Too big to believe

Sorry about not writing anything for ten thousand years. I started writing a book. I'm not very good at it.

Apropos of nothing, the other day it occurred to me, as I am sure it has occurred to many other people, that there's a parallel concept to the Big Lie.

A Big Lie is a lie so audacious that people can't believe you're not telling the truth. If nobody can believe that you would just make up reasons to exterminate a significant percentage of the population of Europe, or found a religion entirely upon stuff you pulled out of your arse, or throw trillions of dollars down the toilet in the pursuit of imaginary terrorists, then you can be successful in such ventures.

(Hitler of course said the Big Liars were in fact the Jews, who he went on to explain were to be expected to lie about everything all the time. This would make it a little odd that anybody believed their lies, regardless of size, but never mind. Water under the bridge, old chap. Some credit is deserved for anybody whose own Big Lie is an accusation that someone else has told a Big Lie.)

What occurred to me the other day is that there's a converse to the Big Lie: The Big Truth.

A Big Truth is a truthful statement with such vast and terrifying implications that people refuse to believe it.

There's a term for the logical fallacy of disbelieving something because its implications are unpalatable, the "argument from adverse consequences" or just "appeal to consequences". "God must exist, because if he doesn't then I will not be able to live forever." A Big Truth is a very large and shiny example of this fallacy. (And, as for believing a Big Lie, it's not necessary that everybody disbelieve a Big Truth, only that people disbelieve it purely because of the largeness of the disturbance to their world that would occur if they believed it.)

A few Big Truths that spring to mind:

Illegal drugs are less harmful than legal ones.

The consequences of a lifelong addiction to clean heroin, in and of itself, are: Constipation. You're also better off getting your stimulation from amphetamines instead of caffeine. Arguments against this are generally of the form "if you take way too much of that drug and don't eat right and never get any exercise then you'll be very ill", which can of course be said of alcohol, tobacco and even caffeine. (And sugar, for that matter, though it's not a drug.)

Many leaders of the free world are by their own admission guilty of crimes for which the punishment is death.

The first and worse of all war crimes is the crime against peace, the starting of a war of aggression, because that's the one that makes all of the other war crimes possible. (Inevitable, even, because there's never been a war of any size in which some combatants didn't take the chance to have some war-crimey fun.)

Lying about your enemy and saying they are lunatics who attack their own people and have terrible weapons pointed at us and really it's them that are starting the war et cetera does not get you off the hook, because that's how everybody starts a war of aggression in a "free" society. But everybody knows Dubya and Cheney and Rumsfeld and their minor lickspittle Blair and extremely minor lickspittle Howard will never see the inside of a courtroom over this.

Climate change is happening, even if there are leaflets and novels with the author name bigger than the title that say it isn't.

Oh, and gods do not exist.

What Big Truths can you think of, readers?

36 Responses to “Too big to believe”

  1. Joseph Says:

    I knew that continuing to check your blog daily since September would eventually pay off.

    I can see another Big Truth driving people to believe in the "fate" class of absurdities, such as "everything happens for a reason" or "there's somebody for everybody". The fact that great or horrific things happen out of nothing more than the metaphorical roll of the dice and the (unlikely?) possibility that you'll never meet somebody you'd want to spend your life with are both pretty daunting truths if you really think about them. This one probably ties into the last one you listed, to an extent.

    I do find that the whole concept of a Big Truth has a pleasantly Lovecraftian ring to it.

  2. El Mariachi Says:

    We are not only living in a vast computer simulation, we are products of it. There is no “real us” floating in pods of goop with wires stuck in our brains.

  3. farnz Says:

    Money doesn't need to have any value other than that we all agree to; there isn't a massive stock of something valuable hidden by the government that makes your bank account contents worth something, they're just valuable because enough of us agree on the value of AU$1, and agree that AU$1,000 is worth 1,000 times the value of AU$1.

  4. Anne Says:

    How about "other mammals feel emotion much the same way we do"? Most of us, myself included, try not to think about this while we are eating or hamburgers.

