On Nonsense

(December 4th, 2011)


I don't know that anyone in particular disagrees with me on the following topics. I only have the urge to formulate these arguments because I have known people who believed, and I have read things that supported these following prime examples of nonsense. At the very least there are some arguments which raise some important considerations in such matters. So in a way I hope that I'm not saying anything that everybody doesn't already agree with, or if this isn't the case then I hope these are at least some interesting arguments that can be discussed with respect and dignity, because respect and dignity are some very nice and important things in this world.

If I am wrong about anything in this writing then I would be absolutely overjoyed to be made aware of this. I might be hard to convince, as these are some pretty strong beliefs, but if you know this to be the case (that I am wrong) then you should be able to convince me. And that's the whole idea. :]

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There is no such thing as "luck" as far as any actual demonstrable "force" is at work in the world. I think that luck has its usefulness in describing a particular set of events; somebody may appear to have been "lucky" or "unlucky" for a certain period of time. It could have been any length of time and it may even be a trend still occurring. Perhaps somebody goes to the casinos and wins big--you'd probably say they were "lucky." Perhaps they have won big every single time they've gone—any number of times, say, fifty—you’d probably say they've been extremely and almost beyond all odds "lucky." But this trend could be broken at any time. The person is not inherently "lucky." Something is worth being said about their good fortunes, for sure. I would call them "lucky" myself, but only in the sense that it describes a given set of past circumstances that happen to stand out among the mundane rest of them. Certainly there were vast amounts of people who were particularly "unlucky" at the casinos during the same timeframe. Statistically, somebody is probably going to win big. It's pure coincidence who this happens to be. And, statistically (and especially with a large enough pool of participants) somebody is bound to be extremely "lucky" and win big multiple times.

It follows that luck cannot be controlled. Luck is going to manifest itself, in all likelihood, in any large-enough set of “participants.” If two people spin the slots at a casino, there is not likely going to be anything remarkable coming from it (although it’s possible!). But if fifty thousand people (to just throw out an arbitrarily large number) spin the slots, at least one of them is probably going to win big and seem “lucky.” A mathematical equivalent would be two people each spinning the slots on twenty-five thousand separate occasions—you should expect the same probability of “luck” breaking through. (It’s no coincidence that mathematics plays a strong role in describing “lucky” behavior).

A great many sources would have you believe that you can “improve” your “luck” with certain objects kept near you or certain behaviors practiced. But you cannot bring this about by making sure you wear a particular pair of socks or a rabbit's foot around your neck, or by stumbling across a four-leaf clover or any other such nonsense. Of course, anything can be symbolic for anything else. I certainly don't mean to entirely dismiss such behaviors. Anything that compels you to act in a productive manner, as abstract as it may be in reality, does hold this relevance, and nobody can take that from you. If wearing a particular pair of socks genuinely makes you feel happier and more optimistic then, by all means, wear the socks! Being happy and more optimistic has every chance of helping you to achieve the goals you're pursuing. Indeed, this is probably the "luck" you think you're attracting. But there is definitely more than a mystical force at work in such cases. Such is the power of the mind when utterly convinced.

Alternately, you won't bring misfortune upon yourself by not tossing a pinch of spilled salt over your shoulder, or by breaking a mirror, or by opening an umbrella indoors or by walking underneath a ladder. There are good reasons not to do each of these, sure: opening an umbrella indoors just makes you look silly; breaking a mirror just creates a dangerous mess (not to mention the destruction of a nice mirror); and walking underneath a ladder makes you vulnerable to falling objects (including the ladder itself). But improving your mindset is an extremely valuable thing and not entirely unrelated, and so I do not mean to demean the internal thought processes that result from such thinking… only the logical silliness of it all. Good fortune is generally brought about by clear thinking and carefully considered actions, plus a bit of skill, and variations from this trend can most likely be attributed to unforeseen consequences of actions otherwise overlooked, and by mathematical inconsistencies from the rest (traditional “luck”).

"Luck" can be a useful idea in describing the past, even up to the present if the trend continues--but it loses all relevance when imposed onto the future. You cannot influence chance. What you can do is act responsibly. In most cases “luck” is just the result of a person imposing their level-headed thinking and calculations upon the world, using these to effectively achieve that which is in their goals, and in most other cases is the result of entirely natural mathematical anomalies when a large enough pool of participants is involved in some consideration. Because when there is a .0001% chance that something remarkable will happen with the pull of a lever, one in every million people is going to enjoy that fortune, and nothing else will have any effect on these odds (if it really is a closed system—otherwise, sabotage can very well wreak havoc).


