Archives for category: perception

Starting around 2:16 in this excerpt from The Atheism Tapes, Jonathan Miller and Daniel Dennett are talking about people who profess to believe in an “immaterial soul” that goes on after the death of the “physical body”.

Jonathan Miller says:

I find it very hard to see how they can actually formulate or conceive the notion of an immaterial continuity of an unembodied self – of how it would know that it was in fact the thing that had once been the embodied person, with a particular name, with particular projects. It’s always seemed to me that the notion of projects, and trajectories, and hopes and plans and so forth, are all tied up with being embodied.

Daniel Dennett says:

Yes, and I think that everybody cheats when they think about this. I mean in the way that scientists cheat too, when they imagine hard-to-imagine things. So people, when they imagine an immaterial soul – they don’t! They imagine a sort of ghosty sort of semi-transparent material object that’s got arms and legs and a particular physical location, but just isn’t quite physical. It’s sort of like a hologram. And they know that that’s not right. They know that a soul isn’t really like that. And they know they can’t really imagine an immaterial, disembodied soul. But that’s all right, these things are hard to imagine! “Physicists can’t imagine quantum mechanics, and we can’t imagine an immaterial soul. But, you know, we can try, and it doesn’t hurt to think about, you know, people playing harps sitting on clouds.”

I often ask my students, when they were children and reading comic books or watching on television, did it ever bother them that Casper, the friendly ghost, could both fly through a wall, and catch a ball? I mean, why doesn’t the ball just go right through his hand? And almost all of them say, Oh yes, they had noticed this mildly discomfiting inconsistency, but everybody goes along with the gag. But everybody notices that this is not really consistent.

There’s a big difference between a scientist trying to visualize quantum mechanics and a person trying to imagine an immaterial soul, which is really an immaterial person, which is a contradiction in terms. Dennett reminds us that a truly immaterial thing would not even have “a particular physical location,” to say nothing of arms and legs.

Physicists try to visualize the inner workings of atoms because atoms almost certainly exist. Quantum effects are hard to visualize because they seem to require contradictory predicates: very small entities are, famously, sort of “like waves,” and also sort of “like particles.” But this is an apparent contradiction, caused by limited understanding and limited vocabulary. One can imagine a future in which we can speak with perfect clarity about the inner workings of atoms. But in the idea of an unphysical person there is an inherent, a priori contradiction.

It just hit me. You know on those surveys? Where they ask people if they believe in God? If you pry a little you can find out exactly what the script is. And in the script it says, “Do you believe in God?” — with a capital G.

The infamous capital 'G'


Speaking of aliens, District 9 (now available on DVD) outclasses Avatar in every way. Avatar‘s “aliens” have sophomorically humanoid bodies, with navels, dreadlocks, broad noses from Sierra Leone, big adorable eyes from manga, and perky, perfect little light-blue breasts. This is an insult to the viewer’s intelligence. If we ever do meet some real aliens from another star system, the chances are very low that we will even understand what we are seeing. I guarantee to you that we won’t find them sexually attractive. We won’t understand, at first, whether they have anything like sex. Chances are, they will be so different from us that we will not be certain that they are alive. (They may have the same doubts about us.) They could be here in this solar system right now, and escape our notice because they don’t look humanoid, or even eumetazoan. They could look like haystacks, or lightning, or sunspots — or something we literally cannot imagine.

That being said, District 9‘s aliens are at least kind of alien. They are not appealing. The body plan reminds one of vultures, insects and crayfish. They don’t have Kate Moss breasts. They do have something like lungs, and you can see them working and it is not pretty. They eat garbage. They fight over garbage, seemingly. They came in a spaceship, but they don’t know how to work it, apparently. They live in a government slum. They are repulsive and pathetic.

Then you get to know them. And they turn out, despite their grotesque anatomy, to be more appealing, on a humanitarian level, than the humans around them. You get to know them, and you remember things like “beauty is only skin deep” and “the only way to be good is to do good” and “the best things in life aren’t things”. District 9 is that rare, glittering gem: a movie that makes you think.

It’s not perfect. I would not call it a great film. But I rented it, and enjoyed it, and recommend it to you.

