Everything you do
You wake in the
morning, groan, stretch and open your eyes. What is happening?
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
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
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 Perhaps they were all real people at some point, but have been
replaced by space aliens with perfect biological robots.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
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?
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
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
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 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
Perhaps we are
all just predetermined dominoes falling on each other under the pretense of
So what does it
mean to have an identity, to be yourself, when so little of who you are was
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.
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
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?
Tortures of Philosophy
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
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
At the beginning of a semester, I sign up for an obscure class in an
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
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.
think, Let me enjoy myself now, and the
future will sort itself out somehow…
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.)
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.
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?
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.
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,
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
the Cartesian Demon
Can we escape
this logical possibility of being nothing more than an externally controlled
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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?
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
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.
“Infinite Simulation” Hypothesis
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.
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.
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.)
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
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.
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.”
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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).
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
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
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.
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
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
emotions are somewhat subjective, the effects of them can often be measured
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.
– 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.
original claim that the road ahead was wet did not match additional sense
details – as I got closer, the “wetness” disappeared – my original hypothesis
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
between the description of personal experience, and the identification of
objective fact, is the difference between anecdote
generally shorter than men. Reporting the fact that you know a tall woman just
throws static into the music of math.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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,
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.
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
An entity cannot
be both a living animal and a fossil at the same time.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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
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
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.
of a self-contradictory entity is the concept of “consciousness without
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.
consciousness exist without matter somewhere in the universe?
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.
an effect of matter – of the physical brain, specifically – and therefore
cannot exist in the absence of a brain.
Discomfort and 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
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
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
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.
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.
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
Why is this so
will, there is no such thing as philosophy. We do not attempt to cultivate
wisdom in inanimate objects.
nothing about free will, of course,
but clearly reveals the stakes.
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
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!”
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.
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.
Free Will: An Introduction
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
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.
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.
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
Embedded in every
attempt to use the senses to communicate reason and evidence to prove an
argument are a number of unshakable assumptions:
- Reason is infinitely preferable to
- Empirical evidence
is infinitely preferable to conceptual hypotheses.
- Truth is
infinitely preferable to error.
requires rational consistency and empirical evidence.
- The person
communicating the argument and the person receiving it both exist
independent of each other within an objective and empirical universe.
- The senses
are valid enough to accurately transmit and receive an argument.
- Language is
meaningful enough to accurately transmit and receive an argument.
- The person
communicating the argument assumes that those receiving the argument have
the capacity to change their minds based on reason and evidence.
argument is superior to physical force.
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.
position states that the human mind is not magically exempt from the general
laws of causality in the universe.
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.
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
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
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!
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
Is Free Will?
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
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.
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.”
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?”
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.
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
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
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.
societies, the ideal standard is the Ten Commandments, combined with: What
would Jesus do?
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
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
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
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.
ideal standard is an absolute – thou shalt not kill.
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.
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.
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
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.
Change Your Mind, Change Your Behaviour
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?
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.”
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.
and Emergent Properties
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.
player can win against a professional soccer team –therefore, eleven individual
players can never win against a professional soccer team.
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.
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.
atom is alive, yet life exists.
atom or cell is conscious, yet consciousness exists.
No life exists in
the absence of atoms, yet no individual atom is alive.
exists in the absence of atoms, yet no individual atom is conscious.
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.
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.
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
atom can see, but our eyes can see.
atom can get cancer, but we certainly can.
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.
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.
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.
Hypothesis of Determinism
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
and a History of Evil
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?
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
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
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?
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
essentially says: “Everything I do is right.”
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.
himself into a computer, the determinist renders himself above and beyond any
real criticism at all. He is beyond good
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
hell must you have experienced – or created – to be even remotely tempted by
such a nightmarish position?
and Emotional Investment
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.
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.
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
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.
determinism be established beyond doubt, I would no longer be able to
comprehend my being, my identity, what it means to be human.
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 –
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
I can’t, and I
never want to.
and the Elements
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
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?
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
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.
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
When people are
generally competent in the science of nutrition, the need for nutritionists
become generally competent in philosophy, the need for philosophers will
significant expertise in nutrition comes with a reasonable expectation that you
will instruct the ignorant.
competent in philosophy also comes with a reasonable expectation that you will
instruct the ignorant.
that claim to pursue the moral good rarely result in positive changes in
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Storm and the Self: An Analogy
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
“You can thank us
now, for we have saved you from your superstition!” cries the leader of the
“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
simply smile and charge off into the storm, looking for another church to tear
And what happens
to the villagers?
I think we all
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
And you sure as
hell do not tear down their shelter during
If you despise
the existing shelter, build a better shelter, and people will arrive of their
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 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.
– 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.
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.
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
atheists as a whole selling to the general public, or at least the intellectual
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.
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?
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.)
oppose capitalism because they care about the poor? Of course not – free
markets have freed and enriched the poor; Marxism impoverished and enslaved
oppose existing governments because those governments were oppressive and
tyrannical? Of course not – Marxist governments are far more oppressive and
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.
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
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
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.
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).”
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
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:
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
opposite, in fact.
“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
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.
are condemning the villagers to a slow and ugly death.
What is their
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
differentiates between various states of illness and health, and guides his
patients towards the best practices and medicines to regain and maintain
differentiates between various states of ignorance and knowledge, and guides
himself and others through the scientific method to discard illusion and achieve
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Against Preferred States
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:
- The correct name for the continent
the correct name is infinitely preferable to using the incorrect name.
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.
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.)
proposition that the earth is flat is binary – it is either flat or it is not.
It cannot be halfway between spherical and flat.
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.
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.
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.
Goals, Preferred States and Preferred Processes
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.
the goal is truth, because truth is a preferred state – and the preferred
process is reason and evidence.
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.
question to ask is: What makes philosophy unique?
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
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.”
be the same as science, otherwise there would be no need for the word
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.
is larger than science, we must ask ourselves: What is it that philosophy examines that science does not?
simply, is: ethics.
material objects and their properties – it describes what is and what is to be,
according to rules that operate independent of consciousness.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
between what should be done and what
actually is done, is the difference
between “preferable” and “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.”
refers to the past; “Prefers” refers to the present; “preferable” refers to the
“preferable” is the only word wherein ethics can exist.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
– 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
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
There are three
categories of actions:
- Morally neutral behaviour, such as
running for the bus.
preferable behaviour, such as being on time.
preferable behaviour, such as respecting property rights and not
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
do not directly block violent actions. For that, the virtue of physical
self-defense is required.
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.”
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.
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.
and the Coma Test
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.
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
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
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
and Universally Preferable Behaviour
Is it possible
for stealing to be universally
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
and Universally Preferable Behaviour
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.
and Universally Preferable Behaviour
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
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
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
If everyone wants
to assault and be assaulted, then “assault” vanishes as a moral category.
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.
and Universally Preferable Behaviour
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Ramifications of Secular Ethics
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
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.
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.
unimaginable throughout most of the Dark and Middle Ages, was largely achieved
from the eighteenth century onward in some European countries.
the law was largely achieved, albeit with a highly wobbly and uncertain record
Moral progress is
a difficult and dangerous game for society. The only thing more dangerous than
moral progress is moral stagnation and decay.
