al-Ghazali and the Apes of Unbelief

al-Ghazali was one of the greatest of the Islamic thinkers. Virtually single-handedly, al-Ghazali brought it about that Islam came to regard mathematics, science, and philosophy with suspicion and hostility. And this, arguably, was what was responsible for what has been called “the closing of the Islamic mind,” and the bringing of the Islamic Golden Age of intellectual inquiry (~950-1150) to its end.

Even today, the Islamic world remains on the whole very hostile to the very idea of science and philosophy—these things seem to be man attempting to fathom the ways of Allah, in a way which is blasphemous and impious, as well as absurd and ridiculous. What man can fathom the mind of God? What man would be so presumptuous?

The Muslim world likes technology—because these things may easily be regarded as gifts from Allah. Muslims tend to deny any strong causal link between developed theoretical science and technological development. If you assert that there is one, you will be told (correctly) that correlation does not entail causation. Muslims are, or tend to be, Humeans (or more precisely, Hume is a Ghazalite or Ash ̔arite, al-Ghazali following al Ash ̔ari on this crucial point) that

  1. Correlation does not establish causation.
  2. All attempts to establish causation do so by means of correlation.
  3. ∴ Causation can never be established.
  4. ∴ There is no evidence for causation.
  5. ∴ Natural cause and effect are fictions of the mind.

Hume taught that “cause and effect” was not a reality, but a mere psychological habit the human mind has of connecting things. It followed that all or most of human science was not grounded in reason, but it an irrational and unjustifiable psychological prejudice. So Hume ended up in a deep and almost total skepticism.

al Ghazali applies Ockham’s Razor centuries before Ockham and notes (correctly) that the most parsimonious explanation of seeming regularity in the world, or what some call “nature,” is simply a single cause: the omnipotent will of Allah. One cannot get more parsimonious than one and only one cause.

So it follows that there is simply no such thing as “nature.” There are no second-order causes that operate apart from the will of Allah. It is not the case that paper placed in fire will burn because the fire consumes it.  Fire has no power to cause anything, including burning—what happens is, when paper is place into fire, Allah may (or may not) cause the paper to be burnt. Every event, bar none, is caused directly by the will of Allah. The word “nature” is not the name of anything. There is no such thing as nature. The very idea of “nature” and therefore of “natural sciences” rests on a mistake, namely, that there is an order of causation that is independent of the will of Allah. But this cannot be so, so it is not so.

It is a strange argument for most Westerners, given their understanding that “nature” was the great discover of the Greeks that allows the very possibility of philosophy and science. But it isn’t entirely foreign to the Western tradition either. As I’ve already noted, William of Ockham taught just such a an occasionalism conception in which God is the single cause of all events; and David Hume took philosophers and scientists to task for believing their concept of “cause and effect” was a rational one, as opposed to a merely irrational habit of associating two things in the mind.


As new and radical as the insights of Ockham and Hume seemed in their own day, they were only following in the footsteps of al Ghazali. Here are some of his words.

As a thought experiment, when you read al-Ghazali’s words below, replace “mathematics” and “mathematician” with “science” and “scientist” respectively:

Mathematics comprises the knowledge of calculation, geometry, and cosmography: it has no connection with the religious sciences, and proves nothing for or against religion; it rests on a foundation of proofs which, once known and understood, cannot be refuted. Mathematics tend, however, to produce two bad results.

The first is this: Whoever studies this science admires the subtlety and clearness of proofs. His confidence in philosophy increases, and he thinks that all its departments are capable of of the same clearness and solidity of proof as mathematics. But when he hears people speak of the unbelief and impiety of mathematicians, of their professed disregard for the Divine Law, which is notorious … he says to himself that, if there was truth in religion, it would not have escaped those who have displayed so much keenness of intellect in the study of mathematics.

Next, when he becomes aware of the unbelief and rejection of religion on the part of these learned men, he concludes that to reject religion is reasonable. How many of such men gone astray I have met whose sole argument was that just mentioned. And supposing one puts the following objection: “It does not follow that a man who excels in one branch of knowledge excels in all others, nor that he should be equally versed in jurisprudence, theology, and medicine. It is possible to be entirely ignorant of metaphysics, and yet to be an excellent grammarian. There are past masters in every science who are entirely ignorant of other branches of knowledge. The arguments of the ancient philosophers are rigidly demonstrative in mathematics and only conjectural in religious questions. In order to ascertain this one must proceed to a thorough examination of the matter.” Supposing, I say, one make the above objection to these ‘apes of unbelief,’ they find it distasteful. Falling a prey to their passions, to a besotted vanity, and the wish to pass for learned men, they persist in maintaining the preeminence of mathematicians in all branches of knowledge. This is a serious evil, and for this reason those who study mathematics should be checked from going too far in their researches. For though far removed as it may be from the things of religion, this study, serving as it does as an introduction to the philosophic systems, casts over religion its malign influence. It is rarely that a man devotes himself to it without robbing himself of his faith and casting off the restraints of religion.

Now tell me: has he missed the mark?

Nietzsche Contra Buddhism

Nietzsche despised Christianity, because he believed—falsely—that it was essentially hostile to life, that it substituted a fictitious afterlife for life in this world and taught a hatred and despising of the body.  I believe this is a false understanding of true Christian teaching although this kind of thing is certainly something heretical Christians have fallen into from time to time.

The despair and world-weariness that Nietzsche reproaches Christianity with he called nihilism, and it is something he found to be the essence of Buddhism as well.  He referred to Buddhism as a “passive nihilism” and found it far less dangerous than Christianity, which was “active nihilism” insofar as Christian love, in contrast to Buddhist resignation, actively engages in the world to help the weak and suffering (the contradiction between Christian activity in the world and Christianity’s supposed hatred for the world seems not to have occurred to him).

Anyhow, I was reading some Buddhist texts, and I find that Buddhism suffers from (1) bad metaphysics—the Buddha present arguments that Aristotle would tear to shreds in seconds, and (2) exactly the kind of nihilism that Nietzsche charges it with. As far as I can tell, Buddhism really does despise life and the body.

I am going to juxtapose the Buddha’s words with those of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.

The Buddha says

The learned noble disciple feels loathing for the body, for feeling, for perception, for the aggregates, for consciousness.  Feeling disgust, he becomes free from passion, through freedom from passion he is emancipated, and in the emancipated one arises the knowledge of his emancipation.  He understands that rebirth is destroyed, the religious life has been led, done is what was to be done, there is nothing beyond this world.

The Buddha teaching “loathing for the body” put me in mind of Zarathustra’s speech “On the Despisers of the Body,” but the nearby speech “On the Preachers of Death” is even more appropriate.

Here is Zarathustra:


There are preachers of death; and the earth is full of those to whom one must preach renunciation of life. The earth is full of the superfluous; life is spoiled by the all-too-many. May they be lured from this life with the “eternal life”! Yellow the preachers of death wear, or black. But I want to show them to you in still other colors.

“Yellow and black,” i.e. Buddhist monks and Christian priests.

There are the terrible ones who carry around within themselves the beast of prey and have no choice but lust or self-laceration. And even their lust is still self-laceration. They have not even become human beings yet, these terrible ones: let them preach renunciation of life and pass away themselves!

This passage is odd, since Nietzsche and Zarathustra both usually praise “beasts of prey” as an ideal to be aspired to.

There are those with consumption of the soul: hardly are they born when they begin to die and to long for doctrines of weariness and renunciation. They would like to be dead, and we should welcome their wish. Let us beware of waking the dead and disturbing these living coffins!

They encounter a sick man or an old man or a corpse, and immediately they say, “Life is refuted.” But only they themselves are refuted, and their eyes, which see only this one face of existence. Shrouded in thick melancholy and eager for the little accidents that bring death, thus they wait with clenched teeth. Or they reach for sweets while mocking their own childishness; they clutch the straw of their life and mock that they still clutch a straw. Their wisdom says, “A fool who stays alive—but such fools are we. And this is surely the most foolish thing about life.”

