On the Right & Civilisations

This is a rewrite of a Tweet thread that started here:

However, Tweets aren’t a great medium for the point I was trying to make, so I’m making it more essay-like here.

“Western Civilisation” or “Judeo-Christian civilisation” are almost content-free markers in right wing discourse these days. In both cases, there is a fundamental incoherence that arises from deep problems with how people like Shapiro think about the world.

‘Civilisation’ implies an ongoing exchange of ideas between people. A civilisation will manifest in many ways (politics, architecture, art) but the idea that these multifold things all connect together comes from people swapping ideas and concepts. However, the right wing rhetorical use of the term ‘civilisation’ implies the opposite: that somehow ideas cannot cross between ‘civilisations’ even though the very examples they use of the wonders of Western Civilisation are prime examples of a very fluid exchange of ideas way beyond the boundaries of the West.

Shapiro concedes grudgingly some maths from India, while ignoring the influence of that same maths in other parts of Asia, or its transmission to the west. There’s no sensible way of considering the cultural and philosophical history of Europe without considering its connection to the Middle East, central Asia and the Indian sub-continent, through migration, trade, war and general proximity. Shapiro cites Aristotle (who was neither Christian nor Jewish) and simultaneously ignores the role of Islamic Aristotelian scholarship on European thought in the middle-ages.

Obviously, the term “Western Civilisation” isn’t wholly meaningless as an idea in general but the alt-right uses it in a way that is little more than a marker for their racism. “Judeo-Christian” is used by sections of the right in a similar way to mask their hatred of Islam. It’s even more absurd as a term, generally only applied to Western European ideas (and often specifically Anglophone ones) while ignoring other cultures with a Christian background (partly out of habit of seeing Eastern Europe as a non-Christian ‘other’) and at the same time partly-ignoring non-Christian influences on European culture (pre-Christian Northern Europe, classical Greece and Rome) while co-opting those classic parts that have been Christianised (see Aristotle above). The “Judeo” part is strictly tokenistic: Maimondes is as likely to be ignored as Averroes.

That Western European thought was influenced by multiple cultures both as an internal dynamic (the many cultures within Europe) or an external dynamic (the many cultures Europe has interacted with by trade, war, invasion, migration, exploration, colonisation etc) is not something that can be admitted to because then any endorsement of the wonders of “Western Civilisation” would by implication be seen an endorsement of multi-culturalism.

Both terms as used by the right are bad history and in Shapiro’s example a bad understanding of how science developed. He actively obscures why Issac Newton did his work where and when he does, turning him into just some sort of brief expression of a kind of miasma of “Judeo-Christian” civilisation. The path that leads to the particular sweet spot that Shapiro seems to be pointing towards, where abstract philosophy meets empirical practicality isn’t something that just pops up if you believe in god in just the right way. If it where then we’d have far more Issac Newtons in Christian and Jewish history. Consequently Shapiro’s analysis (if that’s not too generous a term for it) makes it both harder to understand what was going on in 17th century England and also undermines what actually WAS special about it AND also undermines how Newton’s insights connect with his religious beliefs.

The halting steps towards the modern sense of scientific thinking, in which broad abstract principles are examined with an eye towards experimentation and empirical testing, was a long road full of missteps. It is one in which Aristotle’s work (as he keeps coming up) was both an aid and a hindrance and where contact (both good and bad) with other cultures and beliefs was vital. Religion is not irrelevant here and had positive and negative influences just as a figure like Aristotle had positive and negative influences.

Shapiro needs to set up the relationship as purely one way: that specific religious beliefs begat science because he also needs to hide the opposite effect: that religious beliefs changed because of scientific & philosophical ideas (as well as economy & politics & exploration & colonialism & empire etc) And also, that Islam, Judaism and Christianity kept changing each other over time and still do so. This is hard to accept if your view of religion is one where they are repositories of universal truths (or lies) rather than human attempts to grapple with those truths and as subject to human foibles and historical forces as any other human endeavour.

Instead Shapiro imagines religion as a kind of operating system for civilisation-machines rather than as ongoing dialogues people have with each other. Hence him tying himself up in knots in a manner that leaves him in a position where he cannot defend his analysis from the alt-right. His intellectual incoherence on this topic has multiple roots but one in particular is revealed in this particular topic of “civilisations”.

The wider discourse in the right for decades now has been one that can be characterised as scepticism about the existence of, or influences of SOCIETY. Exemplified most starkly by Margaret Thatcher but present across the board. Now, fair enough, sociology is not the most robust of disciplines but imagine trying to discuss sociological events, dynamics etc while being hostile to the very concept of society. It would be like trying to do macroeconomics while actively avoiding the concept of “an economy”

Racists are mainly racists for petty & cynical reasons but in addition, a discourse about sociological phenomenon without a concept of society is one in which racism or some other partisan essentialism is inevitable. Why are their broad, epiphenomenal effects in a collection of atomic individuals? How do such things exist if you can’t think in terms of “society”? The alternatives are conspiracies, religious allegiance, race or supernatural intervention & right wing discourse is full of all four.

