Vox Day sort of denies he is a flat earther

I say “sort of” because he really doesn’t believe the Earth is more or less spherical. One of Day’s recruits to his video streaming thing has been the comedian Owen Benjamin https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Owen_Benjamin. Benjamin had the beginnings of a Hollywood career including co-starring with Christina Ricci in an obscure film in 2009. However, his career got derailed by his increasingly extreme views. These days Benjamin pushes extreme anti-Semitic conspiracy theories which amount to a kind of unified theory in which her thinks everybody is trying to make you believe lies about the moon landing etcetera as part of a Satanic plot. It’s the usual nexus of anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia with epistemic paranoia. The central theory is that people are lying about everything to make you believe lies in general.

What’s interesting here is that Day appears to be following Benjamin down the same path. Not that Day also doesn’t push the same kind of fallen-world anti-Semitic nonsense but that he’s being more open about how out there some of his beliefs about the world are — including flat earthism.

The specific pretext is this 2012 interview with a NASA data visualisation person: https://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/about/people/RSimmon.html The interview explains how he helped create an image of one hemisphere of the Earth as seen from space by stitching together multiple higher resolution images of Earth. Aha! Say the flat Earthers, Manipulation! Lies! etc etc.

It’s something you see a lot from falt-earth to vaccine denial to global warming denial: a rejection of any data, images, graphs etc that relies on any kind of inference or data cleaning etc. The demand is for evidence that is an unfiltered capture of external reality — which is impossible. Heck, not only is it impossible but which we know is myth at least since the time of Plato. What you see out of your own eyes is stitched together and processed and inferred.

Day sums up his position:

“Notice that ALL of the hemisphere photography we think we’ve seen has turned out to be nonexistent. It’s becoming clear that from the evolution fairy tale to the Blue Marble fraud to the dinosaur fraud and the satellite myth, the world is very, very different than we have been told it is. What is the point? To deceive you into serving Satan rather than God.”

Interestingly he gets a lot more pushback in his comments than he normally does. I guess even Day’s followers aren’t keen to adopt a flat-earth although structurally it’s no different than the anti-vaxx and anti-evolution stuff Day peddles.

In the comments Day responds with a weak equivocation:

“VD October 24, 2019 12:20 PM Jesus… The earth is not flat. What part of “fraud is being committed concerning X” leads you to immediately conclude that this means “Therefore Y”? I don’t believe the Earth is flat. But I don’t believe the mainstream narrative concerning the nature of the Earth either, because it contains too many lies. Binary thinking is usually a serious mistake.”

The “mainstream narrative” here being that the world is more-or-less spherical.

Unfortunately Day really does need to engage in some binary thinking here. Just by visiting different places in the world we can quickly observe that whatever curvature the Earth has it’s pretty much the same everywhere. Sure big mountains are pointy and oceans are flat but in both places you can observe that whatever is going on it’s pretty much the same everywhere. That is seriously limiting to the range of possibilities for the curvature of the Earth. A flat or curved disc with an inaccessible underneath would have edges with a radically different curvature. Any shape that you could circumnavigate, if it wasn’t basically a sphere, would have some spots with extreme curvature that frankly everybody would have noticed i.e. the Earth really isn’t a cube.

A sphere isn’t just one option among many for the shape of a thing. It’s a particularly special shape. If you want a uniform (more or less) curvature and no edges, then let’s just say your options are limited. Or…maybe the devil is making me say that…

A bad survey about the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’

This is an edited version of three Twitter rants from yesterday. It started as an off-cuff reaction but I was too far into it before I thought that it should be a blog-post rather than Tweets.

Stephen Pinker tweeted out a very weird bit of science theatre created by Michael Shermer.

Pinker has enough critical thinking skills that he should look at it with hefty scepticism…but obviously isn’t. It’s pretend science, using play-acting at science to refute what is obvious and ignores the core issues.

The “survey” by Michael Shermer (which should be a red flag in itself) was sent to 34 notable people associated with the label “Intellectual Dark Web” and asked where they stand on a number of issues. The survey was anonymous, so the views identified in the survey can’t be matched to the individuals asked. https://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/preliminary-empirical-study-shedding-light-on-intellectual-dark-web/

Each and every one of the people surveyed is a public figure who have made multiple public statements about politics and social issues. I don’t need an anonymous survey to find out what Andy Ngo or Sam Harris thinks, I can go and read what they say. And it is what they SAY that matters and what defines the IDW term not what they might privately think. If Sam Harris thinks he has warm & fuzzy liberal beliefs that’s nice but the whole point of the “dark web” label was the contrarian issues he promotes. Maybe Ben Shapiro secretly believes Global Warming is real and climate change is caused by humans. I don’t know but what matters is he propagandises the opposite. If an anonymous survey of the 34 “Intelectual Dark” Webbers reveals that their underlying views are more centrist and mainstream then that is not evidence that the public perception of their public positions is wrong. Rather it confirms a key point about the IDW.

