceptual lenses”) already common to our language. I’m arguing that although ‘belief’, (mental acceptance of the truth or actuality of something) CAN ALSO be understood as “BELIEF – may or may not imply certitude in the believer (my belief that I had caught all the errors)” – (M-W O) – should it? Why should one meaning imply certitude while another – a very common usage – explicitly doesn’t?
Is ambiguity in this instance a source of ‘mystery’, or a source instead of confusion?

Dictionaries can’t very well control meaning. Instead, they report the usages of words in the years just preceding the publication. They give ‘photos’, if you like, of the most common patterns of the millions of meaning-universes alive as human minds. Perhaps instead of photos, the images (definitions) are really impressionistic montages. And perhaps then, the errand I’ve selected for myself is futile: like a single microbe trying to remake the image of a painting in the Louvre. Or like a gnat hoping to change the eating habits of an elephant. A fool’s errand. Well, if so, that’s fine. I’ll smash my tiny gnat’s head against the wall of elephantine skin a few more times before tiring, and retiring from it again, as I did a couple of months ago.

Yet if I can persuade even just one person that common usages of one of our language’s most important and frequently used words, a word that denotes at least three distinct concepts, promotes deception instead of honesty, it will have been worth it. The butterfly effect may well be bunk in the natural earthly realm, but maybe, just maybe, within the human communication realm of the internet, it can yield, against the odds, a change.
From ambiguity to clarity? Hell, it’s worth a try.
So thank you, jazzman, for lending me your mind’s ear.

I’ll try to work this into less rambling, more cogent prose when time allows

On Tuesday, Feb. 27th, All Things Considered aired a segment wherein Mike McConnell, the current US spy czar, testified before Congress, using the word ‘believe’ in just the manner I find so deceptive.
Joseph Lieberman asked if he had any evidence that Iranians are training Iraqi insurgents outside of Iraq, specifically, if the training was taking place in Lebanese Hezbollah camps.
He answered: “We believe it is.”
That usage – probably sincere – implied a comfortable degree of certainty. Yet in the piece’s next sentences, he said that he ‘believed’ that Iran’s top leaders are aware that Iran is channeling weapons into Iraq. “We don’t have direct evidence,” he said, “but I would phrase it as probable.”

If you listen to the streaming feed of that piece, you’ll hear precisely how his use of “I believe” was meant to disarm doubts. That usage of “we believe” worked to imply that the admission of uncertainty that immediately followed it wasn’t nearly as important as his sense of ‘conviction’. It amounts to a rhetorical wink: a “trust us” ploy.
It was effective too. Because even I, who doesn’t trust these Bush administration operatives as far as I can throw ‘em, let my credulity-guard down for about a half a second while absorbing the reassuring, “We believe it is.”

Listen to the piece. It’s but one example of the all-too-common rhetorical usage of ‘I believe’ whose intent, probably only semi-consciously deceptive, or even wholly unconsciously so, is to earn the trust of its listeners.
That usage is no stranger to ROS, either. One of my favorite contributors uses it persistently.

Now, McConnell might be right. But considering the stakes, and considering this administration’s track record of intelligence manipulation to justify military mayhem, why should we ‘believe’ McConnell?
When opinions, suspicions, conjectures, and simple wishes are framed as “conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence”, is it a stretch to expect the rise of deceptiveness? Pervasive deceptiveness?

On the other hand, supplying evidence (be it data or reason) in support of one’s stated beliefs allows the reader to gauge your credibility, improving the likelihood that your readers will surrender a portion of their credulity to your positions. (And if you don’t care whether or not they do so, why bother placing your writings in the public’s eye?)

One Writer’s Personal OPINION

Part 1: One writer’s personal opinion.

A writer’s task is to represent her or his thoughts as accurately as possible – unless writing fiction, which by its nature artfully and deceptively blends accuracy with out-and-out falsehood and obfuscation (notably in mysteries, whose authors hide clues ‘in plain sight’ throughout the narrative, stitching ‘false leads’ into slightly more prominent locations throughout the narrative tapestry).

