Things That Go Bump in the Mind

Things That Go Bump in the Mind
Look for a new post every Sunday morning.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Do You Believe in Magic (Part 1)

I'll tell you about the magic, and it'll free your soul,
But it's like tryin' to tell a stranger 'bout rock and roll. – John Sebastian

     For a weekly blog detailing the relationship between rhetorical theory and the paranormal, I can't think of a better way to get things rolling than with the topic of magic. Practically everything I'd like to say about “how language creates reality as much as reality creates language” can be brought into focus by considering various and miscellaneous aspects of magic. To ponder the question “Is magic real?” is to meditate as well upon its twin question, “Is reality magical?” As soon as we pause to wonder if something is (or isn't) real, we find ourselves in a very complicated hall of mirrors constructed of conflicting impressions and contradictory pathways. To find your way through this funhouse, you have to rely on both your eyes to show you what's up ahead and your ears to tell you what the others ahead of you are saying they have already learned about the path you're about to find. Unfortunately, because it's a maze built of illusions, distortions, and misperceptions, your eyes and your ears may be deceived.

     Sometimes the only way to talk about complicated rhetorical ideas is to use enormous, obscure, or technical terminology. In this week's post, for example, in order to appreciate the complexity of magical principles, I am going to use the words “epistemology,” “ontology,” and “doxa.” If the vocabulary of rhetorical theory seems at first intimidating or nearly incomprehensible, do not let that deter you from taking this beautifully strange journey with me. When I was in graduate school studying some of these very ideas I'll be discussing below, I often had to come across a term a dozen times (or more) before it started to sink in what the theorists were actually talking about. Over the next year, this blog is going to cover dozens of interesting and esoteric rhetorical terms (as well as dozens of exotic and peculiar paranormal topics), and as your guide through this virtual Museum of the Weird and Unusual, I promise not to speed too quickly by either the academic language or the two-headed sheep. Please feel free to ask questions in the comment box below the post. (I'm getting really poor reception on my Ouija board.)

     Ontology is the branch of philosophy that contemplates the existence and nature of reality. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that ponders the limits and accuracy of knowledge. Doxa is an especially obscure rhetorical term that I find very useful in describing the ideas that seem so commonplace that no one bothers to question their underlying assumptions; think of doxa (at least the way I will be using the term) as a sibling to “common sense” and “popular opinion.” Thus, the questions “Is magic real?” and “Does magic exist?” are ontological because they originate from concerns of being and existence; “If magic does exist, would it still exist if there were no humans left to experience it?” is also an ontological question. “How do you know magic is real?” is more epistemological than ontological because the focus of the question sifts from the existence of magic to the knowledge that someone else might claim to have about its existence. “How do people learn magic?” and “What are the limits to magical knowledge?” are epistemic (a synonym for epistemological) because these questions are centered on understanding what can be known about magic. 

      A statement such as “The type of magic David Copperfield performs on stage in Las Vegas is not at all the same type of magic Gandalf performs in the Mines of Moria,” is doxastic because people generally assume that stage magic is a result of an illusion created through practiced misdirection and wizardry employs supernatural means to produce otherwise impossible results. If I argue “The real magic of the Harry Potter series isn't the wizardry the characters use upon each other, but the intoxicating spells J.K. Rowling casts upon her readers,” then it's necessary to be able to distinguish between the “supernatural magic” of the story and the “literary magic” of the author before a critic can accurately challenge the intention of what I'm trying to say. Too often, politicians and pundits deliberately ignore or confuse the context of their rivals words when commenting upon “what their opponent has said” in order to upend entirely their adversary's original message.

     Doxa, by the way, which the ancient Greeks used as the term to argue what at the time they considered common knowledge, is the root for the word “paradox.” Here the prefix para means “beyond or distinct from” and since doxa refers to “what is commonly understood”, we can see how “paradox” literally means “beyond what can be commonly understood.” Although there are many ways to define paradox, the essential quality of paradox is the contradiction that arises from trying to assert two mutually exclusive truths simultaneously. For example, if I assert that “I lie about everything” and it turns out to be true, that I actually do lie about everything, then I must be lying about the assertion that I lie about everything and so the only way the assertion can be true is if it's a lie.

     Paradoxes create problems with ordinary logic because they refer to themselves in ways that undermine the truths they supposedly support. My favorite paradox comes from a writer named Perry Weddle who wrote about one of the most awesome ideas I ever heard; Weddle suggested teaching a parrot to say, “I don't know what I'm saying” so that every time the bird repeated the phrase, it would be telling the truth about what it was saying, but it wouldn't know it was telling the truth. Now check this out: what the parrot says is paradoxical; our expectation that the bird is most likely incapable of understanding what it's saying is doxastic; questions regarding the extent to which the bird can know what it is saying are epistemological; and if we are wondering if somewhere in the world there's actually a bird that's been taught to say, “I don't know what I'm saying,” that speculation is ontological. See? You don't need to waste money on illicit drugs to mess with your state of consciousness; you can do it legally for free just by thinking too much about the relationship between meaning and reality. Did you ever wonder who came up with the idea of stuffing pimentos into olives? Me neither.

