Reading Molyneux So You Don’t Have To: Truth and Truthiness

What is truth? Well we certainly won’t find out today, as I dive into one man’s quest to loudly proclaim what Truth is watch him get hoplessly confused without ever realising it.

hilosophy is the study of truth, which is a definition that raises almost as many questions as it answers. What is truth? How is truth differentiated from falsehood? Why is truth even preferable to falsehood? Truth is the accurate identification of facts and principles in objective reality.


Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 273-278). Kindle Edition.

That’s an odd definition of philosophy but not one worth arguing about. Certainly philosophy isn’t about trying to be wrong. What makes it limiting is Molyneux then defining truth:

Truth is the accurate identification of facts and principles in objective reality.

Molyneux is going to define truth several times, which would be a reasonable thing to do in a work on philosophy if he acknowledged what he was doing but he doesn’t. He asserts what truth is and asserts different concepts of truth as he goes along without ever interrogating them. That this first definition is oddly circular (what can “accurate” or “facts” mean without reference to truth?) passes him by. Truth will be important for Molyneux but he has two problems:

  1. he doesn’t know what he means by truth
  2. he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know what he means by truth.

Philosophy is supposed to be a thing you do, not just a body of knowledge about past philosophers. Molyneux’s book avoids both. He asserts rather than examines and asserts without looking critically at what he asserts.

Why, you may ask, “objective reality”? Is Molyneux saying philosophy can’t consider issues in subjective domains or things which aren’t real? Can philosophy not discuss fiction for example?

‘“Truth” describes verifiable and objective principles and experiences. If I say that I had a headache last summer while camping alone, there is no way to verify my statement. But if I say that the sun is 8.3 light minutes away from the earth, there are ways to verify my statement. Subjective experiences do not fall in the realm of philosophy, any more than nightly dreams fall in the realm of physics. Saying that something “feels true” makes about as much sense as saying that “imagination proves scientific hypotheses.” The conflation of subjective experience with objective truth is one of the great curses of human history.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 403-410). Kindle Edition.

I don’t think Molyneux knows that he’s offering a different definition of what truth is now. Truth now needs to be verifiable whereas before it simply had to match “objective reality”. He’s apparently offering a much more radical theory of truth. Has he simply mistyped? Experience with Molyneux shows he is often very credulous about certain things, so maybe he just has a very generous concept of verified?

I assume he’s simply got confused between “truth” and “knowledge”. Yet, he commits initially to this restricted view of truth with an example. His headache example puts anything you can’t check beyond the realm of truth. Note not whether we can know whether something is true or not but whether the truth even applies to such things.

Does he really believe that? No, of course not. This is not a model of truth he’ll be able to sustain. It’s simpler to assume that sometimes when he says “truth” he means “knowledge” and sometimes he means “truth” but he doesn’t know the difference. Yes, this is a book on philosophy that is unaware of epistemology.

He does mention knowledge:

“If you have a hypothesis that cannot possibly be disproved, then you have added nothing whatsoever to the sum total of knowledge, truth, understanding or perception – or to anything, for that matter.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 600-601). Kindle Edition.

But is unclear about the distinction between knowledge and truth.

Truth, he asserts is empirical:

“The reason is that a truth proposition must be compared to something in order to find out whether it is true or not. Truth cannot be entirely self-referential. Otherwise, it cannot be the truth at all. Truth is a standard that we apply to propositions that reference something other than their own principles or arguments.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 616-618). Kindle Edition.

So that’s analytical truths down the drain then. He just accidentally killed mathematics. Don’t worry, he’ll forget that he said this later.

He also knows the word “epistemology” but maybe is unclear as to what it is?

“Naturally, a central question of epistemology – the study of knowledge – is whether the information we receive from our senses is valid. Now “valid” is just another word for “accurate” or “true,” which brings us back to the basic question – what is truth? As discussed before, “truth” is a statement about objective reality that conforms with the nature and principles of objective reality. If I say that there is a cloud overhead, my statement is true if there is in fact a cloud overhead.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 780-785). Kindle Edition.

