The “No True Poet” Fallacy

The following is an obviously false argument. Can you see the deception?

Angus puts sugar on his porridge.
No true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.
Therefore, Angus is not a true Scotsman.

In courses on logic, there are both formal and informal logical fallacies (see the fallacy files here), and this is an informal fallacy called, “The No True Scotsman” fallacy.   It is also called a ploy because it is a commonly used rhetorical trick — however, it usually only works on believers — it preaches to the choir:

  • no true Christian/Muslim/Buddhist would believe…
  • no true Republican/Socialist/Democrat would …
  • no true American/Russian/Canadian would…

And the list goes on.  Well, today, I want to illustrate how often the “No True Scotsman” ploy is used in the world of poetry.  Interestingly, you rarely hear novelists telling you what or how novelists should write, but you do hear this by poets.  You rarely hear novelists lamenting that people don’t read their type of novels any more, novelists are smart enough to change their styles to find an audience.

I enjoy a variety of poetry so I find it very silly when a poet makes a declarations that “Poetry is [something]” or tries to be a prescriptive proselyte saying “Poetry should be…” or “Poetry should not be..” because these are all variants of “No True Poetry/ Poet should…” — a logical fallacy.

So I searched the web for examples of poets telling us what poetry should be.  Then I grouped them into some of the common types to illustrate the axes-to-grind or ideologies that people use to fuel their poetry prescriptions:

    • Elitisms:  Better than prose writers, non-poets or others
    • Anti-Reason: Some form of anti-reason, anti-rationalism, anti-reductionism, anti-science
    • Idealism: Some form romanticism, mysticism or idealism. Idealize nature, the Absolute, Love, Beauty or some ideal as the true object of poetry.
    • Emotionalism: Reaching into the soul, self discovery, self exposure…
    • Style Prejudice: poetry should rhyme, be terse …
    • Activism:  Some self0righteous activism, declaring their true politics or voice to save society and stir others from their blindness.

Poetry can be anything.  All the above are just fine. But without an audience, it is like a tree falling in the woods.

Elitism

  • However, if a poem can be reduced to a prose sentence, there can’t be much to it.
    [James Schulersource]
  • He who writes prose builds his temple to Fame in rubble; he who writes verses builds it in granite.
    [Edward Bulwer-Lytton]
  • The crown of literature is poetry. It is its end and aim. It is the sublimest activity of the human mind. It is the achievement of beauty and delicacy. The writer of prose can only step aside when the poet passes.
    [W. Somerset Maugham]

Anti-Reason

  • Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.
    [Novalissource]
  • Even when poetry has a meaning, as it usually has, it may be inadvisable to draw it out… Perfect understanding will sometimes almost extinguish pleasure.
    [A.E. Housman, source]
  • Science sees signs; Poetry the thing signified.
    [Augustus and Julius Hare]

Idealism

  • Poetry should… should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.
    [John Keatssource]
  • Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.
    [T.S. Eliotsource]
  • Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth.
    [Samuel Johnsonsource]

Emotionalism

  • All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.
    [Wordsworthsource]
  • If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?
    [Emily Dickensonsource]
  • Poetry is plucking at the heartstrings, and making music with them.
    [Dennis Gaborsource]
  • A poem might be defined as thinking about feelings – about human feelings and frailties.
    [Anne Stevensonsource]
  • Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.
    [Percy Bysshe Shelleysource]

Style Prejudice

  • One merit of poetry few persons will deny: it says more and in fewer words than prose.
    [Voltairesource]
  • One distinction between poetry and prose is that poetry should be memorable.
    [Karin Gustafsonsource]
  • Poets are soldiers that liberate words from the steadfast possession of definition.
    [Eli Khamarovsource] **not epic poems or plain language poetry
  • Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.
    [Edgar Allan Poesource]
  • Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.
    [Rita Dove source]
  • No poem is easily grasped; so why should any reader expect fast results?
    [John Barton,  source]
  • Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.”
    [Rita Dove]
  • I would as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down.”
    [Robert Frost]
  • Poetry, like the moon, does not advertise anything.
    [William Blisset]
  • A poet must never make a statement simply because it is sounds poetically exciting; he must also believe it to be true.
    [W.H. Auden]

