Smelling RATs and questioning everything


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Royalty-free cartoon from

I have always enjoyed a good idiom, loving the stories behind them. However, there seems no certainty as to where this phrase originated, but if you have ever smelt a dead rat in a wall, you will know that the odour is horrible, indicating that something is definitely not right. The term probably comes from the days when rats were a more common problem, and when prize terriers were used to sniff them out and kill them.

In my own mind, I have turned the ‘RAT’ into an acronym that highlights the three main reasons for suspecting that purported knowledge may be, at least, suspect.

  • R = Revelation – it came to me in visions/dreams/voices
  • A = Authority – because they (parents/priests/teachers/governments etc.) know better than you
  • T = Tradition – we’ve done it that way for generations

I maintain that these are three particularly bad, but all-too-common bases of belief. Religion, of course, is permeated with all three, which is probably why I have so many issues with it.

With regards to revelations, there is, of course, a fine line between the visionary and delusional. I have heard it say that the difference rests on the quality of the execution, but I think it goes a bit further than that. I would suggest that visionary thinking is a high form of rational thinking that allows its practitioner to ‘think outside the box’ and not only have extraordinary ideas but, crucially, the ability to deliver those ideas because they work within the laws of science to be achievable. Although we all have moments where we wonder where ideas come from into our heads, ‘Eureka’ moments are clearly the products of our subconscious minds, rather than ‘divine inspiration’. When you look at the great Eureka moments in history,  a pattern is clear. The Eureka moments in science happen to scientists. The Eureka moments in art happen to artists.

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So can’t Eureka moments in religion happen to prophets? Well, yes they do. But here we have to return to the difference between visions and delusions. Delusional thinking is common-or-garden thinking in the sense that we are all capable of delusional thoughts because we have inadequate knowledge or experience to understand what is actually possible. The whole gambling industry, for example, is set up to take advantage of this common tendency. Religion takes it all to entirely

different levels. It is not ‘thinking outside the box’, it is thinking outside of reality. It is not based on extraordinary ideas, but based on impossible ideas. It cannot deliver on its key tenets because they necessitate the suspension of the scientific laws of the universe. The only thing that it has in common with visionary thinking is that it too is the product of the subconscious mind, rather than divine inspiration.

The bizarre thing is that humans seem to have a propensity for accepting delusional ideas rather more readily than visionary ideas, perhaps because we all have our little delusions, while few are lucky enough to have truly visionary moments. We are also, I suspect very lazy thinkers. We are happy to go along with the RAT that our elders and ancestors lived by rather than upset the apple cart and speak out or stand up for anything better. How else can we explain intelligent adults subscribing to patently absurd nonsense, such as that highlighted in this little compendium of religion’s 20 wackier beliefs?

Trying to get away from purely religion-bashing, it is just one aspect of what we tend to call ‘culture’.

Questioning any aspect of culture tends to rattle cages and lead to heated debates that can rarely be ever totally resolved. It is easy and defensible to attack people in denial about established scientific wisdom. I therefore have no problem at all in declaring climate change denying Tory MP David TC Davies a contemptible fuckwit. Furthermore, although some may rebuke me for my uncouth language, nobody whose opinion I value is likely to challenge the assertion. Still further, hating fuckwits like Davies has yet to be considered a hate crime. (Although I wouldn’t put it past him tabling a motion to make it such if he ever reads this!)

I am, of course, overstating things to say I hate anybody, let lone fuckwits. The truth is that it is just utterly bewildering how some people’s minds work. Hate crimes of any sort are inexcusable, in large part because they are not the rational intellectual demolition of an untenable position, but invariably the act of one cultural segment’s intolerance of a different cultural segment of society. Thus we can see everything from ‘gay-bashing’ to jihad.

It is thus clear that we all have some aspects of culture that we love and want to see preserved, and other aspects of culture that we find objectionable. But this is always problematical because it is always subjective. One person’s picture is another person’s eyesore; one person’s melody is another person’s racket; one person’s belief is another person’s heresy; one person’s crusade is another person’s persecution; one person’s ethnic cleansing is another person’s genocide.

When people get attached to a cultural dimension (be it a religion, a music genre, a lifestyle, a language, etc) they tend to start losing their rational faculties, if only in relation to that aspect of their life. It is very odd to see at times. Thus we have seen well-paid lawyers getting involved in football hooliganism, mod schoolteachers and rocker doctors knocking seven bells out of each other at the weekend (once upon a time), and all sorts of stigmatisation and prejudice based on people’s cultural preferences and dislikes.