He’s butchering the word “valid” now and wandering back to a correspondence with “objective reality” as the definition of truth. His earlier definition would mean it would only be true that there was a cloud overhead IF he had checked and verified there was. Maybe it is obvious in that context that he would have checked or maybe he just forgot.

He’s dead keen on objective reality though. Truth is not something he thinks should be applied to subjective views.

“This requirement for objective reality as a standard of truth can be challenging for some who believe that their own internal states have a truth or falsehood about them. It is true, for example, that I felt sad yesterday; it is true that I feel happy today. It is true that I love my wife, that I study the truth, and that I hate evil.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 785-789). Kindle Edition.

Yes, his example directly contradicts everything he just said including the point he just tried to illustrate. Molyneux is a sort of materialist. I need to be cautious here because honestly I don’t know to what extent Molyneux can be said to believe something – his ideas are not self-consistent. Yet he appears to believe minds are functions of brains and so emotions and mental states are grounded in physical effects – which would make them part of “objective reality”. I’ll return to this later when I try to untangle what he means by “objective reality” in another post.

Not knowing exactly what truth is (or what “objective reality” is) should not be considered a flaw in a book on philosophy. They are hard topics to grasp without descending into circular definitions and they are topics on which many great minds have struggled. However, not knowing that you DON’T KNOW is whatever the opposite of philosophy is. Philosophy does not require its practitioners all to be radical sceptics but if you aren’t questioning your own ideas then whatever it is you are doing, it isn’t philosophy.

“Saying that something looks wet to me, if it really does, is an honest statement. Saying that something is wet, just because it looks wet to me, is a hypothesis. If I see water drops on my window, and I say that I see water drops on my window, I am telling the truth.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 879-882). Kindle Edition.

For Molyneux his own internal states have a truth or falsehood about them. He said earlier that it was challenging for people that they don’t and here I can’t fault him in so far as he failed his own challenge after a few pages. We can speculate that what Molyneux wants is to be able to dismiss the claims others might make about their feelings or opinions without questioning his own.

But what if truth itself is an internal state?

“A tree cannot be incorrect, sunlight cannot be erroneous, water cannot take a wrong turn, and fungus cannot be immoral. Truth and falsehood exist as distinct states in only one entity in the universe that we know of: the human mind.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 917-919). Kindle Edition.

Is it even possible to discuss Molyneux’s beliefs about truth? Truth is a state of mind? Again, he might be trying to say knowledge rather truth. I’m not sure. His ideas have become so jumbled here that untangling them requires active re-writing of what he wrote. I’d pity his editor but I’m assuming he doesn’t have one, not even his cat.

Literally the next paragraph he zigs one way:

“Truth is a state that results when a concept matches an entity or a hypothesis matches the facts of reality.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 919-920). Kindle Edition.

A state of what? A state of mind? That’s a reasonable reading as he was just talking about truth as a state within a mind but I’m not sure. That seems far too a subjective view of truth for Molyneux. Perhaps he means an abstract state? I should be grateful he’s not attempting metaphysics but his lazy materialism raises too many problems.

He then zags another way:

“Truth always refers to concepts or language and the degree to which they match what exists and occurs in objective reality. If I point at a mug and say it is a telephone, we cannot fix my statement by replacing the mug with a telephone. If I call the mug a “telephone,” I am incorrect, because my word does not match what I’m pointing at.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 920-923). Kindle Edition.

Truth is about language and concepts? I mean, OK, that’s not terrible. Truth as something propositions have – a perspective of truth as value takes us into a domain of logic.

“The standard of truth refers not only to the relationship between concepts and objects, but also to concepts about the relationships between objects, such as gravity or magnetism. If I say that “gravity repels,” then I am incorrect; my language does not match the true relationship between mass and gravity. If I say that “magnetism can pull down a tree,” then I am equally incorrect.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 923-928). Kindle Edition.

