Robert C. Priddy

Writings on diverse themes from philosophy, psychology to literature and criticism

  • Robert Priddy

    In this blog I post information and critical views concerning ideologies, belief systems and related scientific materials etc. I am a retired philosophy lecturer and researcher, born 1936.

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Archive for November, 2014

The ‘Labyrinth fallacy’ in extensive belief systems

Posted by robertpriddy on November 24, 2014

There are systems of thought and belief which are seldom easily recognised as being a convoluted circular ‘labyrinth’ of ideas. The logical fallacy involved is circularity or self-contradiction, but this is not easily detected because of the complexity and extended nature of the particular idea-system or ‘labyrinthine’ doctrine.

Wherever there is a vast collection of thoughts, ideas, beliefs and practices which are based on speculative reasoning and unlikely assumptions, one can become lost to oneself. This fallacy is strongly at work on astrologers, conspiracy theorists and religious sects and cults. It relies on a maze of teachings with very many tenets and thousands of absorbing details so constructed that, once inside it, it is near impossible to find a way back out. Every dead-end one meets causes one to retrace a bit and the new route will again lead you back to other routes and your mind gravitates more and more within the circle of belief. It gradually takes over one’s thinking, substitutes itself increasingly for normal perception so the escape from the cultist trap and the ingrained neural reinforcement becomes more and more unlikely. One needs some ‘Ariadne thread’ to find one’s way back to unbiased perception, reflection and pragmatic and critical thinking.

Belief systems employ reason – however well or badly – to explain whatever matters they would cover. Invariably they also explain and justify their own validity or supposed truth by reasoning. While no belief system can constitute genuine knowledge or lay valid claim to being tried and tested as true in any strict sense of the word, it may be a precursor of gaining knowledge, just as it may contrariwise be the forerunner of disillusion or defeat. With the labyrinth fallacy there are so many routes through the network of meanings created that one can form and re-form almost any conception more or less as one wishes. This is achieved by imprecise and generalised wording (i.e. open to various and differing interpretations). Wherever a fairly large degree of uncertainty about what is or is not being stated, divined or predicted arises, the labyrinthine explanations required and the tortuous confusion of meanings mislead.

Theories exist and multiply on virtually every conceivable subject. Some kinds of subject lend themselves more to the Labyrinth Fallacy than others… some examples of the former areas include metaphysics, religion, politics, conspiracy, secret intelligence, criminality, inexplicable or imagined phenomena. The list could obviously be extended greatly. Other subjects are less prone nowadays to the Labyrinth Fallacy because they are less open to large scale and factually-unsupported speculation, such as the nature of the physical world as studied by the natural sciences, the data on subjects collected by governments, statisticians, engineers and other well-accepted kinds of major investigation. In short, systematic investigations carried out in the spirit of scientific reasoning on the principle of minimizing sufficient explanations (Occam’s Razor) are least subject to the said fallacy.

The often-encountered urge to fit facts to match adopted theories or beliefs, rather than the opposite, invariably underpins the Labyrinth Fallacy. The fitting of facts to any ‘Procrustean bed’, when not done by outright falsification or neglect of negative instances or the like, mostly involves falsifications such as unreasonable de-contextualisation or reinterpretation of facts, obfuscation or other misrepresentation of the facts themselves or the methods by which they were obtained and so forth. Where a theory or belief-system provides – or else is open and prone to – a variety of alternative and loosely applicable approaches to the same fact or phenomenon, the ground is fertile for the Labyrinth Fallacy to complicate and confuse.

Throughout my adult life I have heard many stories from people – and read much – about Indian astrology being able to predict with great accuracy the future events of a lifetime – and also of subsequent lifetimes. During my nine long visits to India I came across pundits and ‘astrological seers’, which interested me despite my former rejection of Western astrology. In my younger years I studied that variant rather deeply – casting horoscopes and doing follow-ups as well as reading critical work about it. I eventually had to conclude that it relies mainly on psychological projection or else on self-fulfilling prophesy (not to mention vagueness, ambiguous language, credulity and even cold reading. It is such an extensive and involved art (not science) that it entraps its followers into a labyrinth of possibilities, always allowing for rationalisations and ‘deeper reinterpretations’, one from which only those with a strong analytic bent can normally extricate themselves. Hindu astrology seemed it may have offered more than that, not least because of glowing reports of its vast accuracy and ubiquity in India. Firstly, however, here is an interesting Indian critique of the country’s most dominant astrologers:-

Some examples: Hindu astrologers defeated by events
The Indian Sceptic magazine (under Basava Premanand) chose India’s most consulted astrologers as endorsed by Indian’s most well-known politicians and other professionals, to predict the outcome of the 2004 Indian elections. See the hilarious result: Top Indian Astrologers fall down on the job – badly

Again in 2009, the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations offered one million rupees to astrologers who could predict the elections results. Others have also challenged astrologers to make correct predictions, offering large sums to those who subject themselves to a serious test. Despite even the prize of a million dollars, no one is known to have won the challenge. (see

One exposure of a central ‘mechanic’ that often operates in ‘birth chart’ astrology – which relies a lot on the Barnum and Forer effect, which are statements that can apply to anybody – was demonstrated by Derren Brown, the ‘honest illusionist’ whose shows helped me understand much what Indian gurus can have done to achieve the reputation of miracle makers. Brown presented a group of young individuals with the same horoscope. They all claimed it was accurate and personal. (this may be seen on-line here). Though this did not demolish astrology as such, it showed the ‘Barnum and Forer effect’ and how impressionable young people can react to and interpret generalising statements about themselves. The process of thinking about oneself to search out memories which support the chacterisations is instructive. They were far from being objective about themselves (especially since they had limited time to decide reflectively on the statements) and were easily influenced by the content of a prediction as well as by the setting in which it was perceived.

Hindu doctrines  A current example of promotion of the Hindu belief labyrinth is Sathya Sai Baba’s extremely voluminous and most often hazy, generalising discourses, which are wide open to this ‘labyrinth fallacy’. His doctrine (‘teachings’) constantly refers to almost the whole range of ancient Indian scriptural ideas and beliefs, which are often mutually incompatible and have considerable depths of interpretation due to the complexity of languages, religious sentiments, beliefs and sub-beliefs. In this way Sathya Sai Baba left the field wide open for the Labyrinth Fallacy to operate on many levels. The many-sided and eclectic doctrine is such that all one’s perceptions have to be considered as a mirror of one’s own mind. This creates what may well be called a mental hall of distorting mirrors where great perspicacity is required so as to find the exit and liberate oneself from all the inherent fallacies!

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