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Karma is another bit of nonsense I have deep issues with. Like with luck, there is no divine force governing the implementation of "karma" and the term only has its vague usefulness. People who “do the right thing" and treat others “well” are arguable more likely to be treated in kind than those who go out of their way to be rude and selfish and inconsiderate. But that's just cause and effect—if you're strolling down the sidewalk and you're passing by someone going the opposite way, punching them in the face is much more likely to get you punched in the face right back than not punching them in the face. This is just good old logic and "common sense." The cause and effect relationship is obvious, but each person still has their own "free will”; nothing enters the equation to guarantee that there will be retaliation. Punch a peace-loving monk in the face and they may just blink and continue on their way. They might even give you a hug. On the other hand, not punching a person in the face might still result in a punch in the face for you. Who's to say? Nobody. If somebody is going to punch you, they're going to punch you. A kind act might help to deter this just as much as a rude act may encourage it. Similarly, if a piano is likely going to fall on your head while you’re peacefully strolling down the sidewalk, it's going to fall on your head regardless of the actions you've been taking. A few more seconds spent staring at a beautiful woman might slow your advance just as much as a few extra seconds spent chasing after one might speed it up, and either case might save your life, but it’s entirely circumstantial in all its complexity. It's all circumstantial.

Less obvious are the more subtle things, like donations, compliments, volunteer work, or any other spontaneous kind gesture. Even so, there is no guarantee of "good karma" in return. Sure, you may increase the odds of being treated kindly in return, but this is only the result of somebody having been aware of your kindness and acting to repay you in some way. If you were to make some donation and absolutely nobody was aware of its source (you), then you have done nothing to increase the odds of your own good fortune. It's easy to attribute some random burst of good fortune to a kind gesture you performed in the recent past, and you might even be right--but only if the former had a direct impact on the latter. Otherwise it's pure coincidence. Like luck, this idea of karma is another example of a dangerous logical fallacy called "post hoc ergo propter hoc," that because two events are connected sequentially they must be connected causally. But there are usually so many various factors playing their role in some outcome that it is usually extremely difficult, if not reasonably impossible, to fully grasp the whole situation. For the same reason it can be extremely easy to attribute it all to one point source of cause, one that’s easy to trace, and just dismiss all others for their complexity. And as tempting as this is, when there is a seemingly obvious source cause, so extreme that all others can be dismissed entirely, this is overwhelmingly unlikely. In all likelihood you’re going to miss something crucial and misinterpret the true situation, and end up fueling a future mistake.

It's easy to test this, even with simple thought experiments. Imagine that you gave ten dollars to a homeless person out of the pure goodness of your heart. Now, if you're a particularly superstitious person you'll probably be expecting something "good" to come of it. Granted, in all likelihood, something "good" is going to happen in the near future. And once you're looking for it, the connection is easy to draw. But "good" things happen all the time. Let's just say you find ten dollars unexpectedly in the pocket of a different pair of pants later that day. A rather striking coincidence, for sure, but a coincidence nonetheless. But that ten dollars was in that pocket already. That you happened to put those pants on and reach into that pocket is nothing but circumstance. If you hadn't given the homeless person ten dollars earlier, you still would have found ten dollars in your pocket later on (and you might have attributed it to some other act of kindness in the past), unless the act played some cryptic role in pants-decision-making, or unless the ten dollars actually did materialize out of the absolute empty space inside that pocket, or if the events of your life leading up to the fateful kind gesture toward the homeless person unknowingly led you to set aside the very sum of money you hadn’t even realized you were going to so selflessly donate away. But only one of these scenarios effectively accounts for both the laws of physics as we know them and what we call “free will.”

And what if you didn't find the money? What if you got into a wreck five minutes after your act of goodwill? Would you relate this to your resulting "karma?" What if you find your home had been broken into and robbed once you finally return from the ordeal of the accident? What of this? The point is something "good" is going to happen eventually after any number of unfortunate somethings. The longer it takes, and the more significant it ends up being, the more tempting it is to draw a connection with whatever your most recent "unreturned" act of kindness was.

Even if you're not a particularly superstitious person the connection between two "good" events and two "bad" events is still sometimes hard to dismiss. If there really is a connection, it's because of the direct result of free will and cause and effect and the laws of physics and not because of some vague, all-encompassing force working to repay your efforts in kind (and along the way probably violating the physical laws and the very free will you're appreciating).

This is not to say that you shouldn't be a genuinely kindhearted person to your fellow members of humanity and to the rest of the universe, because that is the best way to be and you should reap the benefits of your good nature--this is only to say that "what goes around comes around" only applies as far as the physical laws and each person's free choice of actions causes it to be so. Good people do tend to attract other good people, and good actions do tend to attract other good actions. It's just not guaranteed and the tenuous links between most of them should not be unreasonably exaggerated as direct links.

There is no reason to get frustrated at “karma” when your boyfriend or girlfriend breaks up with you even though you selflessly donated all of your spare change to a hungry man you passed by on your way to bring him or her flowers. Potentially countless other factors had been at work for any amount of time.


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I know I wrote something about astrology a while back, but it just still bugs the *%^*(*($&^ out of me.

