Long ago and far away I was a teenager attending a Lubavitcher yeshiva. I plainly remember sitting among other students as the rabbi tried explaining a pivotal Kabbalistic concept to us. Combining the most serious expression he could muster and animated hand gestures, he would say, “It’s there… but it’s not there…” as if he was sharing a profound secret with us. At that moment, as other students sat spellbound, a disturbing realization began to percolate through the subconscious of my young mind: the deepest concepts are those that are untrue.
We all have our intellectual limits and, at least in Western society, we are taught to test those limits. At the boundaries of what we can understand and what we cannot understand is a buffer zone of foggy concepts. With a bit of effort, we can often resolve those foggy concepts into either “true” or “untrue”. Most are too lazy to even challenge them, instead deferring to the wisdom of popular faith or those they consider experts. Just beyond this frontier is the zone of “deep ideas”. This latter zone is an ideal spot to hide falsities from the gullible, for most can only barely discern the hazy outlines of such concepts and lack the ability to expose their true nature. Sometimes the ability is there but religious faith prevents this ability from being exercised. Such was the case with most of my fellow students and, to a lesser extent, myself.
Of course, not everything kabbalistic is nonsense; once the necessary foundations were established, subsequent fantasies could be constructed upon them. Within the context of previously built mystical illusions, any such later inventions might not (technically) be considered nonsense. Over many generations, an entire field of “knowledge” was built, complete with various schools of thought, ongoing debates, special terminology and legions of “experts”. Several Kabbalistic books were written and then erroneously attributed to ancient sages. This gave the illusion of historical depth and hence the Kabbalah came to be considered a reputable field of study.
Time and time again we see how easily the masses, and even scholars, can be fooled. In 1996 a man by the name of Alan Sokal conducted an experiment:
The Sokal Affair (also Sokal’s Hoax) was a publishing hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University. In 1996, Prof. Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. The submission was an experiment testing the magazine’s intellectual rigor, and specifically to learn if such a journal would “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.”
The article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” published in the Social Text Spring/Summer 1996 “Science Wars” issue, proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct. At that time the journal did not practice peer review fact-checking, and did not submit the article for outside expert review by a physicist. On its date of publication, in May 1996, in the journal Lingua Franca, Sokal revealed that the article was a hoax, identifying it as “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense . . . structured around the silliest quotations [by postmodernist academics he] could find about mathematics and physics”.
We all have our intellectual limits and we all like to think we’re smart, so even elite publishers possess a zone of deep ideas. Even intellectuals sometimes give in to the temptation to annex their zones of foggy ideas or deep ideas into their zones of understanding. I can only surmise that the root of this flaw is a lack of humility. They simply cannot bring themselves to admit that they do not understand. In this regard, honesty and humility would go a long way toward advancing human knowledge.
There might be another, deeper, appeal to nonsense in the human psyche. In his book “Consciousness Explained“, Daniel Dennett advances the hypotheses (chapter 8) that human speech originates, within the mind, as utter nonsense. Our minds refine this nonsense into meaningful phrases as the situation demands. The notion of a homuculus within our heads making fully developed decisions has been discredited, both by Dennett and other researchers. Dennett supports his hypotheses (which he calls the “pandemonium model”) by showing us that sometimes humans lose the ability to make sense of their speech even though they still have the ability to speak. A classic example of this is jargon aphasia.
I wonder if the “zone of deep ideas” and the zone of “pandemonium” reside in the same foggy region of our subconscious. If people can lack the ability to speak their thoughts in ways that are comprehensible to others, perhaps they can also lack the ability to discern the difference between nonsense and sound logic.
It is a well-known fact that leftists (AKA “liberals”) are incapable of engaging in rational discussion when it comes to certain dogmatic notions that they have – for example about race. Perhaps they suffer from a form of reverse jargon aphasia. Since “liberalism” is a religion, we might expand the question further: do all (irrational) religious people suffer from reverse jargon aphasia? If we consider that the vast majority of humans, since time immemorial, have been religious in one sense or another, the truth may be that such aphasia is the normal state of mankind. Then it might be fair to say that we, who read/write this blog (and others like it), represent a more advanced stage of evolution. We have overcome our aphasia. Illogical Kabbalistic claims no longer hold sway over us. Leftist racial superstitions no longer intimidate us. Sokal’s nonsense no longer fools us.