Molyneux not only doesn’t have a distinct philosophy of truth or metaphysics or theology but he doesn’t have a sufficient grasp of the these topics to see that he doesn’t have one. I’m not sure his grasp of ethics is much better but he does have his own brand of ethics. It has a name “universally preferable behaviour” which at least nominally points towards Kant as an inspiration.
Molyneux has written about his theory of ethics on multiple occasions. He wrote a long treatment of it in 2007 that’s available as a free PDF from his website (UPB: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics – archive link). It’s an interesting read only if you want to chart Molyneux’s capacity to write philosophically — which appears to be declining over time. I don’t want to imply that this earlier work is good or intelligible, it isn’t, but it at least feels like he’s exploring ideas. He is also clearer back in 2007 that his ideas connect with other philosophers:
“As Hume famously pointed out, it is impossible to derive an “ought” from an “is.” What he meant by that was that preference in no way can be axiomatically derived from existence. It is true that a man who never exercises and eats poorly will be unhealthy. Does that mean that he “ought” to exercise and eat well? No. The “ought” is conditional upon the preference. If he wants to be healthy, he ought to exercise and eat well. It is true that if a man does not eat, he will die – we cannot logically derive from that fact a binding principle that he ought to eat. If he wants to live, then he must eat. However, his choice to live or not remains his own. “Molyneux, Stefan. UPB: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, 2007, (page 30)
David Hume, the is/ought distinction or the general term “Humean” don’t appear in the later work. However, the same tendency to vagueness while asserting clarity is apparent in the 2007 work. Also, Molyneux is already attempting to win arguments in advance with appeals to a kind of weaponised begging-the-question:
“In general, any theory that contradicts itself in the utterance cannot be valid. It does not require external disproof, since it disproves itself. We do not need to examine every nook and cranny in the universe to determine that a “square circle” does not exist. The very concept is self-contradictory, and thus disproves itself in the utterance. “Molyneux, Stefan. UPB: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, 2007, (page 31)
Eleven years later he is using a modified form of this:
“Testing the hypothesis of an argument against the methodology of communicating the argument is a powerful method for rejecting irrational arguments.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1087-1088). Kindle Edition.
He aims to appeal to the basic principle of non-contradiction but this is mainly a rhetorical move on his part. It is a revision of a technique used by followers of Ayn Rand who would defiantly assert that “A is A” as their deep logical insight and therefore that they cannot be wrong because [here they insert a convoluted and tendentious argument] they are really just asserting that a thing is what it is. Molyneux’s strategy is an improvement on that but not by much. He aims to appeal to the principle that it cannot be the case that A is not-A and that when you say that he is wrong, you are asserting that he is right.
To get to this point with ethics, Molyneux asserts a principle of infinite preference.
“If I point at Africa on a map and refer to it as the Arctic, and you correct me, it might not be much of a debate, but clearly you are correcting me with reference to the true name of that continent, which is Africa. You are not saying you have a made-up name for the continent, personal to you, and that you would like me to indulge you by referring to the continent by that name – you are in essence saying two things:
1. The correct name for the continent is “Africa.”
2. Using the correct name is infinitely preferable to using the incorrect name.
I use the phrase “infinitely preferable” because some preferences are relative, and some preferences are absolute.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 2257-2263). Kindle Edition.
I won’t belabour the flaws in the example (which are many) as I assume if given long enough he could come up with a better example less dependent on contextual language. The key point is Molyneux’s claim that if a person corrects another person then they are implying an infinite preference for the truth. In 2007 he makes his point clearer by avoiding a confused example:
PREMISE 4: CORRECTION REQUIRES UNIVERSAL PREFERENCES
If you correct me on an error that I have made, you are implicitly accepting the fact that it would be better for me to correct my error. Your preference for me to correct my error is not subjective, but objective, and universal. You don’t say to me: “You should change your opinion to mine because I would prefer it,” but rather: “You should correct your opinion because it is objectively incorrect.” My error does not arise from merely disagreeing with you, but as a result of my deviance from an objective standard of truth. Your argument that I should correct my false opinion rests on the objective value of truth – i.e. that truth is universally preferable to error, and that truth is universally objective.Molyneux, Stefan. UPB: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, 2007, (page 35)
It’s a better argument. Not a great one but it at least attempts to get at the idea that preferring to be right is a kind of ethical choice. That it is universally or infinitely preferable though is simply asserting what needs to be demonstrated. The is/ought distinction is still there and if somebody consistently chooses to be wrong there isn’t a 100% watertight reason why being factually/logically right should be chosen above being wrong in all circumstances. We essentially appeal to the virtue of correctness.
It is a virtue that I try to hold myself to and believe in. I can point to many practical circumstances as to why it is better in general, to be right rather than wrong but in a fallible universe where knowledge is imperfect, we have access only to what is apparently factually/logically correct. So aiming to be correct is actually playing the odds. The person stubbornly ignoring reason and evidence in some particular circumstance will sometimes be right.
