Sunday, December 9, 2012

Context, Reading and Comprehension: Applying Gricean Maxims to The Christ Conspiracy

This post relies on a previous post, without which some claims in it may seem somewhat unjustified.

In the case of D.M. Murdock's books, it is somewhat unclear what previous knowledge she expects of the reader - neither of these audiences really fit the bill:
  • theologians
  • historians of antiquity
  • philologists
  • scholars of comparative religion 

Murdock's own website touts the book with these words:
While accessible to the reader, this book is scholarly, containing hundreds of quotes and 1200 footnotes in over 400 pages.[1]
I would assume that "accessible to the reader" signifies that the reader does not have to stand on his head or engage in a game of second-guessing the author's intentions. A degree in any of the previously mentioned fields should definitely not be necessary. Simply put, we should be permitted to assume the text will be relevant to the main point made, clear, such that we need not read it in contrived manners, of an economical quantity,such that no (or very few accidental) omissions of things necessary to understand the reasoning or any inclusion of any great number of things superfluous to the thesis being presented are included (that is, we must neither ignore things she says in order to understand it, nor have to realize by our own accord that we need to read some other books first), and finally truthful, which we should take to mean that Acharya nowhere presents evidence she herself finds unconvincing or false even if it supports her thesis.

This stands in abject contrast to her own explanation as to why she includes very explicitly positive references to theories that Indian civilization is at least 100 000 years old, that homo sapiens is 2.8 million years old, and so on:
The point here is that I was reading all these fascinating books so long ago, and I decided to include some of these comments, because they were in these books, about which many people had asked me. The same can be said for my inclusion of a couple of Sitchin quotes, merely to show that I had read his books, since many people had been asking me about his work. I did not include anything about aliens from him, but I wanted my readers to understand that I knew his work. [2]
So, ostensibly agreeing with a stance is just a way of indicating that one is aware of that stance now?  That is neither clear, relevant, economical or truthful. These things that apparently were just included to illustrate that she has read these books are stated with surprising gusto if that were the sole intent:
That the culture and religion of India are very old is obvious. As the "celebrated Orientalist" Sir William Jones pointed out, the Indian scriptures, the Vedas, appear to be of an "antiquity the most distant." Indeed, some scholars have posited that the Rig Veda contains mention of an astronomical configuration that could only have occurred 90,000 years ago. The Hindu chronology, in fact, goes back millions of years, and there has been effort to push back true human civilization, rather than man's apelike progenitors, to that era. Obviously, such "forbidden archaeology" is widely dismissed by the orthodoxy for seeming lack of solid evidence. Nevertheless, something certainly is amiss in the current orthodox paradigm, such that an overhaul is in order. Of course, conclusive proof of such an antiquity would be difficult to provide, because millions of years have elapsed, during which there has been much cataclysm and scouring of the earth's surface. [3, p. 381]
Or, for that matter:
Based on archaeological, anthropological, astrological and mythological evidence, A. Churchward claimed that modern humans must have existed at least 2.8 million years ago. While Churchward wrote several decades ago, and would thus seem to be outdated in the face of so many scientific discoveries and conclusions since then, his arguments are compelling. This estimation may not be so farfetched, in any case. In fact, in seeming accord with the Hindu chronology, which goes back millions of years, Keel report that "Human footprints and man-made objects were repeatedly turning up in coal mines and geological strata dating back millions of years." ...According to the current paradigm, the modern human only came into being 100,000 years ago, a figure that keeps being pushed back; however, for some reason, humans did not develop significantly for 70,000 years, when they began to paint beautiful images in caves, among other things. Nevertheless, if the human species can progress as far as it has in the past five hundred years, there is no reason it could not have done so tens of thousands of years ago. In fact, it makes no sense at all, if homo sapiens appeared 100,000 years ago, that it only reached an advanced degree of culture in the past 6-8,000 years. [3, p 404] 
 Acharya's official forum's moderator responded to this by saying that reading this as though Acharya supports such a theory is misleading: after all, what she says is "A. Churchward claimed that modern humans must have existed at least 2.8 million years ago. While Churchward wrote several decades ago, and would thus seem to be outdated...", and I am misrepresenting her by claiming she actually supports the theory [4]. Reading the entire thing in context makes it clear the moderator's defense is nothing but a defensive quote-mine, as the only way of not reading the two quotes above in an honest fashion - without having to engage in weird games where what she says is not what she means - does in fact indicate that she disagrees with what mainstream "orthodoxy" thinks of these things.