“Old man, sick man, corpse.” These are three of the Four Sights beheld by Prince Siddhārtha Gautama that set him on his journey to becoming the Buddha.  Zarathustra does not mention the “fourth sight,” which was a monk who had renounced the world—but of course that is what this speech is about.

“Life is only suffering,” others say, and do not lie: see to it, then, that you cease! See to it, then, that the life which is only suffering ceases!

The first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is “Life is Suffering [duḥkha]. Everything else in Buddhism follows from this rejection of life.

And let this be the doctrine of your virtue: “Thou shalt kill thyself! Thou shalt steal away!”

I can honestly see no reason that suicide would not be the immediate course of every Buddhist if it were not for the additional belief in rebirth.  If the Buddhist believed, like the modern Western atheist, that the end of mortal life ended existence, this seems to be a direct and immediate good.

“Lust is sin,” says one group that preaches death; “let us step aside and beget no children.”

Upon the birth of his son, Rāhula, the Buddha pronounced “A son is born to me, a fetter has been forged for me.” [Rāhu jāto, bandhanam jātam.] In the Dhammapada, the Buddha says

The wise do not call that a strong fetter which is made of iron, wood, or hemp; far stronger is the care for precious stones and rings, for sons and a wife.  That fetter the wise call strong which drags down, seems soft, but is difficult to undo; after having cut this at last, people leave the world, free from cares, and leaving desires and pleasures behind.

The Buddha does not teach a doctrine of sin as Christians understand that concept, but he does teach that lust is a fetter, and that one ought not to desire a family or children.  Back to Zarathustra:

“Giving birth is troublesome,” says another group; “why go on giving birth? One bears only unfortunates!”

I do hear this often said today, but not by Christians.

And they too are preachers of death.

“Pity is needed,” says the third group. “Take from me what I have! Take from me what I am! Life will bind me that much less!”

This too seems to be a fairly direct expression of the Buddha’s teaching, although it is much more passive.

If they were full of pity through and through, they would make life insufferable for their neighbors. To be evil, that would be their real goodness. But they want to get out of life: what do they care that with their chains and presents they bind others still more tightly?

And you, too, for whom life is furious work and unrest—are you not very weary of life? Are you not very ripe for the preaching of death? All of you to whom furious work is dear, and whatever is fast, new, and strange—you find it hard to bear yourselves; your industry is escape and the will to forget yourselves. If you believed more in life you would fling yourselves less to the moment. But you do not have contents enough in yourselves for waiting—and not even for idleness.

This restlessness and relentless drive for distraction is an important modern phenomenon. We moderns are busy, but rarely happy. Here is Pascal on this point:


Back to Zarathustra:

Everywhere the voice of those who preach death is heard; and the earth is full of those to whom one must preach death. Or “eternal life”—that is the same to me, if only they pass away quickly.

This spoke Zarathustra

What I find interesting is that throughout his denunciation of the “preachers of death,” Zarathustra alternates between the teachings of Buddhism and various moderns, but nowhere actually directly cites a Christian teaching—instead he relies on his usual hermeneutic of finding in the Christian teaching of eternal life a concealed preaching of death.

Why does he do this? The answer is obvious. If one takes Christian teaching at face value, Christianity preaches not death, but life. It teaches, in fact, the total and complete victory of life over death.  Consider the following:




As we Orthodox (and also Byzantine Rite Catholics) sing in our Paschal Troparion:

Χριστὸς ἀνέστη ἐκ νεκρῶν,
θανάτῳ θάνατον πατήσας,
καὶ τοῖς ἐν τοῖς μνήμασι,
ζωὴν χαρισάμενος!

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!

For the Christian, these words, Χριστὸς ἀνέστηChrist is risen—signify the ultimate defeat of and repudiation of death.

For Buddhism, the only possible goal is detachment and renunciation, by means of liberation from selfish craving [taṇhā], to a state of nonbeing [nirvāṇa; literally “blowing out” as of a candle, or “quenching” as of a fire; “extinguishing”; “extinction”].

Life is suffering, says the Buddha, and so he preaches nirvāṇa, extinction—death.

The Buddha’s understanding of the human condition was not false, but he was unaware that this condition was that only of fallen humanity, suffering the twin sicknesses of sin and death.  Nor can the Buddha’s path, noble though his effort was, attain its aim.  His [selfish?] desire for detachment from selfish passion led the Buddha to mistakenly attempt the annihilation of the self.  The Buddha, alas, became a preacher of death.

I close with one final contrast between Nietzsche’s teaching and that of the Buddha. I like to think of this as Nietzsche’s One Sentence Refutation of Buddhism (he has several of those):



Nietzsche has the right of it. Any doctrine that stands against laughter is eo ipso false!

[NOTE: Nietzsche has a good deal more to say about Buddhism and the Buddha. Perhaps I will return to this topic later.]

David S. Oderberg’s “Why Abortion Isn’t Important”

This is an important article by philosopher David S. Oderberg, which first appeared in the Human Life Review, 2002. I highly recommend Professor Oderberg’s works, particularly his books on ethics, Moral Theory: A Non-Consequentialist Approach and Applied Ethics: A Non-Consequentialist Approach.  His work in metaphysics, Real Essentialism, is no less valuable, but is highly technical—I recommend in only for those already well versed in metaphysics.  It is dry and difficult, although the case he makes—for the reality of essences—could not be of greater importance.  My readers probably know that I hold the nominalism of William of Ockham to be GROUND ZERO of where Western Civilization went off the rails. Everything that has gone wrong since has gone wrong because of the denial of real essences and Platonic forms.  Indeed, I believe this is the basic thrust of Oderberg’s case below “abortion isn’t important,” he says, in the sense that, horror that it is, it is only one local manifestation of a much deeper sickness of the intellect and the will that has infected our civilization for a very long time now.  It is “not important” only in the sense that it is first of all a symptom of a much deeper and more pervasive disease.

But I don’t mean to interpret his words for you. I mean only to present them to you:


Why Abortion Isn’t Important

Human Life Review | Summer 2002 | David S. Oderberg

Abortion is not important. I never thought I could write such a sentence. In fact, I never thought I could think it. But I do. That’s not all. I also think that euthanasia is not important. Nor cloning. Nor contraception. Nor IVF, embryo experimentation, genetic engineering, nor any other issue at the core of pro-life activity and policy. In fact, pro-life activity and policy themselves are not important. However, before you write a letter of outrage to the editor, or tear up your subscription, allow me to explain.

To clarify what I mean by these issues’ not being important, let me point out that I am not saying for a minute that pro-lifers should stop being pro-lifers, that we should spend our afternoons tending our rose bushes rather than campaigning, protesting, writing, or whatever it is that we do best in defending the pro-life cause. Like most pro-lifers, I am opposed to every single one of the things listed above. Every one of them is a moral crime, an attack on the sanctity of human life, and every one of them should be opposed in heart and mind and action by all people of good will. And yet—they are not important.

As a professional philosopher, I am trained to look at the big picture. True, most of my fellow philosophers, at least in the Anglophone academies, have pretty much given up on big pictures. We philosophers hardly ever talk about big pictures at our end-of-term garden parties, or in the common room between lectures. We don’t knock on each other’s doors and say, “Hey, Fred, what do you think of the state of Western civilization?” It’s just not done. What is done is to knock on a colleague’s door and say, “Hey, Fred, what do you think about Quine’s denial of the analytic/synthetic distinction? Don’t you think recent theories of meaning have cast doubt on his critique?”

Don’t get me wrong. Quine’s denial of the analytic/synthetic distinction is important and well worth debating. Plenty of good papers have been published on it. My list of things to research in philosophy would be a lot shorter if I didn’t have subtle or not-so-subtle technical distinctions to analyze. It was good enough for Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas (let alone all the other great figures in the history of my subject)—so it’s good enough for me. Yet through it all, through the endless training in technicalities, and even despite the best efforts of many of those who taught me to philosophize, I have, one way or another, been trained to look at the big picture.

