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How Can You Tell If Something Is Nonsense

Aug 17, 2007
How do we move beyond our prejudices to distinguish what is sensible and what is nonsensical?

When Albert Einstein created the Special and General Theory of Relativity, initially it seemed like nonsense, because nobody had ever thought of things like that before, but both the logical consistency of his arguments and the proof that was later found made them sensible theories.

Understanding the difference between sense and nonsense is vital to your well-being. Unless you can draw some clear understanding of something, you will be confused, and when you are confused, you cannot orient yourself to the world you live in.

Something makes sense when it aligns with an organ of perception: you can see it, hear it, or feel it.

However, this is not always an accurate measure of what is sensible. A mirage appears to be water until you get close to it and realize that you experienced an optical illusion. A hallucinogenic drug creates unusual experiences, until the drug wears off and you revise your opinion.

Sense, however, did prevail. You revisited the experience, perceived anew, and revised your opinion on what it meant.

So far, living on the level of the concrete and experiential, it appears rather clear the difference between sense and nonsense. The mirage was seen as nonsense after you got close to it. The unicorn was seen as nonsense when you recovered from the hallucinogenic drug and saw that you were looking at a plain horse.

But as consciousness advances, it has to embrace abstractions. An abstraction is best described as a statistical generalization. As a child, when you saw your first dog and then other dogs similar to it, but not like it, you created a generalization called dogs. Through a survey of many dogs, you were finally able to see that both a Chihuahua and a German Shepherd are both dogs.

In Quantum physics, you can't really see subatomic particles, but you can infer their nature and their properties through the statistics of mathematics and the impressions of white dots and streaks they leave on a photographic plate. Thus, you can distinguish between an electron and a positron. You can also tell when a complex interaction takes place. For example, through a sophisticated instruments of observation and interpretation, you know when a negative pi meson collides with a proton. You then observe how the two particles annihilate each other, creating a lambda particle and a neutral K meson. Further observation informs you how these unstable particles live for only a billionth of a second. Now the neutral K meson decays into a positive pi meson and a negative pi meson, while the lambda particle decays into the original two particles, a negative pi meson and a proton.

Now, although this entire description is beyond the senses, it is not nonsense. This is because observation took place. This was done through mathematical descriptions and the use of highly sophisticated measuring devices. You may not have been able to "see" in a literal sense, but various instruments did that for you and your task was to interpret what they were telling you based on past knowledge.

In the realm of the abstract, unless you can test the idea in some way, it has a high tendency to be nonsense. In fact, the more removed it is from sense experience and the less testable it is, the more nonsensical it is likely to be.

It may be well-argued nonsense, but that does not make it sensible.

Something is considered sensible if you can arrive at it through induction or deduction.

Induction is working your way up from particulars to a general idea. For example, all dogs are dogs, regardless of size and predisposition. You arrive at that by examining a number of different dogs and pooling a list of characteristics. You know the difference between dogs and cats, because while both are four-legged, hairy, and have whiskers, they also have other characteristics which distinguish them from each other.

Deduction is working your way up from a general idea to a particular one. This is basically breaking down something into smaller and smaller units. You know, for example, that plants originate from seeds, by observing the nature of plants, both in their dead form, through dissection, and in their live form, by observing their growth and decay.

Nonsense comes in when we have to rely on authority. When things are believed not because some evidence was gathered about it, but because someone in authority said it was true.

Human beings love stories, and the more unusual and compelling the story, the more they are likely to believe it.

One example is channeling. People claim to be channeling all sorts of entities, from God to spirit guides to ascended masters, or even whole teams of enlightened beings. The mediums appear to change personalities, taking on unusual vocal intonations, unfamiliar gestures, and speaking words of surprising wisdom. If you hook them up to various instruments, they may even show physiological changes.

Is this nonsense?

It is an appeal to a higher authority, in this case someone from outside the system, talking from the other side, who appears to be giving us clear directions. In addition, our scientific instruments may even indicate that a change has indeed taken place.

On the other hand, you can get the same results if you use the hypothesis that a multiple personality phenomena is in effect. It has been shown over and over again that in disassociation, the new personality has unique traits, including more intelligence.

Thus, someone who claims to be a medium can be (a) a fake; (b) a multiple personality; or (c) genuine.

In trying to sort out sense from nonsense, you can discern what is true from what is false not on the basis of the reasonableness of their statements, but through putting to the test some of the things that they are saying.

A perfect example is Edgar Cayce. After he went into a trance state and started dictating healing formulas, he uttered unusual remedies. These were surprising because they were (a) outside known medical treatments and (b) highly effective. In this case, despite the highly unusual nature of the entire phenomenon, it is possible to rule out fakery and a multiple personality disorder, simply because he arrived at answers that were not in general circulation. There is no way to prove this to be nonsense; hence, based on available evidence, the best hypothesis is accepting him as he claimed to be.

In religion, occultism, philosophy and politics, the abstractions, unless they can be proven through evidence, should not be taken at face value. They tend to be nonsense. They are not accepted as this, however, because of the credible way that they are presented.

Most human misery, as far as I can tell, is following a well-reasoned line of thought from authority. When you think from your emotions, rather than from induction or deduction, and when you rely on authority, rather than evidence, then nonsense may very well have replaced a sensible way of thinking.

The most dangerous nonsense is that which is subtle. In the case of something bizarre, like the Edgar Cayce story, at first blush it does appear to be nonsense, but upon closer examination, it is not possible to cling to that verdict. On the other hand, when a politician says something there is a tendency to believe, although a closer examination will reveal no substantial evidence of the proof of his or her statements.

Thus, the element of sensationalism or the lack of it, is not a proper criteria to distinguish between sense and nonsense. Something may be hyped up and still be true. Something may be toned down and appear reasonable and still be false.

Insanity is not easy to perceive. Some of the brightest people have fallen into it. Apart from organic damage to the brain and the sense organs, insanity is the inability to distinguish between sense and nonsense. The rise and power of the Nazi party could be considered an outbreak of pervasive social insanity.

The scientific method of observation and experimentation is the highest form of reason invented. All other forms of reason may be entertaining, but they do not warrant the stamp of truth. True reason is the ability to sort out sense from nonsense on the basis of logical consistency and evidence.

Without the Age of Reason, the era we live in today, of marvelous scientific advancement could not have been possible. Prior to that time, humankind thought about things in an emotional, often nonsensical way.

Reason is not something relegated to the province of the scientist or the philosopher. It is something that we all need to live fulfilling lives. And the most reasonable form of reason is one that distinguishes sense from nonsense on the basis of careful inquiry, patient observation, and the accumulation of evidence.
About the Author
Saleem Rana would love to share his inspiring ideas. His book Never Ever Give Up tells you how. It is offered at no cost as a way to help YOU succeed. http://www.theempoweredsoul.com
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