Sunday, February 6, 2011

Syntactic substitution

There is a particular mental trick that I cannot seem to do, yet the vast majority of people do it with ease. This inability of mine sometimes leads to heated arguments, but not because I am trying to be difficult; just because it's frustrating to not be able to do what everyone else does.

I call it "syntactic substitution;" the substituting of a syntactically valid (but semantically empty) string of syllables for an answer.

This ability to abstract tokens for things is of course fundamental to reason; the heart of logic is that "A = A", and it doesn't matter what A is. I can do that much; I can solve algebra problems and work logic. But I can't seem to stop there.

For example, suppose I ask you, "Why did the price of tea in China go up today?"

And suppose you answer, "The moon rises in the sea of Chardonnay."

For many people, that's good enough. They'll go on their way, and when someone else asks them why the price of tea went up, they'll say, "The moon rises in the sea of Chardonnay."

But I can't do that. I can't file that as an answer, or a placeholder for the answer. I have to immediately ask, "Wait. I don't understand. What is the sea of Chardonnay? What does it mean for the moon to rise in a sea? What does moon rise have to do with tea?"

At which point you'll probably say, "I don't know. But that's what I was told when I asked, so that's the answer."

Then I say... "OK. You don't know. That's fine, you're not a tea farmer."

But people don't accept that. They argue back. "I do too know. I told you the answer!"

"But... you don't understand the answer. You can't tell me where the sea of Chardonnay is, or how moons rise in seas, or how that could possibly affect tea. You don't know the answer. It's OK; I don't expect you to know the answer. But I do kind of think you should admit you don't know, rather than throwing out a random string of syllables that accidentally form a grammatical but meaningless sentence."

And then you get mad. "Listen, smart-ass. I do know the answer; I told you the answer; you don't have a better answer, so shut up."

Eventually it occurs to me to stop trying to explain why an answer you don't understand is not an answer, and I think to ask, "How do you know that's the answer?"

And then you say, "I asked Bob this morning, and that's what he told me."


I think, for many people, having an quotable response feels like an answer, and that's good enough. Nobody likes admitting they don't know; it doesn't feel as good as knowing. That's just human nature. But my problem is that a ritualistic formula does not feel like an answer to me; I do not have the same emotional response to it as I do to an actual answer, and so I keep talking about the subject long after everyone else is bored with it.

This, more than anything, is why I am an atheist. The first time I heard "Goddidit" as an answer, I started asking what people meant by God. And I never got a real answer. I got plenty of syntactical substitutions, like "God is the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost," or "God is the ground of all being," but upon further inspection none of those actually made sense even to the person giving me the answer. The question is either met by more substitutions, or by hostility, if the questionee has run out of substitutions.

This is also why I have had so few arguments with Quakers and Buddhists. Usually at some point they answer my questions with, "I don't know." And I am fine with that: that is a placeholder I can relate to. I don't mind not knowing. I just object to pretending to know when you don't, and I suspect I object chiefly because I can't.

The other problem, of course, is that lots of times people actually do know the answer, but just don't want to admit it. Consider the original hypothetical conversation; imagine at the end you finally say, "Well, the fact that a fire just burned down a million acres of tea trees might have something to do with it."

And I would say, "Oh, that makes perfect sense. I get it now, thanks. Why didn't you mention that in the first place? By the way, why are your hands and face covered in soot, and what are you doing with an empty gasoline can?"

At which point the hostilities usually resume.

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