Activism

  • … one of the definitions of poetry might be that a poem freshens the world.
  • [Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manuel.  In excerpt here (p6-7), Kooser gives an example of Jared Carter‘s poem: “Fire Burning in a Fifty-Five Gallon Drum” (also at googlebooks .]
  • The aim of the poet and poetry is finally  to be of service, to ply the effort of the individual work into the larger work of the community as a whole.
    [Seamus Heaney, quoted by Ted Kooser in The Poetry Home Repair Manuel.]
  • A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.
    [Salman Rushdiesource]
  • Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
    [Percy Byshe Shelley]

Pleasantly Broad

  • Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks.
    [Plutarchsource]
  • Poetry is a deal of joy and pain and wonder, with a dash of the dictionary.
    [Khalil Gibransource]
  • Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.
    [Carl Sandburgsource]
  • Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.
    [Robert Frostsource]
  • Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.
    [Robert Frost]
  • The poem… is a little myth of man’s capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see — it is, rather, a light by which we may see — and what we see is life.
    (Robert Penn Warren, Saturday Review (22 March 1958), source)
  • Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toenails twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing.
    [Dylan Thomassource]
  • Poetry is the impish attempt to paint the color of the wind.
    [Maxwell Bodenheim]

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I’ll pray for you !

When someone is sick or suffering, if a Christian says privately to them, “I’m praying for you.” or “I’ll pray for you.” I can see how that can be comforting. But saying it out loud in front of others or saying it to a nonbeliever is strange. Worse, is saying it to someone who is not hurting, especially when they say it in front of others, or say it because they mean they are praying for the poor nonbeliever.

This is obvious holiness signaling: “Look how righteous I am.” “Look how holy I am.” “Look how kind and caring I am”.

Such talk makes me think those Christians have never read these supposed sayings of Jesus in Matthew 6: 1 – 7

1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

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Why God Changes

A God Anyone Can Believe In

If someone tells you that “God” was the force, event or power that started the whole universe, then it is very reasonable to say, “Well sure, if that is your definition of your word “god”, then I have to say such a thing may indeed have existed or even still exists. The universe may just be eternal or have a cause, but either way, it is reasonable to be agnostic (not taking a stance on believing or not believing) on that sort of “god”.

Theism’s Spiced Up God

Theist have stories to support a god who acts in history. Their god is usually all-loving, all-powerful, all-merciful and cares for humans (and especially believers) more anyone else. Believers believe praying to this god will not only grant them a better afterlife than others, but also make their own lives better and better for those they pray for.

We have no evidence of such a god, of course, and indeed, we have lots of counter evidence. But this doesn’t stop theists who are told to have faith and not doubt at a fundamental level.

When a Theist God Changes

This post was inspired because I just watched a TED video by Paul Stone Williams who left conservative megachurch as pastor and CEO of church planting organization who then came out as trans and (expectedly) lost everything. She recovered and her preacher son also converted his view on trans individuals, and you can be sure their god changed. Now they would not say that, but instead say they started to more deeply understand god himself. But what happened is that they stayed in the god business (too big of a loss to totally drop out) but tweeked their product — their god  — for a new, receptive market. (see Huffington Post)

Was this a good change? Certainly, and as long as they continue to do good in the world, great!

Bottom line

There is no god like the one theists imagine, and so the only way for that imaginary god to change is for the theist to just imagine up a different god. Theists will say that they have come to understand their god more accurately, but they are only telling you that they have decided to change the fiction in their head.

Caveat #1: That is not to say that imaginary fictions can not make us better people, of course. See my posts on your modular god.

Caveat #2: What people really believe is actually and fortunately very different from what they confess to believe. See my post on “Most Christians Don’t Believe“.

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Wind Chill & Religion

Temperatures are plummeting today in the Northwest USA due a polar vortex, but listening to the news, it is difficult to tell what the actual temperature is.

The actual temperature and the perceived temperature can be very different in any season. For instance, on a blistery summer day, nothing is more cooling than a nice breeze even though the actual temperature is unchanged, mainly because the blowing pulls perspiration off us more quickly, thus cooling our skin.  Air can also seem much hotter than its actual temperature in high humidity.

Similar temperature perceptions can happen in the winter, with low humidity, windy air will steal warmth from your skin much faster than cold still hair. Thus, weather folks have created the “wind chill factor” to describe temperatures as colder than they are — because for the average person, what matters is how uncomfortable or dangerous that temperature may be, given the other factors.

Just as temperatures needs to be evaluated in combination with humidity and wind so as to see the temperature’s real impact on people, a religion should be evaluated in terms of its historical setting, demographics, economics and much more. For instance, there are types of Islam in Turkey and Indonesia that are radically different from those in the Middle East and they all still embrace the same holy book — the Quran. Evaluating Islam in terms of their holy book only is a deep mistake because religion is always in context and its impact differs depending on context.

