Charles Dodgson, Modus Ponens, Achilles, and the Tortoise

Charles Dodgson, probably better known to most by his pen name Lewis Carroll and his books Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, was a logician and mathematician at Oxford University.  The Alice books are actually wonderfully full of logical puzzles and paradoxes, and I have heard the claim made that the reason that everyone in Wonderland is insane, is precisely because they are all perfectly logical, within their own parameters.

I want to talk about something else today, though.  At one point, Dodgson wrote a short dialogue between swift-footed Achilles and the Tortoise, sometime after Achilles, impossibly, has caught up with the Tortoise and is riding on his back.  For some reason, the conversation has turned to a discussion of the modus ponens, the logical validity of which Achilles is trying to persuade the Tortoise.

Modus ponens is one of the most basic valid argument schemata in logic.  It goes as follows:

  1. P ⇒ Q
  2. P
  3. ∴ Q

Or “If P then Q ; P ; therefore, Q”.

It is a very elementary form of inference.  So elementary, in fact, that it presents an interesting problem, which Dodgson brings to our attention.


Achilles has proposed to the Tortoise that modus ponens is a valid form of inference. The Tortoise, however, has an objection.

“Does premise 1, that P implies Q, prove that Q?” asks the Tortoise.

Achilles replies that premise 1 alone does not prove Q.

“Does premise 2, P, just by itself, prove that Q?” ask the Tortoise.

Achilles again admits, correctly, that premise 2, P just by itself, does not prove Q.

Achilles explains with great patience to the (seemingly) slow Tortoise, that it is by having premise 1, P implies Q, together with premise 2,  P, that one may validity infer that Q.  Both premises are needed to validly infer Q. Or, to put in another way, only the two premises together logically entail Q.

“I see,” replies the Tortoise. “You are saying that neither premise 1 nor premise 2 can allow you to validly infer Q.  You need both. But this ‘both’ is contained neither in premise 1 nor in premise 2.  But if it is necessary for the argument to be valid, then it must be a part of the argument.  So, really, you are proposing a premise 3, which would state that “premise 1 together with premise 2 imply Q”, or ((P ⇒ Q) & P) ⇒ Q; giving us:

  1. P ⇒ Q
  2. P
  3. ((P ⇒ Q) & P) ⇒ Q
  4. ∴ Q

Achilles agrees to this.  What is needed to arrive at Q is premise 1, premise 2, AND their conjunction, which is now premise 3.

The Tortoise says, “This is very good, but it seems to me I see a problem. You see, as we have already established, neither premise 1 nor premise 2 prove that Q.  But premise 3 doesn’t do it either, since it is an hypothetical implication (like premise 1). Premise 3 can only prove that Q in conjunction with premise 1 and premise 2.”

Achilles is forced to agree.

“Thus,” continues the Tortoise, “it is necessary to add a fourth premise, which will be the conjunction of the first three implying Q, namely “premise 1 and premise 2 together with premise 3 imply Q”, or ((P ⇒ Q) & P & ((P ⇒ Q) & P) ⇒ Q) ⇒ Q. Which yields:

  1. P ⇒ Q
  2. P
  3. ((P ⇒ Q) & P) ⇒ Q
  4. ((P ⇒ Q) & P & ((P ⇒ Q) & P) ⇒ Q) ⇒ Q
  5. ∴ Q

“But,” says the Tortoise, “it seems to me I still see a problem…”

Achilles groans, realizing that, unlike his catching up to the Tortoise, he cannot by mere speed escape this infinite regress of premises.


So what is Dodgson on about here?

I think the moral is a simple one. Dodgson is reminding us of one of the limits of what the Greeks call διάνοια, which we can translate as discursive reason, discursive rationality, discursivity, or simply as logical reasoning. This is the kind of reasoning that proceeds in a step by step fashion through a series of premises to reach a conclusion.

Normally, we say that if the premises are true, and the conclusion validly follows from the premises, then the the conclusion has been proven.  This is, in deductive reasoning, what a proof is.  And it is the gold standard of proof, since it yields certainty, unlike, say an argument which provides only proof beyond a reasonable doubt or by the preponderance of evidence.

