Consensus Gentium vs Ad Populum

The consensus gentium is “the common understanding of all mankind.” An ad populum is an argument of the form “Many believe P to be true; therefore, P is true.” It is generally acknowledged that ad populum arguments are materially fallacious.

Did you notice that when I said “it is generally acknowledged that ad populum arguments are fallacious” I was appealing to the general consensus?

Anyway, as I will never cease to remind anyone and everyone who will listen: material or informal fallacies are fallacious by material or content and not by form.  An argument which has the same form as material fallacy, may or may not be fallacious, depending on the content of the argument. It’s the content that makes it a fallacy, if it is one.  It’s a fallacy of composition to argue “Every brick in the wall weighs 2 kg, so the wall weighs 2 kg” but not to argue “Every brick in the wall has mass, so the wall has mass.” Sometimes, an inference from part to whole is perfectly valid; sometimes it’s not. That is why we have to check things that have the form of material fallacy like “This is true of the each part, so it’s true of the whole” on a case by case basis.  We don’t have to do that with formal fallacies: they are always invalid.  In the case of a material fallacy, we have to ask: under what circumstances is in not fallacious?

In what circumstances might an appeal to popular consensus not be fallacious? Perhaps in exactly the cases that the term consensus gentium refers to.

Philosopher Thomas Kelly argues that an appeal to the consensus gentium may be usefully understood as an argument to the best explanation.  It would go something like this:

  1. Almost everyone believes that P is true.
  2. The best explanation why almost everyone believes that P is true, is that P is true.
  3. So, P is very probably true.

Suppose you were transported to a new country, about which you knew nothing. Suppose that you began asking the people about their country.  Suppose everyone you asked, except one man, said that the ruler of country was King Xerxes, while the one man said that he was the king.  Suppose further than no one obeyed or listened to the man who claimed to be the king, and all told you he was crazy, having the delusion of being the king.  Now ask yourself: what is the best explanation for this state of affairs? It is, of course, logically possible that the one lone man really is the king, and everyone else is (for some reason) either unaware of this or engaged in a conspiracy to fool you or other fantastic things—but surely the best, most plausible, most reasonable, and therefore most likely to be true explanation of everyone but one man saying Xerxes is the king, is that it is true.  And the reason they say the lone dissenter is mad, is that he is mad.  And the reason he is a lone dissenter from the consensus is that he is mad.

Would it be rational to suspend your judgment about who the king is, because (so you reason) the consensus-of-everyone-but-one-man is an ad populum fallacy?

An example I like to use of the consensus gentium is the existence of motion.  It seems (close to) evident that at least some things move.  But this has been disputed by certain philosophers, most notably Parmenides and his disciple Zeno, who attempts to show, by an ingenious series of paradoxes, that any belief in motion results in a self-contradiction.

Zeno’s paradoxes are known to have two properties: (1) almost no one believes that they show what Zeno says they show, that motion does not exist; and (2) they are nearly impossible to refute in a non-question-begging manner. Aristotle says that thinking about them gives one a stomach ache.  Aristotle says this! Aristotle, who never met a thing he didn’t enjoy thinking about! Aristotle does refute them, but he requires a good deal of metaphysics to do it.  If you don’t accept Aristotelian metaphysics, you might have to hold either with Zeno that motion doesn’t exist, or with Hegel (and Marx) that because motion does exist, contradictions exist.

Calculus, by the way, provides no solution to Zeno’s paradoxes, because calculus stipulates that what Zeno argues cannot actually happen, happens; calculus does not require anyone to actually perform an infinite summation—because, as Zeno would be the first to point out, that cannot be done.  Calculus instead treats the limit to which the infinite sum is converging as the same as the result of the infinite sum.  Calculus says of an infinite sum “Let it have been done.” As an operational technique, this works fine. Is the limit equal to the infinite  sum? Well, we don’t actually know: BECAUSE NO ONE CAN DO AN INFINITE SUM TO CHECK.

The nearly universal response to Zeno’s paradoxes is “There is something wrong with his reasoning, even if I don’t know what it is, and can’t say what it is, and I will continue to believe in motion in spite of Zeno’s arguments, whether or not I can adequately answer them.” Descartes is even contemptuously dismissive of Aristotle’s attempt to refute Zeno:

When people say that motion, something perfectly familiar to everyone, is ‘the actuality of a potential being, in so far as it is potential,’ do they not give the impressing of uttering magic words which have a hidden meaning beyond the grasp of the human mind? For who can understand these expressions? Who does not know what motion is?

Descartes is being a dick, and Aristotle’s definition of motion is both perfectly intelligible and, in fact, correct, but my point here is what Descartes is DOING.  He is saying that “everybody knows what motion is,” and even though he doesn’t say this, since it is taken completely for granted, “everybody knows that motion exists.”

Is this response to Zeno an irrational one?

If so, why is it irrational? Is it really true that we ought or must give literally every view or opinion a serious hearing?  A total inability to discriminate here does not seem particularly rational.  But what are we doing, if not appealing, however tacitly or explicitly, to the common basis of shared human experience? Is such an appeal really fallacious?

Another case in point is eliminative materialism.  This is the view that neither minds nor consciousness nor anything like it do presently or have ever existed.  Again, this seems to be something that is refuted directly by all human experience: cogito sum, case closed, end of discussion.

And yet eliminative materialism is the position maintained by some philosophers, such as Paul and Patricia Churchland.  Do the Churchlands really believe what they say they do?  (Or, not “believe” it, since that would be an act of the mind—I don’t know what word they use instead of “believe”).  I am afraid I have difficult believing they are sincere; I believe that they not only have beliefs, but that they know that they do, and don’t really mean what they say.