I’ll just point at that paragraph. Each one of these follows on from each other. I think he’s trying to get at “belief” but he avoids the word, just like he avoids “knowledge”. Yes, these words are technical terms within philosophy and he’s obviously trying to avoid referencing other philosophers or other philosophical texts but you can see how clouded his thinking is here. Failing to make conceptual distinction leads him to confusing belief, truth and knowledge while he also tries to explore the relationship between them.

The final zig-zag in these sequential paragraphs is:

“The relationship between concepts in the mind and matter or energy in the world is the relationship we refer to as “truth.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 928-929). Kindle Edition.

I’ll concede that there’s some content there. Those series of paragraphs are confused but not vacuous and they might be even thought provoking. I am sure somebody defending him could extract a reasonable position out of what he is saying. I am not sure that two people would extract the same position. Rather like Jordan Peterson, the confusion of ideas is a feature not a bug.

More vacuous are statements such as:

“Philosophical arguments, which establish truth regarding objective and rational reality, must themselves be objective and rational.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 970-972). Kindle Edition.

But let’s get back to “valid”. Remember that earlier he’d said that “valid” is just another word for “accurate” or “true,”? Well, he wants valid to be something more specific now:

“In relation to truth, there are three categories of concepts – valid, potentially valid, and invalid. A valid and true concept is one that has been verified and established, both by its internal rational consistency, and by its consistency with empirical observations. The idea that the earth is a sphere, rather than flat, is not internally self-contradictory. No one is saying that the earth is both a sphere and flat at the same time. And its roundness has been consistently verified through empirical observations, both on the surface of the earth and in space.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 973-980). Kindle Edition.

I mean, it’s great that he’s using another word but his definition of “valid” is almost the same as his previous definition of ‘truth’. He’s improved upon it though by adding “internal rational consistency”. I think he wants “valid” to mean true but he wants two different concepts for things that aren’t valid but only wants one concept for things that aren’t true.

“Potentially valid concepts are those for which there is no empirical evidence, but no internal self-contradiction either. For instance, the idea that silicone, rather than carbon, could be used as the basis for a living organism is not internally self-contradictory, but there is no evidence as yet of a silicone-based life form. The position that intelligent life could exist on other planets is not internally self-contradictory, but no evidence as yet exists to prove this hypothesis.

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 986-990). Kindle Edition.

You know what? That’s OK. Yes, it is deeply at odds with his headache example from earlier in the book (which surely is “potentially valid” in this scheme). ‘Prove” we’ll skip over – it’s asking too much expect him to look at that word. ‘Silicone’? Sure, why not.

“Invalid concepts are those that are self-contradictory, and thus can never accurately describe atomic consistency. One example of a self-contradictory concept is the “square circle,” which cannot exist because the characteristics of squares and those of circles contradict each other.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 990-992). Kindle Edition.

Again, not so terrible. We are a quarter of the way into the book and either the process is leading him to think a bit better or he’s explaining himself better. I was confident this book wouldn’t get good, it’s too laden with contradictions and confused concepts, but at this point perhaps it might provide some insights. Then he follows up with another example:

‘Another example of a self-contradictory entity is the concept of “consciousness without matter.”’

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 992-994). Kindle Edition.

He goes onto say why but its not a great argument (and I say that even though I agree that consciousness requires matter). He basically just begs the question, asserting in different ways that consciousness depends on matter. Fair enough except he’s supposed to be showing that the idea is self-contradictory, instead he just asserts in different ways that it’s not true.

I was wondering at this stage whether it was just that Molyneux wanted a radically materialist and empirical view of truth and knowledge. That wouldn’t solve all the confusion in his book but maybe that’s what he was going for. Perhaps his view of mathematics, for example, was that it was only true when it is applied empirically. That would be interesting but no, that’s not what he thinks either:

“When we ask a child to accept that two and two make four, we are not asking the child to believe this truth for any particular instance, but rather for all instances of that equation. It’s not just that these two coconuts and two coconuts make four coconuts, but rather that two and two of anything make four. When we ask a child to write the number “4” on an answer sheet, we are asking the child to compare his proposed action – writing a number – with the ideal standard of writing the correct number.