In 2007 Molyneux pulls this together in this way
“if I argue against the proposition that universally preferable behaviour is valid, I have already shown my preference for truth over falsehood – as well as a preference for correcting those who speak falsely. Saying that there is no such thing as universally preferable behaviour is like shouting in someone’s ear that sound does not exist – it is innately self-contradictory. In other words, if there is no such thing as universally preferable behaviour, then one should oppose anyone who claims that there is such a thing as universally preferable behaviour. However, if one “should” do something, then one has just created universally preferable behaviour. Thus universally preferable behaviour – or moral rules –must be valid. Syllogistically, this is:Molyneux, Stefan. UPB: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, 2007, (page 40)
1.The proposition is: the concept “universally preferable behaviour” must be valid.
2.Arguing against the validity of universally preferable behaviour demonstrates universally preferable behaviour.
3.Therefore no argument against the validity of universally preferable behaviour can be valid. “
The trick should be now more apparent. Molyneux’s argument is circular. He assumes the concept of infinite preference lies at the heart of any assertion of truth and then declares the argument won because any argument against it is an appeal to truth which he has asserted is one of infinite preference.
Oh and for f_ck’s sake whatever that set of three points is at the end is, it is NOT a syllogism. And NO, by pointing that out I’m not proving Molyneux’s point about infinite preference. I’m just pointing out that he hasn’t a clue what he is talking about.
Back in 2007 I start to feel like he’s trolling me…
“Thus it is impossible that anyone can logically argue against universally preferable behaviour, since if he is alive to argue, he must have followed universally preferred behaviours such as breathing, eating and drinking. Syllogistically, this is:Molyneux, Stefan. UPB: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, 2007, (page 41)
1. All organisms require universally preferred behaviour to live.
2. Man is a living organism.
3. Therefore all living men are alive due to the practice of universally preferred behaviour.
4. Therefore any argument against universally preferable behaviour requires an acceptance and practice of universally preferred behaviour.
5. Therefore no argument against the existence of universally preferable behaviour can be valid. “
You should have noticed several things by now:
- I’m quoting from the 2007 book more than the 2018 one.
- Molyneux doesn’t seem to be grappling with any actual ethical issues.
- That ‘if you argue with me then I must be right’ trick is very annoying.
- Molyneux has zero idea what a syllogism is.
This goes nowhere. The point isn’t to illuminate ethical principles but to set up a set of confusing fallacies so that Molyneux can assert that he is right. From there he can assert whatever he decides is right in some circumstance as being right.
As we’ve seen, Molyneux has a confused conception of truth, a confident but incoherent conception of reality and a evangelical Christian’s dislike of his own chosen position on god i.e. atheism. To be fair to Molyneux, those first two subjects are challenging ones that have bamboozled thinkers for millennia. In most circumstances judging the quality of somebody’s writing on the basis that they don’t have a solid and clear conception of the nature of truth and reality would be unfairly harsh. However, in a book purporting to be an introduction to philosophy a minimum requirement would be for the author to at least acknowledge that they are struggling to get their thoughts together.
Molyneux’s next trick is to combine all three issues into one topic: his lack of clarity on the nature of truth, his confusion about reality and his desire to nominally take an atheist position while remaining unthreatening to the religious right. Added to this blended smoothie of wrongness is Molyneux’s staggering capacity to discuss a topic without ever examining his own ideas and assertions. So, without further ado, let’s look at Molyneux on the topic of free will.
You won’t be surprised to discover that he never actually explains what he thinks free will is. This makes it difficult to précise his position on free will.
“Without free will, there is no such thing as philosophy. We do not attempt to cultivate wisdom in inanimate objects.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1040-1042). Kindle Edition.
Inanimate objects? He will eventually get on to the topic of animals and robots but it’s an odd place to start. The question about free will is one about beings that can think, that appear to respond to their environment at a level that we could call informational. We don’t try to convince unthinking things about anything because they can’t think. We might even try to deceive things that merely have some semblance of thinking by feeding them false information (like a former coworker who would position a fan heater near a thermostat to trick the office air-con into blowing colder).
Molyneux’s main objective is to try and defend the existence of free will against a materialist position that says that free will doesn’t exist while accepting (to some degree) materialism. In other words Molyneux wants free will but rejects the idea of a soul as an explanation of it.
“These arguments certainly have the ring of consistency to them. How could it be rational to create an exception to the universal laws of physics just for the human brain? We do not see or experience even the idea of free will among animals, among nature, among inanimate objects – how are we so different? The answer that we possess a soul is not satisfying to those who reject immaterial explanations for material causes. If a child denies stealing a cookie and claims that his imaginary friend ate it instead, few parents would accept such an explanation.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1063-1068). Kindle Edition.
