Obscurantism: Lame explanations to the lame questions

“Indeed, the quantum theory implies that consciousness must exist, and that the content of the mind is the ultimate reality.” Your intuition can fail you on what is genius and what is asinine. Good thinking strives, almost as its prime directive, to clarify. It doesn’t mean a discussion you have with someone else on a topic is going to be brief or simple, but it will strive to clarify by focusing on identifying common robust features that explain what is at play.

Clarity strives to use language effectively and clearly to communicate an understanding of what is going on. By contrast, obscurantism does the opposite:

“Does thought create the molecule or the molecule create the thought?” -some new age mystic trying to make the case that science will never explain spirituality

There can be a frustrating difficulty in dealing with statement-questions like one above. This happens to be one that sticks in my brain but feel free to pick your favorite new-age mystery-incepting quote by your favorite new-age spiritualist. Obscurantists deliberately obscure by conflating concepts and metaphors. It is an assault against clarity.

You may already have a subjective feel for what is clarity-seeking and what is obscurantism-seeking but this needs to be made objective and more explicit because based on the popularity of new-age mysticism, many people’s subjectivities are failing them (but not uncorrectable, to be talked about in a future article). In the true spirit of objective clarity, I will lay down some patterns that you can keep an eye out for. Obscurantist narratives will:

– They will lay down one question after another. – They will inject confusion not to deconstruct it but to stand in awe of it. – They will set up flimsy conceptual setups that are knocked down in the next statement to stand in for an act of proof (theologians and philosophers do this). – They will borrow technical words not to shortcut a concept but to use them out of context. An intuitive test, a mental litmus you can develop is to try to keep an eye out for obscurantism. It’s a shortcut, sure, but ultimately everything is.

It is possible to clarify the language of their individual statements. You can go after specific points like when someone makes specific assertions such as consciousness being an entity separate from the real-world — the idea being consciousness is this ‘universal thing’ that just ‘likes settling’ in brains. You can know that from neuropathology, that a person’s personality can be piecemeal destroyed by lesions or removal of pieces of the brain, until nothing is left. Quite specifically, everything from facial recognition of your loved ones, to the ability to speak, to the separate ability to understand language to the ability to move your right toe, has localizable circuits in the brain. There is no suggestion that this is has an extradimensional quality or is a separable entity. Like all emergent activity, high level descriptions of a system attempt summarize the actions of thousands, millions, trillions (or some order of magnitude) of pieces working together. There is bound to be some fuzziness and rough approximations from this helicopter view of something made up of pieces so numerous.

Mysticism, the art of diving into the obscure and unknowable doesn’t generate new information. Although zen riddles and mystic pursuits may have some psychological benefits to mire in the knowledge degradation and doggedly chase the absolutes, thus giving the mind a sense after many hours of accrued experience, that distinctions are relative and the absolutes are limited.

Did I just justify the exercise of mysticism? Well, it’s a potentially clarifying explanation for its existence. This may be important in some personal evolutions of understanding. The exercise of it, that is. Not the content.

Confuse yourself with riddles on your own time but for the interpersonal purposes of language, don’t bring it to a conversation and think you’re injecting value. Clarity is a hard-won gift. Obfuscation is easy.

For example, look at the deliberate confusion created in these intentionally unfalsifiable statements: “The universe is consciousness.” Or “we are quantumly connected.” What is the intended point behind these statements?

If it’s to imbue a sense of social connection within the large human population and reinforce shared empathy, then speak about it in that way. Talk about the meaningful, even if incredibly indirect, ways we are interconnected. But implying that we are literally quantumly entangled or that our brains are all wired into some grand memory and perception database in the sky is an incredible waste of comprehension. A deliberate epidemiological attack on our language.

You may say this is purely metaphorical language. Great. I enjoy metaphor. But following up these statements about putting your ‘mind state’ in working harmony with your body through ‘discontinuities’ so that you can use ‘quantum healing’ to ‘spontaneously repair’ through the ‘universal consciousness’ is injecting some very non-metaphorical implications about the nature of these connections. It’s a genocidal abuse of human language, potentially the most sophisticated tool on the planet.