One of the things that baffles me more than absolutely anything else is the idea that the motions of planets and constellations holds any relevance whatsoever to our daily lives and personalities. What difference can it possibly make where Venus's apparent position is against the background constellations (which are only arbitrary "shapes," extremely vague ones at that, of which the individual stars that constitute them are separated by hundreds and thousands of light years)? Why does it mean anything different when Venus passes within the "boundaries" of Scorpio, Libra, or any of the constellations? Or when Venus passes into one and Pluto passes into another?


Speaking of Pluto, how is it reconciled that, long ago, nobody even knew Pluto existed (or Neptune, for that matter). And what happens if we discover another more distant planet? (Pluto isn’t even “officially” a planet anymore!) Apparently distance is not a factor to an astrologer's calculations--which is troubling, because in the universe as we know it every force weakens with distance. The only two forces that can be said to be affecting us as a result of the position of a planet are gravity and electromagnetism. If gravity were the force governing astrological effects, then the moon would have BY FAR the most influence. Even the gravity of mighty Jupiter has very little effect on us. The monitor in front of me is probably pulling on me harder than Jupiter is. But the moon isn't a planet, of course. And Jupiter has just as much astrological influence as tiny little Mercury. So it's not gravity. If electromagnetism were the source, then the sun would have BY FAR the most influence. But it doesn't. No other body has even the slightest noticeable effect on our lives due to its electromagnetism--and the sun only serves to fry our electronics every once in a while. So it's not electromagnetism.

So what is it? There would have to be something. And this something should be measurable, and demonstrable. Otherwise how is its influence apparently so well-known?

Another possibility that always bugs me is one in which a child is born on another planet. And I mean something way far away, some planet orbiting Alpha Centauri or something. That far away the constellations would be, for the most part, totally different (and I don’t know this to be true, so in the case that it’s not, it’s just as easy to imagine a star so far away that the constellations really do appear strikingly different from its relative position). So what is the fate of this child?? Would it just simply be unknown until thousands of years of births and analysis of personalities leads to another set of variables? What about a time far enough in the future when children are being born on dozens of different worlds far enough apart to have completely different skies? Or would these children simply be governed by the same variables as they are here on Earth? If so how could this be so?

I do need to point out that I could be wrong. Astrology could be entirely right (at least some version of it… there are so many!). It's just that in everything I've ever learned, in every bit of intuition I've ever gained, in everything that makes up the overall sense of the universe to me, everything cries out that this is wrong. Not to mention countless "astrologers" admitting that they've simply sat down and written up random "horoscopes" just for some money. If any of them are admitting it, how many of them just aren't? It is undeniably possible that the proposed force will be discovered someday, and it may be shown to actually account for some, if not all, of this crazy stuff. If this were to happen, then I'd gladly accept it! I only want to understand everything, as it can be understood. I just don't understand the vast, widespread interest in something that has absolutely no grounds in testable science (at least not in any that is readily available to be analyzed).

The time of your birth could reasonably have some effects on your personality. If you're born in the winter, your very first experiences would be of colder, darker times (assuming any exposure to the outside world), and in the summer it would be correspondingly different. This could, arguably, have some effects on your future personality, though I'm hesitant to put much thought into its usefulness. This DOES NOT, however, have anything to do with planets and constellations (other than the fact that they were, of course, somewhere in the sky at the time).

I don't know, it just sounds so utterly bogus. I do see how the daily horoscopes can be somewhat entertaining, at times, and I just hope that this is the case for everyone—mere entertainment and curiosity. Unless they know something I don't, in which case, I'd love to know it myself…

Again, anything can be symbolic to anyone; anything can bring a positive emotional response when applied effectively and rationally (maybe sometimes even irrationally if “lucky”). I most certainly approve of the idea that somebody wearing a rabbit’s foot, or avoiding ladders, or tossing spilt salt over their shoulders, or following the horoscopes, and getting some sort of inspiration from them, could be genuinely benefitting from this behavior. Although I feel like the same benefits could be gained from far more rational and practical methods, such as being analytical and careful and cautious and considerate and just all-around legitimately kindhearted and caring, it doesn't change the fact that they are benefitting. This is all I'm really trying to say. There is a fine line between superstition and the day-to-day activities which are difficult to distinguish from the things generally thought of as being supernaturally caused from careful, cautious, considerate, kindhearted, caring mannerisms. But understanding their true beginnings could very possibly go a long way in helping the majority of humankind to actually understand each other in more fundamental ways and work effectively to bring about the “best of all possible worlds” as imagined by each individual. With some exceptions the world actually usually makes sense if you care to seek it out and spend some time understanding its finer details. The results are much more gratifying and intricately beautiful than any sorts of supernaturally-accepted forces working to reward individual gestures of manipulation or goodwill at the expense of the collective free will of humanity, let alone the physical laws which have yet to exhibit any trace of localized exception as repayment.

Posted by Eli Stanley | at 9:11 PM

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