Everything you do is philosophical.
You wake in the morning, groan, stretch and open your eyes. What is happening?
Everything that is happening is philosophical.
How do you know you are awake? How do you know it is morning? How do you know your eyes are open? How do you know your dreaming has ended and your day has begun?
How do you know your memories of yesterday – or ten years ago – are valid? How do you even know you are the same person as the one who got into bed last night?
It gets even crazier, when you really think about it.
How do you know that your “experience” is not in fact some elaborate simulation? Do you know for certain that you are not a brain in a tank, wired up to some Matrix-style virtual reality?
Look at your hand right now. You see a hand, sure, but how do you know that the hand truly exists outside of your mind? Sure, you see your hand, but the image only shows up in your mind. It’s the same with your sensations of your hand – they also only show up in your mind. Where is the hand itself?
Last night, in your dreams, you also had hands – or claws, or tentacles, or heaven knows what –that did not exist or move in what you call the “real world.” In your dreams, you visited a floating island full of dragons that does not exist outside your dreamscape – or does it? Perhaps your dreams are the real world, and your “waking” life is the dream. How can you know for certain?
Perhaps the people you live with are mere avatars – artificial intelligence simulations of human beings. Perhaps they were all real people at some point, but have been replaced by space aliens with perfect biological robots. When you went to a movie last night, perhaps the entire cinema complex was a form of elaborate theatre – perhaps you were in a movie, watching a movie.
What if you are created anew every day from scratch, but with a steady if inconsistent series of progressive memories layered into your newly hatched brain?
What about your memory?
Is it real? Recalled events are gone, lost in time; your memory only exists in your mind. What if you or something else is altering it over time?
Think of your very first memory – is it real? Think of other early memories – could they have been created in your mind by stories you heard as a child?
Try this on for size: go and visit your childhood neighbourhood. I guarantee you that it will neither look nor feel exactly as you remember it – and sometimes not even approximately, even if little has changed.
Look at a picture of yourself as a child – where has that child gone? When you build a foundation for a house, the finished house still has that foundation. But what still remains of your childhood body and mind? You are not like some Russian doll with smaller versions of yourself remaining inside. The human body is replaced over time – every seven years, with little to nothing left from your past physical self. Where are your memories? Are your memories like the childhood game of Broken Telephone, irretrievably lost in endless translation?
Invite childhood friends and siblings over for dinner and discuss shared past events – what perceptions do you all have in common? I guarantee you that others will have very strong memories that significantly differ from yours – sometimes even opposing them completely. What does this mean? You were all in the same place, experiencing the same things – but you have very different memories. Nothing remains of the events except the memories, the interpretations, and everyone’s story about the events – so tell me, what is real? If everyone has a different idea of what happened, what actually happened? Can anyone tell?
If you have home movies of your childhood, sit down with your family and review them – what are the various interpretations of what is “objectively” happening on the screen? When your sister made fun of you, was it playful ribbing, as she remembers, or was it painful teasing, as you remember? Even recorded “objectivity” rarely leads to objectivity.
Even if you remember the same events as your siblings, you can each end up with entirely opposing interpretations. A father hits his children – one child remembers violent abuse, the other remembers stern but loving discipline. A sister believes it made her a better person, a brother believes it harmed him deeply.
A mother has an affair – her daughter sympathizes with her loneliness; her son condemns her as selfish.
You grew up poor – you resent it, your brother thinks it built character.
One of your toddlers loves the noisy vacuum cleaner – the other screams and flees in terror. Is either interpretation the true nature of the vacuum cleaner? Is it a fun noisemaker, or a terrifying monster?
One mother loves cooking for her family; another resents it as a repetitive chore.
Let us go deeper – as we can always go deeper.
Here is another challenge: you claim that you have an identity and that you are your own person, of course – but what does that really mean? Let us say that you are a Christian, and you consider your religion a feature of your own personal identity. If at birth you had been adopted by a Zoroastrian family, you would surely have been brought up in that family’s religion, and you would now consider being a Zoroastrian part of your own personal identity. If you were brought up in a house of Democrats, or liberals, or leftists, you would likely be more willing to inherit that political perspective.
How much of you is distinct from what you have inherited? If you merely inherited a trait, is it really you?
How much of your personality is largely inherited, genetic, and beyond your capacity to change significantly? How much of yourself do you think you have chosen, earned, built with your own mental bare hands? How often do you condemn other people’s personalities, as if other people somehow magically just chose who they are?
What if your judgmental nature is not completely your choice, but partly genetic?
You say that you are tall or short – but height is also a function of your genetics, not your own personal, earned identity. You can take pride in parts of your personality and achievements – you may be hard-working or very honest – but significant aspects of your personality and achievements are genetic. Your intelligence is largely genetic, your conscientiousness, your level of social comfort, your charisma – these largely arise from unchosen biological influences, though we often take personal pride in that which we have biologically inherited.
Do you consider yourself a conservative, liberal, or something else? If you are a male conservative, did you know that trait is 64.5% heritable? For women, it is 44.7%.
To describe yourself, you need language, of course. If English is your native tongue, you possess a unique set of words by which you may describe yourself – some of which do not even exist in other languages.
Think of how much of your personal identity, that which you call a “self,” has been influenced by the work of others – writers and moviemakers and actors and singers and teachers and so on.
Your language, your culture, your family, your schooling, some of your accidental exposures to the thoughts and feelings of others – all of these influences have shaped you, but they did not originate within you.
Even if you could accurately say, “I was influenced by Bob,” you have merely moved the chain of causality one step away. Who was Bob influenced by? How many of his capacities and perspectives were chosen? Were you influenced by Bob’s thoughts or Bob’s genetics? How can the things that influenced you – or Bob – be accurately separated?
Perhaps we are all just predetermined dominoes falling on each other under the pretense of choice.
So what does it mean to have an identity, to be yourself, when so little of who you are was completely self-generated?
Do you see what I mean?
Everything we do is philosophical.
When most people think of the word “faith,” they generally refer to a belief in God – but it is much more accurate to say that we have “faith” in reality. We have faith in ourselves, our existence, memories or history, our relationships, the evidence of our senses, the virtue of our choices – we have few if any real philosophical certainties in these areas. We accept what we have to in order to survive, to get through the day, to find shelter and food – and love, hopefully.
Your young son steals a candy bar from a store – you rebuke him, march him back into the store, perhaps punish him – but why? What objective, universal moral principles did your son violate? How do you know that they are true or good? Where do they exist in reality? Do you punish your son because you fear the disapproval of others? Are you afraid that people will think you are a bad parent because you raised a thief? Do you punish your son because there is a subjective social convention against stealing? Is that how you describe it to him? No, surely, you will tell him that it is wrong to steal, that he is bad for stealing, that it is immoral and so on. But – how do you know? If you are Christian, you have a pretty good idea – one of the Ten Commandments is Thou shalt not steal. But that exists in the realm of theology, not philosophy.
If you are atheist or agnostic – how do you know that stealing is wrong? Because it makes people unhappy? That argument is scarcely philosophical – a lot of things make people unhappy, without being immoral. A negative movie review makes the filmmakers unhappy – and can cost them millions of dollars – but it is neither illegal nor immoral to write a negative movie review, if you write it honestly. Also, your son can argue that getting the candy bar without paying makes him happy, so it totally evens out.
Perhaps you invoke the golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you – and ask your son if he would like it if others stole from him. However, he may just reply that he does not care, and then what could you say? Maybe he is the biggest kid around, and no one would dare! Relying on his empathy for his future self and for the feelings of others only works if he already has empathy.
Most morality is like a diet book for slim people. If you are morally sensitive, then you will generally accept moral arguments, but then you tend to be the kind of person least in need of moral arguments. Morality needs to be powerful enough to overcome the indifference of truly selfish people. Morality that requires the leverage of self-criticism has virtually no power over narcissists, sociopaths or psychopaths, who have little to no capacity for self-criticism. If you care about others, you will most likely be good, with or without moral arguments – if you do not care, moral arguments will have no real sway over you.
When you start to explore definitions, the question of theft becomes even more complicated. If “theft” means taking property without permission, or using force, against the will of its legitimate owner, then what is taxation? If you try to legitimize taxation by appealing to the democratic will of the majority, aren’t you just encouraging your son to get a few friends to go with him to the convenience store, where they will then outvote the owner on who gets the candy bars? Can immorality be legitimized by the majority? If two men vote to rape one woman, surely that does not make rape any less immoral? Surely our highest aspirations as moral instructors cannot be to teach our children to submit to or join the majority mob.
Perhaps we teach our children that self-sacrifice is the highest universal moral ideal – that they should give up their own preferences and aspirations in order to serve the needs of others. But if self-sacrifice is a universal moral ideal, then it cannot possibly be applied universally. If Bob sacrifices for Doug, then Doug cannot simultaneously sacrifice for Bob. There are those who sacrifice, and those who collect that sacrifice – those who pay, and those who receive. If self-sacrifice is a universal moral ideal, then those who collect that sacrifice, rather than provide it, must be immoral, since they are profiting from other people’s self-sacrifice, rather than sacrificing themselves. But if the highest moral ideal requires other people to be immoral, how can it be universally good?
Perhaps we teach our children that they should obey authority figures – listen to your teacher, obey your father, etc. However, they then learn from history that horrifying atrocities were often committed by those obeying authority figures. Sometimes, perhaps it is good to obey authority figures – other times, it is a great evil to obey authority figures – how can we teach them the difference? Is there a moral authority higher than secular authority? How are morals justified? How do we know?
We currently have a tortured relationship with philosophy. We need it to get out of bed in the morning and get anything done with our lives. But we cannot examine it too closely, for fear of mental or moral disintegration. It is like the Aristotelian mean – too little philosophy makes us animalistic, too much tempts impotent madness. We desperately need rules in society, but we recoil from examining our rules too closely for fear of unearthing something unholy in the empty heart of our coerced coexistence.
Many who are drawn to philosophy become toxic to the majority. They drink deep the dizzying wine of scepticism, question the basic empiricism necessary for life, and end up absorbing and transmitting radical relativism and subjectivism. They cry out that there is no such thing as truth, thereby proclaiming that there is no such thing as philosophy – all spoken under the guise of philosophy.
Most of us have every rational reason to avoid, fear and deny the pursuit of truth, since it so often leads us with great momentum to the crumbling edge of a foggy cliff.
There is great danger in the study of philosophy.
It can feel like summoning a demon you can barely hope to control.
A shallow study of philosophy is like a child’s first brush with science. As a child, when I first learned that the sun would eventually burn itself out, and that I was living on the side of a giant spinning ball on the edge of an unremarkable galaxy, I felt depressed and disoriented. In the childhood of our species, when man believed he was the centre of the universe, it gave him comfort.
As a toddler, my daughter confidently told me that the lead hero in a movie could not die, because he was the centre of the story. Moving mankind from the centre of the universe to the inconsequential periphery can be extraordinarily disorienting. But it does give us the capacity to navigate the globe, predict the path of the planets, fly between continents and get to the moon and back.
It seems like a reasonable trade-off.
When I was younger, I had a lengthy recurring dream. The dreamscape would span the entire length of a semester – or even a whole school year – at university. Here’s how it went.
At the beginning of a semester, I sign up for an obscure class in an out-of-the-way building.
Then – I simply don’t go to class. I have strong intentions of going, so I don’t drop the course – but I just never seem to get around to showing up.
I forget the time and place of the course. I know I have it written down somewhere – and know I should dig up the information, attend the class, and get caught up on the course material. However, as the semester wears on, the growing backlog of work and the effort it would take to get caught up swells to the point where I avoid even looking up the class location, preferring to attend more enjoyable classes, play Frisbee in the quad, go on a romantic date, or – well, do anything but confront how far into the hole I have actually sunk.
Over the course of the dream, I feel a growing sense of unease, knowing I am being irresponsible by avoiding something essential. I continually kick myself, when my anxiety spikes, for not dropping the course when I had the chance, before it became too late, because now the bad mark will show up on my transcript no matter what.
This avoidance grows to the point where I have trouble enjoying anything, and I feel at war with myself.
Later in the semester, I become petty and easily annoyed. I view the anxiety that is trying to help me as an enemy. Oh come on, I tell it, there’s nothing to be done now! Why are you interfering with my enjoyment?
We all have this temptation, right? We all know we need to examine truth, morality, virtue, good and evil – and compare our examinations to our existing life, the lives of those around us, and our societies as a whole. But so often we prefer to coast, to avoid, to resent the nagging feeling that we are drifting further and further away from where we ought to be – as people, as families, as communities, as nations, as a species.
Instead, we think, Let me enjoy myself now, and the future will sort itself out somehow…
We believe anxiety is a form of instability. And we want to stay stable, no matter the cost to our personal and collective futures. We busy ourselves with alcohol, drugs, video games, exercise, vanity, spending. We deploy every form of stimulant to distract ourselves from difficult but necessary wisdom.
This book will bring you that wisdom. It will not make you crazy – I guarantee you that.
If you listen, this book will make you painfully sane. We have drifted so far from sanity that reality now scalds us – but we have no other choice, other than non-existence.
We have become so lost that we fear maps, but maps are all that can save us.
It is not too late as yet – but almost, almost.
Let us begin.
Philosophy is the study of truth, which is a definition that raises almost as many questions as it answers.
What is truth? How is truth differentiated from falsehood? Why is truth even preferable to falsehood?
Truth is the accurate identification of facts and principles in objective reality.
Our senses are our mind’s only windows to objective reality. Our brain, our consciousness, is encased in a bony skull prison. It cannot send out tentacles or mind rays to map whatever exists outside the inside of our heads. It must rely on information received and transmitted by the five senses.
As we grow, we create mental maps, based upon on our reception of sense data. When we feel the wind on our face, the treetops also move. When it rains, it is typically cloudy. When it is sunny, we feel warmer. We cannot breathe underwater, nor generally jump higher than half our height. When we run, we get short of breath, it hurts when we do belly flops, and mosquitoes are not our friends. Ladybugs are cute, but bees can be dangerous. An excess of courage often leads to injury, while an excess of cowardice leads to mockery and self-contempt.
In childhood, we build maps not just of empirical reality, but of social reality as well. People of different personality types constantly goad or encourage us to become more like them, or they prod others to satisfy their emotional requirements. The shy kids want us to restrain ourselves, while the outgoing kids mock our restraint. The fearful kids mock our courage, while the overconfident kids both help and endanger us by egging us on. The moral kids condemn our rule-breaking – the nihilistic kids mock rules. The nerds mock the jocks – the jocks roll their eyes at the nerds. The pretty kids don’t eat, the fat kids learn the arcane rules of even more arcane games – the homely kids learn how to make jokes. The kids who don’t take drugs scorn those who do, the kids who don’t have sex scorn those who do, and vice versa, of course.
Perceptive children quickly understand that society is an ecosystem of warring personalities and mental structures – not just horizontally, but vertically as well. The teachers, the curriculum, the entire educational structure attempts to impose a certain mindset upon the children. Many succumb without question, while others push back as much as they dare, often hopelessly and helplessly – or they withdraw completely, ghosting through the painted brick hallways.
The children are constantly commanded to be moral, but morality is never defined in a way that captures immorality on the part of their elders. Ethics become like an inverted fishing net that only catches the minnows, while letting the sharks swim free. We can further imagine a legal system that punishes a sailor taking a photograph in a submarine, while excusing a powerful woman who bypasses required security by setting up a home-brewed server in a barn.
When children blurt out an uncomfortable truth, they are told that “keeping quiet” is moral. When adults want information from kids, “speaking up” becomes moral.
Children are told not to use force to get their way, but they are typically spanked at home and punished in school. Children are told to respect the property of others, by teachers who use the power of the state to compel parents to pay their salaries through property taxes. Children are told to save their money, to avoid frivolous debt, and to be responsible – only to be justly shocked when they learn about the trillions of dollars in national debts that governments take out in their names. Children are told they have free will and that they are responsible for their choices, but they are generally compelled to go to school and to obey the commandments of their teachers.
Children are constantly told they owe society allegiance, because society really cares about the well-being of children. They’re told that all the harshness heaped upon them arises out of that concern for their young and tender well-being. As they age, however, the children find out they will be taxed for decades to pay for old-age pensions that they themselves have no chance of receiving. Their elders voted for government benefits, but not for the tax increases necessary to pay for those benefits, resulting in catastrophic debt and unfunded liabilities.
Children are told not to harm others, while many boys have a third of the skin of their penises sliced off shortly after birth, without anesthetic, for no medical necessity.
Among the more intelligent children, a suspicion begins to arise that moral rules are a form of psychological control, rather than universal absolutes that everyone must follow. When children begin to read the news and discover that those in power regularly get away with atrocities a thousand times worse than anything any child could imagine, this suspicion expands exponentially.
The pursuit of truth and the advocacy of truly universal moral rules quickly become a dangerous occupation when pseudo-philosophy is used as a weapon to subjugate society to the whims of the powerful. If your response to the question, “What is truth?” is not, “What your elders tell you,” then you may soon find your elders can rapidly turn on you.
When societies are growing and expanding, at least it’s a highly profitable subjugation to submit to the dictates of one’s elders. Obey social norms, get a good job, raise a family, save for your retirement, live well. However, when societies begin to contract and fail, elders rapidly lose the power of economic bribery necessary to control the youth.
The young graduate under a mountain of student debt and face dim or non-existent job prospects. They realize that criminal bankers get debt forgiveness, but young people cannot discharge their student debt even through bankruptcy. Then the young can no longer be bribed and social norms begin to fall apart. Seldom do a criminal enterprise or a pirate captain face mutiny when the gold is flowing in. Cold fingers close on hilts when victim ships are scarce.
To wipe away all these complications, all these confusions, all these manipulations from our mental maps of the world and its inhabitants requires an act of philosophy. It requires that we truly start from a blank page, with the innocence and ignorance of an infant, assuming that nothing is true, but that truth is possible. We must wilfully forget all we have learned – and especially all we have been taught – and view our existing histories, cultures, societies and beliefs as mere tangled rubble and undergrowth that need to be cleared away completely before we can start digging the foundations of a true and permanent home.
When you are walking and someone gives you bad directions, sending you in the wrong direction for hours, you get angry when you realize you’ve been misled. You did not start lost – you were made lost.
So it is with truth.
Bad ideas often lead to bad actions – and bad actions create the need for compounding lies to cover them up. Without philosophy, power and the resulting entropy reign supreme in the human mind and heart, and cultures continually fall away from reason, virtue and happiness.
When we are children, rules continually come flying at us like a swarm of locusts, seemingly without end. We do not need philosophy in order to conform to the expectations of others – particularly if they hold power over us; that comes naturally. If virtue is obedience, our path to goodness is simple – find the authority figure with the most power to harm or reward us, and then merely conform to whatever that authority figure desires.
However, this choice rarely manifests so starkly. Authority figures do not like to present themselves as mere agents of physical strength, for the simple reason that they inevitably weaken with age.
A parent has an advantage of near-infinite size and power over the child – but as the child grows, the parent weakens. If physical size and strength alone determine who wins, the parent who dominates his child later ends up dominated by his adult child.
Concepts of “gods” and “virtues” were originally summoned to infuse authority figures with credibility over and above mere physical presence. A king is merely a man who can be easily slaughtered in his sleep, as Macbeth showed. However, if the king is infused with the divine right of monarchy, and is placed by an all-loving and all-powerful God to rule over a sinful mankind, then opposition to the king is opposition to God. You may kill the king, who can then no longer do you any more harm – but God will get the king’s revenge by robbing you of sleep and sending you to hell forever. Moral concepts were generally invented – or they evolved – to hide the aging mortality of merely empirical power relationships. “You are not obeying me,” says the king. “You are obeying God, who placed me to rule over you.”
You must obey the king, because he represents God. But the king himself does not have to obey God, because the king prays for instructions from God. And whatever the king does is informed by that mysterious and unverifiable interaction.
The chieftain represents the elders, or the world spirits, or the ghosts of champions. Such representation infuses him with an authority that transcends his mere mortal and physical presence. Totalitarianism is a dungeon patrolled by ghosts, however; banish those ghosts, and the dungeon breaks wide open.
It is impossible to avoid philosophy, even if one only wishes to pursue conformity to authority. What constitutes authority? Why and when is authority valid? How should we respond to an authority that contradicts itself, or acts against the moral values it imposes on its subjects?
We can say that no irrational abstractions can legitimize authority – that authority is merely the power to punish and reward, usually through force. We can say to ourselves that we have no respect for our teachers, for example, but we recognize their ability to pass or fail us. We can say to ourselves that we have no respect for tyrannical laws, but we recognize the judge’s ability to punish us. This perspective may trigger conformity to rules, but we will not internalize those rules as ideal standards. Ruling us profitably will be impossible, since we refuse to rule ourselves, and we are eager to break whatever fake rules we safely can.
There is an old saying that morality is whatever we do when no one is watching. This is not a philosophical argument, but it is an interesting observation. Do you respect property rights because it is moral, or do you avoid stealing another’s property because you fear jail? In a situation of societal breakdown, such as after a natural disaster, would you loot because you no longer feared jail? When rules are not idealized and internalized, the cost of enforcing them becomes increasingly high – often to the point of unsustainability. If you wish to destroy a society, teach its citizens that rules are mere exercises of power.
A thief who approaches a house and hears a large dog barking inside will probably choose another house – not because he has a sudden attack of conscience, but because he fears a sudden attack of dog.
The fear of consequences – of punishment – is like a stream pouring down the side of a mountain. If the stream hits a big rock, it will part and the water will find another way down. If the stream hits a lake, or a dam, or a reservoir, its progress will stop. This is how the mind of an amoral man in pursuit of a goal works. If he runs into a guard dog, or a policeman, or an alarm system, then he will change his course – but he won’t give up his goal.
Traditional philosophy empowers to evil those who most need its guidance toward the good, while it appeals most to those who need the least guidance. If you care about being good, you will listen to morality, but you also already possess the essential virtue of empathy, so you will most likely be good anyway. If you don’t possess empathy, you can easily use traditional philosophy to manipulate those who do into serving your needs.
Conformity to authority cannot be universalized, however, and universality is the very essence of philosophy. If I conform to an authority, who does the authority conform to? Of course, some would say the authority conforms to God, or to the wishes of the ancestors, or to the world spirit, or to the will of the people. But even these cannot be universalized and are scarcely objectively measurable. Also, if one man can conform to God, and I am a man, then why can I not just conform to that God? Why do I need a secular authority to order me around? If every man needs another man to obey, then who does the ultimate authority figure obey?
This is the problem of infinite regression. We can abstract the concept of obedience to say that a citizen obeys something called “the law,” but the law either represents abstract moral virtues, or it is the mere will of the legislature. If the law represents abstract moral virtues, then I am not obeying the law. I am merely conforming to those virtues – which are superior to the law, and which render the law invalid if it deviates from the virtues.
Saying that the law is a mere shadow cast by the perfect statue of virtue severely curtails the will of the ruler, as King George found out during the American Revolution. If the moral law is Thou Shall Not Steal, then a government that steals – or legalizes its own act of theft – is acting against morality. And moral people would have no innate reason to obey it. In fact, their respect for property rights would instruct them to challenge the law, or perhaps even disobey it.
If the law represents the mere will of the legislature, then it has no foundational moral content to speak of. It is merely the compulsion used in the pursuit of power. This approach expands the will of the ruler – either in a democracy, or in a more authoritarian system – but contradicts his moral legitimacy. It exposes a coercive oligarchical hierarchy as a mere exercise of power – do it because I have more guns than you – which turns the enforcement of legality into a dangerous game of whack-a-mole, since citizens feel no universal moral obligation to obey the law. Thus they get away with whatever they can. This in turn triggers the rulers to raise the penalties for disobedience, which increases the costs of enforcement and inflames the cynicism of the population, leading to economic and social collapse.
Thus rulers need morality, but fear morality as well. It is like desperately needing a bodyguard, but being terrified that he will stab you in your sleep. If rulers can cloak their exercise of power in morality, then people will be more likely to obey them – but the innate universality of morality limits the power of the ruler. This tension will exist as long as governments exist, with the same inevitable outcome every time.
“Truth” describes verifiable and objective principles and experiences.
If I say that I had a headache last summer while camping alone, there is no way to verify my statement. But if I say that the sun is 8.3 light minutes away from the earth, there are ways to verify my statement.
Subjective experiences do not fall in the realm of philosophy, any more than nightly dreams fall in the realm of physics. Saying that something “feels true” makes about as much sense as saying that “imagination proves scientific hypotheses.”
The conflation of subjective experience with objective truth is one of the great curses of human history.
If I speak a truth that others find inconvenient or offensive, they imagine that their emotions somehow rebut the facts. The idea that being upset trumps examining objective facts is an example of just how far we have drifted from the tough-minded and empirical philosophy that founded our civilization.
In order to value truth, we must first establish the existence of an objective reality.
Its existence is easily testable. For instance, I have two realms of experience – one in which impossible things happen, and another in which impossible things do not happen. The first realm is my dreams – or perhaps a very vivid video game. The second is reality. I once had a startling dream wherein an alligator propelled itself backwards a distance of fifty or sixty feet, landing near me. This cannot happen in reality, absent the invention of reptilian jetpacks.
Impossibility is a hallmark of subjectivity. Fantasy novels contain magic, and magic is defined as mental effects on nature that cannot be explained or achieved in reality. I can buy a Taser, if I want, but I cannot shoot lightning bolts from my fingertips, Dungeons & Dragons style. I cannot cast a sleep spell, but I can shoot a tranquilizer dart.
I cannot move forward by pushing a W key, which is one reason I know that my computer monitor is different from my eyeballs.
Impossibility is at least partly defined as “objects or processes with self-contradictory definitions” – a square circle, for instance. It is impossible for matter to both attract and repel other matter simultaneously, for a gas to both expand and contract when heated, for the world to be both flat and spherical, or for objects to be moving closer together and further apart at the same time.