  5. bitwrench Says:

    "Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose."

    - Rorschach

    Good luck with your book.

  6. Max Says:

    Welcome back, you've been missed. A lot. Like, badly. Oh, and on the topic: "Thermodynamics actually works therefore perpetual machines are impossible". Come on, obvious rubbish, that's what they WANT you to think. I clearly just need better magnets...!

  7. Gridlock Says:

    Humanity is too dumb to survive.

  8. ix Says:

    Amphetamines are safer than caffeine? I had no idea. Wikipedia claim they can cause heart and liver failure, I though caffeine was in general more innocuous? Or is that just because we generally take it in smaller quantitities?

    • Kernelpanic Says:

      Have a look at the wikipedia article on caffine. There is an entire page dedicated to health affects. (writes the person who loves good coffee.)

      tldr: too much of anything is bad for you.

      • ix Says:

        Okay but most of that looks a lot less scary than "heart might stop", "liver may shut down". Most of the health effects listed are even positive. (I love a good cup of coffee, but I am aware that I sometimes overuse it)

        • ECMO Says:

          One can easily cause complete cardiovascular collapse and multi-organ system failure with enough caffeine.
          Check out this case report -

          - however, this suicidal woman took about the equivalent of about 500 cups of coffee.

          For amphetamine, this sort of massive organ damage would not require 500 multiples of the effective dose - rather, perhaps 5 or 7 multiples. The chief distinction is the tendency of amphetamines to produce fatal arrhythmia, killing the unfortunate party animal before they can experience any of the more interesting organ system effects.

          As far the safety of chronic use... Who can really say. A carefully supervised person can take just about any sort of dangerous substance safely- just look at any cancer chemotherapy agent. Many kids out there on methylphenidate and dexamphetamine don't seem to be suffering from the sort of chronic toxicity we normally associate with hardcore meth heads, but then they are consuming a very pure drugs, under carefully controlled conditions, and without dose escalation. So perhaps Dan is right! I look forward to the NEJM publication "D.Rutter et al., "A multicentre randomised controlled trial of caffeine and methamphetamine in a population of busy commuters"

          • Malcolm Says:

            I'd suggest the ratio between therapeutic and fatal dose for dexamphetamine is greater than 5-7 (after all people using "diet pills" in the 1960s weren't dropping like flies).

            From the Australian Therapeutic Goods Adminstration (TGA, our equivalent of the FDA) approved product information for dexamphetamine

            [Narcolepsy] The usual daily dose ranges from 5 to 60 mg (given in divided doses)
            Individual response to amphetamines varies widely. While toxic symptoms occasionally occur as an idiosyncrasy at dosages as low as 2 mg, they are uncommon with doses of less than 15 mg. Dosages of 30 mg can produce severe reactions, yet doses of 400 mg to 500 mg are not necessarily fatal."

  9. Nathan Says:

    "I'm writing a book"

  10. Jambe Says:

    Broad categories of psychological and perceptual studies surely qualify as Big Truths. Those which reveal how pervasive cognitive biases are, how unreliable (and indeed manipulable) memories and perception are, etc. All those efforts which provide more granular understanding of the neural basis of perception.

    Tangential discursion to follow (mindfarts):

    We like to think we're In Control because it makes dealing with randomness easier, but as a matter of experience, consciousness and sensation are just there and we're always experiencing them, never willing them into existence.

    Judeo-Christian heritage makes people worry when such things are posited, i.e. when it's suggested that soulstuff isn't a necessary or even coherent idea. Also, many irreligious people are strongly individualistic, and I find they often bristle at physicalism because it's so clearly tied up by entropy (it makes them feel less like Creators In Control and more like measly Fated Rearrangers).

    I don't mind much. I don't think we're fated in a deterministic sense, but I likewise don't think chaos and quantum randomness give rise to magical "free" wills. I think whatever "we" are is as entropic as anything else in the universe. We might be fated in that sense, but it's no cause for fatalism.

