A few words about nonsense

A couple of people have expressed some concerns about my recent post ‘How we know what to rely upon‘. Some queried the placement of different specialties and beliefs in the ‘evidence hierarchy table’.

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In two of these cases, ‘Freudian psychodynamics’ and ‘the serotonin theory of depression’ I removed them. After all the point of the post was to identify how ideas are validated, not to get caught up in debates about ‘what goes where’. That wasn’t my purpose. I may yet reclassify reincarnation for just that reason if the person who promised to send me robust evidence supporting it actually does so. For now, though it remains firmly in the ‘nonsense’ camp, which brings me to the point of this post.

Whenever I use the word ‘nonsense’ people become (in descending order of intensity) ‘outraged’, ‘offended’, ‘irritated’, ‘narked’ or just ‘a bit miffed’. As a general rule I suspect that’s because they haven’t thought through just what the word ‘nonsense’ means.

Normally I wouldn’t dream of basing my arguments upon semantics. It’s usually a quite unwarranted equivocation to argue about the literal meaning of a word as though that somehow influences its perceived meaning in everyday, non-literal conversation. That’s just a kind of linguistic pedantry that blindly favours form over meaning. But in this case I’ll make an exception. That’s because the literal meaning of the word ‘nonsense’ is such an accurate representation of its actual usage, even though most people never stop to think it through.

The word ‘nonsense’ consists of two contributory words:
Non (a negation);
Sense (the 5 mechanisms by which we experience the natural world) OR (reasonable, understandable, coherent, logical).

In everyday conversation people generally use one or the other of these meanings of ‘sense’ but in the rational, empirical world of scientific observation I’d argue that both are needed. In fact, I think they’re mutually dependent.

Empiricism requires observable evidence of the external (not us) world. Evidence of the external world can only be observed through the 5 senses. Therefore in order to have a reason to believe something we need to be able to observe something that our beliefs, hypotheses and explanations can be based upon. If we can’t sense a thing we can’t demonstrate it and if we can’t demonstrate it there’s no reason to believe it. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not true – but we’d be foolish to believe in something we can neither test nor observe.

That’s what the 20th century philosopher, Bertrand Russell was getting at when he claimed that there was a silver teapot orbitting the sun somewhere between the Earth and Mars. For all anyone knows, there might be but we’d be foolish to believe it without at least some observable, empirical evidence (beyond mere anecdote) to support it. And observable, empirical evidence means sensory input.

So – to sum up.
To ‘sense’ something means to observe.
To ‘not sense’ means to not observe.
We would be foolish to believe a claim without some observation, some reason to believe.

‘Nonsense’ then is the unobserved claim that we would do well to reject until and unless some observable, empirical evidence is available.

That’s why I consigned claims like creationism, reincarnation, crystal healing and astrology to the nonsense camp. They lack empirical evidence to support their most basic explanations and we’d be foolish to accept them without it. They are the products of over-active imaginations that are much more concerned with spinning a good yard than with genuine, observable, painstaking, data collection.

You may not agree with my way of approaching the world but at least now, hopefully, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

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