Is Social Media Messing-up Minds?


Rohit Dhankar

Someone twitted saying that there is no proof for existence of Ram. A famous person on the twitter, who usually responds to people with good documentary and archeological evidence on historical issues, names (@Aabhas24) responded: “Does anyone ask father for proof that he is one’s father?” Since it came from a person who usually comes up with evidence; and the proof of existence of Ram was posed as a historical question, it sounded very strange. So, I said (@dhankar_r): “Very illogical response. The history and mythology are two different things. And you, I am sure, know it. There is not enough proof of Rama as a prince, and there CAN BE NO PROOF OF Rama as avataar. As there can be no proof of Mohammad as prophet and Christ as son of God.”

My response soon invited a few very popular fallacious arguments. I have always been very puzzled about (1) how can people accept or rely upon obviously fallacious arguments, and (2) why people don’t understand perfectly simple point made in writing (even spoken), and choose to talk of something which was not contested? This small exchange brough these two things up almost immediately. Therefore, here I am looking at three popular arguments and ways of responding.

If it were not for the two fallacies being way too popular as ‘strong arguments’ for the people who advance them, it would have been shear waste of time to write on them. But unfortunately, they come up too often in conversation with people, especially the believers of all religions, and on social media. What worries me the most is how often young people advance these fallacies as arguments. Therefore, it may serve some useful purpose to point out why they are not only fallacies but also stupid to boot.

One of them is: “There is no proof that your/my great grandfather existed, but we accept that he did”. By this they want to imply that similarly “there is no proof that Rama existed, but like our great grandfathers he also existed”. This is obviously fallacious on several counts. First, mostly there is enough material (in terms of written records and houses build, land records, etc.) evidence of existence of most of great grandfathers. But more solid evidence of existence of our gg-fathers are we ourselves. Creation of humans takes an ovum produced by a human female and a sperm produced by human male. This has incontrovertible scientific evidence. Therefore, there existed a human male who produced the sperm used in fertilizing the ovum which made you or me. This sperm-producing male by definition was/is our biological father. But by the same logic our biological father also required a sperm to have been born. The male who produced the sperm which made our father was his biological father and our grandfather. Similarly, our gg-father’s sperm was partially responsible for production of our grandfather. Thus, the gg-father existed. QED.

Rama has no such proven chain of existing human descendants as our lucky gg-fathers have in us. Proving existence of our gg-fathers is logically a child’s play. But proving that particular individual X (Dayala Ram or Ilmuddin) was our biological gg-father will take considerably more efforts. And to do that one may have to go into DNA testing, which, as far as I understand, would require DNA samples of ourselves, our fathers, their fathers and the individual X. and that might be impossible for many or us. Thus, even if someone claims to be a descendant of Rama today proving Rama his or her biological ancestor would be impossible, as far as I understand. We should remember that legal ancestry does not necessarily imply biological ancestry. No one knows where a bit of infidelity might have crept into the ancestral line.

In the face of such simple logic one wonders how people can advance such stupid arguments and how others can accept or become wordless in facing them? Twitter and Facebook have made this stupidity way too widespread to ignore these days.

The second one is grandly quoted as “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” This clever statement is usually quoted in support of unjustified claims, like “Rama existed”. What is meant in such cases is: Even if there is absence of evidence that ‘Rama exited’, this by itself is no evidence that ‘Rama did not exist’. In some context this may be fair enough. But these people do not notice that there are at the least four logical positions one can take regarding ‘Existence of X” (X can be Rama, Krishna, Christ, and so on). One: X existed. Two, X did not exist. Three, it is undecided at present whether X existed or not. And four, existence of X is undecidable in principle. Thus, quoting this clever sentence in this context proves absolutely nothing.

This fallacious argument appears in other forms as well. For example, when arguing for or against existence of God. If one challenges one’s opponent: “If you think God exists, give some proof (evidence or argument)”. The opponent shoots: “you prove that God does not exist”. This is a recognized logical fallacy called “argument from ignorance” (argumentum ad ignorantiam). It cuts both ways: “since you can not prove something to be false it is true” is fallacious; and so is “since you cannot prove something to be true, it is false”. Copi and Cohen[1] give an interesting example from history of science illustrating this fallacy. When Galileo revealed through his telescope that moon has mountains and valleys; followers of Aristotle rejected the claim as Aristotle taught that moon is a perfect sphere of crystal. They gave an argument that what Galileo’s telescope shows as valleys and mountains are just wrong because the gaps are filled by transparent crystal which the telescope can not detect. Galileo countered their argumentum ad ignorantiam by his own version of the same fallacy, as Copi and Cohen put it: “The moon is not a perfect sphere, he replied, because there are surely crystal mountains—invisible!—rising high from its surface. Because my theological critics cannot prove the claim false, we cannot conclude that such mountains are not there!”. Again, in the contexts like Rama’s existence such arguments prove nothing. Therefore, one must judge reasonableness of a claim on other evidence available.