Another defender of Acharya's works claims "compelling" is used in its colloquial meaning of fascinating. That would be being obtuse and playing games with the reader - such a meaning for compelling tends to be rather marked and used in rather specific contexts - and colloquial use is not what one expects in this type of literature in the first place. This is claimed to be a scholarly text, not a colloquial text. If I am to assume words are used in a colloquial meaning, maybe I should assume other things too - like, Keel's report quoted above actually saying that these artefacts and footprints which supposedly turned up did turn up because modern people put them there - an option that the text in fact does not preclude?

Fact is, Acharya says there is something about the orthodox position that needs an overhaul, and she labels claimed evidence against the orthodox position as compelling. Any reasonable reader will come to the conclusion I reached about her stance on these issues, and only a quirky intentional misreading obtains the meanings her fans defend now that the bad science in her work has been pointed out. 

Finally, including Sitchin's books as sources just to demonstrate familiarity with his works - when these works are used as sources for claims - is also very bad praxis. If she only is doing it to display familiarity, do please reduce the way it is worded as indicating support for it. Given the level of supportive statements in both The Christ Conspiracy and The Suns of God for this kind of pseudoscience, one can only conclude she holds it in high enough esteem. She basically vouches for Sitchin.

I am informed that the Pygmy theory will be removed from the next edition of The Christ Conspiracy. This is good. However, I am also informed by "Freethinkaluva22" that
Yet, you have the nerve to complain about everybody else's reading comprehension etc? I'm not going to waste my time trying to explain all of this to a nutbag. Besides, that entire chapter is being removed from the 2nd edition and made into a future project on its own. [4]
Apparently it is wrong to criticize the theory, as it no longer will be included in the next edition. (However, the theory will live on in another book entirely, and this somehow renders the theory beyond reproach!). Freethinkaluva's rebuttal entirely misses the point! I have a hard time getting how anyone can think this argument has any validity whatsoever - does moving the theory to another book make it immune to criticism? I don't even ... 

Important point: evidence or hypotheses are mentioned for a reason in scientific works. Sometimes, as a contrast to one's own hypothesis, sometimes in order to reject or provide a more compelling piece of evidence. Acharya neither contrasts or rejects any of it - unlike the disdainful words she occasionally offers with regard to modern academic orthodoxy. Why are these things reported if not in agreement, and why are they given as supporting evidence for a hypothesis she presents if she does not support these claims? The Christ Conspiracy indeed offers compelling evidence that these are views she supports or at the very least finds compelling. Any reasonable approach to reading comprehension - especially if we take Gricean maxims into account - will conclude this. Any other reading is mere sophistry, and serves only to demonstrate that those who defend her have nothing better to offer than obfuscation. 