Value of Philosophy
We have tried
organizing society in countless different ways – none of which fundamentally
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Essence of Sophistry
The main purpose
of sophistry – its main value to those in charge – is its capacity to create
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.
instituted, so the belief goes, to protect property and people.
This is entirely
false, as history clearly shows.
“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?
“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.
were so interested in protecting property, then why do governments take the
majority of their citizens’ property at gunpoint?
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
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 sophistry is the destruction of pseudo-universals and the revealing of the
naked coercive power that hides behind the hidden weaponry of ornate language.
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.
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
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
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.
wish to take issue with the quaint notion that we can comprehend such a thing
as “objective reality.” We do not, as humans, have the capacity to determine
objectivity, or directly perceive what is commonly called “the real world.”
Every statement we make contains the implicit premise: “as I see it!” “This is
true, as I see it.” Every culture, every religion, every individual sees
reality and defines truth in a different manner. And it is the mark of an
uneducated person to imagine that his own personal perspective somehow
translates into “true” statements about “objective reality.”
- Thank you for your statements. Are you saying it is
objectively true that we cannot perceive objective truth?
is a foolish first-year undergraduate question, a silly trap from which there
is a simple escape. The very concept of “objectivity” is what I wish to
dismiss. Saying that it is objectively true that there is no such thing as
objective truth would of course be a contradictory statement, but my whole
point is that we should start rising above such petty tricks, and look at the
true limitations of our “knowledge.”
- I do not see how that answers my question. You admit that
both claiming and denying objective truth is a contradictory position, but then
you deny the validity of the question, without making any further argument. It
seems to me that you are denying the capacity for disproof in order to be able
to make bland assertions without the requirement for reason and evidence.
here is the problem again – you are talking about proof and disproof, and
reason and evidence, and that is my point exactly! Such terms arise from
archaic perceptions of philosophy prior to the rise of our understanding of
quantum physics, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and other deep
explorations of reality that utterly destroy even the concept of objectivity.
We can call this the subjectivity
hypothesis. I know it is difficult to accept emotionally, because we are so
wedded to the superstition of objectivity – just as our ancestors were wedded
to the superstition that ghosts lived in trees – but we must accept science and
outgrow our prior limited perspectives.
- Are you saying that objectivity has been scientifically
disproved by science?
- I am
trying not to get impatient, but you do keep talking about proof and disproof,
despite my repeated reminders that these are terms of mere historical interest,
like “Zeus” and “alchemy.” Science supports the subjectivity hypothesis.
Anthropology supports the subjectivity hypothesis. Cultural studies, gender
studies, historical analyses – all these disciplines support the subjectivity
hypothesis. Now, if you wish to master each of these disciplines and overturn
the obvious subjectivity of their greatest practitioners and deepest analyses,
be my guest – such a fantastic hubris is beyond my humble self.
- Do you consider science to be a subjective or objective
with these words – subjective, objective – I am saying that they are
- No, you started this conversation by claiming that
objectivity was incorrect and that we can only make statements about subjective
perception. You made absolute statements – one of which was: “Whatever we say
must be appended with ‘as I see it.’ ” However, you are not using your own
thesis of universal subjectivity to reject my requirements for proof. Your
argument that my words are archaic and should be discarded is presented as an
absolute fact, not ‘as you see it.’ You make absolute statements about
universal truth, and then retreat into rank subjectivism when I ask for
objective proof of objective truths.
of course everything I say is subjective – my point is that everything you say is subjective as well.
- Subjective – compared to what?
is no such thing as “compared to what.” That is my entire point! I have my subjective perceptions, you have your subjective perceptions – and that
is the sum total of the human experience: subjective perceptions!
- So, when you say you know the “sum total of the human
experience,” is that a subjective perspective, or an objective claim?
- It is
a denial of objectivity!
- Is it a subjective denial of objectivity?
course – everything is subjective!
- When you say everything is subjective, you are making a
universal claim! Do you not understand that?
everything is subjective, there can
be no such thing as a universal
- I am a little confused – do you actually know what the
word “everything” means? It means all things – in this case, every human
every human perspective is subjective.
- Is it your subjective perception that other human beings
do you mean?
- Pretending to not understand the question is usually a way
of buying time, but all right, I will explain what I mean. If you say that
every human perspective is subjective, you are claiming that other human beings
exist outside your mind, which is an objective statement.
cannot prove for certain that other human beings exist outside my mind.
- Hm – now you seem to be friendlier with the word “prove,”
but let us put that aside for now. If you cannot prove other human beings exist
outside your mind, how can you make claims about the contents of their minds?
- I do
- All right – if I do not know how many art galleries there
are in Budapest – or even if there
are any art galleries in Budapest – how can I make certain claims about the
pictures hanging in an art gallery in Budapest?
- I am
not sure what this has to do with our argument.
- Well, if I do not know whether there any art galleries in
Budapest, can I definitively say that there is no modern art hanging in any art
gallery in Budapest?
you are using words like “definitively,” which I specifically reject.
- This is the problem we are having – any time I try to
apply any kind of proof to the universal arguments you are making, you claim
that there is no such thing as universals. You claim that all human perceptions
are subjective. This requires that you have a deep knowledge of the contents of
the minds of every human being, past, present and future. This is a universal
Do you believe that all mass has gravity?
- I do.
that mean you require deep knowledge of all mass in the universe – past,
present and future?
- Of course not.
- I do
not require a deep knowledge of the contents of every human being’s mind to
know that human beings are subjective, any more than you require deep knowledge
of all mass to know that mass has gravity.
- I quite agree. When I make a universal statement about
mass having gravity, I do not need to know details about every object in the
universe – that is the entire point of universals.
we are in agreement.
- We are, but not in the way that you want, or will like
very much. We agree that you have made a universal statement about human
most certainly did not!
- You most certainly did – and you used the universal
statement “mass has gravity” to supposedly argue against what I was saying.
When you have a universal principle, according to your argument, you do not
need specific details. You can only affirm that all human beings are subjective
by using a universal principle, rather than a deep knowledge of all human
consciousness. This you cannot wriggle out of – if all human beings are
subjective, that is either a universal principle, or an empirical observation
of universal characteristics. Either way, it is a claim of universal truth
outside merely subjective human consciousness.
more, you veer towards words like “proof” and “truth” and so on, when I
specifically deny the validity of such language.
- Is such language universally invalid?
are stuck in a loop.
- No, my friend, it is you who are stuck in the loop. You
make universal truth claims and absolute objective statements. When I then
press you for proof or point out the contradictory nature of your statements,
you merely deny the validity of truth, absolutism and objectivity. I reject
such sophistry as foolish and self-serving. And so I ask you once more: Is it
universally true that there is no such thing as universal truth?
- And I
reply once more: There is no such thing as universal truth.
- Is that a universal truth?
- It is
whatever you want it to be, my friend, because everything is subjective.
