For the Body, For the Hate


I know it’s been a while since the last essay.  I do apologize for keeping you all waiting, but I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know I’ve been spending that time in the most productive way possible:  namely, repeatedly e-mailing my ex to ask for endless clarifications about the reasons why she broke up with me until she finally called me the most pathetic person she has ever met in her life, said the weakness I continually insist on displaying makes her too disgusted to have any respect for me, and refused to answer any more of my e-mails. 

So, mission accomplished there.

What’s odd is that for the past several weeks I’ve been dating a lingerie model with a graduate degree in neuroscience who says she loves me more than anyone else she’s ever known and brings me to secret high-class orgies in Midtown high-rises that require passwords and have people who speak German and everything.  This seems incompatible with the prior assessment of my market value on more than a few levels.  Naturally, I have resolved the discrepancy by deciding that the lingerie-model neuroscientist is completely out of her mind.

Why didn’t I decide that the woman who left me six months ago is out of her mind?  She can’t be.  She said I was a pathetic loser — and that’s the right answer, right?

god thinks
Even her cat agrees.

It is apparently a deep-seated facet of my psyche (whether this is changeable or not is a separate question, but currently it is) that if I have one woman telling me I'm the greatest guy she's ever met and another woman telling me that I am the most repellant loser she's ever met, I will believe the woman who's telling me I’m a loser and assume that there is something wrong with the woman telling me that I’m great.  This is, I suppose, arbitrary, since neither woman can marshal a superior amount of evidence.  It is essentially a toss-up which one of them is right, but something is causing me to believe the one who says I’m a loser. 

(Technically, I suppose, it could be the case that one woman has only ever met other men who are so terrible that I really am better than all of them, and that the other woman has only ever met men who are so awesome that I really am worse than all of them, but this seems so statistically improbable that we should probably discount it as a viable competing theory.) 

Whether it is accurate to say that I am "choosing" to believe that woman is a complex question — certainly, I am not consciously experiencing the process of making this choice (what it feels like to me is that the one saying I am a loser is just “obviously right,” in the same way that water is just “obviously” wet), but if it would be possible for me to think differently as the result of training myself to do so, then I suppose it is a “choice by omission,” in the same sense that an out-of-shape person is “choosing” to be out of shape by choosing not to exercise.   

I've always maintained that it's better to believe something true than something false; that you can’t believe something just because it makes you feel better.  Religious people (and all sorts of other illogical types) do this, and I am against it.  I don’t just think it’s dumb — I think it’s dangerous.  Believing something just because it makes you feel better about yourself is what dangerous bigots do.  Like Voltaire said, if they can make you believe absurdities, they can make you commit atrocities.  I swore long ago never to believe something in the absence of sound evidence just because it made me feel better.

Well, it sounds cooler to say I "swore," as though I were kneeling before my parents' graves with a sword or something, but really I just sort of started thinking that way at no identifiable time for no particular reason.

My parents are both perfectly fine.  Thanks for asking.

I hardly think any reasonable person will deny that the vast majority of common false beliefs tend to make the people who believe them feel better.  If they didn't, then they would not be so common, since — unlike true beliefs — they could not have spread due to supporting evidence.  Most of the examples that spring to mind, from the belief in an afterlife to the belief that your kid keeps bombing standardized tests because he’s too smart, are beliefs about the world external to the believer, because those are the kinds of beliefs people discuss publicly.  It seems, then, a fair bet that most people also have a goodly amount of comforting false beliefs about themselves, even if we hear about those far less often.

In other words, you don’t need to be stupid to be confident, but it sure helps.

Only something doesn’t add up.  This all makes perfect sense in terms of a person who sucks but mistakenly thinks he’s awesome — a false belief, and one which he is able to have as a result of being stupid.  But what about me?  I am a person who is awesome but mistakenly thinks he sucks — an equally false belief that I somehow have despite being smart.

Or, quite possibly, as a result of being smart.  Stick with me here.

I and others have suggested that religious faith is pernicious not simply on the grounds of the ills caused by religious beliefs themselves, but on the grounds that religious training conditions people to react inaccurately in all situations, not simply ones directly related to their religion (in the same way that a computer virus screws up everything on your computer, not just the program with the corrupted file).  Religious people are overwhelmingly more likely to conclude based on absolutely nothing that something they don’t want to be true simply can’t be true — global warming, for example. 