This is a task that is far beyond his ability. For a start, as we’ve already seen, he’s unable to distinguish between thinking and free will as concepts. I should add, it’s not making an argument that cognition and free will are the same that I have an issue but rather that Molyneux doesn’t MAKE that argument. Instead he just gets the two ideas confused and rambles around and then says that he’s done.
His first argument is one based on a principle that he describes as:
“Testing the hypothesis of an argument against the methodology of communicating the argument is a powerful method for rejecting irrational arguments.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1087-1088). Kindle Edition.
An example of which is:
“If a man sends me an email containing the argument that emails never get delivered, I do not need to know anything about how emails are delivered in order to reject his hypothesis.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1073-1075). Kindle Edition.
And which he generalises with more examples:
“You cannot use logical arguments to disprove the value of logic. You cannot use empirical arguments to disprove the value of empiricism.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1090-1092). Kindle Edition.
Of course, you can actually do both of those things. The past 150+ years of philosophy have involved some very clever people beating up logic with its own weapons. Demonstrating that something doesn’t live up to its own rules is an effective method of argumentation. Of course, we already knew that Molyneux does not have a decent grasp of logic, truth or argumentation.
Molyneux belabours this point for several pages. The essence of his argument is that if a determinist (i.e. the people who are rejecting free will) are trying to convince you that free will exists then they are tacitly accepting that free will exists because why else would they try and change your mind?
The errors here are manifold.
- Changing some one’s mind with new information does not imply free will by itself. Somebody who does not believe in free will can easily argue that whether you do or do not change your mind when presented with an argument is something pre-determined. That pre-determination doesn’t change that it was the argument that changed your mind.
- Accepting that there was no point to making an argument because everything is pre-determined is itself pointless if EVERYTHING IS PRE-DETERMINED. Molyneux assumes the disbeliever in free will is using their free will to make their argument but struggles to remember that the disbeliever in free will doesn’t actually believe in free will.
Molyneux has obviously encountered arguments about robots:
“Referring to a mechanical device such as a robot in lieu of a person does not solve the problem of human consciousness and choice because it takes a human being to create a robot. It’s like saying I have superhero hearing because I can hear someone talking from thousands of miles away – when all I have done is use a phone.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1215-1219). Kindle Edition.
Which misses the point about robots and again confuses cognition with free will. A robot can respond to information in a purely deterministic manner. Regardless of who or how a robot was created and even if they are otherwise utterly different to human thinking, a robot demonstrates that responding to verbal information does not show the existence of free will.
He’s also enchanted arguments about dogs:
“Regarding the dog example – yes, a dog can come when you call him, but that does not support the determinist position. A dog’s brain is more complex than a worm’s brain, and we can expect a dog to come when we call him, but not a worm. We can train a dog, but not a worm. Thus this argument supports the concept of free will, since a more advanced and complex brain is used as an example,”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1239-1242). Kindle Edition.
Again, Molyneux misses the point and again gets confused between cognition and free will. Yes, these are closely related concepts and you can’t talk about free will without getting into thinking but Molyneux can’t distinguish.
After much rambling, Molyneux promises us a section entitled “What Is Free Will?”
‘The definition of free will is challenging and complicated, because it must be something unique to the human mind – therefore, it cannot be anything as simple and tautological as “choice.”’Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1299-1301). Kindle Edition.
In this section he wanders between free will and ethics and eventually says:
“If we understand this definition of free will – our human capacity to compare proposed actions to ideal standards – then the debate between determinism and choice becomes much easier to resolve.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1422-1424). Kindle Edition.
How comparing our behaviour to ideal standards is different to regular thinking is unclear or what is undetermined by it is also unclear. That humans have the capacity to think about abstract concepts (including abstract standards) is true. I’d also agree that whatever we believe free-will to be the phenomenon (whether it is an illusion or real) must rest in our capacity to deal with abstraction. However, Molyneux has not joined any dots or refuted any positions. In particular the straw-determinist Molyneux has been arguing with has no reason to reject the idea that humans can reason about abstract concepts.
We are back to the problem that Molyneux has not adequately attempted to describe the phenomenon he is trying to explain. He hasn’t adequately listed a set of features that we expect of the thing called “free will” so that he can show that his “definition” meets those features. He’ simply taken one concept and decided to label that concept “free will”. The relabelling doesn’t deal with the straw-determinist’s objections to free will.
But what if maybe we don’t have free will? Or rather, what if most people who aren’t Stefan Molyneux don’t have free will:
“You are programmed – as I was programmed – to serve the needs of those who rule us. You are raised by the government to praise the government, and to fear freedom. Government schools teach you that the danger in your life comes from your peers, not the school itself, even though you are generally forced to be there. If you are unjustly put in a dangerous prison, the true source of the danger is the corrupt legal system, not your fellow inmates; they are a side effect, not the first cause.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1719-1723). Kindle Edition.