     This, finally, leads us to the paradoxes of the principles of magical beliefs. In order to keep these blog posts to an internet-friendly length, I will in the future discus each of these principles in more depth in future posts. But, to get us started, here are a few of the most common assumptions that, historically, magic users (shamans and pythoness rather than stage performers) have shared in their quests to achieve supernatural results upon earthly and mundane circumstances.
  • The Principle of Naming – is the idea if you know the name of something, you can have power over it which may lead to controlling it. The corollary idea is that if you don't know the name of something you are dealing with, you will be powerless before it.
  • The Principle of Contagion – contends that two things that were once connected continue to exert influence upon each other once separated. (This is why you sometimes need a lock of hair to put a spell on someone).
  • The Principle of Similarity – holds that by acting upon something that is similar to something else, you can produce results on that something else. (For example, the pounding of a drum that sounds like thunder can make it rain.)
  • The Principle of Personification – maintains that if you treat an inanimate object like a sentient creature then it can respond like a sentient creature.
  • The Principle of Polarity – which explains that sometimes understanding (and thus, having power over) something requirements knowing what it is not. (If you want to gain power over hatred, explore boundaries of love.)
     As a rhetorical theorist, I am fascinated by the mechanics of belief (by which I mean, the explanations that people offer for supporting what they suppose to be true). The paradigms of science and magic operate under entirely different cognitive schemes of justification so I think it will be interesting to juxtapose the foundational ontological, epistemological, and doxastic expectations of their supporters. I expect in the weeks to come that it is inevitable readers and critics will try to identify my own bias in regards to what I believe or disbelieve in regards to the numerous paranormal topics covered in this blog. My goal, however, is to be as vague and coy as possible about my own prejudices regarding the arguments that either scientists or sorcerers use to defend their understanding of reality. The Germans have a word, Weltanschauung, that roughly translates to “worldview”, and I would like to define mine as “agnostic” meaning “I don't know” or “I'm not disposed to make up my mind.” My official position, then, is to try to be a neutral umpire of the game without overtly rooting for any particular team.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Rhetoric and Reality (Part 2)

God, a unicorn, a tyrannosaurus walk into a bar. The bartender looks up from what he is doing and says, “What are you doing here?” God says, “I've been here all along.” The unicorn says, “So what's your point?” The t-rex says, “Do you have any long straws? I have a hard time holding my liquor.”

For as long as humans have had language, they have used words to think about the nature of reality and reality of nature. Soon after developing the ability to use words to reflect upon the world they saw around them, people began to share these ideas with each other, and this is, of course, when the arguing began. Since no one had the technology to record what was being argued about during the first argument (the “proto-argument” or “the mother of all arguments”) we can only speculate who they were and what they were arguing over, but if I had to hazard a guess, I would say a disagreement over whether some food should be shared among a small group or if the meal belonged entirely to the biggest and meanest individual would be a pretty safe bet. The argument over how much to leave for a tip was certainly several millennia in the future.

Regardless of the topic of the first argument, much has happened since the first time someone said something and someone else disagreed. What has stayed consistent, however, throughout the course of human history has been our willingness as individuals to tell others what we believe is right and to argue with them when we think they are wrong. Among the pantheon of great Greek thinkers who were alive around 400 BCE, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were three who fixated on the notion that these two processes (first, knowing what is right, and second, arguing with others who we think are wrong) needed to be identified as two entirely different activities. According to this venerable Athenian trio, “Knowing what is right” is the practice and domain of “philosophy,” and “Arguing with others we think are wrong” is the application and discipline of “rhetoric.” Knowing exactly how each of these important thinkers would draw the line between “philosophy” and “rhetoric” is complicated because practically everything we know today of Socrates comes through his portrayal in the writings of his student, Plato; and Aristotle (who was Plato's student) disagreed with his mentor's ideas about the morality of studying (or teaching) the methods of persuasion.

As a modern rhetorical theorist, I find most of the distinctions that writers want to make between “philosophy” and “rhetoric” a bit tedious because I think separating the cognitive process of finding the truth from the intellectual activity of convincing others of the truth misses the point that both skills are wholly dependent upon each other. Plato has Socrates referring to rhetoric as a form of “cookery” that does nothing but make some ideas more appealing regardless of their truth-value. The problem with such a belief, however, is that even if Plato were right about this, he would still need to use rhetorical methods to persuade us of its truth. Trying to separate rhetoric from philosophy is like trying to separate hydrogen molecules from oxygen molecules; although it can be done in a laboratory, in everyday life, we need water to survive.