Without a concept of society, it is inevitable that shifts in taste or widespread behaviour become blamed on conspiracies or hidden intentional forces. That and racism will only get you so far though. Any attempt to present a historical account of the world that at least has a patina of intellectual respectability is to find a proxy for society that can fill the conceptual gap. “Civilisation” is another way for right wing pseudo-intellectuals to try to talk about society & culture without conceding that either are powerful factors in our lives. Of course a concept of civilisation without sociological ideas is a vacuum.

Triangles are the new front in the culture war and are possibly being controlled by demons

Imagine, if you will, a triangle. I’ll make it a very specific one. It has a base of 18 centimetres and a perpendicular height of 9 centimetres. It even has a specific orientation with its base horizontal on a grid. Here it is (or at least a version of it)

Am I being wholly honest? The actual picture I’m showing you is a .png file and you are viewing it on a computer screen. The image is made of tiny squares (visible with a magnifying glass) and the file itself, the more abstract description of the image, is a .png i.e. in principle a set of coordinates of colour information for a grid of data. Does that matter? The answer is “It depends”.

Here’s the image again and superimposed a set of largeish squares. They are there to represent a low-resolution version of the pixelated triangle.

Make the squares a bit smaller and our shpae made from squares begins to look a lot more akin to a triangle:

You get the picture. Smaller and smaller squares make for a smoother image. The first set of stacked squares really doesn’t look much like a triangle but with smaller and more squares the image gets more and more like a triangle. How small do the squares have to be for it to be REALLY a triangle? Trick question.

Here’s a different way of looking at it. As I make the squares smaller the area of the stacked squares gets closer and closer to the are of the triangle we would find from the classic half-the-base-times-the-perpendicular-height formula. Our stacked squares shape literally gets more triangular as far as area goes as we improve the resolution.

But what about the perimeter? Well that’s a mess. It’s not even clear whether perimeter is meaningful. We could define it taking into encounter the edges of the nominal squares. If we do that then (I think, correct me if I’m wrong) the perimeter would tend towards the perimeter of a 9 by 18 rectangle. Ooops. My pixelated triangle is getting more rectangular. However, if I treat the perimeter as meaning “number of pixels on the outside of the shape” then I get a different limit.

Yeah but make them small enough and it is basically a triangle right? Sure, unless you really care about counting pixels, in which case not so much. Every real, physical manifestation of a geometric entity is a messy, not entirely correct compromise. Doing actual useful maths with real things requires understanding the extent to which a thing is and isn’t the “pure” mathematical entity it resembles.

This is a basic fact about the universe. It’s true whether you take a strong Platonic realist view of mathematical entities (i.e. they really are really real, maybe even more real than other things) or not (i.e. they are essentially fictional abstractions that are useful but less real than physical stuff that you can bump your head on).

Too cut a long story slightly shorter I sort of maybe tried to engage our old pal and the inaugural Dragon Award Winner for Best Horror Story That Is Actually A Space Opera Brian Niemeier about this. My excuse is that he said that “necessary being is what theologians mean by God.” and logically necessary things are to me like a flame is to a moth. Brian’s going to be doing the ontological argument for the existence of god and by golly if there’s one think I have opinions on it’s that. Then he used the necessary properties of a triangle as an example…

Anyway, the guy thinks I’m a demon anyway, so if he does the equivalent of drawing a summoning circle for me, I really have no choice but to manifest in a puff of sulphur. https://www.brianniemeier.com/2019/04/what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about.html

The discussion ended with this:

“You have two choices.
1) Confess that Jesus is the Christ, and God has raised Him from the dead. I shall forgive your violation of my hospitality, and you may continue commenting here.
2) You decline to make this just and logically irrefutable profession, and you cease commenting here. Persist in commenting without meeting my terms, and you get spammed.”

Point 1 apparently is how he expels demonically controlled beings from his blog. Which worked because I then vanished back to my demonic lair without even once twisting my head around 360 degrees. Brian then followed it up with an additional rant about the left being controlled by demons, in particular Doris: https://www.brianniemeier.com/2019/04/im-not-saying-its-demons.html

Anyway, how was your day?

The Right would rather men died than admit any flaws in masculinity

I shouldn’t read Quillette. For those unfamiliar with the Australian/International online magazine, it is part of that genre of modern political thought that could be called anti-left contrarianism, that covers various soughs from Steven Pinker to Jordan Peterson. Its stock style of article is shallowness dressed up as depth, utilizing the same style of misrepresentation of issues as the tabloid press but with longer sentences and a broader vocabulary.

Over the past few days it has published a couple of pieces on the American Psychological Associations Guidelines for Psychological Practice for Men and Boys. Now you would think that the stalwart defenders of innate gender differences would be happy that an influential body like the APA would be overtly recognising that men and boys have distinct psychological needs that require special advice for practitioners. After all, is this not the ‘moderate’ criticism of the rise of feminism? That somehow, men’s needs and men’s issues have been sidelined? Ha, ha, who am I kidding 🙂 The APA guidelines were characterised by MRAs, conservatives and the so-called “Intellectual dark web” as a direct attack on masculinity.