Having belaboured the point that people aren’t robots, Molyneux now contends we are robots or at least programmed like robots.
“You are little more than a useful robot running around in preprogrammed spirals, spewing polysyllabic nonsense designed to prop up the gallows of power.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1746-1748). Kindle Edition.
In what is not a shocking twist in the narrative it turns out the anarchy-capitalist thinks we are all mindless sheep, unlike him.
“True free will must be earned, because it has been stolen. When someone says you have free will, but you know you have not done the necessary work to escape your programmed delusions, what they say often seems both outlandish and humiliating to you. It seems outlandish because you know it is not true for you. And it feels humiliating because you know deep down that you should have done that work, the work needed to become free, the work to undo your programming, the work to shatter delusions, and to move from livestock to human, from robot to free mind. Also, if you become free, what happens to your relationships with your surrounding slaves?”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1777-1784). Kindle Edition.
Molyneux is close to self parody by this point and in danger of becoming an extra in that XKCD cartoon. It’s necessary step for him that he can’t avoid because it is a lead into his own brand of ethics. I’ll cover his theory of ethics next time (which will be either the last part or the penultimate part). In the meantime, here is a quote from the book that I really feel needs to be shared but doesn’t fit anywhere in my posts:
“There was an old video recording and playback technology called the VCR – you can still buy the machines online. Imagine getting ahold of a very early VCR – and then learning how it had been programmed. It might be possible to either get the source code – sitting on some dusty 5¼-inch floppy disk somewhere – or reverse-engineer the VCR code. Then imagine spending months learning that code, studying the hardware specifications and capacities of the machine, and finding some way to improve its speed, efficiency or responsiveness. Then perhaps you could find some way to inject that new code into an existing ancient VCR and watch it perform better. I can’t fathom why anyone would ever pursue that goal, because it would be a dismal and useless waste of time, for many obvious reasons.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1944-1950). Kindle Edition.
Stefan Molyneux is 52.
Haunting Stefan Molyneux’s attempt to write a book on philosophy is Ayn Rand. Objectivism and Rand get no mention in Molyneux’s book and nor should either of them in a serious general introduction to philosophy. Rand was not a competent philosopher but she provides a model against which right-wing thinkers might judge themselves. Part of that model is a hyper-individualism which manifests both politically and as part of a kind of character trait. Not just that the world would be better if forceful, strong-willed individuals get to be forceful, strong-willed individuals but that the speaker is an example of such a being. Not surprising then that the Rand-style philosopher tends to ignore their ideological forebears.
I thought it was interesting that Jordan Peterson talked about Nietzsche as much as he did partly because of that. A difference between Peterson and Rand or Molyneux is that Peterson aims for a cloud of academic respectability. Citing thinkers is part of his schtick and also Peterson’s hyper-individualism is occluded behind an ostensible concern for mankind*.
Molyneux doesn’t talk about Rand and Rand’s followers don’t talk about Nietzsche much. An objectivist once got very angry with me for merely mentioning Nietzsche, seeing it as an attempt to call Rand a Nazi. Other thinkers such as the intense Max Stirner (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Stirner ) the nineteenth-century anarcho-individualist, don’t get a look in. An ideology of egos is disinclined to portray their ideas as being derivative or fear of looking inadequate when compared to more complex thinkers or just plain ignorance. I’ve noted before that Molyneux treats concepts as if they are wilderness land that he is claiming and turning into arable acres as thus making them his property. Like many colonists, he is not likely to acknowledge that others may have occupied this territory in the past.
There’s not much room for god, gods or God either. Defiant atheism is part of the model — a rebuke to the ultimate authority. At the turn of this century, there was no lack of assertive libertarian, objectivist, anarcho-capitalist atheists. I think it is also fair to contend that the underlying egoism was nearly identical to an ideology that essentially valorises being an arsehole.
Now, as an atheist myself, I don’t think being an atheist neccesarily involves being a bit of a shit but its notable how many public atheists head in that direction. I’m not sure either of these Venn diagrams quite capture the relationship. It’s certainly not the case that Left-atheists are free from arseholes.
Molyneux’s analysis of God is one of authority:
“Concepts of “gods” and “virtues” were originally summoned to infuse authority figures with credibility over and above mere physical presence. A king is merely a man who can be easily slaughtered in his sleep, as Macbeth showed. However, if the king is infused with the divine right of monarchy, and is placed by an all-loving and all-powerful God to rule over a sinful mankind, then opposition to the king is opposition to God. You may kill the king, who can then no longer do you any more harm – but God will get the king’s revenge by robbing you of sleep and sending you to hell forever. Moral concepts were generally invented – or they evolved – to hide the aging mortality of merely empirical power relationships. “You are not obeying me,” says the king. “You are obeying God, who placed me to rule over you.” You must obey the king, because he represents God. But the king himself does not have to obey God, because the king prays for instructions from God. And whatever the king does is informed by that mysterious and unverifiable interaction.Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 346-355). Kindle Edition.