- I wish to be honest with you – I view your manipulations
as destructive and cowardly. If you do not believe there is any such thing as
universal truth, then why do you make philosophical arguments? Should there not
be rational consequences to the rejection of particular concepts? For instance,
if I claim I do not believe in ghosts, would it be honest for me to make money
by leading people on ghost-hunting expeditions? If I claim to be a fishing guide
while I do not believe there are any fish in one particular lake, does it make
any sense for me to make money by encouraging people to fish in that lake? If I
do not believe in God, am I an honourable man if I become a priest?
comparisons do not make any sense to me.
- If I reject the possibility of alchemy – a magical process
by which lead can be transformed into gold – then does it make much sense for
me to spend my life trying to turn lead into gold?
can do whatever you want!
- No one is arguing against that. My question is: If I truly
believe that everything is subjective, does it make any sense for me to use
arguments to “correct” other people’s perspectives?
course it does, if someone incorrectly believes that his consciousness can be
- Here we are, right at the heart of things, and I thank you
for putting your argument so concisely. You believe my perspective is
incorrect, is that right?
course. That should be obvious by now!
- If everything is subjective, how can I be incorrect?
are incorrect if you believe that something can be objective.
- That is not true. If everything is subjective, then all
human perspectives are a matter of taste. If I say I like French fries, can you
rationally contradict me? Can you tell me that I am wrong?
not, but if you say French fries are universally the best, then I can tell you
that you are wrong.
- How can you tell me I am wrong? With reference to what?
The reason I am asking is because when I attempt to disprove your arguments,
you reject any standard of proof for objectivity or universality or comparison
with material reality. Why could I not do the same to you if you attempt to
disprove my belief that French fries are the best?
- I do
- If my subjective belief is that human beings can be
objective, how can you disprove my perspective?
if everything is subjective, believing that objectivity is possible is
it is a contradiction. It is a belief in something that is not true to say that
human beings are capable of objectivity, since all human consciousness is
- So now you are willing to entertain the reality that a
self-contradictory statement is incorrect. Earlier, when I pointed out that
your statement that “it is universally true that there is no such thing as
universal truth” was contradictory, you rejected self-contradiction as a valid
reason to dismiss your argument. Now, you are embracing self-contradiction as a
valid reason to dismiss my argument. The only thing that has changed is that in
this scenario it is I who make the self-contradictory argument, whereas
previously, it was you who made the self-contradictory argument. This is not a
fair application of the principle, to apply it only to me, while excusing any
self-contradictory arguments that you make. This is really a “heads I win,
tails you lose” scenario.
- Now I
- No, you are not confused, you are just wrong.
Is No Such Thing as Free Will”
will is an illusion. The human brain is composed of matter and energy, which
are physical objects and properties. Such entities are subject to physical
laws, which do not allow for free will. Saying that human beings choose their
destiny is like saying that the moon chooses its orbit. Free will is the belief
that human beings have the power to make choices outside the material realm of
physical reality – in other words, that we are inhabited by a wilful ghost that
is able to magically surmount the laws of physics and generate material states
of mind from immaterial causes. Studies have repeatedly shown that human beings
merely think they are making choices,
when brain scans can clearly see that the origins of their “decisions” occurred
deep in the mind, and then are only rationalized after the fact by people
holding on to their precious superstition of free will. We are programmed by
our minds to act – and we are also programmed by our minds to believe in free
will, which mostly arises out of a superstitious lack of knowledge regarding
the scientific reality of determinism. Prior to having physical explanations
for natural phenomenon – storms, volcanoes, tsunamis – we projected an
imaginary consciousness onto the material world. It is understandable, although
regrettable, that largely through a lack of scientific understanding, we still
project an imaginary consciousness called “free will” onto the material brain.
It seems hard for people to let go of the soul, or the imaginary friend called
“free will,” because it takes away their sense of specialness, as well as their
ability to morally castigate others for their “failings.”
- There is a lot to digest in what you said. I will try to
take things one step at a time. When you say that free will is an illusion, do
you mean that an accurate understanding of the world – you refer to science
very positively – is preferable to false beliefs about the world?
course, we should always prefer truth to illusion, no matter how hard it is for
our fragile egos – or for our illusion that we even have an ego.
- It does seem odd to me, I will confess, that you criticize
those who believe in free will for morally castigating others, but you seem to
refer to such people in derogatory terms. However, we will return to that
later. First I wish to understand your position, that there is such a thing as
a preferred state – for example, truth over falsehood – when the deterministic
position would imply that there is no such thing as a preferred state.
does not deny the existence of preferred states.
- Well, if it rains on your wedding day, you would be
unhappy, but you would not take it personally – in other words, you would not
ascribe negative moral qualities to the weather for ruining your special day.
course not. That is my entire point!
- Would you say that it is possible for the weather to have
a preferred state?
- I do
- Is it possible for a storm cloud, say, to prefer raining
on a lake rather than a meadow?
- If I
follow you correctly, no, I do not think it is possible.
- Can you think of any condition under which a storm cloud
would – or could – have a preferred state?
- Now I am confused – is not your entire argument that the
human mind is functionally indistinguishable from a storm cloud?
are composed of matter and energy, yes.
- Right – and would you say that matter and energy can
themselves have any kind of preferred state? In other words, could it be
possible that the moon would prefer to be closer or further away from the earth
in its orbit?
the moon could not prefer that.
- Is there any form of matter or energy that could have a
that I can think of – and certainly not according to my arguments.
- And that is what is most remarkable about the
deterministic position. You say the human mind is exactly the same as every
other aggregation of matter and energy in the universe – and that it is utterly
ridiculous to ascribe singular qualities to the human mind – while at the same
time you ascribe singular qualities to the human mind, setting it aside as
utterly different from every other aggregation of matter and energy in the
- I do
not see how I am doing that!
- Let me show you this hand puppet, which I will call “Ned.”
Now, you are having a debate with me – with my mind – which seems like a
rational course of action to you. You say that I have no more free will than
this hand puppet, but I assume you would consider it insane to continue this
debate with my hand puppet instead of with me.
you are just being silly.
- That is not an argument. Do I possess more free will than
my hand puppet?
neither of you possess free will.
- All right, then why is it sane to debate me, but insane to
- I am
not sure what you are getting at.
- I think that you are sure, but you are just stalling and
pretending ignorance in the hopes of making my argument look foolish.
is also not an argument.
- How right you are! Let me try another approach. Let us say
I am getting married in a hall with a retractable roof. During the ceremony, it
starts raining. What should I do?
close the roof of course.
- I am in my wedding best and I do not know how to close the
roof – what should I do?
someone familiar with the building to close the roof.
- Exactly! Alternatively, I could scream up at the clouds to
stop raining, or I could attempt to ask the roof itself to close.
mean, talk to the roof?
- Yes, exactly. Wait – does that seem a little crazy to you?
it does not seem exactly sane, and if I were getting married to you, I do not
think I would complete the ceremony.
- I think that would be wise! So, it would be sane to talk to a person about closing
the roof, but it would be insane to
talk to the clouds, or the roof itself. My question is: Why?
- I am
not sure why you would ask that.