James Cameron made himself a billion dollars selling schlock. So now gets to spend $250 million to make the exact movie he wants, no limits, no compromise, embodying the ideas and values he developed very early in his career and has held fast to ever since. If you’re James Cameron, this is the movie you’ve always wanted to see and you still want to see, because, one is forced to suppose, your emotional and intellectual maturation came to a halt when you were twelve years old.

Many people have requested a one-page summary of the new book. This one is under 400 words. [Slightly revised 8 June 2010.]

Roy Sablosky: NO ONE BELIEVES IN GOD (second draft, November 2009)

  1. It’s not about belief
    1. That religion has to do with beliefs becomes implausible when you look at the behaviors it evokes. For example:
      1. Their “beliefs” challenged, people are often enraged, as if you had threatened not their opinions but their safety.
      2. One joins a group, not its beliefs. Self-described Catholics may differ profoundly with their church elders on important issues; they are Catholics despite their beliefs.
      3. Notoriously, church elders routinely flout the “beliefs” they most fervently espouse.
    2. Claims of belief are implausible where the tenet in question is nonsensical.
      1. Religious propositions are incoherent. (This is probably by design. A slogan is catchier if no one knows what it means.) In the sentence “Jesus loves you” for example, both the subject and the verb are impossible to characterize or observe. Such a statement is perfectly empty: it is a pseudo-proposition.
      2. Since they are without meaning, religious statements can be neither meant nor believed. Thomas Jefferson: “I suppose belief to be the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition.” Ludwig Wittgenstein: “one cannot mean a senseless series of words.”
    3. Therefore, no one really believes in the teachings of any prophet or the existence of any god. It cannot be done. It does not happen. People who think they are doing it are mistaken.
  2. Religion is made of memes plus authoritarianism
    1. Religious “beliefs” are memes. Just like germs, they are contagious; and just like germs they evolve through natural selection. The religious memes circulating now have evolved over thousands of years to be very, very good at what they do.
    2. People are naturally deferential to authority figures.
    3. Authority and memetic self-replication combine to form religion.
  3. What we should do
    1. Admit no religious exceptions to any legislation. A few examples:
      1. End all tax breaks (that is: subsidies) for religious organizations and their personnel.
      2. Eliminate chaplaincy programs at all levels of government, including the armed services.
      3. Remove legislative impediments to abortion and birth control.
      4. Outlaw the teaching of antediluvian codswallop in public school.
      5. Government should ratify only civil unions, not “marriages”. Anyone willing and competent to sign such a contract should be allowed to.
    2. Revise the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. No proposal having a religious rationale or using religious terminology should become a law.

Roy Sablosky, 2008.

~ 3,000 words.


So-called “religious” considerations have no place in any discussion of public policy. The reason is seldom mentioned but perfectly straightforward: there are no gods. Not even one. Therefore, no one’s “beliefs” regarding the opinions of their chosen deity are of any consequence. This much is obvious. Yet, we secularists are often remarkably tentative in our position that public policy in the United States must remain thoroughly secular.

Perhaps we hesitate because, though the gods are gone, people’s belief in them appears to be deep and sincere; and we are told that it is unseemly, or positively immoral, to challenge this special kind of belief.

In the crazy, mixed-up argument the American populace is having with itself over the role of religion in public life, from the Pledge of Allegiance to the teaching of biological evolution in public schools to the Plan B pill to the funding of “faith-based” organizations by the federal government, secularists have at least one serious disadvantage. We can be instantly stymied by talk of the “sincere and profound religious beliefs” on the other side. Even when we are certain that a given religiously-motivated proposal is morally debased, we are intimidated.

“You can’t withhold antibiotics from your child who is about to die from a simple infection like in the Dark Ages,” we say.

“But I have a profound conviction that X, Y and Z,” they say–and we wimp out.

“Oh, then maybe it’s OK… so hard to judge… political correctness… cultural identity… blah, blah, blah.”


In this paper I offer a possible corrective to this shameful timidity: the “sincere and profound beliefs” we keep hearing about are nothing of the sort.

Of course, even without such a finding we always were and still are justified in adopting a consequentialist stance, wherein it matters not at all what people believe in their minds, only how they behave in the world. But the Religious Right is ruthless and relentless. We need all the strength and will and intelligence we can gather. So this is the bit of intelligence I can bring today. It does not matter what religious apologists “believe,” because they don’t. I am hoping that this insight will provide an extra shot of courage or patience to secularists in their painful dealings with people who think that “religious beliefs” can justify the most appalling behavior.