So certain am I of the falsity of eliminative materialism, I would use it as a reductio ad absurdum.  In fact, I do: I hold that any form of materialism, thought through, entails eliminitive materialism, which is self-evidently false, leading to the conclusion that all forms of materialism are false.

A third example would be the idea that time has three “parts” (or “phases” or whatever the best word is): past, present, and future.

What should we think of someone who denied this? Perhaps someone who maintained there is a present and a future, but no past? That all talk of “the past” is delusional nonsense? Very obviously, we can’t show him the past.  It’s gone. Anything “from the past” we could appeal to, physical thing or memory would be something present in the present.  How could a present thing be direct evidence of the past, unless we already know time has that structure?

It all these cases, it is not clear to me how would we establish the truth of these things except on the basis of belief that our cognitive faculties are basically sound and that, overwhelmingly, human beings form these beliefs: there is motion, we have (or are) minds, and that time divides into past, present, and future.

These things seem to be among the primary data of human experience.  And if an experience truly is a universally human one, does it even make sense to challenge it? Isn’t it part of the data of the world that we seek to explain?

Am I really making an ad populum fallacy when I appeal to the common consent of mankind about such matters? It seems clear to me that I am not.  As my readers know, one of the few things that bothers me more than logical illiteracy, is half-educated logical incompetence, where someone has learned the names of the material fallacies from yourlogicalfallacyis.com, and then rampages across social media sperging out about “fallacy” after “fallacy,” NOT UNDERSTANDING that material fallacies aren’t formal, NOT UNDERSTANDING that just calling something a fallacy makes it a fallacy, NOT UNDERSTANDING that something  can have the same form as a material fallacy, and still not BE a fallacy.  I really get to the point where I post an Euler circle diagram, because I don’t know how to communicate the point in a simpler form:

EulerMaterialFallacies

Following Kelly, specifically about an appeal to consensus gentium, I would say,

If everyone, with the exception of a few sophists or philosophers trying to make a bizarre case, believes that P (e.g. we suspect they are lying about not believing that P), the best explanation for the (near) universal belief that P, is that P is true, on the assumption that human cognitive faculties are basically reliable.

 

Falsificationism

One problem with professional philosophy—and this holds for some of the sciences too, like physics and biology—is that the subject matter is difficult to master and require a great deal of time and technical training.

This does not, however, stop philosophical concepts from spilling over into popular discourse, where they are usually poorly understood, or even more commonly, completely misunderstood.

When I hear the terms “falsification” or “falsificationism” thrown around wildly, I experience something much like what I imagine a biologist experiences when he hears the term “evolution” being wildly and recklessly misapplied in contexts where it is misleading or meaningless.

What is falsificationism? It is a specific answer to a specific philosophical question given by a specific philosopher to solve a specific problem—and it is failed attempt at that, which left in its wake a sometimes useful methodological tool, and an unfortunate extra-philosophical cult following.

The philosopher in question is Sir Karl Popper, and the problem he was trying to solve was known in his day as “the demarcation criterion problem.”  At the time, it was taken for granted that some knowledge is scientific and some knowledge is not scientific, that some human disciplines of inquiry are sciences and some are not.  So, the question arose By what criterion can one demarcate a real or genuine science from a non-science, or more urgently, a pseudo-science claiming to be a science? In other words, How do you tell a science from what isn’t science?

Popper’s thinking was informed by the intellectual milieu of fin-de-siècle Vienna, in which many exciting intellectual revolutions were underway simultaneously. Einstein was threatening to shake the heretofore seemingly unshakable foundations of Newtonian physics, mathematics seemed, as per Hilbert’s famous speech, about to be completed (before Gödel put an end to that idea once and for all), Freudians claimed to have discovered the key to the depths of the human psychē, and Marxists to have unlocked the inner mechanisms of human history.  It was a heady time, in which people were not afraid to make bold, often reckless, claims.

At the time, the universally accepted answer to the ‘demarcation problem’ was verificationism. Something would count as scientific knowledge if its claims could be empirically verified, and the more verifications, the more scientifically sound the view was supposed to be.  This theory is very easy to understand and has a direct appeal to common sense: if a theory keeps being proven correct, it is probably a correct theory, right?

Unfortunately, Popper noticed something, something which today we would call “confirmation bias.”  He noticed it particularly among the Marxists and the Freudians, both groups of which insisted that their respective disciplines of dialectical materialism and psychoanalysis were indeed SCIENCES.  He noticed it personally in his friend Alfred Adler, the Freudian heretic who had ‘discovered,’ contra Freud, that sexual repression was not the key to the human psychē, but the inferiority complex instead.

What Popper noticed is that when a Marxist or a Freudian attempted to give a scientific account of a historical event in terms of class conflict or a psychological phenomenon in terms of sexual repression and neurosis, they were able to do this, no matter what the circumstances were.  A Marxist could, and did, explain anything and everything by means of class conflict. A Freudian could, and did, explain anything and everything by means of sexual repression and neurosis.  And each “explanation” which was given was considered by each as a “verification” of either Marxism or Freudianism, thus further proving each theory correct and scientific.  Nor could one criticize Marxism or Freudianism: it was obvious that the critic of Marxism was a bourgeoise apologist, which proved Marxism’s class conflict theory, and the critic of Freudianism was sublimating his sexual repression into a neurotic attack on Freudianism, which proved Freudianism. (As you can imagine, when a Marxist got into a head to head argument with a Freudian, it was like a perpetual motion machine of pointless back and forth!)

Popper regularly dined with his friend Adler, with whom he often quarreled about this issue. One time, Popper discovered a psychological case that seemed clear to him could not be explained by means of Adler’s go-to explanation for everything, the inferiority complex (which had the same self-confirming structure as the Freudianism from which it sprang; e.g. A man sees a drowning child: if he fails to jump in the water to save her, it was due to his feelings of inferiority; if he does jump in to save her, he was overcompensating due to his feelings of inferiority, etc.).

