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.

The Esteemed Guild of Plagiarists

I was reading about this recent scandal in the world of pen-and-paper adventures https://www.polygon.com/2019/5/8/18537481/elder-scrolls-plagiarism-elsweyr-dungeons-and-dragons The short version is video game company Bethesda released material as part of a promotion for The Elder Scrolls Online. Unfortunately, said material was clearly a find-replace job on previous published Dungeons and Dragons adventure. The examples in this article https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2019/05/bethesdas-latest-elder-scrolls-adventure-taken-down-amid-cries-of-plagiarism/ show how clumsy the plagiarism was.

Put another way, the plagiarism was not just wrong morally but also an offence against the fine arts of intellectual property theft. I can’t help imagine some more experienced plagiarist shaking their heads and wondering what was wrong with people these days. Which also made me think of the oft used tropes of Assassin Guilds or Thieves Guilds or societies of pickpockets or burglars etc. The idea being that these people may be murderers or thieves and utterly lacking in decent morals but somehow still have professional standards.

So why not a secret order of plagiarists? A society dedicated to maintaining tight professional standards of plagiarism. A guild that would have taken the unfortunate involved in the example above and maybe pointed out to them that if they really, really had to steal something maybe steal something a lot more obscure and while they are at it maybe move a few sentences around or at the very least get the plagiarised text to a point were it at least looked liked somebody made an effort.

Of course the problem with such a guild lies in the very nature of the crime. The finest, most skilled practitioners of the fine art of plagiarism could take a text and using their highly trained skills generate a text that even a dedicated scholar of the original would not be able to spot that the new text was plagiarised from the first. Having reached such a level of skill at plagiarism, these elite plagiarists would have actually transcended the very nature of their crime. Their theft would no longer be theft and their art would, by definition, no longer be plagiarism — for once plagiarism is done so well that it is undetectable then it is no longer plagiarism. It is a offence that vanishes when it is done sufficiently well.

It’s cosmological arguments all the way down

For those keeping score not only has Inaugural Dragon Award Winner for Best Horror Novel Not to Feature an Actual Horror Novel, Brian Niemeier got a new post about the existence of god up (https://www.brianniemeier.com/2019/04/a-proof-for-god.html ) but in a outbreak of morphic resonance John C Wright has a post up about the cosmological argument as well (http://www.scifiwright.com/2019/04/an-uncaused-first-cause/ ). There’s an excellent take down of the Wright post in the comments that’s well worth a read.

I’ll stick to Brian’s post:

“What we mean by God is the uncreated, all-powerful, and absolute Being who transcends the created order.”

OK but does he transcend time? Does he transcend mathematics? Does he transcend logic? Earlier Brian dismissed discussion about a god “making boulders he cannot lift” but there’s a reason why such cliched argument keep cropping up. What the heck does “all powerful” mean and what are the limitations to that. “No limitations” is fine and a god that can (but chooses not to) do paradoxical things is also fine but if we have a being that transcends logic then any argument about the necessary properties of that being is hogwash. On the other hand, if the being does not transcend logic then, sorry, you’ve still got to deal with tiresome questions about unliftable boulders and who shaves God’s beard if he doesn’t shave himself

“Anyone who says God’s existence can’t be proven is either ignorant or lying. The deception usually lies in moving the goalposts regarding what constitutes evidence. Materialists are fond of demanding physical proof of God while they themselves required no physical proof for materialism.

The claim that God’s existence can’t be proven contains another subtle a priori bias. It assumes that God exists in the same way that a hydrogen atom, a pencil, or an aardvark exists; that is, contingently within the order of creation. God does not have existence per se. It’s more accurate to say that God is Being. The Bible sees eye to eye with Aristotle here. “I Am that I Am.”

That last bit is the Popeye argument: I yam what I yam. It no more demonstrates god’s existence than it demonstrates Popeye’s.

The deception lies in moving the goalpost, says Brian, as he busily digs up the posts from one end of the field and moves them to the parking lot. ‘Exist’ normally means to exist physically but fair enough, there’s other kinds of ‘existing’. Popeye has tattoos (you can see them in the picture) so they ‘exist’ in a narrow sense but we all get that Popeye isn’t real and niether are his tattoos. Gods clearly can ‘exist’ in the sense that fictional beings exist. They exist in the sense that we can have discussions about them. Ficitional beings can have fictional truths about them: Popeye is a sailor and a man. How do I know? Because he is Popeye the Sailor Man!

But if I concede that ‘exist’ can mean something other than physically exist then maybe God exists in someway that is more real than fictional but a the same time not the same as physically existing? Sure! I really can’t prove that’s not the case and it’s not intrinsically irrational if that’s where your faith takes you. However, Brian wants to prove that God exists really real and that’s going to take more effort.

But before we go any further it’s worth pointing out an issue Brian has skipped over. Brian is dismissing God existing in a materialist physical sense. Brian also thinks *JESUS* existed in a physical sense. He’s half a step from demonstrating that Jesus was not God. There’s ways around that but I think most of them are heretical from a strict Catholic perspective. I digress.

