Bullshit is defined in the literature as unevidenced claims (Mackenzie and Bhatt, 2020) . I would like to extend this definition to describe anything miscategorised ontologically.
Broadly there are four ontological categories
So “proven” claims are those with sufficient evidence to convince the majority of people who have viewed the evidence. The scare quotes are because nothing is ever completely proven to be true, the best we can say is that the statement is the one, of all the possible statements, that best explain the observable evidence. Examples are evolution, general relativity, the standard model, climate change, and so on.
Unproven are those claims which have insufficient evidence to convince the majority of people who have viewed the evidence, but for which there is some, or where there are competing explanations. Examples are string theory, …. These are contested, and often there are social, hierarchical, cultural reasons why some lead over others. For example, those published in English are likely to be forerunners over those published in other languages.
“Disproven” are those where the overwhelming evidence is that the claims are false. Vaccines cause autism, creationism, etc.
Unproveable are those categories of statements for which evidence cannot be acquired. God, unicorns, afterlife, etc. The claims are that these things exist despite there being no evidence. Absence of proof is not proof of absence, is the argument.
So any statement properly attributed to the correct category isn’t bullshit, but if it is misattributed it is. So for example, “I believe in God and that belief sustains me through my bad times”, is not bullshit because it makes no untrue claims. “God loves you all”, is – because it’s claiming that God actually exists, and we have no evidence for His existence.
“The Earth is flat” is bullshit, as is “vaccines cause autisms”. Those are both claiming disproven things are proven. But so is “science is just a matter of perspective”, as it’s stating a “proven” thing is unproven. Yes, you could overthrow the current paradigm, and people have, but you would need a wealth of evidence to outweigh the current best “proven” explanation, and move it to a different category through presenting that argument. To state that theories agreed across all cultural perspectives are just a male, western white perspective, when science is being used by all countries to determine truth from fiction, is bullshit.
An addendum – I’m talking here about the positivist end of the spectrum – astrophysics, biology, etc, the things based on measuring stuff (see a previous blog post). My own bias, as I go there when I think about science rather than the more interpretivist stuff like anthropology, psychology, education. With those there is a strong argument that there’s a western domination which influences the field – have a read of this https://www.nasw.org/article/science-writers-urged-tell-stories-include-indigenous-perspectives
Within the “proven” category we also have the distinction between positivist and interpretivist perspectives. Positivist observations are more powerful, and indicate stronger causal links. There is instrumental reality to back them up (although instruments can be wrong). But interpretivist data is also useful. To state that a model needs to predict behaviour absolutely in order to have value is bullshit, because even if it’s useful most of the time, it can still inform decisions. But to say that measurable phenomenon is no more value than a collection of qualitative data is also bullshit.
So yes, things move from category to category, but only over time, and only with evidence and reasoned argument. There are blurry lines between the categories, and opinion might vary on which side some things legitimately belong. Bullshit only applies outside of these blurred lines.
These distinctions weren’t always so evident. It’s only with the Enlightenment in the 18th century and the development of the scientific method, that humanity developed a mechanism to fully determine the difference between finding stuff out and making stuff up. And to state that that science is the dominance of a western male perspective is bullshit. Anyone who wants to tell the difference between making stuff up and finding stuff out uses the scientific method. Indian scientists put stuff into space using science, not Western science. Science. The only difference between a Chinese scientist investigating copper nanotubes and an American one is the abbreviation they use. It’s always been this way. Current science is an amalgam of Islamic scholars, Greek philosophers, Chinese inventors. The first university was in Timbuktu. Reality is a humanity-wide endeavour.
Part of the problem is that there is a perceived difference in value between stuff made up and stuff found out. The Enlightenment has led to the perception that only things that are true have value. Hence, we’ve had epistemicide, where whole systems of making stuff up have disappeared. But just because something’s made up doesn’t make it useless. But in order to compete with real stuff, everyone feels they have to claim that their worldview is real. Hence people claiming that God is real, I mean really real in a literal sense in the same way that I, and probably you, are.
Before the division into real and not-real, people felt comfortable with mixing ideas they would create alongside stuff they saw. So we’d have theologians arguing about how many angels dance on the head of a pin, or people dancing so the sun came up. They didn’t really believe that those things were really real in a literal sense. The distinction didn’t matter. There are a lot of cultures around the world that still haven’t adopted this hierarchy. The idea of qi informs the design of buildings, but no-one tries investigating copper nanotubes using those principles. It’s not really real in that sense. The Dreamtime doesn’t actually literally exist in the same way the world does; it’s a signifying mythical system that exists alongside the real world.
