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Garbage Masquerading As Truth

 Andrew McArthur blogging @ Atheist Republic mistrusts absolutes.

There are many, many things about which I know little, or absolutely nothing at all. I don't see this as a flaw. In life, we have to make choices. Most of us have jobs, families, friends. We have “to do” lists, and commitments that never seem to end, and there are never enough hours in the day. Most times, by day’s end however, I like to think I may be a little less ignorant than I was when the sun first shone over the horizon. Still, there are many more things I don't know, than things I do, and I suspect it shall ever be thus. My awareness of the limits of my knowledge exists as a tool to help me explore those limits. Nothing crowds out learning like certainty.

In contrast, believers seem to require absolutes in their lives. Indeed, three of the most terrifying words to a believer are: 

“I don’t know”.

A new paradigm for learning

Times have changed from when I was in school; the way we store and access information now has engendered a new paradigm for learning. The late Sir Terry Pratchett coined the term “extelligence” as a label for all the external sources of information society has available to it.

Until recently, libraries were the best example of extelligence. Packed with a wealth of information to be sure, they were cumbersome in terms of accessibility and had a range limited to those willing to do the work to gain access. For a long time knowledge beyond the level required to navigate our daily lives was viewed alternately as forbidden or evil, or more recently as simply arcane.

Now that we (most of us in what we like to refer to as “The Developed Countries”), have smart phones and other types of portable thinking machines, all connected to each other and to the web, the answer to almost any question is only a Google away.

Most of our collective “extelligence” now resides in the ether. Now we can all be “smart” without the necessity of carrying around a cornucopia of minutiae in our limited capacity brains. And perhaps that is part of the problem. With access to such a vast wealth of information literally at our fingertips, facts themselves have become secondary to many a pseudo-intellectual position. You can indeed find almost anything on the web, but it's important to remember that most of what you will find has a negative relationship with reality (that’s a polite way of saying it’s garbage.) 

The weakness of absolute conviction 

One sector traditionally on the ‘anti’ side of any access-to-information debate comprises the “elite” groups which have power over our lives. Governments, Religion, the recently popularized one per cent. People who understand that knowledge is power have a vested interest in maintaining strict controls over its accessibility. No single group however, holds a candle to religion in this category.

Religions have been lying to people for millennia. From the various creation myths, gods and prophets, to dogmatic strictures on behaviour, and to what sort of people are acceptable. Who’s a heathen, and who ain't. You can probably see how the Information Age presents challenges for those who seek to exercise control through ignorance. But have no fear, the armies of various gods are marching across the Internet and back! At the drop of a hat, they will provide you with such a wealth of disinformation and fabrications that - should you actually take heed - will drag you back into the morass of ignorance faster than you can nail a skinny guy to a tree (it’s Easter, I had to throw that in!).

So now we have a war. A bloodless war for the most part, but a war nonetheless. The sides are clearly demarcated: those who represent the status quo and cling to outdated ideas and mythology, arrayed against those of us who imagine a better world; those who salivate in anticipation of The End with its assumed afterlife, and those of us who understand this life to be all we have. Those who believe themselves to be helpless in the face of an all-knowing, all-seeing god figure, and those of us who realize that most often, a shadow in the dusk is simply that, a shadow.

I was recently involved in yet another mindless debate with a couple of representatives of the anti-intelligence league. They seemed inordinately pleased when I responded to a question concerning the origin of life on Earth, with “I don't know.” This pair of intellectual giants guffawed uncontrollably over my admission of ignorance, “Hee hee!” (literally). They seemed to view my uncertainty as to the origin of life - something I share with anyone who claims to be speaking the truth on the matter - as a victory for their team. Being Creationists, they of course know with absolute unshakeable conviction that life was created by an invisible man who lives in the sky, for the express purpose of adoring and worshipping said invisible man.

How did they acquire such certainty when the best minds on our planet have yet to provide an answer? Why, they read it in their big book of everything that's true, proving conclusively that you don't actually need an Internet connection to access garbage masquerading as truth.

Andrew McArthur is an Atheist Republic blogger and newsletter contributor.

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Anthony McIntyre

Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher

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