In their recent, best-selling and delightful books Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris trounce every possible argument for the idea that religion is a good idea. Dawkins is both meticulous and funny; Dennett, a philosophical colossus, shines more light on the topic than it even deserves; and Harris provides a swift, no-nonsense defenestration. I really admire these guys, so it pains me to suggest that they are expertly solving the wrong problem. But if my hypothesis is correct, the whole program of disabusing believers of their belief is misconceived.

Here is the argument in a nutshell. First, ideas about deities are not incorrect but incoherent. That is, they are not ideas. And an idea cannot be refuted if it was never even proposed in the first place. Second, if an idea is without meaning–not really an idea–then no one can believe it. You cannot believe a concept that is not even a concept. I do not say you shouldn’t; I say you can’t.

The exposition that follows may seem abstract. But I would not have written it had I not believed that it might offer real help for real people. The “take-away” is that we should not bother trying to convince people to outgrow “religious beliefs” they don’t subscribe to in the first place. Let them have their so-called beliefs–but insist that in a public context such propositions become pseudo-rhetoric and will be ignored. People are free to express their “beliefs,” but cannot thereby justify any actions or policy, ever. In a public arena we want to know what people are doing or trying to do; religious considerations are simply and entirely irrelevant.

Epistemological considerations

Here is how the argument starts. Ideas about deities are not wrong, they are meaningless. All of them. Ayer said it this way:

Theism is so confused and the sentences in which “God” appears so incoherent and so incapable of verifiability or falsifiability that to speak of belief or unbelief, faith or unfaith, is logically impossible.

– Dennett, this way:

The proposition that God exists … is so prodigiously ambiguous that it expresses, at best, an unorganized set of dozens or hundreds–or billions–of quite different possible theories, most of them disqualified as theories in any case, because they are systematically immune to confirmation or disconfirmation.

– and Wittgenstein, like this:

You cannot mean a senseless series of words.

For example. Someone comes into the room and asks us, “Europe artichoke?” Why can’t we answer this question? Well, because nothing has been asked. It is not actually a question. It is a random string of words with a decorative curlicue at the end.

The question, “Does God exist?” has the same meaning–that is, none. So the correct answer is neither Yes, nor No, nor even “I don’t know.” Actually, we do know!–because obviously, a statement with no meaning has no truth-value, and a question with no meaning has no answer.

I will devote no more space to the defense of this one point. (See the References for more support.) I take it as established that religious propositions are empty of meaning. But the implications of this fact have been inadequately explored.

Here is the one I want to pursue.

As Wittgenstein points out, a nonsensical phrase cannot be meant. I want to add: if it cannot be meant, neither can it be believed. After all, what would be the content of such a belief? You believe… what?–a senseless series of words? How would that work?

The idea of believing a meaningless idea is itself meaningless.

Someone says: “I strongly believe that Europe artichoke.” But if “Europe artichoke” has no meaning, then what meaning can “I believe that Europe artichoke” have? And just so, if “God is perfectly compassionate” is an empty proposition, then “I believe in a perfectly compassionate God” must be empty as well.

Someone might say, “But people don’t know that the items in which they believe are incoherent. They believe in them as if they are meaningful. They might be mistaken about the content, but the belief itself is real and sincere.” No. The question is still valid: You believe in what? You can believe that the Earth is a conscious being, because after all the Earth is a real thing and consciousness is a real thing. As a theory this would be hard to test, but it would still make sense to say that you are entertaining it. But a proposition containing the word ‘God’ cannot be a hypothesis, because the word and therefore the whole sentence has no meaning. You cannot meaningfully say it, and you cannot meaningfully believe it, no matter how much you want to, because there is no proposition there that can be the subject of your attention.

All ideas about gods are incoherent. They cannot be meaningfully transferred from one person to another (except as rote verbal formulas); they cannot be productively discussed; and they cannot be believed. Dawkins and Harris see religious belief as inadvisable. I see it as impossible. It cannot be done. It does not happen.

But, if, when people say they “believe,” that’s not what’s actually happening, then what is happening instead? What are these people doing, and why? What is the activity we call “religious belief”?