Popper waited for his moment and sprang his example case on Adler, hoping to baffle him. Instead, to his astonishment, Adler immediately analyzed the case in terms of an inferiority complex.  Popper managed to sputter “But … how do you know this?”  To which Adler replied, in a magisterial tone, “Based on my thousandfold experience.” To which Popper, having recovered, replied “And I suppose now your experience is a thousand-and-one-fold!”

So, the scene is half set. We need one more piece of the puzzle.  Einstein’s theory of special relativity was being hotly debated by physicists.  Some were intrigued by it, some thought it was complete lunacy.  As it happened, an eclipse of the sun was due to happen on a certain day, which would allow something not usually possible: the direct observation of the planet Mercury (Mercury is usually overwhelmed by the sun’s radiance and cannot be directly observed).  Einstein’s theory predicts that light will be affected by sufficiently massive bodies (such as the sun) whereas Newton’s theory does not; that is, according to Einstein, light should bend around the sun due to its mass.  This allowed a very interesting test case. Since we cannot normally see Mercury, we do not know exactly where it is (or more accurately, where it appears to be).  But at the time of the eclipse, it would be possible to look and see exactly where Mercury appears to be: in essence, Einstein’s theory predicted Mercury would be at point E, due to the gravitational bending of light and Newton’s theory predicted Mercury would be seen at point N.  All that was needed was to wait for the eclipse and see whether Mercury was at E or N.   And as I suppose you all know, the eclipse came, and Mercury was observed to be at point E, just as Einstein had predicted, and the relativistic revolution began in earnest.

What impressed Popper so much about this was that Einstein was willing to “go out on a limb” so to speak and make a PREDICTION, which, if it didn’t pan out, would have significantly undermined the credibility of his theory; but at the same time, if it did pan out (as it did) would significantly boost the credibility of the theory. In other words, Einstein was willing to make a prediction which, if it failed to hold, would FALSIFY HIS THEORY.

Marxists and Freudians and Adlerians were NOT willing to make predictions which would, if they failed to happen, cause them to abandon their theories.  NOTHING can make a convinced Marxist or Freudian (or feminist) abandon his or her theory.

So Popper hit on the idea of REVERSING the demarcation criterion: instead of VERIFICATION (he argued) truly scientific reasoning risks FALSIFICATION.  It makes CONJECTURES and risks REFUTATIONS.  A theory that cannot under any circumstances be falsified is not, according to Popper, a scientific theory.

Thus was born the idea of falsificationism, namely, the idea that what makes a discipline scientific is its willingness to risk being refuted by making risky predictions.

As with verificationism, there is a kind of common sense appeal to falsificationism.  It is not a worthless idea—but in the event, it can’t do the work Popper hoped it could, and it certainly can’t do the work that Popper candidly admitted it could not: namely, serve as a criterion for all legitimate knowledge as such.

To start with the latter, as an epistemological principle, falsificationism is not a scientific statement. It is a philosophical statement (or a “meta-scientific statement” as Popper would have said).  It was a statement about science, but not a scientific statement.  Part of the whole problem it is meant to solve is to mark off scientific knowledge from other sorts of knowledge, such as philosophical knowledge.  If one were to attempt to apply the falsification criterion beyond its intended scope of scientific knowledge, applying it to, say, all knowledge, the result (of which Popper was well-aware) would be disastrous:

  1. The principle of falsification: no statement which cannot be empirically falsified can count as legitimate knowledge, and must therefore be rejected.
  2. Statement 1, the principle of falsification, is a statement which cannot be empirically falsified.
  3. Therefore, the principle of falsification does not count as knowledge, and must be rejected.

Any attempt to take Popper’s principle of falsification as a universal standard applying to all knowledge fails on its face, because the principle is SELF-DEFEATING.  Applied to itself, it fails its own test.  And Popper was well-aware of this, since the same holds true for its predecessor, verificationism.  Verificationism cannot be verified and falsificationism cannot be falsified. So any attempt to extend either principle beyond its narrower, scientific scope fails.

And neither principle succeeds in its more limited purpose of demarcating “scientific knowledge” from non-scientific knowledge either (to give the game away, most philosophers today are content to say that “scientific knowledge” is a Wittgensteinian family resemblance concept and not to think there even IS anything specific that exactly demarcates science from non-science).

Verificationism fails for the reasons that so upset Popper. Countless pseudo-verifications can be generated almost at will for any theory. This is why Popper wanted falsification to be clear, cut and dried. IF THIS PREDICTION DOESN’T HAPPEN, THE THEORY IS FALSIFIED AND SHOULD BE ABANDONED.

Why doesn’t this work for science at least? Didn’t it do a good job distinguishing Einstein’s theories from Marx’s or Freud’s? Yes, in that interesting and unusual case, it did.  But unfortunately, that isn’t how science actually works nearly all the time.

Since the Einstein example that so impressed Popper involved planets, let’s talk about those.  Consider the planet Uranus. When you look for it in the night sky, it isn’t where it is supposed to be, according to Newton’s theory.

BAM! Clear, cut and dried, remember? Newtonian physics is FUCKING FALSIFIED.  Stop using it! Right now! It’s wrong! No, really, quit it!

Except … that’s now how things played out. Newtonian physics was too damned useful to throw out as Popper demanded. Instead of regarding Newtonian physics as falsified by Uranus not being where it should be according to the theory, the scientists decided that there was probably some other factor X which was causing the (correct) theory not to match up with the (would-be falsifying) observation.  What could it be? Well .. if there were another planet out beyond Uranus … of THIS mass … and right about HERE … THAT would explain Uranus not being where it is supposed to be according to the theory.