Non-fiction writers also often stitch obfuscation into their prose, sometimes purposefully, other times—probably most other times at that—accidentally. Obfuscation in non-fiction is most likely due to inadequate knowledge of the subject, improper use of concepts and language, or an intention to mislead. (Think of political writings intended to reassure voters of the moral decency of the writer’s opinions, and of opinion pieces in particular, and especially of Douglas Feith’s Office of Special Plans, whose writings were designed to mislead its consumers into fear that Iraq was on the verge of supplying Al Quaida with WMD.)

I’ve written both fiction and non-fiction. Fiction is easier. Most of my non-fiction is ROS related. Over the course of my 18 or so months reading and posting ROS writings, I’ve learned just how difficult it can be to accurately represent my thoughts and feelings. A strong desire to improve my accuracy has meant countless hours of diligent analysis of common concepts and the words that denote them in English. Here’s an example:

If I suspect that the (banal!) acceptance of a standard belief that ‘my in-group is superior to other humans’ impedes the normal functioning of empathy, what are my choices to express that?

One obvious option: “I suspect that acceptance of a belief that ‘my in-group is superior to other humans’ impedes the normal functioning of empathy.”
What does the word ‘suspect’ indicate?

Doesn’t it indicate conjecture rather than certainty? I’d say it implies that the writer has ‘thought out’ his statement, but cannot point to sufficient supporting evidence to warrant a statement like this:
“It is my conviction that acceptance of a belief that ‘my in-group is superior to other humans’ impedes the normal functioning of empathy.”

Another common option: “I believe that acceptance of a belief that ‘my in-group is superior to other humans’ impedes the normal functioning of empathy.”
Is not the use of “I believe…” essentially synonymous with “It is my conviction…”?

What does it mean to ‘believe’ a description of or assertion about the world and its diverse beings? Several possibilities spring to mind, but among the most common is probably this (my emphasis on ‘evidence’):
“Believe – 1b : to accept the word or evidence of (I believe you)”
“Belief – 3 : conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidencehttp://www.m-w.com/dictionary/belief

Notice please the two instances of ‘evidence’. Saying ‘I believe’ can commonly mean, in effect, “I have studied the evidence, and my conviction flows reliably from conclusions drawn during that study.”

Meanwhile, my trusty old American Heritage (my college dictionary) offers this contrast:

Opinion: “A belief or conclusion held with confidence, but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof.” (A.H.D.)
By this definition’s ‘burden of proof’ clause, most if not all religious convictions are opinions.

However: “Opinion is applicable to any conclusion to which one adheres without ruling out the possibility of debate.” (A.H.D.)
So, people holding religious beliefs would naturally find objectionable the proposition that their beliefs are mere ‘opinions’ – most especially because such beliefs are not commonly considered appropriate for debate.

In any event, I consider ‘opinion’ the intermediate step between mere conjecture and firm ‘belief’. Opinions are easy to revise or abandon in the face of contradictory evidence.

What Does Belief Mean?

If ‘belief’ can mean ‘supported by a study of evidence’ while mere opinion specifically evades this burden, and I choose to use ‘I believe’ in place of ‘I suspect’, am I being as accurate as possible?

Moreover, if belief can mean ‘supported by a study of evidence’ while mere opinion specifically evades this burden, and I choose to use ‘I believe’ in place of ‘I suspect’, am I possibly being deceptive?
Am I implying that I’ve seen the evidence and can confidently—and ethically—assure the reader that my ‘belief’ is trustworthy?

Answer: in my case, yes, I would be practicing deception, because I am fully aware that ‘I believe’ can commonly imply ‘after a diligent study of evidence’. (And uh-oh: now you are, too!)
I do not accuse most other users of ‘I believe’ of this sort of subterfuge. (Not conscious subterfuge, at any rate.)