Christianity and Judaism are the same, evaluating only in terms of their questionable myths and odd beliefs will not tell you about their impact on those who embrace them. Think about the varieties of believers all over the world and over the centuries. This is because religion, like temperatures, needs wind chill factors to help us understand their real impact.

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Myths’ Functions: Fascism & Religion

Introduction

Let’s start with a myth common to both Judaism and Christianity: The Garden of Eden. The garden was an ideal world where everything was perfect until a serpent tempts Eve who then tempts her man to eat a fruit forbidden by God and after their disobedience everything then falls apart.

How do we look at myths? Religious folks fall across a spectrum of belief about their myths: at one end are those who believe that their myths are totally true and probably shouldn’t ever be called “myths” at all, but at the other end are liberal believers of that faith that feel the myths are total fiction but still useful in their faith for inspiration and/or bonding identity.

But as I said, there is a spectrum, with most believers not really thinking about the issue much because they know it serves as inspiration and identity, so they don’t really care about the fiction vs. non-fiction issue.

My belief, of course, is that these are fictional tales. And I actually think that the people who originally told these stories intended them to be fiction and not taken literal but over time, many began to take them as literal.

I am reading “How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them” (2018) by Jason Stanley, Yale Philosophy professor. Stanley has told me something surprising about fascist mythology that I never knew before and which addresses the paragraphs above about religious myths.

Fascist Myths

The definition of ‘Fascism/Fascist” is very controversial as it is certainly a word used almost always with huge political bias. And indeed, as I read Stanley, I can feel that already. But I think we can safely ignore that and still have some of his observations be very helpful for this story.

Stanley contends that

“Fascist politics invokes a pure mythic past tragically destroyed. Depending on how the nation is defined, the mythic past may be religiously pure, racially pure, culturally pure, or all of the above.”

The Garden of Eden myth, like fascist and other political myths, falsely paints their past as pure and better. Americans live with their own myths of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Manifest Destiny and much much more. But this is not the fascinating information — what is fascinating is that apparently some politicians intend their stories to be fictional myths.

Mussolini, in a 1922 speech at the Fascist Congress in Naples said about the political myth he created:

“We have created our myth. The myth is a faith, a passion. It is not necessary for it to be a reality …. Our myth is the nation, our myth is the greatness of the nation! And to this myth, this greatness, which we want to translate into a total reality, we subordinate everything.”

Mussolini confesses that his myth is contrived, intentionally fictional. And it appears that confessions of intentionally fabricating fiction in politics is not as rare as I imagined.

Stanley again tells us:

“The leading Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, editor of the prominent Nazi newspaper the Völkischer Beobachter, writes in 1924, ‘the understanding of the respect for our own mythological past and our own history will form the first condition for more firmly anchoring the coming generation in the soil of Europe’s original homeland.'”

Stanley points out that those originally spinning these myths care not about the factual historical accuracy but instead about how they can serve the future.

Interestingly, Stanley then tells a story how those fascist regimes later insist on the literal truth of their myths and punish those who disbelieve.

Conclusion

Judeo-Christian myths like The Garden of Eden, Abraham, Moses and more are also deliberate fabrication meant as inspiration for the future.  Both politician and religious folks create intentional fictions (myths) which then slowly morphing into doctrinal truths that are not meant to be questioned. The process is universal.

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Sonnet Variants

sonnet check list

Sonnets were first clearly recorded by Lentini in the 1200s — “sonnet” originally simply meant a little sound or a little song. Poets have since, modified his style and called them “sonnets” and the variants are many.  But variations can go so far that eventually a sonnet is not a sonnet.   When learning forms, it is best to define the form so that beginners can discipline themselves with a form.  Free play can then come later.  Above I put what most consider the minimum standards of a sonnet.

Your thoughts are appreciated.

 

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Details vs Principle: Language and Religion

Learning accelerates when, instead of learning detail after detail, we learn the principles that generate the details. With principles, we can anticipate details.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists about 600,000 words, depending how your count. High School students, on average, know about 50,000 words and the average college graduate knows about 70,000. Of the words in English 70% have Greek or Latin roots, while those roots inform >90% of English scientific words. So, the fast way to learn English vocabulary is to group words by their Greek or Latin roots and thus be able to recognize new words without ever actually studying them.