Lo and behold, telescopes were pointed and Neptune was discovered.  Far from being a falsification of Newtonian physics, the failed prediction of the location of Uranus led to the discovery of Neptune, which was then regarded as a stupendous confirmation of Newtonian physics!

Well … except for one little problem.  Now that we know about Neptune .. it turns out that it keeps not being where Newton’s theory says it should be. So, once again, Newtonian physics is falsified, right? We abandoned it? Nope. Once again, scientists did what scientists actually do (and not what Karl Popper would later say that SHOULD do), and they decided that the mismatch between the theory and the observation was due not to a defect in either one, but due to some complicating factor X.  What could it be? Well .. if there were yet another planet beyond Neptune .. of THIS mass .. right about HERE .. and so we discovered Pluto.  And another crucial scientific discovery was made due to the fortunate fact that Popper hadn’t written yet, and no scientist in his right mind considered Newton “falsified.”

Now it had been known for a long time that Mercury also doesn’t do what it should do, according to Newton’s theory.  And once again, scientists hypothesized that neither the theory nor the observations were wrong, but that there was a complicating factor X which was the cause of the discrepancy.  If there were another planet HERE, of THIS mass … well, it’s too close too the sun to actually SEE (yet) but let’s assume it’s there.  They even named it: Vulcan, the planet closer to the sun than Mercury, which disturbs Mercury’s orbit.

Alas for planet Vulcan! Sorry, Mr. Spock! We mourn for thee. It turns out that in this case, the theory was wrong.  Newton wasn’t right, and Einstein’s theory explains perfectly well why Mercury moves as it does without the need to postulate a planet Vulcan.

But I hope you see the problem already from the examples given. Assume there is a mismatch between a THEORETICAL PREDICTION and an EMPIRICAL OBSERVATION.  Then one of the following is true:

  1. The theory is wrong / falsified.
  2. The observation is erroneous in some way.
  3. Neither the theory nor the observation are erroneous, but there is an unknown factor X causing the discrepancy.

In brief, the problem with Popper’s theory is that it requires us to know in advance that 2 and 3 can be safely ruled out.  Now, sometimes 2 can be ruled out to a high degree of probability, sometimes not.  But 3 is the real sticking point.  3 can NEVER be ruled out as a possibility since, by definition, it is an UNKNOWN FACTOR X.  It is simply not possible to say “I know with certainty that there is not something I do not know about interfering in this case.”

This alone would be enough to sink Popper’s falsificationism as a comprehensive theory of scientific knowledge (let alone all knowledge, which it never was nor could have been), but matters get even worse for falsificationism.

Again, I’m not going to give you the detailed philosophical arguments behind all this, but two philosophers advanced very similar ideas, one earlier and one better, but similar to the extent that the general view is known as the Quine-Duhem Thesis … or the Duhem-Quine Thesis … whichever sounds better to you, I guess (I like the first one, even though Duhem was before Quine in making the case).

Basically the Quine-Duhem Thesis states that it is impossible to test any scientific idea or theory or hypothesis in isolation, because any possible test one can devise already requires implicit and explicit embedded background assumptions.  In something like Quine’s terminology, knowledge, including scientific knowledge, forms a wholistic system or web of beliefs and assumptions, and there is simply no way to ask IN ISOLATION OF THE SYSTEM AS A WHOLE whether one particular belief or idea is true or not. It is a kind of Einsteinian relativity applied to epistemology.  What Quine argued, in effect, is that one can, with rational consistency, continue to hold any belief whatever, so long as one is willing to sufficiently adjust one’s entire conceptual web.

I have some personal experience with this, since I have on more than one occasion backed an atheist into a logical corner in which reason required him to admit the existence of God. To my amazement (and horror) I have found that many atheists are willing to take the leap into absurdity and reject reason outright rather than admit God.  I have actually been told “If reason proves there is a God, then reason isn’t reliable after all.” And how could I persuade them not reject reason at this point? Not with reasons, obviously. Non credo, quia absurdum.

And I’m sure that many sciency-types have encountered fundamentalist Christians who are more than willing to sacrifice their belief in science to preserve their literal reading of the Bible.  I imagine this drives them (the sciency-types) to distraction, because it seems so willfully irrational.  The problem is, of course, the Quine-Duhem problem: it seems willfully irrational on the basis of certain background assumptions that your interlocutor does not share; what seems manifestly irrational to you, is not necessarily self-inconsistent: it is only inconsistent with some of your assumptions your interlocutor does not share.

So where does all this leave us? Well, it leaves us without any cut-and-dried test of what is or is not scientific knowledge, or more generally, what is or is not valid knowledge as such.  We may know a lot of things, but we do not necessarily know what or how or why we know.  And yet, the world endures, somehow—even if we cannot with 100% certainty say what is or isn’t “science.”

Maybe it suggests we should cultivate a bit more Socratic humility and Socratic ignorance.

And it certainly tells us that idiots on the internet should stop invoking falsification as if it were some kind of Holy Scripture or Harry Potter-esque magic spell: Wingardium leviosa! Expecto patronum! Falsificatio popperium! 

It was never a theory of knowledge as a whole. It was a limited theory meant to explain how science is different from non-science.  And it didn’t even WORK.  So WHY are you bringing it up, as if it were some sort of trump card, you idiots?