- The reason I would ask that is because you are telling me
that there is no difference between the cloud, the rain, the roof – and the
human being I would ask to close the roof. All are mechanical, predetermined
objects, with no free will of their own. Why would I only talk to the person,
if the person is exactly the same as everything else? If I see three apples in
front of me, I say each of the apples is exactly the same, and yet I will only
eat the first apple and would consider it insane to take a bite out of either
the second or the third apple, can my perspective that the apples are exactly
the same be rationally sustained?
if you will only choose one of the apples and strongly reject the others, they
cannot all be the same.
- Thank you – that is my perspective as well. Therefore, you
need to explain to me why the apple you call a person is so different from the
apples you call the cloud or the roof.
- If I
understand your question correctly, the answer is simple. The person has an
input system called the senses, which the cloud and the roof do not. If you
beckon to a person, or call him over, he is capable of perceiving your request,
and changing his behaviour accordingly. If you ask him to close the roof, he
has ears, and will hear you – while the roof has no ears, and cannot hear you.
- An excellent answer! If I am a singer, and record a song,
my recording device has inputs, does it not?
would not be much of a recording device if it did not.
- Now, if my song wins an award, would it seem sane or crazy
to you if, at the awards ceremony, my recording device received the award?
- Being in possession of an input device – whether it is a
microphone jack or a set of ears – makes no material difference in the
deterministic universe. An input device does not magically provide an entity
with free will. For instance, it is easy to instal microphones on the side of a
computerized robot and then program it to respond to various inputs. Here we
have a machine that responds to external stimuli. Would you say that I have
granted such a robot free will?
of course not – that is why I am arguing that neither human beings nor robots have
- Have you ever argued with a robot?
unless you are a very well-made robot!
- While funny, jokes will not save your argument. How many
arguments or debates have you had with human beings?
- Well that seems entirely bigoted of you, my friend! All
those debates with human beings, but none whatsoever with robots? Again, we are
back to square one: you say that human beings are exactly the same as robots,
but would consider it crazy to argue with a robot, while it’s perfectly sane –
valuable even – to argue with human beings. It cannot be due to the presence of
inputs, since robots can easily have inputs as well – in fact, almost all do.
you are saying that I should argue with a robot? The difference is that I know
what the robot is going to respond with. I do not know what you will respond with.
- That is not necessarily true – the robot could spit out
randomized numbers or randomized phrases, which would be unpredictable. Also,
you do not know what form a cloud is going to take in the next minute, but that
does not mean you will stand in a field like King Lear and scream at the
beings are far more complex than anything you are talking about here – far more
complex than rain or clouds or roofs or robots or anything like that!
- Ahah! Now we are getting to the heart of things, and I
appreciate that comment – though by your face you may have some idea where this
will now go. You are saying that complexity can breed an emergent property – a
property or characteristic that is greater than the sum of its parts.
- I am
not sure I am saying that.
- Well, let me explain to you what you are saying! No
individual atom has the power to reverse or arrest the direction of light,
atom affects the direction of light.
- Of course, but no atom can itself reverse the direction of
- However, if you gather enough atoms together into the form
of a black hole, light has no power to escape its gravity well. In other words,
the property of “arresting the direction of light” – which is possessed by no
individual atom – is possessed by an aggregation of atoms called a black hole.
you saying that atoms possess free will?
- Please try not to jump ahead of what I am saying. All it
does is indicate that you are not listening. Life is composed of atoms, is that
- In particular, the carbon atom. Would you say that any
individual carbon atom possesses the quality called “life”?
- Certainly not, since there are countless carbon atoms that
are not alive or part of any living organism, and therefore carbon atoms cannot
innately possess the characteristic called “life.”
- Now, although no individual carbon atom is alive, is it
fair to say that particular congregations of atoms – and energy of course – can
be part of a living organism?
- This is an example, I am sure you will agree, of an
emergent property – the emergent property called “life,” which is possessed by
none of the individual components of a living organism.
does not prove free will at all!
- I agree, but it does get us in the right direction at
least. Would you say that an individual atom has the property of locomotion, or
eating, or reproducing itself?
- An individual carbon atom cannot run across the African
plain, but aggregated into the form of a lion, so to speak, it can. Individual
atoms cannot produce other carbon atoms, but through insemination, pregnancy
and birth, animals can.
seems all rather elementary.
- I agree. Let me ask you this: Does any individual atom in
your brain have the capacity to engage in a debate?
- No –
three of them act together, though, and I win!
- Again, funny is not right. You are engaging in an action –
debating – that relies on a vast and stacked pyramid of emergent properties. No
individual atom can clean your blood, but your kidney can. No individual atom
can breathe, yet your lungs work. No individual atom can form words, yet I hear
you speak – no atom can debate, yet here we sit.
cannot dispute what you are saying.
- At least, not without affirming it! So, your position is
that there are countless emergent properties, but that free will cannot
possibly be one of them?
you saying that is an inconsistent position?
- It is inconsistent with your first position, which is that
atoms have no free will; therefore, human beings have no free will.
is still my position!
- No, it is not a position; it is an anti-rational specific.
- I am
not technically aware of that term.
- If my entire existence as a human being relies on emergent
properties, but my argument denies the possibility of emergent properties, I am
in fact a walking self-contradiction.
- I do
not deny the existence of emergent properties. I just affirmed them!
- You did, right after I reminded you of their existence –
at the beginning of the debate, you denied emergent properties.
I only denied that free will was an emergent property.
- No, you said that human beings have no free will because
atoms have no free will – which is a subset of the proposition that human
beings can have no properties not possessed by individual atoms themselves.
never said that about all emergent
- No, your argument did not accept that life and locomotion
and debating are all emergent properties, but then specifically reject emergent
properties in the realm of free will – which would have been honest. Instead,
you relied on a base reductionist materialism, saying that all free will was a
superstition, a ghost in the machine, without referencing any other emergent
properties that might oppose your argument against free will.
you are just pretending to read my mind.
- No, I am simply referring to what you said. However, you
are correct in that I cannot prove your state of mind when you make these
highly specific points. Now that you admit emergent properties exist, you must
now prove there is no possibility that free will is an emergent property.
refer you to the numerous scientific studies that show human behaviour can be
predicted fairly accurately with deep brain scans of the subconscious
motivations for supposedly conscious decisions. People think they are choosing whether to click on a red or blue icon on a
screen, while their subconscious mind has already made that decision for them.
- Even if we accept all these studies as true – although
their accuracy rate is never 100 percent or even very close – the entire
purpose of science is to achieve the preferred state of truth or accuracy,
which implies that there is such a thing as a preferred state, which requires
the concept of free will. The moment you say it is true that there is no such
thing as free will, you are accepting that there is a preferred state called
truth, which human beings should voluntarily choose.
you not think that the truth is
- Here we have it – in order to correct me during this
debate, you must constantly slip into using the language of free will. “Truth,”
and “preferable,” and “choice,” and so on.
cannot reject all of the existing habits of language. If I say that there is no
such thing as God, am I religious for having used the word “God”?
- I am not sure what that means, but it does not address my
argument. If you say that I should choose to accept determinism and reject free
will, can you not see that that is a contradiction?
want you to embrace the truth, yes.
- Do you think that is preferable for me to choose the
- Then you have already accepted that there is a preferred
state, and that I have the capacity to compare the contents of my mind to that
preferred state, and choose better. If that is called being a determinist, then
I guess I am a determinist as well, since only the labels differ, not the
contents of our arguments.
