Thursday, March 8, 2012


I'll start my little treatise by remembering an anti-evolutionary argument made famous by Rev. William Paley in England in the late 1700s.  He compared the human eye to a pocketwatch, he said the eye is proof of a designer, i.e., the existence of God, because of its exquisite design.  An eye couldn't have just happened, he argued; clearly it was designed -- hence there was a designer.  Someone should have asked him how it would not be less likely for the designer itself to have just occurred; it's a pretty good rebuttal. 

But Paley would not have welcomed that reply; he was using incredulity.  His was a good question: how could a human eye just happen?  But it was also a statement: An eye could not have just happened.   

Richard Dawkins' book The Blind Watchmaker is all about this argument, and he goes into detail about the evolution of the eye.  Yet recently a friend made just the same sort of statement, a Catholic, she told me she believed in evolution, sure,  but not that humans came from monkeys!!!?   “Humans … from monkeys??!! ,” she asked.  Well, not exactly.  But like Paley, the incredulity that carried her question suggested that she didn't really want the answer.  It was a statement: "I just don't believe it."  And that is that.

There is nothing exactly wrong with being incredulous, when you really are certain that you're up against something ridiculous, and you're willing to ridicule it.  But when you have an opinion, not a certainty, and you're not willing or able to defend the opinion with rationality, then incredulity can be used to turn a real question into a rhetorical one -- to seem to ask a question but rather to make a point.  In a funny way incredulity that appears to be a statement of fact may actually be just a nail in the coffin of knowledge.  See how different my friend would sound without the emphasis: “How would humans evolved from monkeys?” … well, they didn't quite, humans and modern apes share a common ancestor.  Humans and monkeys do too, but farther back...  And then you have a conversation. 

Sometimes a tone can convey concrete meaning.  It could be a disparaging tone, a bitter one, a mournful one, and so on.  I remember hearing a mocking "Hell-looow!” (which meant “your brain is completely emp-ty.”)   Or a protesting: "Reeeeeealy?!"  Each of these say something but mean something else.  They are what linguists call an implicator, a statement with two meanings, either one of which can be conveniently denied.  Are you saying my brain is empty?  No, I didn't say that.  Were you greeting me with hello?  No, I didn't really mean it in the literal sense.

My point is that incredulity can shift a question from information-seeking to point-making in a rather cowardly way.   I've been incredulous myself, I've noticed.  For example, in a recent work-related meeting (the context doesn’t matter) when someone suggested “those with fewer than three should get another.”   I asked “Whatt??!  Why three,?!” at which point my colleague withdrew the suggestion immediately.  I should have just asked "why three?"  There might have been a very good reason.  (It was actually self-recrimination for this incident that cause me to write this little essay!)

So I’ve been trying to notice this incredulous tone – when I use it, when others use it, my own reactions when I hear it, and the reactions of others.  And I've mostly lost respect for incredulity altogether.

So around the house it’s “What is this thing doing on the counter!!!!?”  or “are you really going to wear that tonight!?;  on the radio I hear politicians piling use it “I am so right about this, and also he’s an idiot!!"  At work it’s “Doesn’t he ever attend those meetings!!?”, “will she never return my calls!!!??,” and … “why three!?"

And incredulity can be infectious; it often evokes an incredulous response.  Someone says "What??? You must be stupid!"  and gets  "No you are stupid, and I'm right!"  Or the incredulity may be taken on onesself: If someone says "You’re not really going to wear THAT!?? (it looks stupid!)"; and someone reacts "Oh no, I can't won't wear this!"  Incredulity against onesself.  Ouch.

What I hate worse is when I use the tone myself.  I would like to protect myself from incredulity, spare others, and maybe pull a conversation back on the high road now and then. 

And hey maybe there are other tonal messages that are still subliminal to me, good and bad.  I certainly wouldn't be surprised.

1 comment:

  1. I like your observations because I agree, many of us tend to speak this way, with incredulity, including me. The insult imbedded in an incredulous statement is also something I'd never thought of before. Thanks for the insights! I have just one question: Why is that thing on the counter?


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