“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Oh, really?

I have observed that many people often stop thinking about a phrase, and simply accept it, if they hear it repeated enough times. Since I don’t want to make this error, I’ve developed a habit of questioning such phrases. This quote, from Friedrich Nietzsche, definitely qualifies a phrase which many believe because it’s repeated a lot, and it is certainly questionable. More than that, in fact: it is utter nonsense — and I can prove it.

The method I will use for this proof is reductio ad absurdam, in which one temporarily assumes the statement is true, then shows that it leads to a conclusion which is pure nonsense, which, in turn, shows that the original assumption of truth was a faulty one.

So the Nietzsche quote, purely for the purposes of this proof, is now (temporarily) assumed to be true. Since being stronger is beneficial, it now follows that we should actually seek out things which damage us, but without killing us. It isn’t hard to think of examples of such behaviors.

SONY DSC

If a person were to drive to a hospital’s emergency room, and, while standing just outside the entrance with a hacksaw, started using one hand to attempt to saw off the other one (warning: do not try this yourself!), damage would certainly result. This hypothetical person probably wouldn’t completely lose his hand, for (a) hacksaws are not fast, and (b) someone else would no doubt notice, and take action to stop the self-damage, in time to get him medical attention. He is, after all, already in the perfect place for it.

Another, much more common example:

img-thing

It’s possible for a person to drink these boxes of inexpensive red wine at a rate of five a week, but it’s an incredibly bad idea. Alcohol will do serious damage, consumed at that rate, given enough time, as can be verified with virtually any physician. Surviving prolonged binge-drinking is possible (but not guaranteed), even if done for a few years; I know this to be true because I have witnessed it. It wasn’t a pretty thing to watch, and the binge drinker could not be persuaded to stop. The binge drinking finally ended, but with an emergency trip in an ambulance needed, for immediate medical care, to prevent imminent death.

In each case, (1) the hypothetical person who tries to saw off his own hand while standing outside an emergency room, and (2) the real person (an adult whom I will not name) who consumed dangerous quantities of alcohol, something happens which damages them, but doesn’t kill them. Does it make them stronger? The first person could easily lose some functionality in his hand, and could also end up in a psychiatric institution. The second person suffered numerous forms of permanent damage to multiple systems of the body, resulting in permanent disability. Both rack up huge medical bills. These aren’t good things, for either person, and they are quite unlikely to “make one stronger.” A far more likely outcome is the exact opposite — each person is weakened, in the sense that are are rendered less able to deal effectively with the rest of their lives.

The proof is now complete. It turns out that those things which do not kill you can, quite possibly, weaken you, and expecting them to make you stronger simply makes no sense. So, world, please stop repeating this insipid Nietzsche-quote. Not only is it logically invalid; it’s also become one of the most annoying clichés in existence.

Fortunately, for those who want advice which actually makes sense, there are many sources available which are not Friedrich Nietzsche.

[Note: I did not create the images in this post, but simply found them with Google image-searches for “hacksaw” and “box of wine.”]

A Response to “Sacred Geometry”

It is unlikely that anyone knows how many types of superstitious nonsense exist, for counting them would be an enormous task, with no compelling reason to do it, and only a slim hope of actually finding them all. However, a given person will be more likely than other people to know about a particular type — if it is related to things the first person finds of interest. For example, a physician will be more likely to be aware of homeopathy, and the faulty ideas upon which it is based, than would a randomly-selected college-educated adult.

It won’t take long, reading this blog, for anyone to figure out that I have a strong interest in geometry. Were it not for this, I likely would be unaware of another type of superstitious nonsense: “Sacred Geometry,” which I cannot bring myself to type without quotation marks. If you google that term, you’ll quickly find an amazing number of websites devoted to that topic, with many extraordinary claims about certain polygons and polyhedra, but you won’t find more than miniscule amounts of logical reasoning on any of these sites, mixed in with large portions of utter nonsense.

Geometry is inherently interesting, and many geometrical shapes and patterns are aesthetically pleasing. However, to search for their mystical or spiritual qualities is to do nothing more, nor less, than to waste one’s time.

chestahedron-blue-model

I did not create, nor discover, the figure above, but found this picture at http://earthweareone.com/a-new-form-has-been-discovered-in-sacred-geometry-meet-the-chestahedron/. It is described there as a polyhedron with seven faces (well, they call them “sides,” but they clearly mean faces) of equal area — three faces with four sides each, and four faces with three sides each. Knowing that, I tried to figure out exactly what the back side of the figure would look like, but the text at that website isn’t particularly helpful in that regard, being filled with claims, allegedly related to this shape, regarding the human heart as an “organ of flow,” not a pump (What’s the difference?);  “the earth in its foundational form [as] not a sphere but rather [with] its basis [being] a ‘kind of tetrahedron'” (What?); and a (claimed) special relationship between this polyhedron, and the oh-so-profoundly-mystical Platonic Solids. If none of that makes sense to you, you are not alone. It doesn’t make sense.