What never occurred to me was that the reverse might well also be at play:  that rationalist atheism conditions you to adopt as your “default setting” the more difficult or more depressing belief.  Naturally, this is an independent concern from whether atheism is factually true.  Despite what Christians say, the happiness of fundamentalists does not prove the existence of God, any more than the happiness of racists proves racism.

If I am on to something here, then we have a hell of a paradox on our hands:  namely, a situation where believing one big important true thing causes you to also believe any number of lesser false things.  If this is the case, then my vow to believe true things becomes impossible to apply, like the method of execution in that “You will boil me in oil” riddle.

Most people would agree with the statement “It is impossible for any individual to be right about everything” — but for a reason other than the one I now have in mind.  Most of us have probably assumed that this was true because it is impossible for any one person to be that smart; in other words, we saw it as a statement about the limits of human ability.  But it actually might be a statement about the way that beliefs themselves interact with one another in the mind:  there might be a way in which being right about Thing X automatically causes you subsequently to be wrong about Thing Y (or, at the very least, substantially raises the odds that you will be).

At this point, there’s a risk that a religion-defender will jump in and suggest that, regardless of the truth value of the statement “God exists,” religion is good if belief in God causes you to be right about a greater number of other things than atheism does, so before anything else I have to nip that loophole in the bud by pointing out that the track record of religion (geocentrism, witch trials, creationism, anti-gay lunacy, anti-condom lunacy, etc.) establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that this cannot possibly be the case.

And as long as I’m nipping loopholes in the bud, if you’d like me to get a sacred cow down to brass tacks or mix any other metaphors, just drop me a buzz on the web.

Now, the definition of “loser” is vague and up for debate, of course.  But so is the definition of “God.”  As you may remember from previous essays, I have addressed this with reference to “God” by choosing to identify myself as a Theological Noncognitivist rather than an Atheist — i.e., as someone who answers the question “Do you believe in God?” by saying “The term ‘God’ is meaningless until such time as someone defines it, so go ahead and define it,” rather than “No, I do not.”  So, should I do the same thing with reference to the term “loser?”  That is, dismiss the debate itself on the grounds that the key term is nonsense, and thereby remove the question as a factor around which I am ordering my life in one way or another?  It may seem like this is a good idea, and the philosophically sound thing to do.  There's only one problem.

The problem is, that's just what a loser would say.

Saying “there is no such thing as a loser” is clearly a cop-out.  Granted, there is no such thing as a loser objectively, but there are plenty of pretty important concepts that don't have objective meaning either — human life, for example.  Religious people always try to argue that if there is no God then life is meaningless, but no it's not, because it has meaning to us, and if something has meaning to us then it has meaning period, because there is no way for us to access meanings that reside somewhere other than the human mind (obviously).  And the term “loser” clearly has meaning to us.  It didn't exist as a concept in all cultures at all times, but so what?  Neither did the term “rock star,” and yet the term “rock star” clearly means something.

Well, it used to, anyway.

Similarly, we cannot do away with the term “loser” merely on the grounds that people occasionally disagree about who is or is not one.  This would be making the same error (or lie, in the cases of those who know it is wrong but argue it anyway) that feminists make when they try to argue that physical attractiveness is a null concept just because people sometimes disagree about what is physically attractive.  Even though people often differ on the finer points, there clearly is still such a thing as physical attractiveness.  And there is also such a thing as losers.

Invariably, someone will suggest that whether you are a loser is a simple matter of whether you think you are a loser:  if you think you’re cool, then you’re cool, and if you think you’re not, then you’re not.  And this is an argument that I have never been able to sign off on, for reasons that I now feel were inextricably wrapped up in my opposition to religious faith.

This is why I always misunderstood people’s advice to just stop believing I was a loser:  I thought they meant that I should stop believing I was a loser even though I really am one, just because it would make me feel better.  And I couldn’t do that, because if I did that then I would be no better than a religious person.  I thought the people giving me this advice were saying “Hey, whatever, who cares what’s true?” — an attitude I find deeply offensive.  In order to honorably stop believing that I was a loser, I would have to stop being one first, and be able to prove it.

So, this begs the question of which condition is the presence and which the absence:  are you a loser in the absence of evidence that you are a winner, or are you a winner in the absence of evidence that you are a loser?  In other words, which one is the Teapot, loserdom or winnerdom?  I always just naturally assumed winnerdom was the Teapot — evidently because it’s more depressing that way.