I’ll close this with the most appropriate thing I can think of, a pair of quotes from the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend:

FeyerabendPopper

And even more succinctly

FeyerabendEveryTheory

Harambe the Gorilla and American Race Relations

As most of you know, in May 28, 2016, a three-year-old boy managed to get into the gorilla enclosure at Cincinnati Zoo.  The child was approached by the gorilla Harambe, whose behavior towards the child was ambiguous—since the incident was filmed, you can see for yourself—and one of the zookeepers, fearing for the boy’s life, shot and killed Harambe.

This was sad, and much like the case of Cecil the lion, gave many Americans an occasion to indulge in their over sentimentality about animals.  As far as I can tell, while unfortunate, the zoo worker acted reasonably under the circumstances.  It would have been very easy for Harambe, who as a gorilla and not a human being certainly bears no moral blame for anything, to have severely injured or killed the child, even unintentionally.

More unfortunately, the incident gave those Americans interested in race baiting an opportunity to indulge in that also, for example:

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 5.43.35 PM.png

So Hood Intellect tells us (1) this is was example of ‘white privilege’, and that (2) IF the boy had been black, there would have been a different outcome.

Hypotheticals Contrary to Fact are usually safe for rhetoricians and demagogues, since there is usually no real way to disprove “If things had been different from how they actually were, this other thing would have been different too,” e.g. “If the Nazis had won World War 2, the world in 2016 would be a better place.”  I tend to doubt that claim, but we have no way of testing it, since its basis is a hypothesis contrary to fact, that is, a hypothetical that we can imagine, but which isn’t true.

However, in this case, Hood Intellect had jumped the gun with his race baiting—this was one of those rare case where we were actually able to test a hypothesis contrary to fact, since as it happened, Hood Intellect’s information about the boy being white was incorrect. The boy was, in fact, black.

That serves as complete refutation of BOTH of Hood Intellect’s claims: Since the boy was, in fact, black, the killing of Harambe was (1) clearly NOT an example of ‘white privilege’ and (2) it is clearly NOT the case that, if the boy was black, which he was, “they would’ve found a tranquilizer,” instead of fatally shooting Harambe.  If anything, this shows that the workers at the Cincinnati Zoo are not racist, which is what we should expect, since there are almost no real racists in America.  (I do not count people who have never have never had much interaction with people of other races, and who therefore can be awkward and uncomfortable at first as “racist,” white or otherwise, and neither should you.)

But since Hood Intellect is, as I’ve said, a demagogue and a race-baiter, he was unfazed by the complete refutation of his claims by reality.  Like all ideologues, he merely adjusted the facts to fit his narrative:

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 5.43.01 PM.png

Hood Intellect NOW blames the shooting of Harambe on ‘whiteness’ in a DIFFERENT way.  Before, Harambe was shot “for a white boy’s safety,” but oops, the boy was black—so now, Harambe was not shot to ensure a black boy’s safety (which he was) but because of the inherent violence of white people.  (What Hood Intellect is overlooking is that tranquilizers TAKE TIME TO WORK, especially on 440 lb gorilla, time the child in immediate danger might not have had—not that I expect a rational argument to move Hood Intellect’s intellect.)

The incident caused such a big reaction, I think in part, because a large segment of the American public are getting very tired of this kind of dishonest rhetoric, in which white people are damned if they do and damned if they don’t—and not just white people either. I think most Americans, black, white, asian, whatever, are generally fair-minded, and really dislike race-baiting.  It clearly DOES NOT MATTER to Hood Intellect what the people involved were thinking or what they did or why they did it—no, he is going to USE this incident to race-bait, no matter what. He has a narrative in which “white people” are the villains and he is going to TELL THAT STORY come hell or high water.  For all I know, the zoo worker that shot Harambe was also black.  Was he? I don’t know. Do you? But I don’t need to know that, to know he made the right call, even if the death of Harmabe was unfortunate, which it was.

What I don’t see ANYWHERE in the story of the death of Harambe is ANY kind of malice, especially not any kind of RACIAL MALICE or RACISM.

The only place I see POISON is in the race-baiting rhetoric of Hood Intellect and those like him, who don’t give one damn about the facts, but only want to demonize white people, a kind of rhetoric that is all-too-common in many parts of the American left.  Nor is this kind of anti-white rhetoric something on which black people like Hood Intellect have a monopoly.  There are plenty of white people who take great delight in white-hate.  (And of course, for all I know, Hood Intellect might be white. A Twitter avatar of a black man doesn’t prove he is a black man after all).

This same kind of venomous rhetoric is endemic in feminism also, where it is men, rather than white people, who are demonized.  Although now, thank to the magic of “intersectionality” you can double, triple, or quadruple down, and damn not just whites or men, but white men, or straight white men, or cis het white men.  Or able-bodied, thin cis het white men.

This rhetoric is poisonous because it privileges narrative over reality and gives a license to hate the demonized and dehumanized other—all in the name of condemning those who demonize and dehumanize the other.  The irony is amusing and ironic, but ideologies don’t get ironic; that requires one to step outside one’s monomania for blame and revenge.

We live in a world of tarantulas.

 

 

Can an Atheist be Moral?

You sometimes hear this question, “Can an atheist be moral?”

There’s a fallacious line of reasoning that would lead one to answer “No.”

There’s a much more plausible one that would lead one to answer “Yes.”

I’m going to explore these two lines, and then add my own judgment, “Not fully.”

(1) The fallacious line of reasoning is this:

  1. The basis of morality is God.
  2. An atheist rejects God.
  3. ∴ An atheist rejects the basis of morality.
  4. ∴ An atheist rejects morality itself.
  5. One who rejects morality itself cannot be moral.
  6. ∴ An atheist cannot be moral.

