Sunday, May 22, 2011

Playing dumb - I

There are quite a few situations when it is advisable to listen quietly and not give expert comments. Whoever said silence is golden knew a thing or two.

Some of these situations happen when there are discussions about religion and spirituality. Different people have different ways of coping with a difficult world where luck plays such a big part which provide some amusing (and disturbing) moments for a heathen like me. (According to Ambrose Bierce in The Devil's Dictionary, HEATHEN, n. A benighted creature who has the folly to worship something that he can see and feel.) Sometimes I will not be sure whether people are distinguishing between history and mythology; between reality and metaphor. There will be an innocuous discussion going on when suddenly temperatures will stat rising. I will see Dr. Jekyll for the most part but without any warning I will find myself face to face with Mr. Hyde and I will feel like telling them Boris Becker's immortal words,'Nobody died.'

I heard that a person can gain so much spiritual power that he can even cause tsunamis! (I wonder what sort of person would want such a power.) I once read that you cannot think of anything so incredible that you cannot make at least one person believe it. I increasingly think this is true. People will come up with deepities that will be totally incomprehensible to me. They would have had a tough time with Socrates. In The Story of Philosophy, Will Durant writes:
So he went about prying into the human soul, uncovering assumptions and questioning certainties. If men discoursed too readily of justice, he asked them, quietly, to ti? - What is it? What do you mean by these abstract words with which you so easily settle the problems of life and death? What do you mean by honor, virtue, morality, patriotism? What do you mean by yourself?
I knew that if I had tried to argue, I would have been inundated with an information cascade that would have led to group polarisation where I would have been the only member of one group. As Herbert Spencer once said, 'Like the majority of men who are born to a given belief, they demand the most rigorous proof of any adverse belief, but assume that their own needs none.' And it will all be delivered with an air of smug superiority which irks me so I am well advised to remain silent. When people are confronted by ideas they don't like, they react by reasserting familiar structures of meaning.

When people of faith are around, you often get to see the Dunning-Kruger Effect. They will talk about fantastic things with a certainty that Einstein wouldn't have been capable of when talking about Relativity.Without skipping a beat, they will say that atheists are certain about everything. There will be no danger at all that they will be able to spot the irony. I will try my best to hide my smirk.

There is a peculiar tendency to find scientific explanations and discoveries in ancient texts. Sometimes there will be a mix of scientific facts and fairy tales to produce some bizarre story. For instance, I heard that all the land masses were once joined into one unit which was called India. This gradually split into the various continents so actually the whole world is India! People say such things with such confidence that I begin to develop doubts about what I thought I knew and will try do some checks.

It is astonishing to find people rushing to believe some authority figure without bothering to check the veracity of the information. This same attitude is drilled into kids who refuse to accept the idea that teachers are only humans and could sometimes make mistakes or perhaps they had heard something wrong. They will continue to say the wrong thing saying, 'Teacher said so.'They seem to have internalised Voltaire's warning - “It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.”

It will be amusing to listen to the unconscious competition among believers (of the type parodied in Yes Prime Minister). For example, someone will say that he has visited a particular religious place 8 times while another will say she has gone there 12 times. Many people will talk about how they knew some temple official which enabled them to jump a long queue on a hot day and enter the sanctum sanctorum quickly where 'I prayed to my heart's content'. I will be the only one who will chuckle at the irony.


  1. hahaha, but why restrict your comment to only religious views? haven't you heard of people flying around in their private jets to deliver presentations on "global warming" and "carbon neutral" living? what about the limousine liberals who infest Indian media lecturing us on this and that? finally - and nothing personal here - what about all those people lecturing OTHERS how they should spend THEIR MONEY?! i guess each of us is guilty in his own way - just that it is easier to see the irony when it is not personal! any thoughts?

  2. Kailash,

    I am writing about what I hear and as far as I remember no one has talked about global warming, media etc.

  3. agreed. but surely you must have READ about all this?

  4. Kailash,

    Very little. I don't even read the newspaper these days.