But since the Enlightenment people who like the made-up stuff feel they have to place it on the same footing as stuff that’s found out, which means claiming that made-up things are really real too and then using made-up stuff to make decisions about real things. So they redact science books because it contradicts the made-up stuff about creationism, or they use a line in the Bible or the teachings of an Imam to decide which real people should be allowed to fuck whom.
It’s a misassignment of ontological categories.
The idea of liminality started with Victor Turner, who was a drama theorist. The idea is that there are spaces separated from the normal space in which we live, and these spaces are separated and sustained by belief. Liminality derives from the word “limen” or the edge of the stage. So the events of a play exist within a liminal space. Within that space we suspend our disbelief – an actor becomes the character, the backdrop becomes an actual landscape or drawing room. But the same is true of a film, or a book; it’s called the diegetic effect. We can sustain that level of engagement, while also knowing that it’s not real. The state of knowing something is real and not-real at the same time is known as metaxis, or double-consciousness. We know deep down it’s not real, but while we’re in the liminal space we suppress that knowledge in order to fully immerse ourselves.
While we’re engaged in the film the real world doesn’t intrude according to this view. We know that it’s not real, but while we watch it, that doesn’t matter. We know aliens aren’t real, but we’re still scared by them invading, we know that’s just an animated drawing of a deer, but we still cry when Bambi sees her die. We can take part in liminal spaces too. A game space is a liminal space. We know it’s only play money, but when we land on Mayfair with a hotel on it, we’re really pissed off. Virtual worlds are liminal spaces too. As are ritual spaces. Within them, roles are changed; identities can be changed; rules are changed. The made-up is made real. Huizinga called the boundary separating the liminal from the regular spaces The Magic Circle. Rules are changed within it. Identities are changed. Huizinga particularly talked about games, and the Magic Circle for a game, for example Monopoly, extends around the players. Within that space, the play money matters, there are specific rules that govern behaviour. We all become capitalists.
Liminal spaces aren’t just defined by space, they are also bounded by time. A stage outside of a performance isn’t a liminal space. It’s just a normal space. It’s transformed into a liminal space by ritual elements. The surroundings help here. There’s an interesting paper by Pierpoint (Childs et al, 2014; 121-124) in which the surrounding elements of a proscenium theatre are included in this ritual. There is the design of the front of house, the direction to the seat, sitting down, the reading the programme, all those build up to the moment where the orchestra plays, and the curtain goes up. These are all signifiers of the moment when the liminal space is created. Performances where actors drift on stage, and there is no real start feel odd because this ritual commencement hasn’t taken place. Site-specific theatre is more challenging partly because this liminal ritual is absent, so we don’t know when or where the liminality is.
Liminal spaces can also be returned to and invoked repeatedly. By having multiple texts, a series of movies, or a TV show, a consistent repeated diegesis is created. This can also be extended outside of those texts, by others, like for instance fanfiction, or conferences like the Sherlock Holmes society run, where the canon is engaged with as if it were real.
The pedagodzilla podcasts are liminal spaces. The Godzilla roar, the music, Mike’s intro, all set up the liminality of the space. It’s important because it signifies that within that 40 mins, making stuff up is legitimised. Mike sets out the rules; that there is a genuine piece of pedagogical theory, a description of a piece of pop culture, and then we will apply the real stuff to the made-up stuff as if it was real. We are deliberately misattributing the ontological nature of, for example, Yoda as a supply teacher, because we know it’s inappropriate, and therefore fun. We know that he doesn’t exist, and wasn’t created in order to be analysed in that way. And we know the audience knows that. And we hope the audience knows that we know that. It would spoil the lusory nature of the liminal space for someone to criticise the argument with “but he’s not real.” That’s not the point. Made up stuff is legitimate within the liminal space.
Ditto church services. The organ music, the singing, the sermon. All of those add to the liminality. Gee would also describe the space as a semitioic social space, if you can read the signs around you, in the vestments, the props, the stained glass windows, it all adds to the experience of it as a liminal space. Within that liminal time-bounded space, misattributing the ontological status of God is fine. You can say He’s real within that space, and share fellowship and agape and all that feelgood stuff, because the normal rules of engagement with reality are suspended. Made up stuff is permissible.
And also liminal spaces can exist within other liminal spaces. So for example, later in the same chapter as the Pierpoint reference Ian Upton (Childs et al, 2014; 127-130) talks about ritual spaces within Second Life. We adopt one set of rules on entering the virtual world, and then within the virtual world cross another limen where rules and identities are transformed again. Ian argues that the change between the non-performance SL space and the performance SL space is a greater one that between RL and SL.