What are my other options? Among them are: “I suppose”, “I speculate”, “I expect”, “I feel”, “I guess”, “I think”, and least common but probably most commonly apt, “I opine”. For me, each of these is dramatically more preferable than “I believe” because their implicit admission of uncertainty renders them genuinely more honest.

Is it possible that most other users of ‘I believe’ are subliminally aware that the phrase implies a certain dimension of trustworthiness?
I suspect it. Without supporting evidence. My suspicion arises from an aggregate impression garnered from reading countless thousands of instances of ‘I believe’ on ROS and in the larger world media. But I haven’t quantified my impressions scientifically, so I can’t promise you any degree of certitude.
Nor do I want to.

What I would like to suggest instead is that every time you, dear reader, notice that you’ve written ‘I believe’, take the time to self-reflect.
What was your emotional state – your less-than-fully-conscious motivation – for using that phrase? Was it an act of preemptive defensiveness? Or a reluctance to confess to the uncertainties of mere opinion, conjecture, or speculation?

No one, not even I, will police you. Only you can. Only you can discern and decide whether your rhetoric is as honest – consciously or otherwise – and as accurate as possible.

Part 2:
So why is accuracy so important?
Am I perhaps being overly obsessive about it? Why can’t I just accept the common usages of ‘belief’ that include ‘opinion’ and ‘values’?

Jazzman and I both like to discuss beliefs. He has issues with common scientific theories; while I have no remaining patience for the taboo against criticizing the thousands of ‘no evidence necessary!’ religious beliefs that have so thoroughly colonized the minds of my fellow humans.

Now, imagine that instead of beliefs, jazzman and I both discuss stars. If we were writing publicly about stars and wanted to enlighten our readers instead of deceive or confuse them, ought we use only the words ‘star’ and ‘stars’ when we in fact know our subjects in better detail: as white dwarfs, red giants, blue giants, and ‘neutron’ stars?

What if our subject were forests? Ought we use only: ‘trees’?
Or instead: white pine, white oak, red oak, black oak, hickory, white spruce, balsam fir?
If we knew that broad-leafed deciduous trees commonly sprout ‘suckers’ – new growth – from their stumps, while conifers can’t, ought we not make damned sure in a conversation about forests that we denote whether the ‘trees’ we’re discussing are conifers or broad-leafs?

If our topics are subdivided into functionally distinctive concepts, ought we not speak the distinctive conceptual lingo, to make our conversation illuminating instead of obfuscating?

Does a combustionless neutron star deserve only to be known as ‘a star’? Or is it instead a very different class of entity than hot-burning blue giants and white dwarfs?

Is this: “mental acceptance of the truth or actuality of something” (‘belief’, American Heritage Dictionary) synonymous with this: “7 : something (as a principle or quality) intrinsically valuable or desirable” (value)?

If so, how?

Part 3. Good grief! This entry just keeps growing!

Jazzman, on ROS, writes, “Beliefs for the most part are held to be operational facts by the believer and with the exception of intentional fallacious adductions for rhetorical purpose to convince others of their opinion’s validity, beliefs are held in good faith.”

In this response, you specifically, with apparent intent, conflate “operational facts” with “opinion”.
My question in response: are ‘certainty’ and ‘uncertainty’ functionally synonymous?

Beliefs and opinions both exist exclusively within human minds. ‘Facts’ don’t exist in the physical world outside of human minds, but instead are concepts whose (metaphoric) ‘lenses’ are gauged to reveal a ‘perfect’ image (i.e., “it is a ‘fact’ that this is the year 2007 in the Common Era” – which, yes, is a ‘fact’, but is it a ‘fact’ to a non-human? Or, more vexingly, to a Chinese?).

Are all concepts ‘functionally’ the same? Are ‘conviction’ and ‘conjecture’ synonymous?

Are porpoises and mahi-mahi functionally the same just because they both exist exclusively in water and share, by the puzzling vagaries of human language, the same unscientific name ‘dolphin’?

Read the links and let me know.
Then, if your answer is ‘no’, ask yourself the same questions about ‘values’, ‘opinions’, and ‘beliefs’.