The saying of it

We do know that they are saying things. Meaningless things, as far as we can tell, but they are speaking–that, at least, everyone can agree on! Let’s follow another suggestion from Wittgenstein.

Ask yourself: On what occasion, for what purpose do we say this? What kind of actions accompany these words? (Think of a greeting.) In what scenes will they be used; and what for?

For example. Here is a man saying, “I believe there’s a post office down the block from here.” We can picture him with his arm extended, pointing the way. Now, why did he say those words? Probably not to hail a cab, or to frighten away the pigeons. Almost certainly, someone asked him a question; his utterance is an attempt to answer the question.

Now here is a woman saying, “I believe God is good.” Why did she say that? We can easily imagine a plausible context: preaching, proselytizing, defending her faith to an atheist… and so on. And what would be the purpose of such a remark, in those contexts?

I hear words from someone’s mouth and I imagine that a thought is being transferred from her mind to mine. And so does she. But, in the case of “religious belief,” there is something very different going on.

Practical considerations

Is this too intellectual?–too much about thoughts? Let me cite a few supporting considerations of a more practical nature.

First, the more metaphysical sorts of religious claims, things like “God is One but also Three but also One,”–even if you can stretch your imagination to make them seem as if they mean something, have no practical implications. Almost by definition, they don’t inform or affect one’s behavior. If you are deciding whether to jump in the river to rescue a cat, whether God is Three or One or 42 does not matter. There is no point in thinking about it at that moment, or indeed at any moment except during Tuesday night Bible study.

Second, those few snippets of doctrine that might seem to be simple, understandable guidelines (“Do not covet thy neighbor’s wife,” for example) are generally ignored by everyone, including the people who constantly avow them.

Imagine that we ignored people’s words and tried to deduce the content of their beliefs from their behavior. Someone tells us: “These folks believe that adultery is punishable by an eternity of torture.” We watch for a while and say, “Jeez–it sure doesn’t look that way.”

Third, even when such guidelines seem to be obeyed, people can be following the rule because it agrees with them rather than the reverse. After all, other people might be “following” the same rule without even having heard about it. I believe that it’s wrong to kill other people. And that’s what it says in the holy books, but that’s not why I believe it. The book and the belief are independent–for me, and for everyone else.

You might still insist that belief is more a “feeling” than a “thought.” To this I would simply object that a feeling cannot be a belief. A belief is a thought, by definition. If you want to insist that the phenomenon in question is properly called belief, describing it as a feeling as well will not help you.

No, I don’t think any feeling or thought is or results in the avowal of “belief.” I think it’s the other way around. The avowal prompts thoughts and feelings, which become post hoc explanations for a speech-act whose true cause goes unnoticed by the speaker.

Phenomenological considerations

Sam Harris, speaking at the “Beyond Belief” conference in November 2006, brings up an interesting point but misses the big picture.

[T]he greatest problem with the rest of us–with secularists, and religious moderates, and scientists–is that we find it very difficult to believe that people actually believe this stuff. Secularists and religious moderates, almost by definition, don’t know what it’s like to be certain of God. To be certain of Paradise. To be certain that the book they keep by their bed is the perfect Word of the Creator of the Universe.

I’m not sure I know what it would be like to believe in an all-powerful deity. On the other hand, I’m not sure I see anyone doing it. Can you demonstrate, Mr. Harris, that people “actually believe this stuff”? Is there any evidence for this famous “belief,” besides their talking about it?

Maybe people don’t believe in deities, they just feel that they should say that they do. Maybe that’s what “being religious” is.

Maybe to be “religious” is to say certain words. The funny thing is, that when you say them everyone figures you mean them. Including you. As if the words are a report, a portrait, of your inner state. What if this assumption is wrong?

Wittgenstein again:

The paradox disappears only if we make a radical break with the idea that language always functions in one way, always serves the same purpose: to convey thoughts … .

When secularists ask whether you “really” believe, the answer seems obvious, so you don’t check. You don’t meticulously introspect to try to improve your understanding of the phenomenology of your own belief. That’s certainly not what your pastor and your congregation want you to do! They simply want you to say the word ‘Yes’.

What really trips us up–we “secularists, and religious moderates, and scientists”–is not that we can’t imagine that people believe in gods but that we do imagine that people believe in gods. What we can’t imagine is that folks would make strong public statements without first checking that they’re true or at least mean something.