Fair enough as far as it goes. Like many analysis of religion and ethics from both left and right, it is simplistic and incomplete but as a sketch of an aspect of religion and political power, it’s not wholly wrong. It doesn’t even imply atheism, although it does imply that a person should be sceptical of any state-religion connection.
Which takes me to Molyneux’s problem. He wants to take an atheist stance but right-wing atheism is not what it was. Molyneux’s audience has evolved from the You-Tube atheist pundit of the past and is now more overtly of the Alt-Right. Molyneux’s work aims to provide cover for more overt racial extremism and far-right ideology by framing ideas in terms of rational free-thinking, hence his obsession with race and IQ. His audience is not atheist and some of the themes such as ‘defending Western civilisation’ are entwined with right-wing conceptions of Christianity. Molyneux isn’t unique in this — more respectable and prominent figures of early 21st century atheism find themselves in a similar position e.g. the woeful Sam Harris.
Molyneux’s strategy is to attack atheists and atheism as a movement without attack atheism as a concept. It’s not that well done but at least it is a rare example of Molyneux showing some intellectual adaptability. For example:
“Through relentless materialism and secularism, we have created generations of deterministic, nihilistic, socialistic and empty atheists and agnostics – and now we are losing our freedoms.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1878-1879). Kindle Edition.
Out of context, that looks like a standard attack on atheism but in context his argument is with “determinists” (such as the aforementioned Sam Harris — not that he names Harris either).
In a longer section he tells as story entitled “The Storm and the Self: An Analogy”. The story starts with a village in the midst of a storm. The villagers are sheltering within the village church:
“Into the village, through the storm, rides a group of atheists. Dismounting, they pull out sledgehammers, cry out that there is no God, swarm up the wet walls and start pounding on the roof of the church, tearing it away. The storm, the hail, the wind, the debris – all begin flying into the church and smashing into the people.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 2017-2019). Kindle Edition.
Molyneux goes onto describe the lightning striking the villagers and the collapsing masonry putting the villagers in danger. So the villagers now flee the church which is now more dangerous the storm. Molyneux’s point being that atheism (or secularism) has damaged religion and made it dangerous but offered no new intellectual shelter for people.
That there are features of religion that a post-religious society might need is not a new idea (e.g. Alain de Botton’s “Atheism 2.0” https://www.ted.com/talks/alain_de_botton_atheism_2_0 ) but not one I’d trust anybody with. Molyneux’s tack here is less constructive, it’s more of an appeal for people to join his quasi-cult. I say “quasi” because rather like Jordan Peterson’s following, it isn’t organised or systematised enough to be a genuine Scientology-like cult.
The cultish aspects of Molyneux have been noted before. His “Free Domain Radio” has been described as a therapy cult (see https://www.theglobeandmail.com/technology/how-a-cyberphilosopher-convinced-followers-to-cut-off-family/article7511365/?page=all ) with a tell-tale feature of pressurising people to cut themselves off from their family**
Of course the other aspect of a cult is the money. A Daily Beast profile of Molyneux describes the process:
“Molyneux’s plan to fix the world may start with disassociation from family, but it also relies on devotees sending him cash—although recently he has insisted it’s not necessary—in a tiered donation system not unlike the one Scientology uses. Weed said her son had been giving money to Molyneux in order to reach the highest level of membership and, in turn, become part of Molyneux’s inner circle.”https://www.thedailybeast.com/meet-the-cult-leader-stumping-for-donald-trump
That same article goes on to describe the other common feature with Scientology — the harassment and shaming of ex-members:
‘Worse yet, Molyneux’s staff and followers publicly shame and post personal information about those who leave the group. Molyneux’s group calls the process of reuniting and making amends with family “reFOOing.”’https://www.thedailybeast.com/meet-the-cult-leader-stumping-for-donald-trump
I’m reminded of an earlier part of Molyneux’s book where ostensibly he is discussing modes of arguments and approaches to debate in the abstract:
“Calling someone a misogynist, a cult leader, a racist – we all understand that none of these are arguments; they are confessions of intellectual cowardice and impotence.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 3828-3829). Kindle Edition.
Of course simply “calling” somebody those things are not arguments. However, demonstrating a person is those things is another matter.
Modern leaders of established religion warn that secularism and the abandonment of their churches, mosques etc is removing a necessary bulwark from society that protects us from superstition and predatory cults. The irony is that superstitious predatory cultists use the same argument. There’s some evidence that traditional faiths provide a kind of prophylactic vaccine against wackier ideas but we need stronger medicine than that.