I’ve been wanting to flesh out a quartet of rhetorical questions I posed recently on Radio Open Source’s “This I Believe” thread:
“Are values ‘beliefs’? Is my oft-confessed valuation of human equality a ‘belief’ – or a value? Are political preferences ‘beliefs’? Is my frequently admitted political preference for Social Democracy a ‘belief’ – or a preference?”

I don’t ‘believe in’ human equality because it isn’t a falsifiable premise. It’s not even a proper question, any more than is, “Do you believe in human nature?”
“Human equality,” like “human nature,” is too massive a concept to be subject to any cogent, finite analysis. “Do you believe in the bigness of space?” might be an appropriate parallel: a grammatically correct sentence that’s essentially nonsense, like Richard Dawkins’s grammatically correct illustration of nonsense, “All unicorns are hollow.”

Are all humans equally intelligent? Sadly, probably not. What about virtuous? Perhaps at birth, but perhaps not: I’m an unrepentantly hardcore skeptic of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and behavioral genetics, but even I must concede that unruliness is possibly a heritable trait.
What about humans being equally artistic? Doubt it.
You see, don’t you, how this list of questions could go on endlessly…?

So if humans are too varied in their idiosyncratic talents to be evaluated as ‘equal’ in any meaningful way, what does it mean to value human equality?
The answer emerges from the best definition of feminism I’ve ever encountered: “Feminism is the radical and subversive contention that the lives of women and girls are of equal value to the lives of men and boys.”
Sweet, huh? That’s feminism.
Here’s Nickism:
“The life of any girl, woman, boy, or man is of equal value to mine.”
Well, okay: it’s probably actually humanism, not Nickism, but it’s nevertheless how I internalize the broader implications of my favorite definition of feminism.

I pondered this while driving to the bank today (finally had enough money to deposit and then make a donation to ROS! Woo-hoo!). I was thinking ahead: trying to anticipate reactions to my repeated citing of Warren Jeffs as a prime example of the threat to human liberty and equality posed by religionism. Warren Jeffs is a pretty darn marginal figure, isn’t he? How in the world can I put him in the same sentence as Hassan Nasrallah, that inveterate hater of Jews?
“If we searched the entire world for a person more cowardly, despicable, weak and feeble in psyche, mind, ideology and religion, we would not find anyone like the Jew. Notice, I do not say the Israeli.” (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Hassan_Nasrallah)
Bigots like that—bigots with substantial worldly influence—pose an existential threat to an entire nation. How can that compare to small fry like Warren Jeffs?

Here’s how: Jeffs is on trial for complicity in the rape of a sixteen-year-old girl, whose vulnerability was simply that of having been born into the religion he oversees, and into the lives of the parents he rules. To that poor child, Jeffs isn’t a “fringe” figure: he’s her life’s primary antagonist. If I value the life of that girl as equal to mine, I have no choice but consider him an enemy of humanity like Nasrallah. Look, I consider Nasrallah an equal enemy of humanity, because I value the life of any given Israeli or Jew (or Palestinian or Laotian) as equal to mine. But I don’t deem Nasrallah a bigger villain than Jeffs; especially because I suspect Jeffs would love to threaten nonbelievers of his religious conceits with bigotry similar in tone and scale to Nasrallah’s, if only he had enough currency and credibility in the American fundamentalist-Christian madhouse. Currency like Nasrallah’s in the Middle East.

Do I devalue the lives of Nasrallah and Jeffs? This is gnarly, but the answer is ‘no’. They are humans of equal value to me.
Then what makes Nasrallah and Jeffs foes of humanity?
Nothing but beliefs: the cosmogonies that have colonized their minds. Had they been raised differently – in societies that prized curiosity and inquiry, coupled with skepticism, rather than in societies in thrall to faith – they might well have grown into humanitarians worthy of laurels. Nasrallah’s Hezbollah offers humanitarian help to his own people, after all. The seed of humanitarianism has sprouted in him – but its full development has been stunted and twisted by factually baseless beliefs. We can’t know how they would have turned out in another cultural context; but we have no reason to prejudge them as inveterate dastards. Beliefs dictate their actions. Beliefs they inherited, and that take shelter in the taboo against critical examination of religion.