Well, they do mean something–but something entirely different from what we or the speaker would imagine. “I believe that Jesus was the son of God,” for instance, is not a philosophical position. It is not about Jesus, or God, or belief. Though made of words, its function is non-verbal. It is a social gesture, like a smile… a handshake… a badge to pin to your lapel.

“Believers” and “nonbelievers” alike have misunderstood the phenomenology of “religious belief.” It is not a thought, feeling, opinion, intuition, mood, or desire. It does not take place in anyone’s head, but in their circle of acquaintances. Church attendance, Bible study sessions, public confessions and exhortations–even private prayer–these things are not done because people believe; they are what constitute “belief.”

Avowals of “belief” are tokens of mutual affiliation. You say certain words to identify yourself as a member of a group of “believers.” One of the requirements for membership is precisely that you say those words–those special phrases called “beliefs.” The name is misleading, because as propositions they are incoherent and as beliefs they cannot be held. But that does not matter to the group. The requirement is that you pronounce certain special verbal formulas out loud, not that you actually believe them (whatever that would mean).

The whole fabric is woven of public behaviors, not private thoughts.

The unavoidable conclusion everyone is avoiding

In practical ethics it doesn’t matter what you believe in your mind, only what you do out in the world. And this applies with extra force when you don’t believe it, but only say it a lot! The fact that religious “beliefs” are not, as is always claimed, “sincere and profound convictions,” but something more like club-house badges, should change the way we deal with those who claim “religious beliefs” as their motivation.

So, here’s what we should do. When someone says, “I’m building a shelter for snowy owls, because Freyja says I should,” we ignore the second clause and say, “How nice of you.” And when someone says, “I beat my children because Wotan says I should,” we ignore the second clause and say, “Well, it happens that here in California beating your children is illegal and you have to stop immediately.” Georges Rey nicely articulates the consequentialist view:

If you think some particular war is right, or some sexual practice wrong, fine; then provide your reasons for why you think so. But don’t try to intimidate yourself and others with unsupportable, peculiarly medieval claims about how the “Lord of the Universe” approves or disapproves and will punish people accordingly.

To which we can add the observation (tentatively endorsed by Rey himself) that people don’t believe that there is a Lord of the Universe, but only feel obligated to say so.

No matter how many times the claim of divine permission is repeated, it should be ignored. It should be as if the batterer had said, “I beat my children because rivers flow into the sea.” The former does not follow from the latter.

Don’t argue about religion. Refuse to discuss it, not because people won’t pay attention to secularist arguments but because there’s nothing to discuss. Ignore any claims of religious motivation or justification. Pretend you didn’t hear! Bring the conversation back to actions, not beliefs. What are they doing, or planning to do? How much will it cost? Who will it benefit? This would be the real separation of church and state.

Imagine what it would be like if we started responding to religiously-motivated initiatives on a purely consequentialist basis, just totally ignoring the religious rhetoric, every single word of it! Wouldn’t that be great?



A.J. Ayer, Language, truth, and logic. London: V. Gollancz, ltd., 1936

“Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival”. Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA, November 5-7, 2006. Video available at

Richard Dawkins, The God delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006

Daniel Dennett, Breaking the spell: religion as a natural phenomenon. New York: Viking, 2006

Sam Harris, The end of faith: religion, terror, and the future of reason. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005

Georges Rey, “Meta-atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception”, in Martin, R. and Kolak, D., The experience of philosophy, 6th ed., Oxford UP, 2005

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical investigations, 3rd. edition, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2003

[This was written when the “pope” was visiting the “president.” I wasn’t sure how to finish it. Now I’m just going to post it, because, as a famous philosopher once said, “Oh, what the hell.”]

Can any news possibly be less interesting than one evil old man visiting another and lying to us about what the whole thing means? The event would become news only if news-people reported it factually rather than as a clueless and relentless spiel of rote clichés. That would be news. But they do not know how, or they do not want to, or they do not dare. Such is the unspoken, unnoticed, insidious power behind this throroughly fake event. You will speak of this meeting, they are told–no, they know without being told, in the manner that such meetings are allowed to be described, and no other. You will treat us and our doings with unconditional respect, deference, and obedience. For an air of extra authenticity, speak as if you are personally awed by both our Presences, and bravely choose to moderate your adoration to the tones proper to a true journalist. Oh you can be a devout believer and tell the public the truth also. This is the truth–these feelings you have. It’s truer than the regular, newspaper kind of truth, deeper and healthier and longer-lasting and more beautiful. We could–you could do without newspapers, but not without faith. Without faith–without us, you are nothing. We hold the entire key to the sense of your life, to the drama without which it has no meaning, the salt without which it has no savor.