Which is why I have come more and more to see that pro-life issues, including the ones on which I have published at length and will continue to publish, form a smaller component of the overall stance that should be taken against society than many pro-lifers would think. Social activism, like everything else in the marketplace of goods and ideas, inevitably involves a division of labour. Animal rights campaigners (for all the bad mixed in with their good intentions) campaign for animals and very little else; animals are their world, the abolition of the battery cage their raison d’être. Campaigners against paedophilia have the welfare of children as their sole social concern, and see social policy through the prism of their anxiety that children be protected at all costs. Anti-globalists interpret every facet of economic policy in terms of its promotion or reduction of the depredations of transnational big business.

Pro-lifers are no exception. Of course I exaggerate, but the basic point is correct, that when a person embarks on the defense of a cause (and why they pick one cause rather than another depends on all sorts of reasons both personal and political), they tend to focus exclusively on that cause and to see all other social issues primarily in terms of how those issues reflect upon it. The division of labour is a good and necessary thing, both in economics and in social activism. I am certainly not advocating the disappearance of single-issue campaigning, or of multi-issue campaigning (like pro-life activism) that revolves around one large chunk of social policy. No policy would ever change if activists regularly spread their campaigning too thinly, thus depleting their intellectual and emotional (not to mention financial) resources beyond their usefulness in any one specialized operation.

What I am advocating, however, is that pro-lifers as a whole spend more time thinking about bigger issues and how they relate to their primary concern to protect innocent human life from womb to tomb. Perhaps the single thing that contributed most to this realization was when I first read the famous paper published in 1958 by the eminent (and recently departed) Cambridge philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe. Writing about the utilitarianism that has, since Bentham and Mill, taken over virtually all moral theorizing in the English-speaking departments of philosophy (perhaps less true today of high-level moral theory than of applied ethics, where of course the damage is really done—witness Singer and Co.), Professor Anscombe noted that it had become a serious topic of moral debate among philosophers whether it could ever be justified to kill an innocent man (e.g., to save five others). Her response was brave—brave because it went so contrary to the grain of philosophy as argument and dialectic. What she said (and here I paraphrase and interpret¹) was that when confronted with a person who really thinks it a live moral issue whether killing the innocent might ever be justifiable, even if that person offers sophisticated utilitarian arguments in support, the right thing to do is to walk away rather than argue; for such a person shows evidence of a corrupt mind.

Here is one of the (to my mind) greatest philosophers produced by England in the last century, telling people—especially other philosophers—that sometimes it is better to walk away than to argue. Why? Because a person’s conscience can become so corrupt, and lead to such equally corrupt rationalizations, that to engage them in serious argument about those rationalizations is both pointless—being unlikely to have the slightest impact on their thinking—and, what is worse, dangerous—bringing the thinker of good will into serious danger of having his own conscience perverted by the sophistries of the other.

Professor Anscombe did, nevertheless, write much in defense of life— though, notably, much of it for those who already valued life, arming them with arguments, rather than for those who could not even see the truth of the conclusions the arguments were arguments for. As to activism, well, it is not often that one sees a picture of an eighty-year-old female academic lying on the ground being dragged off by the police to the local lock-up. Her crime? Protesting outside an abortuary, of course.

Had she decided that protest against the devaluers of life was more rational than engaging them in argument over the futility of utilitarian thinking? I never got the chance to ask her, but the remarks in her 1958 paper gave pause for thought. After all, thousands of philosophers across the Western world (and it is the West with which I am solely concerned) continue to pose the very sorts of question Anscombe derided as showing evidence of moral corruption. Killing the innocent? No, that’s no longer even a question—most philosophers do not have a problem with it. Rather, it’s meatier territory they stake out now. In fact, when I first learned that the Doctor Exsecrabilis Peter Singer was now somewhat of a fan of bestiality,² I caught myself being not nearly as surprised as I thought I might be: surely this was the logical working out (by a thinker who satisfies G. K. Chesterton’s definition of a maniac—not someone who has lost his reason, but someone who has lost everything but his reason) of a moral position that had already been poisoned decades ago by those first thoughts about whether morality is all about costs and benefits, and whether the job of modern moralists was to overthrow tradition and replace it with a brand new morality for our brand new times.

I assume it will be paedophilia next. Or perhaps incest. (Only a few weeks ago I happened to listen on BBC radio to a learned discussion of incest [not involving Singer] that was as remarkable for its high seriousness as for the insouciance of its participants.) I ask pro-lifers: can we really expect to have a rational debate with these custodians of what’s left of our cultural norms? Perhaps we should keep trying, lest there be one single person out there who changes his mind because of what pro-lifers have to say. Nevertheless, we also play right into the hands of the modern moralists when we approach ethical debate with such a narrow focus. What happens when a pro-lifer publicly debates, say, the so-called “morning-after pill” (alias the early abortion pill) with one of its advocates? Usually, the pro-lifer is accused of an unhealthy obsession with what goes on in people’s bedrooms. Why all this fixation on sex? they want to know. Is it the usual “Catholic guilt” thing, or the fact that they want to deny to others what they secretly wish they could have for themselves? Why don’t they get out of other people’s private lives and worry about their own?

Of course, none of these responses is remotely rational. But the point is that listeners to such debates usually take the rhetorical bait, having long ago abandoned any pretense at rational thought about the issues themselves. And so pro-lifers are portrayed all too often as swivel-eyed, obsessive single-issue fanatics. Needless to say, the double standards are obvious, since such epithets are rarely applied to animal liberationists or anti-globalists. The pro-lifers always get the worst of it: partly due to the obsessions of their opponents, who are really the ones who are utterly fixated on all things carnal; partly through a genuine fear that pro-lifers still (more so in the USA than the UK, by far) have political clout and can actually change things, at least by clogging the courts and slowing down the passage of anti-life measures, at most by getting their own measures adopted (e.g. anti-euthanasia legislation). Partly, as well, due to a tiny trace of residual moral conscience left in their critics. But partly also, it must be said, to the pro-lifers’ own excessively narrow focus.

Does that mean I advocate that pro-lifers should stop being obsessed by matters affecting the sanctity of life? Of course not. If we are not obsessed by life and death, we might as well not be obsessed by anything. What I do advocate, however, is that pro-lifers increase their obsession—not just with life matters, but with the whole state of Western society. We need to be obsessed by the state of utter desolation into which Western society is throwing itself. It may well be (as I believe) that what is left of Western civilization is doomed to extinction—but doing and caring nothing about it is just not an option. It is not only on what we achieve (and we may achieve a lot in the short or medium term), but on what we defend that we will be judged. And we must come to the realization that when a society has reached a state in which abortion and other attacks on life are not only tolerated; not only legalized; not only accepted as normal; but are positively embraced by millions of people as the very solution to what ails that society—then we must realize that something has not only gone seriously wrong, but went wrong a long time ago, long before the Sixties, long before any of us was alive.

We do not need to become social or cultural historians to analyze the current state of things. We should also acknowledge that there is a feedback loop among the phenomena under discussion: explanation is not always in the one direction. A general state of slow-burning moral disintegration gave rise to the climate in which the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s could take place; but equally, with that revolution now secure and its aging vanguard installed as our rulers, the revolution feeds back into the wider state of decay and gives it added momentum. Which way the explanation should go in a given case is best left to the historians. What is more important is that we need instead to see that actions such as abortion can only ever become the norm in a society in which the very bonds that tie us together as human beings have been torn apart. We need to understand that the anti-life movement is a secondary cancer, a metastasis of a primary tumor that began to grow when the West began to lose its religious sensibilities, its sense of communal obligation, its norms of respect and due deference for the elderly, the wise, the experienced, those who govern in our name, its standards of gentility and politeness, when people began twistedly to interpret manners as hypocrisy, noblesse oblige as exploitation, civic duty as state oppression, state patronage as a human right, love of neighbor as poking one’s nose into the business of others, hypocrisy as the greatest vice of all (to which I reply—better double standards than no standards), and proper autonomy as the right to do as one pleases.