My value of human equality makes dehumanization of women and girls a crime against me. My value of human equality makes every rape a crime against me. My value of human equality makes every female genital mutilation a crime against me.
Every honor killing is the murder of my daughter or sister—and of me.
Every religiously justified murder or mutilation is a crime not merely “against humanity,” but against me, and against you, too.

That’s what human equality means. That’s all it can hope to mean in any cogent way. And my preference for—not ‘belief in’—Social Democracy flows logically from my valuation of human equality.

Make sense? If not, feel free to say so below.

“These We Once Believed”

This list is in its infancy. Feel free to suggest additions, using the Comment option below.
“Come one, come all! No evidence necessary!”


Alectromantia: divination by a rooster. Draw a circle, and write in succession round it the letters of the alphabet; on each side of it lay a grain of corn. Then put the rooster in the center of the circle, and watch the grains he eats. The letters will prognosticate the answer. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Astrotheology: divinity founded on the observation of celestial bodies. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Barguest: (1) a ghost, all in white, with large saucer eyes, commonly appearing near gates or stiles called bars, Yorkshire, England. (2) An apparition said to take the form of a white cow, a horse, or a big black dog which, on dark nights leaps upon the shoulder of the sacred wayfarer. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Barnacle-goose: these are the birds believed to be generated out of wood, or rather a species of shell…often found sticking to the bottoms of ships… (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)


Catholicum: A remedy believed to be capable of curing all diseases…A general or common medicine that expels or corrects all ill humors, which is kept in shops. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Catrick: a supposed disease or the roots of the fingers from too frequent handling of cats; a cataract supposed to effect the eyes of the first person that meets a cat which has leapt over a dead body. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Cephaleonomancy: Divination by a broiled ass’s head. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Clock-falling: a superstition (that) if a woman enters a house after child-bearing and before being churched, the house clock will immediately fall on its face. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

coup-de-soleil: a disease produced by exposure of the head to the rays of the Sun. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Cyanthropy: (1) Madness caused by the bite of a dog, wherein the patient avoids light and water; or a particular kind of melancholy when men fancy themselves changed into dogs, and imitate their actions. (2) A frenzy which makes a man haunt unfrequented places, with a conceit that he is turned into a dog. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Day-mare: a species of incubus occurring during wakefulness. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Dendranthopology: Study based on the theory that man had sprung from trees. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)


Eagle-stone: A variety of iron ore, so called from the belief that it was found in the nest of the eagle, where it was supposed to prevent its eggs from becoming rotten… This stone was formerly supposed to facilitate delivery if bound on the thigh, and to prevent abortion if bound on the arm. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)


Exsufflation: A kind of exorcism performed by blowing and spitting at an evil spirit… Exsufflate was an old ecclesiastical term for the form of renouncing the devil in the baptism of catechumens, when the candidate was commanded to turn to the west and thrice sufflate Satan. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Eye-bite: To bewitch with a malign influence whatever the eye glances upon… The Irish at one time believed their children could be ‘eye-bitten’, that is, bewitched with an evil-eye, and that the eyebiter, or witch, could rhyme them to death. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)


Fairy-money: Money given by fairies, which, according to popular belief, was said to turn into withered leaves or rubbish after some time… (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Fasting-spittle: The spittle of a fasting man, supposed to possess magical powers of healing. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Fiddler’s Green: The place where sailors expect to go when they die. It’s a place of fiddling, dancing, rum, and tobacco, and is undoubtedly the “land of Cocaigne” mentioned in medieval manuscripts… A sailor’s Elysium (situate[d] on the hither and cooler side of hell) of wine, women, and song. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Firmament: a term anciently used to signify the eighth heaven, or sphere in which the starts were placed. It was called the eighth heaven because of the seven spheres of the planets it surrounds. The firmament was supposed to have two motions, one from east to west, round about the poles of the ecliptic, and the other and opposite motion of west to east. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)