I’m a fan of metaphor, metaphorical thinking, metaphorical language, poetic song lyrics, all of it. But speaking about one point in metaphor and then moving on to the next without resolution or explanation isn’t clarifying. Using metaphor to obscure a point rather than explain before moving on to the next point is obscurantism. Spiritualists will characterize the ‘quantum leaps’ of human historical achievement in culture, implying some self-aware entity guiding the whole thing, then to jump to the effects of positivity on the health subtly implying more mysterious extradimensional connections between our physical reality and some metaphysical realm. Usually, at this point, a scientifically minded individual, finding it too exhausting to address every single statement, is tempted to wholesale characterize their behavior as charlatanism or deliberate misrepresentation. To those that are buying the books and listening to how we all literally share a giant cloud of consciousness on a quantum realm, name-calling isn’t that helpful or clarifying.

Another pattern be aware of is terminology borrowing. Technical words, jargon terms, and labels have the unfortunate consequence of being inaccessible to the uninitiated. Perhaps you were educated to the meaning of it at one point but forgot. The reason to use them at all is that they are shortcuts, particularly in groups of people who repeatedly tread over the same concepts, assumptions or ideas. It’s a linguistic shorthand providing brevity but carrying the cost of less accessibility. Of course these can be valuable when speaking to the right audience. Or you could just quickly catch up an uninitiated audience to what that term means.

The way to misuse these shortcuts is to refer to them not for the definitional context but only to borrow vague credibility. Mind. Consciousness. Awareness. Discontinuities. Non-symbolic thought. Quantum leap. Non-locality. These are vague abstract concepts that are often borrowed without any attempt to hone them down. Not to say it’s impossible to define them or hone them down but obscurantists will avoid that. The confusing part is these words are used widely, in a specific way, in certain fields.

For instance, “quantum” is instantly associated with a branch of modern physics that has found, in the last 80 years that, when you start taking apart atoms on the periodic table of elements (into protons, neutrons and electrons – this may ring a bell from science class), they stop acting like billiard balls on a pool table and act in a very hard-to-pin-down vibrational way, in a probabilistic way such that where and when things are happening have imprecision associated with them. The term quantum was initially associated with physics when it was noted that electrons vibrating around the proton nucleus can only do so in very fixed ways, such that they jump up or down in fixed orbital energy levels but can’t take on energy levels in between. The point is the word was used in a very intuitive way at the time of discovery of a very specific concept, and became associated as a label for an entire branch of physics of atomic particles and photons of light. This word has very a specific context as a label or as a concept in a specific field.

In addition to co-opting credibility from specialty words or phrases, obscurants are often a huge fan of word association. To the level of poetic license. They will use the word ‘quantum’ in a couple different ways so that when you’re listening to them, you will assume they mean it in the sense that modern physics uses it but they are not. A lot of times, I think they are just using it as a synonym for ‘dramatic’: “Evolution produced a ‘quantum leap’ in complexity.” The implication that follows is that some kind of pervasive phenomena, not working in a readily seen way in the real world because its mechanisms were working through hidden quantum action, is what gave rise to intelligence on the planet.

If the implication was to use the word quantum as “sudden and significant”, which is a legitimate use of the word, then they are tacitly wrong to make statements about evolution yielding quantum increases in complexity. Evolution, a process taking trillions of generational attempts to produce changes that are miniscule to see even on the order of hundreds of thousands of years, accruing over billions of years may be one of the most dramatic examples of “unsudden” we can come up with.

Or ‘quantum’ is used, somewhat accurately to the actual definition of the word out of context of physics, ‘a discrete amount’ or ‘an amount allowed or required.’ Such that the statement about a ‘quantum of understanding’ isn’t completely meaningless but does induce associations of ‘quantum entanglement’ and other highly specific phenomena that happens only at the level of subparticles. Then they follow that up with a brief mention of ‘entanglement’ and how we’re all ‘entangled’ together through connections. Anyways. Word association. Poetic babble. And lame poetry at that.