Thus, there are two realms of experience – the realm of impossibility and self-contradiction or the realm of possibility. In one realm – the dream realm – there are no consistent laws of physics or identity. Objects and entities have a variety of properties that change all the time, but we usually wake up in the same bed we fell asleep in. If I am curious, I can hook up a video camera to record myself sleeping, and then compare my subjective experience of dreaming to my objective experience of lying in a bed. I may dream that I am flying, but when I observe myself, I see I am only twitching under the covers.
There is also an intermediate realm – which can be confusing for some, but which is easy to explain philosophically – and that is the realm of manipulation.
Let’s say your friend Bob is lying on the couch, and he really wants a peach from a tree in the garden. Bob can ask you to go pick one for him, and perhaps you will. Or Bob can beg, wheedle, bribe, cajole, bully or manipulate you into getting him a peach, and perhaps you will. But he only tries because you’re human. There is no other living entity in the universe that we know of that Bob can manipulate into getting him a peach. He can manipulate other human beings; he cannot manipulate peach trees or physics or gravity.
If I have to jump from a high wall, I can beg you to catch me. I cannot rationally beg gravity to suspend itself, even for an instant. If I’m lying in a sunny hammock, I can ask you to get me sunscreen. I cannot ask the sun to refrain from burning me – or, if I do, the sun will not obey.
If you have a job or hobby that involves manipulating and controlling people, then you spend a lot of time in a fairly subjective frame of mind. Please understand, I am not saying that manipulating and controlling people is innately bad. It can have very positive outcomes, such as your doctor scaring you into losing weight and exercising, or a salesman helping you overcome your fearful resistance to a beneficial purchase.
If you are in sales, politics, the media, or academia, then your primary focus is not on objective reality, but on other people’s minds – their perceptions and thoughts and feelings. If you wheedle, cajole, bully, manipulate, encourage and inspire, then you are like a farmer whose primary crop is future human actions. Of course, the hope is that you bring objective principles to people’s subjective experience, with the goal of helping them make rational decisions – but often, of course, this is scarcely the case. If you are in academia, you might bring to people’s pre-existing prejudices the facts that deny the sexism of the supposed male/female “wage gap.” Or you might stoke those prejudices and provoke the plethora of resentments, alienations, and frustrations that lead people to bitter, barren lives.
Those who spend significant amounts of time attempting to influence other people’s thoughts and actions are often in grave danger of falling prey to the “subjective universe” hypothesis – which is one reason it spreads so rapidly. Since most of their mental energies are spent trying to change other people’s minds, the objectivity of the universe easily becomes obscured.
When I was a kid, spoon bending, telekinesis and all other sorts of mental gibberish were enormously popular. And I remember, open-minded young tyke that I was, experimenting with controlling objects through my mind. My very first music LP was “The Things We Do for Love,” by 10cc. Back in the day, you had to put a needle on the record to play it, and when the song was over, the needle would just keep clicking against the label. I clearly remember, at about the age of eleven, lying on my bed, listening to the music playing in another room, and working my mind feverishly to lift the needle and put it back in its holder.
I tried a number of other approaches to this hypothesis that telekinesis could work, all of which failed completely.
Another time, my mother took me to a spoon-bending class, where I was supposed to be taught how to bend spoons with my mind. This turned out to be mere mental manipulation combined with continually rubbing the metal of the spoon to make it softer. You then imagined yourself easily twisting the spoon. By the time you actually twisted it, the metal was softer, and you were mentally psyched up to more easily do it.
I also got interested in mind reading, UFOs, pyramid power, and all other sorts of mental detritus that clogged up the brainpower of the late 1970s – but none of it ever panned out.
In hindsight, I’m sort of glad that this nonsense was everywhere – and I’m very glad that I gave it all an honest try. Because it taught me two important things: first of all, empirical verification is the key to truth. And second, society seems more than willing to regularly swan-dive into sophisticated vats of utter mental garbage.
Moving objects with your mind violates basic laws of physics. It is an effect without a cause – in other words, movement without prior movement. And it also denies basic evolution – in that if we could move things with our minds, we would scarcely have developed arms and hands. It’s the same with telepathy. Any human group with the capacity to transmit thoughts would have had such an enormous evolutionary advantage that such a skill would have spread like wildfire among the population. (Imagine the advantage in war and hunting alone.)
Similarly, our emotions are good at helping us read people, but not as good at helping us understand objective reality. Throughout history, human predators were our greatest danger. And they live among us in the greatest disguise of all, since they often look just like us or people we love. Those who developed strong and accurate “gut instincts” about dangerous people avoided – or at least minimized – such predations.
As we became more civilized and lived in towns and cities, non-human predation fell away. And so people tended to focus their fight-and-flight mechanisms on dangerous people, rather than on predatory animals. These dangerous people, in turn, developed language skills designed to blunt people’s capacity to sniff out human danger.
Lions creep in the tall grass, and human predators hide in baffling and manipulative syllables. Rational philosophers bring truth and pain now, but freedom later. Sophists bring ease and relief now, but tyranny later. The human herd vacillates from greed to necessity and back again, like a weak man torn between a good wife and a dangerous mistress.
These days, we live in such a social world that we tend to confuse our instincts about people with facts about reality.
If you hold a toy airplane, you can maneuver it to fly directly. If you fly it through remote control, you can maneuver it indirectly. If your friend flies it through remote control, you can tell him to turn the plane left or right. If you watch an old video of a toy airplane flying, you cannot control it at all.
We inhabit several layers of diminishing control – the first is over our own mind, our own thoughts. Our thoughts are largely autonomous, but subject to our control. If I ask you to think of an eagle, you can think of an eagle. It is unlikely you will continue to think of one for long, since the human mind is self-generating, absent-minded and easily distracted. Something more important will soon grab your attention.
This type of mind control has limits. If I tell you not to think of an eagle, is it even possible for you to do as I ask?
Thoughts within us are constantly churning, arriving, disappearing. Our minds are beehives of continual activity. They initiate internal action constantly, and equally constantly, they remain in motion. Controlling thoughts is initially like trying to ride a barely trained horse – but it is the most direct layer of control that we have. Our bodies can be externally controlled – we can be handcuffed, for instance. Our minds cannot be so directly controlled.
The second layer of control is over our own bodies. I can tell my right hand to scratch my eyebrow and it will obey. I can manage my own thoughts, and I can initiate actions in my body – at least in my limbs and external body. I can’t do much to control my digestion or blood flow, nor can I stop my heart with my mind.
I can stop my arms from moving. I cannot stop myself from aging.
My mind is in constant motion. The aspects of my body I can control tend to be inert. My arm does not move until I tell it to. We manage our minds, while we move our bodies.
The first level of control is over our own minds; the second is over our own bodies.
The third layer of control is over objects we can manipulate beyond our own bodies. I can pick up a peach and eat it – I cannot blow a cumulus cloud away.
Other people can also pick up that peach; they cannot directly control my arm.
After this, our control trails away quickly. I can choose to drink a glass of water; I cannot decide water is poisonous to me. I can choose to crank up a Queen song on my headphones; I cannot choose whether high volume damages my hearing. I can choose to drink arsenic; I cannot will it to be good for me.
We can control our own thoughts to some degree, we can control our own bodies to some degree, and we can manipulate proximate entities, but we cannot change physical laws or properties at will.
That which we cannot choose to change falls under the definition of what we call objective or external reality.
Science generally measures what we cannot choose to change, as does engineering, logic, mathematics and other objective disciplines. If an engineer builds a bridge, and that bridge falls down, no one blames the engineer’s willpower or sartorial preferences. He may have made a mistake in his calculations, or the materials may have been defective, or some extremity of weather may have overtaken the parameters of his design – but his will is not what is at fault.
On the other hand, if I ask you to hold my delicate computer tablet and you drop it in excitement when your phone rings, clearly you have been deficient in some manner of concentration, focus or willpower. You certainly had the strength to hold my little tablet, but you got distracted and excited, and dropped it. You had the power to hold the tablet, and therefore you own your failure to do so.
If I get a sunburn, I am irrational if I blame the sun. Rather, the fault lies with my own lack of preparation. I can alter whether I put on sunscreen, and I can alter whether I stay in the shade. I cannot change whether the sun produces ultraviolet rays, or the effects those rays have on my skin.
That which we cannot change is the foundation of objective reality.
The challenge is that the human brain exists within objective reality, but the mind is changeable. We will get to more on this later.
To summarize the four levels of control – we have the mind, which controls itself. We have the body, which is to some degree controlled by the mind because the body references the brain. We have manipulatable objects, which cannot be directly controlled – unlike the body – but which can be controlled by the body secondhand, so to speak.
The fourth level is where we have zero control – and this is where we find objective, empirical, uncontrollable reality.
You may disagree with me that the fourth level is the foundation of objective reality, but you cannot disagree with the definition. You can think of an elephant in your mind – you cannot magically summon an elephant to appear in reality. When you think of a peach, your mouth may water – but you cannot eat one without finding some way to put an actual peach in your mouth. You can control your thoughts, you can initiate movement in your hand, you can pick a peach, but you cannot alter physical laws, gravity or the properties of atoms.
There is an old saying, which applies as much to engineering as to science: Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed. This is the foundation of objective philosophy, of the fourth level of control, or lack of control.
In order to build a bridge, you must accept the properties of nature that are beyond your control. You can build a stronger bridge; you cannot diminish gravity. You can build a bridge that opens; you cannot build a bridge that disappears and reappears at the push of a button. You can build a glass-bottomed boat, but you cannot build a boat with no bottom or top and expect it to float.
These metaphysical differences are how we begin to differentiate between our minds and our bodies – that which we can control, and that which we cannot control.
We can think of these layers as an inverted pyramid of prevalence. We have absolutely no control over most of the universe. We cannot will the galaxy of Andromeda to change its course. Just about everything is made of hydrogen, and just about everything lies beyond our control. Only a tiny subsection of that which exists is within our control. Everything that exists could theoretically be controlled, but that which we can actually affect is but a tiny subsection of all that is.
Think of yourself. Most of the universe is beyond your control, including all of its laws and most of its properties, but you can affect a tiny minority of objects and properties within your direct sphere of control.
Think of your body. Billions of people live in the world, but no one except you can directly will your right hand to scratch your eyebrow.
Only you have direct physical control over your own body. Someone else can force you to do something, but they cannot directly control your body in the same way that you can. Stealing a car does not transfer its rightful ownership; forcing your body does not transfer your natural will.
Your mind – which is really you, more or less – is not only under your control, it is the very source of the control that you exercise over your body and over the objects in your vicinity that you can control.
Imagine you are walking by a road in flip-flops, and you stub your toe hard on a broken piece of sidewalk. You cry out in pain, bend over, rub your toe and check for damage. If asked, you would surely say that stubbing your toe was a negative event.
Suddenly, a bus comes careening off the road and crashes onto the sidewalk just a few feet in front of you.
Immediately, your perspective on the entire sequence changes. The broken piece of sidewalk, formerly your enemy, now becomes your salvation. Stubbing your toe, formerly a negative event, now becomes a wonderful, life-saving happenstance.
Nothing has changed in reality, of course. You did stub your toe, it did cause pain, and the bus did crash up onto the sidewalk. But your perspective on the sequence of events has altered enormously.
Your mind can change; this does not change reality. But events in reality can change everything within your mind.
Your mind can be ambivalent – you can have two opposing opinions about an idea or argument – but you cannot move your arm in two opposing directions at once. You cannot go north and south at the same time. However, you can be both happy and sad at the same time. We cannot categorize these capacities as identical.
Here is how we can begin to establish the existence of an external, objective reality.
Once we understand that there are things we can alter directly, things we can alter indirectly, and things that we cannot alter, then we truly begin to understand how the foundation for an acceptance of objective reality begins to take shape.
It is possible to construct a scenario wherein all the above divisions still remain within our own mind. Perhaps we are just a brain in a tank, manipulated by a Cartesian demon who externally divides our mind and experiences into the multiple categories defined above. If our mind exists in some sort of virtual reality, then there’s no reason why this demon could not provide us stimuli we could change, and stimuli we could not change.
In a video game, you can move your character around an environment, but you typically cannot change the physics of that environment. However, both the movements (what you can change) and the physics (what you cannot change) are equally products of the designers and programmers of the game. For instance, they have programmed it so you are unable to redesign your environment; only their decision results in an unchangeable environment as you play.
To think of it another way, if you are directing a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, you are generally not allowed or encouraged to alter the text. Fidelity to Shakespeare’s source material requires that the actors memorize and repeat the Bard’s words. You can change the staging, the environment, the costumes, even cut some scenes – but you are not supposed to alter the language itself. However, this is merely a convention of the theatre. There is no absolute reason why you cannot monkey around with the text as much as you want. Shakespeare chose the words he put down, and convention encourages us to follow them, but there is nothing absolute in any of those decisions.
If you are directing a more contemporary play, the playwright might not allow you to change the text at all.
Can we escape this logical possibility of being nothing more than an externally controlled brain?
While it is possible to examine any number of scenarios that could support the “brain in a tank” hypothesis, it is also fairly easy to push back against this proposal to the point where it topples right over.
To begin, we must examine the standard of the “null hypothesis.”
If you have a hypothesis that cannot possibly be disproved, then you have added nothing whatsoever to the sum total of knowledge, truth, understanding or perception – or to anything, for that matter. If I say that I have an invisible friend named Bob, and then steadfastly reject and refuse any standards or criteria by which the existence of Bob can be established, what am I doing except wasting everyone’s time? (Often, annoyingly, that is precisely the point.)
Another way of approaching this problem is to remember that anything that is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
There is a kind of intellectual black hole that fools and trolls deploy to entrap the unwary. They propose a ridiculous hypothesis, and then deny all attempts to disprove it. I remember a young man once putting forward the thesis that the Soviet wall in Berlin was actually designed to keep Westerners out of the paradise of East Berlin. His mother and I railed against this hypothesis, but of course the goalpost kept moving, and nothing could ever be established with any certainty. If we peered over the wall and saw a dingy dystopia, well that was just a hallucination projected by the benevolent rulers of the communist paradise. When we pointed out to the young man that the machine guns were pointed inwards, he said this was just to make it look bad, so people would not break down the wall trying to break into the utopia, and so on.
Arguing with fools is not always a completely useless exercise, but taken to extremes and applied consistently, all it produces among the intelligent is intellectual paralysis and self-destroying radical scepticism, which again is often the point.
Remember: If a hypothesis cannot possibly be disproved, it can be irrefutably dismissed.
The reason is that a truth proposition must be compared to something in order to find out whether it is true or not. Truth cannot be entirely self-referential. Otherwise, it cannot be the truth at all. Truth is a standard that we apply to propositions that reference something other than their own principles or arguments. For instance, if I say there are two bananas on the table, is that a true statement? Well, if a pair of bananas is sitting on the table, then yes. If there is only one banana, or no bananas, or three mangoes and an elephant – then it is a false statement.
If you are not allowed to look at the table, is my statement true or false? It cannot be verified, so it doesn’t matter.
If I say that I dreamt about two bananas last night, however, there is no way to objectively verify my statement. You may believe me, if you think I am an honest person, but it cannot be established as “true” in any rational or empirical fashion.
Personal, subjective statements are not part of philosophy, any more than they are part of science or math. It is not mathematics to say that you like the shape of the symbol for the number two.
If I say that a coconut was spontaneously created and simultaneously destroyed on the far side of the Andromeda Galaxy twelve million years ago, will you say that the statement is true? Will you say that it is false? I would lean towards “false,” for the simple reason that matter cannot be created and destroyed, and coconuts generally don’t exist in a vacuum. But who really cares? No proof is possible, no disproof is necessary, and the statement has no relevance to anything whatsoever.
I would also need to explain how I know about the mysterious coconut in the first place. If I cannot explain how it was proved to me, how can I expect other people to believe me?
An important standard in philosophy goes something like this: “WHO CARES?”
If a proposition has no practical value or benefit, changes no particular behaviour, or cannot be disproved, then we can definitively file it under the category of, well, who cares?
Philosophy is like medicine. In general, doctors should study the most dangerous and prevalent diseases, since human desires for health are infinite, while medical resources are most definitely finite. Sure, you could write a proposal for grant money in order to study the possibility that once every thousand years, someone may get dizzy from biting their thumbnail, but who cares?
When evaluating a philosophical hypothesis, one essential question is: What behaviour might change if people accept this viewpoint?
If I convince you that honesty is a virtue that would bring you love and happiness, then I certainly hope you would begin to tell the truth more often. If you accept the argument that courage is necessary for virtue, and virtue is necessary for happiness, then if you want happiness, presumably you will try to be more courageous.
An argument that cannot be disproved can be dismissed – this is our first salvo against the idea that all reality is subjective.
I prefer victory to stalemate, however, so let us destroy the argument once and for all.
What if we lived in a simulation so perfect and complete that it was indistinguishable from the common-sense perspective that we live in an objective and empirical reality? This could be called an infinite simulation.
Theinfinite simulation hypothesis generally denies and defies any disproof, so it can have no rational change upon a person’s behaviour. If believing in this hypothesis resulted in the ability to go without food and air – since our requirement for both is a mere illusion – then this would lend support and value to the hypothesis. However, anyone who believes in such a hypothesis still has to breathe and eat, so nothing changes there.
As you pursue the infinite simulation hypothesis, you will find no practical difference between accepting the hypothesis and rejecting it. In other words, no requirements, standards or necessities change if you believe you are living in a simulation, versus living in objective reality.
It is reasonable to ask, “What changes if I accept this assertion?” If the answer is, “Nothing really,” then surely more important things need to be done.
Naturally – and logically – this does not automatically disprove the hypothesis, but it does bring to light the question of whether it is important at all.
Another approach is needed to disprove the hypothesis.
The question of infinite regression is important here.
If you think of the concept of biological evolution, it cannot be arbitrarily cut off after a certain number of generations. If evolution is a valid hypothesis, then it must extend all the way back to the origins of life itself. One central aspect to the theory of evolution is that no gods are needed for the development and progression of life. It would have done Charles Darwin little good to say that evolution was a universal principle that went back 5,000 years – but before that, life required a god. (In fact, this would have put him squarely in line with most theologians, who fully recognize local adaptations to species – such as the domestication of wild animals for human purposes – but who believe that the beginning of life required God.)
The underlying axiom of the infinite simulationhypothesis is that consciousness inhabits a simulation imposed from outside. Now, this simulation cannot be autonomous in and of itself, but rather must be imposed by another consciousness, which exists outside our own.
The existence of a prisoner implies the existence of an imprisoner. If you have been hypnotized, this implies the existence of a hypnotist.
If you exist in an infinite simulation, then someone or something must be imposing that simulation upon you. Think of putting on a virtual reality mask. Someone created the mask, someone created the program you’d view, and so on. The existence of virtual reality presupposes the existence of at least one other consciousness that encases you in that virtual reality. If you are locked in a basement, someone made the basement and locked you in.
Do you see the problem yet?
If consciousness exists within virtual reality, then all conscious beings must exist within virtual reality. This is inescapable. If you are a brain in a tank, then someone grew your brain in the tank, attached the electrodes that give you the simulation of experience, and supplied the necessary energy and stimulation.
Furthermore, in your waking illusion, you continually interact with people smarter and more experienced than yourself, and read books supposedly written thousands of years ago – some in other languages – so you must be consuming the products of other consciousnesses.
Let’s call you “Bob,” and let’s call the super being who controls your experience “Lord Doug.”
For some unfathomable reasons of his own, Lord Doug grows a human brain called Bob, puts it in a tank, attaches electrodes, and supplies Bob with an “external, objective reality,” as well as an “internal, subjective experience.”
I’m sure you see the problem by now. If the argument is that Bob is in aninfinite simulation, then why does the argument not equally apply that Lord Doug is also in an infinite simulation? If consciousness exists within a perfect simulation, then Lord Doug must also exist in a perfect simulation, since Lord Doug possesses consciousness.
Lord Doug’s infinite simulation experience also requires an external consciousness that applies this simulation. Let’s call this other consciousness “Sir Jim.” Naturally, Sir Jim also exists in a simulation, which requires an external consciousness to… Well, you get the idea. The problem of infinite regression destroys the validity of the hypothesis.
If all consciousness exists in an infinite simulation, and consciousness is required to create an infinite simulation, then there can be no logical end to the upward progression of infinite simulations… Mind A is wrapped in an infinite simulation by Mind B; Mind B is wrapped in an infinite simulation by Mind C, and so on.
You can, of course, say that Sir Jim exists in the “ultimate reality,” beyond which no creator of the simulation is required, because Sir Jim does not exist in a simulation.
By doing this, you have accepted that consciousness can exist in an objective reality. If this is true for Jim, then why is it not true for Doug or Bob – or for yourself?
By inventing Doug and Jim, all you have done is add additional useless layers of complexity and unbelievability – without even the intellectual integrity of a null hypothesis – to the simple statement that consciousness exists in objective reality.
Also, since your simulated reality includes the contents and productions – books, movies and conversations – of billions of other minds, then the simulation cannot possibly be the product of one single mind. Those who advance this theory may try to get around this problem by claiming that the manufacturer of the simulated reality is omniscient. But appeals to magical non-restrictions are not an argument. The label “omniscient” is not a concept, but an anti-concept. All consciousness is limited. Removing limitations removes the very definition of consciousness. Likewise, all life is mortal. The word “immortal” is not a concept, but an anti-concept, since it simply removes one of the definitions and restrictions of life itself. A house is a house, not the destruction of a house. A concept is a concept, not the destruction of a concept.
Also, we generally accept that knowing everything would include knowing everything about morality. Omniscience, by definition, would involve some relationship to virtue, and in particular to empathy, since an all-knowing being would know exactly how much pain immoral actions would cause others. Therefore, an omniscient being would also be perfectly moral, which would mean: unwilling to lie. However, since a “simulated reality” is a metaphysical falsehood inflicted upon a helpless and unaware victim, it is the worst conceivable lie and manipulation. Omniscience would thus equal terrifying and demonic sadism, which would also mean that increases in knowledge would be increases in evil. An increase in empathy would be an increase in sadism, and greater knowledge would provoke greater immorality.
If someone advances such a theory to you, he is clearly trying to increase your knowledge. However, since the theory requires an omniscient being to be utterly evil, he is arguing that increasing knowledge increases evil, and so you can reject him on the grounds that he is trying to make you more evil by giving you more knowledge.
If he replies that more knowledge does not make you more evil, then he cannot claim that your consciousness is manipulated by an infinitely knowledgeable and infinitely sadistic being.
If he replies that more knowledge makes you more virtuous, then he cannot claim that your consciousness is manipulated by an infinitely knowledgeable and infinitely sadistic being, since infinite knowledge implies infinite virtue, and lying to innocent victims is not virtuous.
Also, there is the general problem of why an omniscient being would bother creating such a ridiculous laboratory. Why would it spend its entire energies and efforts manipulating one mortal creature? If the omniscient being is virtuous, it would never create such a lie. If the omniscient being is evil, despite all the contradictions outlined above, how could it possibly profit from creating such a delusion? Certainly there could be no material profit; the only profit could be watching suffering. However, if the omniscient being has created the simulation for the sole purpose of taking sadistic pleasure in watching suffering, then why do so much joy and pleasure exist within the simulation? Why are there love and sex and the thrill of victory?
None of it makes any sense, of course.
Even if we bypass the problems of omniscience, virtue and motive, we still face the problem of infinite regression in causality.
If you say that all consciousnesses live in a simulated reality controlled by an external consciousness, then you have not solved the problem of causality. If every consciousness is manipulated by an external outsider, then no one is causing anything. Everyone is just bouncing off the random stimuli provided by their external mental jailer. Who, then, decided to set all of these events and experiments in motion? It’s like the argument that says, if consciousness exists, it must have been created. Whoever created the consciousness also has a consciousness and therefore must have been created. This is the problem of infinite regression, and it cannot be solved by ignoring it (although that is often attempted).
If consciousness can exist in objective reality, then the simplest and most rational explanation is that your consciousness exists in objective reality. You don’t even need the principle of Occam’s razor – that the simplest explanation is usually the best – just some basic common sense.
If you accept that consciousness can exist in objective reality, then you don’t need non-falsifiable pseudo-explanations of additional layers of manipulated unreality and hidden external consciousnesses, and so on.
You either face the problem of infinite regression – meaning infinite universes, infinite energy, and no original causality whatsoever – or you accept that we do not exist in a simulation.
We exist in objective reality – you and I, and everyone else – and that is all there is to it.
Anyone who tells you otherwise is just trying to mess with your head, inject you with crazy talk, and possibly ruin your life.
Argue back, try to save them – and if they steadfastly resist, run for your very life!
One reason why theinfinite simulation hypothesis is so seductive is because there is an element of truth in the formulation. We are brains in a tank – the “tank” is just our skull. Our minds have no direct contact with the empirical reality external to our brains.
When we really think about this, it’s easy to start feeling weird. Everything we perceive is at least second hand. Our brain cannot squeeze itself out our nose and vacation in the land of objective reality, like a jellyfish feeling up a tree. Everything we perceive about reality is delivered to us through the senses – and the emotions, of course.
If you lived in a cave, without a clock, how long would it take you to lose track of day and night? After a couple weeks, how much would you be willing to bet whether it was day or night? If you are one of those lucky people with a strict biological clock of diurnal schedules, going to bed and waking up at about the same time, you would have a pretty good idea. But for most of us, our sleep would drift to the point where we wouldn’t have any idea whether we were sleeping during day or night.
Imagine being born blind in a village of sightless people, isolated from the world. Imagine all the things you wouldn’t know about. You wouldn’t know about the moon or the stars; you wouldn’t know what a distant mountaintop looked like – or even that it existed. You may not have any clear idea what the tops of trees looked like, and would have no idea about the structure of clouds. You would notice that it rained sometimes, but you wouldn’t know anything visual about high stratospheric cloud formations. You would (hopefully) never experience meteors. And the occasional airplane flying high above may only register with your ears, not your eyes.