Geloscopy: Divination by means of laughter. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Geocentric solar system

Gramarye: Magic. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Gyromancy: A kind of divination…practiced by walking round in a circle or ring till the performer fell from dizziness, the manner of his fall being interpreted with reference to characters or signs previously placed about the ring…[see alectromantia](The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Idle-worms: Worms bred in the fingers of lazy girls. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Incubus: A devil who has carnal knowledge of a (sleeping) woman, under the shape of a man. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Jumart: the supposed offspring of a bull and a mare. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)


Loup-garou: A werewolf. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Melancholia religiosa: Melancholy from religious despair. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Metempsychosis: The passage of the soul from one body to another… (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Moon-blink: a temporary evening blindness caused by sleeping in moonshine in tropical climates… (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Myomancy: a kind of divination by means of mice. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Night-hag: A female demon who supposedly abducted people at night on horseback during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (Forgotten English, Jeffrey Kacirk, 1997)

Nympholepsy: A frenzy occasioned by seeing one of the nymphs. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Orthinoscopy: Watching birds for the purpose of divination. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Osteniferous: That which brings monsters… (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Phrenologize: Mid-nineteenth century verb meaning to discover a person’s traits by the bumps on his or her head. (Forgotten English, Jeffrey Kacirk, 1997)


Predictive astrology

Primovant: …that sphere which was supposed to carry the fixed stars in their daily motions, to which all the other orbs were attached. [see firmament] (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Psychoblast: The germ from which a soul is developed. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Psychomachy: A conflict of the body with the soul. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Saunce-bell: The soul-bell was believed intolerable to evil spirits. Saunce-bells were commonly rung since the eighth century to keep these malicious spirits away from the souls of the nearly or soon-to-be deceased as they made their way from this life to the next. (Forgotten English, Jeffrey Kacirk, 1997)

Sea-dog: a meteor seen on the horizon before sunset or after sunset, viewed by sailors to be a portent of bad weather. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Sinne-eater: A poor person hired to absorb the sins of recently deceased souls and thereby spare them the discomfort of purgatory. (Forgotten English, Jeffrey Kacirk, 1997)

Stelliscript: That which is written in the stars. He who desires to learn what good they prefigure must read them from west to east; but if he would be forewarned of evil, he must read them from north to south. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Succubus: A devil or demon which assumes a woman’s shape to lie with a man. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Taghairm: A mode of divination (in which) a person is wrapped up in the skin of a newly slain bullock, and deposited beside a waterfall, or at the bottom of a precipice, or in some other strange, wild and unusual situation where the scenery around him suggests nothing but horror… (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Tarantismus: Disease characterized by excessive avidity for dancing at the sound of instruments, and which was ascribed to the bite of a tarantula. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)


Tyromancy: Divination by the coagulation of cheese. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Witch-mark: A mark found on the body of every witch. There three kinds or varieties of the witch-mark, the horn-mark, which was very hard, the brief-mark, which was very small, and the feeling-mark, in which there was a sense of pain. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Witch-pricker: A witch-finder who discovered witches by pricking them with a bodkin or pin…for the witch-mark. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Yeth-hounds: Hounds without heads, supposed to be animated by the spirits of children who have died without baptism. These hounds are believed (in Devonshire) (to) ramble among the woods at night making wailing noises. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

Yird-swine: A mysterious, dreaded sort of animal, called the yird swine was believed to live in graveyards, burrowing among the dead bodies and devouring them. (The Word Museum, Jeffrey Kacirk, 2000)

To believe, or to plause?