However, Dodgson is showing us that any discursive argument can have its validity challenged by demanding yet another discursive link to “prove” that the offered discursive links are really connected in such a way that anything follows from them. Because a discursive proof is made up of discrete steps, one can always, in principle, demand that the “gap” between any two steps be proven by the addition of additional “bridging” premises—which of course by adding steps, create more gaps, which one can then insist be filled with yet more premises.  The very nature of a discursive proof allows this, since such a proof is not a continuous quantity, like a line, but a series of discrete steps.  This procedure can be repeated mechanically and indefinitely.  In one way, it is merely a trick on the order of endlessly repeating “But why?”

But it is more than that.  It shows us something the Greeks knew very well, which we moderns have largely forgotten (but which Dodgson knew, since he studied the Greeks), namely, that the discursive reason, the διάνοια, depends on a higher kind of reason or understanding, namely the νοῦς or νόησις (in its verbal form).  It is only by means of νοῦς/νόησις that we are able to directly apprehend the truthfulness of something evident. The vid- in “evidence” seems from seeing, and the Greek word for “knowledge” is the past participle of “to see”, so “to have seen.”  One knows when one is in a state of having seen.

  1. P ⇒ Q
  2. P
  3. ∴ Q

How do we know modus ponens is valid? We cannot prove it is, discursively. We simply see that it is, by means of our intellectual sight: νοῦς/νόησις.  Any normal human being sees that,

  • IF it is true that
  • 1 IF P is true, THEN Q is true
  • AND
  • 2 P is true
  • THEN
  • 3 Q is true.

This is almost a paradigmatic case of the self-evident. Something is self-evident on the condition that anyone who understands it, understands at the same time it is necessarily true.  (The self-evident should not be confused with the obvious; some things are very hard to understand, but have the character such that, once understood, they are also understood to be necessarily true—e.g. the identity of essence and existence in God).

The apprehension of self-evident truth by means of νοῦς/νόησις applies to all the ἀρχαὶ or first principles.  The basic laws of logic, for example, cannot be discursively proven.  Not because they are questionable, but because they are too basic to question, because any and every possible discursive proof already rests implicitly upon them, such as:

  • The law of noncontradiction: ~(A & ~A). “A thing cannot both be and not be the same at the same time and in the same respect.”
  • The law of identity: A = A. “A thing is what it is and not anything else.”
  • The law of difference: A v ~A.  “A thing and its contradictory divide reality exhaustively.”

This is why Aristotle says: “It is a sign of uneducatedness (ἀπαιδευσία) to demand a demonstration [discursive proof] of everything.”

It is not a bad thing to ask for demonstrations where demonstrations or proofs are possible, but it is nonsense to demand proofs of things which are not susceptible to proof by virtue of their simplicity and self-evident nature.  If you don’t believe me, try to prove in a non-question-begging way that anything can be proven, ever.  Or try to “prove” anything to an interlocutor who simply asks you to prove every premise you make use of in any proof.  It should be clear that both are impossible: to “prove” proof would be circular, and hence, no proof at all, even if it could be done; and the second results in an infinite regress, such that the proof never comes to an end, so nothing is ever proven.

Since the Enlightenment, modernity has tended to reject νοῦς/νόησις (in ever decaying steps: Descartes’ “clear and distinct perception” is his version of it; Kant denies we have an “intellectual intuition” but seems remarkably able to “see” the structures of pure reason which precede all experience—not to mention his uncanny ability to discover such things as the thing-in-itself and the transcendental unity of apperception).

But without its grounding in νοῦς/νόησις, διάνοια becomes ungrounded; discursive rationality breaks down into pure discursivity, inevitably becoming a kind of free-floating talk about talk about talk—which is to say, sophistry.  Which, as we would say it today, is postmodernism.