Where it breaks down a bit
This idea that liminal spaces are separate, discrete places cut-off from normal space doesn’t always hold, however. The membrane around that magical circle is permeable. Anyone who’s had to placate a child who’s got upset by landing on Mayfair, or fallen out with someone because they lifted money from the bank, will know that what happens within the Monopoly game space does have an impact on the rest of the world. More positively, the liminal space can excite us, or sustain us, in the rest of our lives, by us looking forward to the next movie in a series, or building a fan community around those spaces.
It works the other way too. In novels and films, often the exterior world will intrude, to remind you it is only a book. In Vanity Fair, Thackery interjects to remind the reader that he’s writing the novel. The sense of immersion is undermined, the diegetic effect broken.
And sometimes the membrane extends way more than the liminal space. A football ground is a liminal space. There is the ritual of the singing, the buying of the pie, the Chinese dragon dancing between halves (I’m guessing because I’ve only ever been to one football match in my life). The crowd shares in the made-up thing that it matters whether one set of the 11 people on the pitch get the ball in the net more than the other 11. That’s what the game is. That’s what all games are. They’re enjoyable because we’ve invented a set of criteria that matter, not because they do intrinsically, but for the sense of camaraderie, of communitas, that occurs when the criteria are met. One woman jumps higher than the other woman, one robot flips the other robot out of the ring. We all know deep down that they don’t matter, but it’s fun to believe that they do.
But that liminality is broached when that extends to people’s entire lives. Outside of the match, that liminal space bounded by space and time, can dominate those lives. At some level there is the awareness that actually, it’s a manufactured reality, but that realisation is permanently suppressed. It’s the same with religion. The statement that God is real isn’t left at the church door, but is taken out into the real world and is acted upon as if it were true all the time. It’s self-evidently not, it’s unproveable, that’s obvious, but the ontological status is misattributed.
Let’s remind where the bullshit lies. “I know I can’t prove God exists, but I choose to believe he does, because that belief gives me comfort, and ties me to my community” – not bullshit. “God exists and He says you’re going to Hell” – bullshit.
There’s an extra level of complexity with liminality, and that is where it’s intricately woven with the external world. This liminality isn’t obviously tied to a space or a time, but it’s liminality nonetheless. This is where we come to the Dalai Lama, Tony Stark and Lorraine Kelly.
The Dalai Lama, Iron Man and Lorraine Kelly
What these three have in common is that they are all fictional characters; they have identical ontological status.
The Dalai Lama is the latest incarnation of Avalokitesvara a Bodhisattva. This obviously is made up as there is no evidence for reincarnation or the existence of Bodhisattvas. He is performed by a real person named Lhamo Dhondup. If people believe in that sort of thing, then if they meet Dhondup then they might believe they have met the Dalai Lama. Where the reality and fantasy are distinguishable is difficult to say. Maybe when he gets home Dhondup takes off the assumed identity and just becomes a normal guy. Maybe he performs that identity 24/7. Similarly with Tony Stark. The character was created more recently, and we know by whom (Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby and Don Heck) whereas the name of whoever made up the Bodhisattva stuff is lost in the mists of time. In his most recent incarnation Tony Stark is performed by Robert Downey Jr. However, that performance isn’t restricted to the liminal space of the MCU, as Downey (like Dhondup appearing as the Dalai Lama) goes to hospital wards to meet sick kids who (like Buddhists) really believe he’s Tony Stark. Downey doesn’t do that all the time, he has an out of liminal space, but he carries that liminality around with him, able to generate it when it’s required. Again, that liminality legitimises the madeupness. The child in the ward isn’t meeting an actor, he’s meeting a superhero. For the moment Downey is there, the fantasy is real. Ditto Dhondup.
Lorraine Kelly is slightly more complex, in that the fictional Lorraine Kelly is performed by a real person also named Lorraine Kelly. This was actually a point of law, proven by the real Kelly because the fictional nature of Lorraine means that she’s a performer when she’s doing her presenting, she’s not being herself. When she meets fans in events, she’s also Lorraine, but where the real Kelly exists, and the fictional Lorraine exists, is a blurred liminality.
In the world of professional wrestling this is known as kayfabe. Although professional wrestling resembles a sport, its roots are actually in the strongman sideshow of carnivals. Initiated by the golden trio in 1920s’ New York, the matches are actually “worked”, ie fictions created as performances. The ring is a liminal space (as are all sports spaces) but the liminality extends beyond the ring, as the worked narratives are played out in public outside of the ring, extending the narrative into mainstream space. The wrestlers abuse each other in publications, carry on feuds in public spaces and the wrestling news describes these stories as if they were real news. As internet culture has formed, the liminality has extended to websites, but this also makes maintaining the work constantly more difficult, as fans may spot enemies together in restaurants etc.