    Two things come to mind here: the first is Heinlein's shitty quip about armed societies being polite societies, and the second is the ubiquitous claim that people wouldn't be good without a god to represent and/or define goodness. One immediately wants to ask: what if your arms/faith disappeared? Would you devolve into murderous barbarity?

    I think the same applies to aversion to physicalism. What does one lose by giving up the ghost (or the dualism, as it were)? afaict, nothing. It's said that such a view reduces us to mere machinery, to cogs in a heartless cosmic contraption. But fatalism is silly when given even cursory thought; love is still worthwhile even if it's "just" a complex physical phenomenon, and hate is still worth minimizing, and so on.

    Also note: these reactions to a physicalist (or at least methodologically naturalist) conception of reality may be different outside the USA (where I'm from). Here, many people are quite far up their own butts in a frightening Randian / individualist / libertarian sort of way (so much so that poor and lower-middle-class people often advocate for flat taxes). That mentality doesn't mesh well with the socialist "we're all connected" vibes one gets from thinking about systemic interdependence.

  11. hagmanti Says:

    So, the $75 (US) I just sent you is for a signed first-edition copy of your first book. If that's not enough, I'm open to negotiation. I assume the price will go up for the second book, but I wanted to get in on the ground floor.


  12. Kernelpanic Says:

    The Big Truth that keeps me awake at night is the infinte size of the universe. Specifically the collerary that we are insignificant.

    c.f. Douglas Adams' Total Perspective Vortex.

  13. verstapp Says:

    Peak oil.
    Also, 'too big to fail'.
    I only check once a week but i think its good to have you back too.

  14. patrickhenry2nd Says:

    "Global Warming (errrr I mean climate change) isn't happening".

    That's the big truth. Too many people have such a commitment to it, some financially, some ideologically. They point to "consensus" which isn't science. Now that that the evidence is showing that its not happening (no warming in 18 years), they have such difficulty admitting the evidence, much less admitting they were wrong. They can't admit the models were so wrong that they didn't predict the "pause". But some are slowly getting there. In another ten years, the climate change faithers (its not science its a faith), will be discredited. Of course, we may be going into another mini Ice Age, which would be bad. But at least science wins.

    • Jonathan Says:

      The Olympics are done. People are sick of the drug cheats. Interest in the Summer Olympics has been falling for 2 years.

      Bless you 1989.

    • Synthetase Says:

      It's been called 'climate change' in the scientific literature since the 80s. Get with it. On the subject of keeping up with the scientific literature, there was a good article in Nature a little while ago where improved modelling of the South Pacific El Nino/ La Nina oscillation has predicted the current pause. The short answer is that the additional heat energy is being stored in the ocean, rather than the atmosphere which is what everyone is really interested in measuring. When the oscillation flips back, large amounts of heat will be given back to the atmosphere, which ought to bring about similar conditions to the very high temperatures of 1998 (which, incidentally, was 16, not 18 years ago).

  15. Chazzozz Says:

    Welcome back to the land of....wherever we are.

    My sister and her partner are visiting Katoomba right now and I told them to keep an eye out for you, just to see if you're still alive. So, if you're accosted by two Canadians enquiring about your welfare it's perfectly harmless. Big Truth?

    ...that this couldn't possibly be the only lump of rock in the entire universe capable of sustaining intelligent life. Heck, there's bound to be many more on the order of magnitudes that support life of all types, so the odds are surely pretty good some life is bound to be intelligent. No doubt there are a few that are more intelligent than us humans.

    P.S. since you're back does that mean you'll answer emails again? Or is your service provider still blocking messages from large swathes of the Internet?

  16. Popup Says:

    Welcome back! We've missed you!

    Anyhow - my 'Big Truth':
    - We don't exist before we're born.
    - We live for a short while.
    - And then we don't exist any more.

    Some people think that this is pessimistic, but I think that it ought to make us appreciate our short existence all the more.

  17. Popup Says:

    And another one:

    - 'Natural' != 'Good'.

    Strychnine is natural and eyeglasses are artificial. A pinch of the former would kill me, while without the latter I'd be unable to live a normal life.