We moderns have picked up a bad habit of thinking that God’s creation of the cosmos was an event that happened “back then” in time, maybe the first event, but this is false in two ways.  Firstly, time itself is a creature; it belongs to the created world as part of its intrinsic structure.  The “in the beginning” or ΕΝ ἀρχῇ of the Scriptures does not refer to a temporal beginning, but an absolute ontological beginning. God is the absolute source, ἀρχή, of all things.  And it is also the case, as many theologians and philosophers have pointed out, that God’s creation of the world is not a “one and done” event, but an ongoing event. Without God’s constant donation of being to all things, they could not, of their own power, remain in being; they lack the power to do so.  God’s creation of the world is not like a mechanic’s fabrication of a machine (as Enlightenment deism tended to conceptualize it), but much more like a musician’s playing a song, or a poet’s recitation of a poem, or a storyteller’s telling his story: when the musician ceases playing, the music stops; when the poet ceases speaking, the poem stops; when the storyteller ceases telling, the story stops.

Why this little foray into theology? Because the real point Dodgson was making, and that I am making in this post is this: that νοῦς/νόησις has a relation to διάνοια/discursive rationality which in analogous to that between God and creation. νοῦς/νόησις, noētic sight, provides διάνοια/discursive reasoning not only with the ἀρχαὶ/first principles of logic and reasoning, but is present at every step taken in the course of dianoēic/discursive reasoning: every step must be, at each point, noētically seen to be valid; otherwise, it remains a logical leap, and therefore not reasoning at all.

This twofold nature of reasoning  yields the twofold nature of philosophy.  As Socrates enjoined us, we must always follow the λόγος, that is, our dianoēic/discursive reasoning; but at the same time, Socrates’ forever asks the question “What is it?”, a question that can only be answered, as he tells Menon, by looking: οὕτω δὴ καὶ περὶ τῶν ἀρετῶν: κἂν εἰ πολλαὶ καὶ παντοδαπαί εἰσιν, ἕν γέ τι εἶδος ταὐτὸν ἅπασαι ἔχουσιν δι᾽ ὃ εἰσὶν ἀρεταί, εἰς ὃ καλῶς που ἔχει ἀποβλέψαντα; “And so too surely, about the virtues: even if they are many and of all sorts, still they all have some one and the same form [ ἕν γέ τι εἶδος ] through which they are virtues and upon which one would somehow do well to focus one’s gaze.”

Philosophy is a dialectic of seeing and saying, that is, of νόησις of the εἰδή and of λόγον διδόναι, giving a λόγος or a rational account.  First, one must see. Then one tries to say what it is one has seen. In trying to translate sight into speech, problems emerge that force one to look again.  And then to try to speak better.  But the ultimate goal is to see adequately.

If we cannot see what is there to be seen, we cannot say anything meaningful about reality. Our talk will be ungrounded in reality, and thus without truth value.  Speech which aims to be a true account of reality and not simply a story or narrative, a λόγος rather than a mere μῦθος, needs to be an account grounded in true sight of reality, νόησις.  This is the meaning of “evidence.” To have e-vid-ence (video , “to see”, cognate with the Greek ἰδέᾳ/εἶδος ) is to have “that which can be seen.”  Discursive arguments require evidence, and evidence is ultimately always a matter of sight, of νόησις.

And some see better than others.  So it is wise to study the thinking of the wise.

Patriarchy Challenge

Many Third Wave and contemporary academic feminists firmly believe in the existence of something called the Patriarchy. Patriarchy is typically understood as something which ought to be opposed and abolished, and many concrete social practices and norms are said by feminists to “belong to” or “be part of” Patriarchy.

I am skeptical about the existence of any such reality as Patriarchy.  As far as I can tell, “Patriarchy” is a concept that corresponds to no reality outside of feminist ideology, much like the concepts of “the Master Race” in Nazism or “the materialist dialectic of history” in Marxism.

Of course, if there is really such a reality as the Patriarchy, I would very much like to know this.

So, with that in mind, I have the following challenge to any feminist “Patriarchy” theorists willing to take it up:

  1. Please provide me with a clear and concrete definition of Patriarchy, preferably in terms of genus and species, and in particular, it terms that are not incredibly vague or more obscure than the thing you are trying to define. (Definitions which do not add clarity are worthless. It is sad that I have to say this.)
  2. Please show me beyond a reasonable doubt that Patriarchy as defined above actually exists in the modern Western world, by means of objective evidence and data, which cannot be accounted for alternate hypotheses.
  3. If you have shown me that a Patriarchy, as defined by you, does exist, then show me beyond a reasonable doubt that it a bad thing that justice requires us to oppose or eradicate. (I think, for example, Steven Goldberg makes a good case for the existence of one sort of patriarchy, but one which is entirely natural, is not unjust, and would be greatly harmful to human well-being to attempt to destroy.)