*[Emphasis on “man”]
**[Obviously, for some people, getting away from their family is necessary to escape abuse. It is the frequency with which this is offered as a psychological solution that makes it a feature of a cult.]
My plan was to return to this today — the claim that the human population of the Earth is substantially less than 7 billion. Before we get to the main course I learnt something that was only a little surprising: the crypto-fascist and terrorist-supporter Vox Day is into moon-landing conspiracy theories. The links are at the bottom of the post for reference. The first is a recent link to a video by a guy called Owen Benjamin. Vox has been pushing this guy’s videos recently because he was a former supporter of Jordan Peterson who has since decided that Peterson is satanic. The video is rambling and poorly argued — not worth watching as there’s nothing new there and its interspersed with homophobic tangents. Vox’s scepticism about the moon landings is older though and he links to a position he’s had on them since at least 2006.
“I tend to support the faked Moon landing theory myself, not because of any particular detail, but simply based on the theory that if the Official Story is that we landed there, then we probably didn’t. This mysterious disappearance tends to support that… it’s intriguing to see how tapes, videos and recordings never seem to survive whenever an Official Story is questioned by the public.”
I’ll concede one point in Vox’s favour: he very neatly encapsulated the core fallacy at the heart of his thinking and in Sarah Hoyt’s position on the population of the Earth. I’ll generalise his argument as follows:
The fallacy of denial: If the official story is one thing then this a lie and the truth is in a specific other direction.
As a fallacy, it is a species of the genetic fallacy that treats the source of the argument as determining the truth of the argument. There are instances where similar arguments are not fallacious, for example, if we are evaluating the reliability of evidence from a particular source and that source is known to be unreliable. However, an unreliable source doesn’t contaminate all the other surrounding evidence nor is it rational to conclude that an unreliable witness/source must be lying without additional evidence.
Additionally, there is a fallacy of unreliability here. The fallacy is that if a source of data is unreliable and that all we know about it, then the unreliability can only be in one direction. For example, Vox contends that NASA are obviously lying about something but then doesn’t contemplate whether they are hiding extra moon landings etc. If if you grant that somebody is lying to you, you need other evidence or arguments to conclude even vaguely the nature of the lie.
Back to 7 Billion
Returning to the denial that the population of the Earth is 7 billion, we can see the same fallacy in operation here:
“I don’t think we’re 7 billion or whatever number the UN claims, and frankly I can’t understand why ANYONE believes the UN on this. They can’t be trusted on anything else, pretty much taking the word of dictators and totalitarians for proven facts, but you trust them on this? Really?”
Hoyt argues that the official story is 7 billion and that the official story can’t be trusted and therefore the actual population must be significantly less. She doesn’t say by how much but presumably enough that people would be less concerned about the population of the Earth. It is essentially the same argument as Vox’s but on a completely different subject.
The claim is fallacious even if we can regard some parts of it being credible. To wit, these are reasonable points:
- Census data can’t be wholly accurate in general.
- Census data will be even less accurate in less developed countries.
- Authoritarian regimes do sometimes (or even often) lie about national statistics.
However, none of those points address either the size or the direction of any errors that apply to the 7 billion figure. What they tell us can be summed up as:
Population of the Earth = 7 billion +/- some error
That error is not zero but we knew that already and nobody is claiming it is zero. Hoyt’s argument requires the error to be both negative and substantial, neither of which can be derived from “you can’t trust the UN”.
Denial versus conspiracy
The basic claim we are looking at (i.e. that the population of Earth is substantially less than 7 billion) is best described as denial. By itself, it is simply a claim that something with substantial evidence behind it isn’t true. That’s not the same as a conspiracy theory but it is the seed of one.
The move from a simple denial to conspiracy comes from when further evidence is presented.
In the case of the Earth’s population, we do not need to use the UN figure at all. Instead, we can use the USA’s Census Bureau estimate or we can use an estimate by a private organisation The Population Reference Bureau.
For 2015 these estimates were according to Wikipedia:
[Links take you to sources. For UN and USCB these are interactive sources and the figures vary to some degree from what is quoted on the Wiki page but confirm 7 billion + ]
So different groups come to similar figures. Maybe the USCB is lying as well and in the same way as the UN? Well, that’s a definite move into conspiracy theory territory.
A less conspiratorial source of skepticism is that national governments lie. It’s a fair point and if each of those estimates above used the same raw data and that raw data was false then maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the figures are similar. After all, a billion+ of that 7 billion is from China and there is no particular reason to assume that the Chinese government would be honest.
However, that assumes that all these estimates are is simply adding up some top level numbers. It ignores that these numbers are just part of a wider discipline of demographics. Behind the figures are estimates about population density and population growth. These estimates aren’t perfect either but they do make lying about population figures substantially harder.