Senses Are Invalid”
wish to take issue with the naïve notion that we have some kind of direct
conduit to reality through the mechanism of the senses. Everything that comes
to our mind through the senses is narrow, incomplete and fragmentary – and
people who imagine they can assemble some universal and coherent view of the universe
through the tiny windows of the senses are delusional.
- I have noticed that those who oppose universals always
start off with insults – pairing negative emotional terms with the arguments of
their opponents. For instance, you have referred to arguments for the validity
of the senses as “naïve notions” and to those who hold such beliefs as
“delusional.” I am generally suspicious of people who begin a debate with
subtle – and not-so-subtle – insults, because if you have really good
arguments, I do not see the need to start by insulting your opponents. When I
teach my child that two and two make four, I do not need to be insulting; that
is the mark of bad faith – or suspect reasoning, to be more precise.
- I am
sorry if you were offended by my argument.
- And now you heap further offense upon me by implying that
I could be offended by a mere argument, removing any causality for offense from
you, by stating that any offense is my subjective perception only. But we shall
never get anywhere this way. I merely wish to express a certain frustration
that I have with people who start by being offensive, who then pretend the
offense is only the subjective perception of their victim. Let me start by
asking you on what grounds you find the senses deficient. Are our eyes
deficient because they do not see X-rays or infrared, and so on – and are our
ears faulty because they hear less than a dog’s ears?
senses are deficient, my friend, because they promote limited, fragmentary
information, which often does more to misinform than to enlighten the mind.
- All right, let us start here. Are the senses deficient in
what they process, or what they do not process? In other words, I certainly
accept that our eyes do not see everything that could be perceived in the
universe – that is a limitation, of course. My question is: Are the eyes also
deficient in what they do see?
- I do
- When I look at a tree, I see the outside of the tree on
the side I am facing. I do not see the heat signal of the tree, I do not see
the history of the tree, I do not see inside the tree, and so on. My eyes and
perspective are certainly limited. My question is: Are the senses faulty
because they are incomplete, or because they are inaccurate even in what they
can process? In other words, I cannot see inside the tree, but do I accurately
perceive the bark on the outside of the tree that I am facing?
believe that the senses are incomplete, and also that they are inaccurate in
what they do perceive.
- All right, thank you. Since we both agree that the senses
are incomplete, we will put that aside for now. Can you tell me in what way the
senses are inaccurate in what they do perceive?
when you look at a tree, you only see what the light reveals, at your
particular angle, and in the level of detail your eyes allow.
- Yes, I certainly accept that the eyes are limited. They do
not see at the atomic level, and they do not operate in the absence of light –
but is what they do perceive accurate?
- I am
not sure what you mean by the word “accurate.”
- Excellent, let us define our terms. In this context,
“accurate” means the eyes provide a true portrayal of things in the world,
given the limitations of detail and spectrum and so on.
your big value-add to the definition is to provide a synonym?
- Now it is I who do not follow.
you say that the word “accurate” is defined by the word “true,” which does not
seem to add much to the conversation.
- A good point. Here, let me grab a cup and draw a circle by
tracing the top turned over on the table. Now, when you look at what I have
drawn, do you see it as a circle?
is actually quite a complicated question.
- I agree.
- It is
certainly not a perfect circle, would you agree?
- I would agree. A perfect circle cannot be delineated in
the world, using material objects, since there will always be ragged edges and
imperfect rotations, and so on. A perfect circle can only be described
mathematically, not manifested materially. In that, I quite agree with you that
the senses are imperfect relative to concepts – however, just because something
is imperfect does not mean that it is the same as everything else.
- Well, is there such a thing as perfectly clean water?
- Of course – perfectly clean water is expressed in science
as two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Water does exist in the world in
this form, of course – it is the essence of water, so to speak – but it is
always mixed with other materials to one degree or another. However, the fact
that there is no such thing as perfectly clean water does not mean that all
imperfections are the same. If I hand you two glasses of water – one from the
tap, the other from a muddy puddle – which would you drink?
would drink the tap water.
- Good. Accuracy, in other words, is not a binary
proposition – the senses are not either valid or invalid, but inhabit a kind of
continuum, wherein they can approach accuracy, or move further away. An archer
can never hit the exact centre of a bull’s-eye with his arrow, but that does not
mean there is no difference between an archer who hits the red and an archer
who misses the target completely.
makes sense to me. However, the senses can easily fool us, in the case of
optical illusions, mirages and so on.
- Let me ask you something. Have you ever tried to take a
picture, but then realized you left the lens cap on the camera?
course, although these days it is more of a thumb on the cell phone camera
- Would you say that the camera is not working if you leave
the lens cap on?
- No, I
would not say that.
- I would not either, for the same reason that I do not
complain of blindness every time I close my eyes. My eyes are functioning; they
are just covered by my eyelids. In the same way, when we stand on a set of
train tracks, the rails look like they are joining together in the distance,
when we know they are actually running parallel, because they would be unusable
if they merged together.
the senses are faulty.
- Are they? Do the eyes inform me directly that the train
tracks merge together?
- I am
not sure what you mean.
- Let us suppose I am hiking in some distant woods, and I
think I hear the growl of a bear. My heart starts pounding and my palms become
sweaty – but then it turns out I am just hungry and it is my stomach that is
is quite an appetite!
- Is it the fault of my ears that I thought a bear was
- But my ears are just organs of receptivity – they do not
know anything about bears or the woods or anything like that – because these are
all concepts, which only really exist in my mind.
without entering into the truly thorny woods of concept formation, I agree.
- So, it is not in my ears that the idea of “bear” arises,
but rather in my mind. In the same way, if I am sitting in a hotel room and
think it has started to thunder outside, but it turns out it is just guests in
the upstairs room moving furniture around, the concept of “thunder” and
“furniture” do not exist in my ears, but rather in my mind.
you saying that the senses can never make mistakes?
- My, my – you really are a big fan of binary absolutes,
aren’t you? The question here is: Which organ is making the mistake? In the
above examples, it is not the senses, but the brain that is making the mistake
– thinking that the stomach’s growl is a bear’s growl, and that the moving
furniture is thunder in the sky. This is not the fault of the ears, which are
accurately transmitting vibrations in the air – this is the fault of the mind,
which is drawing erroneous conclusions from the raw data provided by the
but listen – a man who is colour-blind sees only shades of grey, when there are
in fact vibrant colours – this is not the fault of his brain, but rather of his
- Certainly, I agree – and the reason that we have the word
“colour-blind” is because it is a deficiency in the eyes relative to the
capacity of eyes in general. We do not really have the concept of “X-ray
blind,” because human beings do not have the capacity to see X-rays directly.
The fact that certain senses are faulty does not invalidate the senses as a
whole – we know they are faulty because they do not possess the capacities of
senses in general. A man in a wheelchair does not invalidate the fact that men
in general walk.
I can see that.
- Now, I am not saying that the senses are always perfectly
accurate or that they can see everything – but I am saying there is reliability
in what the senses can perceive.
Your argument would be much stronger if we had only one sense to work with.