Infallibly, so far, every feminist Patriarchy theory I’ve encountered has broken down on one of these steps:

  • Either the definition offered is terminally vague or nonsensical, or
  • The definition is clear, but the thing defined does not actually exist, or
  • The definition is clear, the thing exists, but is natural, neutral, or benign.

I welcome any attempt to clearly make the case for a “Patriarchy” that is an evil thing that should be destroyed.



List of Reasons to Believe in God

So a Twitter friend of mine sent me this recently:

Believe IN

Which of course consisted in a large blank space.

Cute, but a non sequitur, and for fairly straightforward reasons:

1. Science studies nature. God, by definition, is beyond nature (φύσις): τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικὰ (meta ta phusika) to put it in Greek. That is to say, any reasoning which provides a demonstration of the existence of God will properly belong to the domain of metaphysics, not to the domain of physics or science.

2. Logic, taken by itself, is a purely formal discipline and cannot provide reason to believe in the existence of anything. The most logic can do is prove a negative existential by proving a concept to be self-contradictory—and even here this is possible only because the law of noncontradiction is a metaphysical truth. That is, it is an axiom of logic that ~(A & ~A) because the nature of reality is such that a thing cannot both be the same and not the same at the same time in the same respect.

So this silly meme is covertly appealing to a kind of scientism, the position that the only valid kind of knowledge is the kind produced by modern natural science. But scientism is both a silly claim (“no one knew anything before around 1600 A.D.”) and an untenable, self-refuting one: “The only valid kind of knowledge is scientific knowledge (assisted by logic)” can be demonstrated neither by science nor by logic. It is an epistemological claim about the status of knowledge, and of course, more basically, a metaphysical claim about what knowledge is and how it relates to reality.

As the great 20th century Thomist philosopher Etienne Gilson noted, “Metaphysics always buries its undertakers.” You cannot set out to proclaim a view of reality—unless you rely on sheer dogmatic assertion—without engaging in metaphysical argument nolens volens.  This principle of course applies especially to “anti-metaphysical” metaphysical positions: one and all, they are ways of trying to claim “The nature of reality is such that nothing can be claimed/said/known about the nature of reality,” a statement which is obviously, hilariously, self-refuting.

Need I point out, readers, that this silliness is also still confusing God with a god?

So, in honor of this silly meme, I thought I would give a


*This is a list of reasons to believe, not arguments. I am not attempting to make arguments here, so don’t start pointing out how the “arguments” are inadequate. Each of these reasons can be supported by argumentation, as appropriate. 