Further, the maxim of clarity makes it reasonable to assume that a statement about linguistic phenomena uses terminology from linguistics. Robert Tulip, an advocate of Acharya's, defends this statement of hers:
Bryant notes that the Egyptian priests were called "Sonchin," or "Son-Cohen"-priests of the sun. Thus the English word "son" is not a false cognate with "sun," and it is truthfully said that the "son of God" is the "sun of God." This son-sun connection can also be found in the Indian language: In tracing many Indo-European and Vedic words to a common root, Roy proffers, among others, the root "son," representing "sunu" in Vedic and "son" in Indo-European [sic!].[5, p. 76]
His defense objects to my pointing out that (the English words) son and sun are not cognates, the Indo-European roots being distinct. (She apparently also thinks English and Indo-European are the same thing). Tulip responds:
Similarly, Acharya notes a comment that 'sun' and 'son' are cognates. Now, this is not strictly true according to the technical linguistic definition of cognate, the one Miekko is using, but it is a reasonable statement in terms of the mythic connection between Jesus Christ and the sun. Acharya has had a lot of debate about this son-sun link. In linguistics, cognates are words that have a common etymological origin. This learned term derives from the Latin cognatus (blood relative). 'Cognate' does get used outside linguistics in a way that can include the sun-son similarity, even though this is not a linguistic cognate. Acharya is presenting a multi-disciplinary hypothesis, not just a technical study in linguistics. So in this case, it is the broader meaning of cognate that makes sense, even if clarification is needed for those who might misread her comment.[6, my italicization.]
It is quite clear the claim she is making is of a linguistic nature. Why else the non-sequitur regarding Indo-European linguistics? It reads a lot like the neural network-argument I presented in the previous post, which did not actually contribute anything to the argument at all, but to an easily impressed reader might seem convincing because wow, difficult scholarly words! The actual linguistic evidence provided shows that yes, in some languages the word deriving from Proto-Indo-European *suHnús does look a bit like sun, a word deriving - in languages descending from PIE as well - from *sh̥₂uén. As if a list of bona-fide cognates of *suHnús  is somehow relevant to the argument she presents - viz. that they are "not false cognates". This is rather powerful a statement if all she is saying is that they are similar. She is failing as far as the maxim of clarity is concerned, as she uses a needlessly easily misinterpreted word, and the phrasing leads naturally and unequivocally to the conclusion that she is talking about the linguistic meaning of the word 'cognate'. Rephrasing her argument as per the meaning Robert Tulip claims she intends illustrates how ridiculous his apologetics are:
Thus it is not false that the English word "son" is similar to the word "sun".
That anyone would think that this is what she is trying to say leaves me dumbfounded, yet that is what mr. Tulip contends. Why, if that is what she is saying is she not saying it straight out? Anyone can see that son looks like sun in English, and only a fool would deny it. If he indeed is correct, Murdock needs to learn to write with way less convoluted wordings.

Not only is clarification needed, rethinking is needed. The entire paragraph is misguided and obtuse.

In summary, and to be really goddamn clear on this, if we assume Tulip's preferred reading, it fails economy of expression, as it apparently uses an entire paragraph of sophistry to say that son and sun look similar, it fails clarity, since it clearly speaks of the concept of cognates (sunu, son) - it is quite obvious why an erudite reader would be lead to think cognate means linguistic cognate in the context - in fact, not concluding that would be counterintuitive and go against the text itself! Failing the maxim of clarity also leads to a failure to adhere to the maxim of quality - the requirement to be truthful. Thus, Tulip's solution makes Murdock a liar, whereas mine just makes her a bad scholar. I find my conclusion preferable at this stage.

Either that, or the description I offered at the beginning of this post is wrong and the books are not accessible to the reader, unless the reader happens to be fortunately equipped with a telepathic hotline to Acharya S, thus being able to consult her mind whenever problematic passages appear - which they do en masse. Alas, she does not even offer a non-telepathic line - if you start asking questions such as these, the moderator of her forum will get you banned for asking too much.