This list could go on and on, but the point is to recognize how many of our concepts require the evidence of the senses. If you were deaf, but not blind, you would look at a distant airplane and have no idea whether it made sound or not. Since the flight of high-flying birds is inaudible, perhaps the same would be true of airplanes as well. How would you know?
Most of what goes on in our mind is derived from electrical impulses delivered by the senses. “Reality” is a consistent electrical storm imprinted on our minds by nerve endings in our bodies. In a sense, we are like a king locked in a castle with no windows, who learns about his kingdom only through a constant stream of messengers entering his prison through secret doors.
The mind generally receives – it does not transmit. Centuries ago, some thinkers argued that the eyes sent out rays or beams, like radar, and received visual echolocation back. However, our eyes only receive; they do not transmit. We can reach with our hands to manipulate reality, but our senses operate as inputs only. Our ears also only receive. We can receive sensations through our skin – we cannot send sensations through our skin.
Naturally, a central question of epistemology – the study of knowledge – is whether the information we receive from our senses is valid.
Now “valid” is just another word for “accurate” or “true,” which brings us back to the basic question – what is truth?
As discussed before, “truth” is a statement about objective reality that conforms with the nature and principles of objective reality. If I say that there is a cloud overhead, my statement is true if there is in fact a cloud overhead.
This requirement for objective reality as a standard of truth can be challenging for some who believe that their own internal states have a truth or falsehood about them.
It is true, for example, that I felt sad yesterday; it is true that I feel happy today. It is true that I love my wife, that I study the truth, and that I hate evil.
It is worth spending a few moments to deal with this question of internal states before moving on to the validity of the senses, because emotions are an essential aspect of how we effectively process and deal with reality.
Knowing you feel strongly about something is essential for focus and motivation – as long as you know that experiencing your feelings is not the same as knowing the truth. Wanting to diet is not the same as actually dieting – though it is an essential first step.
It is important to know when you are angry at someone – and it is equally important to know that your anger does not automatically make that person wrong or bad. In the modern world, emotions are often perceived as accurate judgements, a belief that unleashes a feral mob more often than not. Emotions are usually expressed as all-important accusations – but the conclusions drawn from them need to be proved in the court of reason before being accepted as valid. Philosophy without emotions is random and inconsequential; emotions without philosophy are wayward and destructive.
The question of “love” is fascinating. Emotions do not exist outside the body, in the objective external world. A man’s love for learning may cause him to build a school; the school certainly exists outside his body, but his love for learning does not. That feeling lives within him and dies with him, though the school survives him.
This is not to say that love is an entirely subjective state. As was established in my earlier book, Real-Time Relationships: The Logic of Love, what we call “love” is merely our involuntary response to virtue, if we are virtuous.
The experience of love releases certain endorphins in the mind and body, which can be objectively measured. We have a subjective experience called “lust,” which also provokes measurable biological responses in our body. If a man says he is not sexually attracted to a certain image, but his body manifests an erection, we have reason to doubt his protestations.
Also, it is reasonable to accept that the emotion of love does not produce random behaviours in the person experiencing it. If I say that I love a restaurant, but never want to eat there, what does that mean? If I say that I love playing sports, but sit on the couch every spare minute I have, am I being honest? If I say that I love my wife, but divorce her for no particular reason, do my actions support my use of the world “love”?
Of course, we can always construct scenarios wherein I love a restaurant, but never want to eat there because it is too far away, too expensive, or I am allergic to the food. But assuming I have the means, motive and an opportunity to eat at a restaurant I claim to love, yet I never want to do it, something is wrong with my claim.
Remember, empirical evidence trumps conceptual hypotheses – every time.
If I say I love spending time with a particular friend, but I shudder and recoil every time he proposes a get-together, surely we understand that there is a contradiction between my claimed feelings and my measurable actions.
Think of two professional wrestlers engaged in a public trash-talking hate-fest, who are later seen amicably eating dinner together after a match, giggling and cleaning out the buffet. Would we say their hate is genuine, or that it is part of an entertaining show put on to sell tickets?
In other words, there are ways to objectively measure the empirical effects of subjective experiences. If love is claimed, but hatred or indifference is objectively measured, then it is reasonable to question the sincerity of the claim.
Our judgements should work the same way our bodies work. Our bodies process deeds, not words. If I want to lose weight, I can say the word “diet” over and over again while chewing my way through a cheesecake, but my body will only respond to what I eat, not what I say. Repeatedly yodeling the word “exercise” works little but my lungs. Actually going to the gym will affect my body.
If someone pulls out your fingernails, you experience pain. Perhaps you are a masochist who enjoys the feeling, but it is pain nonetheless. Its physiological effects can be objectively measured in your body.
Thus, while emotions are somewhat subjective, the effects of them can often be measured objectively.
Regarding our five senses, it is certainly true that each individual sense can be misinterpreted. This does not invalidate the senses as a whole.
There is a reason we evolved to have five senses, rather than just one or two. Judging reality via only one sense is like looking at 20 percent of the night sky and decisively determining whether the moon is out or not.
When you put a pencil into a glass of water, it looks disjointed. However, it is important to remember that our eyes do not provide us with conclusions, merely information. Our eyes do not inform us about the straightness of the pencil; they merely provide the light waves to our brain. Our sense of touch can tell us more. If we run our finger down the pencil, past the waterline, we can feel that it is not disjointed, and we realize that the water is merely bending the light waves where the surface meets the pencil.
Similarly, we may believe that a distant image of water in the desert is not a mirage, but a real lake. Our eyes do not tell us whether a lake exists in the distance; they merely transmit light waves to our brain. If we run forward through the blinding heat and find no actual lake, we understand that we have been subject to an illusion, which is another way of saying we came to the wrong conclusion about the evidence gleaned from only one sense – in this case, our eyesight. Our eyes are not to blame for the error, but our mind. Not the raw data, but our refined conclusions.
However, if we walk forward and find a lake that we can swim in and drink from, then we no longer have any reason to believe that the lake is a mirage – for the simple reason that all of our five senses confirm its existence – in other words, the consistent properties of a lake.
One of the reasons we have more than one sense is that it takes our senses acting in concert, reinforcing each other, to establish facts about objective reality.
We’ve all had the experience of walking through a room in the darkness and banging our shin on a table. We walk confidently, thinking we are avoiding obstacles, but our confidence is disproved by the sudden pain in our leg. Here, our eyes do not transmit any indication of the table, but our sense of touch – and of pain – gives us the truth.
There are three distinct classes of sense perception: the perception of absence, as in an open door; the perception of inconsistency, as in a mirage; and the perception of consistency, as in a lake.
In other words, things are either not there, they are perhaps there, or they are really there. When you look ahead in the desert, you see either sand, a mirage, or a lake. Sand is the absence of a lake, the mirage is the possibility of a lake, while the lake is the thing itself.
These perceptions – no impression on the senses, inconsistent impression on the senses, or consistent impression on the senses – are the differences between absence, illusion and presence.
When I look ahead on a hot road while driving, I can say that the road ahead is wet and full of puddles. But as I drive closer, they all disappear and no water sprays from the sides of my tires.
Because my original claim that the road ahead was wet did not match additional sense details – as I got closer, the “wetness” disappeared – my original hypothesis was false.
It was false because I claimed to be making an objective statement about external reality, not about my own subjective perception.
If I say, “The road ahead looks wet to me,” then I am not making a claim about external reality – that the road is actually wet – but rather reporting my own subjective experience of looking down the road.
This transition between the description of personal experience, and the identification of objective fact, is the difference between anecdote and data.
Women are generally shorter than men. Reporting the fact that you know a tall woman just throws static into the music of math.
Saying that something looks wet to me, if it really does, is an honest statement. Saying that something is wet, just because it looks wet to me, is a hypothesis. If I see water drops on my window, and I say that I see water drops on my window, I am telling the truth. However, if I see water drops on my window and I say that it is raining, that is a hypothesis. It may have finished raining, or my window may have been hit by water from a sprinkler or a car wash – or from just about anything else for that matter.
The failure to understand or act upon the difference between personal experience and objective hypothesis is catastrophic. But people mistake their personal feelings for objective facts all the time. Someone feels offended and they assume the offender is offensive. Feeling offended is the experience – someone being offensive is a hypothesis that needs to be proved.
The chasm between feeling and proof is fertile ground for manipulative sophists.
Someone makes you angry, so you assume that the instigator is aggressive. You fall in love, and you assume that the object of your affection is wonderful, virtuous and trustworthy. A politician offers you something for free; you assume he is a generous statesman.
Feelings transmit from person to person when we pretend they are objective. This turns them into a form of virus that spreads by mimicking reality. If I can get you to jump to the same conclusions that I’ve come to about reality, based upon my own subjective experiences, then you are much more likely to experience the same emotions that I do. If I am afraid of redheaded people and I can convince you that they are objectively dangerous, then you will also become afraid of redheaded people. My irrational fear has camouflaged itself as objective fact and thus transmitted itself to you.
Ideologies also spread this way. They primarily transmit themselves through emotions rather than reasoned arguments and evidence. If I can convince you that rich people only have money because they have stolen it from you, then you will resent rich people and support using the power of the state to take money from them and give it to you – with me as the highly profitable arbitrator, of course.
If you can convince women that they have been oppressed, beaten, raped and controlled throughout history, then they will inevitably feel anger and resentment towards men. One individual woman’s potentially just anger against one individual man – perhaps her father – gets transmitted throughout the culture using the medium of other susceptible women. Then claims of “sexism” end up being reproduced as very real sexism – against all men.
If you say, “I am angry at a man,” then that is an honest and accurate statement. However, if you say, “I am angry at all men, because all men are oppressive,” then that is a dishonest and inaccurate hyperbole.
This is how anger spreads like a virus.
You own your feelings, which are often highly susceptible to your perceptions. Since perceptions can very easily be wrong, assuming your feelings are mere reflections of perfectly accurate perceptions is a highly shaky stance to take – and very dangerous, should you prove to be wrong.
Philosophy is the methodology that helps you determine the difference between subjective experiences and objective facts. We need philosophy precisely because mistaking our subjective experiences for objective facts is so easy.
A tree cannot be incorrect, sunlight cannot be erroneous, water cannot take a wrong turn, and fungus cannot be immoral. Truth and falsehood exist as distinct states in only one entity in the universe that we know of: the human mind.
Truth is a state that results when a concept matches an entity or a hypothesis matches the facts of reality.
Truth always refers to concepts or language and the degree to which they match what exists and occurs in objective reality. If I point at a mug and say it is a telephone, we cannot fix my statement by replacing the mug with a telephone. If I call the mug a “telephone,” I am incorrect, because my word does not match what I’m pointing at.
The standard of truth refers not only to the relationship between concepts and objects, but also to concepts about the relationships between objects, such as gravity or magnetism. If I say that “gravity repels,” then I am incorrect; my language does not match the true relationship between mass and gravity. If I say that “magnetism can pull down a tree,” then I am equally incorrect.
The relationship between concepts in the mind and matter or energy in the world is the relationship we refer to as “truth.”
As we grow from infancy, we notice that certain objects in our world exhibit consistent characteristics. Chocolate is sweet, water quenches our thirst, carpets are softer than hardwood, and crayons taste terrible.
We are able to develop accurate conceptual nets to cast around similar objects, so to speak, because those objects have similar or identical characteristics.
The stability of objects and properties in the world is the foundation for the accuracy of our concepts.
If you tried to develop a physics of dreaming, you would quickly realize what an impossible task that would be. When we dream, objects, their properties and the physical laws that govern them change continually and sometimes, it would seem, randomly. Can you imagine trying to play a game of chess where the rules for your various pieces changed continually – and the pieces shifted shape as well? What would it mean to play such a game, let alone win it? In debates, there is a logical fallacy known as “moving the goalposts,” wherein your opponent demands you prove X, and when you do, he then demands you prove Y instead, or in addition. You cannot win such debates, because the rules keep changing – the only way to win is not to play.
Objects in the world are consistent for two basic reasons – the first is the existence of atoms, and the second is the existence of stable physical laws. The atoms that make up a feather possess different characteristics than the atoms that make up a bowling ball. The atoms that make up water are different from the atoms that make up arsenic. Atoms are subject to stable physical laws, which result in consistent object behaviour, information about which our senses then transmit to our brains.
Milk that looks fair may taste foul – our eyesight says it is healthy, our taste buds report its danger. The skin of a shark feels smooth rubbing from head to tail – going the other way reveals the direction of its tiny barbs.
In other words, we have validconcepts because of the consistency of both atomic behaviour and physical laws. (This will be referred to as atomic consistency from now on, for efficiency.)
Since our concepts describe the behaviour of matter and energy, and the behaviour of matter and energy is consistent, our concepts, to be valid – to be true – must also be consistent.
Empirical reality is not self-contradictory – at least at the realm of the senses, where philosophy operates. The realm of quantum mechanics is interesting, of course, but does not impact the realm of philosophy, because quantum phenomena cancels out long before we get to the aggregate realm of sense perception.
A rock is a rock, and not a cloud, fire, or the concept of “rock.”
An elephant is not its shadow, the letter e or a lizard.
An entity cannot be both a living animal and a fossil at the same time.
Relations between entities also cannot be self-contradictory. Gravity and magnetism cannot both repel and attract at the same time, a car cannot move both north and south at the same time, and a ball cannot simultaneously fall towards the ground and rise away from it.
Thus, the properties and relations of entities in reality cannot be self-contradictory – if they appear so, this is due to an erroneous conclusion in our mind. A colour-blind man may report that a rainbow is composed of differing shades of grey, but he would be incorrect because of a deficiency in his eyes. A deaf woman may wonder why people are dancing to mere vibrations, but of course the silence only feels real because of a deficiency in her ears.
Reality is rational and consistent, and valid concepts describe reality – therefore, true and valid concepts must be rational and consistent. A tomato cannot be both a tomato and a beach ball at the same time – thus any concept that requires such a contradiction is naturally invalid.
Science – which describes a consistent, universal and rational reality – must itself be consistent, rational and universal.
Philosophical arguments, which establish truth regarding objective and rational reality, must themselves be objective and rational.
In relation to truth, there are three categories of concepts – valid, potentially valid, and invalid.
A valid and true concept is one that has been verified and established, both by its internal rational consistency, and by its consistency with empirical observations. The idea that the earth is a sphere, rather than flat, is not internally self-contradictory. No one is saying that the earth is both a sphere and flat at the same time. And its roundness has been consistently verified through empirical observations, both on the surface of the earth and in space.
The concept that airplanes can fly is validated by the laws of physics, as well as by the empirical observation – available every day – that airplanes do indeed fly.
The concept that human beings are mortal is validated by the laws of biology, as well by as the empirical observation – available every day – that all human beings eventually die.
These are valid concepts.
Potentially valid concepts are those for which there is no empirical evidence, but no internal self-contradiction either. For instance, the idea that silicone, rather than carbon, could be used as the basis for a living organism is not internally self-contradictory, but there is no evidence as yet of a silicone-based life form. The position that intelligent life could exist on other planets is not internally self-contradictory, but no evidence as yet exists to prove this hypothesis.
Invalid concepts are those that are self-contradictory, and thus can never accurately describe atomic consistency. One example of a self-contradictory concept is the “square circle,” which cannot exist because the characteristics of squares and those of circles contradict each other.
Another example of a self-contradictory entity is the concept of “consciousness without matter.”
We never directly encounter consciousness in the absence of a brain. Empirically, no evidence exists to support the idea that consciousness can exist without matter – and all the evidence supports the reality that consciousness is an effect of matter, specifically the matter (and energy) that composes the human brain.
Could consciousness exist without matter somewhere in the universe?
Certainly not, for the following reasons. Consciousness is an effect of matter, since it requires the physical structure of the brain. Since consciousness is the effect of a physical brain, requiring consciousness without matter would be to require an effect without its proximate cause. Gravity is an effect of matter, of mass – this is by definition and proof, not mere observation. Can we have gravity in the absence of matter? Of course not – again, by definition, hypothesis and empirical observation. Since gravity is an effect of matter, it therefore cannot exist in the absence of matter.
Another way of looking at it is to think of a shadow – a shadow is an effect of opaque mass and light. Can we have a shadow with neither light, nor a mass to block it?
Of course not.
Can we have a sound without a source of that sound? Can we have light without a light source?
Of course not.
Consciousness is an effect of matter – of the physical brain, specifically – and therefore cannot exist in the absence of a brain.
Such decisiveness in philosophy makes many people uncomfortable. Their immediate mental objective becomes to find some break in the rule, some exception to disprove any and all proposed objective standards.
This is entirely natural, because we often feel that we can release ourselves from obligations to obey or disseminate a rule, if we can find even the tiniest exception to its commandments.
This is the realm of foggy boundaries that confuses even the most consistent thinkers.
If you are drawn to imagining some scenario in which consciousness can exist without matter –even to the point of imagining alternative universes – this is because it provokes emotional anxiety within you to understand that the argument could be so simple.
We can certainly make the unsupported statement that consciousness can exist without matter, and dismiss the argument above – but this lacks intellectual honesty and integrity.
When we feel anxious, the most honest statement we can make is that we feel anxious. Making the anxiety “go away” by inventing some anti-rational magic to dispel the uncomfortable feeling brought about by an assertive argument is dishonest and destructive.
It is entirely understandable, of course, both historically and biologically. Human tribes have always been full of the most anti-rational nonsense – the contradiction of which often provoked either physical or genetic death. Rational thinkers are often targeted for murder, ostracism or de-platforming.
The moment that a dangerously rational idea enters our mind, our anti-rational immune system often attacks it as a foreign, dangerous object in order to protect our capacity for tribal cooperation and genetic reproduction.
Thus, it is entirely natural for you to feel anxiety – and perhaps even hostility – towards a rational argument that may put you in conflict with tribal prejudices. However, let us at least be honest enough to admit that we are anxious and not pretend that the proposed argument is magically invalid.
The great danger of a materialistic approach to the senses and to objective reality is the hollowing out of free will.
Traditionally, the question of free will has been answered theologically, rather than philosophically. According to most theology, there is an immaterial seat of consciousness within the body called the soul, which is immune to mere physical restrictions – and it is the soul that generates consciousness and free will within the mind.
Creating an immaterial repository of consciousness that is unaffected by the physical domino-causality of matter and energy has generally allowed for the maintenance of the free-will position – however, this “proof” of free will remains philosophically unsatisfying.
Why is this so important?
Without free will, there is no such thing as philosophy. We do not attempt to cultivate wisdom in inanimate objects.
This proves nothing about free will, of course, but clearly reveals the stakes.
Without free will, there is no such thing as personal responsibility, no need or capacity for ethics, and no possibility for loving virtue or opposing evil – since virtue and vice remain delusions. When we stop believing in ghosts, we stop worrying about haunted houses and no longer fear the vengeance of the dead. (The idea of vengeful ghosts was a desperate attempt by more primitive cultures to limit murders – as was the concept of hell – by implanting a fear of consequences that had no relationship to actually being caught by secular authorities.)
In general, the determinist position runs as follows:
Free will is a superstition left over from more religious mindsets. Before we understood the Darwinian origins of the species, we imagined that a God breathed life into clay. Before we understood astronomy, we imagined that the stars were distant fireflies that wheeled around a static earth. The idea that blind matter and energy can somehow coalesce into a consciousness that defies all the restrictions of matter and energy is ridiculous. A rock does not have free will, the sun does not have free will, your arm does not have free will – only your brain, apparently magically, does. Alone in the universe – an infinitesimally small fraction of the matter and energy contained in the universe – the human brain is able to overleap and escape the inevitable restrictions of matter and energy that apply to every other single atom in the universe. If those who believe in free will wish to create a magical exception for the human brain, and make it exempt from the laws of physics that apply both to the human brain and everything else, then they are making an extraordinary claim. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and none have been provided by those with a mad faith in the magic of free will. In primitive times, mankind felt special because an all-seeing God oversaw an unmoving earth. The earth was the exception to everything else in the universe, because everything else moved. How is the idea that our brains are magically different from everything else in the universe any different from the idea that the earth is magically different from everything else? How exactly does the brain exempt itself from physical laws? The only answer appears to be a bottomless thirst for imaginary choice, a desperate need to feel special, and a darker desire to punish people for their imaginary transgressions – “You had a choice, and you made the wrong choice, so you must be punished!”
These arguments certainly have the ring of consistency to them. How could it be rational to create an exception to the universal laws of physics just for the human brain? We do not see or experience even the idea of free will among animals, among nature, among inanimate objects – how are we so different? The answer that we possess a soul is not satisfying to those who reject immaterial explanations for material causes. If a child denies stealing a cookie and claims that his imaginary friend ate it instead, few parents would accept such an explanation.
However, it remains entirely possible to reject the hypothesis of determinism without providing a purely scientific solution to the question of free will – although some such solutions appear to be emerging.
If I stop a man and ask him for directions, and he tells me to go east and west at the same time, I do not need to compare his directions to a map in order to know that he is wrong.
If a man sends me an email containing the argument that emails never get delivered, I do not need to know anything about how emails are delivered in order to reject his hypothesis.
If a woman tells me she does not think I exist, I do not need to know any metaphysical proofs for my own existence in order to reject her hypothesis. Since she addresses her words to me, she cannot rationally claim that I do not exist.
In other words, we first examine the rational consistency of the argument before comparing it to empirical evidence. A self-contradictory argument can be dismissed without the requirement to appeal to contradictory empirical evidence.
If I tell you that you cannot trust the evidence of your senses, and that language is meaningless, these can be positions consistent within themselves, but they are not consistent with my actions.
If I say you cannot trust the evidence of your senses, but I rely upon the trustworthiness of the evidence of your senses in order to communicate my argument, then my argument contradicts its own hypothesis. If I use language to convey to you the idea that language is meaningless, then my methodology contradicts my hypothesis. If language is meaningless, then I cannot use it to convey any idea to you, let alone an idea about language. If language is not meaningless, then I can use it to convey an argument to you, I just can’t use it to convey that language is meaningless, because then my hypothesis contradicts my methodology.
Testing the hypothesis of an argument against the methodology of communicating the argument is a powerful method for rejecting irrational arguments.
You cannot argue that the senses are invalid, since you must use the senses to communicate – the ears for hearing the argument, the eyes for seeing it, and so on.
You cannot use logical arguments to disprove the value of logic.
You cannot use empirical arguments to disprove the value of empiricism.
Before embarking on the task of repudiating a particular hypothesis, it is essential to examine the arguments embedded in the hypothesis. Sophists, in particular, always want to drag you into disproving a hypothesis, when nine times out of ten, the disproof is embedded in the methodology of the way they communicate the argument.
Embedded in every attempt to use the senses to communicate reason and evidence to prove an argument are a number of unshakable assumptions:
This list goes on for a long time, but you get the general idea. The very act of engaging in a debate reveals a packaged list of accepted assumptions and axioms that really need to be examined before everyone goes around chasing the conclusion and debating the surface arguments.
One of the main problems people have with debates is that implicit assumptions are not made explicit, but become horrifyingly clear over the course of a disastrous conversation. If a man wants to debate you, and he openly states that he considers truth equivalent to error, reason equivalent to screaming, that he will never ever change his mind, and if you refuse to submit to his argument, he will kick you hard in the shins – would you agree to debate him?
So often, people pretend to debate, when they are really seeking to dominate, justify themselves, or frustrate others.
The determinist position states that the human mind is not magically exempt from the general laws of causality in the universe.
If determinists really accept this position, then clearly they should not treat the human mind any differently from any other object in the universe.
If you owe me ten dollars and I say I don’t care which ten-dollar bill you give me, then I have no rational right to object to any one ten-dollar bill.
If you ask me whether I would prefer pasta or fish for dinner, and I tell you I have no preference whatsoever, does it make any sense for me to rage at you for serving me fish, and throw the plate out the window? If I do such a crazy thing, then clearly I was lying to you when I said I had no preference.
To go even further – and trust me, even this isn’t going far enough – if your wife tells you she doesn’t care whether you both go to Florida or California for vacation, and you choose Florida, and she then tells you only a truly insane person would ever vacation in Florida and she thinks you are mentally ill for even suggesting it, what would you think of her behaviour?
You would think that she was crazy, right? To say that she has no preference – and then to scream that you are insane for choosing one thing over the other only reveals her own instability, hypocrisy and dangerously manipulative nature.
The determinist position is that the human brain is exactly like everything else in the universe. The brain contains no special magical capacity for free will – and believing it does is akin to believing that the last domino in a stacked line chooses to fall over when it is bumped by the previous falling domino.
Very well, let us take determinists at their word – the human brain is exactly the same as everything else in the universe, and therefore should be treated no differently from anything else.
The human brain has no free will, just like a television, a blade of grass, a cloud, a clock or a water tower.
A sports fanatic may very well encourage his team by yelling at the television, but he does not believe that his team is able to hear him and change their behaviour based on his ranting. A gambler may cheer for a lucky roll, but he does not think his cheering encourages the dice to do what he wants.
People will vent at inanimate objects – a golfer may throw his club in frustration – but we recognize this as immaturity. When questioned, the angry golfer does not argue that his club has grown a brain and free will and works viciously to thwart his desire for a good swing. It is an irrational eccentricity to treat inanimate objects as if they have a human brain. When people do, we do not believe their tantrums are philosophically sound – and neither do they, we hope, after they calm down.
If a man stabs a woman, we do not blame the knife for dragging the poor man’s hand towards her flesh. We do not blame his hand, we do not blame his arm – we blame his consciousness, if we blame anything at all.
This is then the central question for those who hold the determinist position: If human consciousness is exactly the same as everything else in the universe, then why do you treat human consciousness so differently?
This is really the heart of the matter. A determinist believes that the human mind has no more free will than a television set, but a determinist would look at someone arguing with a television set and say, that person is crazy!