This line of reasoning isn’t insane, but it is invalid.  The error is that 4 doesn’t follow from 3.  What follows from 3 is “If an atheist is rationally consistent, he will reject morality, since he rejects the basis of morality.”  A rationally consistent atheist indeed logically ought to affirm nihilism, as Nietzsche makes so very evident, or Sartre, or more recently, philosopher Joel Marks, a Kantian ethicist for many years, who was finally, inexorably, led to the conclusion that atheist entails nihilism. See here.  Also, see my own article on Why Atheism Entails Absurdism and Nihilism.

But even if one is a theoretical nihilist, which an atheist rationally ought to be, no one can actually, practically, existentially be a nihilist.  Human beings are irreducibly moral creatures, and regardless of what one thinks, one will have an ethos, a moral character.  It might be a bad, vicious character, but it is impossible to be a human being without one; thus, all human beings are “moral” in this loose sense, that is, their lives express preferences and beliefs about what is good and bad.

(2) Not all atheists manage to draw the conclusion that atheism entails nihilism.  They often simply short-circuit the reasoning process—I suspect that people like Joel Marks, a philosopher, simply couldn’t live with the cognitive dissonance.  Others, such as Nietzsche and Sartre (in their different and characteristic ways) manage to take a perverse delight (of a sort, one which usually lives alongside despair) in nihilism.

I think, though, for the most part, most atheists are intellectually content to simply hand-wave the question of the foundation of morality, and give absurd answers such as “The basis of morality is society” or “the basis of morality is evolution.”

This is, I believe, really just a kind of ad hoc patch.  The atheist really does accept morality, just like everyone else (expect the sociopath and the very rare true nihilist), he is aware of moral truths like everyone else, and since he is aware of moral truths, that is, since he knows that there is such a thing as objective moral truth, he assumes that his acquaintance with this fact is sufficient to justify his acceptance of it.  In a way, it is, since acquaintance is one way in which we come to be rationally justified in knowing something exists.  In another way, it is not, since his atheism entails that he ought not to accept it, but to discount it as a kind of illusion.  Of course, on atheism, one really ought to account all the deliverances of reason as illusory or delusional or at the very least, untrustworthy—but that’s another matter.  The point here is that while the atheist does indeed have rational warrant for believing in morality, via direct acquaintance with moral reality, he or she also has a defeater for this warrant in his or her atheism itself.  The atheist is essentially in the position of holding: “M requires F to exist. F does not exist. Therefore M cannot and does not exist.  But at the same time, I am directly acquainted with M; therefore M does exist. Therefore M both does and does not exist.” M here stands for “morality” of course, and it is obviously a self-contradictory position to hold that morality both does and does not exist.

There are only two logically consistent ways to meet this dilemma: (1) the atheist can embrace nihilism and deny that morality exists (although he might still say that it has a kind of illusory being, in the way that moral relativists and moral subjectivists are able to talk about “morality” in kind of fictitious sense); this is the path of most intelligent atheists, such as Hume, Nietzsche, and Sartre, or (2) the atheist could accept the moral argument for the existence of God, and become a theist, since the existence of morality entails theism.

For the most part, though, atheists seem to sustain the cognitive dissonance of holding views inconsistent with atheism, by the simple expedient of not conceptually connecting the two ideas. Although it is not logically consistent with his atheism, nothing prevents an atheist from nevertheless using his conscience to be aware of moral truths, and he can easily share many of the same moral motivations as theists, for example, the peer pressure of social approval or disapproval, the fear of legal or social sanctions, and so forth. [ADDENDUM: After listening to Jacquelyn Glynn talk, I note yet ANOTHER way one can be inconsistent: one can firmly declare that morality does not, in fact, exist (since this does follow from atheism) AND also simply keep on making moral judgments, as if one’s conviction that morality does not exist is simply irrelevant to making moral judgments and decisions. I assumed the disconnect would have to lie in a spurious belief that morality can somehow be justified non-theistically; but apparently, one solution is just to reject morality in words, and keep being as moralistic as one pleases.]

While Christianity has a very definite moral teaching, the purpose of Christianity is not to foster moral behavior—indeed, Christianity tells us that we are fallen beings and that we will do evil, whether we think we want to or not.  Christianity is about salvation, and this is something that every human being needs, the moral and the immoral alike.

Two quotes are useful here.

First, Our Lord himself says in Luke 5:29-32

29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house; and there was a large company of tax collectors and others sitting at table[d] with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes murmured against his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

And St. Paul says in Romans 2,

14 When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

What do these two quotes together tell us?

Firstly, that it is sinners who are in the most dire need of the teaching of Christ.  We should no more be surprised to find the wicked among the Christians than we are to find the sick at a hospital.

Secondly, St. Paul’s quote points to the Christian teaching of the natural law, that all human beings have an awareness of right and wrong “written on their hearts” to which their “conscience bears witness.”

We have, in other words, a natural capacity to discern right and wrong (although this capacity is (a) darkened by sin, although not wholly obliterated, and (b) as enslaved by sin, we lack the power fully to do what we know is right and to refrain from what we know is wrong).

Now, a Christian may in some case receive a special grace of God which helps him or her resist temptation, but how could we say that God does not sometimes grant similar grace to atheists? God has His reasons for what He does.

I think the most we can say is that when normal motivations for right action and refraining from wrongdoing break down, an atheist will be left with considerably less to fall back on than a Christian.  Atheists, for example, are not known for their sustained efforts at charity: they have, like everyone else, an impulse to charity, but once it becomes a burden, the atheist has very little reason to persevere in it, especially when he realizes that much of what he does is, humanly speaking, futile.  Atheists often think they are trying to fix social ills, and should they conclude that a given problem is insoluble, they will often, “rationally” for a given value of rationality, stop trying to fix the problem; Christian charity, on the other hand, is not first and foremost about trying to solve or fix problems; we believe, in fact, that our deepest problems are simply not within our power to fix or solve.  That is not the task to which we are called.