The primary cancer is as deep as it is old, and it is almost certainly terminal. But for us—as campaigners, writers, thinkers, activists—its terminal nature cannot be of prime concern. What we must attend to is the enrichment of our thinking about pro-life issues by studied consideration of just how the anti-life culture is rooted in a much broader social pathology. We need not, and must not, become self-styled experts on everything that is wrong with Western society (which of us can claim any such expertise?), and we must not dilute the pro-life message to the point where it no longer stands out against the cacophony of perpetual social commentary that clogs the exhausted airwaves and ever diminishing magazines of “opinion.”

Still, pro-lifers must widen their perspective. We must understand the simple fact that a society in which people are judged not by their looks but by their virtues is a society in which abortion would be impossible. That a society in which travelers regularly give up their seats to the elderly is a society in which euthanasia would be impossible. That the antithesis of a me-first society in which physical perfection is the ultimate goal is a society in which genetic screening for physical handicap would be considered not as a moral outrage, but as just plain absurd—unthinkable, even. This is what I mean by saying that abortion is not important. A society which has gone as far as devaluing the lives of its own members has gone wrong long before. It is not just the metastases which must be attacked, but their malignant origin. Sure, let us be obsessed by anything that touches on life and death—how could we not? But let us also be obsessed by much, much more.


1. To read her exact words, see ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ in her collected papers entitled Ethics, Religion and Politics: Philosophical Papers, vol. III (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981), pp.26-42.

2. See his review of Midas Dekkers, Dearest Pet: On Bestiality, published on in 2001 and also in the British magazine Prospect (April 2001).


Why the Dictionary Definition of Feminism Fails

Definitions depend on usage.  For example, anyone is free to stipulate the definition of any word.  One could, if one wanted to, define feminism as ‘the doctrine that women are fundamentally inferior to men and should serve them.’  This would certainly create an odd sort of ‘feminist,’ which is the main reason we try not to do that with important words.  Definitions are meant to make something clear.  Dictionary definitions are meant to make clear how a given word or term is actually used or has been used in a given language.

There are of course many dictionaries, and thus many “dictionary definitions” of feminism (and everything else), but this is the go-to one used in most public discourse on the internet, the one given by Google when you type “define feminism” into it:


Definition is something people do for a reason.  It is an action that has an end, namely,  to make clear the meaning or usage of the term being defined.  It is thus possible to fail in giving a definition, by failing to capture the actual usage of a term.  And like other human activities that aim at a definite end, definition has rules or guidelines; these rules are not compulsory rules, in the sense that “you morally ought to obey them,” but are similar to logical rules, in the sense that “if you violate these rules you will fail at your task”—whether that task be “making a valid argument” or “making a term clear in its usage.”

Briefly, the criteria of sound definition are

  1. A definition must be coextensive. It must catch every instance and exclude no instance of what is being defined.
  2. A definition must be unambiguous.  Ambiguous terms in a definition cause the meaning to be unclear.
  3. A definition must be concise, not lengthy.
  4. A definition must be positive, not negative.
  5. A definition must be literal, not metaphorical.
  6. A definition must be non-circular.

I grant that, as far as I can see, the “dictionary definition” of feminism meets criteria 3-6.

Where it fails are 1 and 2.

The first point is fairly clear, and it is why most people get very annoyed when feminists appeal to the dictionary definition of feminism.  It is annoying because they are very clearly NOT trying to explain what feminism IS, but trying to SELL IT to you by creating a false equivalence with something that sounds (and is) much better than feminism, viz. egalitarianism, as applied to the sexes.

This point  is so stupidly simple, it can be put in the form of a diagram that even a child can understand. I apologize for insulting your intelligence, but it really IS necessary to hammer this point home with this lack of subtlety—because the people who cite the dictionary definition aren’t even trying to be honest, it is necessary to rub their faces in how wrong they are:


This is the basic problem. The sets of “feminists” and “people who advocate for women’s rights on the basis of social, political, and economic equality with men” are just not coextensive.  Yes, they overlap somewhat, but there are very many feminists who do not advocate for equality, and very many people who do advocate for the equality of the sexes (and I am one of them) who are not feminists.  And the reason that so many of us advocates of women’s equality are NOT feminists, is precisely because so many feminists are NOT advocates of equality.

Since feminism (femin-ISM) is an ideology, and ideologies are belief-systems, no one can force anyone else to subscribe to an ideology against their will.  And yet, this is what those who cite the dictionary definition of feminism are trying to do: they are trying to FORCE you to self-identify as a feminist, on the basis of some of your beliefs, and they are trying to do it with a FALSE definition of feminism.  And one thing that is, or at least should be, anathema in a pluralistic liberal democracy is attempts to FORCE others to believe as you want them to believe.  In a free and democratic society,  we use PERSUASION rather than FORCE, and ideally, RATIONAL PERSUASION, which is different from COERCIVE PERSUASION and MANIPULATIVE PERSUASION.

To be clear, I was using “force you to identify as a feminists” in the looser sense of “coercively and manipulatively persuade you to.”  There have only been a few attempts to use genuine force (so far), as when a member of the E.U. Parliament attempted to make it a CRIME to criticize feminism.  And of course, governmental FORCE was what Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn were asking for when they went before the UN, asking that the UN put pressure on national governments to implement feminist ideology by law.  However benighted and ridiculous Emma Watson’s HeForShe campaign was, at least she wasn’t advocating that the UN take steps to see her ideology implemented by force of law.

So, while most feminists would LOVE to use actual FORCE to punish anyone who dissents from their ideology, they usually don’t have the power to do this, except in limited areas.  Rejecting feminism will indeed get you fired as a matter of course at many colleges and universities in the United States, where feminist ideologues essentially control those institutions.

But let me explain why this is DISHONEST PERSUASION: it is (1) COERCIVE PERSUASION in the sense that feminists will do whatever is in their power to harm you if you do not agree with them, and it is (2) MANIPULATIVE PERSUASION in the sense that feminists deliberately distort the truth in order to sell and push their ideology.  The basic move in the appeal to the dictionary definition is an appeal to shame. In a highly egalitarian society such as ours, people are very vulnerable to being socially shamed if they hold anti-egalitarian views.  Feminists, by simply equating feminism with the egalitarian view in regard to the sexes, attempt to socially shame and stigmatize anyone who does not identify as a feminist or accept feminist ideology as being an anti-egalitarian or sexist.

This tactic is of course not limited to appeals to the dictionary; many feminists as a matter of course label anyone who disagrees with their ideological position as “sexist” or even “misogynist.” This is DISHONEST because it isn’t true.  Most people in the modern West are egalitarians with respect to the sexes—ironically, the largest group in the modern West of non-egalitarians with regard to the sexes are certain kinds of feminists, who are female supremacists.  So, a feminist tells a LIE (manipulative persuasion) by saying feminism and egalitarianism of the sexes are the same, and attempts on the basis of this lie to SHAME and STIGMATIZE you (coercive persuasion) for not being a feminist on the false basis that not being a feminist is equivalent to not being an egalitarian regarding the sexes, or worse, is being a sexist, or still worse, is being a misogynist.

All this seems pretty obvious.  I’m only bothering to spell it out because I enjoy laying things out clearly.

The SECOND reason the dictionary definition of feminism fails is that it is not unambiguous. The problem turns on the word “equality.”  As the philosopher Roger Scruton has observed, there is hardly a more important word in modern political discourse that is so entirely resistant to clear definition:


Almost everyone in the modern West is “for equality,” but at the same time is completely unable to say what it is, how we would get it, and why it’s so desirable in the first place.  Almost no one, in the West or anywhere else, thinks that people should be treated “equally” in every respect. Nor is it clear exactly what it even MEANS to “treat people equally” in many cases.

Which brings us back to the problem with using such an unclear term in a definition.  There are simply too many ways to take “equality” for the definition to actually make clear what it is talking about.  Let me give just two examples of why this is bad:

(1) Since one kind of equality is identity or sameness, a stupid person who desires “equality” will tend to desire what we could call exactly-the-same-ness.  The problem with this is the context of the sexes, is that men and women are NOT the same, but rather different in fundamental ways.  This doesn’t mean, of course, that they should be treated unequally in the sense of unfairly, but remember, this is the stupid person’s reasoning we are going through.  “The only way to achieve equality is by sameness,” the stupid person reasons, “so equality requires that men and women be treated the same, and even more, that they be made the same. And since it is a moral imperative that they be made the same, they must really be the same, metaphysically. So we must ignore any evidence of natural difference, for example, biology, and indeed more than ignore it, condemn it as sexist.”