  18. ysu Says:

    Good to see you're back! I was starting to lose faith of your coming back. :)

    How about:
    - luck is the only thing you need for success in life -

    I've no evidence of it being "a big truth" of course :)
    But there are many examples (either way) that simple turns of luck can make or break someone's career (or even life). Also it's something many deny, saying that you need good education, you need to work hard, etc, otherwise you'll be nothing. Yet so many powerful business owners exist without any serious education, just as one example.

    • Max Says:

      Oh, that one's a pet peeve of mine. I prefer to put it slightly differently: "determination and skill alone without significant luck are not enough for success". And I'm not necessarily talking about constant bad luck here - I'm just saying that lots and lost of people never ever get to "be in the right place at the right time" even once in their lives, a condition I assert is absolutely indispensable for achieving anything particularly notable.

      Most of those that do succeed apparently love to downplay the importance of the lucky chances they had, but fail to provide any proof that anybody else would have had any way of getting where they did simply by demonstrating equal qualities. Admittedly, those qualities might well have been required - but they are nowhere near sufficient.

      Equal opportunity is a myth - at best, it means no-one gets purposefully hindered. In real life there's no such thing, for anybody, for any purpose, ever. And those saying "if I can do it anyone can" can go straight to hell. (/rant mode off - sorry...)

      • TwoHedWlf Says:

        Probably "If I can do it, Anyone can" is probably pretty accurate(Though overstating), there are probably thousands of people that could have joined the military, flown some planes, applied for a few transfers did some training and ended up walking on the moon doing as good or better than Buzz Aldrin.

      • ysu Says:

        Thanks for that, it's a good way to put it.

        Altho it disregards the (probably)millions of worthless pricks in very comfy positions. :)

  19. Fallingwater Says:

    You're... you're writing a book? Did I read that right?

    OH GOD I MUST HAVE IT. Where do I buy it?

    Oh right, and what's it about? (But really, there are few topics you could write about that I wouldn't feel compelled to read.)

    My Big Truth:

    We are too many.

    Way way WAY too many. Even with technology helping, our world cannot sustainably support so many of us.

    As a race, there are two ways out of our current various planetary crises. In one, we stop reproducing so much. This will have to happen by force, because way too many people either don't recognize the problem, or they see it but only acknowledge it - and the regrettably necessary solution - as long as it doesn't touch their deity-given right to procreate. At some point someone will have to come up with some sort of regulation - to be enforced on everyone - to limit our procreation. I've no idea what this will entail exactly (randomized mandatory sterilization of the majority of humanity?), and yes, it's ghastly and straight out of a totalitarian-dystopian tale, but if we cannot control our reproduction rate we will die out. Either we will exhaust the resources of the planet and die slowly as we can no longer sustain ourselves, or - much more likely - as resources dwindle we will start wars to grab whatever's left that will escalate to nuclear and wipe us out.

  20. Synthetase Says:

    Welcome back, Dan!

    Since nobody's mentioned it yet, the argument from consequences I instantly thought of was evolution. Specifically bullshit statements like "if we teach children they're animals, they'll behave like animals". The idea that if we arose denovo out of dead matter meaning there's no moral law giver seems to freak people out a lot.

  21. matt Says:

    >A Big Truth is a truthful statement with such vast and terrifying implications that people refuse to believe it.

    >Oh, and gods do not exist.

    My Big Truth: You have no way of knowing that.

  22. karonar Says:

    I realise this post is (chronologically, at least - it's still on the first page) ancient, but it's a Sunday evening and I'm half way through a glass of Laphroaig.

    It occurs to me that some of the posited Big Truths have the characteristic that lots of people don't just disbelieve it: they fervently believe the opposite to be a Big Truth. I refer particularly to the comments on climate change and also (obviously) the existence or otherwise of any particular number of deities.

    Is this a plausible way to distinguish a Big Truth from just the plain old regular Truth? Obviously, faced with two opposing statements, one still has to determine which one is actually true, but there's nothing new there.

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