In the Shakespearean drama King Lear, the mad king rages at a storm. This is considered a sign of insanity – but why? The weather is a highly complex system, whose behaviour can only be predicted in the short term, and in general. Even determinists admit that a group of human beings is a highly complex system, and human behaviour can only be predicted in the short term, and in general – as in the basic economic premise that human beings respond to incentives.
Raging at a man who has done you great evil is not insane. Raging at a storm clearly is. But for a determinist, what is the difference? The man has no more free will than the storm, so raging at the man is exactly the same as raging at the storm.
If you are injured by the side of the road, you may choose to flag down a passing motorist in the hope of getting help. If a tumbleweed is blowing down the road, would any sane person try to flag it down to beg for help?
If you park your car at the bottom of a hill, go for a hike, and then return to see a large boulder has fallen on your car, you will no doubt be upset, but you will scarcely drag the boulder to court and demand it pay reparations for damaging your car.
However, if someone runs up to you and says that they saw a man pushing the boulder down the hill, then you have a very different situation. If you can find that man, you can get angry at him and demand that he pay reparations for damaging your car.
What’s the difference?
Suppose that a hard rain had loosened the foundations keeping the boulder in place, causing it to roll down the hill and crush your car. These are mere acts of physical determinism – no choices are involved, no free will is involved. It is just matter and objects obeying inevitable physical laws.
However, if it turns out that a man purposefully dislodged the boulder that ended up rolling down the hill and crushing your car, is it really that hard to understand that we have an entirely different situation?
If it turns out that the man who dislodged the boulder has a grudge against you and pushed it on purpose to crush your car – perhaps with the hope that you were inside it – then it is not even an accidental occurrence.
When I was a little boy, I liked throwing rocks. Once, when I was walking with my mother by the side of the road, I threw a rock in the air, and it ended up landing on the expensive hood of some man’s sports car, leaving a white spiderweb of divots. I was very young, so the man mostly got angry at my mother for letting me engage in such risky behaviour.
The first situation is where the rock dislodges on its own, in which case the crushing of your car is no one’s fault – except possibly yours, for parking in a place where that could happen.
In the second case, a man dislodges a rock just for fun, crushing your car by accident. He acts carelessly and dangerously, and therefore is responsible for the car being crushed, but not responsible for wilfully crushing your car. A reasonably just solution would be to have him pay for repairs, but not to put him in jail for trying to cause you harm.
In the third case, the man dislodges a rock with the intention of crushing your car. He is then responsible for wilfully damaging the car, and therefore he should face sanctions over and above merely paying to have it repaired.
If the man’s actions were careless, the financial consequences of his carelessness should teach him to be more careful.
If the man’s actions were malevolent, then mere financial consequences would not likely be enough to prevent him from trying to hurt you in the future, which is why further punishments are needed to keep you – and society – safe.
Thus, we have accident, carelessness or malevolence. If you are a determinist, these different situations are exactly the same,because there is no difference between a boulder and a human being. The boulder has no free will, and the human being has no free will either.
If one boulder crashed into another boulder, and the second boulder crashed into my car, we would not hold the first boulder “responsible,” because it was just obeying the blind laws of physics.
Why would it be any different, if you are a determinist, with a man? A man is just a boulder, no different at all.
If, from the bottom of the hill, you look up and see a man pushing at a boulder that could fall on your car, you would surely call out for him to stop. If he has already dislodged the boulder, do you think you would call out for the boulder itself to stop in its tracks?
If you are a parent, and you see your child running too fast down a hill, you will most likely call out for your child to slow down. If you are a parent, and you see a boulder rolling downhill, does it make any sense to call out for the boulder to slow down?
If you are a determinist, you need to explain why you call out to the child, but not to the boulder, since both are identical, in your worldview. The child has no free will, and the boulder has no free will.
Determinists reply to this objection by saying that the child has an input and can change his behaviour based on external stimuli, such as a parent calling out for the child to slow down.
But that’s the point, now, isn’t it?
The child can change his behaviour.
The determinist would reply that the child can change his behaviour just as a dog can change its behaviour and come running towards you if you call its name. Are we saying the dog also has free will, and that its free will is equivalent to that of a human being?
Furthermore, you could program a robot to respond to your voice commands, and the robot would “change its behaviour” based upon what you say. Are we then saying that the robot has free will?
Although this may seem like a compelling argument, it actually works against the determinist position.
Referring to a mechanical device such as a robot in lieu of a person does not solve the problem of human consciousness and choice because it takes a human being to create a robot. It’s like saying I have superhero hearing because I can hear someone talking from thousands of miles away – when all I have done is use a phone.
Saying a robot is like a human being is ridiculous, because a robot is created and programmed by human beings. Do we often mistake a radio for a person, or an MP3 for the band? If a friend of yours stands at the bottom of a canyon and calls back every word that you shout down, is he exactly the same as an echo?
If a robot is like a human being, then the argument is that entities that can respond to spoken commands must have been created by an external intelligence. Do determinists really want to make the case for God in that manner? You cannot have a robot without an external non-robot living intelligence that created it. Thus by this logic you cannot have a human being without an external non-human living intelligence that created it.
If determinists want to compare humans to robots, they subsequently create a logical avenue proving the existence of God. Once God’s existence is established, or at least allowed, then determinism becomes falsified, because you have a consciousness – in the form of God – that is not bound by any known physical laws or properties. Once you allow for the existence of consciousness without a material basis, then you open up the possibility of the soul. This disproves determinism, because then choice can be made immaterially, unbound by any material constraints. In this scenario, if every material action is triggered by a prior material action, the only chance to escape this inevitable causality must be for an immaterial cause to intervene. If reality unfolds like dominoes falling against each other, then the only chance for choice must be something that is not a domino, not material, such as the soul.
If God exists, then immaterial consciousness exists. Since determinism is bound only by the material, immaterial consciousness escapes the inevitabilities of determinism.
No, determinism cannot be proved with reference to anything other than human consciousness. If free will is valid, then a man can choose to create a robot. The deterministic nature of the robot tells you nothing about the choices of the man. I can choose to throw a rock off a cliff. The fact that the rock’s path is then determined tells you nothing about whether my brain is determined. Referencing the effects of free will to disprove free will is like using a statue’s shadow to disprove a statue.
I would sooner say that an elevator allows a man to defy the laws of gravity than I would say the existence of a robot disproves free will.
Regarding the dog example – yes, a dog can come when you call him, but that does not support the determinist position. A dog’s brain is more complex than a worm’s brain, and we can expect a dog to come when we call him, but not a worm. We can train a dog, but not a worm. Thus this argument supports the concept of free will, since a more advanced and complex brain is used as an example, rather than a simpler and less complex brain. The capacities of a dog are invoked, not the capacities of a worm.
It’s not so much that dogs come when you call them, but rather that human beings recognize that dogs have a sophisticated enough brain to be trained to come when you call them. No one tries to train a boulder to come when you call it, for obvious reasons.
Since a more complex brain is required for the argument against free will, it supports the argument for free will, since the human brain is the most complex of all.
Ask yourself this – can you imagine debating with any known entity other than a human being?
I don’t debate with the television, because the television has no free will, and will not change.
I understand when the behaviour of an entity is predetermined, and so do not pretend that I can have any effect on its behaviour. I do not debate with clouds, watches, robots or heating ducts. I only debate human beings – and only some human beings, to be more precise.
Because I deal with human beings as the only entities I can debate with, I cannot then put them in the same category of every other conceivable entity that I will not debate with. If I consider it sane to debate with a human being, but consider it insane to debate with a television – as surely it is – then it would be insane for me to treat these two entities as the same.
It is hard to think of any categories as singular and oppositional as the difference between entities you are willing to debate with, and entities it would be insane to pretend to debate with. Try it – try and think of a category that small and that oppositional to everything not in that category.
It is virtually impossible.
You do not have to be able to explain a phenomenon in order to accept it. You also do not have to be able to explain a phenomenon in order to reject irrational pretend explanations of it.
I do not have to be able to explain the origins of the universe in order to accept that the universe exists. I do not know the incontrovertible facts about the origins of the universe, but I reject that it was created by a giant space turtle, that it was both created and destroyed simultaneously, or that it expanded and contracted at the same time, and so on.
A baseball pitcher does not need to know the detailed equations of air resistance to be able to throw a ball, nor to understand that he cannot throw a ball in opposite directions at the same time.
Determinists will often demand that those who accept free will provide an incontrovertible explanation of the origin and process of free will. This is a silly form of intellectual baiting, similar to theists who demand that atheists provide an incontrovertible explanation of the origin and process of the universe, or supply the details of every conceivable stage of evolution.
I cannot explain free will; I cannot describe and provide incontrovertible explanations of its origins and processes – but so what? Before Darwin, no one had any idea how complex life came about – does that mean that they had no right to believe in horses or people, or the value of selective breeding? Because I cannot accurately describe the development and evolution of my eyes, does that mean I cannot open them and see?
All knowledge is preceded by ignorance – that is the entire point of knowledge. Knowing what you know, and knowing what you don’t know – but could know – is the entire progress of human thought. Admitting you don’t know something is not a confession of impotence, but of possibility. The fact that we don’t yet know all the biological underpinnings of free will gives us something to explore, to examine – a goal to pursue. It is not a bad thing – it is a wonderful thing. It is not a failing; it is an opportunity.
Demanding that we not accept or believe in something before we can explain everything about it is truly putting the cart before the horse. I must believe in a stable phenomenon before I can examine its underlying causes, which is one reason why I am interested in the physics of objective reality, and not in the physics of nightly dreaming. I must believe that something exists before I will set aside time to find and examine it. I don’t believe in ghosts, so I don’t spend any time trying to find and examine them. I don’t believe in telepathy, so I don’t check out my prowess in the field. I’m not trying to find investors to fund a dragon zoo, either, since that involves fiat currency, which is even less real than fire-breathing lizards.
I must believe in something before I invest my scarce and precious resources to investigate it. I have written this book based on the belief that I can achieve truth – you are reading it because you believe philosophy has value, and are willing to hear original proofs for complex positions.
Demanding that I be able to prove everything about free will before I can accept free will is ridiculous. If ultimate proof were required for any acceptance, then no patient hierarchy of knowledge building would be possible – no one could have any theories on physics before atoms were discovered – and all current theories would be invalid and useless because no unified field theory has yet been developed.
However, the stability and predictability of matter and energy were accepted long before atoms were discovered – and such stability is accepted by lower and less complex life forms as well, down to and including jellyfish. Just because we don’t know everything doesn’t mean we can’t know some things. It’s a cheap and silly way to tell people to shut up, and it is fundamentally anti-scientific in nature.
The definition of free will is challenging and complicated, because it must be something unique to the human mind – therefore, it cannot be anything as simple and tautological as “choice.”
One unique capability of the human mind is to compare proposed actions to abstract standards. A beaver will build a dam, but a beaver does not use a blueprint to design the dam. A bird will fly, but a bird does not plot out a flight course on a map ahead of time.
One defining aspect of human consciousness is our capacity for morality, which is basically comparing proposed actions to ideal standards. When we think of the “big four” evil actions – theft, rape, assault and murder – moral responsibility requires that we have the capacity to compare proposed actions to abstract standards. If we want to steal something, we can compare our action to a standard such as “stealing is wrong.”
(Please understand that this is not a proof of morality, which will come later in this book, but an example of commonly accepted moral reasoning.)
Free will does not mean that we can do anything we want – that would be omnipotence. We are not free to fly unaided, or jump to Mars. But it does mean that we have the capacity to compare our proposed actions to abstract standards – ideal standards, generally.
Some of these ideal standards are pure abstractions – Platonic, almost – such as a universal respect for persons and property. Others are more personal, reciprocal and empathetic – “How would you like it if someone stole from you?”
Children who don’t want to eat their dinner are sometimes informed of the existence of starving children in the Third World. Challenges sometimes referred to as “First World problems” are generally marked as being silly and unimportant relative to the survival challenges of living in a poverty-stricken landscape.
We may refrain from stealing because we accept that stealing is universally wrong – or we may refrain from stealing because we empathize with the upset and anger that our potential victim would doubtless experience.
(We also may refrain from stealing because we fear punishment by an all-knowing and all-seeing God, but such cause and effect has little place in a book on philosophy. I refer you to any number of theological works for more information on this perspective.)
The comparison of potential actions to abstract rules falls into the category of direct moralizing. The comparison of such actions to negative emotions falls into the category of empathy, or indirect moralizing.
In the first case, the principle is that stealing is wrong; in the second, it is that actions that cause negative emotions are wrong, and stealing just happens to be one of those.
I fully understand that the phrase “stealing is wrong” is not satisfying philosophically, and I will strive to satisfy you philosophically later in the book. I also understand that the supposed “principle” called “don’t make people feel bad” is even less satisfying, for a variety of reasons we will get into later.
However, we certainly must accept that human beings have the capacity to develop universal abstractions – abstractions that have a positive obligation. If you want to learn truths about the physical world, you need to use the scientific method. If you want to build a bridge that stands up efficiently, you need to use principles of engineering. If you want to sell medicine that makes people better, you need to use the principle of medical research – in particular, the double-blind experiment – to stave off the inevitable possibility of mistaking the placebo effect and other false positives for an imaginary cure.
Given that we have the capacity to develop universal abstractions with positive obligations – abstractions that we need to use to objectively achieve a particular end – we must also accept that we have the capacity to compare our proposed actions to those universal abstractions.
When we ask a child to accept that two and two make four, we are not asking the child to believe this truth for any particular instance, but rather for all instances of that equation. It’s not just that these two coconuts and two coconuts make four coconuts, but rather that two and two of anything make four. When we ask a child to write the number “4” on an answer sheet, we are asking the child to compare his proposed action – writing a number – with the ideal standard of writing the correct number.
With regards to criminal guilt, we generally think of punishing a man because he knew what he was doing at the time was wrong. If a man is insane, has a brain disease, or is mentally retarded to the point that he does not have the capacity to know the immorality of his actions, then we may decide to confine him, not as a moral punishment, but rather just to keep everyone else safe.
We may decide to put down a dog that keeps biting people – not as a moral punishment, and certainly not as any kind of ethical instruction to other dogs, but rather just to keep people from being bitten.
Thus we do not judge a man morally if we decide that he is unable to morally judge his own actions. In other words, if he is unable to compare his contemplated actions to an ideal moral standard, then we do not judge him to be in possession of free will. We do not expect a rabid dog to understand that the initiation of the use of force is immoral, and so we do not call such dogs evil for biting.
A raccoon that steals our food is not dragged off to court and tried as a thief.
If we do not have the capacity to compare our own potential actions to some idealized standard, then we can never be held morally responsible for failing to conform to that standard.
Imagine that a thief steals a wallet, and then has that wallet stolen from him in turn. The thief cries out in frustration at the violation of his “property rights.” We can clearly see the hypocrisy here. The thief violates his original victim’s property rights, and then in turn has his own rights violated as another thief takes off with the stolen property.
Can we imagine applying this judgement of hypocrisy to any other animal in the world? If a squirrel steals a nut from another squirrel, and in turn is stolen from, would we call the first squirrel a hypocrite for chasing the second “thief”?
Of course not – because we recognize that the squirrel does not have the capacity to compare a potential theft to the concept of universal property rights.
We were all asked when we were children, if we hit another child, “How would you like it if another child hit you?” The endless repetition of this empathy programming – along with other factors – helped us develop a sense of responsibility for the feelings of others as we grew up. The golden rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – is a reflection of this basic understanding. As human adults, we are generally expected to recognize that other human beings have feelings and preferences, just as we do, which need to be taken into account when considering potential actions.
Another mantra we hear as children is: “You should have known better!” In this context, “better” means having “higher standards of behaviour.”
When you were a child, you doubtless attempted to avoid punishment for bad behaviour by saying that your friends told you to do something. At which point, adults doubtless asked whether you would jump off the Brooklyn Bridge or Toronto’s CN Tower if your friends told you to do that as well. Of course you wouldn’t, which means that you had the capacity to judge the value of your friends’ suggestions. You were increasingly required to use your own judgement, rather than blame your friends.
The entire purpose of civilizing children is to get them to compare their proposed actions to ideal standards – in a philosophical society, this means reason and evidence.
In Christian societies, the ideal standard is the Ten Commandments, combined with: What would Jesus do?
Morality itself is the comparison of proposed actions to ideal standards. Criminal judgement is the comparison of past actions to ideal standards. In other words, criminal judgement occurs when there has been a failure in moral judgement, which manifested in illegal action.
A baby who urinates on you has no capacity to compare his urination options to ideal standards – the average teenager who urinates on you is committing an egregious action.
When we think of a speeder on a highway, we condemn that person. We assume the driver has the capacity to compare his current speed with the ideal standard, the speed limit, and has chosen to exceed it.
If the speeder turns out to be drunk, we recognize that he is making decisions with diminished capacity – but this does not, of course, let him off the hook. The ideal standard in this situation is not make good decisions while you drive drunk, but rather do not drive while you are drunk. It is a simple fact that people make poor decisions when drunk – not to mention having slower reaction times. Every driver knows this, so he is responsible for the decision of getting drunk and then driving, not for making bad decisions while driving drunk.
If a man ties a blindfold over his eyes while he is driving, we do not blame him for hitting a garden gnome, since he cannot see. Instead, we blame him for tying the blindfold over his eyes. The ideal standard here is not don’t hit garden gnomes, but rather do not drive if you cannot see.
Similarly, if a driver hit a garden gnome because his brakes failed, and it turns out he had not maintained his brakes, we blame him not because his brakes failed, but because he chose to avoid necessary maintenance. On the other hand, if his car was well maintained, but someone sabotaged his brakes, then of course the person who tinkered with his car is to blame.
This can get quite complicated. If you set events in motion that produce a particular outcome, even if you did not anticipate and do not want that outcome, you can still be responsible. A fascinating example arises out of common law, wherein if a robber runs into a store, and the cashier shoots at him to prevent the robbery and accidentally hits and kills another customer, it is the robber who is charged with murder, not the cashier. The robber set the events in motion that resulted in the death of the customer, although the robber doubtless did not want the customer to die. In this case, the ideal standard is don’t rob – one reason being that highly random and uncertain events may be set in motion.
Another example is a simple barroom brawl that results in one man dying because he falls and hits his head on the edge of the bar. The man brawling with him probably did not want to kill him, but is still responsible for the death. He would be charged with a lesser offense than first-degree murder, but the charge would be more than simple assault. Everyone who gets into a bar fight recognizes that entirely unanticipated and even unwanted injuries can occur, just as every robber understands the same thing. Violence is almost always a form of Russian roulette.
No matter where we look in the realm of ethics or free will, we understand that there is ideal behaviour, and someone who has knowledge of that behaviour can choose to behave in non-conforming ways. If I go to a foreign country where I do not understand the customs, I can be forgiven for acting in ways that may otherwise be considered offensive – because I am not aware of the ideal standards, and therefore I am not consciously deviating from them.
If I fail to study for a test, I am deviating from an ideal standard. If I exercise or train to the point of injury, I am deviating from an ideal standard. If I’m attracted to an available woman and I do not ask her out, I am deviating from an ideal standard of courage. If I ask her out every day for a year, I am also deviating from the ideal standard of consideration.
Sometimes the ideal standard is an absolute – thou shalt not kill.
Sometimes the ideal standard is more relative, like the Aristotelian mean. Too much courage is foolhardiness; too little courage is cowardice.
Where the ideal standard is an absolute, there we generally find morality. Where the ideal standard is relative, there we generally find aesthetics, culture, politeness or other forms of social standards enforced by disapproval and ostracism rather than through retaliatory force. You can shoot someone who’s attacking you; you cannot shoot someone for being rude.
There are entities that conform to ideal standards, but which do not have a choice – computers fall into this category. I can program a robot to kill people Terminator style, and that robot will conform to the ideal standards of my programming – but it has no choice. I could throw a random algorithm in the air, so that 10 percent of the time the killer robot will show mercy and let its victim live, but we would not assume I had given the robot any free will – randomness is not the same as choice.
If we understand this definition of free will – our human capacity to compare proposed actions to ideal standards – then the debate between determinism and choice becomes much easier to resolve.
With this definition in hand, we can clearly see that when a determinist tries to argue you out of your free-will position, the determinist is asking you to compare your position that free will is true to an ideal standard called determinism is true.
However, by asking the supporter of free will to compare the contents of his mind to an ideal standard, the determinist is already supporting the free-will position.
If a man attempts to correct a woman’s position, he is asking her to compare the contents of her mind to the ideal standard of truth – and if the contents of her mind do not conform to the ideal standard of truth, then she should discard them, and accept the truth.
Such a man accepts free will, because he accepts that human beings have the capacity to compare the contents of their mind to the ideal standard of truth – and free will is defined as our capacity to compare proposed actions to ideal standards.
I realize that I may be seen to have switched the definition a little bit – from “comparing his proposed actions to an ideal standard,” to “comparing the contents of his mind to an ideal standard,” but the two are really one and the same. The contents of the mind can only be discerned through actions, such as speaking or writing.
If I were able to convince you that the world is a sphere and not flat, I would attempt to do so only because I would expect you to no longer speak about supporting the flat earth model, and instead support that the world is in fact a sphere. If you continued to support the flat earth hypothesis, I would be confused and annoyed. I would say: “But you admitted that the world was a sphere!” If you replied, “Yes, the world is a sphere. I accept and admit that, but I’m still going to publicly talk about the world being flat” – well, that wouldn’t make much sense, would it?
Changing your mind without changing your behaviour makes no sense at all. It might happen for occasional reasons – think of priests who lose their faith, but continue in their occupation – but overall it is both strange and rare for such contradictions between thought and action to manifest. In general, a conflict between belief and behaviour only occurs where generally selfish incentives exist – a desire to continue drawing a salary, maintain a marriage, or avoid hostility or even attack from an ideological or religious group, for example. Most of us would have sympathy for a person keeping secret thoughts separate from public actions out of fear of consequences, but that is not what I’m talking about.
We strive to change people’s minds because we hope to alter their future actions – and conversations and debates and arguments are all potential future actions.
Imagine that I used to be deeply religious. I went to church, prayed, baptized my children, donated 10 percent of my income to the church, volunteered, and did charity and missionary work – all in the name of my faith.
Now, imagine that one day I tell you I have become an atheist. What would you expect, in terms of my behaviour?
Surely you would expect me to stop going to church, stop praying, stop donating to the church and so on.
What if I told you I was an atheist, but nothing about my behaviour was going to change – I was going to continue attending church, praying and so on?
Surely you would be confused about my change of mind. Wouldn’t it be strange if I said I no longer believed in God, but I continued exactly the same behaviours as when I did believe in God?
Let us go one step further in terms of strangeness. Imagine that when I was religious, I spent countless hours converting other people to my religion. Surely you would expect this behaviour to change when I claimed to have lost my faith and became an atheist.
It’s one thing to pursue something you don’t believe in personally – it’s quite another to pour enormous energies into convincing other people of something you no longer believe in.
However bizarre this behaviour may appear, however incomprehensible and contradictory it is, it still falls far short of the irrationality of the determinist.
If I have a mental illness and believe that the president of the United States is speaking directly to me through my television set, and I spend an enormous amount of time talking back to him, engaging in imaginary conversations and debates – all with the deluded belief that I am profoundly altering public policy in America – surely this is something I should be cured of, not indulged in.
So – what exactly do I need to be cured of? What exactly is the nature of my delusion?
Well, I am confusing an inanimate object – a television – with a conscious human being.
If I were actually teleconferencing with the president of the United States, and we were having actual conversations, this would not be a delusion to be cured, but perhaps a position of influence to be envied.
However, if in reality I am merely yelling at a television, then clearly I need to be disabused of the fantasy that I am having a conversation, since the television is a mere mechanical object that possesses no free will of its own.
Are you beginning to see the problem?
The reason I should stop debating with my television is that my television does not possess free will.
We can imagine a similar and more understandable situation where you think you are debating a real live person on the other end of an internet chat program, when it turns out the program is an automatic “bot” response system.
Decades ago, there was a little program for primitive computers called “Eliza” that mimicked the neutral passive responses of a stereotypical psychiatrist. If you poured your heart out to this program and it prompted you to be more open, speak more honestly, and say more, it would be easy to imagine the computer had developed curiosity and empathy.
If you think you are talking to a person and it turns out you are talking to a robot, you would probably give up on the conversation, since you would recognize that the robot does not possess free will.
If I stop believing in ghosts, it makes sense for me to stop ghost hunting.
If I say that I have switched from being a Democrat to a Republican, but I continue to vote Democrat, and convert other people to Democrat positions, what does that mean?
I am a staunch empiricist, which means I judge people not by their words, but by their deeds – as the old biblical saying goes, “By their deeds shall you know them.”
I care what people say, but I really care what they do, since the truth of the mind is found in actions, not words. If someone claims to have learned better, but continues to do worse, I know they have not in fact learned better.
As Aristotle said, we are what we repeatedly do.
If I am hiking through a thick forest with someone, and she claims she wants to get to a certain distant destination, and knows how to get there, but refuses to check our direction with a map, a compass or a GPS, I know she is far more interested in being “right” than going in the right direction.
We are all generally raised with the personal responsibility of free will. As a child, if I took another child’s toy, I was told to give it back, and I learned the virtue of sharing, or respecting other people’s property. If I took another child’s toy, no one ever said about me, “Well, little Stef is just a machine. He has no free will, he’s just doing what he does, and there’s no point blaming him, any more than there is any point blaming a cloud for raining on you.”
If a boy deliberately drives a remote-controlled toy car into a dozing cat, we blame the boy, not the toy – but for a determinist, there is no difference between the two. Does the determinist refrain from assigning any responsibility to the boy? Somehow, I doubt it.
We are all raised embedded in the notion of free will, personal responsibility and ethics – in this sense, we are all raised religious. At some point, determinists discard the idea of free will, just as some religious people discard the idea of God.
My eternal question to determinists is: Now that you have given up on the idea of free will, what changes?