Since stupid people tend to equate equality with sameness, they also tend to equate difference with inequality, and so a great deal of modern feminism, as an ideology, advocates biological denialism. MOST PEOPLE who are principled egalitarians and want to see justice between the sexes (which is most people) are NOT signing up for an ideology that requires them to deny biology and other inconvenient parts of reality.  The dictionary definition of feminism does nothing to rule out the interpretation of equality as exactly-the-same-ness, which entails biology denialism specifically and more generally reality denialism.

(2) This one is also fairly obvious, given that it has been a point of contention in the West at least since Rousseau and the French Revolution, although it is probably more associated in the popular mind with Marx and Marxism.  I am of course talking about the distinction between equality of opportunity, which holds there ought to be a “level playing field” in which no one “begins the game” with any unearned or unfair advantages or disadvantages, and that, so long as the game isn’t rigged, and the players play fairly, justice has been satisfied, even if the outcomes of the players may be widely different; and equality of outcome, which holds that the game must be rigged to ensure that no one wins or loses, and indeed, no matter what the players do or fail to do, they obtain exactly the same results in the game.

The trouble with the Marxist understanding of equality is that it is antithetical to the other primary modern Western value, freedom or liberty.  The classical-liberal view accepts inequality of outcome, because it values both equality and liberty. So once again, the dictionary definition of feminism fails to tell us whether a feminist is interested in preserving freedom and liberty, especially and including women’s freedom, or whether a feminist, in Marxist fashion, is an authoritarian or totalitarian who hates liberty because it results in a kind of inequality which is deemed unacceptable.  Most people in the modern West place a high value on liberty, and would not sign up for an ideology that is anti-liberty.  However, there is also a rather sizable and vocal feminist minority (perhaps even a majority, certainly a plurality) who are more than happy to sacrifice liberty for the sake of their (Marxist) vision of equality—most of them are delusional or catastrophically naïve, and advocate the suppression of liberty on the assumption that it will only be the liberties of others which will be restricted.

I’m sure that if Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn got the censorship laws they advocate put in place, they would expect not ever to be subject to them—but that isn’t how things work, when you give the state broad powers to censor and control.  For example, consider a case from the history of feminism itself: Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, thwarted time and again in their attempts to implement censorship laws in the United States (they were repeated blocked by the First Amendment) eventually turned their efforts to Canada, which has no equivalent of the US’s First Amendment.  And they partially succeeded!  It became part of Canadian law that certain kinds of books could not be imported into Canada nor sold in Canadian bookstores. Really, they should have seen it coming.  Now, since the laws banned books that contain thing X, and MacKinnon and Dworkin write books about how awful a thing thing X is, it naturally follows that their books contain thing X—yes, it is there only in order to be condemned, but the law makes no distinction between various uses of thing X.  So, to their surprise and horror, MacKinnon and Dworkin found that they had succeeded in banning their own books in Canada and among the most affected by the new censorship laws were feminist bookstores and publishers, who found they could no longer publish or sell feminist books thanks to the new feminist censorship law. Feminism had gotten what it had asked for, and it had succeeded in censoring itself!

In sum, the dictionary definition of feminism fails as a useful definition because it asserts something false to actual usage, namely, the identity of feminism and egalitarianism regarding the sexes—and it does this dishonestly, as a technique to coerce and manipulate by means of appeals to shame made on the basis of this conflation; furthermore, it fails to sufficiently make clear what “feminism” even means, with the result that entire point of giving a definition, to make the meaning of a word clear, is not achieved.

I could talk about some other things, such as the inherent sexism involved in term itself,


but that is more of a meta-criticism of the term “feminism” than the failure of the dictionary definition of it.  So let this be enough for now.

I’ll leave you with a link to Satoshi Kanazawa’s article Why Modern Feminism is Illogical, Unnecessary, and Evil.  Read it and think it over.

EXCERPT: G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man

G. K. Chesterton’s prose and quick intellect never fail to move me.  This is an excerpt from his The Everlasting Man, a book that I understand was instrumental in C. S. Lewis’ conversion.  Chesterton’s writing is so powerful it almost makes ME want to convert to Christianity—even though I already did!


All the great groups that stood about the Cross represent in one way or another the great historical truth of the time; that the world could not save itself. Man could do no more. Rome and Jerusalem and Athens and everything else were going down like a sea turned into a slow cataract. Externally indeed the ancient world was still at its strongest; it is always at that moment that the inmost weakness begins. But in order to understand that weakness we must repeat what has been said more than once; that it was not the weakness of a thing originally weak. It was emphatically the strength of the world that was turned to weakness and the wisdom of the world that was turned to folly.

In this story of Good Friday it is the best things in the world that are at their worst. That is what really shows us the world at its worst. It was, for instance, the priests of a true monotheism and the soldiers of an international civilization. Rome, the legend, founded upon fallen Troy and triumphant over fallen Carthage, had stood for a heroism which was the nearest that any pagan ever came to chivalry. Rome had defended the household gods and the human decencies against the ogres of Africa and the hermaphrodite monstrosities of Greece. But in the lightning flash of this incident, we see great Rome, the imperial republic, going downward under her Lucretian doom. Skepticism has eaten away even the confident sanity of the conquerors of the world. He who is enthroned to say what is justice can only ask: ‘What is truth?’ So in that drama which decided the whole fate of antiquity, one of the central figures is fixed in what seems the reverse of his true role. Rome was almost another name for responsibility. Yet he stands for ever as a sort of rocking statue of the irresponsible. Man could do no more. Even the practical had become the impracticable. Standing between the pillars of his own judgement-seat, a Roman had washed his hands of the world.

There too were the priests of that pure and original truth that was behind all the mythologies like the sky behind the clouds. It was the most important truth in the world; and even that could not save the world. Perhaps there is something overpowering in pure personal theism; like seeing the sun and moon and sky come together to form one staring face. Perhaps the truth is too tremendous when not broken by some intermediaries divine or human; perhaps it is merely too pure and far away. Anyhow it could not save the world; it could not even conquer the world. There were philosophers who held it in its highest and noblest form; but they not only could not convert the world, but they never tried. You could no more fight the jungle of popular mythology with a private opinion than you could clear away a forest with a pocket-knife.

The Jewish priests had guarded it jealously in the good and the bad sense. They had kept it as a gigantic secret. As savage heroes might have kept the sun in a box, they kept the Everlasting in the tabernacle. They were proud that they alone could look upon the blinding sun of a single deity; and they did not know that they had themselves gone blind. Since that day their representatives have been like blind men in broad daylight, striking to right and left with their staffs, and cursing the darkness. But there has been that in their monumental monotheism that it has at least remained like a monument, the last thing of its kind, and in a sense motionless in the more restless world which it cannot satisfy. For it is certain that for some reason it cannot satisfy. Since that day it has never been quite enough to say that God is in his heaven and all is right with the world, since the rumor that God had left his heavens to set it right.

And as it was with these powers that were good, or at least had once been good, so it was with the element which was perhaps the best, or which Christ himself seems certainly to have felt as the best. The poor to whom he preached the good news, the common people who heard him gladly, the populace that had made so many popular heroes and demigods in the old pagan world, showed also the weaknesses that were dissolving the world. They suffered the evils often seen in the mob of the city, and especially the mob of the capital, during the decline of a society. The same thing that makes the rural population live on tradition makes the urban population live on rumor. Just as its myths at the best had been irrational, so its likes and dislikes are easily changed by baseless assertion that is arbitrary without being authoritative. Some brigand or other was artificially turned into a picturesque and popular figure and run as a kind of candidate against Christ. In all this we recognize the urban population that we know, with its newspaper scares and scoops. But there was present in this ancient population an evil more peculiar to the ancient world. We have noted it already as the neglect of the individual, even of the individual voting the condemnation and still more of the individual condemned. It was the soul of the hive; a heathen thing. The cry of this spirit also was heard in that hour, ‘It is well that one man die for the people.’ Yet this spirit in antiquity of devotion to the city and to the state had also been in itself and in its time a noble spirit. It had its poets and its martyrs; men still to be honored for ever. It was failing through its weakness in not seeing the separate soul of a man, the shrine of all mysticism; but it was only failing as everything else was failing. The mob went along with the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the philosophers and the moralists. It went along with the imperial magistrates and the sacred priests, the scribes and the soldiers, that the one universal human spirit might suffer a universal condemnation; that there might be one deep, unanimous chorus of approval and harmony when Man was rejected of men.