Another fallacious argument in such cases is “Appeal to Inappropriate Authority” (Argumentum ad Verecundiam). For example, someone sent me link to a video in which former President of India Dr. Abdul Kalam claims that Ramayana story actually happened seven thousand years back, or something of this nature. Copi and Cohen explain this fallacy as: “The argument ad verecundiam is committed when someone argues that a proposition is true because an expert in a given field has said that it is true. This fallacy is predicated upon the feeling of respect that people have for the famous. An expert’s judgment constitutes no conclusive proof; experts disagree, and even when they are in agreement, they may be wrong. However, reference to an authority in an area of competence may carry some weight, but it doesn’t prove a conclusion. Ultimately, even experts need to rely upon empirical evidence and rational inference.”[2]

Yet another problem in such discussions is ambiguity about what is being asserted and what is being denied. To understand this properly a few examples may help. Let’s take three assertions regrading Rama, Mohammad and Christ. First, let’s take the simple claims: (1) Rama existed, (2) Mohammad existed, and (3) Christ existed. There are counterclaims about historicity of Rama and Christ, though historicity of Mohammad as such does not seem to be controversial. One interpretation of these assertions could be simple existence as humans. That is, respectively, Rama existed as a prince and then as a king, Mohammad existed as a businessman and then as founder of a religion, and Christ existed as carpenter’s son and then as the founder of a religion. In principle history can decide these claims. Now suppose that in this sense all three existed in history, and it is proved beyond doubt.

But there could be a second sense of ‘existed’ here. That is, respectively: Rama was an avatar of Vishnu or God incarnate, Mohammad was a prophet of Allah to whom Allah revealed Quran mostly though Gabriel, and Christ was immaculately born son of the God almighty. Proving existence as historical figures of these three does not automatically prove their God-incarnate-hood, prophet-hood and God’s-son-hood. That would require separate justification or proof. To my mind in this second interpretation the existence of all three is in principle undecidable. Simply because existence of an avatar/incarnation, of a prophet and of a son of God is logically dependent on existence of the God or some kind of divinity. But that divinity itself is undecidable because its attributes are contradictory across religions, self-contradictory within each religion and this divinity is often said to be beyond the limited comprehension of human mind. Therefore, the creators of this concept of God themselves have pushed it beyond the pale of human reason. Since the existence of and characteristics of god are undecidable his incarnation, prophethood and son-hood are also undecidable. Most people when question existence of Rama, they question in this second sense; that is, his god-incarnate status.

No evidence from documents, archaeology or astronomy cannot give us any clue about the god-incarnate status of Rama. Even if there are planetary and star configurations in Ramayana that give definite dates of Rama’s birth, marriage, banavaas, war with Revana and so on, that will at the most prove, with some room for doubt, that Rama existed as a prince and kind. They can say nothing about he being an incarnate god. Lists of kings of Ishkuaku dynasty from whatever doubtful puranas will also prove existence of Rama only as a king. That too when adequately corroborated by other evidence. As I said above, there is a possibility that there was a prince and King Rama, who became famous and acquired the aura of God-incarnate. That does not prove the claim of incarnation.

In view of all this, it seems the social media is seriously messing up with the new generations’ mind. Without some learning in logic, critical thinking, and alertness of mind the bombardment of disconnected bits of information, half-truths and deliberate falsehoods certainly overwhelms a new entrant into this fast-moving world. The so-called influencers—people with big following—seem to be mostly unconcerned about truth, logic, and reasonableness. One often wonders if they themselves know anything. Their aim seems to be to push their chosen opinions by hook or by crook. The minimum requirement for survival as one’s own person in this environment seems to be a keen grasp of shades of meaning in language, sharp logic and alertness of mind. And, of course, courage to stand by one’s own judgment in the face of active opposition from all kinds of bigotries.

*******

22nd July 2020

[1] Irving M. Copi, Carl Cohen, Kenneth McMahon, Introduction to Logic (Fourteenth Edition). Pearson Education Limited, Essex, 2014, p.131

[2] Ibid, page 133

4 Responses to Is Social Media Messing-up Minds?

  1. Aparna Joshi says:

    Thank you Sir for writing this blog.
    Why do u blame social media? These kind of fallacies and uncritical acceptance of it has always been there. Would you not hold the people in power responsible as they harps on the ignorance of the gullible.

    Like

    • rdhankar says:

      Well, may be am over emphasizing social media. But fragmentary thinking on twitter and FB, and wanting to collect likes seems to be having a role in this.

      As far as people in power are concerned depends. If you mean people in ‘political power’ or ‘in government’ I don’t think their role is any different or more than people having intellectual/academic respect. In my view BOTH are playing a negative role at this moment.

      Like

  2. Pramod Pathak says:

    रोह‍ित जी, आपने बहुत सादा भाषा और उदाहरणों के जरिए तर्क दोष को समझाया है। इसकी बहुत जरूरत है।

    Like

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