And so with religion. We can spend our time learning all the details of a religions and then religion after religion do the same. Or, we can start understanding the simple principles of human mind and social behavior that generate religions (their theologies, rituals and associations) and no longer need to worry about the far-flung claims of each religion but instead, see how they truly operate.

Thus learning how religions create authority, enforce behavior and form new ones to overthrow the authorities they dislike, will save us from learning too many unnecessary details.

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Sects & Dialects: False Classifications

Dialects are simply languages which aren’t rubber-stamped as being “official” and thus not given artificial power and authority. It is not that the dialects are inferior, corrupt, poorly functional or lacking in other ways to the supposed official language, this is merely a political classification, not linguistic. So, Mandarin Chinese is the official dialect of China, Yue, Min, Hakka are also dialects — and they are all languages. Likewise, what is called English dialects in England such as Yorkshire, Cockney, Kentish and many more are as much as a language as “standard” English of BBC.

We can see the words “cult”, “heresy”, “unorthodox” and “sect” used the same way to minimize other religions. Here again, this is a political classification between religions fighting each other, it is not a religious study definition. They are all religions.

This is part of my series Comparing Language & Religion. See also: The Primitive Bias (where “primitive” is used falsely)

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A Japanese Proverb in my Dreams

A few nights ago I woke three times to the same Japanese saying in my head, “Sen-Yomi-Oni-Yomi“. Because of its persistence, I wrote it down, hoping I could then fall asleep, and I did.

Having lived in Japan for 7 years and graduated from a Japanese College, I still dream in Japanese occasionally, but I always understand the Japanese in my dreams, just as you understand dreams in your native language. Yet I had no idea what that phrase meant in Japanese. I did know, however, that it had the form of a Japanese proverb (kotowaza) and was not a sentence. Specifically, I knew that it was a Japanese 4-character saying, something the Chinese have too. But I had no idea which Chinese/Japanese characters (kanji) were involved. Unlike English and other European languages, the sounds themselves were not enough. Let me explain.

Any given sound in Japanese can have a few to a dozen of meanings associated with it. And each meaning has a different character — a kanji. In English we see this with synonyms like to, too and two have the same sound but different meanings, but these are few in English while in Japanese almost every sound has many possible meanings.

So, when a Japanese person hears an expression they don’t understand, their brain has an internal slot machine which spins characters through their minds eye until they get a combination that works — one that makes sense.

Take, for example the Japanese saying of 一寸先は闇 (issun saki wa yami) which translates as “one inch in front of you is always dark” which implies that we don’t know the future, yet we still walk forward. Or something like that. But, if I were unfamiliar with the saying, my Japanese Kanji Slot Machine may throw up various characters for the each sound. For the sound “I” (top to bottom): “stomach”, “one” or “meaning”. For sound “sun” there would only be one word possible: a Japanese ancient unit of measure of about 1.3 inches. For se sound “saki”, I might see the words “cape” or “before”. For the sound “wa” I might get “peace”, the particle marker called “wa”, or the word “speaking”. Finally for the sound “yami”, either “darkness” or “sickness”. My mind’s character slot machine would spin these until I get an answer to hopefully fit the context.

So above I illustrate the various characters that my mind started spinning for me to match the proverb in my dream: “Sen-Yomi-Oni-Yomi”. At the bottom right of that diagram, I chose a saying which these characters could make.

Question to readers: Do you prefer a different reading? What do think this was a message my dreams where sending to me?

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My Boy’s Raccoon Experience

My son was 3 years old. We were on a short walk back from visiting the river when we noticed a dead raccoon at the side of the road. Seeing it, my son asked, “Papa, what is that”? It was my son’s first encounter with death. I was a nervous about how I was going to handle it. “That is a dead raccoon, honey,” I replied. He asked if we could walk over and see it. “How’d he die, Papa?” my son asked with an innocent, sad voice and big expectant eyes. Without my thoughts collected, I thought I’d use that moment for a moral lesson. Duh. “Well, the raccoon did not listen to his father. Father raccoon always told him to hold his hand when crossing a street. He didn’t this time and got hit by a car.”

Staring at the dead roadkill raccoon with big eyes, my son then said, “Papa, can I ask you a question?” And I thought, here it comes, the life-after-death issue. I could tell by looking at his eyes that my dear little boy, my first-born child, was going to ask me a deep question. “Sure, son. What is it?” I replied expectantly. My son paused, then asked with hesitation, “May I jump on it.” Relieved of not needed to have a heavy talk, I nonethess inappropriately I let him jump.

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