Myths, facts and decision making: The human animal

The world is full of facts. People are facts. Therefore myths are facts. Sounds like a logical fallacy? Well, actually it isn’t. It’s just playing with semantics a little. What I mean to say here is that facts are what help us create a picture of reality. We talk about Homo sapiens as a species because we know individuals similar to us (or me) exist, and that we can group them together. So people are facts. It also seems almost inevitable that if there are people, there will be myths, gossip and so forth. There is always a limit to our perception of reality. However, our perception of reality -which can be mistaken at times- is in itself a component of reality. We need to understand that in order to understand ourselves. That is why studying myths belonging to a particular culture is an important exercise in trying to get an anthropological or sociological picture of that culture. The diversity of myths across cultures gives us an insight into the varying ways in which human societies evolved over time. Even in relatively modern, secular societies you have truckloads of urban legends that have little basis in reality. Religion, for example, is a collection of myths. A recent study published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making studied how susceptible humans are to meaningless bafflegab. Do they judge it to be more profound? This is what the study found:

We gave people syntactically coherent sentences that consisted of random vague buzzwords and, across four studies, these statements were judged to be at least somewhat profound. This tendency was also evident when we presented participants with similar real-world examples of pseudo-profound bullshit.
For example, many test subjects judged statements like these to be profound:
Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation.
Which has no real meaning. Rather which begs an explanation and is given none. That is what obscurantism is all about. This kind of receptivity to pseudo-profound bullshit, of course, co – varied with other personality characteristics and indicators.
Those more receptive to bullshit are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.

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A look at cults: Dalai Lama, Swami Vivekananda and Che Guevara

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You speak of Rastafari, but how can you justify-

-belief, in a god that’s left you behind?

Haile Selassie: Propagandhi

The cult of Rastafarianism (or Rastafari, proponents of which claim they are above all “-isms”), which is basically another plagiarized version of Christianity (or Abrahamic religion) emphasizing the black people as the chosen ones, Haile Selassie as an incarnation of their God and Ethiopia as their Promised Land, would probably not like to answer the question above. But the answer is simple enough. Apotheosis of a mere mortal doesn’t lead to that mortal acquiring supernatural powers, or even for that matter, natural powers. The opening lines of the song by Propagandhi allude to Haile Selassie’s desertion of his army and the Ethiopian capital in the face of a vicious attack against his kingdom by the Italian Fascist forces and its allies. He left his people behind to face the fury of the enemy, but apparently that kind of betrayal had no effect on his followers who continued to pretend that they thought Haile Selassie was The One.

There have always been cult figures in human history. The idea behind cultism is that there is a perfect human being who everyone ought to emulate. One who is flawless and who is the saviour of all humanity. One who brought along with them epiphanies or great intuitive or divine wisdoms that were hitherto unknown to human beings. Everything they said or did was supposed to have great meaning. Eventually the cult figures would pick up mannerisms and affectations that would complete the picture. Some cults have lasted in time, some haven’t, some have been revived and for some, a new cult figure has adopted a modified version of an old cult philosophy. Objectively speaking, these were just people who were either smarter than the ones they influenced or were charismatic or both. They carefully picked their audiences and appealed to their popular notions, and then challenged some, making people think that they had stumbled upon a gem. And this is how their popularity spread. Some extended their popularity with the sword while some did it through peaceful and measured, peripatetic sophistry. From Buddha to Dalai Lama, from Jesus to Mother Teresa and from Muhammad to David Koresh, we see the same general aspects, the same hunger for soft or hard power over the masses. Here I want to take a closer look at three cult figures belonging to disparate backgrounds.

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The new year, religious “offense” and the price of free speech

It’s the new year…according to the Gregorian calendar, which is accepted as the standard almost everywhere in the world. Different calendars have different “New Year days”. That’s one reason why I always find it difficult to take the phatic platitude of “Happy New Year” too seriously. The other is that new years are unlikely to be too “happy”. There is too much going against that possibility. For India, the new year began in a way similar to the way it did for France last year , as it did for Afghanistan and Iraq. It began with the threat of sadomasochistic suicide – murdering, commonly known these days as Islamist terrorism. It’s never in short supply when you are lucky enough to have a neighbour who suckles and nurtures terrorists or -luckier still- have them at home.

So the year last began with a ghastly spectacle motivated by religious offense – taking place in an arrondissement in Paris. It was a perfect attention – seeking stunt by murderous, ghetto – dwelling hicks who wouldn’t be given any attention otherwise. Nor would the object of their ire grab international attention. How, then, could 2016 not begin with another bout of offense taking? The Indian cricketer MS Dhoni in a new avatar:

I couldn’t take offense with this even if I tried.

The cover of a business magazine trying to be a bit creative, perhaps. I mean, it’s really a “meh, whatever” kind of picture. Some people with a sense of humour might even find it a bit quaint and funny. Not what some people seem to think, though. Late last year, he was summoned by a court in Anantpur, Andhra Pradesh after a VHP leader filed a case against him for allegedly hurting Hindu sentiments.

In May 2013, Jayakumar Hiremath, a RTI activist filed a case in Bangalore under Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code – intent to insult the religion of any class – for “hurting the sentiments of the Hindu community”.

In May 2014, Rajinder Singh Raja, national general secretary of the Shivesena Hindustan filed a case in Delhi saying Dhoni had insulted the Hindu religion and Lord Vishnu because he had “been portrayed as God Vishnu and instead of showing religious things, the magazine is showing products of various companies including a shoe in his hand.”

“Neither did he pose for the picture, nor were we aware of such a picture being published,”says Dhoni’s manager. Dhoni’s lawyer says he never got the summons. Whatever happened, the court couldn’t get MS Dhoni to appear before it. The result? A non – bailable warrant . Really.

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