The estimates are also part of a historical record of estimates and hence would require a government to not just lie but to do so consistently over decades. It might be plausible to believe that the Chinese government would lie but during the years of the much vaunted one-child policy, in what direction would the government lie? To bolster the policy initially a cynical government might inflate population growth but overtime a cynical government would start exaggerating the degree to which the policy had worked. Lying plausibly about such things would be quite a challenge but not impossible in a relatively closed society. While modern China is still under one-party rule, it’s relatively easy to visit and see the size and scale of Chinese cities. That’s not enough to confirm the accuracy of Chinese census figures but it does limit the degree to which they can be inflated.
For other nations unintentional inaccuracy in census figures cuts both ways. There are reasons that some people may be over-counted and reasons why some people might be under-counted. USCB estimates for the population of China in 2015 were 1,367,485,000. Let’s say the ‘true’ figure was HALF of that then the world population would be 6,652,692,500 — less than 7 billion but still 7 billion when rounding to the nearest billion. To get the figure down to 6 billion requires both accidental over-counting and intentional lying from multiple nations.
Such lies might work in a sufficiently rural population where the impact of people is harder to observe but much of the growth in the world is in cities, cities that are observable by satellite. Again, hard to get exact population figures from such data but its not hard for demographers to use economic data, land use data and other sources to provide corroboration.
Put another way: population figures may be ‘wrong’ but there’s a limit to how wrong they can be.
Motive is insufficient
Now imagine the 7 billion figure is a hefty 2 billion people out and in one direction i.e. the actual world population is 5 billion. That figure would require not just huge lies from both China and India but the active collusion of demographers in multiple countries and the governments of hostile nations going along with the deception. But let’s grant that and imagine it’s all part of a plan to frighten people by the spectre of over-population. Is 7 billion seriously that much scarier than 5 billion to be worth all of that effort? And the effort to shave 2 billion off those figures would be significant.
Critical thinking versus credulous thinking
I mourn the word “skeptical” but unfortunately it’s not up to the job of the modern world. “Critical thinking” isn’t much better because what ever word we might use, it will then be misused by flim-flam You-Tube “philosophers” like Stefan Molyneux. However, for the time being at least I can use it to point out a distinction.
It can seem paradoxical the extent to which some people we encounter (not all on the right but increasingly concentrated on the right) can be both so sceptical and credulous at the same time. While doubt and belief look quite different, the “scepticism” is routed in their credulousness. The core issue is not a capacity to believe or disbelieve but rather an unwillingness to interrogate their own beliefs (or disbelief for that matter).
It’s not unlike the very basic advice given to people learning how to do maths or physics problems. It’s not enough to churn through calculations and plug numbers into calculators because small errors can lead to big mistakes and misunderstanding the problem can lead to correct methods to the wrong problem. Adept problem solvers take a step back and ask the question “does this answer actually make sense?”
“Now, I have not said that the Moon landings were a hoax, I have only observed that I do not believe the Official Story concerning them. I don’t know what people are lying about or the full extent of their lies and deception, I only know that the Official Story is not entirely true. That does not mean it is entirely false.”http://voxday.blogspot.com/2018/12/skepticism-required-here.html
“I tend to support the faked Moon landing theory myself, not because of any particular detail, but simply based on the theory that if the Official Story is that we landed there, then we probably didn’t.”http://voxday.blogspot.com/2006/08/fortuitous-loss.htm
“As with all things for which there is no clear historical consensus, I remain entirely agnostic on the issue. To the extent that I lean one way or the other, I tend to assume that the landings were faked due to the means, motive, and opportunity heuristic and because I am a confirmed cynic when it comes to Official Stories narrated by the U.S. government”.http://voxday.blogspot.com/2018/12/no-one-went-to-moon.html
An adjective can work at least a couple of ways. It can distinguish a particular instance/subset of a group of things (e.g. red car – a specific car that is red) or it can highlight a property that is true of the noun in general (e.g. red Mars – Mars is red). The context and the type of word being used is usually more than sufficient to understand the usage. People may wilfully misunderstand, for example “toxic masculinity” is a term that identifies a particular kind of masculinity but it is often treated as if the term means that masculinity is in all cases toxic.
Which is my roundabout way of introducing Stefan Molyneux’s use of the term “objective reality”. Molyneux is far from alone in using the term ambiguously – know I do and have used it in ways that are less than clear. However, Molyneux is using the term in a book on philosophy and “objective reality” is really important to him. In the same way the book never gets a good grasp on epistemology the book is unsure of its metaphysics. Reality is something he appeals to but not something he knows how to engage with:
objective reality 32
virtual reality 7
simulated reality 4
subjective reality 0
social reality 1
external reality 3
rational reality 2
material reality 4
empirical reality 6 (empirical material reality 2)
physical reality 1
I’ve some sympathy for anybody trying to distinguish between things that sort of like reality and actual reality while contending nothing exists that isn’t made of matter. Even so, if you are going to write a book on philosophy then that’s the task you set yourself. It’s no use saying that sex scenes are too hard to write well if you are selling yourself as an erotic novelist and the same principle is true for metaphysics and writing an overview of philosophy.