  1. The existence of change.  If anything changes, God exists. Thomas Aquinas proves this in the First Way in the Summa Theologiae.
  2. The existence of efficient causation.  If anything comes into being, it requires a cause.  Things can neither cause their own coming into being nor simply “pop” into being for literally no reason at all. But if cause and effect exist, God exists.  Thomas shows this in the Second Way.
  3. The existence of contingent beings. If any non-necessary beings exist, then God exists. This is the most powerful argument, but few are capable of really understanding it, unfortunately.
  4. The existence of degrees of perfection. If there exist traits which can be more or less perfect, there is a standard of perfection which must be exemplified, which is God. E.g. knowledge is more or less perfect; for this to be the case, there must be a being which is omniscient.  Thomas proves this in the Fourth Way.
  5. The existence of ends or τῆλε in nature.  If nature is ordered towards intrinsic ends, there must be an intelligence that has so ordered them, since only intelligence acts towards ordered ends.  Science has attempted for a long time, unsuccessfully, to make nature intelligible without appeal to τῆλε.  It doesn’t work.
  6. The fine-tuning of the universe.  One thing science is able to tell us about our universe is that it involves a large number of natural constants, such as Plancks’ constant and the gravitational constant—a fairly large number of such numbers that, as far as physics goes, could just as well be other than they are, but which just happen to be exactly the number that allows for the only sort of universe that permits life and thus human beings to exist.  It is as if we won the lottery millions of times in a row to have a universe in which we are capable of existing.  Of course, the move is always open to put down a series of astronomically improbable wins to pure chance.
  7. The wholeness of the universe. The universe is not just a collection of discrete parts.  Physics is capable of telling us that also. It acts, somehow, as a whole.  Bell’s Theorem, which is as well established as anything in physics, proves this.  But what accounts for the very wholeness or unity of the universe? It cannot be something in the universe, because that would be another item within the universe which would require an infinite number of relations relating relations, etc. Only something outside the whole can provide unity for the whole, with generating a vicious infinite regress.
  8. The existence of miracles.
  9. The existence of consciousness.
  10. The existence of objective truth.
  11. The existence of objective good and evil, i.e. of objective moral or ethical standards.
  12. The experience of God. Atheists may never have had such or may have managed in the grip of their ideology to talk themselves into thinking the experience was non-veridical, but very obviously an experience of God is an entirely sufficient reason to believe in God, regardless of arguments.  Saul did not become Paul on the road to Damascus because of a philosophical argument.  It was because he met and experienced the risen Christ.
  13. The consensus of humanity.  Almost all human beings at all times and all places have believed in what is recognizably God in one form or another (although details differ).  Either the vast, vast, vast, VAST majority of all human beings in all times and all places have been wrong about this, or they have not.  It is prima facie implausible they have been wrong. Thus the common consent of the human race is an argument for the plausibility of God as the best explanation of the near universal belief in God across all times, places, and cultures. I’m perfectly well aware that this is not a proof with deductive certainty, but an argument to the best explanation is not invalid.  To reject it, atheists have to make the case that at least some things commonly believed by almost all human beings are mistaken beliefs, systemic cognitive delusions.  And I’m aware they do make such arguments in the case of God, starting with Feuerbach, through Freud, to Dawkins.  But these arguments that just God is a delusion, and not, e.g. the existence of an external world, the existence of other minds, etc., smack of special pleading.  In fact, this is an argument that common human reason is highly fallible.  And so this is also an argument that itself provides a powerful reason to doubt all human reasoning, including the reasoning involved in this argument.
  14. The desire for complete happiness.  C. S. Lewis gives one version of the argument from desire, which is something like this: for every natural desire human beings possess, there is something answering to it: for thirst, there is drink, for hunger, food, for sexual desire, other humans with sexual desire, and so on.  (We are not considering learned desires, which are a different matter.  No one, by nature, desires e.g. a Rolls Royce.) Now, all human beings desire happiness, and not simply in a momentary or transitory way. Human beings desire happiness in way that surpasses any possible natural fulfillment, since at the very least our happiness will be cut off by death—and yet we have naturally, or intrinsically, a desire for a complete perfection of happiness.  So, argues Lewis, it is likely that this desire has a real object, capable of fulfilling this desire for perfect happiness, and this would be God. “Our hearts are restless, until they rest in Thee.”
  15. Everything. Literally everything is evidence of the existence of God. It is, only because He Is, or in His words,

                                                  “I AM.”

Empiricists Cannot Invoke “the Burden of Proof”

Most atheists are also empiricists, who insist on empirical, observational proof of the existence of God.  While it is true that this demand cannot be met, it is an unreasonable demand, since this is not the sort of evidence that is applicable to God, nor could it ever be shown that any particular natural event, no matter how unusual, was a miraculous intervention by empirical means.

It was recently pointed out to me, by an atheist empiricist, one Justin Dietz, that empiricists cannot coherently make use of the concept “the burden of proof,” since it is, as this gentleman points out, a “abstract idea,” not subject to observation or empirical proof:

“The concept of ‘proving’ where the burden of proof lies is not even a coherent idea. The burden of proof is an abstract idea, it does not actually exist [sic]. It is no more possible to be able to ‘prove’ anything about the “burden of proof” than it is to “prove” what a certain word means. In fact, that’s the exact problem. If I try to assert that the burden of proof, as a concept, has certain properties, you can just as easily assert that it does not. Since there is no actual entity of ‘the burden of proof’ whose properties we can observe and verify, there is no way to resolve this for certain.”