There were solitudes beyond where none shall follow. There were secrets in the inmost and invisible part of that drama that have no symbol in speech; or in any severance of a man from men. Nor is it easy for any words less stark and single-minded than those of the naked narrative even to hint at the horror of exaltation that lifted itself above the hill. Endless expositions have not come to the end of it, or even to the beginning. And if there be any sound that can produce a silence, we may surely be silent about the end and the extremity; when a cry was driven out of that darkness in words dreadfully distinct and dreadfully unintelligible, which man shall never understand in all the eternity they have purchased for him; and for one annihilating instant an abyss that is not for our thoughts had opened even in the unity of the absolute; and God had been forsaken of God.

They took the body down from the cross and one of the few rich men among the first Christians obtained permission to bury it in a rock tomb in his garden; the Romans setting a military guard lest there should be some riot and attempt to recover the body. There was once more a natural symbolism in these natural proceedings; it was well that the tomb should be sealed with all the secrecy of ancient eastern sepulture and guarded by the authority of the Caesars. For in that second cavern the whole of that great and glorious humanity which we call antiquity was gathered up and covered over; and in that place it was buried. It was the end of a very great thing called human history; the history that was merely human. The mythologies and the philosophies were buried there, the gods and the heroes and the sages. In the great Roman phrase, they had lived. But as they could only live, so they could only die; and they were dead.

On the third day the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realized the new wonder; but even they hardly realized that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn.

Pernicious Modernism: Cartesian Dishonesty

Modernism is pernicious.

Just about everything wrong with the world today comes from the pernicious thought of modernity, particularly the thought of self-named ‘Enlightenment.’

Most people would understand me if I said “Postmodernism is pernicious,” since they understand that the thoroughgoing relativism and subjectivism of postmodernism, the replacement of truth with rhetoric, in the belief that all truth claims reduce to attempts to assert power or domination, its nihilism, are all pernicious.

Supposing we divide Western history into periods, as traditional, we might say there are three or four: Antiquity, Christendom, Modernity and, perhaps, Postmodernity.  One reason to question whether Postmodernity is really distinct from Modernity, though, is that Postmodernity is simply Hypermodernity. It is Modernity taken to its conclusion according to its inner logic and nature.

This is not true of the other epochs.  Christendom was able to incorporate much of classical Antiquity, but it both added things which were new, and decisively set itself against some aspects of the ancient pagan world.

Similarly, Modernity is not the logical outcome of Christendom (pace Nietzsche and others), but a decisive turning against the spirit of Christendom (and Antiquity, as I intend to show).

Postmodernity cannot be said to be a turning against the spirit of Modernity, for it is the spirit of Modernity to reject the old in favor of the new; the turning-against what went before just is modernity.  It is the spirit of Modernity to elevate man above all things. It is the spirit of Modernity to elevate the will above the intellect, to make the I or self the foundation of all being, all truth, all meaning.

I was thinking about a passage from Descartes that I quoted recently in another post. It has bothered me for years. It’s from the Regulae, or Rules for the Direction of the Mind, Rule 12 to be specific.  It is a “criticism” of Aristotle’s definition of motion.  I hope to show why “criticism” deserves to be put in inverted commas:

When people say that motion, something perfectly familiar to everyone, is ‘the actuality of a potentiality just as a potentiality,’ do they not give the impression of uttering magic words  which have a hidden meaning beyond the grasp of the human mind? For who can understand such expressions? Who does not know what motion is?

Descartes is dishonestly pretending not to understand Aristotle’s definition.  How do I know this? Because I can and do make the meaning of this definition clear to undergraduates, which gives us the following:

  1. Descartes is either dishonestly pretending not to understand Aristotle’s definition or he is dumb.
  2. Descartes is not dumb.
  3. ∴ Therefore Descartes is dishonestly pretending not to understand Aristotle’s definition of motion.

First, just to show how easy it is, an account of Aristotle’s definition. When Aristotle says “motion” (Latin motus), he is referring to what would best be called “change” in English. “Change of place” or “local motion” is only one kind of motion—Descartes holds, as an unproven dogma, that this kind of change is the only kind of change. He also does the “pretending to be totally ignorant” trick about other kinds of change.  For example, according to Aristotle, (and most other people) death would be a change, and so would learning something.  According to Descartes, changes such as death and learning are really changes in the position of matter in space.  Or else, Descartes is dishonestly pretending that “motion” means only “local motion,” which is what he wants it to mean, and denying these other things are cases of “motion.”

What does it mean to say that motion or change is “the actuality of a potentiality just as a potentiality”? To understand this, it is necessary to understand the terms “actuality” and “potentiality.” Actuality is the primary meaning of being, according to Aristotle; it cannot, he says, be defined (it is too basic) but can readily be illustrated:  A copper cube, for example is actually solid.  But things are more than what they actually are.  Everything that exists has a range of things that, in addition to what and how it actually is, it could be or become.  I am actually sitting and typing, but I could eat dinner later. My hypothetical copper cube does not have the potentiality “to eat.” It does, however, by its nature have the potentiality to melt.  The copper cube is actually solid but is potentially liquid.  It is not potentially fluent in Russian, but I am (I am not actually fluent in Russian).

The cube’s potentiality to be liquid can be actualized by the application heat.  Heat will cause the cube to melt.  This will cause the potentiality of the cube to melt to “switch on” so to speak.  Once the cube has melted, it is now actually liquid, no longer a cube, and as a pool of liquid copper, has the potentiality to become solid, which it no longer actually is. So the copper cube went from “actually solid, potentially liquid” to “actually liquid, potentially solid” as the beginning and end states. What about the in-between, when the cube is the the process of melting? Well, it isn’t fully actually solid nor fully actually liquid. The solid cube’s potentiality to be liquid is being actualized, that is, it is presently active as a potentiality.  And that is what change or motion is. It is the potentially of something to be something else that is presently active, causing it be otherwise.  All change has a beginning state of Actually A, Potentially B, an end state of Actually B, and the change proper, which is the span between these two points. A thing is changing or moving just when it is in this intermediate or transitional state.  So change is the actuality (activeness, switched-on-ness) of a potentiality (to melt) but as a potentiality (presently melting, not melted). If “melted” or liquid is the full actualization of a potentiality to melt or to be liquid, melting is the motion.

This is not terribly hard to understand. Typically, I have found that the major source of misunderstanding is simply the word “motion.” Using the word “change” instead usually clears up the problem.

So why is Descartes pretending not to understand this? He was not only brilliant, but had the finest education of his day, and certainly understood Aristotle.

He’s doing it because he has an agenda, obviously. He isn’t interested in understanding what motion is. What he wants instead is what we might today call an operational definition. He doesn’t want to understand what motion is; he wants to get a handle on motion in such a way that he can use it or manipulate it, preferably by his favorite tool, mathematics.  Understanding what motion actually is is counterproductive to this.  And this is also why he wants to reduce all motion to local motion or change of place; changes such as death or learning are unquantifiable; local motion, on the other hand, is eminently quantifiable, especially if you happen to be the inventor of the Cartesian XYZ coordinate system.