Thus, in coming weeks, as I plow through topics on this blog related to all those unconventional beliefs I think might be useful in shining light on how and what we accept as conventional beliefs, I will be relying upon a blend of philosophical and rhetorical terms to examine and challenge our ideas about how we might go about the process of determining a good belief from a bad one. Many of these terms may be unfamiliar to many readers (and a mouthful to say out loud). Next week, for instance, I will introduce a few ideas that come from “epistemology” and “ontology,” two very useful branches of philosophy when it comes to discussing what is and isn't real and how we know what we think we know. Just don't expect me to explain how much we really need to leave for a tip.

By the way, if you'd like to comment on this post or suggest topics for future posts, please leave a comment below. It's not as easy to add comments as I'd like it to be, but if you look for the comment tool below, I think you'll find it.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Rhetoric and Reality

Are angels real? Are aliens? Are unicorns? If all three can exist in the same mental space (you are holding the trio in your head right now), can all three exist in the same empirical space? When we use language to say “something is real,” what does that expression actually mean? If saying “something is real” can mean different things to different people, then how can we make useful distinctions that help define what we mean when we say something is real? Even if we can come to some agreement over what we mean when we say “something is real,” how does that agreement affect what we are willing to accept as evidence to support the claim that “something is real”? Who gets to decide what counts as proof that something is real? And possibly the most formidable question in discussing these matters, how does “common sense” factor into this? Do we need to define “common sense” or, somehow, does common sense define itself?
For some people, the mere act of questioning the existence of angels is sacrilege. For another group of people, the existence of visitors from outer space is not just idle speculation, but the consequence of what they claim to be first-hand observation. Perhaps a majority of educated adults would consider a discussion of the actual physical existence of unicorns whimsical or silly, but beyond the disinclination to take seriously the manifest incarnation of a creature from fairy tales lies an inescapable and tacit understanding that human consensus of “what is real” has no impact on any ultimate reality that exists with or without us. Throughout most of human history, a general opinion held that the world was flat; however, even if there was a time eons ago when the entirety of the human population believed the world to be flat, that collective understanding did not have the slightest impact upon making the earth any less round.
As a typical adult living in the 21st century, I do not believe in the existence of unicorns, but if it ever turns out I am wrong about this, it would just be another item on the long list of ideas that ultimately I am mistaken about. Could there exist a physical dimension that shares the same empirical space we inhabit but lies beyond our ability to perceive it? Just because we remain entirely ignorant of something, does its existence rely entirely upon our discovery of it? How do we draw the line between imagined reality and absolute existence?
While some folks love to spend hours in meandering conversations discussing the existence of ghosts or magic or other esoteric topics, other people have no patience for speculating on anything outside their narrow range of experience. I would argue there is value in exploring ideas beyond wherever we draw the line between what is and is not real. Questions of existence, purpose, and meaning represent a rich legacy that enhances our lives and has occupied human thought since the first time in prehistory when humans developed the ability to look at the stars on a clear, dark night and articulate their wonder at simply being alive midst the vastness of all that is.
Questions regarding meaning and existence are important because as a society the dual skills of expressing our ideas, on the one hand, and considering the ideas of those who think differently than we do, on the other, sustain the central nervous system of civilization. Without the ability to share our ideas convincingly and the judgement necessary for evaluating the ideas of others, human development grinds to a halt. The value of these two skills, the cogent articulation of our own thinking and the sensible assessment of the ideas of others, cannot be overestimated in determining the long term survival of our species; they are the essential nutrients of human intelligence, and without them, humanity's collective ability to sustain itself withers and dies from the malnutrition of ignorance.
Although these two intellectual activities are mutually dependent on each other, the art of expressing one’s own ideas and the practice of assessing the merits of other people's ideas have distinct approaches to handling the complexity of reality. The ability to share one's ideas in a way that enhances both the credibility of the concept and the reputation of the one putting forth a notion for the scrutiny of others, we call “rhetoric.” The ability to consider both the internal consistency (how well what is being proposed by another fits with what that person has said before) and the external validity (how well what is being asserted matches with what has already been established before by others), we call “philosophy.” It is too early in this piece to discuss the intellectual and linguistic territorial battles that rhetoricians and philosophers have waged with each other to stake out the conceptual borders between them, but as a place to start, it is useful, perhaps, to agree that neither field works very well without the other, and that both offer windows on reality that are indispensable for the continued advancement of human understanding.