What does change? I have had countless public debates with determinists, and I have never once received a straight answer. Determinists call into my philosophy show aiming to change my mind about free will. They bring arguments and evidence and empiricism and science to bear on the question, in the hopes that I will accept their perspective and change my mind. They want me to use my power to change my mind to give up on the idea that I can change my mind.
Once I accept that an entity does not have free will – a robot, for instance – then I no longer invest time and energy debating with that entity.
In video games, there are often preprogrammed enemies that attack you. I’ve never heard of any sane individual trying to reason these computerized avatars into pacifism or trying to get the two-dimensional robots to accept the non-aggression principle and learn how to debate, rather than fire giant rockets at their digital opponent’s head. Computer enemies in a video game have no free will of their own, so no one tries to reason with them. In massive combat games, no one ever offers up treaty conditions to the computerized opponent – assuming this option is not programmed into the game somehow – because the computer opponent is just following its predetermined script.
To put it another way, imagine that you woke up tomorrow with certain proof that everyone around you was a preprogrammed robot with no free will of their own. Surely this would be a shattering experience and would change your behaviour in countless fundamental ways.
Would you bother continuing to follow politics if you knew you could have absolutely no impact upon the outcome? Do you currently campaign to change the outcome of past elections?
Furthermore, imagine if you woke up the day after tomorrow with certain proof that you yourself were also a preprogrammed robot with no free will of your own. Would you give up trying to debate the other robots? Would this knowledge change your behaviour in any way?
It seems to me impossible to imagine that such a shattering revelation would have no impact on how you felt, what you thought, or what you did.
In the science-fiction movie The Matrix, one character decides he wishes to return to the artificial delusions created by the master robots – but the only way he can do that is by erasing his knowledge that his prior life was in fact a delusion. A mind once stretched by a new idea never regains its original shape – and morally and philosophically speaking, what is more important than the question of free will versus determinism?
If I accept certain absolutes, they must change my behaviour – that is how we know I accept them. If I think I can fly unaided, I am cured when I no longer try to fly unaided. As long as I continue the attempts, I am not cured, no matter what I say.
If I truly accept the idea that everyone – myself included – is just a robot, with no capacity for choice, free will, morality, preferring any particular state over any other state, or the capacity to compare proposed actions to ideal standards, then I will stop trying to change people’s minds. I must stop debating people, I must stop trying to improve the world, I must stop pretending to prefer truth over falsehood, and I must give up on the ideas of morality, personal responsibility, or any preferred state – such as freedom – over any other state, such as tyranny.
I must also give up on the idea of punishment. If a man uses a phone to call in a bomb threat, we don’t put the phone in jail, because the phone has no free will. If the man also has no free will, then it makes about as much sense to throw him in jail as it does to throw the phone in jail.
Of course, determinists respond that human beings receive inputs and you can change their behaviour – to which I say, sure, that’s what I believe as well, since I accept free will.
This is the boringly repetitive pattern of debating with determinists. You point out the logical consequences of their beliefs, and they deny those logical consequences. I say the logical consequence of accepting determinism is refraining from debating people – they say that they can be determinists and still debate people.
I say the logical consequence of accepting determinism is giving up on the idea of morality – they say they can be determinists and still believe in morality.
I say the logical consequence of accepting determinism is giving up on the idea of truth – they say they can be determinists and still believe in truth.
In other words, they accept all of the consequentialist results of accepting free will, while calling themselves determinists.
This is quite literally insane.
Here is the equivalent: “If you no longer believe in God, it doesn’t make any sense to continue going to church.”
“Oh no, I can stop believing in God and it still makes perfect sense to go to church.”
“If you no longer believe in God, you no longer believe in heaven.”
“Oh no, I can stop believing in God, but still totally believe in heaven.”
Ditto for praying, trying to convert other people to your faith, putting your trust in a higher power – all these and more should logically be eliminated in your mind along with your belief in God. But determinists wish to keep all the fruits of free will, while denying free will.
“Once you accept that the television set is not the president, it makes no sense to continue pretending to have a conversation with the television.”
“Oh no, I totally accept that it’s just a television set, but that in no way prevents me from having a conversation with the president.”
What can one do in these situations?
Walk away. Fixing that mess is a job for mental health professionals, not philosophers.
Reducing objects to their mere material properties is truly a reduction to absurdity. Wood is partly composed of carbon atoms, and tables are made of wood – thus because I cannot put my plate on a carbon atom, I cannot put my plate on a table either!
Atoms are mostly space; therefore, I can walk through a wall!
Carbon is the basis of life. However, no carbon atom can be alive; therefore, there is no such thing as life!
Carbon atoms are found in dead things and inert things, as well as living things – therefore, there is no difference between dead things, inert things and living things.
No individual player can win against a professional soccer team –therefore, eleven individual players can never win against a professional soccer team.
Metal cannot float; therefore, a ship made of metal cannot float.
You get the idea.
Life is an emergent property of matter. If you get enough particular kinds of matter together, with the right configuration of energy, you get life. A pregnant woman is a wonderful mechanism for converting celery into consciousness. Atoms in a piece of celery end up among the atoms of a growing brain, where – in conjunction with a wide variety of other factors – they achieve consciousness.
No individual celery atom gains consciousness, of course, and no celery is conscious, but through the process of a woman’s pregnancy, each atom in the food she consumes contributes to consciousness. Celery is not human, but it can contribute to and become part of a human being.
No individual atom is alive, yet life exists.
No individual atom or cell is conscious, yet consciousness exists.
No life exists in the absence of atoms, yet no individual atom is alive.
No consciousness exists in the absence of atoms, yet no individual atom is conscious.
Remove one individual atom from a life form and it continues to live. Remove one individual atom from a brain, consciousness continues. Remove enough – up to some biochemical tipping point – and both life and consciousness cease to be.
Thus, life is an emergent property. None of its individual components possess it, yet in combination, life comes into being. Consciousness is also an emergent property. None of its individual components possess it, yet in their combination, we start to think.
Life and consciousness are shared by a wide variety of other creatures – but free will is a uniquely human phenomenon. No other organism that we know of can consciously compare proposed actions to ideal abstract standards.
Accepting that life and consciousness are emergent properties of matter and energy, but denying free will on the basis of physics, is a ridiculously self-contradictory position. No carbon atom can comprehend science, yet human beings can. Using a discipline that is itself an emergent property to deny the existence of an emergent property such as free will is beyond foolish.
No carbon atom can walk, eat, reproduce or die – yet carbon-based life forms exhibit all these characteristics.
No individual atom can see, but our eyes can see.
No individual atom can get cancer, but we certainly can.
Reducing the human mind to mere empty matter and energy denies the reality of the very emergent properties that give us the capacity to commit such a logical fallacy. To make an error, we must be alive and conscious. To deny emergent properties is to deny the very capacities that give rise to our ability to get arguments so spectacularly wrong.
Please understand that this is not definitive proof of free will – however, it is a strong repudiation of the idea that we can judge consciousness on the basis of its merely material components. While it is true that all atoms are subject to the iron laws of physics, this does not tell us anything about their capacities under emergent properties. Carbon atoms cannot initiate their own movement – yet, when aggregated as an animal, they can.
If you prefer a more physical example, no individual atom can arrest the direction of light. However, if you get enough atoms together and compress them enough to form a black hole, then light cannot escape such a gravity well.
Or, no individual atom gives off light, yet the sun, which is composed of atoms, gives off light.
Reducing the complexities of consciousness, life and free will to mere empty materialism is ridiculous and an intellectual embarrassment, to be perfectly frank. To see how ridiculous the position is, all you need to do is remember this basic fact: No individual atom can possess a theory of determinism; therefore, no theory of determinism exists.
If you wish to argue against the proposition that free will can be an emergent property of consciousness – specifically, human consciousness – you are more than welcome to do that, but then you need to explain why free will is different from life, or consciousness itself. Both life and consciousness are emergent properties of matter. So you already accept that new properties emerge from aggregations. You cannot then draw some imaginary line in the sand and say: “Well, life and consciousness are emergent properties that possess characteristics that none of their individual components possess. But free will must be judged outside the bounds of emergent properties and can never be justified, because no individual atom in the human mind possesses free will.”
You cannot have it both ways. If you accept the emergent properties of life and consciousness, you cannot then arbitrarily deny the emergent property of free will.
All this is elementary logic, not particularly complicated in any way – so why is the deterministic position so prevalent? It would be silly to watch a biologist denying the existence of life, or a psychologist denying the existence of consciousness, or a physicist denying the existence of matter and energy – so why do so many determinists try to convince others that changing minds is impossible?
Many studies show that human consciousness sometimes engages in what is called ex post facto reasoning – justifying prior decisions after the fact using reasons unconnected with the decision. Brain scans can sometimes detect a decision in the mind before the subject becomes consciously aware of having made a decision. The subject later creates “reasons” for that decision. (For more information on this – as well as detailed sources – please check out my presentation “The Death of Reason,” available on YouTube.)
All this is held up triumphantly by the determinists, who say, “Ahah! People only think they make a choice; therefore, free will is a delusion!”
It certainly is true that people can nimbly navigate through challenging conceptual mazes using their instincts. Think of a prisoner being interrogated by the police, or a family member being confronted about some past immorality – the levels of obfuscation and misdirection can be truly powerful in such situations.
These manipulative instincts arise from deep within the brain, and are not often explainable by the conscious mind.
If you have ever watched a really good jazz quartet, you’ve witnessed when they decide to improvise. No individual musician knows exactly what note they are going to play next, yet the music all works together beautifully.
If you know how to fluently read a second language that you learned as an adult, and you glance at some text in that language, you automatically – or instinctually – comprehend what you are reading.
Would the determinists then say that you have no choice regarding your comprehension?
Of course you do – because you made a choice to learn to read that second language.
While it is true that it is hard to look at the text of a language you know and not understand it – you might say impossible – this is not where free will resides.
If I am playing a top-seeded tennis player, I do not have the capacity to will a victory, since his skill and training vastly exceeds my own.
However, if I have been training hard for fifteen years, then my will might come into play – if I decide to grit my teeth and push through some exhaustion.
Do you see? I don’t have the choice to swim to shore if I don’t know how to swim. I don’t have the choice to sing Mozart’s Requiem if I have never studied the music – or I lack the voice.
Sure, it is true that some people lack choices in life – but that is often, or least sometimes, due to their prior choices. If I have practised running for many years, I may have the choice to outrun a fast mugger. If I have spent most of my time sitting on the couch, I don’t have that choice. If I saved my money in the past, I have the choice to spend it in the present – if I did not, I don’t.
This is not to argue that prior choices provide omnipotence, but prior choices either expand or narrow our range of opportunities in the future. If I exercise regularly, I can play sports relatively easily – that gives me more choices. However, while I am exercising, I am not able to play the cello, and therefore my choices are reduced. Some diminished choices in the present create expanded choices in the future – and indeed, all choices in the present diminish other present choices – or eliminate them. Some choices in the present, such as not learning the guitar, reduce choices in the future – playing guitar.
A series of choices – combined with happenstance – may lead to you having only one real course of action. Let us say that you are a drug addict, and a dangerous criminal sees you stealing his drugs. I think it’s fair to say that in such a situation, your plethora of choices is somewhat reduced – run like mad, get someplace safe or get out of town. As you pant down the alleyway, your heart pounding, you may believe you have no free will – and in the moment, it’s hard to argue that you have a lot of options. However, your narrowed opportunities in the present, at least in part, result from your bad choices in the past – the choice to take drugs, the choice to keep taking drugs, the choice to steal the drugs, and so on.
If you jump out of a plane, you don’t have the choice not to fall – your choice to jump has reduced your other choices considerably.
Pointing out that some people have few if any choices does not disprove the concept of free will, any more than pointing out that some people are sick disproves the concept of health. In fact, pointing out that some people have reduced choices only reinforces the concept of free will, just as pointing out that some people are sick only reinforces the concept of health – we only know they are sick because we have the concept of health.
Sure, some choices reduce future choices, but that does not deny free will – it actually makes our examination of our choices all the more important. Some health choices, such as smoking, also reduce future choices. This does not mean that choices do not matter, but that they are actually more important than we sometimes think.
Generally, it is not enough to disprove a common belief – we must also find a way to explain its prevalence. Determinism is not a valid position, but it certainly feels true to a great number of people, and that is something well worth examining.
A famous “first commandment” in philosophy – often attributed to Socrates – is: Know thyself.
What is meant by this, and why is it so important?
We are creatures of reason and self-reflection, to some degree, but we are more specifically – and more importantly – creatures of action.
If you have ever played a sport or an instrument at a very high level, you know the importance of trained instincts – to be able to think something and then achieve it, virtually instantaneously. A tennis player wants to place a ball in a particular place, at a particular speed, with a particular spin – and he has mere milliseconds to achieve this. A pianist jams with a group of experts; they must all think and breathe and play as one.
Anyone can hit a ball with a bat, or pound away noisily on a piano – the question is, how well?
Becoming an expert first requires understanding that you are not an expert, and then understanding how long it takes to become an expert – the enormous difference between being ignorant and competent. Then, countless hours and years of practice are required to achieve expertise.
To observers, the feats that experts can achieve often seem miraculous. A golf pro digs a ball out of a sand trap and sinks the putt; musicians nod at each other and change the entire key and beat of a song – it all seems amazing.
Some feats involve achieving expertise from a neutral starting place, and others involve achieving normalcy from a negative starting place.
A man with a healthy body may become a gold-medal runner – and a man with a broken body may become a regular walker. Both endeavours may take as much time, blood, sweat and tears – the broken man struggles for years to get to the place that the expert runner started from.
If we were raised rationally, the feats we would be able to achieve with our minds, bodies and spirits would be beyond the comprehension of the world as it stands.
However, we are generally not raised rationally – we are raised anti-rationally. So many of us are deprived of the maternal care, proximity and comfort we deserve and desire as babies. So many of us are dumped in daycare and raised without fathers. We are frightened, bullied and dumbed down in government schools, propagandized in universities, lied to by the media – and programmed by superstition, guilt, rage and shame. It is remarkable that we emerge as adults with the capacity to put one foot in front of the other.
We have no capacity to return to our original, unharmed humanity – any more than a man who struggles for years to get out of a wheelchair can be the same as a man who was never in a wheelchair. Recognizing how broken we were – and often are – by culture, control, coercion and circumstance is a necessary prerequisite for the beginning of wisdom. A three-year-old pounds on a xylophone and turns in pride at the “music” he has created, and we clap, perhaps too indulgently. One of the turning points in parenting is recognizing when our praise is no longer generating enthusiasm, but delusion. We praise a toddler for walking, because the toddler could not walk before. We clap relative to the child’s lack of ability in the past, but if we continue clapping, we strip the enthusiasm for achievement in the future. What originates as a form of motivation becomes a form of paralysis.
Returning to rationality is an arduous, multiyear, painful process. The benefit is that you become a friend to yourself and to the truth, but a stranger to your society. Achieving sanity reveals the insanity of your environment. The light of reason illuminates the madhouse around you.
You are programmed – as I was programmed – to serve the needs of those who rule us. You are raised by the government to praise the government, and to fear freedom. Government schools teach you that the danger in your life comes from your peers, not the school itself, even though you are generally forced to be there. If you are unjustly put in a dangerous prison, the true source of the danger is the corrupt legal system, not your fellow inmates; they are a side effect, not the first cause.
By placing you in age-segregated confinement among a subset of traumatized and aggressive children, schools teach you very quickly that peers are dangerous and that teachers are needed to control bullying.
Thus, we grow up with the perception that we must fear our peers most of all, and run to authority for salvation and protection. We must fear our peers even as they grow into adults. However, it doesn’t take a lot of logical analysis to ask the basic question: If the government is so good at educating children, why must we fear our peers as adults?
We are constantly told by the government that we are in danger – not from the state, of course, which taxes and conscripts us, starts wars and buries us in national debts – but from our fellow citizens. Without the state, we are told, we will be overrun by the insanity and evil of those around us – but the state is also somehow legitimized by the votes of the insane and evil around us.
If you do not explore and understand how you have been programmed, you are little more than a machine. You have no free will of any real consequence. You remain a useful idiot serving as an empty soldier in the baying brain-dead army of the masses. The mob clamours for temporary free stuff at the expense of permanent freedoms and attacks anyone who suggests that real freedom and moral responsibility are infinitely better than the soft enslavement of state dependence.
If you lack self-knowledge – if you lack the basic understanding of how you have been turned into a machine that serves the state, into a subspecies of tax livestock that serves politicians – then how can you claim to have any real understanding of freedom, let alone free will?
If you were raised badly, then you were conditioned by your parents to serve their dysfunctional needs, rather than the truth, integrity, honesty or any of the other basic virtues in life. When you are asked to judge the ethics of those in authority – or the ethics of authoritarianism in general – you recoil from the task, for fear of offending the dangerous inner alter egos implanted in your mind by your parents. You were punished for approaching the truth as a child, and so you avoid the truth as an adult – just like any trained animal, just as a puppy avoids pooping inside because it fears the rolled-up magazine.
If you live your life in compliance to internal programming, to avoidance of disapproval – and in fear of the laughable crime of “giving offense” – then you have no real freedom at all, no capacity to make choices independent of, or in opposition to, your programming.
You are little more than a useful robot running around in preprogrammed spirals, spewing polysyllabic nonsense designed to prop up the gallows of power.
If you don’t examine your programming, your programming becomes your physics – as absolute and unchangeable as the laws of material reality.
This is true if you are from what is called the Left, or what is called the Right. This is true if you are religious or an atheist. This is true if you are a Buddhist or a Zoroastrian. If you inherit preprinted ideologies without reference to philosophy, you have no free will to speak of.
Do you think you are free because you have the right to speak and to vote?
You can be consulted only because your responses are determined in advance. You are allowed to vote only because your vote is almost completely predictable. You are allowed the illusion of freedom, only because you will most likely never exercise the real thing.
If you live in a primitive village at the bottom of a volcano and you are told that an angry fire god lives at the top of the volcano, who will destroy anyone who approaches his home, and you believe this with all your heart, are you free to climb the volcano?
If you believe that society will collapse without a particular government program, are you free to rationally evaluate that government program?
If you believe that holding a particular moral position will ensure that you never get a date, are you really free to publicly hold that moral position?
If you believe that the poor will starve and the sick will die without government healthcare and welfare, are you really free to examine free market solutions to charity and healthcare?
If you believe that only evil people believe x, are you free to believe x? Are you free to even dispassionately examine and evaluate x?
If you are told that it is healthy and right for an abused woman to leave her boyfriend, do you think that is a reasonable and good position?
If you are told that it is healthy and right for the adult victim of child abuse to leave his abusive parent, do you think that is a reasonable and good position?
If you are told that you live in a rape culture, where rape is minimized or denied, and then later you are told that the FBI did not even classify rape against men as a crime until 2012, what do you say?
Are you beginning to see just how fenced in you really are?
At some deep level, we all know this, which is why we avoid the topic of freedom – and in particular philosophical freedom, which is the reality, possibility and opportunity of true free will.
True free will must be earned, because it has been stolen.
When someone says you have free will, but you know you have not done the necessary work to escape your programmed delusions, what they say often seems both outlandish and humiliating to you. It seems outlandish because you know it is not true for you. And it feels humiliating because you know deep down that you should have done that work, the work needed to become free, the work to undo your programming, the work to shatter delusions, and to move from livestock to human, from robot to free mind.
Also, if you become free, what happens to your relationships with your surrounding slaves?
There may be other, more sinister reasons why somebody might be emotionally invested in the position of determinism.
Imagine you have done some truly vile deed – something illegal, or at least deeply immoral.
If you believe you had a choice and voluntarily did evil, how do you live with yourself?
Christianity has a lot to say about this, as do many other religions. You must first admit that you chose to do the evil, you must accept your guilt, and finally you must strive with all of your might to make amends.
You must beg for forgiveness, you must pay restitution, you must make the person you wronged whole again. If this means going broke, if this means confessing to the authorities, if this means accepting a prison sentence, then this is what you must do.
However – what if you really, really don’t want to do any of that?
In that case, you have a number of psychological strategies at your disposal to avoid the unpleasant but necessary task of humbling yourself before your wrongdoing.
You can tell yourself that your victims deserved it. If you stole, well, a fool and his money are soon parted. If you assaulted someone, he picked the fight. If you sexually assaulted someone, well, she was just asking for it – the list goes on and on, in dismal descending repetition.
You can tell yourself there is no such thing as right and wrong, that everyone takes what they want, and only fools and weaklings deny the full manifestation of their own desires. You can console yourself with Nietzsche and thoughts of Genghis Khan, Napoleon and other world-striding malefactors. You can become an angry-will nihilist, charging through life in search of diminishing dopamine, and scorning any who deny the full scope of their lusts.
You can read the novel Crime and Punishment and sympathize with the murderer.
If you are a sadist, you can take giggling pleasure in the discomfort, upset and pain you cause others, viewing life as a fun game of extracting giddy agony from idiots.
If you are psychotic, you can believe you are sent on a mission by disembodied voices, aiming to heal some catastrophic world divide with the regretfully necessary brutality of your actions.
Or – or, you can become a determinist.
If you are a determinist, there can be no preferred states in your world view. Determinism is not the establishment of truth, but the destruction of the very concept of truth. Truth is a preferred state – preferable to falsehood – however, if everyone and everything is a machine, there can be no preferred states, since no alternative possibilities can exist. A rock lands where a rock lands – the rock has no preferred state. Everything is the inevitable clockwork unrolling of mere physics – there is no right and wrong, no truth and falsehood, no good and evil – these are all primitive superstitions, akin to a belief not in the geological reality of a volcano, but the imaginary superstition of a volcano god.
I have had countless debates with determinists over the course of my career as a public intellectual, and every single time, I have had the feeling – and yes, this is not an argument – that we are really only dancing around the core issue, which always remains unspoken. The titanic amount of emotional resistance I receive from determinists when exploring these issues is a tragic force of nature. They literally will not let go of their perspectives and positions, and it is impossible for me to shake the feeling that we are never approaching the core of what is really going on.
Think about it – why would someone so desperately need to believe that there is no such thing as right or wrong, truth or falsehood, good or evil, personal responsibility, morality, the capacity for love and respect and courage and integrity? What possible motivation could there be for someone to burn from the universe all that glory and joy and possibility? How much horror must they have experienced – or inflicted – in order to call in an airstrike on everything that makes life worth living, everything that gives us meaning, everything that gives us responsibility and self-respect, pride and love, motivation and responsibility?
I think determinists actually understand deep down how much they are giving up to maintain the position that mankind is a mere bag of meaty mechanized muscle.
My question has always been: Why would they want to give up so much?
The answer cannot be, “Because it is true!” The determinist position denies the very concept of truth or falsehood. If the determinist is right, he believes in determinism involuntarily – and I believe in free will involuntarily. It’s like dropping a boulder on the knife edge of a peaked mountaintop – it breaks, and one half of the boulder falls one way while the other falls the other way. Is there any choice involved? Of course not! Would it make any sense to stand at the open door of the helicopter and scream at one half of the boulder that it was travelling in the wrong direction, that it needed to reverse course, climb back over the mountain and join the other half crashing in that direction? These would be the actions of a crazy person, but in the deterministic universe, there is actually no difference between the split rock and the human mind.
Of course, the determinist can say that he is predetermined to debate with me and to try and change my mind, and therefore he can do nothing about his actions – and here we get to the very heart and crux of the issue.
The determinist essentially says: “Everything I do is right.”
In the deterministic universe, there is no such thing as an incorrect choice, an unpreferred position, or the rational capacity to criticize anyone. If I write a computer program and it fails to compile, I don’t blame the computer, my keyboard or the monitor – that would be ridiculous and immature.
By turning himself into a computer, the determinist renders himself above and beyond any real criticism at all. He is beyond good and evil.
It seems like hard science, but it is in fact “soft snowflake.”
If I prove the determinist wrong, he can just shrug and say, Well, I guess that was predetermined.
If the determinist has acted in an immoral manner, he can just shrug and say, Well, I guess that was predetermined.
The position is one of rank and deep self-hatred – it is a troll’s position. It is a dark dare to join the determinist in an empty universe of clanking machinery, a lack of identity, a lack of meaning, a lack of virtue, a lack of love – it is an invitation to a walking suicide of value.
It is an invitation to free yourself from conscience by destroying your capacity for choice.
But – what virtuous person wants to be freed from his own conscience?
Love is our involuntary response to virtue, if we are virtuous. In the deterministic universe, there is no virtue; therefore, there can be no love.
Integrity is fidelity to moral truth. In the deterministic universe, there is no truth; therefore, there can be no morality and, therefore, there can be no integrity.
Courage is choosing what is right over what is popular. In the deterministic universe, since there is no such thing as “right,” there can be no such thing as courage.
We could go on and on down the list of virtues, all of which in the deterministic universe would be wiped out, irradiated and erased.
It is a cold, lifeless world empty of value, truth, goodness, compassion, charity or love – it is a world of machines, and you are one of them. Nothing can be changed, nothing can be preferred, and nothing can be won or lost. We are all just lifeless boulders rolling down the side of a mountain into an inevitable grave.
What personal hell must you have experienced – or created – to be even remotely tempted by such a nightmarish position?
I am fully aware that my charge of “emotional investment” could very easily be turned back on me. I openly accept that and have talked about it publicly many times. If I ask people, “Why are you so emotionally invested in determinism?” they can very fairly ask me the same question – “Why are you so emotionally invested in free will?”
Here we can talk about the unspoken risks of determinism.
Falsely believing in determinism can strip you of love, life, value, enthusiasm, courage – all the most wonderful aspects of human existence – and this risk is rarely talked about when confronting the question of determinism.
If you are a determinist, you will probably do little to protect your values – while those who accept free will strive mightily to advance theirs. If you are an atheist and a determinist, you will lose – your entire belief system will lose – in the endless back-and-forth tussle of physical and intellectual human combat. This helps us understand why less rational belief systems are spreading and growing throughout the world, while the West falters and fails.