Since the advent and development of the Scientific method, our collective minimum threshold of plausibility has risen from simplistic, naïve reliance on Authority to an expectation of empirically obtained evidentiary support. But our associated concepts have not evolved to reflect this sea-change. Ancient beliefs, supported only by Authority, have been effectively ‘grandfathered’ into the vast ocean of putative human wisdom. This amounts to a free pass: if you’re an ancient, venerated belief, “no evidence is necessary!” Unverifiable dogmas and ancient prejudices are awarded equal footing with the painstaking, often controversial and therefore exhaustively tested, discoveries of science.
I propose a relatively simple conceptual remedy to this quandary of unequal thresholds.

Skepticism – “a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment” ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skepticism ) – is the guiding principle of my free-to-anyone-without-expectation-of-royalty concept ‘plause’
plause: noun,
1. a tentative, provisional mental acceptance of an assertion dependent on empirically obtained supporting evidence;
2. an opinion, open to disconfirmation, that certain sets of empirically obtained facts form a credible basis for eventual designation of the phrase ‘approaching objective truth’;
3. a mental acceptance of a probability deduced from empirically obtained supporting evidence;
plause: verb, to tentatively or provisionally accept an assertion or conclusion deduced from empirically obtained evidence

Because somebody’s got to begin separating scientifically-derived ‘beliefs’ from our species’ massive backlog of folklore-derived articles of faith. I’ve no pretenses of being a philosopher, I’m no deep thinker, and I want no credit—only a saner world. Anyone is invited to improve upon the concept.

A plause is not a belief masquerading in a scientist’s white lab-coat. It, unlike the “No Evidence Necessary!” catch-all category called ‘belief’, requires a threshold of plausible evidence. By this standard—this demand for empirically derived supporting evidence—a hypothesis is not a ‘belief’ but a weak plause, while a theory is a strong plause. (String Theory probably never deserved the epithet ‘theory’, but hypothesis instead.)
‘Belief’ doesn’t ever have to enter into it. Belief is a concept deserving of retirement to the same museum as alectromantia, astrotheology, the geocentric universe, and the notorious, putative ‘intellectual superiority’ of northern Europeans, to name but four discredited beliefs of the not-so-distant past.

Theories – explanations that depend not on the solemn assurances of self-promoted Authority Figures, but on empirically-derived supporting evidence – deserve a concept of mental acceptance distinct from run-of-the-mill low-to-no-threshold-of-evidence ‘beliefs.’ Otherwise, religionists akin to Warren Jeffs, Ruhollah Khomeini, Jerry Falwell, and Osama bin Laden can merrily carry on asserting the ‘truth’ of their evidence-free faiths without any real worry that our implicit conceptual conflation of ‘evidence-free’ with ‘evidence-supported’ will cease, and undermine their dogmas and doctrines.

The lives, liberties, and peaceful lifespans of countless girls, women, boys, and men depend – literally – on how we conceptualize mental acceptances.
Let’s get to it, doncha’ think?

My LORD, T.Rex

Last night I was visited by a talking Pterodactyl. He was invisible, but then revealed himself above me, his skin aglow and a-shimmer: crimson and silver.
He revealed to me of his LORD, The Rex, whose head is like in size to a boulder, whose teeth are longer than human fingers, yet whose arms are tiny; though His legs titanic, His stride stupendous, and His appetite as voracious as His love for humankind.

The Pterodactyl revealed to me that we humans are deluded by our prophets, and that The Rex is becoming wroth with ire at our ignorance. We must, said he, cease our breeding, until our kind dwindle to naught, for only then will conditions be ready for our souls to migrate to the cone of Mauna Loa, the Earthly Portal to Eternal Paradise. Until then, says the LORD, our souls, upon death, will not persevere but wither into nothingness for all of eternity. Lost.
Banished from our otherwise certain eternity in Paradise.

The Pterodactyl revealed to me that women and their mammalian lusts are the diabolical force at work among humankind that prevents the coming of the Day of Soul Migration. Shun them, he instructed me, and render them unhappy to be womanly.

Those who follow these words of the LORD will find great Glory in His presence in Paradise.

Those who do not, the Pterodactyl promised unto me, will be instead sent to endure eternity in the sulfurous maws of IO.