Thank you for this important observation, Justin.  I will reference you the next time an empiricist speaks to me of the burden of proof.  At the very least I will insist on how he refutes you and shows that we can talk meaningfully about it (at least if he wants to make use of it).

Socrates’ Three Epsilons, or The Three Traits Necessary to Be a Good Philosophical Interlocutor

In Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, Socrates speaks with three interlocutors in turn. First, he has a talk with Gorgias, the famous rhetorician. Next, he has a talk with one of Gorgias’ students, Pollus. And finally, he speaks to Callicles, the Athenian admirer of Gorgias in whose home the dialogue takes place. After Socrates has reduced Pollus to silence, catching him in contradiction and inconsistency as he usually does, Callicles leaps in to attack Socrates. Socrates replies to Callicles’ attack with his usual and famous irony: he states that he is very fortunate to have met someone like Callicles, since it is possible to have a fruitful philosophical dialogue only with a person who possesses three traits, and it is clear, says Socrates, that Callicles possesses all three. The irony, of course, is that none of Socrates’ conversations in the Gorgias are fruitful ones, since each of his interlocutors are defective in respect to the three traits named: Gorgias appears to possess two of the three necessary traits, Pollus one, and Callicles none. It is Socrates alone who possesses all three of the necessary traits.

What are the necessary traits for a fruitful and worthwhile philosophical dialogue, according to Socrates?

They are “the three epsilons”:           ἐπιστήμη           ἐλευθερία            εὔνοια

ἐπιστήμη (epistēmē) means “knowledge.” Socrates uses this term more loosely than Aristotle, and seems to mean here some degree of relevant knowledge about the subject at hand. It is fruitless to converse with persons who are very ignorant about the subject at hand or who are ignorant of things necessary and relevant to the discussion. For example, one who has very poor training in logic often cannot follow valid logical inferences or cannot understand why invalid inferences are invalid, since they seem reasonable to him.

ἐλευθερία (eleutheria) means “freedom,” and in context “free-spoken-ness” or “free in one’s speech.” It is the characteristic of a free human person to have the honesty and courage to say whatever seems to him to be true or to be the case, regardless of what he supposed to believe. Someone who will not openly and honestly say what he actually thinks or believes cannot be conversed with fruitfully. He will not offer his honest take on reality, but rather turn his mind to his appearance as a speaker, a give opinions which he does not truly hold on the basis of his own thinking (for example, to please onlookers). Those who lack ἐλευθερία are not “free”; they do not say what they really think, but what they think other people want to hear. This is the intellectual virtue, by the way, that Political Correctness utterly destroys, and why Political Correctness has no place in any education which calls itself liberal. To accommodate one’s speech to a social standard rather than to what seems to oneself to be true is to act not like a free man or woman, but a slave.

εὔνοια (eunoia) means “well-minded-ness,” and in context “good will towards one’s interlocutor.” Someone who engages in a discussion with εὔνοια is discussing in a friendly manner, joining another person with the mutual aim of finding out something the truth, if at all possible. Someone who lacks εὔνοια is not engaging in a dialogue, but in a contest or an attack, and his goal is not mutually finding the truth, but to defeat the person whom he regards not as a partner but an opponent.

While it is certainly possible to debate with someone lacking one or more of these traits, it is impossible to have a philosophical dialogue with them, in the fullest sense.

N.B. For those who are interested:

Gorgias seems to possess ἐλευθερία and εὔνοια. He seems to have very little philosophical desire to know.  He is quite content with his own power of rhetoric and is not the least troubled that Socrates shows him that some of his basic beliefs are contradictory.  He is not upset with Socrates (as many of Socrates’ interlocutors are)—probably because he has in a very real way given up on the possibility of knowing anything, probably as a consequence of his many, many years of using clever language to “prove” any point and its opposite.

Pollus possesses only ἐλευθερία.  He means Socrates ill, not well, and intends to demolish Socrates in argument, for having embarrassed his teacher Gorgias in public.  It is interesting that Pollus feels this affront much more than Gorgias himself, who seems unconcerned.  Nevertheless, Pollus is still willing to say what he really thinks, and so Socrates able to trap him in self-contradiction.