However, we can walk down the abandoned train tracks and see that the rails
never do in fact touch together. In this way, we understand a rational
limitation of our senses – our eyes, in this case – and that our idea that the
rails come closer together is false.
a moment – what do you mean by saying “rational limitation”? Are you saying
that the eyes are designed for some rational purpose, by some rational being?
- Not at all. In our evolution, it was highly advantageous
for our eyes to focus on that which was closer, rather than further away.
Picking apples was more important to us than seeing a distant tree, and so the
fact that the apple appears bigger to us makes perfect sense.
that is my point – you have put it precisely! Our sense organs are designed to
serve our survival, rather than the truth.
- This seems to posit the idea that our survival has nothing
to do with an accurate perception of things in the world, such as food and
shelter and predators – is that what you mean to say?
almost all organisms have some capacity to perceive the world. That does not
mean they are in possession of the truth.
- Very true. The relationship between concepts and the
senses – conceptualization being a unique human capacity, as far as we know –
is rich and complicated, but is not directly necessary for the resolution of
this discussion. The question before us is: Are the senses valid? If the
standard of validity is a perfect perception of every aspect of matter and
energy in the universe, then we have an impossible standard to achieve. It is
like asking if a man is intelligent relative to omniscience. Referring back to
the circle I drew earlier, it is certainly not a perfect circle – in that we
completely agree – but would you ever look at it and say that it is a square,
or a spiral, or a dodecahedron?
assuming the conventions of language.
- Is it closer to a perfect circle than a square or a
I suppose so.
- You are hedging, which defies what you just said, which is
that you would never look at my circle and say that it was a square or a
spiral. But let that pass. Now, if you and I are standing in a field, and I
point at a boulder and call it a “tree,” am I correct?
if it is a boulder that has been carved into the shape of a tree?
- That is clever, but that would still not be a tree, which
is why you had to refer to it as “a boulder that has been carved into the shape
of a tree.” Again, assuming the conventions of language, would I be correct to
call a boulder a tree?
you would not be correct.
- There are things I can say about a tree that are on a
continuum. If I say a particular tree is “tall,” that is a somewhat relative
statement. It could be a tall bonsai, or a short redwood. However, there is no
continuum between a boulder and a tree – that, I grant you, is binary.
Something is either a boulder, or a tree, or something else – it is never
- I am
going to say nothing about petrified wood.
- I appreciate that. When I talk about a tree or a boulder,
I am talking about the atomic structure of such objects. Even though I cannot
see the atoms directly, they form the basis of the aggregation of matter that
impacts on my eyeballs through light waves. Different atoms result in different
objects. Just as there is no continuum between a carbon atom and a hydrogen
atom, there is no continuum between a boulder and a tree, correct?
could be, if you measure weight or mass or height – these are characteristics
that they would both possess.
- That is true, but incomplete.
- Well, height or weight or mass are measures common to all
aggregations of matter. They would not be on a continuum between a boulder and
a tree, but would rather be characteristics of all mass.
- So, in their capacity to accurately provide the
information necessary for my brain to distinguish between a boulder and a tree,
is it fair to say that my eyes are accurate?
are accurate, I think you are correct, but they are still incomplete.
- Incomplete – relative to what?
to all the available information in the world.
- I do not see how it is rational to use a yardstick
entirely out of range of the capacities of what you are measuring. Do I call a
man illiterate because he has not read every printed word in human history? Do
I call a man deaf because he cannot hear a dog whistle or Roger Taylor’s
falsetto? More importantly, do I call a man blind because he cannot see
infrared? This seems like a silly and irresponsible standard, to hold
everything finite as inconsequential according to a yardstick of infinity. A
man who lives for only one-fifth of a natural human lifespan dies young. Saying
everyone dies young because they should all live to be a thousand does not
really add much to human knowledge or wisdom, would you say?
senses are still limited, though.
- Well, something is limited around here. All right, let me
ask you this, so we can devolve from abstractions to the immediate. You say
that the senses are faulty, correct?
- Now, in the sentence “The senses are faulty,” which word
falls short of perfection?
- I do
- In order to communicate your argument that the senses are
faulty, you must use my hearing to process your words. What is the perfect form
of the sentence “The senses are faulty,” and in what way does that sentence,
when communicated through the senses, fall short of that perfection?
not following, sorry.
- If you write down on a piece of paper the sentence “The
senses are faulty,” then each word would not be perfect, each letter would not
be perfect, but in what way are the concepts that are communicated imperfect or
faulty? In other words, when I drew the circle, the circle was imperfect – in
what way is the concept that the circle represents faulty?
- I do
not see that it is.
- Exactly. If I put two ping-pong balls in front of you and
use them to illustrate that one and one make two, the ping-pong balls are not
perfect – they are slightly different sizes and shapes and weights and colours
and so on – but they transfer the concept that one and one make two perfectly,
would you not say so?
think so, but I am still trying to follow.
- I understand. You rely on the senses to transfer concepts
and arguments to me – in this case, my hearing – in other examples, my sight.
All the senses are incomplete, you say, or imperfect – but that is not the real
issue. The real issue is whether perfect concepts can be transmitted through an
imperfect medium. If we are talking over a bad phone connection and I tell you
it is raining where I am, this does not tell you how hard it is raining, or
which way the wind is blowing, but you do perfectly comprehend the concept of
rain, despite the poor communication and limited information. And the reason I
am talking about all of this is because if we cannot communicate concepts using
our imperfect and incomplete senses, then we cannot engage in debates at all.
In other words, by engaging in a debate with me, you are assuming that
incomplete senses can accurately transmit concepts. You are telling me that my
senses are faulty – this requires that my senses be accurate enough for you to
transmit your argument to me. Now, if my senses are actually faulty, you should
not use them to transmit your argument, any more than I should drive
confidently across a bridge I know has half-collapsed. If you do rely on the
accuracy of my senses to communicate an argument about the senses, then denying
their validity is self-contradictory.
think I see your point.
- If there is no better medium for communicating arguments
than the senses, then the senses are good enough. If there is a better medium,
I await your psychic conversation.
idea that ethics are scientific or objective is a laughable notion, only
sustainable through a back-alley ignorance of the proliferation of ethical
theories throughout the world, not to mention throughout history. Every tribe
has its own gods, its own moral absolutes and its own superstitions.
- I see – and is it your perspective that every ethical
statement is subjective?
course, that is what I just said.
- Then are the statements you are making about ethics also
- Arguing that ethics are subjective is making an objective
statement about ethics.
true at all – if I say artistic taste is subjective, I am not making an
objective statement about artistic taste – I am confining it to the category
- You are making an objective statement about artistic taste
– you are saying all artistic taste is subjective. In other words, you are not
saying that only some artistic taste is subjective. Let me ask it another way –
is it your subjective opinion that ethics are always subjective, or is it an
- It is
an objective fact.
- Excellent – now is it better or worse to have opinions
that are true, as opposed to opinions that are false?
if they are true, they are not really opinions, are they?
- Well said. Is it better to believe things that are true?
- In other words, it is universally preferable to believe
true things, rather than false things.