The fundamental issues with the disparate group lumped together as the Intellectual Dark Web is that they are DISINGENUOUS about their politics. It’s not news that Jordan Peterson thinks of himself as moderate and reasonable. We knew that already. It doesn’t change that he (and Harris & Shapiro & Ngo & Quillette) frame and enable a perspective that bolsters the far right. The whole “we are the reasonable ones” is part of the schtick of the IDW. That they’ll boost that in an anonymous survey is, frankly, wank.

Let’s be sceptical as I’m sure Dr Pinker and Shermer would want us to be. Let’s take one conclusion Pinker raises from the survey: The members of the IDW are “concerned w climate” Let’s look at the survey: The survey agrees: “67% strongly agreed that global warming is caused by human actions (no one strongly disagreed)” So their you go! Hoorah! No, no let us be sceptical first. If this was GENUINELY true would it not be easily observed?

To the empircism-mobile! Here’s the output of the Quillete Climate tag https://quillette.com/tag/climate/ zoiks! A hefty TWO article, one concern trolling Greta Thunberg and the other saying people shouldn’t be mean to capitalism. Yes, Quillette is just one source but it is one that connects Steven Pinker on the one hand (who we can observe genuinely does advocate for action on Global Warming) with Andy Ngo on the other hand (who genuinely does have connections with the alt-right and violent far right groups) via Claire Lehmann (Quillette’s founder, fan of Pinker and one time boss of Ngo).

Yes, Steven Pinker himself has a better record on the of global warming but the issue he raised was to look collectively at the IDW and their media-organs. Broadly this is not a group trying to do very much about helping with the issue. And wow, think of the actually good the IDW could achieve given their actual audience. Whatever they may think of themselves, collectively they do have the ear of many on the right – exactly where climate change denial and bad science on the topic is endemic. You’d think these out spoken people might be busy being outspoken on a potential planet wide disaster.

It gets worse. The actual sample was only 18 not 34 people. Nearly half of the 34 didn’t answer. So when the survey says “67%” (the percentage favouring gun control and which believes global warming is real) actually means “12 people” That’s actually both more plausible and more wretched. Even if we accept that 12 of those IDWs think climate change is real, it says almost nothing about the group. Any one member of the original 34 people is a hefty 3% of the population being sampled and hence missing any one of them can have a large impact on the results. This is particularly true given that we already know that the label of “Intellectual Dark Web” is being attached to a group with a very broad range of views on many topics.

Shermer is assuming non-response to the survey is random across the traits being surveyed (i.e the 18 is a random sample of the 34). There is no reason to believe that and really anybody who is wants to seriously call themselves a sceptic should dismiss any general conclusion from the survey without substantial additional supporting evidence.

Indeed there’s good reason to assume that the 18 who responded is not a good random sample of the 34, just on the nature of the numbers. It is very hard with small numbers in a survey for the sample to be representative because one person makes a big difference. Shermer hides that by quoting percentages rather than raw totals but with small number percentages hide how few people he’s talking about. It’s not invalid to look at proportions with small sample sizes, sometimes that is all you have but there’s a point where 12 out of 18 is more informative than 67%.

We can illustrate the issue with the women who were surveyed. Of the 34 named people in survey associated with the “Intellectual Dark Web” 8 (24%) are women. In the survey 3 (17%) are women. So are the IDW 17% women (generalising from survey) or 24%? Obviously 24% is the correct figure but 17% is the equivalent of the the kind of survey conclusions Shermer presents. In fact any one woman listed is 13% of the IDW women, so one more woman answering makes a huge different to sub-sample of women. Any one person is 6% of the whole sample of 18 people!

Circling back to 67% claim. Again assuming everybody who responded is being honest (which I doubt) the survey actually found that 12 people of the 34 who were asked believed in gun control and the same number believed that global warming was real (which I’ll add isn’t saying much, some prominent sceptics will say global warming is real, just as many anti-vaccination campaigners will say they support vaccinations – it is the ‘but’ that follows where the issues lie). That might mean 67% or there about of 34 believe in gun control but a safer conclusion is no less than 35% do (12/34) and no more than 82% (28/34). Given how granular this data is, hoping the estimate is in the middle isn’t supported.

This is why I call it theatre. It is the wrong methodology applied badly. It illustrates methodological snobbery. Synthesising the complex views of a small group of people is exactly where qualitative methods work better. It is a domain where you need to put on your humanities hat and apply those humanities skills. Shermer is using sciencey film-flam by presenting a pointlessly anonymous survey and presenting the results as percentages as if there were proportions of the whole group.

Don’t get me wrong I absolutely LOVE applying basic quantitive methods to things and place where they don’t always make sense. It’s very much my hobby but even on this less than 100% serious blog I’d throw more caveats at better numbers than Shermer is using.

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.