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1337-1343). Kindle Edition.

Do we need more layers of confusion here? Apparently we do. Molyneux not unreasonably ties ethics in with truth. He, like most people, sees there a moral aspect to preferring truth to falsehood.

‘Truth is infinitely preferable to error. Truth requires rational consistency and empirical evidence.’

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1099-1101). Kindle Edition.

I suspect he means ‘the pursuit of truth’ or something similar. He uses the word ‘truth’ without qualifiers to mean different aspects of truth or things related to truth or to which truth can be applied (as we’ve seen with ‘belief’ and ‘knowledge’). This is not just a quirk of bad writing or sloppy thinking though. He keeps equating truth as a thing with different but related ideas. For example he then goes on to say that determinism destroys truth (his views on ‘free will’ I’ll need to save for another time).

‘If you are a determinist, there can be no preferred states in your world view. Determinism is not the establishment of truth, but the destruction of the very concept of truth. Truth is a preferred state – preferable to falsehood – however, if everyone and everything is a machine, there can be no preferred states, since no alternative possibilities can exist. A rock lands where a rock lands – the rock has no preferred state. Everything is the inevitable clockwork unrolling of mere physics – there is no right and wrong, no truth and falsehood, no good and evil – these are all primitive superstitions, akin to a belief not in the geological reality of a volcano, but the imaginary superstition of a volcano god.’

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1810-1816). Kindle Edition.

And later:

‘Integrity is fidelity to moral truth. In the deterministic universe, there is no truth; therefore, there can be no morality and, therefore, there can be no integrity.

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1857-1859). Kindle Edition.

In a deterministic universe there would still be concepts which could either correspond with or not correspond with objective reality, hence by at least one of his standards of truth, there would still be truth. Yet, now he’s added a moral dimension to truth by confusing “truth” with “the pursuit of truth”.

Molyneux is very much in the region of ‘not even wrong’ and whatever he is doing is not philosophy. It is essentially the opposite of philosophy: a process by which ideas are obscured and go unexamined. Instead of questioning Molneux asserts, instead of examining he declares. He is untroubled by his confusing and conflicting uses of the word truth because he is , laying claim to the word “truth”. Molneux both literally and figuratively wants to own truth. He has a radical notion of intellectual property:

“An argument is just as much a product of your body as a house, a song – or a murder, for that matter. If you say to someone you are debating with, “You are wrong!” you are saying they have created an argument that is false – that they own the argument, and they own the “wrongness” as well. If you say to someone, “You are a fool,” then you are saying they have done something that earns them the label of foolishness. Arguing against property rights requires accepting property rights; it is a fool’s position.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 2550-2556). Kindle Edition.

Viewed through the lens of Molyneux’s conception of property, then his claims on truth become more comprehensible — at least in terms of motive rather than content. He wants to own capital-T Truth like Cadbury chocolates owning purple. This is a land grab but a poorly executed one.

More nonsense next time.

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33 thoughts on “Reading Molyneux So You Don’t Have To: Truth and Truthiness”

  1. I’m pretty sure magnetism can pull down a tree, give sufficiently large superconducting coils and plenty of energy to invest.

    Its a nitpick-y thing, but he is the one who thinks he is never wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Well then you would sue the local business or homeowner for leaving Molyneux books on the sidewalk instead of responsibly shoveling it away.

        Liked by 5 people

    1. If one is not familiar with the cast list of alt-right drama, and is looking for an introductory text on philosophy, and doesn’t read the reviews, one could end up purchasing his book by mistake.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh lord, that’s some prime grade-A gibberish.
    “If you say to someone you are debating with, “You are wrong!” you are saying they have created an argument that is false – that they own the argument, and they own the “wrongness” as well.”
    “Created” seems the wrong word here, as it’s quite possible to simply parrot an incorrect argument.
    “Arguing against property rights requires accepting property rights; it is a fool’s position.”
    So arguing against racial equality, as Molyneaux does, presumably requires accepting racial equality. Wow!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve seen a few examples of arguments like this – like “you can’t argue god doesn’t exist because you are assuming he exist when you argue about him” sort of thing but other non-theological examples as well.