For the “pope” to visit with the “president” means nothing. No, it means less than nothing; it erodes meaning rather than deepening it.

Who is this “pope” who is visiting? A figurehead travels around the world from his palace to visit other figureheads. It makes sense that a man with so much misery to answer for would cross the Atlantic to make a show of solidarity with another man just as evil–that makes sense in a social way, in a “the enemy of my friend is my friend” kind of way. Again, this does not qualify as news. When gangs meet to decide which other gangs to murder next, that is not news. That’s the same as every day, nothing has changed, evil people are still evil. Fuck them. I don’t want to hear about them and their despicable games. That shit sticks to you and affects your mind. When they are picked up and put in jail so that we ordinary people don’t have to be afraid of them anymore, that will be news. Don’t tell me about murderers continuing to murder unless you’re also going to do something about it. I don’t want them to be an the news. They don’t deserve to be famous. They deserve to be utterly unknown and impotent. Don’t let them get a “name,” that’s all they have. Without their notoriety they are nothing, they are slime we can step over so we don’t ruin our Vans. They are nothing. If people could see how small and shriveled and sick they are inside, their best friends would puke.

Oh, yes, I’m talking about you, Mr. “President,” Mr. “Vice-President,” and Ms. “Secretary of State.” May you burn in hell.

And you too, Joseph Alois Ratzinger. Of course, you’re familiar with the “scripture.” You would know just how certain and terrible is your fiery fate, if you believed any of it for a second.

I have to stop ranting and get back to the present point. Who or what is this “pope” who visited the “president”? When the Times reports on the activities of the “pope,” what does this noun refer to?

It’s not the guy–Joe Ratzinger. We don’t know anything about him–what makes him laugh, his family ties and troubles, whether he’d rather look at Cosmo or Playguy. He has been long since erased from the public eye. But that is who is riding in the “pope-mobile.” That’s him: Joe Ratzinger. You can change the name and the clothes and the job description, but you can’t change a person very much.

That’s not who the Times covers. They do not cover Ratso. They are complicit in the Ratso cover-up. To them Ratso is not interesting, Ratso is not news; and I agree with them on this. But at least Ratso exists. This “Benedict” thing is a construct, a figurehead, a cover, a lie from beginning to end. “Benedict” is no more real, or newsworthy, than Aunt Jemima.

There is someone, or something, the press is not covering. There is a man, who lives in a place, who has a job. It’s an important job, in the sense that it seriously affects many other human beings. The guy has a lot of power, and he uses it to benefit his organization, his buddies and colleagues, as opposed to the billions of members who faithfully pay their salaries. This is not even controversial. This is a matter of pure fact to anyone who won’t play the game of Don’t Dare Think That. This man is as evil as they come. And he is real. But he does not appear in the New York Times, just as the real President of the United States does not. The two proud papier-mâché figures appear, who do nothing, mean nothing, and are nothing. They are much safer to write about. You can’t get in much trouble with the real pope or president if you stick to writing about the fake pope and president.

In a recent debate on the motion, “We’d be better off without religion,” Richard Dawkins said (my transcription):

I’ve always found the inspiration [of religion]—’the heavens declare the glory of God’, ‘all things bright and beautiful’, and so on—to be paltry, parochial, small-minded, compared to the inspiration that you can get by looking at the world of science. Deep space; deep time, as the late Carl Sagan showed us; deep complexity in the study of life—the scientific study of these profound, beautiful, elegant mysteries is one of the greatest achievements of the human spirit.