Callicles possesses none of the necessary virtues that Socrates names.  Socrates is technically unable to refute Callicles, for the simple reason that Callicles, as soon as he is in danger of being refuted, simply changes his original position for another; and then another; and then another. At one point, Callicles appeals to the audience, saying “All of these men do not agree with you Socrates!” Socrates replies, “I do not know whether all or any of these men disagree with me, o Callicles, but I do know that one man agrees with me: Socrates agrees with Socrates. And I know this too, that at least one man does not agree with you: Callicles does not agree with Callicles.”


Herostratic Fame

Have you ever dreamed of being famous?

Many people do, and some become obsessed with the idea.

On the night of the 21st of July, 356 B.C., Herostratus of Ephesus was up to no good. He was a completely undistinguished citizen of a city known primarily for it association with the Great Temple of Artemis,  one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, located in a sacred grove not far from the city.

Herostratus was an ordinary man, not notable in any way, and certainly not famous. But Herostratus was different from other “ordinary” men: he was not content to remain unknown. Soon, the whole world would know his name.  He would make sure.

Moving stealthily, Herostratus saturated the interior of the Great Temple with gallons of oil.  He was ready. He had been preparing for this night for a long time.  Once the interior and exterior of the Temple was thoroughly soaked, he set fire to it numerous places, inside and out. In a very short time, as he had planned, the fire was uncontrollable and the Great Temple of Artemis was doomed.

When the Ephesians rushed to burning Temple, Herostratus met them and proudly proclaimed his deed. He would be remembered as the man who burned down the Great Temple of Artemis, as the destroyer of one of the Wonders of the World. His name would be remembered.

Herostratus was executed for his arson, and the Ephesians, seeking to deny him the fame he craved, passed a law making it a capital crime ever to speak of him, his deed, or his name.  As such things do, however, this attempt to erase Herostratus from history only succeeded in generating interest in the mysterious secret the Ephesians did not want to talk about.  People began to ask, and it was not very long before someone talked. Someone always talks.  Herostratus’ story spread and eventually was recorded for future generations by the historian Theopompus.

Herostratus’ name lives on. Although few today have heard the story of Herostratus, the English language has the concept of Herostratic Fame. Herostratic Fame is fame or infamy sought by means of the commission of some terrible and highly visible crime, in which the primary motive for the crime is simply the fame that accrues to one simply for having done it.

The human desire for fame and notoriety become so great that some will seek it by Herostratic means. And ironically, whenever they do so, the name and fame of Herostratus of Ephesus continues to live and grow.

Why Atheism entails Absurdism and Nihilism

Since the word came into being, an atheist has meant a person who denies the existence of God.  In 1973, philosopher Antony Flew—one of the 20th century’s greatest proponents of atheism, who also later embraced theism as a result of finally reading Aristotle—hit upon the rhetorically brilliant but intellectually dishonest tactic of redefining atheism not as the  denial of the existence of God but as the mere lack of belief in the existence of God. See HERE and HERE for more information.

He did this for two reasons: first, it immediately vastly swelled the number of “atheists” in the world—suddenly, overnight, all the agnostics became atheists, much to their surprise (“agnostic” having been a term coined by Thomas H. Huxley as explicitly distinct from “atheist”); and second, this redefinition of atheism allowed Flew to argue that the burden of proof in any debate about the existence of God lies solely on the theist.  In other words, in any debate, the atheist has no burden of proof whatever—or so Flew contended.

In philosophical circles, Flew’s trick did not go uncontested, although it also found its admirers, secularism being quite popular among professional philosophers (as with all academics) through most of the 20th century (happily, this trend seems to be reversing in philosophy, which is a sign it will also in other disciplines; philosophy often serves as an excellent trend indicator of the academy).

I really can’t explain why this redefinition is a terrible and dishonest idea better than Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher does HERE.  Please go read it. It’s short and to the point. I’ll wait.