I often use software called Stella 4d (which you may try at http://www.software3d.com/Stella.php) to investigate the geometric properties of polyhedra. Based upon comments about this polyhedron written by Stella 4d‘s author, Robert Webb,  I was able to create the rotating virtual model below, with Stella, to help me understand what all the faces of the green polyhedron above look like, included those on the back side, as the figure is shown in the picture above. This polyhedron is similar to an octahedron, with a single face augmented by a tetrahedron, and with three pairs of coplanar equilateral triangles then fused into rhombi. Here is that figure:

Augmented Octa

This isn’t the exact polyhedron in the first picture, but is isomorphic to it. Vertices and edges are moved a bit, changing the size and shapes of the four-sided faces, as well as the dihedral angles between the triangular faces, until all faces are equal in area. This process turns the three rhombic faces into kites.

On the above-linked “Earth We Are One” website, where the “sacred geometry” of this polyhedron is “explained” (and where I found the non-moving first picture here), this is called a “Chestahedron.” While Stella can help someone understand the geometrical properties of the Chestahedron, it offers no information whatsoever about the spiritual or mystical properties of this polyhedron, nor any other. There’s a good reason for this, though: the complete lack of evidence that any such properties exist, for the Chestahedron, or, indeed, for any geometrical figure.

As for the people, whom I’m calling the “Sacred Geometricians,” who are pouring so much time and effort into investigations of these alleged non-mathematical properties of hexagons, pentagons, enneagons, many polyhedra, and other geometrical figures, I have three things to say to them:

  1. This isn’t ancient Greece, and you aren’t in the Pythagorean Society.
  2. That part of the work of the Pythagoreans had no basis in reality in the first place, anyway. Geometry, together with religion and/or mysticism, as it turns out, can be mixed — the Pythagoreans were correct, on this one point — but such mixtures are invariably incoherent and illogical, revealing the efforts to create them as activities which are both pointless, and useless. Just because two things can be blended does not imply that they should be blended.
  3. Please stop. You give me a headache.

Ten Easy Ways to Oppose Secular Superstitious Nonsense

broken-mirror

It is a common mistake for skeptics, such as myself, to focus too much attention on religion. Do I understand why so many people lack religious belief, due to a lack of evidence to support it, and/or bad experiences with religious fanatics? Yes, I do. However, I also understand that the First Amendment, which protects my right to live my life without religious belief, equally protects the right of believers to practice the religion of their choice — and I recognize that it is unreasonable to expect one of those protections to exist, without the other, for both are important. If no one tries to force their religious beliefs on me (and very few people do), what harm do those beliefs do to me? Also, I know many people who find comfort in religious belief, especially in difficult times. I have no wish to deny others that particular form of comfort, even though I am incapable of experiencing it myself. To do so, after all, would be cruel. The world has plenty of cruelty already, and it certainly doesn’t need more.

When referring to myself, I prefer the term “skeptic,” over “atheist,” even though both labels are accurate. The reason is simple:  “skeptic” covers more ground. It’s a broader term, and using it reminds me that the world is (still) filled with superstitious nonsense which has nothing whatsoever to do with religion. What’s more, non-skeptics are generally far less tied, emotionally, to the beliefs they hold which are non-religious in nature. If skeptics wish to persuade others to abandon beliefs they do not share, therefore, increased attention to non-religious beliefs offers a greater chance of success, combined with a much lower risk of alienating and/or offending people.

With these things in mind, then, I offer this list of ten easy ways to oppose, by example, some of the many secular superstitions which have not — yet — been abandoned.

  1. When a mirror is accidentally broken, by yourself or others, remain calm, and simply clean up the mess, so no one gets cut by broken glass.
  2. Deliberately open umbrellas indoors, after checking to make certain no one is close enough to get struck by the umbrella in the process.
  3. When you see a ladder leaning against a building, and it is safe to do so, casually walk under it, without comment.
  4. Ask people in tall buildings to help you find the thirteenth floor, after checking for the (usually missing) “13” button in the elevator. (If the building actually has a floor numbered “13,” though, just wait for another tall building.)
  5. Adopt a black cat. (The cat, itself, will take care of the “crossing your path” part of the superstition.)
  6. If you are ever offered homeopathic “medicine,” ask for at least twenty doses, to take all at once. (Twenty or more, times zero, is still zero, and homeopathic products are nothing more than harmless-but-expensive placebos.) 
  7. Stare directly into a mirror, with witnesses present, and say “redrum,” or “bloody Mary,” repeatedly.
  8. Each time you are asked for your astrological sign, refuse to give any answer, other than “skeptic.”
  9. Don’t throw salt over either shoulder, ever. Why waste perfectly good salt?
  10. Have your children vaccinated.

I saved the most important one for last.