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 20.23.22One way of getting people to face up to their irrational peccadilloes is to offer them appropriate ‘thought experiments’. Thought experiments are devices of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things. They are used for diverse reasons in a variety of areas, including economics, history, mathematics, philosophy, and the sciences, especially physics. I commend Julian Baggini’s compendium of 100 simple thought experiments, entitled The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten.

I offered up a thought experiment during a recent Facebook debate on the future of the Welsh language. It went something like this: given the logical extremes of (a) everybody having their own language (and not being able to communicate effectively with anyone) and (b) everybody speaking exactly the same language, which would be the more preferable? It seems pretty much obvious to me that (b) has to be infinitely the more preferable. I was making the point that there are limits to diversity of languages being a good thing and that many people are happy to see the rationalisation of languages in use. I went so far as to suggest that a goal of one language common to all of humanity was a potentially good thing.

It was meant to a good humoured intellectual debate among people that I can usually have such debates with on a regular basis. The problem was that the majority of people who chose to get involved in the debate were either Welsh speakers of varying levels of proficiency, and/or Welsh nationalists. I probably should have known better, but you learn little from debates with people that you know agree with you. Well, I Iearned a few things for sure. It appears that I am a British nationalist, arrogant, ignorant, out-of-my-depth and very,very wrong. I kind of got an apology for the first one, as that was undoubtedly the most worrying accusation. The rest, I have to admit, I have heard before.

The ‘ignorant’ bit stung a little, as I have actually done a fair bit of research over the years. The evolution of languages is a fascinating topic that feeds into and is fed by human geography and anthropology, two of my stronger areas of interest. It is possible to see organic qualities in languages. They evolve like organisms, adapting over time. Chaucerian Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 20.27.52English is but a distant ancestor of modern day English, which continues to evolve before our eyes, under the influence of social media and technological progress. Academia and dramatists keep the language alive, but I see no campaign to re-instate, say, Shakespearian English in everyday usage.  (Witness Julie Dench’s RSC ‘Winters Tale’, recently sold out in many cinemas.)

But there is an element of survival of the fittest with languages too. They do very often become extinct. Earlier this year, the Bo language died out when an 85-year-old member of the Bo tribe in the India-owned Andaman islands died. While it may seem sad that the language expired, it is actually cultural change that is driving the process in a wider scale. Writer, broadcaster and neurobiologist, Kenan Malik, says it is irrational to try to preserve all the world’s languages. To quote him (source):

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N.B. quotes are not from this book

“In one sense you could call it a cultural loss. But that makes no sense because cultural forms are lost all the time. To say every cultural form should exist forever is ridiculous.” And when governments try to prop languages up, it shows a desire to cling to the past rather than move forwards, he says.

If people want to learn minority languages like Manx, that is up to them – it shouldn’t be backed by government subsidy, he argues.

“To have a public policy that a certain culture or language should be preserved shows a fundamental misunderstanding. I don’t see why it’s in the public good to preserve Manx or Cornish or any other language for that matter.” In the end, whether or not a language is viable is very simple. “If a language is one that people don’t participate in, it’s not a language anymore.”

His last comment has all the ring of a truism about it. Languages have a naturally democratic destiny. People choose to use them or they don’t. Time always reveals that destiny. Aficionadoes of the endangered will take steps to keep them alive between themselves. Some even enjoy the challenge of constructing new languages. Anyone for Klingon? But languages of common currency are inevitably those seen as most useful by the majority, unless fascist force is brought to bear to foist languages upon a reluctant population (like the English imperialists, for sure, but forcing a return to pre-imperial days compounds one wrong with another).

But enough. The basic point is that preservation of every aspect of human culture is a patent nonsense born often of ignorance and/or resistance to change. The following is a list of shockingly common ‘cultural norms’ from around the world today (and do not think they are absent from the UK):

  • Genital mutilation – female in some cultures, male in others
  • Bloodsports – commonly involving animals, but not excluding humans totally
  • Infanticide
  • A role raft of tortures, from stoning to water boarding
  • Public executions of varying degrees of gruesomeness
  • Human sacrifice
  • Cannibalism
  • Slavery
  • Witch hunts
  • Paedophilia – especially common amongst British privileged classes it would seem.

Sort them into your own order of significance – a useful thought experiment to reveal where your tolerance line is. Just how far have we actually progressed since the Dark Ages?

And why is this?

Because too many people kowtow to the unholy trinity of Revelations, Authority and Tradition. You owe it to humanity, not just yourself, to question everything and do your best to reconcile your own irrational beliefs. I know I have a long way to go with this myself, but I feel I have at least made an attempt to try.

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