Therefore Descartes is acting in a quintessentially unphilosophical manner. He is not, after the manner of Socrates, asking “What is X?” but after the manner of, well, Descartes, asking “How can I make use of X?” This isn’t a secret. He tells us plainly enough that the New Science is practical. It’s aim is not to understand nature, but to “make ourselves, as it were, masters and possessors of nature” (Discourse on the Method). It’s a cliché to say that science is about “the conquest of nature,” but it is a Cartesian cliché.  Modern science has never been, at bottom, about understanding nature.  It has always been primarily about controlling and manipulating nature.

Does that mean science doesn’t understand a great deal about nature? No, of course not. Science obviously has a lot to teach us about nature.  But the point is that modern natural science just as such doesn’t aim at understanding. This shouldn’t be a controversial point (but it will be, because we moderns tend to worship science)—it can be readily seen in what has always been considered the most basic of the natural sciences, physics.  Physics today doesn’t even claim to be interested in the truth of the physical world. Rather, it makes mathematical models of the physical world, and the test of a good model is whether it works or not. Period.

Some people have argued that a mathematical-scientific model must be “true” in order to work, but this is false.  A model is a construction, and from the same set of facts or observations, innumerable models may be constructed that are equivalent in explanatory power. They differ in how useful they are, and how easy to use they are.  We know from Einstein that we certainly could make the earth motionless, using it as our frame of reference for all other motions.  Why don’t we? Because it would make the math unnecessarily complicated. And since the object of scientific knowledge is control rather than understanding, science typically doesn’t bother with those parts of nature which cannot be controlled. And all of reality has those aspects.

Notice how Descartes makes this plausible: he deliberate substitutes familiarity for understanding. “Motion is … something perfectly familiar to everyone … Who does not know what motion is?” Sure, and water is perfectly familiar to fish. What fish does not know what water is? Obviously, if what we mean by “knowledge of X” is “familiarity with X” then yes, everyone does indeed know what motion is. But does it really follow that we understand motion, because we are familiar with it? Obviously, not. Else there would be no reason (1) for Socrates to ask his “What is X?” questions, something he couldn’t do to begin with if both he and his interlocutors weren’t already familiar with X is some way, and no reason (2) to do Cartesian natural science.  Why would we look for a metaphysical account of motion (like Aristotle’s) or a mathematical-scientific account of motion (like Galileo’s or Descartes’) AT ALL? After all, we ALREADY KNOW WHAT MOTION IS, RIGHT?

What bothers me, what I find so pernicious here, is Descartes’ fundamentally dishonest rhetoric.  He is not content to define knowledge as familiarity, and he knows he isn’t. In fact he has already defined knowledge in this very book in such a way that rules out familiarity as knowledge.  He only appeals to familiarity to try to ridicule Socrates’ and Aristotle’s attempts to understand reality, in other words, to ridicule philosophy.  Because “fuck understanding, I want power.” What Descartes really means is “our familiarity with motion is enough to work with, operationally, in our attempt to gain power over nature. Aristotle’s attempts to understand motion more deeply, in its reality, don’t go anywhere useful in our quest for power, because we can’t change the essences of things; things are what they are, so studying them is a waste of time: gaining wisdom doesn’t help us gain power over nature. If anything, it is counterproductive, since it might teach us to (1) accommodate ourselves to nature, instead of nature to us, and (2) to become interested in fruitless activities such as understanding for its own sake, that is, in wisdom. But fuck wisdom. Power is the only good.”

Hence also Descartes’ very obvious slap at Socrates in the Regulae (Socrates needs to be slapped, because he taught that understanding was an end, good in itself, not merely a means to power, and was not even a little interested in power over nature):

All knowledge is certain and evident cognition. Someone who has doubts about many things is no wiser than one who has never given them a thought … Hence it is better never to study at all than to occupy ourselves with objects which are so difficult that we are unable to distinguish what is true from what is false, and are forced to take the doubtful as certain.

First, it is worth noting that this passage entirely suffices to confirm that Descartes was being thoroughly dishonest in his slap at Aristotle (which is found in Rule 12—this is the start of Rule 2).  Descartes defines knowledge here, as certain and evident cognition.  Nevermind for the moment that “cognition” means “knowledge,” so he is defining knowledge as certain and evident knowledge, which is patently circular.  At the very least, this definition completely rules out mere familiarity as “knowledge.”  That’s why he put it as a question: Who does not know what motion is? Well, according to the definition of knowledge you are using, René, NO ONE KNOWS WHAT MOTION IS, BECAUSE “KNOWING” IS “CERTAIN AND EVIDENT” AND NOT MERELY “ACQUAINTED WITH.”

How can you tell when Descartes is lying to you? When he is speaking.

More importantly though, is Descartes’ pissing on Socrates.  The entire lesson of Socrates’ life and death were that his, Socrates’, human wisdom consists in “knowledge of his own ignorance,” as per the Apology:

 It seemed to me that this man seemed to be wise, both to many other human beings and most of all to himself, but that he was not. And then I tried to show him that he supposed he was wise, but was not. So from this I became hateful both to him and to many of those present.

For my part, as I went away, I reasoned with regard to myself: “I am wiser than this human being. For probably neither of us knows anything noble and good, but he supposes that he does know, while I, just as I do not know, do not even suppose that I do. I am likely to be a little bit wiser that he in this very thing: that whatever I do not know, I do not even suppose I know.”

And a bit later

This is the examination, men of Athens, from which I have incurred many hatreds, the sort that are harshest and gravest, so that many slanders have arisen from them, and I got this name of being “wise.” For those present on each occasion suppose that I myself am wise in the things concerning which I refute someone else, whereas it is probable, men, that really the God is wise, and that in this oracle He is saying that human wisdom is worth little or nothing. And he appears to say this of Socrates and to have made use of my name in order to make me a paradigm, as if He would say, “That one of you, O human beings, is wisest, who, like Socrates, has become cognizant that in truth he is worth nothing with respect to wisdom.”

Very obviously, if your game is to exalt man to the status of God-on-earth, the new and rightful Master and Possessor of nature, the thought that “God alone is wise” and “human wisdom is worth little or nothing” is not going to appeal to you.

Socrates is NOT WISE, according to the standard of Descartes. And Descartes, supposing he knows many things he does not, e.g. that the quantity of motion in nature is conserved, is NOT WISE, according to the standard of Socrates.  Descartes can only claim to be wise on the basis of his discovery of an infallible Method, whereby he can have “certain and evident knowledge” of the things of nature. Except, oops, his Method isn’t actually infallible.

I end, as I am wont to, with a modus tollens:

  1. According to Descartes’ teaching, Socrates is not wise.
  2. But Socrates is wise.
  3. ∴ Descartes’ teaching is false.

The Word “Sex”

I’m afraid this post isn’t going to be very “sexy.” It is going to be about language.  It is going to about what I consider one of the most momentous events in the recent history of Western Civilization, not anything big, like a war or other mighty achievement, but a small event, the gradual change in the meaning of a word, and the consequences thereof.

It is an error, however, to suppose that momentous changes are always big and loud and noisy.  As Nietzsche observed, the opposite is true.  The big, loud, noisy events are always set in motion beforehand:


What does the word “sex” mean? Here is the Oxford English Dictionary:

sex, n.1
Pronunciation: Brit. /sɛks/ , U.S. /sɛks/
1. a. Either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions; (hence) the members of these categories viewed as a group; the males or females of a particular species, esp. the human race, considered collectively.