- I am
churning my brain trying to think of exceptions to that rule, since I have a
deep aversion to universality, because it is so easily broken with a single
exception. Yes, I can think of one – if a man is dying from a car crash and his
wife and child have been killed, is it better to tell him the truth before he
dies, or to pretend that they have been saved?
- I do not think it matters what happens in the last moments
is not an argument.
- Tell me, do you think it is important to eat in a healthy
- Do you think it is important for a prisoner condemned to
execution to have a healthy last meal?
- I see
- I assume you would not also suggest he spend his last few
minutes on this earth exercising, although I am sure that you would agree that exercise
is important in life. We can all think of exceptions – or at least what seem
like exceptions – to general rules, but this does not necessarily invalidate
the rules completely. It is a bad idea to drive significantly over the speed
limit, unless you are being chased by criminals or fleeing a tsunami, or are
bleeding out from a bad cut. I think we can safely say it is generally better
to believe true things, rather than false things, would you agree?
us say that I grant you conditional agreement.
- I will take that for now. If it is better to believe true
things, then those who tell you true things – who are honest – are acting in a
better manner, are they not?
me think about that for a moment.
- There is not much need, I think. If believing true things
is better, then liars lead people away from believing true things, which is
worse behaviour. If truth is universally preferable to falsehood, then those
who serve truth are universally preferable to those who serve lies. We cannot propose
a universally preferable state – truth – and then be indifferent to those who
facilitate that state, or who interfere with it. I cannot argue that health is
better than sickness, and then be indifferent to a poisoner. If health is
better than sickness, then those who serve health are better than those who
would seem to follow.
- Thank you – now, what is your definition of ethics?
people believe they should do.
- I am not sure that is complete enough – or perhaps it is
too broad. If you talk to people, they believe they should floss and brush
their teeth, wouldn’t you say?
- Would you say that flossing and brushing your teeth falls
under the category of ethics?
would not say that, although I could not say exactly why.
- It does seem different than knocking someone else’s teeth
- I am not inflicting injury on someone else if I fail to
brush my teeth, but I am if I knock their teeth out.
but this is my problem with most ethical discussions. This difference may feel right, and it may be hard to
imagine society operating without this distinction, but none of these are
actual arguments – they are appeals to feelings and sentimentality and history
and culture and momentum.
- I agree – the fact that brushing versus hitting feels different is not an argument, but
we should not be indifferent to our instincts about this difference. Our
instincts can have important ramifications for rational arguments – they are
not proof, but they can spur our ambition to understand deep and complex
right, I appreciate that admission – it is rare, when speaking of these issues.
- I am not going to pretend at all that these questions are
easy to answer – and also, I am not going to pretend that there is necessarily
- Now, do ethics in general speak about what people do, or what they think?
generally deal with actions, not thoughts.
- I agree. Now, the actions that ethics deal with, are they
words, or deeds?
generally deal with deeds, not words. There are exceptions, such as shouting
“fire” in a crowded theatre.
- That is true, but if you shout “fire” in an empty theatre,
no one has any problem with that – it is not the word “fire” that is the issue,
but rather the resulting panic and flight and destruction, if there is in fact
- I think it is fair to say that the word “good” refers to
deeds, whereas the word “right” refers to thoughts or words or arguments. We
think of good and evil deeds, and right and wrong thoughts or arguments.
is the common conception. I agree with that as well.
- I will use the word “behaviour” when talking about ethics
since the word “deed” has more than one meaning.
- Now, if we define ethics as “universally preferable
behaviour,” then we have a starting point for our examination.
- I do
not mind the convention at all, as long as you recognize that definitions are
- Totally true and understood. Now, we must first ask the
question: Is universally preferable behaviour a valid concept or proposition?
In other words, is there any such thing as “universally preferable behaviour”?
It certainly does not exist in the world in the way that a tree or a cloud
does, so UPB must exist within the mind only.
agree with that as well.
- Now, the fact that it exists only in the mind does not
necessarily make it subjective or invalid. A mathematical equation exists only
in the mind – the scientific method itself exists only in the mind, not in
empirical reality – but this does not mean that mathematics and science are
subjective or invalid. A blueprint is not a bridge, but this does not mean that
a blueprint is a purely subjective or invalid or irrelevant document. Would you
- So, first we must ask: Are there any behaviours that could
possibly be universally preferable? Please note this does not mean universally preferred – preferable means “able to
be chosen,” not “always chosen.”
cannot think of any behaviours that could be universally preferable.
- Does this mean you wish to argue against the validity of
universally preferable behaviours?
know, I really think I do. Wait a minute – I am just thinking… I am trying to
find a way to argue against UPB without requiring UPB.
- That is quite a challenge, I admit.
- If I
tell you there is no such thing as UPB…
- Exactly. You require UPB in order to deny UPB.
you break that out for me a little bit please?
- Of course. If you tell me there is no such thing as UPB,
you are making a universal statement that no one should enact the behaviour of
advocating for UPB. In other words, you are saying that it is universally
preferable behaviour to reject the validity of universally preferable
is remarkable! I – I am having trouble formulating an argument against what you
- Now, you are beginning to see the power of UPB. It is
impossible to argue against it without saying that truth is universally
preferable to error, and that it is universally preferable to speak the truth,
rather than speak falsehood. This dovetails nicely into what we were talking
about earlier. Actually, this is very good news. Now that we have established
that UPB is a valid concept – or at least, we have established that it is
impossible to argue against it without invoking it – we have crossed a major
hurdle, and now all we need to do is figure out which behaviours can be
is quite a Rubicon – I feel that I am in uncharted territory, very radical
- It is a terrible thing, when you think about it, how radical
mere consistency actually is in the world. Nothing is more revolutionary than
consistency. Shall we continue?
- I am
quite excited – I had meant to oppose you tooth and nail, but I find myself
swept up in this idea.
- Thus we must remember to be cautious, since enthusiasm is
quite often more a friend to ideology than to truth. Shall we begin?
- To take the concept of UPB one word at a time, the first
word is “universally” – which is not an accident. If no behaviours are in fact
universally preferable, then we have no right to ever correct another human
being, or to use accurate words to describe objects or concepts, or to reply
directly to the person who has made an argument, or to do anything that makes
any kind of sense. The power of universality is the power to correct. Without
universality, a “debate” is the mere imposition of manipulative will. Anyone
who tells you that you are wrong and attempts to correct your viewpoint,
accepts UPB entirely.
certainly follow that.
- The second word is “preferable,” which in itself does not
primarily refer to behaviours that should
be chosen, but rather those that can
be chosen. If a behaviour cannot be universally preferable to human beings,
then it cannot fall under the umbrella of UPB. “Universally preferable” must
refer to something that can be chosen by everyone, at all times, and under all
circumstances. Do you agree?
- I do
agree. If I say that something is universally preferable, that is either my
opinion, or it is an objective argument. If it is my opinion, then it cannot be
universal. If it is an objective argument, then I cannot reject either
objectivity or universality. If I say that I like dogs, this is a statement of
personal preference, not an objective argument about the nature of dogs. If I personally prefer dogs, it is not
incumbent or binding upon you to
prefer dogs as well. However, if I say that dogs are warm-blooded, that is a
statement of objective fact.