Okay, so you’re back.  Be honest, how many of your really went and read it? If you didn’t want to take the trouble, I’ll summarize the Maverick Philosopher’s argument:

  1. If “atheism” is only “lack of belief in God” then nearly everything, including inanimate things will by atheists.  For example, bricks:AtheistBricksBut this seems like a very stupid way to define an “atheist,” since it makes one indistinguishable from an inanimate object.
  2. If, more charitably, we define “an atheist” as “a person who lacks a belief in God,” this still won’t do, since there are persons—infants, the comatose, the brain damaged—who lack such a belief because they are incapable of informing one.  As my friend Chris Lansdown has observed, it is curious that people identify with an intellectual position that one can acquire via Alzheimer’s disease or severe physical brain damage. If you hit someone in the head with a lead pipe enough, they will become an atheist, on Flew’s definition.
  3. The Maverick Philosopher continues by pointing out that atheism is a proposition: it is something debated, discussed, entertained, pondered, thought about, argued for, argued against, has conclusions and entailments, is subject to belief or disbelief, has logical relations to other propositions, etc.  None of this could be the case for a mere lack of something.
  4. If atheism were really defined as a factual lack of belief, it would merely describe a psychological property of a person.  It would literally mean nothing, other than an expression of a person’s personal incredulity over a proposition.  Since propositions are not properties, atheism cannot be a property.  Conversely, if Flew’s trick is applied to theism, it would mean the psychological fact of someone’s possessing a belief in God. So if the atheist says “Atheism is just a lack of belief in God (as a psychological property)”, he cannot demand, contrary to his intention in making this move, that the burden of proof falls on the theist.  For all the theist need do is reply “Theism is just the possession of a belief in God (as a psychological property)” and no proof needs to be given that I psychologically possess a given belief.
  5. But if the atheist demands that theism be treated as a proposition rather than a property, then he ipso facto gives the reason that atheism also be treated as propositional position and not a mere psychological property.

But what, you are asking, does this have to do with absurdism and nihilism? I promised you absurdity and nihilation! Okay, okay.

Let me define my terms:

I define absurdism as the rejection of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. It is the position that, ultimately, there are things that simply exist or happen FOR NO REASON.  (Not, mind you, that we do not know the reason they exist or happen, but that they literally exist or happen FOR NO REASON.)

I define nihilism in an ethical sense, in accordance with Ivan Karamazov’s maxim “If there is no God, everything is permissible.” Nihilism is the position that there is nothing which is morally absolute which could serve as an ethical standard of good and evil.

The atheist says that he lacks a belief in God.  He really means that he does not accept the truth of proposition “There is a God.”

What if an atheist says “I accept the Principle of Sufficient Reason”? In that case, he is accepting that there is an ultimate ground of intelligibility and reason for everything that happens or exists.  But such a ground would be God.  Therefore, an atheist cannot accept that there is an ultimate ground of reason and intelligibility without eo ipso becoming a theist (there is no need for him to believe in a personal God of the sort Christianity teaches yet—but he would have committed himself to a belief in the Absolute).

What if an atheist says “I accept there is an absolute standard of goodness”? In that case, he is accepting Plato’s Idea of The Good, and this, once again, would just BE GOD, albeit again, not yet the personal God of Christianity.

Since an atheist cannot accept either an absolute ground of reason and intelligibility nor an absolute ground and standard of goodness without eo ipso becoming a theist,  necessarily every atheist is both an absurdist and a nihilist.

And even if the atheist continues the dishonest dodge of saying he merely lacks a belief in God, he has to say for the reasons above that he also lacks a belief in the intelligibility of the universe and lacks a belief in all truly transcendent good and evil. Saying “I lack a belief in X” is equivalent to saying “I do not accept that X is true.” So the atheist does not (and cannot) accept as true the Principle of Sufficient Reason or the Idea of the Good.

And with this, the atheist has destroyed the possibility of both of truth and theoretical philosophy, including science, since he does not accept it as true that the cosmos is intelligible, and practical philosophy, ethics, since he does not accept as true the existence of good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, virtue and vice.

And necessarily, one who rejects both theoretical and practical philosophy rejects reason, except in its capacity a mere calculative instrument in the service of irrational will.

And necessarily, when one categorically rejects reason except as an instrument, one is left with only the sheer self-assertiveness of the will as the irrational master of the merely instrumental reason.

And of course, the absolute triumph of the will is over reality is simply the combination of absurdism and nihilism.  At best, it is Nietzscheanism; at worst, Nazism.

And of course, this prideful assertion of my will in opposition to God’s will is the oldest sin of all, the truly original sin.