Here is one particularly stupid piece at Quillette that reflects the harrumphing style of response: https://quillette.com/2019/01/23/thank-you-apa/ The writer (a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University) either haven’t read the guidelines or is actively misrepresenting them.

However, a second piece is what actually caught my attention. It’s better written but also is attacking a strawman version of the guidelines: https://quillette.com/2019/01/23/how-my-toxic-stoicism-helped-me-cope-with-brain-cancer/

The writer describes how his stocial attitude helped him through a diagnosis & treatment for brain cancer and uses that to lambast the APA’s (apparent) criticism of stoicism in its guidelines. I, perhaps foolishly, left a comment on the piece. What follows is an edited version of my comment.

The piece is basically a strawman argument. It misrepresents what the APA guidelines say to imply that the guidelines have blanket disapproval for people acting stoically. e.g. Take the APA’s own article on the guidelines:

“It’s also important to encourage pro-social aspects of masculinity, says McDermott. In certain circumstances, traits like stoicism and self-sacrifice can be absolutely crucial, he says”

https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/01/ce-corner.aspx

In the guidelines themselves, the word “stoicism” appears only twice and in neither case is a blanket condemnation of it. Once is in relation to difficulties SOME men have forming emotional bonds with other men:

“Psychologists can discuss with boys and men the messages they have received about withholding affection from other males to help them understand how components of traditional masculinity such as emotional stoicism, homophobia, not showing vulnerability, self-reliance, and competitiveness might deter them from forming close relationships with male peers”

American Psychological Association, Boys and Men Guidelines Group. (2018).
APA guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men

And the other connects with a broader health issue of men not seeking care that they may need:

“Psychologists also strive to reduce mental health stigma for men by acknowledging and challenging socialized messages related to men’s mental health stigma (e.g., male stoicism, self-reliance). “

American Psychological Association, Boys and Men Guidelines Group. (2018).
APA guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men

Neither example relates to be being stoical in the face of medical diagnosis but rather social pressures that mean some men (no, not ALL men) don’t seek care that they need (including for physical ailments) because of a misguided belief that they have to battle through by themselves.

The writer’s example is NOT an example of the case the APA guidelines were addressing. The writer sought out medical care, received a diagnosis and stuck with treatment. The writer self-described actions are the OPPOSITE of what the guidelines are discussing — they show a man taking their health seriously and SEEKING HELP. That’s good and healthy but many men aren’t doing that and as a consequence are dying of treatable diseases

As guideline 8 points out:

“For most leading causes of death in the United States and in every age group, males have higher death rates than females”

American Psychological Association, Boys and Men Guidelines Group. (2018).
APA guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men

At least some of this is due men not seeking out healthcare they need:

“Between 2011 and 2013, men’s mortality rates for colorectal cancer, a generally preventable disease with regular screenings, were significantly higher than women’s, suggesting that many men do not engage in preventative care (American Cancer Society, 2015).”

American Psychological Association, Boys and Men Guidelines Group. (2018).
APA guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men

A stoical attitude need not be toxic but when misapplied/misunderstood or adopted out of a feeling of social obligation, it can take on a harmful form of thinking that you shouldn’t seek out help. I’m glad the writer’s stoicism was of the positive kind but the writer should perhaps also take greater care in researching what the APA guidelines had actually said.


To put not too fine a point on it: toxic aspects of masculinity kills men. There is nothing pro-man about it. Nobody is actually sticking up for men by pushing back against the APA guidelines.

No, ‘causation’ doesn’t imply correlation either

It’s proverbially true that an observed correlation between two variables does not imply there is some causal relation between the two…but what about the other way round? What if there is a known relation between two variables (for example from physics, laboratory experiments etc) does this imply there will be a correlation between the variables?

The answer is no, sort of. The point about correlation is that it is an observation of apparent relations between data sets. Two phenomenon can have an actual connection but the outcome might not be observable. Why not? Well, just because something exists doesn’t mean that your data collection methods can observe it: they might not be sensitive enough (e.g. your telescope might not be big enough) and closely related to that lots of other things will also have causal connections.

For example, the physics connecting CO2 and atmospheric temperature is very old, much older than the consensus among climate scientists that CO2 emissions are causing global warming. Why? Well in part because for much of the Twentieth-Century the connection was not easily observable — greenhouse gases are not the only drivers of surface temperature. Postwar data collection improved and the impact of rising CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) also became more prominent in surface temperatures and the impact of other factors (such as particles causing cooling) became better understood.

Put another way causation implies correlation but only if all other factors can be controlled (or accounted for) and your data collection is good enough.

Reading Molyneux So You Don’t Have to: Free Will

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Reading Molyneux so you don’t have to: God

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.]

Waving at reality from a safe distance

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:

  • UN: 7,247,892,788
  • USCB: 7,336,435,000
  • PRB: 7,349,472,000

[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?”

Reference links

“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

See also:

https://accordingtohoyt.com/2018/12/10/bad-bad-futures-which-didnt-happen/