▸a1382 Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) (Bodl. 959) (1959) Gen. vi. 19 Of all þingez hauyng soule of eny flesch: two þou schalt brynge in to þe ark, þat male sex [L. sexus] & female: lyuen with þe.
▸a1398 J. Trevisa tr. Bartholomaeus Anglicus De Proprietatibus Rerum (BL Add.) f. 303, In suche Wormes is no sexe of male and femele.
?c1400 (▸c1380) Chaucer tr. Boethius De Consol. Philos. (BL Add. 10340) (1868) iv. pr. vi. 137 Þilke same ordre neweþ aȝein alle þinges growyng and fallyng a-doune by sembleables progressiouns of seedes and of sexes, þat is to sein, male and female.
c1447 Queen Margaret To King in R. Willis & J. W. Clark Archit. Hist. Univ. Cambr. (1886) I. Introd. p. lxiii (MED), Docteurs sentences..parformyd daily laude and honneur of sexe feminine.
1532 T. More Confutacyon Tyndales Answere ii. p. clii, I had as leue he bare them both a bare cheryte, as wyth the frayle feminyne sexe fall to far in loue.
1559 J. Aylmer Harborowe sig. E4v, Neither of them debarred the heires though it had ben..vnnatural for that sexe to gouern.
a1586 Sir P. Sidney Arcadia (1590) ii. ii. sig. P3v, The sexe of womankind of all other is most bound to haue regardfull eie to mens iudgements.
1600 T. Nashe Summers Last Will sig. F3v, A woman they imagine her to be, Because that sexe keepes nothing close they heare.
1612 R. Johnson Crowne-Garland Goulden Roses sig. E8v, Our sex are given to range.
1615 H. Crooke Μικροκοσμογραϕια 274 If wee respect the..conformation of both the Sexes, the Male is sooner the wombe.
1671 Milton Samson Agonistes 774 It was a weakness In me, but incident to all our sex.
a1704 T. Brown Satire against Woman in Wks. (1707) I. i. 82 Thy Sex are all Pandora’s; Mischiefs all.
1730 Swift Let. to Mrs. Whiteway 28 Dec. You have neither the scrawl nor the spelling of your sex.
1763 G. Williams in J. H. Jesse G. Selwyn & his Contemp. (1843) I. 265 It would astonish you to see the mixture of sexes at this place.
1768 O. Goldsmith Good Natur’d Man iv. 54 Our sex are like poor tradesmen.
1780 J. Bentham Introd. Princ. Morals & Legisl. (1789) vi. §35 The sensibility of the female sex be greater than that of the male.
1839 H. Malcom Trav. (1840) 40/1 Neither sex tattoo any part of their bodies.
1846 Ecclesiologist Feb. 41 The propriety and necessity of dividing the sexes during the publick offices of the Church.
1847 Thackeray Vanity Fair (1848) xxv. 210 She was by no means so far superior to her sex as to be above jealousy.
1864 Dickens Our Mutual Friend (1865) I. ii. i. 161 It was a school..for both sexes.
1914 Amer. Med. 9 531/1 By nature all human beings are psychically bisexual—capable of loving a person of either sex.
1958 Listener 27 Nov. 891/2 By using this technique of ‘colour-ringing’ the author was able to record the histories of some forty birds of each sex.
1980 Times 22 May 12 Once you put them on a horse the female sex are far more deadly than the male.
2007 J. Mansell Thinking of You v. 30 Gavin was an enthusiastic chatter-upper of the opposite sex.

The word ‘sex’ in English originally meant the dimorphic biological distinction between males and females, based on their nature, more specifically their role in the reproduction of the species.  The term is not limited to human beings, but is used particularly for them.  There are two sexes, male and female, man and woman.

This usage goes back into the earliest English and is in turn derived from the Latin sexus, the

state of being male or female, specific qualities associated with being male or female, males or females collectively.

So, there are two sexes, and the basis for the distinction between the two is grounded primarily in their respective roles in biological reproduction.

Now, it should be obvious that, in reproduction, males and females engage in a characteristic act.  We could call this the reproductive act, or in understanding that in human beings this act is not merely an animal act, but also an act with transcendent implications, indeed in the Western Christian tradition, a sacred and sacramental act, the marital act.

We could also, with not too much linguistic drift, speak of “the act that is the characteristic act done together by the two sexes” as “the sexual act.

But now notice what happens. “The sexual act“, that is, “the act which is the characteristic act done together by the two sexes” becomes shortened simply to “sex”, which is now the name of the act, rather than the name of a fundamental characteristic that allows those participating in the act to do so.

In this usage, “sex” is now the name of “the characteristic act done together by the two sexes in reproduction.”

From here, “sex” then becomes “any act done together by the two sexes involving their reproductive organs, even if it is not the reproductive act.”

And from here, “sex” becomes “Any act done by any person or persons involving the reproductive organs, even if it has nothing whatever to do with reproduction.”

Let us return to the O.E.D. “Sex” is also defined as

b. Physical contact between individuals involving sexual stimulation; sexual activity or behaviour, spec. sexual intercourse, copulation. to have sex (with): to engage in sexual intercourse (with).
Now the most common general sense. Sometimes, when denoting sexual activity other than conventional heterosexual intercourse, preceded by modifying adjective, as gay, oral, phone sex, etc.

1900 H. G. Wells Love & Mr. Lewisham xvii. 144 We marry in fear and trembling, sex for a home is the woman’s traffic, and the man comes to his heart’s desire when his heart’s desire is dead.
1929 D. H. Lawrence Pansies 57 If you want to have sex, you’ve got to trust At the core of your heart, the other creature.
1953 S. Kauffmann Philanderer x. 174 Her arms went around his neck and his hand rested on her waist, and they had a brief moment of friendship before the sex began.
1962 Listener 7 June 1006/2 Why wasn’t Bond ‘more tender’ in his love-making? Why did he just ‘have sex’ and disappear?
1971 Petticoat 17 July 6/2 The most conspicuous consequence of sex before marriage is the possibility of pregnancy.
1991 Locus May 38/3 She strongly disapproved of the sex and violence now making its way into young-adult fiction, under the guise of ‘problem stories’.
2005 Time 10 Oct. 45/3 Multiple studies have found most teens with same-sex attractions have had sex with both boys and girls.

Note the dates.  This usage of “sex,” which the O.E.D. rightly states to be “now the most common general sense” is very recent.  The O.E.D.’s earliest example is from 1900, technically the 20th century, albeit the very beginning. In any event, although there may be some isolated uses as far back as 1855 or so, the point is that this usage of the term “sex” is, historically, an extremely recent development.

Note what else has also happened: “sex”, reconceptualized as any act involving the sexual organs, that is, the reproductive organs, has now become a genus, that is, a class-kind under which fall many species: oral sex, anal sex, gay sex, ‘phone sex’, ‘cybersex’, etc.

The redefinition of the word “sex” forces a reconceptualization of the meaning of “sex.” If “sex” had a legitimate use as the name of an act, “the sexual act,” was synonymous with “the reproductive act,” since only the reproductive act could be “the characteristic act of the two sexes in reproduction.”

Now, however, “the reproductive act, the characteristic act that occurs between the sexes in reproduction” must be viewed as only one kind of sex among others.

Non-reproductive acts, essentially sterile acts which merely make use of the organs of reproduction now become alternate kinds of sex.  The transformation of “sex” into a genus of acts with many species thus inexorably sets up a conceptual equivalence between all kinds of “sex.”  That is, “all sex is created equal.” What was once alone entitled to be called sex, the reproductive act between male and female, the two sexes, is now implicitly placed on a par with any and all non-reproductive acts done with the organs of reproduction, and between persons of any sex.

There was a time, a very recent time, barely a century ago, when “oral sex” or “anal sex” or “same-sex sex” would have been nonsensical terms.  As non-reproductive and wholly unconnected with human biological embodiment, none of these acts could possible count as “the sexual act.”  As is known, the traditional word for such acts was “sodomy.”

I make no comment other than to note that this is how it happened:

  1. The term for the natural division of the human species into two biological “sexes” became
  2. the “characteristic reproductive act between the two sexes”, which became
  3. “any act between the two sexes that involves the reproductive organs, even if it is non-reproductive”, which became
  4. “any act involving the reproductive organs, usually but not always involving two people, sometimes the two sexes, sometimes two people of one and the same sex.”

“Sex” went from being the name of a natural characteristic of a human person, to the name of the characteristic act of the two sexes, and from there, to a genus of acts, with many species, all viewed as somehow equal—because they are all just various species of the (new) genus “sex.”

Much of the catastrophic collapse of Western Civilization which we are witnessing stems from this seemingly innocuous change in the meaning of this little word.  Here is the tiny seed that has grown into the monstrous tree we know as the sexual revolution.

If we were still capable of seeing in the term “sex” only “the reproductive act,” much could be salvaged.  I am pessimistic that this is now even possible however.