If we are permitted to ignore linguistic conventions the way showcased above when reading the text in order to make it appear right, maybe the following misrepresentation also is entirely justified by linguistic hocus pocus:
It is not definite that there is a single source of all human languages, but much western language certainly comes out of India, a fact known for millennia and now being revamped with the "Nostratic theory," which seeks to trace language to India around 12,000 years ago. This Nostratic language was possible either "Chaldee," the ancient sacred lingua franca used by the brotherhood, or an even older version. [3, p 382]
See, if we grant the leeway her advocates ask for here, maybe we can come up with a colloquial meaning of the words Chaldee, India, etc, colloquial meanings used by Acharya's family and fans or whatever, and thus unfamiliar to outsiders. In reality, Nostraticists place the urheimat of Nostratic way closer to the fertile crescent (although nowhere in Dolgopolsky's dictionary can any indication as to where the leading scholars in the field would place it be found[7]) - Wikipedia informs me that at least some theory places it in Iran, but I have not been able to obtain any source for that. The name "Chaldee" is, in linguistics - and everywhere else the name has ever been used outside 19th century theosophy-  an outdated term for the Aramaic language, a Semitic language. It is closely related to Akkadian, which is the earliest attested Semitic language, which was spoken between 5000 and 3500 years ago, roughly.  Nostraticists by and large accept the established family trees of the languages of Eurasia and Northern Africa rather wholesale - and in those, both Aramaic and Akkadian are descendants of Proto-Semitic, which in turn is the descendant of Proto-Afroasiatic, which in turn is a sister taxon to Proto-Eurasiatic, from which Proto-Indoeuropean, Proto-Uralic and Proto-Altaic developed in parallel according to the Nostraticists.

Dolgopolsky's own foreword to his dictionary says it is held by some Nostratic scholars that Afroasiatic is not part of Nostratic, but a sister taxon. ([8, §6]), which even further removes "Chaldee" from the Nostratic grouping.

Clearly "an even older version" of Chaldee would be kind of close to the case if Afro-Asiatic indeed is a Nostratic branch (but in that case, "an even older version" of Finnish, English, Turkish, Chukchi (iirc), and Tamil also would qualify!) - in which case it would be a language spoken 5000-7000 years earlier, but the significance ascribed to it by Acharya as read in context is quite different.

I have read through as many papers as I've been able to from Nostraticists. Acharya's representation of their stance is far from accurate. It is furthermore accepted that western languages do not derive out of India. In fact, the Indo-European languages of India and Europe are both likely to originate in central Asia, not on the subcontinent.

I think this is sufficient for this post. The fans whom Acharya keeps closest to her are scientifically illiterate, and read things in tendentious manners to obtain a reading where they can maintain their belief that the object of their adoration - Acharya - is correct. This is not how science is done, this is just a way of basking in the adoration that devoted fans give.

[1] Acharya S,
[3] Acharya S, The Christ Conspiracy
[5] Acharya S, Suns of God, 2004


  1. The proof that Acharya's fanboys are playing fast and loose with the truth on the sun/son debacle can be seen by merely reading her cited reference on the matter. Acharya calls upon one Jakob Bryant. Mr. Bryant had a fine reputation in his day but his day was the eighteenth century - hardly a place to find up-to-date scholarship.

    It gets worse when you read Bryant. He argued Noah's sun Ham was worshipped as a god and was, among others, the Greek Zeus and the Egyptian Amun. He then imagined all manner of bizarre etymological connections. In all fairness, this was common stuff at the time but that time has long since passed.

    Bryant claimed the Egyptian priests had the title “sonchin” or “son-cohen” or “priests of the sun.” He derived this via a later tradition of Pythagoras being a pupil of an Egyptian priest named Sonches. He then assumed what is clearly a proper name to be a title, conjugated the form sonchin, assumed this was a compound of two words "son" and "chin," assumed "chin" has an etymological connection to the Hebrew "cohen" (priest), assumed the Egyptians were part of a pan-Aryan ruling culture spread throughout the ancient world, and then concluded "son" had an etymological connection to the English "sun." Needless to say, this rather imaginative etymological exercise carried little weight with anyone aside from Murdock.

    Of course, from a contemporary standpoint one could point out that Mr. Bryant's book was written before the Rosetta Stone was discovered and even longer before it was deciphered. Thus Bryant was not really in a position to know what the Egyptians called anything. One could forgive Mr. Bryant for succumbing to the eccentricities of his day. As for Acharya, she does not benefit from that excuse.

    1. The problem is that they will accuse anyone who criticizes her of misrepresenting what she is saying in the first place. . . that's why such a long couple of posts on what human communication even requires in order to be successful was needed. I have been meaning to write in greater detail on the "sonchin" claim, I mainly quoted this paragraph in for the sun-son bit this time.