The clearest statement Molyneux makes about what he means by reality spins itself in circles:
“In philosophy, the preferred state is truth – in other words, statements that accurately describe the objective facts, properties and processes of empirical material reality. Empirical material reality is objective, rational and universal – a stone is a stone and possesses the properties of a stone everywhere in the universe.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 2240-2243). Kindle Edition.
Reality is something Molyneux claims is something we need to take on faith:
“When most people think of the word “faith,” they generally refer to a belief in God – but it is much more accurate to say that we have “faith” in reality. We have faith in ourselves, our existence, memories or history, our relationships, the evidence of our senses, the virtue of our choices – we have few if any real philosophical certainties in these areas. We accept what we have to in order to survive, to get through the day, to find shelter and food – and love, hopefully.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 171-176). Kindle Edition.
That seems not unreasonable but later he says the existence of an objective reality is something which can be established:
“In order to value truth, we must first establish the existence of an objective reality. Its existence is easily testable. For instance, I have two realms of experience – one in which impossible things happen, and another in which impossible things do not happen. The first realm is my dreams – or perhaps a very vivid video game. The second is reality. I once had a startling dream wherein an alligator propelled itself backwards a distance of fifty or sixty feet, landing near me. This cannot happen in reality, absent the invention of reptilian jetpacks.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 413-419). Kindle Edition.
It’s paragraph like that which induce a strange vertigo in the reader. I’m a sceptical sort but I don’t seriously doubt there’s an objective reality. After reading Molyneux’s argument though, I’m MORE inclined to disbelieve there’s an objective reality.
Also, consider what role “existence” is doing there. “Exist” is a word Molyneux uses but leaves unexamined because he doesn’t examine his own metaphysics.
His grasp of physics isn’t much better than his grasp of metaphysics.
“Objects in the world are consistent for two basic reasons – the first is the existence of atoms, and the second is the existence of stable physical laws. The atoms that make up a feather possess different characteristics than the atoms that make up a bowling ball. The atoms that make up water are different from the atoms that make up arsenic. Atoms are subject to stable physical laws, which result in consistent object behaviour, information about which our senses then transmit to our brains.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 941-945). Kindle Edition.
And a not long after:
“Empirical reality is not self-contradictory – at least at the realm of the senses, where philosophy operates. The realm of quantum mechanics is interesting, of course, but does not impact the realm of philosophy, because quantum phenomena cancels out long before we get to the aggregate realm of sense perception.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 952-955). Kindle Edition.
I’ll pause to let that paragraph sink in.
Molyneux is doing whatever the opposite of philosophy is. In the past I would have argued that philosophy is a thing that can’t really have an opposite. Yet here we are. Molyneux encountered philosophy once and wasn’t paying attention and yet somehow holds a grudge against it.
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:
- he doesn’t know what he means by truth
- 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.
‘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.
I wandered into the rabbit hole that is alt-right cultist Stefan Molyneux the other day. I’ve covered Molyneux only tangentially in the past, mainly because he’s pals with Vox Day. Molyneux mainly does his thing via YouTube and podcasts and I find those media tiresome to analyse. It’s very hard to double-back and check what people said earlier and I think they disguise confused thinking better than text.
Anyway, Molyneux also does free books. That is a lovely pairing of words, “free books”, but let me just say that the book I got was overpriced. It’s called “Essential Philosophy: How to know what on Earth is going on”.
I’m not quite ready to go through it in detail, mainly because it is less than coherent. There’s a core ethical problem because I think Molyneux believes that he believes things that he doesn’t actually believe. To assert that somebody misunderstands their own beliefs doesn’t sit well with me, even if it is somebody of dubious morals such as Molyneux. I don’t mean just that he misrepresents his own beliefs or that he lies about his beliefs (probably both of those are true as well) but that he asserts ideas that he understands well enough to express but which are at odds with what he later claims.
If you are thinking “that sounds like Jordan Peterson”, well yes it does. Molyneux has a lot in common (aside from being Canadian) with Peterson and has a similar cultish aspect to him. The Rational Wiki entry is well worth a read https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Stefan_Molyneux
However, Molyneux is much, much less entertainingly incoherent than Peterson. Peterson is tiresome to read if you try and follow a chain of ideas but if you just give up trying to make sense of Peterson, you do get a weird hallucinatory trip into the mind of a troubled man desperately trying to externalize his inner demons by pretending his own character flaws are actually problems with the world.
Molyneux on the other hand is a dull writer with equally confused ideas but none of the wacky diversions into lobsters and flying over pyramids.
In the meantime, I got distracted. I went to Molyneux’s Twitter feed to check something and ended up writing an essay about an IQ question.