You might be thinking that all this “insufficient evidence” stuff is merely an excuse, and that I’m just a wuss who can’t assert himself.  But that isn’t the case.  I remember the day I went to the Museum with my ex:  I had a panic attack on the train because I thought these two lesbians were mad at me for being muscular, but then inside the Museum I overheard a woman saying she didn’t believe in evolution and immediately bolted over to argue with her, even though she was pretty and her boyfriend was twice my size.  I have no problem at all being downright psychotically aggressive when the matter at hand is an external issue where the evidence is on my side.  Hell, I once waited outside a bookstore for two hours to fight this one guy when he got out of work because he said the Beatles sucked.  I can stand up for myself about everything but myself.

I knew for weeks leading up to it that the woman who left me last summer was going to leave me if I didn’t stop thinking I was a loser, but there was nothing I could do — the principle of the thing was too important.  She tried many times to convince me that I wasn’t one, but I was always able to out-argue her.  Eventually, she just stopped trying.

empty chair

It was very tempting to believe that whether you are a loser is a simple matter of whether you believe yourself to be one — but I could prove it wasn’t.  For example, let’s say there is a fat virgin who hangs out at Renaissance Fairs in costume and communicates exclusively in Monty Python quotes, but believes that he is the coolest guy alive.  Does this mean he’s not a loser?  Of course not.  He is still incontrovertibly a loser, and a rather huge one at that.  Therefore, whether you are a loser is true or false independently of whether you believe yourself to be one.  QED. 

Or not.

I’m so used to saying Just because you believe something, that doesn’t make it true (to religious people, feminists, etc.) that it never occurred to me there might be some situations where the fact that you believe something does in fact make it true, or at least contributes to making it true.  The statement at the beginning of this paragraph would more accurately be expressed as Just because you believe something, that doesn’t always make it true.  I have spent so much time arguing with people in situations where this principle applies that I never realized there could be situations where it doesn’t.

My approach to the question of whether I am a loser has always been to search for evidence that I am not a loser and, if unable to find it, revert to the assumption that I am one.  The evidence for whether or not someone was a loser had always been external growing up, so why would I assume that it would be internal now?  In grade school, it was objectively true that I sucked at sports, that I did not own the right kind of sneakers, that my mom cut my hair, etc.  All of these things were beyond my control and true irrespective of whether I believed them to be.  (What you think of yourself is also a factor to some extent in grade school, but it’s not as important as a laundry list of various other totems.)

And the example I always used — the fat Ren Fair dork who thinks he’s awesome but obviously isn’t — seemed to confirm that this is still how it works, even after you get out of school.  The problem was, I didn’t know what the things on the laundry list were anymore.  In school, I didn’t have any of the things on the list, but at least I knew what was on it.  As an adult, aside from being decent-looking and having a job (on both of which I pass muster), the rest is a mystery — but there clearly still is a “rest.”  And the rest can’t be purely psychological, because the Ren Fair dork with inexplicably high self-esteem proves it isn’t.


Only very recently have I figured out my error:  namely, the Fallacy of the Ideal Example.  I thought up a hypothetical guy who was still a loser despite thinking he was not one — but only because he possessed every single criminally dorky trait imaginable.  Whether it is even possible in real life for such a person to be unaware that he is a loser is very much an open question.  My example was so insane that it was actually an example not of a rule, but of an exception to that rule.  I made the same error as a right-winger who argues that torture is justifiable in all cases based on the fact that it was justifiable in a single highly improbable situation on this one episode of 24.

The truth is, once you are an adult, whether you think you are a loser is far and away the most important determinant of whether you are one.  Yes, it is possible to think up examples that violate this — i.e., examples of people whose other debits are so extreme that they outweigh self-image when they’re all added up — but such examples would occur very rarely in nature.  For the purposes of day-to-day life under all likely circumstances, it is fine to say that whether you’re a loser just depends on whether you think you are one, in the same sense that for the purposes of day-to-day life it is fine to say that E=mc2, even though it actually only does for a massive particle in its own rest frame (because good luck bumping into anything besides massive particles in their own rest frames while in line at Starbucks).

The answers to the questions of whether God exists, whether porn causes rape, and whether aliens built the pyramids are true independently of what anyone believes (and are “no”).  These are questions about matters external to the self.  The question of whether I am a loser is not.  It is not only affected by what I myself believe the answer to be, but is affected by that more than by anything else.

So from now on, if you ask for evidence that I am not a loser, my response will be to laugh at you.  And I won’t be dodging the question, because my laughter itself will be the evidence.

Oh, and also the German orgies.  Which I go to with my girlfriend.  Who is a lingerie model.

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