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    2. Reminds me of Nathanael Brandens (Ayn Rand intellectual heir until he was not) “analysis” of “Property is theft”. According to Branden it’s selfcontradictory because it assumes property. Randians!

      Liked by 2 people

    3. Sidenote: Also (as you probably know) most mainstream philosophy doesn’t consider concepts as subjects of truth. Only propositions respective sentences can be true or false, i. e. have a truth value.
      “True” concepts would be things like a true friend or a true horse.
      Molyneux is really both confused and confusing.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. So he’s under-read and over-confident? Not entirely a surprise there.

    I hope he at least has the decency to be wrong in amusing ways later in the book (lobsters!)

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Everyone’s dumber, no points, mercy on soul.

    He’s a living breathing example of an Adam Sandler movie.

    IMDB says the full quote is:

    what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. A couple of questions that come to mind. What is the name for the study of truth? (Logic? Epistemology? Veriatrics*? Verology?**) What is philosophy the study of?
    I’ve been known to think that philosophy is the study of things without answers. (When answers are found, it becomes a field of science, or social studies, or whatever.) If I was pushed for a single word I think I’d plump for knowledge.
    * according to google a typo for geriatrics.
    ** according to google a typo for virology

    Liked by 1 person

  6. “philosophy can’t consider … things which aren’t real”
    From your writings and his Wikipedia article, I would have placed him as a confused follower of Rand, but from that statement, and the existence of philosophy of religion (which considers gods) one would deduce that he thinks that gods are real.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I like the way his example of truth-as-objective-reality – “there is a cloud overhead” – is, itself, subjective. (OK, fair enough, it’s true for me now – I’m in England, it’s December, of course there’s a cloud overhead – but the issue of “over whose head?” is of some importance, surely, in this sort of analysis?)

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Perhaps his view of mathematics, for example, was that it was only true when it is applied empirically.

    There is actually a ‘<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constructivism_(philosophy_of_mathematics)"constructivist‘ school of mathematics. In the simplest description, this is mathematics for which no proof of existence of some concept is complete without an actual example of existence (or at least an explicit method of creating such an example). The common ‘assume it doesn’t exist, then construct a reductio ad absurdum proof to show this cannot be true’ proof is not accepted by itself.

    Given that there are branches of mathematics for which strict constructivism would make it difficult to work in those branches at all, this school of thought tends to be something of a minority view. It’s not wrong as such, but it does add restrictions that many people in the field consider unnecessary.

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    1. Constructivism isn’t actually empirical though in terms of depending on observation. It demands examples of abstract entities that ‘exist’ logically rather than physically. So if a proof says there must be a number with properties x,y,z then the only proof constructivism accepts is one that shows an example of such a number. But yes, closer to the spirit of empiricism than other approaches

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      1. Fair enough. I suppose I was looking for something at least tangential to reality in that mess, but it’s like looking for tangents to a mess of cotton candy: lots of points that might go somewhere, but not much solid holding them up.

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  9. Sometimes I think the Alt-Right’s greatest weapons is the combination of their boundless ignorance and arrogance. They don’t know things, and don’t know that they don’t know things, all while imagining themselves to be spectacularly well-informed. All of which makes them all but impossible to argue with.

    I hereby dub it “the Dunning-Kruger Barrier”.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. This is all very sad and juvenile and ultimately very tedious, like the sort of thing that a stoned high schooler might say thinking s/he was hitting on some profound truths. If ever made into a buddy flick, I propose the title be made clear to its target age demographic: “Jordan and Stefan’s Excellent Adventure on the Pineapple Express to Ridgmont High.”

    Liked by 2 people

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