Through relentless materialism and secularism, we have created generations of deterministic, nihilistic, socialistic and empty atheists and agnostics – and now we are losing our freedoms. Determinists lose to those who believe in free will, because determinism is a false position, and it undermines our desire to maintain our hard-won freedoms. What is the point of political freedoms, if we don’t even have free will? Would you sign a petition to grant human rights to a rock garden? Would you fight for the right for a statue to do yoga? Would you march and protest to give your smartphone the right to vote?
Bad reason is worse than good faith. A priest who gives you good medicine is better than a doctor who gives you bad medicine.
The danger of the determinist position is that by not believing in free will, our capacity to exercise free will is destroyed.
I am willing to give up deeply held positions if the reasoned arguments are sufficient, and if the evidence overwhelmingly supports the new position. I was a socialist, a Christian, an Objectivist, and now I have moved beyond those positions – although I treasured them greatly at the time – because accumulated reason and evidence have overwhelmed my original beliefs.
However, I cannot rationally change my mind about my capacity to change my mind. I cannot use my capacity to choose to deny my capacity to choose. I cannot use free will to deny free will.
The fact that accepting the determinist position would also strip my life of love, passion, meaning, purpose and joy is a purely emotional argument – I understand that. And such a sandblasting of happiness is not at all a rational counterargument, but I bring it up as something I am emotionally aware of, and to give you, the dear reader and listener, the honesty of a fair evaluation of my emotional state.
I am also fully aware that a deeply religious person could reject arguments for atheism on the same basis – that a cold and godless universe would be emotionally devastating. I would genuinely respect a religious person for making this honest statement, since most arguments – particularly about epistemology and ethics – are mere covers for deeply held emotional preferences. When we admit and discuss our emotional investments in our positions, we do not become less rational, but rather more rational, since honesty is required for productive intellectual debate – and honesty about bias is a confession of a dedication to rationality.
Should determinism be established beyond doubt, I would no longer be able to comprehend my being, my identity, what it means to be human.
Imagine how strange it would be to know that every single thought, every single impulse, every single “decision” was not yours – that you imagined you were the pilot of an aircraft, when it turned out you were not even a passenger, but merely the machinery of the engine.
Can you imagine waking up in a world where everyone was a robot, and no one had a choice – including you?
Can you imagine waking up in a world where there were no such things as a conscience, virtue, love, courage or truth – a world where all these preferred states were mere delusions, and you faced a bleak and listless future, with about as much choice and freedom as a pinball ricocheting between various preprogrammed bumpers?
Can you imagine waking up in a world where no one had any responsibility whatsoever? In an old John Cleese comedy called Fawlty Towers, the main character beats his uncooperative car with a tree branch. This crazed immaturity is funny, because he is basically punishing an inanimate object, a mere machine. His frustration, of course, is with his own preprogrammed reactions – with his expectations of ease, which are constantly violated by an inevitably messy reality – but we do not imagine that the car can do anything to appease such a madman.
Can you imagine waking up in a world where it made about as much sense to correct or punish a wrongdoer as it does to hit a broken car with a tree branch? We do not give a medal to the rock that rolls down the hill the fastest, so why would we give a medal to the fastest runner in a deterministic universe? The rock is indistinguishable from the runner, philosophically speaking.
Can you imagine waking up in a world where accepting determinism caused you to change your behaviour, to advocate different things, to oppose various perspectives – all while accepting that you had no capacity to do any of these things?
Can you imagine waking up in a world where you could never do anything wrong? Where you could never make a mistake, where you could never be in error, and where you could never be immoral?
Can you imagine being the kind of person, with the kind of history, who would thirst so deeply for such empty salvation?
Can you imagine having done such wrong that you were desperate for absolution, for forgiveness – but still being so corrupt that you would not lift a finger to earn it?
Can you imagine being so guilty that you would destroy love, choice, virtue itself, in order to pretend you did nothing wrong?
Can you imagine being so corrupt that you would spread the nihilistic doctrine of determinism, hoping to gain misery in company, rather than seeking peace through restitution to those you have wronged?
Can you imagine being so solitary, so isolated, so existentially lonely, that you would choose to empty the universe of consciousness rather than seek comfort from another human being?
I can’t, and I
never want to.
Now we turn to the heart of philosophy, which is morality.
The purpose of medicine is physical health; the purpose of nutrition is digestive health. All the research, theory, scientific examination, testing and writing in these fields are designed with one, and only one, objective in mind: to get you to change your behaviour.
There is little point in buying a diet book if you do not change your diet. The cliché of the exercise machine ordered with high enthusiasm at 2:00 a.m. that ends up gathering dust under your guest bed fits this pattern as well. There is no point in learning how to exercise if you never bother exercising. There is no point going to the doctor and getting a prescription, if you never end up taking the medicine.
The purpose of all knowledge is to change behaviour. We study piano in order to improve our piano playing, we learn how to cook so we can cook better, we diet and exercise in order to become healthier. We study another language to better speak that language. We learn how to use a computer so that we can achieve our goals more efficiently. Why do we check the weather? In order to change our behaviour – bring an umbrella, apply sunscreen, whatever.
There was an old video recording and playback technology called the VCR – you can still buy the machines online. Imagine getting ahold of a very early VCR – and then learning how it had been programmed. It might be possible to either get the source code – sitting on some dusty 5¼-inch floppy disk somewhere – or reverse-engineer the VCR code. Then imagine spending months learning that code, studying the hardware specifications and capacities of the machine, and finding some way to improve its speed, efficiency or responsiveness. Then perhaps you could find some way to inject that new code into an existing ancient VCR and watch it perform better. I can’t fathom why anyone would ever pursue that goal, because it would be a dismal and useless waste of time, for many obvious reasons.
It might be possible to justify such a hobby on the grounds that it sharpens your mind, gives you skills that might benefit you in the future, or something along those lines. But I think it would be reasonable to say that anyone who spent hundreds of hours on this pursuit might be exhibiting signs of some sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder or other kind of mental imbalance.
If you were told today that you had three months to live, would you immediately start studying a difficult foreign language?
A subculture of programmers has devoted themselves to the task of getting the old video game Doom to run on a variety of platforms, including printers and cell phones and other disparate hardware.
In this case, I can only assume they are pursuing the respect of others in their subculture, along with the immediate dopamine hit of getting code to run on something that wasn’t designed to run it. There is a purpose in what they do, and the test is whether they post their successes publicly. If you found some man with a variety of ancient hardware in his garage, who had spent the last five years getting an old video game to run on everything from a scientific calculator to a monochrome printer interface, but had never told anyone of his strenuous endeavours, and never used his acquired skills anywhere else, wouldn’t that be a sign that he was pretty nuts?
Intense effort without payoff, without benefit, is a sign of mental illness – like a man endlessly organizing useless items, or a woman obsessively washing her hands, or a child spending eight hours building and breaking one particular toy – these are all signs that all is not well in the upstairs chambers.
I bring all this up because I’m sure you are at least vaguely aware of the enormous efforts that have been poured into philosophy just over the past century or so, and how little productive and valuable meaning has come out of it – at least for the average individual.
Quick – tell me what moral principles have come out of existentialism, postmodernism, pragmatism, collectivism, relativism, or even socialism or Marxism or fascism. Have any of these ideologies or philosophies helped you make better moral decisions in your daily life? I am not talking about political activism, but the personal moral challenges we all face.
Generally, vague positive effects are claimed. Philosophy “enriches” and “deepens understanding” and “brings wisdom” – which are all unquantifiable positives that generally accrue only to the individual.
Philosophy is not just about making you feel better, but about making the world better as well.
When people are generally competent in the science of nutrition, the need for nutritionists diminishes.
When people become generally competent in philosophy, the need for philosophers will diminish.
Gaining significant expertise in nutrition comes with a reasonable expectation that you will instruct the ignorant.
Becoming competent in philosophy also comes with a reasonable expectation that you will instruct the ignorant.
Even philosophies that claim to pursue the moral good rarely result in positive changes in personal behaviour.
There are philosophies that advocate for government control of healthcare. Do they directly help you make better decisions to become a healthier person? Quite the opposite – if healthcare is “free,” people are more likely to neglect their health.
If you think of the philosophy of collectivism – that the group should rule over the individual – it is not designed to help you make better decisions in your own life, but rather to surrender your own decision-making capacity to the mob.
If you think of relativism – the argument that claims as true the position that there is no such thing as truth – how does that help you make moral decisions in your daily life?
Being a Marxist may encourage you to spend your time attempting to establish a dictatorship to transfer control of the means of production to the state, but how does that goal help you make better moral decisions today, tomorrow or ever?
The philosophy of pragmatism may encourage you to judge an idea by its effects, rather than by its principles, but it does not help you make any better moral decisions today – it generally encourages you to act randomly and judge the results over time. I can’t imagine that a diet book called Eat Randomly: See If You Get Thin! would ever sell well. A book on ethics called Kill Today, See How You Feel Tomorrow! would not be particularly ethical.
The general slogan that praises “the greatest good for the greatest number” does not help you in your own particular life. It is designed, of course, to get you to vote for more and more government power, since collective benefits can in general only be secured and enforced by the coercive might of a centralized state.
Such philosophies are either designed to make ethics murky, confusing and messy, or they are designed to get you to vote for bigger and bigger government – they are not designed to help you make better moral decisions in your own life today.
Compare this to Christianity – the Ten Commandments are not collectivist in nature, but are aimed directly at the individual and his or her own moral choices. The question “What would Jesus do?” is specifically designed to evoke a personal reaction in a moment of moral crisis, to help the individual pattern himself after the most moral being in the universe. The Bible consistently exhorts people to pursue virtue individually in their daily lives, using personal decisions – it doesn’t just tell people to vote for a politician who is going to enforce some kind of collective and coercive “good.”
You do good in order to get to heaven. Your conscience is your own and cannot be outsourced to anyone else – any other mob, group, collective, politician or government. In fact, Christianity directly warns people of the danger of the mob and of the necessity for individual salvation. Your conscience is responsible to virtue, and you can no more outsource your moral responsibility than you can ask someone else to digest your food for you.
Once you have saved yourself, then you can save others. Put the airplane oxygen mask on your own face first.
The destruction of individual conscience that grew out of Darwinism, materialism, socialism and atheism was one of the greatest catastrophes ever to hit Western civilization – in fact, it has been the persistent undoing of Western civilization ever since.
Imagine a dark village battered by a terrible storm – only the walls of the village church hold strong. All who venture outside risk sudden death, but all who take shelter inside the church are safe. The villagers all huddle inside, singing, praying and sharing food.
Into the village, through the storm, rides a group of atheists. Dismounting, they pull out sledgehammers, cry out that there is no God, swarm up the wet walls and start pounding on the roof of the church, tearing it away. The storm, the hail, the wind, the debris – all begin flying into the church and smashing into the people. As the steeple collapses, lightning strikes the cross, jumps through the water and electrocutes some of the panicked congregation.
In the hellish storm, with the atheists tearing open the roof, it becomes more dangerous inside the church than outside, in the devilish elements. The villagers, crying out in terror, stream out of the dying church and into the rain-lashed landscape, dodging flying tree branches and rolling rocks. The atheists, after having completed their destruction of the church, gather the villagers before them.
“You can thank us now, for we have saved you from your superstition!” cries the leader of the atheists.
“The storm is raging, and getting worse. Where on earth do we go now? Where do we take shelter?” demand the villagers, covering their children with their own bodies, chilled to the bone, cut and broken by flying debris, shaking and terrified and enraged.
The atheists simply smile and charge off into the storm, looking for another church to tear apart.
And what happens to the villagers?
I think we all know.
We are seeing it play out every single day across the Western world. The storm gets worse, the violence increases, and the church – which sheltered not just the villagers, but their entire civilization – lies in ruin.
Let us say that the church as an institution is wrong. There are certainly good philosophical arguments to make in that direction – but so what?
If you are a decent, moral humanbeing, you do not tear down the only structure that shelters the people from storms, without providing them a better place to take refuge.
And you sure as hell do not tear down their shelter during a storm.
If you despise the existing shelter, build a better shelter, and people will arrive of their own accord.
The most fundamental question I have asked of myself recently, and of my own history with atheism, is this: Do atheists love the truth, or do they merely hate the church?
The state is the great competitor to religion. Christianity aims to prevent crime – the state aims to “cure” it. Think of the difference between a nutritionist and a surgeon. Often, the more influence the nutritionist has, the less work there is for the surgeon.
You can have a big God and a small state, or you can have a small God and a big state – the pendulum of society seems to irrevocably swing back and forth between the two in this tragic manner.
Those who wish to grow the power of the state know the church stands directly in their path. Transferring the allegiance of the citizenry from the worship of God to a worship of the state requires that God be discredited; the state inevitably takes its place. For well over a century, atheists have savagely dismantled the church, religious faith, the conscience, the conception of sin, and a fear of the afterlife.
The Marxists say that religion is the opiate of the masses – modernity reveals that Marxism is the opiate of the anti-religious.
The church was the traditional moral home of Western civilization, amid the perpetual storm of intertribal and international conflicts that is the world. Atheists tore down the church because they claimed to love truth and found religion false.
Did the atheists – and do the atheists – love truth?
By far the greatest threat to human life – at least in the twentieth century – came from the state, not from religion. In that most dismal hundred-year span, governments murdered two hundred and fifty million of their own citizens. This horrifying figure does not even include wars.
This is a basic truth of history – states have murdered hundreds of millions of people in a single hundred-year span.
Society needs to be organized, people need to follow rules – the traditional organization in the West that provided these things was based on Christianity.
When Christianity – and the rules it engendered – was torn down by the atheists, what did they erect to protect the people?
Nothing at all.
They tore down the church and sold the people to the state.
I am increasingly of the opinion that atheists were useful idiots used to destroy the church that stood in the path of the power mongers, who thirsted to expand the brutal strength of the state.
I am telling you all of this before I introduce you to a rational proof of secular ethics, because I was – and remain – deeply shocked by the hostility and indifference shown by atheists to such a proof.
The destruction of Christian ethics created a power vacuum in society that was filled by increasing state power. Atheists hated being influenced by the voluntary participation of Christianity – but seem to have no problem being controlled by the coercive power of the state.
Atheists rail against the automatic guilt of original sin, but seem to have far fewer objections to the automatic guilt of “racism,” “sexism,” “patriarchy,” “misogyny” – and all the other slanderous attack-labels of the encroaching left.
What were atheists as a whole selling to the general public, or at least the intellectual public?
Were they selling a new moral goal that would supersede and transcend religious imperatives? Were they combining a hatred of irrationality and coercion that would culminate in opposition to the increasing size and power of the state?
Of course not.
Becoming an atheist released people from moral obligations. It removed the all-seeing eye of God, the strictness of moral integrity, and the requirement to sacrifice the immediate self to a higher purpose.
What moral rules – what strictness, what requirements for self-discipline, self-subjugation and integrity – did atheism provide?
Where atheism overlapped with Marxism – or at least socialism – there were larger goals as a whole: increasing the size and power of the state and its capacity to control resources and redistribute income – but that strikes me as a particularly satanic goal.
Did Marxists deny religion out of a deep opposition to irrational beliefs? Of course not – reason and evidence have denied the truth and virtue of Marxism, but many Marxists have just abandoned reason and evidence rather than give up their irrational beliefs. (Hence postmodernism.)
Did Marxists oppose capitalism because they care about the poor? Of course not – free markets have freed and enriched the poor; Marxism impoverished and enslaved them.
Did Marxists oppose existing governments because those governments were oppressive and tyrannical? Of course not – Marxist governments are far more oppressive and tyrannical.
Marxism is the mere manifestation of a post-Darwinian lust for power and resources. Christianity stands between the Marxists and the tyranny they thirst for; therefore, Christianity must go.
For Christians, poverty in this life may be a precursor to an eternity in heaven after death. As the Bible saying goes, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Poverty is not a desperate problem to be solved by any means necessary – many devout Christians embrace poverty.
For atheists, since there is no afterlife, the problem of poverty becomes far greater. A poor man does not get his reward after death; he just suffers a miserable life, then dies. More secular philosophies such as socialism and communism tend to focus on material inequality far more than Christianity – as Jesus says, the poor will always be with us.
Since it accepts material inequality, Christianity is far freer to focus on fundamental principles – equality of opportunity, rather than equality of outcome; a commandment that says thou shalt not steal, rather than a law demanding forced income redistribution.
Christianity also focuses on achieving virtue by rejecting materialism and power over others. The devil tempts Jesus by offering him the whole world – Jesus rejects him. As the Bible says, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
For atheists, a man has no soul to lose, so it is far more tempting to demand that the state serve the material needs of the population, rather than reinforce the population’s spiritual and moral virtues. A material focus leads to a fundamental problem, however. If the state forcibly transfers income, it cannot at the same time maintain property rights – the two positions are antithetical. Secular governments increasingly shift from “thou shalt not” to “thou shalt” – a far less free position.
Human beings are strongly primed by nature to desire violent power over others. Even bonobo monkeys, when they climb the hierarchy of tribal power, receive increased dopamine hits deep in their brains, which incentivize them to become even better at subjugating other monkeys. Offering political power to human beings is like offering cocaine to a desperate addict – the addict has a plan, sure, but we would not describe it as a very noble or elevated plan.
Political power requires the initiation of force against citizens.
Plotting to gain, keep and increase political power is deeply immoral. Whether consciously or not, atheists have helped open the gates of hell to endless escalations of state power. They have been foot soldiers in the great stampede of evildoers to gain control of and expand political power – the power of coercion.
This is, of course, a hypothesis – but it is a testable hypothesis.
Do atheists tend toward leftism? They certainly do. In one study, atheists are almost seven times more likely to support the Democratic Party rather than the Republican Party in the United States. From Pew Research:
“About two-thirds of atheists (69%) identify as Democrats (or lean in that direction), and a majority (56%) call themselves political liberals (compared with just one-in-ten who say they are conservatives).”
Do atheists recognize that the initiation of force is far more immoral than any possible personal irrationality? They certainly do not, since they consistently attack Christianity, and consistently defend the state. For adults, Christianity is voluntary, and there are no penalties for leaving the faith – state commandments and laws are not voluntary, and can result in prison sentences for disobedience.
If atheists were generally concerned with the philosophical and moral improvement of the human race, they would have restrained their base attacks on Christianity until they, as atheists, were able to provide a rational and objective moral framework to help society become more reasonable and good, rather than merely tear down the church and expose a desperate and frightened population to all the raw and destructive elements pouring down from the black skies of history.
A moral atheistic philosophy would have said this:
“Well, a byproduct of disproving God will be the undoing of Christian ethics – but society needs ethics, so we better hold off unraveling the central moral fabric of our societies until we have something better to take its place. Even if Christianity is an irrational painkiller, the population is certainly in pain, and withdrawing the painkiller without providing an alternative is mere sadism. So, let us put our heads together, start from scratch, and build a system of ethics from the ground up, making sure every step is complete and cohesive, and then work our mighty intellectual and verbal muscles to trumpet a rational system of secular ethics from the rooftops, so that the people do not dissolve into confusion, depression, materialism and hedonism.”
This they did not do.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
They said: “Christianity is irrational and ridiculous and destructive, so away with these false superstitions and contradictory edicts, away with this hierarchy, punishment and guilt-tripping and all other sorts of nonsense. Let us merely oppose the irrational, rather than build the truly rational.”
If atheists were truly moral – even if they had overlooked the need for generally accepted social ethics – they would surely have cheered the introduction of a rational proof of secular ethics. Doing so would provide a moral framework outside of religion and above the mere coercive powers of state law. This would provide the people with shelter from the storms of the world and an objective framework by which to organize their lives, their decisions, and the larger decisions of society as a whole.
However, in the decade or so that I have introduced my rational proof of secular ethics, atheists have been supremely indifferent – and occasionally hostile – to the argument.
Think of a village in a near-infinite desert, with a single murky spring for water. Atheists find the brackish spring objectionable – “The water is not pure!” – and destroy it. The people start dying of thirst. The atheists say that they want people to be good and healthy and happy, but they do nothing to find an alternate water source. A man starts delivering water from an unknown location, but rather than find its source, the atheists merely tell everyone that the man is crazy, and that his water is poisoned, and they should shun him.
These atheists are condemning the villagers to a slow and ugly death.
What is their purpose?
Is it not to cause and watch human suffering?
Is it not also true that the atheists shall die of thirst in turn?
It is fine and good to want to improve a water supply, but to destroy an existing water supply for its imperfections without providing new water is neither fine nor good. Furthermore, when fresh, clean water becomes available, to scare the villagers into avoiding it is a grim manifestation of selfish sadism.
The power vacuum created by the destruction of Christian ethics in society will be filled either by reason or by violence. By failing to pursue a rational substitution for Christian ethics – and by damning and attacking those who have – atheists have merely served the state, and they will, I believe, be condemned by history.
The old alliance between communism and atheism has been regularly mocked by atheists, without fruitful examination. Why has totalitarianism constantly sought to erase religion? Saying Hitler was an atheist and Stalin was an atheist – but that their atheism was about as relevant to their ideologies as their moustaches – does not help or aid a deeper examination of any potential causality.
If I were a nutritionist, I would tell you all about the science, biology and chemistry of food and digestion – with the express goal, at the end, of convincing you to change your dietary habits in order to improve your well-being.
If I were a personal trainer, I would tell you all about the science and biology and chemistry of stretching and exercise – with the express goal, at the end, of convincing you to change your exercise habits.
My goal in this book is to give you the background, knowledge and expertise to understand the value and purpose of philosophy, which is to get you to change your moral habits.
The purpose of medical research is to provide knowledge that leads to the prevention or cure of disease. There is no purpose in engaging in medical research if no one ends up changing any behaviours based upon the results of that research.
The entire purpose of a smoking cessation program is to have you not pick up a cigarette, light it, and suck on it. Going over the medical, biological and genetic background as to the dangers of smoking is all very important, but it is important only insofar as it helps reinforce your willpower to refrain from smoking that cigarette.
Everything in philosophy comes down to you changing your moral habits – and changing your moral habits requires a deep understanding of the value of good moral habits, and the disasters of bad moral habits.
This may seem like a controversial position, but only because philosophy has been largely hijacked by people who wish to use it for personal gain – such as academics and sophists (often the same category). Therefore, modern philosophy delivers abstractions that are clever, confusing, often annoying, and ultimately worse than useless. Academic philosophy is like an overindulged amateur magician – intrusive, irritating, incompetent, but rarely called out.
The four major branches of philosophy – metaphysics (the study of reality); epistemology (the study of knowledge); politics (the study of state power); and ethics (the study of virtue) – are like the plumbing that delivers water to your sink. Aqueducts, sewers, piping – these all only have value insofar as they enable you to turn on a tap in your house and actually get some clean water. Metaphysics, epistemology, politics and ethics – these have value insofar as they enable you to make and enforce better moral decisions in the world.
Think of the immense amount of research, science, engineering and physics that goes into the design and creation of a car – the purpose of which is to get you from A to B. Few people would buy a car without an engine (unless it was to cannibalize parts for another car with an engine) because a car is not a piece of art, a paperweight, or a hat, but a piece of machinery designed to provide mobility. If you give a paralyzed man a wheelchair with only one wheel, your “gift” is cruelty, not charity. The purpose of a wheelchair is to give someone without the use of his legs mobility, and such purpose is not served with only one wheel.
Think of the engineering complexity and technological genius that is required to serve up a web page to your eyeballs. The whole point is to facilitate your viewing. Without that viewing, everything else is worse than useless. If your monitor won’t turn on, the entire infrastructure becomes useless.
The purpose of philosophy – the entire substructure and detailed background arguments – is to give you the information and resolution you need to make better moral decisions in the moment. The purpose of the military – the entire procurement, training, physics, engineering and resource consumption as a whole – is to provide individuals with the skill and resolution to kill others and destroy objects. We cannot imagine an entire military-industrial complex with the sole goal of placing soldiers on the battlefield with complex weaponry, but zero ammunition.
If you take away the final goal, there is no rational way to organize all the prior activities.
If you have a goal to pass a class in university, you have, at least hopefully, objective and well-defined steps by which you can achieve that goal – write an essay, go to class, pass an exam. If you don’t have a final goal, you cannot organize your activities.
This is not to say that all life must be specifically goal-oriented. We do things for fun, as a hobby, to distract ourselves or to pass time – but so what? If we need to quit smoking, not every single moment of our life needs to be dedicated to that task, but we must still have that goal in our mind as a whole. If we need to lose weight, diet and exercise only consume a small portion of our day, but the overall goal remains important.
Hopefully, you will not spend every waking moment of your day making crucial moral decisions, but you will need wisdom and certainty when those moments come.
So, let us now examine and understand the theory of “universally preferable behaviour” (UPB), or the rational proof of secular ethics.
All philosophy argues for a preferred state – the very essence of philosophy is to differentiate between various states, to point out the most preferred, and the best way to achieve it.
This may sound confusing, but this is exactly the same process pursued by dietitians, doctors, scientists, engineers and so on – a dietitian differentiates between various food choices, points out the preferred outcome, and the best diet to achieve it.
A doctor differentiates between various states of illness and health, and guides his patients towards the best practices and medicines to regain and maintain health.
A scientist differentiates between various states of ignorance and knowledge, and guides himself and others through the scientific method to discard illusion and achieve accuracy.
If there is no such thing as a preferred state, there is no such thing as philosophy – or free will, or morality, or debate, or truth, or falsehood, or science, or medicine – I can keep piling these on until you accept that there is such a thing as a preferred state.
If there is a preferred state, the question naturally arises – compared to what?
If I prefer to eat toast rather than gravel, my evaluation is based on what my body can digest. Digestible and nutritious food is preferable to indigestible rocks. This is not a subjective preference, but rather is decided by my body’s capacity for turning matter into energy.