(3) And this brings me to my answer.  An atheist should have a working conscience and can arrive at an understanding of the natural law without being a believer, so in what way would an atheist be at a disadvantage with respect to morality or virtue?

The only one I can think of is that an atheist cannot, eo ipso, have the virtue of piety.  An atheist will necessarily be vicious to a certain extent, since unbelief or infidelity is in itself a vice and a sin.

It follows that an atheist cannot ever be fully moral, no more than can, say, a thief.  A thief cannot be fully moral, because he is a thief; he steals, and stealing is, in itself, immoral. An atheist cannot be fully moral, because he is an atheist; he disbelieves, and unbelief is, in itself, immoral.  An atheist cannot properly honor God as God, nor grant Him the worship He is due, which is a violation of justice (to withhold something that is truly owed); an atheist must display the vice of ingratitude towards God, since he cannot be grateful to one whom he does not acknowledge even to exist.

An atheist will not, of course, consider impiety or unbelief a serious evil, or an evil at all.  But this very fact, properly understood, points not to the benignity of unbelief, but to a certain additional darkening of the intellect and corruption of the soul which is caused by unbelief.

I somewhat regularly post a remark of Fr. Josiah Trenham on Twitter, which is this:

FatherJosiahTrenhamAtheism

Needless to say, this is not a remark that atheists like to hear.  But Father Josiah has very good reasons for saying this, not the least of which is that it is true.

Atheism is in itself a great intellectual and moral corruption and it leads to yet further intellectual, moral, and spiritual corruption.

So in this sense—which is not negligible—an atheist cannot be fully moral.

The Vices of Infidelity and Blasphemy

Some thoughts on Aquinas’ teaching on the vice of infidelity, by John Hacker-Wright, from the Florida Philosophical Review, Vol VIII, Issue 1, Summer 2008:

For Aquinas, disbelief or infidelity can arise in two ways, one of which is not blameworthy. Anyone who has not heard the call cannot be held accountable for failing to respond. Disbelief as a vice is the willed disposition not to believe. In the case of vicious disbelief, the truth is presented to the intellect, but the will turns the mind away from the truth (10, 3). For Aquinas, the most fundamental disposition behind such a refusal to believe is, of course, pride. Among the seven deadly sins, pride is, as Sirach 10:15 has it, the origin of all sin, for it is the intention to excel above God. Since this attempt implies at least one false belief about the nature and value of creatures, it leads to inordinate desires for temporal goods, namely, those goods whereby I would excel above God (1a2ae 84, 2).  Pride leads to contempt for God, whose greatness one wishes impossibly to surpass.

Now, blasphemy is associated with disbelief in that it consists of deliberately holding a false belief about God. The will and the intellect work together perversely in generating blasphemy. The will of the infidel who blasphemes is pridefully contemptuous of God. The infidel, because of this contempt, rejects the truth and embraces falsehoods about God. Even inwardly holding falsehoods about God is sufficient for blasphemy on Aquinas’ view (13, 1). Inwardly and intentionally forming a false proposition about God reveals a disbelieving disposition; it starts one on a course that, if continued, will render one utterly insensitive to truth, and thus, irretrievably separated from God. Blasphemy is therefore a major sin for Aquinas because it undermines an individual’s movement toward his chief end, the beatific vision. Of course, blasphemous thoughts that are published in any manner, whether through speech, writing, or artworks also perpetrate harm against others, on the assumption that the beatific vision is indeed their chief end and that their faith may be undermined in however small a way by the lies of the blasphemer.

In sum, for Aquinas, blasphemy is wrong because it is disorienting, both to the person who  articulates it (whether inwardly or outwardly) and potentially to others who come into contact with the blasphemy. The disorientation works like this: I start with a true apprehension of God, including his ultimate value, but I begin to want things, temporal goods such as money. If I sinfully give in to such desires, I gradually want to become the richest and perhaps the most famous; these ideals affect my beliefs about what is good in life. My choices have affected my intellect by giving me a false view of what is good. I am now disoriented. Gradually, I am won over by an ideal that involves wanting to be the best, but in my own manner as a creature; that is, I cannot, as a creature, be the greatest in the way God is, but I can be the greatest creature, and I want that way of being the greatest to be the greatest, period. The will enters here to sway the intellect to disbelief. I want to believe, and choose to believe that God either does not exist or is not good in the way that he is presented in scriptures. I make him out to be susceptible to the flaws of creatures. I will no doubt want others to share my false view of God, which I may eventually come to believe, in order that they might at least come to share my inflated vision of myself. I have come to base my life on a false vision of what is good. My will and my beliefs are oriented toward a hollow, illusory, and indeed, an impossible goal, and I strive to bring others to share these views and desires in order to shore up my own moral mirage. I have, in this case, made of my life a worthless sham, through rejecting a genuine end, and, worse yet, I may not even realize it.

Nietzsche’s The Will to Power, by Alphonso Lingis (excerpt)

This is an excerpt from “The Will to Power,” an essay by one of my teachers, Alphonso Lingis, which offers, I think, some excellent preliminary insight into Nietzsche’s extraordinary term “The Will to Power”:

The Will to Power

by Alphonso Lingis

Source: David B. Allison (ed.), The New Nietzsche: Contemporary Styles of Interpretation, MIT Press, 1985, pp. 37-63

We would like to ask Nietzsche; what is meant by the will to power? What is meant by saying that life is will to power? What are the powers of life? What does it mean to say that the will to power is the basis of all that is?

Thus we would put to Nietzsche the familiar form of the philosophical question. It asks after the essence of the Will to Power. The philosophical question ‘what is … ?’ is answered by supplying the quiddity, the essence. Philosophical thought is a questioning of appearances, an investigation of their essence, their organizing structure, their telos, their meaning.