Obscurantism will rely highly on association. Jumping from idea to idea, word to word, concept to concept — like the mind of a schizophrenic poet, never to nail one thing down. This is what makes them denervating to debate or impossibly to clarify their position. They also have gotten more sophisticated with time. They don’t slow down. They avoid specifics. They change topics or jump around from such disparate topics or words/concepts from different fields in attempt to ever being nailable on a position on anything or engageable at all. Obscurantism has evolved, like a resistant cancer. They borrow the latest words and hide in the current gaps of knowledge. The hidden priority in their words, the common thread, above all else, is to borrow or manufacture credibility and be unassailable through vagueries. Not to clarify.

They will laundry-list through concepts or labels of ideas that stand as failures or as-yet-to-be-resolved questions of humankind. They will insist these are unreachable and the gaps in our knowledge is proof for spirits, god, macroscopic quantum action, unconquerable mysteries of the humanities or whatever they want to put in there. This is a pattern of constantly pointing at the currently dark parts of the room as proof that we will never be able to see it. Sitting down and listing off what you can’t reach from your seated position shouldn’t validate invented metaphysical alternatives.

Someone who prioritizes clarity will use specific definitions to the point of boredom, and speak of patterns, not poetic association. Association only arising as behaviors or actions are similar to others in the world may hint at deeper patterns but more exploration and thinking need to be done to get at what pattern or patterns may be there. Pattern discovery that you can reproducibly find/replicate with very real ways that you can find where it fails to be true. This whole process will be irrelevant of narratives, meaning, or emotional subjectives to the best extent possible. They may start with confusion or a question at first to frame it, but the rest will be to drill down and clarify it. Word association and word overlap is deliberately avoided in the explanation.

Obscurantists will borrow words loosely. They will not speak of specific patterns. They will speak of disparate associations. They will only inject more confusion or more questions as they speak. They will rely heavily on narratives and rhetorical riddle-like questions. Specific patterns, ironically produced by the scientific processes they criticize as being narrow (such as epochs of evolutionary complexity, subatomic structure of matter, or the unconscious actions of the nervous system) become the cornerstone of their intuitive methods to be referenced in name only. Coincidences and patterns that are only analogous in appearance shouldn’t be confused as useful explanation.

Thinking about things from an obscurantism versus clarity is a good test of ideas. The point isn’t to nail them on what isn’t true (although it can be) because sometimes, nothing is falsifiable or untrue, per se. If I gave a description about two different-sized infinities (e.g. an infinite number of boxes versus an infinite number of rooms with an infinite number of boxes in each room). I continued to describe many different “sizes” of infinity asserting that there is a whole ‘color spectrum’ of infinities. You may follow this metaphorical setup. If I go on to say there are infinite amount of infinity colors. A meta-infinity. Each color (in the meta-infinity spectrum) contains infinity, itself. I start freely associating the concepts of ‘meta-infinity’ and its connection with ‘free will’ and the infinite choices available. Is any of this untrue? Perhaps you don’t care. I wrote it and I’m not sure I care. Scientists will look for a falsifiable point somewhere and think about experiments to falsify it or not. Scientists will say the lack of a falsifiable point in what I said isn’t a virtue but a problem with it. For us, the point to apply here is any of this infinity discussion useful in clearing anything up? No. It’s a pseudo-poetic journey through overburdened concepts.

As amusing as it is, and sometimes as poetic and creative as it is, nothing will ever come from it in terms of incremental progress. Obscurantists glom onto the current body of knowledge and distort wherever gaps are. Or even aren’t. It seems to be an attempt to surreptitiously borrow credibility and be unassailable to examination. Finally, it is also an attempt to deliberately induce wonder in you. They contribute nothing useful in terms of clarification. In fact, it is arguably the most malicious type of ignorance-spreading one can do.