Some preferences are objective, some are subjective. Objectively, I cannot gain nutritional energy from gravel. A madman may choose to eat gravel rather than toast, but this is one way we know that he is insane. Subjectively, I may prefer vanilla ice cream to chocolate ice cream. The science of nutrition deals with objective requirements, rather than subjective tastes.
The fact that some people reject objectively preferable states does not make those states any less objective or any less preferable. To lose weight, you must eat fewer calories and/or exercise more – this is an objective process necessary to achieve an objective state. The fact that most overweight people either never lose weight, or lose weight and then gain more back, in no way makes the objective process and goal of weight loss any less objective.
If I am driving and my destination is south, and I keep driving north, this doesn’t change the direction of my destination. Persisting in error does not destroy truth, but rather affirms it.
In philosophy, the preferred state is truth – in other words, statements that accurately describe the objective facts, properties and processes of empirical material reality. Empirical material reality is objective, rational and universal – a stone is a stone and possesses the properties of a stone everywhere in the universe.
Philosophy is the rational hypothesis of empirical action. A proposed preferred state must be rational before it can be acted upon, since actions take place in reality, which is rational.
In engineering, a blueprint must conform to the nature and properties of things in reality before it can be even considered as a plan for creating something. If you try to build a bridge in Manhattan while assuming the moon’s gravity, your bridge will collapse because your gravitational factor is off by a factor of six. If a doctor makes important medical decisions based on the belief that blood is inert in the body, he will be far less likely to heal people.
Philosophy requires rational consistency because “truth” is a mental category that is measured relative to objective reality. If I say there are three coconuts when there are only two, my statement is false, compared to the simple facts of objective reality.
Humanity appears to be mentally constituted to attempt to find at least one exception to every proposed rule – and naturally, you are probably trying with all your might to find an exception to the concept of preferred states. However, it is logically impossible to argue against preferred states, because the act of arguing itself requires a preferred state.
The act of arguing with someone rests on the implied premise that you are correct and that your opponent is incorrect. If I point at Africa on a map and refer to it as the Arctic, and you correct me, it might not be much of a debate, but clearly you are correcting me with reference to the true name of that continent, which is Africa. You are not saying you have a made-up name for the continent, personal to you, and that you would like me to indulge you by referring to the continent by that name – you are in essence saying two things:
I use the phrase “infinitely preferable” because some preferences are relative, and some preferences are absolute. I prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla ice cream, but I prefer ice cream as a whole to Brussels sprouts. These are relative preferences, in that I would prefer Brussels sprouts to starvation. In general, people prefer ice cream to arsenic, but there are situations in which arsenic may be preferred, such as when facing certain torture, or a certain slow lingering death in some remote place, or unending exposure to the comedy stylings of Amy Schumer.
However, would you ever say that referring to the continent of Africa by its correct name is a relative preference? In other words, would there be an occasion where you would be fine with it being called by some other name? If I want chocolate ice cream, but the restaurant only has vanilla, I might shrug, accept my second choice and still be relatively content – would the same be true for misnaming Africa?
Of course not. Correctly naming the continent is a binary option – you either get the name right, or you get the name wrong.
If you are sailing from the Bahamas to New York, the accuracy of your navigation is not a binary option – there is no such thing as perfect navigation. Every wave and gust of wind will put you “off course” a tiny degree. (Please note, this does not mean that there are no degrees of accuracy. There is of course such a thing as more accurate and less accurate – and a certain level of inaccuracy will have you miss your destination completely – but it is a difference of degree, not of kind.)
However, the proposition that the earth is flat is binary – it is either flat or it is not. It cannot be halfway between spherical and flat.
The proposition that the earth is a sphere is infinitely preferable to the proposition that the earth is flat. It is not occasionally flat, it’s not flat every second Wednesday – and thinking it’s flat is not “almost as good.” It’s not an okay second choice. The earth is a sphere, it is not flat, and that is that.
Truth is infinitely preferable to falsehood. If you try to argue against this, you automatically prove that your proposition is false and should be rejected, because in the very act of arguing, you’re preferring truth over falsehood.
Most people struggle mightily against this basic reality, and at some point the irrational, angry will collapses, and peace and reason reign in the mind.
Given that we cannot argue against preferred states, we must continue with our exploration of what preferred states are.
The preferred goal of medicine is health; the preferred goal of training is expertise; the preferred goal of nutrition is healthy eating, and so on.
Some of these preferred goals are universal, some are local, and some are subjective. Human beings cannot get nutrition from sand; certain diets are good for some people, but bad for others, and the taste of food can be highly subjective.
In science, the goal is accuracy about the universe, because accuracy is a preferred state – and the preferred process is the scientific method.
In philosophy, the goal is truth, because truth is a preferred state – and the preferred process is reason and evidence.
Preferred processes are defined relative to a goal. If you have no goal, you can have no preferred processes. If I have a goal called “arrive in New York,” my preferred process is accurate navigation.
The essential question to ask is: What makes philosophy unique?
Philosophy aims for truth, to be sure, but so do countless other mental disciplines – it’s not like mathematicians strive for irrationality, or scientists aim for falsehood.
There is a philosophy of science and a philosophy of mathematics. Philosophy is the overarching discipline for all human thought – but there is very little “science of philosophy,” or “mathematics of philosophy.”
Philosophy is the largest circle of mental disciplines – science, engineering, medicine and mathematics show up as smaller circles within the larger circle of philosophy.
Prior to the scientific revolution, there was a philosophical revolution that focused on scepticism, materialism, empiricism and rationality, while strenuously rejecting immaterial or superstitious forms of “knowledge.”
Philosophy cannot be the same as science, otherwise there would be no need for the word “philosophy.”
Philosophy cannot be unrelated to science, since science relies upon philosophical concepts such as rationality and empiricism.
Science cannot be larger than philosophy, because philosophy examines ideas outside the realm of the physical sciences.
Since philosophy is larger than science, we must ask ourselves: What is it that philosophy examines that science does not?
The answer, simply, is: ethics.
Science tracks material objects and their properties – it describes what is and what is to be, according to rules that operate independent of consciousness.
Psychology attempts to understand human behaviour and how memory, emotions and reason interact, and how best to achieve optimal functioning, but psychology is not in essence a moral discipline. In psychology, generally, something is dysfunctional if it interferes with productive and happy functioning within a particular social context. The morality of that social context is not often directly examined by psychology, which tends to use the words “dysfunction” and “illness” rather than “evil.”
The study of ethics is unique to philosophy – although some scientists have attempted to use the scientific method to establish the basis of ethics. In my view they have been unsuccessful, since they tend to approach moral questions from a consequentialist standpoint, aiming at a more efficient distribution of resources, or an improvement in human health as a whole, rather than defining good and evil from first principles. “Trying a bunch of stuff and seeing what works best,” is not science, and it certainly is not moral philosophy.
If you want to say something true about the natural universe, you need to use the scientific method. If you want to lose weight, you should eat less and exercise more. If you want your bridge to stand, you should follow the principles of engineering.
However, if you are not using the scientific method, this does not mean that you are not a scientist – a scientist does not necessarily use the scientific method while eating or sleeping; this does not mean he is not a scientist, or that he is anti-scientific. Even the person most dedicated to losing weight cannot diet and exercise all day, every day. When he is not dieting or exercising, does that mean that he is no longer dedicated to losing weight? Does that mean he is suddenly dedicated to gaining weight?
Of course not.
However, things are different in the realm of ethics. If I fail to respect someone’s property rights by stealing, I am now a thief. If you murder someone, you are now a murderer. A momentary deviation from dieting does not invalidate the diet, but a momentary deviation from “not raping” creates a rapist.
We do not expect a scientist to practise science every waking moment, but we do expect a moral person to refrain from raping, murdering, assaulting and stealing every waking moment. Sir Isaac Newton was a scientist, although he deeply believed in the superstition of alchemy. His science is judged on its own merits, and his superstitions are discarded accordingly. A man who mixes science and superstition may still be considered a scientist, but a man who mixes pacifism and murder is not still considered a moral person.
Most human disciplines require positive or proactive actions. To become a scientist, a pianist, an engineer or doctor requires training and practice – and success, one would hope.
However, most moral commandments involve refraining from specific action and they do not require years of training and expertise. We would never expect a three-year-old toddler to be a concert pianist, or a scientist, but we do expect a toddler to refrain from punching his playmates. We do not call upon five-year-olds to construct complex bridges, but we do expect them not to snatch toys from their siblings.
We do not expect everyone to be a scientist, but we expect scientists to use the scientific method. We do not demand that everyone become an engineer, but we do expect engineers to build things that stay up (or down, perhaps, if they are designing a submarine).
The scientific method is universally preferable for scientists, but it is not universally preferable that everyone become a scientist, or that scientists use the scientific method every waking moment. Rational calculations are universally preferable for mathematicians, but we should not force everyone to become a mathematician.
Just because something is preferred does not mean that everyone will in fact choose to do it. Cutting calories is the preferred way of losing weight. This does not mean everyone will cut calories and lose weight.
The difference between what should be done and what actually is done, is the difference between “preferable” and “preferred.”
“Preferred” refers to the past, to what is objectively measurable: “Sally preferred to paint her room red.” “Joe preferred to go left rather than right.”
“Preferred” refers to the past; “Prefers” refers to the present; “preferable” refers to the future.
Thus, “preferable” is the only word wherein ethics can exist.
Philosophy is like exercise – it exists to help you avoid problems in the long run, not survive a health crisis in the moment. If you call up a fitness trainer and say, “I have a family history of heart disease. What should I do?” the trainer can give you advice on healthy exercise habits, with the goal of avoiding a heart attack in the future. If you call up the trainer and say, “Aargh, I am having a heart attack right now, what exercise advice do you have for me?” – well, the trainer will doubtless tell you to hang up and call for an ambulance instead. The trainer can help prevent a heart attack in the future; he cannot save you from a heart attack in progress.
The goal of moral philosophy is primarily prevention, not cure – and where there is no cure, prevention is all the more important. If you ask a moral philosopher what should be done in a society where the government has racked up untold hundreds of trillions of dollars of debt and unfunded liabilities, then the philosopher will probably not have a lot of helpful advice – the “heart attack” is already imminent. If, decades before, you had asked a philosopher whether the government should embark on such a course, then the philosopher would have said that was a grievous violation of property rights and a pillaging of the unborn, and deeply and woefully immoral.
Philosophy has no power in the past. None of us do. It is frozen in time, inaccessible to will or alteration – or even facts, sometimes, since memory can be so malleable.
Philosophy has no real power in the present, because the deep steps and learning required for true moral understanding cannot be compressed into the time slice of the here and now. If you are on vacation and get cornered in a dark alley by some giant man screaming at you in Russian, and you don’t speak Russian, it’s not exactly a great time to start learning the language. If you spent years studying Russian beforehand, you have a chance to negotiate, or at least understand what he wants.
Philosophy only has power in the future – and it only examines the past in order to avoid mistakes in the future. You study your family medical history mostly with the goal of avoiding repeating any mistakes that were made.
Moral principles are not voided by non-compliance. This is an essential point to understand and seems hard to grasp for many people, perhaps because they are constantly looking for ways to avoid and evade moral principles in the present.
Some people don’t take medical advice – this doesn’t mean that medicine is pointless or irrelevant. Some people drop out of school – this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t bother educating anyone. Some people drive drunk – we don’t plow up all the roads and ban cars.
People don’t always follow moral rules – that is the whole point. If moral rules were automatic and involuntary, they would be physical rules, and the purview of physicists, not moralists. We have choices, we have ideals, and our behaviour often falls short of perfection.
A rule does not have to be followed in order to be objective. Mystics do not follow the scientific method; this does not mean that the scientific method is as irrational as mysticism.
This holds particularly true for the discipline of ethics. The reason we need a discipline of ethics is because people often fail to follow moral rules. The idea that immorality erases morality is like saying there is no need for encouragement, because sometimes people get discouraged.
People act badly; that is why we need ethics. It is a simple as that.
An ethical theory cannot be judged by individual actions, any more than a scientific theory can be judged by the integrity of any individual scientist. If we propose a moral rule such as “don’t steal,” is it invalidated if someone steals? Of course not – in fact, the more people deviate from a moral rule, the more it needs to be explained and reinforced.
The fact that gases expand when heated is not invalidated by any particular scientist who fudges his data to “prove” the opposite. In fact, the reason we know the scientist is cheating is because of the scientific method.
One cannot rationally invalidate the virtues and values of the free market by pointing out a single business failure, or a man who loses his job. Removing resources from unneeded occupations is one of the primary pruning mechanisms of the free market, and a central reason why it facilitates the growth of wealth so efficiently.
The primary dangers to human life and happiness – to virtue itself – are irrational ethical theories, not individual evildoers. A serial killer may kill a dozen or more people, but communism has murdered close to one hundred million. A thief may make off with your car or your jewelry, but governments extract trillions of dollars from their citizens every single year and create hundreds of trillions of dollars of unfunded liabilities for future generations to inherit – almost infinitely more than any mere thief could achieve.
You can arm and protect yourself against an individual thief, but Genghis Khan, with a great army, slaughtered 10 percent of the world’s population in his day.
Governments across the world throughout the twentieth century murdered two hundred fifty million of their own citizens – and such governments were reinforced and justified by particular ethical theories, ranging from fascism to communism to socialism to various other forms of collectivism.
Society in general has little to fear from individual criminals. The law acts against them, good people shun them, and steps can be taken to protect oneself from their predations – installing alarm systems, moving to a better neighbourhood, buying a gun, and so on.
No, it is centralized, collectivist and oligarchical institutions that reason and evidence compel us to fear the most – those institutions that can take our property virtually at will, often imprison us on a whim, conscript us into wars, burden us with debt, enter us into intergenerational liabilities without our approval, and indoctrinate us virtually from birth in the narratives that reinforce their dominance.
This examination of ethics focuses squarely upon ethical theories, not on individual actors. Many of us have been programmed to respond to an examination of universal ethical theories by citing individual immorality – that is one way those who rule us ensure we cannot speak rationally about virtue, or examine the narratives that enslave us. The fact that people do evil does not invalidate a moral theory. Evil actions are the fundamental reason why we need moral theories in the first place!
The fact that we can eat badly is why we need the science of nutrition. If a man gives a speech about healthy dieting, and a woman keeps interrupting him to cry out that she knows someone who eats badly, we can fully understand why the crowd gets restless and annoyed. She is a kind of heckler, an interrupter, who is managing her own anxieties rather than trying to inform the audience.
Ethics are universally preferable behaviours – actions that people should or should not take – independent of time and location.
If you argue against this proposition, then you are affirming it. You are telling me I should not engage in the act of communicating universally preferable behaviours. In other words, you are saying it is universally preferable behaviour that nobody should advocate for universally preferable behaviour.
Ethical actions cannot be universally positive in nature – i.e., thou shalt – because it is impossible to achieve positive actions universally. If I say that it is ethical to scratch your head, you cannot keep scratching your head forever. If I say that it is ethical to give to the poor, you cannot give to the poor forever, or while you sleep, or after you have run out of money – at which point, you are poor yourself and have nothing left to give.
Negative actions – prohibitions, or “thou shalt nots” – can be achieved universally.
It is possible to go through your entire life without murdering anyone, raping anyone, assaulting anyone, or stealing from anyone. Indeed, it is possible for everyone in the world to achieve such perfect virtue.
Think of it this way – if I say everyone in the world has to go live in a cave underneath the Washington Monument, this cannot be achieved because so many people simply wouldn’t fit, among many other impossibilities. On the other hand, if I say no one in the world is allowed to live in a cave underneath the Washington Monument, well, everyone can achieve that in perpetuity.
Thus, ethics must be bans on positive actions, rather than commandments to achieve those actions.
Why should ethics be universal?
Ethics are generally statements or preferred actions that are binding upon others. If I say I prefer sushi, this creates no binding requirements upon you. You do not have to love or hate sushi, I am just informing you of my personal preference. You and I can simultaneously have different opinions about sushi. Since we are not imposing our opinions on each other through force, the possession of personal opinions can peacefully coexist.
However, if I say it is universally preferable behaviour to respect property rights, the universality of my statement creates a binding requirement upon you to respect property rights.
There are three categories of actions:
Aesthetically preferable behaviours, such as being on time, are preferable, but not universal. If you are sitting at home and you do not have an appointment, you have no requirement to be on time.
Also, if you are late for an appointment, you are not enforcing your will on others. You are not initiating the use of force against them, and neither are you violating their property rights. This is the difference between rudeness and immorality.
A friend who is perpetually late can be avoided or planned around – a random mugger or murderer cannot be.
Respecting property rights can be universalized, while violations of that respect – such as theft and fraud – cannot be avoided in the same way that a tardy friend can be avoided.
In other words, you need to take proactive actions to continue to be subject to violations of aesthetically preferable behaviour. You need to stay in a relationship with a rude friend, continue to arrange meetings with a tardy companion, or choose to remain in a voluntary relationship with a lover who betrays you.
The initiation of force, however, is the voluntary imposition of a violent will on an unwilling person. This principle cannot be universalized, since if the moral principle proposed says that “Everyone should impose their violent will on everyone else,” then such violent will cancels itself out. Person A should impose his violent will on person B – but person B should also impose her violent will on person A.
Since it is considered preferable to impose a violent will, then such violent impositions cannot be morally opposed – and in fact must be approved of as moral.
However, if physical aggression must be morally approved, then it is no longer violence. If I want you to impose your violent will upon me, you are no longer using violence. The difference between rape and lovemaking is that rape is unwanted sexual activity. The moment that sexual activity is desired, it is no longer immoral. A surgeon cuts you with your explicit consent – a mugger who stabs you does not.
Since the initiation of force cannot be universalized, it cannot be moral.
In science, there is the scientific method, and the practice of science. There is the framework – which is that empirical observation trumps mental hypotheses – and the requirement that experiments need to be reproducible, and so on.
Within this framework – the scientific method – the practice of science takes place. Various scientific hypotheses are proposed, compared with rationality and the empirical evidence of the senses, and sorted with regards to accuracy.
In philosophy, there is reason, and then there are specific arguments. Rationality is the framework or the methodology. The practice of philosophy is the creation of arguments.
In ethics, there is the moral framework and then there are specific ethical theories.
The moral framework requires that ethics be universal and that moral arguments be rational. In addition, moral arguments that predict and explain the practice of various moral theories – such as democracy, fascism, socialism, communism, capitalism, and so on – gain additional weight. The explanatory powers of moral theories will never be as perfect as physical scientific theories, since human beings possess free will, while individual atoms and physical laws do not. However, human beings respond to incentives, which goes a long way to explain the successes and failures of various ethical systems.
Those who propose ethical theories that are neither rational nor universal are not proposing ethical theories at all – any more than a man who proposes an entirely subjective and untestable “scientific theory” is practicing science.
Various mystical theories use pseudoscientific terms to justify subjective wish fulfilment that is supposedly inflicted on the universe. Others use actual scientific terms – quantum flux! – but without any scientific understanding or application.
Ethical theories do not directly block violent actions. For that, the virtue of physical self-defense is required.
Correct ethical theories are used to oppose incorrect ethical theories, such as those that justify the initiation of the use of force or fraud. These incorrect ethical theories, particularly when combined with the overwhelming power of government force, are the greatest dangers facing humanity.
You will come across those who say, “All ethics are subjective.”
The first response to this would be to ask such a person if it is objectively true that all ethics are subjective. The key word in the statement is “are” – this is a statement of objective equivalence. The moment that a universal statement is made, universal subjectivism self-detonates.
“There is no such thing as truth” – this is a statement of truth.
The moment someone tries to correct you by using a truth argument, they cannot say that objectivity does not exist. If you say, “Ethics are universal,” and the nihilist says, “Ethics are subjective,” then he is attempting to correct your “wrongthink” by referencing objective truths. In other words, he is saying that it is objectively true – and universally preferable – to say that there are no such things as objective truth and universal preferences.
It is generally understood that a man cannot be evil if he is in a coma or sleeping deeply. While in a coma, he is not violating anyone else’s rights to life, liberty or property, and therefore he is not being immoral. This is known as the “coma test,” and is another way of reinforcing the argument that ethics must be a series of bans on positive actions.
Any moral commandment that cannot be achieved universally, even by a man in a coma, fails the test of universality, and therefore is invalid.
What moral commandments can be achieved universally?
To put it another way, which moral commandments do not contradict themselves?
Since reality is consistent, any self-contradictory universal commandment is automatically invalid. Think of a court case. If a man has an ironclad alibi, he should never be put on trial, for the simple reason that a man cannot be in two places at the same time. If the prosecution’s case requires that he be at the scene of a murder and a thousand miles away at the same time, this is an insurmountable contradiction that cannot possibly be true.
If a scientific hypothesis requires that physical matter both attract and repel other matter simultaneously, then the hypothesis proposes a contradiction, and is therefore automatically invalidated.
Any moral theory that proposes a contradiction is automatically invalidated.
If you argue against the proposition that human beings are responsible for the effects of their actions, and you directly reply to the man making that argument, you accept that he is responsible for the argument he has created. You cannot deny that people are responsible for the effects of their actions while requiring that people be responsible for the effects of their actions in order to respond to your argument – Logic 101 fail.
The concept of property arises from the reality that human beings are responsible for the effects of their actions. Another way of putting this is that human beings “own” the effects of their actions.
Imagine you are child playing with your brother and he knocks over a precious lamp. Your mother storms into the room and demands to know who knocked over the lamp – why?
The simple reason is that she wants to determine who is responsible for the lamp being broken – who “owns” the breaking of the lamp.
You can certainly claim that people are not responsible for the effects of their actions, but you contradict yourself the moment you open your mouth. First of all, you create an argument that you are responsible for. If I create such an argument, and you start to rebut me, and I then tell you that I have no idea what you are talking about – I never made such an argument and it has nothing to do with me – this would be a sign of mental illness, or psychopathic levels of manipulation.
An argument is just as much a product of your body as a house, a song – or a murder, for that matter.
If you say to someone you are debating with, “You are wrong!” you are saying they have created an argument that is false – that they own the argument, and they own the “wrongness” as well.
If you say to someone, “You are a fool,” then you are saying they have done something that earns them the label of foolishness.
Arguing against property rights requires accepting property rights; it is a fool’s position.
If you clear an acre of land in an unowned wilderness, you own the cleared land, since you are responsible for it coming into being. If you cut down trees and use the wood to build a house, you own the house because you are responsible for it coming into being. Property is fundamentally about creation, not expropriation.
After high school, I spent a year or so working in the wilds of northern Ontario, gold panning, prospecting and staking claims. To establish temporary ownership over the mineral rights of a piece of land, I had to march in a square kilometer and nail metal plates to trees on all four corners. It was not an enormous amount of fun to march through bug-infested or icy landscapes in order to establish these rights – and these rights had no value in and of themselves. However, if gold was discovered and a mine was built, this process was required to establish exclusive ownership.
Without this process, no gold would be extracted from the ground. Without the capacity to establish mineral rights, no mines would be dug. It is only through the process of establishing property rights that gold is moved from an inaccessible location deep underground to the surface, to a smelter, and then eventually to a jewelry shop.
The goal is jewelry – the method is property rights.
Think of fishing – a fish deep in the ocean is not available for use. The fisherman does not create the fish, but he does transform it into a usable product. By pulling it out from the bottom of the ocean, he converts it from non-property to property. To understand this more viscerally, imagine setting up a stall in a fish market and selling not fish, but rather the right to eat a fish somewhere out there on the bottom of the ocean. How many takers would you have? The fisherman is really creating a meal, which requires that the fish be pulled from the bottom of the ocean.
Let’s say you have three people in a circle – Bob, Doug and Sally. Bob argues that the world is flat. Doug is outraged, turns to Sally and says that she is completely wrong – what would Sally do?
Surely, she would splutter and reply that she didn’t say anything about the world being flat! If Doug persists in replying to Bob’s argument by debating Sally, this would pretty much be the actions of a crazy person.
This is an irrational transfer of ownership – Doug is pretending Sally was responsible for the argument that Bob created.
Imagine you come across a murder victim in an alley. Just then, a policeman walks up and arrests you for the murder. “But I’m innocent!” you cry. You are protesting the unjust transfer of ownership of the crime. The policeman incorrectly assumes that you are responsible for – that you have caused, and therefore own – the murder.
If you cheat on a test, this is an irrational transfer of ownership. You are saying that you own your answers, which have been generated from your own studying – when in fact the answers have been generated from someone else – from cheating.
Property is control. If you take someone else’s property without his permission, you are asserting control over that property – asserting property rights – as if you were responsible for the creation of that property.
If someone else creates something, and I assert control over it without his permission, I am enjoying all the benefits of creation without any of the accompanying hardships and risks. In a very real way, I am lying about who created the object. I am pretending that I created the object – and thus should have the right of exclusive use – when in fact someone else created the object, and should themselves have the right of exclusive use.
If I buy an iPad, I am to some degree responsible for the creation of that iPad, because if no one buys iPads, none get made. Trade is secondhand creation, but creation nonetheless. (Also, I must justly own the money I used to buy the iPad – money I probably received by selling something I created or owned, such as an object or my service.)
The fact that we own ourselves and are responsible for the effects of our actions is a basic biological and moral fact – it cannot be denied without being affirmed, and thus must universally stand.
Is it possible for stealing to be universally preferable behaviour?
If stealing is universally preferable behaviour, then everyone must want to steal – and be stolen from – simultaneously.
This is logically impossible. If I want you to steal from me – if I want you to take my property – then you cannot steal from me, because the definition of stealing is that it involves taking my property against my will.
Think of it this way: you and I are throwing a ball to each other – can I throw the ball to you and receive it at the same time?
Of course not – that would require the ball be going in two opposing directions at the same time.
If I want you to take my property, you cannot steal it. If I put five dollars into the hand of a beggar, I cannot claim that he stole from me, because I am voluntarily giving him my property – I want him to take the five dollars.