- Right. And if we say that it is universally preferable to
reject objective facts, we are saying that it is an objective fact that it is
universally preferable to reject objective facts, which is a self-contradictory
statement. Shall I go on?
- The third word is “behaviour.” This refers to measurable
actions that occur within empirical and objective reality – a definition that
is entirely to be expected, since UPB refers to objective universals. Thoughts
cannot be objectively measured or ascertained in the absence of the objective
behaviour that transmits those thoughts in empirical reality. We cannot read
minds, but we can read a book. When I speak or write – or hand gesture – I am
converting my thoughts into an objective medium. Please note that this does not
mean that all my thoughts are objective – I could say, for instance, that I
like ice cream, which is not an objective claim. However, the words I use to
express my preference for ice cream do exist in the objective world.
- Also, there is another important reason to talk about
behaviours rather than thoughts, which is that we have almost infinitely more
control over our behaviours than our thoughts.
- I am
reminded of the old story about the man who is commanded to sit on a
mountaintop all night and to not think of an elephant.
- Exactly. Ethics require at least a minimal level of
self-control. If a man accidentally strikes another man while in the throes of
an unforeseen epileptic fit, we do not blame the first man morally or charge
him with assault. We treat it as an unfortunate accident, since he does not
have control over his limbs in that moment.
- So, when we talk about UPB, we are really talking about
behaviours that are possible for all human beings to choose simultaneously.
This is why, in UPB, positive action cannot be a requirement for ethical
behaviour, since it is impossible for all human beings to perform a positive
action all the time, everywhere. If we say that it is universally moral to give
to the poor, this cannot pass the test of UPB, since it requires both gift
givers and gift takers, which are not the same category at all. Also, it is
impossible to give to the poor while one is sleeping or in a coma – and if we
give everything to the poor, we then become poor, and we are then in need of
the opposite action, which is not to give, but to receive.
you saying that it is immoral to give to the poor?
- Certainly not – there are positive behaviours that are
preferable, just not universally preferable. It is preferable to be on time,
but it is not universally preferable to be on time, since we are not all
perpetually arriving at an appointment. We can certainly make the case that it
is preferable to give to the poor, but it cannot be universally preferable to
give to the poor, for the reasons described above.
see. Do all behaviours fall into the category of preferable or universally
- No. While it is true that every action taken by a human
being is an action he or she prefers, it is not the case that individual
preferences can be extrapolated to generally preferable, or universally
preferable. I prefer to listen to a particular piece of music while I write –
this does not mean that listening to music, or a particular piece of music, is
generally preferable while writing – or even that writing is generally
preferable. When you are reading, you are not writing – and there would be
little point writing if there were no readers.
there a consistent way to delineate between personally preferable, generally
preferable, and universally preferable?
- Once we understand that ethics are a relationship, rather
than a commandment, these differences become much easier to understand.
do you mean?
- Can a man be evil if he is alone on a desert island?
don’t know. Foolish perhaps. Lazy. But not evil. No.
- I agree. Evil is done unto others, not to nature, and not
to oneself alone.
- That is not evil. Tragic, destructive to the happiness of
others, but not evil. If a man destroys a stranger’s car, that is the
destruction of property and it is immoral. If he destroys his own car, we do
not call him evil and he is not prosecuted. The same is true of a human life.
- So –
is there a consistent way to delineate between personally preferable, generally
preferable, and universally preferable?
- Since ethics only manifest in relationships, we need to
look at the question of reciprocity. Reciprocity is the extension of personally
preferable actions to mutually preferable actions. It is more of an obligation
than a commandment.
- I do
- Tell me – are you obligated to lend money to a stranger?
- Are you obligated to lend money to a friend who has
himself lent you money in the past?
more so than a stranger.
- Right – if you have a rule called “friends lend each other
money” – and you have taken advantage of this rule in the past by borrowing
from your friend, then refusing to lend your friend money is breaking the rule.
It is not a contract, so not enforceable, but it is a mutually preferable
action, in that it is not a universal rule, but a privilege earned between
- I see.
- Personally preferable actions do not involve reciprocity.
Mutually preferable actions imply local reciprocity, and universally preferable
behaviours are commandments that enforce universal reciprocity, such as: I
respect your property and person, while you respect mine. For example, flossing
my teeth does not involve reciprocity, while punching someone else’s teeth out
rejects reciprocity. I want to punch someone; my victim does not want to be
punched. I can see by your face that this is not a proof, and I quite agree
- I am
glad I did not have to say it.
- If I wake up and choose to listen to a piece of music,
this is my personally preferable action. If you and I agree to meet for lunch
at noon, we have created a mutual expectation of reciprocity, which is that we
will both meet at noon or close to it. If I help you move to a new house, it is
with a reasonable expectation that you might perform a similar favour for me
one day. We choose to interact with each other, and neither of us is imposing
our behaviours on the other.
if I am late for our lunchtime meeting, I am forcing you to wait.
- I do not agree – you aren’t forcing me to do anything,
because I can stay or leave as I see fit. Also, I have voluntarily entered into
the arrangement to meet you at noon.
no direct coercion is involved.
- Exactly. If you are repeatedly late for our appointments,
I can stop being your friend, or at least stop arranging to meet you at a
certain time. If I keep doing you favours, but you keep rejecting my request for
favours, I can just stop doing you favours – no one has coerced me into
if someone robs you…
- Then we are in an entirely different situation. There is
neither an implicit nor explicit contract, and I am not free to do as I choose.
By pointing a gun at me and demanding my wallet, the thief is imposing his
violent will upon me.
though, could not stealing be universally preferable behaviour?
- No, because stealing is taking someone’s property against
his will. If stealing is universally preferable behaviour, then I want the thief to take my wallet.
However, if I want the thief to take
my wallet, he is not stealing from me. If I put a table on my front lawn, by
the road, with a sign that says “Take Me,” then I cannot reasonably call
someone a thief for taking the table. In other words, it is not theft if I want
my property to be removed. If you rip my jacket from my shoulders and run away,
I could call you a thief. However, if my jacket is on fire and I beg you to rip
it off me, the same standard can scarcely be applied. When you think about it,
the same holds true for rape, assault and murder. None of these can be
universally preferable behaviours, because they only occur when one person
wishes an activity to happen, while the other person strenuously does not wish for that activity to happen,
as in the case of rape. “Consensual rape” is an oxymoron, because rape only
occurs when sexual activity is not wanted by the victim. When you think about
ethics, they always exist at the coercive intersection of opposing desires.
theoretically, we could say that imposing desires could be UPB.
- We cannot, though. If all human beings have the right to
impose their desires on other human beings, then each imposition cancels out
the other impositions. If I have a desire to take $10,000 from you, while you
have the desire to keep your $10,000 – but it is universally preferable
behaviour to impose desires on others – then my desire to take your money
collides with your desire to keep your money, and the principle cannot be
- I am
astounded – could it really be that simple?
- Outside of propaganda, you would really be surprised how
simple virtue really is.
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.
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
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.
extravagant your trash talking of your opponent, the more your cowardice is
revealed when you refuse to fight him.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
 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.