This questioning assumes that the sequences of appearances mean something, indicate, refer to an underlying something, a hypokeimenon. It is metaphysical; it takes the appearances to be signs. Philosophical interrogation of the world is a reading of the world, an assumption of the succession of sensorial images as signs of intelligible essences.

Nietzsche refuses this reading of the world; he declares that the essences that the philosophical intelligence arrives at are in fact only the senses of the things — their meanings. The metaphysical reading of the world is a world-hermeneutics — an interpretation, an estimation, a valuation. ‘Insofar as the word “knowledge” has any meaning, the world is knowable; but it is interpretable otherwise, it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings — “Perspectivism.” ’

It is possible to interpret this as Nietzsche’s virulent and extremist statement of the central thesis of modern idealism: the essences found through philosophical interrogation do not reveal the things themselves productive of their appearances, issuing signs of themselves, but reveal the acts and laws of the subject that interprets. In this sense Heidegger has called Nietzsche the most coherent subjectivist and the last Cartesian.

But there are Nietzschean reasons behind his statement, not Kantian ones. First, if the philosophical reading finds behind the flow of appearances an order of essences that account for them, Nietzsche finds behind those very essences, those senses, those interpretations, the Will to Power that accounts for them. But the Will to Power is not an essence, a quiddity behind the essences. It is, Nietzsche says, just ‘the last instance which we could go back to … !’ It is an instance rather than a substance or a substrate; it is the force behind all the forms. Heidegger says that it is the Being in all the beings — that is, the productivity that pro-duces, that brings forth to their stance and their constancy, and brings out in the open, into the light, the forms of being that scintillate in the theater of the world.

The will to power is not just power or force, but Will to Power: always will for more power. It is not an essence; it is neither structure, telos, nor meaning, but continual sublation of all telos, transgression of all ends, production of all concordant and contradictory meanings, interpretations, valuations. It is the chaos, the primal fund of the unformed — not matter, but force beneath the cosmos, which precedes the forms and makes them possible as well as transitory.

Will to Power can function neither as the reason that accounts for the order of essences, nor as the foundation that sustains them in being. What could function as ground — as ratio and as foundation — for the order of essences is the stability of ultimate unity, is God or the transcendental ego, both of which Nietzsche declares to be dead. The Will to Power is an abyss (Abgrund), the groundless chaos beneath all the grounds, all the foundations, and it leaves the whole order of essences groundless. ‘Indeed, he will doubt whether a philosopher could possibly have “ultimate and real” opinions, whether behind ever one of his caves there is not, must not be, another, deeper cave —a more comprehensive, stranger, richer world beyond the surface, an abysmally deep ground behind every ground, under every attempt to furnish “grounds.” ’

If Being, then, is not a ground, but an abyss, chaos, there is consequently in Nietzsche a quite new, nonmetaphysical or transmetaphysical understanding of beings, of things.

3 Prisoners and 5 Hats: The Answer

This is a logic puzzle. This is the page that has the ANSWER.  If you want to see the puzzle without the answer, go HERE.

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There were three prisoners in certain jail, one of whom had normal sight, one of whom had only one eye, and the third of whom was completely blind. The jailer liked to play tricks on his prisoners, so one day he brought them all three out and had them stand in a line. He then showed them five hats, three white and two red, which he hid in a bag. From these five hats, he selected three and put one on each of the prisoners’ heads. None of the men could see what color hat he himself wore. The jailor offered freedom to the sighted man, if he could tell him what color his hat was (and to prevent guessing, he threatened execution for a wrong answer). The sighted man could not tell what color hat he wore, and declined to answer. The jailor next offered the same terms to the one-eyed man, who also could not tell what color hat he wore, and also declined to answer. At this point the jailor thought his game was done, but was delighted when the blind prisoner spoke up and asked if he didn’t get a turn? Laughing, the jailer offered the blind man the same terms as the others. The blind prisoner smiled and replied,

I do not need my sight;
From what my friends have said,
I clearly see my hat is _____!

And so he won his freedom. How did the blind prisoner know what color his hat was? And what color was it?

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ANSWER: The blind prisoner’s hat is WHITE.

PROOF: There are seven possible permutations of hats:

1   W    R    R
2   R    W    R
3   W    W   R
4   W   R    W
5   R    W   W
6   R    R    W
7   W   W   W

(1) If the permutation 1 were correct, then the 1st prisoner would see two RED hats and know his hat was WHITE. But the 1st prisoner doesn’t know what color his hat is, so permutation 1 is ruled out.

(2) The 2nd prisoner looks at the 3rd prisoner. If he sees a RED hat on the 3rd prisoner, then he will know that his hat must be WHITE. That is, if the 3rd prisoner has a RED hat, the 2nd prisoner would know that either permutation 2 or permutation 3 is correct, and either way, his hat must be WHITE. The only permutation where the 3rd prisoner could have a RED hat and the 2nd prisoner NOT have a WHITE hat is permutation 1, which is already ruled out already in (1). So if the 2nd prisoner sees a RED had on the 3rd prisoner, we would know his hat is WHITE. But he does not know what color his hat is. Therefore, he does not see a RED hat on the 3rd prisoner. Therefore, the 3rd prisoner’s hat must be WHITE.

(3) To sum up, the 1st prisoner’s ignorance rules out permutation 1. The 2nd prisoner’s ignorance rules out permutation 2 and permutation 3.  Since permutations 1-3 are ruled out, the correct answer must be 4, 5, 6 or 7.  And it doesn’t matter which one is correct, because in all of these, the 3rd prisoner’s hat is WHITE, which is all he needs to know.