This is still liminality, but here the wrestlers carry that liminality with them. In dressing rooms etc if a “mark” (ie someone not part of the work) is spotted, the wrestlers will call out “kayfabe” and switch on their characters in the same way that Kelly, Downey Jr, and (presumably) Dhondup do, generating that liminality around them.
And what? It gets more complicated?
This blurring of liminality is also deliberately played with in professional wrestling, in a level of complexity rarely developed in other media.. A wrestler might be really hurt, or go AWOL, or fall out with his coach. Or a “face” and a “heel” might fall in love etc. This is called a shoot, (as with most carnies, there is a huge terminology describing the differences between the liminal and external spaces). A shoot is when the liminality is unintentionally dropped and reality inevitably intrudes. This could happen with the other examples. Anything could happen to cause Downey Jr, Kelly or Dhondup to slip out of their roles, with varying consequences.
Where professional wrestling is more complex, however, is that there is also worked shoots. What may seem to be a falling out, and a narrative in which the liminal space has been broken, can actually turn out to be part of a larger narrative, and it’s all part of the work. Fans are constantly kept uncertain as to what’s real and what isn’t. But they work it out, or adapt in retrospect if they haven’t. Professional wrestling fans’ realities are constantly being retconned and it’s all part of the fun. We could learn a lot from them.
So what’s got fucked up?
Believing in things is fun. Make-believe is reassuring, it brings respite from the harsh realities of life, and particularly death. We can console ourselves there is a jeaven, or whatever it’s called, and that gets us through. It’s more exciting to meet the Dalai Lama, or Tony Stark, or Lorraine, than it is to meet Dhondup, Downey Jr, or Kelly. It’s tedious to constantly have to follow up a statement about God or Yoda, with “I know he’s not real, but just for the sake of discussion let’s pretend he does.”
The problem is that people feel the Enlightenment has forced on us this hierarchy between finding stuff out and making stuff up. People feel that stuff has to be true in order to be justified in believing in it. And worse. Deep down people know claiming unproveable things are true is bullshit (once you know how to tell the difference, you can’t unlearn it) but that just means they end up defending it even more vociferously. You could argue that there are other ways of knowing, that evidence is not the only way to find things out, but then that’s bullshit about bullshit. That level of self-deception is going to wear you out.
The effect of all this bullshit (and metabullshit) is that we get people attacking soap stars because of something their character did in last week’s episode, we get climate change denial, antivaxxers, holocaust denial, homoeopathy, we get statements like “it’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”, we get people forgetting that ultimately it’s just a game, etc. etc.
And on the other hand, where many epistemologies collide with scientific rationalism, scientific rationalism wins (because it’s the only one that works) and we lose all these alternative worldviews in a global epistemicide.
The answer to this either or state between accepting or rejecting reality is liminality. You can have your cake and eat it. You don’t have to pretend stuff that others have found out is made-up, just so you can still have stuff you’ve made up. Have your liminal spaces, but acknowledge that they are liminal spaces. You just need to be able to see the limen. Within the delineated liminal spaces, you can call anything you like true. Go to your mumsnet group and complain about all the chemicals in your food, have your YouTube channels about the earth being flat, have your services where you talk about all the wonderful things your God has done for you. But see the limen.
From all the examples above, we can see how flexible liminality is, it can be delineated within specific spaces, it’s permeable, it can be spontaneously generated once it’s been established, it can follow people around. The boundaries can be played with. So feel free in applying liminality when and where you like, but when you come back out into the real world, acknowledge that it’s just football, or religion, or a movie and use real things for making decisions about the real stuff.
Recognise that every damn thing has chemicals in them and act accordingly, don’t go up in rockets to prove the Earth is flat, acknowledge that God is no justification for stopping your son from marrying his fiancé because God is something someone made up at some point. Acknowledge your inbuilt bullshit detector and end the self-denial. Accept reality into your lives.
Go to your liminal space. Have your fun. Have your life-affirming moments. Share your beliefs with your fellow worshippers as if they were real things. But see the limen, as you transition back out into the world you share with the rest of us.
See the limen and we’ll all get along just fine.
Childs, M., Chafer, J. Pierpoint, S., Stelarc, Upton, I., and Wright, G. (2014) “Moving towards the alien ‘other’”, in Kuksa, I. and Childs, M. Making Sense of Space: The Design and Experience of Virtual Spaces as a Tool for Communication. Chandos, UK:Oxford. pp . 121-138
MacKenzie, A., Bhatt, I. Lies, Bullshit and Fake News: Some Epistemological Concerns. Postdigit Sci Educ 2, 9–13 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-018-0025-4