I take issue with this statement. You certainly don’t need religion to see the glory of life on planet Earth and the whole universe around it. But you don’t need “science” either, unless the word refers to just opening your eyes. You only need to open your eyes. Take a look around. Trees. Birds. People. Fruits dripping with juice. The very ground you are standing on. Your own eyes and skin and the love in your heart. Anchor Steam. This place is so improbable, so astonishing, if you look and hear and feel with a decent amount of attention you will be terrified. You don’t need anything. Feel your breath move inside you, adding invisible molecules of oxygen to invisible cells in your blood so you can stay alive. It doesn’t get any more intense, any more real than this. There is no other world, but this one will do. Enjoy it—or at least take a look at it!—during your brief existence here. You will have no other. Pay attention. You don’t need religion, or science, or anything. That you exist is already beyond imagining, and I mean this literally. Just try to imagine that you exist. It makes no sense. It can’t be done. Nor is it necessary, of course. The existing happens by itself, out of nowhere, and back to nowhere. It’s the most peculiar damn thing you ever saw. Science is good; life is beyond good. It is all there is.

And so I listened [to the radio] until I heard that there is a drink of some kind, I think it’s called Pepsi-Cola, for people who think young. So I said, all right, that’s enough. I’ll think about that for a while. First of all, the whole idea is crazy. What is a person who thinks young? I suppose it is a person who likes to do things that young people like to do. Alright, let them think that. This then is a drink for such people. I suppose that the people in the research department of the drink company decide how much lime to put in as follows: “Well, we used to have a drink that was just an ordinary drink, but we have to rearrange it, not for ordinary people but for special people who think young. More sugar.” The whole idea that a drink is especially for people who think young is an absolute absurdity.

Richard P. Feynman. 1998. The meaning of it all [lectures delivered in 1963]. Reading, Mass.: Perseus Books. p. 86-87

Did I mention?–advertising is wrong.

The reason is simple: advertisements are lies. They don’t tell the truth. They are misleading. They do not inform you of the actual qualities of the advertised product. Instead, they tout qualities that the product does not have. And the idea is to convince you, based on qualities the product does not have, to buy the product.

So it’s not just lying, it’s fraud. It’s theft, and I think we ought to be asking ourselves why we put up with it.

My favorite advertising slogan is “Coke adds life.” Sounds like a good thing! Who wouldn’t want some extra “life”? But this life that Coke adds is not well defined. And what could it really be? How does a sweet, carbonated beverage add life to anything? The only things Coke can actually add to my day are

  1. carbon dioxide
  2. a taste in my mouth
  3. sugar
  4. caffeine
  5. a container I have to discard or recycle.

Which of these provides the “life”? Only the caffeine has any possibility of enhancing my physiological state, that’s certain. But you can get caffeine in lots of products. Imagine a new campaign for Pepsi: “By the way, Pepsi adds life too–obviously.” I doubt the Coca-Cola people would be understanding about that.

Or imagine calling them and saying, “I want a refund, because contrary to your claims, I haven’t noticed any extra life in my life as a result of drinking Coke.” Would that be a silly gesture?–and if so, why? Hasn’t the company made this specific claim for this specific product? Is it supposed to be OK with us that the claim is unmotivated and completely false? Is it OK with us that practically all ads are completely false? What does that say about us, that people can lie to us all day long and we’ll still do what they suggest? Shouldn’t we stop trusting them?

When I first took up this topic I was more lenient than I am now. “Of course there are some ads that are not outright lies,” I was thinking. “They do tell you something about the product. Take BMW’s ‘the ultimate driving machine.’ Well, it’s actually true that they are kick-ass cars. Maybe we can forgive them a little exaggeration.”

I now think differently. The cars might be wonderful, but they are not any kind of ultimate. The word does not mean kick-ass, wicked, or fabulous. It means the end–that is, the absolute extreme of whatever scale you’re using. You can’t exaggerate “really good” and get “ultimate,” any more than you can exaggerate “sick” and get “dead,” as in Mark Twain’s famous joke. Therefore, to call BMW’s cars “the ultimate” is not an exaggeration, it is simply not fucking true.

Think about almost any ad you’ve seen. They do not tell the truth. They make promises that cannot ever be fulfilled. They are tricks. Instead of giving you the information you need to make intelligent choices, they try to trick you into choosing their stuff. The most reasonable response to such a maneuver is probably to never buy anything from those scam artists, ever again. They should be held responsible for their lack of scruples.

Advertising is the second most evil industry ever invented. When you think about advertising, if you don’t feel like screaming, you’re not doing it right.