Stealing occurs when the desire for property is oppositional – when the thief wants the object, and the owner wants to retain it. Their opposing desires cannot both be satisfied simultaneously.
This is how we know stealing cannot be universalized – and remember, that which cannot be universalized cannot be moral.
This is how we know that stealing cannot be universally preferable behaviour. In other words, this is how we know that respecting property rights is universally preferable behaviour.
Furthermore, stealing is a positive action – meaning you have to do something to make it happen – while respecting property rights is a negative or passive action. A man is respecting property rights while he sleeps, in that he is not stealing. Stealing requires means, motive and opportunity, and the positive action of theft.
The same holds true for rape – defined as sexual behaviour against the will of the victim. We can never say that rape is universally preferable behaviour, for the same reasons that we can never say the same of theft. If rape is universally preferable behaviour, then everyone must want to rape and be raped. But if everyone wants to be raped, then “rape” vanishes as a moral category, in the same way that if everyone wants to be stolen from, then “stealing” vanishes as a moral category.
There are situations where you can be beaten up, but you cannot press charges. If you entered a boxing ring with your gloves on, it doesn’t make much sense to claim that you were assaulted. Playing rough sports – hockey, in particular – always carries the risk of injury, and rarely results in criminal charges. Think of the movie Fight Club – would it make any sense for the voluntary participants in the fights to press charges against their opponents?
If I voluntarily consent to being hit – such as in boxing – no immoral action has been committed. Assault only occurs when I am being hit against my will, or under circumstances where I have not reasonably assumed that risk.
To take another example, if you enter a sadomasochistic dungeon and sign a consent form agreeing to mild forms of sexual torture, you cannot then reasonably charge your dominatrix with assault.
This is how we know assault cannot be universally preferable behaviour. Not only is it a positive action, and therefore cannot be universalized, but it comes with the same logical contradictions as proposing that rape and theft can be universally preferable behaviour.
If everyone wants to assault and be assaulted, then “assault” vanishes as a moral category.
“Not assaulting,” however, can be universalized, since it is a negative action – or a ban on a positive action, if you like – and therefore can be achieved by all people, at all times. Refraining from assault also passes the coma test.
Murder follows the same pattern as rape, theft and assault. Murder is the killing of a person against his or her will. If “murder” is proposed as universally preferable behaviour, then everyone must want to murder – and prefer to be murdered – at the same time.
This positive obligation violates the coma test and also cannot be universalized, since murder is the act of killing someone against his will – but if murder is universally preferable behaviour, then everyone must want to be killed, which would put the killing in the category of “euthanasia” rather than “murder.”
If we assume that murder is not morally identical to euthanasia, then we can accept that the irrational proposition that “murder is universally preferable behaviour” trips over the same logical contradictions as the prior three examples. If everyone wants to murder and be murdered, then “murder” as a moral category ceases to exist.
Even if we assume that murder is morally identical to euthanasia, the act of murdering is still a positive action and thus cannot be universalized. In other words, it fails the coma test, and therefore is invalid as a moral proposition.
In hospitals, sometimes patients sign “do not resuscitate” forms. This means that, in the event of a medical emergency, nurses and doctors are not allowed to attempt to save the patient’s life.
In the absence of this form, medical professionals are required to use every available means to resuscitate the patient and save his or her life. Failure to do so would constitute grievous medical malpractice.
However, if the patient has signed the “do not resuscitate” form, working to resuscitate becomes the wrong thing to do.
A medical professional is responsible for a death if he or she refrains from applying every reasonable measure to maintain life – unless the patient has requested otherwise, in which case the medical professional has no liability for the death – and in fact may face sanctions for keeping the patient alive against his or her wishes.
Here we can see that the consent to die completely reverses the morality of the situation.
(By the way, I do support the right of people to end their own life, if they choose to. The foundation of a rational moral philosophy is the non-aggression principle, which states that human beings are not allowed to initiate force against others. We know this principle is valid because it is not a positive obligation and thus does not violate the coma test, and also because it is universal – it is entirely possible for all human beings to refrain from initiating violence against others everywhere, for all time. Given this, euthanasia does not violate the non-aggression principle, because no initiation of force is involved in the agreement. We can consent to being “stabbed” in the form of surgery, in order to cure us of a disease – no one considers the surgeon to be guilty of the crime of assault. If life itself has become a disease, and a doctor cures you with your permission, the same principle applies.)
The ramifications of a rational proof of secular ethics run deep and wide, and I have discussed some of the challenging re-evaluations of existing norms in my other books and articles. Suffice it to say that placing the non-aggression principle at the centre of our moral thought completely rewrites what we think of as society from the ground up.
This may be hard for some people to work through, emotionally and intellectually, but it is essential for the moral progress of humanity.
Over the last hundred years or so, in the Western world, we have seen the unmitigated awfulness of the First World War, the Second World War, hyperinflation, a fourteen-year Great Depression, communism, fascism, innumerable genocides, the Holocaust, the Holodomor, staggering levels of national debts and unfunded liabilities, a collapsing infrastructure, ruinous and decaying public schools, ever-escalating propaganda in higher education, a migrant crisis, increased racial and ethnic tensions – just to name a few of the virtually endless disasters of the modern world.
When societies continually lurch from disaster to disaster, essential principles need to be re-examined – or created for the first time, if need be. We should not fear this examination, but rather welcome and embrace it as a difficult but necessary salvation for civilization.
We have a modern world – with its benefits as well as its disasters – because people in the past challenged essential assumptions about personal and political ethics.
Christians in the West fought and paid and bled and died to end slavery worldwide, with significant success. Slavery was a tradition as old as mankind – for well over one hundred thousand years, and probably closer to one hundred and fifty thousand – and it was ended in a matter of decades, at least in the West.
For countless thousands of years, the state and the church were unified in most Western societies. The separation of church and state – the restoration of the original Christian concept of uncoerced conscience – was eventually largely achieved, albeit after hundreds of years of religious warfare.
Free trade, unimaginable throughout most of the Dark and Middle Ages, was largely achieved from the eighteenth century onward in some European countries.
Equality before the law was largely achieved, albeit with a highly wobbly and uncertain record since.
Moral progress is a difficult and dangerous game for society. The only thing more dangerous than moral progress is moral stagnation and decay.
We have tried organizing society in countless different ways – none of which fundamentally involve philosophy.
Philosophers have tried entering politics – Plato took this approach in Syracuse and almost ended up being sold into slavery – but that generally meant playing by the foggy rules of sophistry, manipulation and coercion. It is dangerous to tell the truth to a society programmed to love lies.
We have tried organizing society by religion, by class, by theocracy, by tribalism, by democracy, by republics, according to the general will, via fascism, communism, socialism, through the power of the aristocracy and the influence of money over the state – we have tried just about everything except reason, evidence and universal morality.
We have tried revolutions, which impose irrational ideologies – usually by force – upon the unwilling masses. We have tried wiping traditional social values out of existence and replacing them with propaganda, which results in endless and brutal disasters. We have tried appealing to sentimentality, emotion, patriotism, racism and all the volatile and often-destructive passions of the mob. We have deployed sophistry, falsehoods, indoctrination, manipulation, superstition, ostracism for nonconformity, verbal attacks, slander, libel, endless state-sponsored violence – with the end result that we face imminent disaster as a civilization.
The appeal to reason goes back thousands of years – at least to the time of Socrates. It has always remained incomplete and fragmentary, largely because the twin tyrannies of theology and statism threatened or killed those who questioned their imaginary principles.
As free speech gained more certain footing, ostracism and exclusion were deployed to keep freethinkers out of the discussion. Academics, media personalities and owners, publishers, movie and television studio heads – you name it – the gatekeepers were always out in full force, making sure that discussion remained somewhat lively, but only within very narrow parameters.
The growth of the internet – of unfiltered conversations – has created the great gift of the possibility of reason to mankind for the first time in human history. The possibility of universal and direct speech among the curious and the thoughtful has never before existed – and is quite threatened in the here and now.
The possibility exists (in a very narrow window, I believe) that we may finally be able to submit essential questions – of good and evil, force and peace, violence versus voluntarism – to philosophy, to the twin judges of reason and evidence.
Forces opposed to philosophy – most of the existing power structures in the world, from the state to academics to the mainstream media, to public and private powermongers of every kind – gather even as you read this, even as we speak, to shut down the growing voices demanding and respecting philosophy.
Mankind has the power to think and reason, to oppose evil and support virtue. We are born with this power, but it is scoured and stripped from us through omnipresent propaganda and violence.
Our birthright is free thought; our upbringing is ever-escalating censorship and abuse.
Society remains trapped within a dismal cycle wherein economic freedoms bring wealth, wealth brings political corruption, and corruption brings social collapse. As the old saying goes, hard men bring good times, good times bring weak men, and weak men bring bad times.
The only way out of this cycle is through philosophy, through an acceptance and submission to objective reality and rationality, through the development and promulgation of universal and rational ethical propositions, and through the rejection of anti-rational ideologies.
All of this sounds wonderful – who could be against the rational? – which begs the question: Why has it yet to be achieved?
It has yet to be achieved because philosophy has yet to take down its greatest foe.
The universalization of equality under the law eliminated slavery and the various injustices against minorities. And it is working slowly but surely against the prejudices of childism – the acceptance of male and female genital mutilation; and the physical violence against, the mental drugging of, and the overall neglect of children.
Equality under the law is not a universalization, since there are those who remain above the law – not just in theory, but in practice.
The existence of centralized lawmakers – of the state – is a violation of universality and rationality, and thus remains an anti-rational moral hypothesis.
Taxation is the initiation of force to take property.
Science does not advance through voting – a scientific theory is not considered valid if fifty-one out of one hundred scientists vote for it.
Moral propositions do not become valid because the majority votes for them.
Two men in a forest do not morally get to rape a woman they find, even if all three put it to a vote.
Two crazy people do not logically get to override a mathematician who tells them that two and two make four.
Truth, reason, objectivity and virtue lie outside the collective mindlessness of the mob.
The mob voted to put Socrates to death; their vote did not make their murder moral.
Sophists love to make the mob the standard of virtue, because sophists are so good at manipulating the passions of the mob.
The main purpose of sophistry – its main value to those in charge – is its capacity to create pseudo-universals.
If you can create a rule called “thou shall not steal” – and then create an exception to that rule for yourself, your group, your tribe – or your government – then you are about the most effective thief you can be.
Governments were instituted, so the belief goes, to protect property and people.
This is entirely false, as history clearly shows.
Governments “protect” people in the way that farmers protect their livestock – in order to ensure maximum continued exploitation. If governments were so interested in protecting people, then why did governments murder over two hundred and fifty million of their own citizens – outside of war – in the twentieth century alone?
Governments “protect” property because property rights promote wealth generation. Governments apply property rights to their tax livestock in the way that farmers apply antibiotics to their meat livestock.
If governments were so interested in protecting property, then why do governments take the majority of their citizens’ property at gunpoint?
Many priesthoods around the world claim that everyone is subject to the law of God, but then claim priests alone have special access to the will of their God. Ignorance of God’s law is no excuse, but only they truly understand God’s law.
Here again we see a category and an exception.
The exception is the purpose of the categorization – morality was originally invented to convince gullible people to be “good,” so they could be more easily and efficiently exploited by evildoers.
Think of the “social contract.”
In this construct, people voluntarily give up certain freedoms in order to gain the protections of the state. However, this describes nothing at all in reality. We are born subjected to the near-infinite power of the state, which can strip us of our property and freedom virtually at will, and we never sign a damn thing.
Also, note that the “social contract” is unilateral – it can only be imposed by governments upon citizens, not by citizens upon each other, and certainly not by citizens upon their government. If the government is part of society, but it is exempted from being subject to the initiation of force justified by the social contract, then we have a special sophistic exception, a pseudo-universal.
If the government is not part of society – but is composed of human beings – then we have more pseudo-universals. The concepts of “humanity” and “society” contain opposite moral prescriptions – a commandment to respect persons and property, which applies to human beings called “citizens,” and an opposite commandment to violate persons and property, which applies to human beings called “the government.”
Once you begin to see these pseudo-universals, they will be revealed everywhere, and you will understand that they form the basis for the development of almost all systems of morality.
The destruction of sophistry is the destruction of pseudo-universals and the revealing of the naked coercive power that hides behind the hidden weaponry of ornate language.
The organization of human society along the lines and arguments of rational philosophy – according to the true universals reflected in reason and empirical evidence – will finally create a sustainable society of universal freedoms. The grim cycle of history – from freedom to abundance to corruption to collapse – will be broken at last.
It is my fervent hope that you will join me in promoting philosophy – to help turn this “hope” from a destructive mirage into a true oasis that can liberate and sustain us.
Massive swaths of humanity have adapted to surviving on the shreds of power, like pilot fish living on the scraps of sharks’ meals. The transition from coercion to voluntarism will not be easy, but as long as we have free speech, as long as we have a strong will, and as long as truth and reason are on our side, it is my belief that we will prevail, and the world will become free.
If society continues as it is, the existing fascistic finance system will collapse, the food supply will falter, and untold millions of people will fight and die. This is not a vision, but a mathematical and historical certainty.
It is probably too late for everyone to be saved by words, but enough can be saved to make words worthwhile.
Perhaps more importantly, philosophy can lay the foundation for the kind of society that will arise from the ashes of coercion and anti-rationality.
The great danger is that the coming crisis will be blamed on freedom, on trade, on property rights, on free speech and voluntarism. With this kind of diagnosis, our remaining freedoms will become like life-giving trees, hacked down and used to fuel the raging fires of eternal fascism.
What we have gained, the freedoms we possess, are too precious to sacrifice, even at sword point.
Entire future generations hang in the balance of what we do now, today – the words we can wield, and the strength of our will, and the consistency of our positions.
You have freedoms because past generations did not fail you.
Do not fail the
future, or there will be no future.
In professional wrestling, mullet-haired monster men often snarl at each other before matches, engaging in the time-honoured tradition of trash talking. The purpose of this is to build anticipation for the match.
It would be a very odd thing if, after weeks of trash talking, only one of the wrestlers showed up for the fight.
It would be considered an act of supreme cowardice to trash-talk an opposing athlete while refusing to show up for the actual event.
The same process often occurs in philosophy, wherein an opponent slanders you, insults you, surrounds you with a fiery moat of negative adjectives, while never actually addressing the content of your arguments.
The actual fight is about the reason and evidence presented – everything else is just a distraction. Albert Einstein, remarking on a group of scientists who had signed a document stating he was wrong, said that one scientist proving him wrong would suffice.
If you have the capacity to actually prove someone wrong, you do not need to be hostile or insulting. You do not need to imagine malevolent motives on the part of your opponent, you do not need to insult their intelligence, education, writing skills or appearance – you just need to clearly show where he or she is wrong.
We all know this, but many people seem to constantly forget it at the same time.
I have been reasoning, reading, debating, writing and arguing in the realm of philosophy for over 35 years. I have an Ivy League education at the master’s level, and my dissertation was a deep thesis on the history of Western philosophy, for which I received top marks. For many years, I have had the privilege of hosting the world’s largest and most popular philosophy show, with over half a billion views and downloads. I have interviewed hundreds of subject-matter experts in a wide variety of fields, debated both professionals and laypeople on many complex topics, written half a dozen books, and been interviewed myself by friends and foes alike.
None of this means my arguments are correct, of course – I could have achieved all of this and still be spectacularly wrong. There are many thinkers with greater credentials than I have, whom I consider to be spectacularly wrong. Neither credentials nor experience fundamentally matter in terms of the argument. I bring all of this up because no doubt I will be attacked and scorned with regards to experience or credentials or what have you. I am wrong, some will say, because I do not hold a PhD in philosophy from Harvard or Yale.
This is a fascinating position – I really cannot call it an argument – because the entire history of philosophy is the history of rejecting authority in favour of reason and evidence. Academic philosophers with doctorates worship Socrates; Socrates had no doctorate and scorned arguments from authority. As the saying goes, all science is founded on scepticism of authority. With philosophy, it goes even further. All philosophy is founded on hostility toward authority.
Philosophy is the ultimate democratic discipline. Rational philosophy holds that individuals are entirely capable of processing reality, of reasoning effectively, and of coming to the right conclusions. Philosophy empowers individuals with the capacity to push back against irrational or anti-rational authority using their own individual capacity for thought.
Generally, a refusal to rebut the content of an argument is a confession of cowardice, incompetence or malevolence. Insulting your opponent – at least, absent clear rebuttals to arguments – is a betrayal of philosophy, not its fulfilment.
This is not to say that philosophers must engage with every person who makes a mistake. We do not want to become like the hapless husband in a famous cartoon, who says to his wife that he cannot possibly come to bed yet, because someone is wrong on the internet. However, when someone of prominence and influence is publicly making bad arguments, philosophers are honour-bound to push back against these errors. We do not have to argue with a crazy man on the street corner who is waving a Wingdings pamphlet at rain clouds, but egregious errors from a prominent person tend to stand unless and until we correct them.
If you refuse to engage in such a necessary debate, clearly that is because you fear losing, or you fear anyone coming into contact with your opponent’s ideas. However, if you can effectively rebut bad arguments, why on earth would you fear their increased exposure?
You might fear the exposure of bad arguments because you imagine that the majority of people cannot think and will end up buried under the verbal dexterity and sophistry of a well-credentialed street preacher.
I accept that as a possible position – but then your job should be to instruct the masses on how to think, or at least how to think better, instead of engaging with a sophist who cannot be distinguished from the philosopher by the untutored multitude. Maybe you cannot stop all the sugary commercials aimed at your children, but you can at least educate your children about the dangers of sugar.
If you call your wrestling opponent a coward, but then refuse to show up to the fight, your criticism is utterly exposed as projection – it is you who are the coward.
If you call your intellectual opponent wrong, but then refuse to show up to the debate, your attack is utterly exposed as projection – it is you who are wrong.
The more extravagant your trash talking of your opponent, the more your cowardice is revealed when you refuse to fight him.
The more hysterical your abuse of your intellectual opponent, the more your cowardice is revealed when you avoid debating him.
A number of words and phrases show up as distinct “tells” for intellectual cowardice. I am sure I will receive some of them, so it is worth going over them briefly. As I said above, for philosophy, prevention is by far the better part of cure.
Calling someone’s argument “reductionist,” or “simplistic,” or “amateurish,” or “unconvincing” is a boring way of saying that you are too cowardly or stupid to engage in a debate. If someone’s ideas are worth insulting, then surely they are worth rationally rebutting first.
Calling someone a misogynist, a cult leader, a racist – we all understand that none of these are arguments; they are confessions of intellectual cowardice and impotence. If you show up to an oncologist to have him remove a deadly tumour, and he spends half an hour verbally insulting it, would you consider yourself cured? If you go to an optometrist to get help with blurry vision, is your problem solved if your optometrist merely rails against the greed of the eyeglass industry, or says that all vision is merely subjective, so how do you really know that your vision is blurry?
Another trick is to call someone “overambitious” or “grandiose,” or to imply that the problem is far more complex than he assumes – without addressing the content of his arguments. I am fully aware that I have taken on enormous philosophical problems in this book and claimed to have solved them. This is an ambitious project to be sure – calling it “overambitious” is not an argument.
Another trick is to call an argument “incomplete,” which is a variation of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. All arguments are “incomplete,” because language has limitations, we are mortal, readers have lives to live, and all resources are finite. I may not have read arguments for determinism written in ancient Aramaic, or I may have failed to address the ethical arguments of a particular Indian philosopher – and I may not have rebutted some article against me – but so what? If the definition of “complete” is pretty much synonymous with “omniscient,” it can be safely discarded as a ridiculous standard. Dragging thinkers off to continually research and respond to everyone else’s thoughts is just a silly way of ensuring that thinkers remain cripplingly unoriginal. If you cannot paint a picture of a boat until you have lived at sea, studied the history of boating, and learned the details of every other picture of a boat, then clearly the purpose of all those restrictions is to stop you from painting your own picture of a boat.
It’s a trap!
Let us say that a man named David comes up with an argument called X. Let us say that you wish to oppose argument X, but without actually engaging with the content of the argument – here is another silly trick. Find some other argument that David has made that is generally unpopular – we can call this Y. Now, instead of engaging with argument X, you can instead wave around the red flag of argument Y, and hope – usually correctly – that the resulting howls of mob outrage about argument Y drown out your lack of rational rebuttal to argument X.
Another approach is to create a fiery language moat of ostracism around David, to the point where no one feels safe engaging with him. If you can portray David as so crazy, so evil, so malevolent and so ridiculous that to even engage with him is to give him more credibility than he deserves, then you can sink original thought in the foggy canyons of social aversion. This is not always an incorrect position – since such crazy people certainly exist – but it is invalid in the face of significant popularity. I do not spend any time rebutting the personal paranoias of inconsequential individuals – but when someone like Karl Marx remains so popular, he is prominent enough to deserve exposure and rebuttal.
Here is another way you can avoid getting into the ring with a strong thinker – find the least popular person who likes that thinker’s arguments, and then promote that unpopular person as a “guilt by association” representative. If David Duke retweeted you once, that means that you and David Duke are pretty much the same person! The beauty of this cowardly move is that you never have to apply it to the thinkers that you like – such as Barack Obama and his association with Louis Farrakhan.
Exposing the personal hypocrisies of your opponents can also be a rich vein of avoidance-mining. If Albert rails against government subsidies, but once had a job at a company that took government subsidies, you can just point out that fact and think you have done something to dismantle Albert’s arguments against government subsidies. As before, the beauty of this is that you never have to apply it to those you like. Karl Marx, while simultaneously railing against the exploitation of workers by bosses, impregnated his maid, then tossed her out into the street. This is not brought up by Marxists, of course, but any remote inconsistency on the part of their opponents is shot into peoples’ eyeballs like reddish fireworks.
Pointing out that someone has been wrong in the past can also be a good way of getting out of a potentially humiliating debate. Being wrong is a natural consequence of making arguments – to wait for perfection is to stagnate in perpetuity. Could we have gotten to Einsteinian physics without going through Newtonian physics? It is doubtful. Saying that someone is wrong now because he has been wrong in the past is like saying you can easily beat a world champion boxer because he once lost a fight in the past.
Perhaps your intellectual opponent has an esoteric area of interest that has nothing to do with his current argument, which you can highlight with the goal of insulting his general competence. Sir Isaac Newton was obsessed with alchemy and mysticism. Is it not far easier to point that out than to learn and rebut his general mathematical and physical theories? Christopher Hitchens was ridiculously enamored of the child murderer Che Guevara, but that has little relevance to Hitchens’s argument against the existence of God. If Hitchens claims to be a good judge of character, this can certainly be brought up as a counterexample, but its scope should be limited to the argument at hand.
Pointing out that a moralist has done something immoral does not necessarily invalidate that moralist’s ethical theories. If a televangelist who rails against infidelity has an affair, this does not automatically invalidate all of his prior arguments against infidelity – especially since Christianity itself states that everyone is a sinner and temptation is everywhere. Dr. Benjamin Spock’s grandson committed suicide – I have heard this fact used to support spanking, since Dr. Spock disapproved of the practice.
Not an argument.
At an even baser level, you can use flattering photographs of intellectuals you like, while using unflattering photographs of those you dislike. You can use positive adjectives to describe those who agree with you, while using negative adjectives to describe those who oppose you. For example, I have been described in the mainstream media as “a former IT worker.” I co-founded and grew a successful software company, like Steve Jobs, but I have never seen Steve Jobs referred to as “a former IT worker.”
If you like a thinker, you can quote his admirers – if you dislike a thinker, you can quote his detractors.
If you dislike a group of thinkers, you can create a label to describe them, and then infuse that label with as many pejoratives as possible. For instance, you can call people part of the “far right,” “extreme right,” or “alt-right,” and then hope – usually successfully – that people’s internal autocorrect transforms those labels into the ideologically required “fascist” or “Nazi.” You can label anyone who wishes to preserve his country’s culture as “far right/Nazi,” and then hope no one notices that Israel has a very strong desire to preserve its own culture, which means that, in this insane formulation, Jews are in fact Nazis.
You can also deride everyone on the left as a “snowflake,” even when leftists have powerful and legitimate criticisms of Western imperialism, traditional Republican warmongering and the military-industrial complex.
You can also divide a group of thinkers into “acceptable” and “unacceptable,” and woo those you deem acceptable with favourable articles and attractive photographs, in the hope – usually successful – that they will then start avoiding those you deem unacceptable. Bribing selected people with positive coverage is a great way of splitting a movement and turning it against itself.
Another way to deplatform a thinker is to manufacture a hysterical controversy and then continually refer to that controversy in the future. Repetition sinks reputation, and actual arguments are never addressed. This also serves as a standing threat against anyone who even dreams of taking a similar position.
Inevitably, you will hear that my arguments are reductionist, or simplistic, or incomplete, or that I have not addressed so-and-so’s argument, or that I have a bad reputation, or that I am not a philosopher, or that I avoid legitimate debates, or I am disliked, or I am grandiose, or that I was wrong about something sometime, or someone bad liked something I said once. You name it – the mud is thrown, while only hitting the gullible and ignorant.
Do not fall for the silly tricks. Do what I do – just skim the article, or speed up the audio, and see whether any actual arguments are addressed.
If not, just
understand that the words are a foolish moat around a necessary treasure – and
that the writer or the speaker is a mere fool, full of sound and fury, whose
life signifies nothing but cowardice.
 K. N. Smith. “Your Political Beliefs Are Partly Shaped By Genetics.” D-brief. August 5, 2015. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/d-brief/2015/08/05/political-beliefs-genetic/.
 Hanna Rosin. “Men Are Raped Almost as Often as Women in America. We Need to Talk About This.” Slate Magazine. April 29, 2014. http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2014/04/male_rape_in_america_a_new_study_reveals_that_men_are_sexually_assaulted.html
 M. Lipka. “10 facts about atheists.” Pew Research Center. June 1, 2016. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/06/01/10-facts-about-atheists/