“In truth, absolute, uncaused, necessary Being is self-explanatory. The physical universe is more in need of an explanation–both from its origins and at every moment–than the eternal, transcendent God.”

Brian is nodding back to the ontological argument: god is a necessary being and therefore exists because he necessarily exists because we said so. See Popeye above. However, today’s “proof” will be the cosmological argument instead:

“The most elegant and time-tested arguments for absolute Being are the cosmological arguments refined by St. Thomas Aquinas. Moderns and Postmoderns will glibly scoff that these arguments have long been discredited. But each attempt to refute the classical arguments from cosmology, such as David Hume’s, is revealed as a straw man under scrutiny.”

Yes, moderns, post-moderns et al will glibly scoff at the cosmological argument, also there was some scoffing at in the Middle Ages. The link is to a post by Edward Feser who I have discussed before and is a key source for a lot of this necromantic attempts to revive Thomas Aquinas. That link is worth following but it doesn’t adequately deal with the objection, it just points out that the objection has similar problems rather than making the problems go away.

Anyway the next step is the interesting one:

“Here’s a common cosmological argument. An apple ripens on a tree branch. That means the apple had the potential to move from unripeness to ripeness, and that potential was put into act. We can rightly ask where the impetus to actualize that potential came from. Apples aren’t self-sufficient. They need water, sunlight, and a host of other conditions to grow. You can try locating the source of the apple’s actualization in any or all of these contingencies, but that just kicks the can a little farther down the road since water, the sun, etc. all contain potentialities requiring external contingencies to actualize.”

You’ll note there’s another assumption of existence there: “the apple had the potential to move from unripeness to ripeness”. The assumption is that potentials are also things that exist in some sense or other. Brian then asks us to imagine what made all these dominoes of potentiality knock each other over.

“Positing that it’s contingent beings all the way down doesn’t do any good. That just gets you an infinite train of boxcars with no locomotive. Such a train would be incapable of motion. Similarly, an infinite chain of contingent causality could never move the apple from unripeness to ripeness.”

Except it doesn’t. The added hidden assumption here is that there can be no cases of something happening FOR NO REASON. “Reason” in the sense of things having a reason to happen is central to understanding how the term “cause” is used in these arguments. A bunch of random stuff just happening because of no reason at all is regarded as axiomatically not possible. Of course LOGICALLY we cannot assume that. It has not been established that everything happens for a reason and there’s good (ahem) reason to think the opposite. Sure, random effects at a quantum level MAY have hidden causes but there’s no logical reason to think they must. It’s an assumption, a reasonable and appealing and maybe even aesthetically nice assumption but not one that we can prove. If anything, it’s a habit of mind that we adopt because it is handy at the macro level and has a survival advantage when dealing with other human beings.

[Ed. Why not? Because there would be an infinite number of preceding steps that would have to be completed before the apple could ripen. But by definition, an infinite series of steps can never be completed.]”

Eeek. This is just an unforced error. I’d pick on it but Brian doesn’t need this point for his argument. Having said that over at John C Wright, he’s also trying to be moderate with his views on infinity:

“Infinite is a word that causes endless confusion. All it means is that there is no boundary, no stopping point, or, in this case, no starting point.
We call the number line infinite not because any real human being in real history ever counted all the numbers that exist and discovered that there were an infinite number of them: no, that is nonsense.
What we mean is that there is a rule of mathematics that says that for any given number, no matter how big, you can always add one and get a bigger number. There is no end point to the process of adding.”

Good grief, if I was going to start believing in a god it would be precisely so I wouldn’t need to be so mealy mouthed about actual infinities. Having said that, I think this is in line with Aristotle’s view on infinities, as in no limits to extension rather than there being an actual thing called infinity.

Except…well you can see the problem. Infinities don’t ‘exist’ in the materialist sense of exist as far as we can tell. We don’t find them in nature and either at the very big or the very small. Everywhere we have looked we find very big finitudes or tiny granularities. But we’ve admonished to take off our materialist spectacles and consider existence from the perspective of things with NECESSARY properties. Well in that sense of ‘exist’, the mathematical sense, we have not just infinity but infinities — an infinite number of infinities.

Circling back to both Wright and Niemeier, they want their version of god to exist in the mathematical sense of existing (which may not be existing at all) and also be a thinking person even though the are no examples of thing that only exists in the mathematical sense being a thinking person and all examples of thinking people exist materially.

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.]

More on Population denial

Caught in the trash filter was a reply from our long lost pal Phantom about Sarah Hoyt’s weird wold-population figure denial. It was better than normal and raises some weak but interesting points. With very little to go on for what the arguments for World Population Denial might be, I’ll need to go with Phantom’s weaker position.

“Communist and other corrupt regimes continuously lie about everything, floppy. Whatever direction their monetary interest is, that is where their lies will point. We know this is true because the lies change as circumstances change.”

The lies that are told change as circumstances change which is what makes it very difficult to lie consistently about population figures. The 2015 lie has to work with the 2014 lie and the 2016 lie and any lies about economic output or levels of unemployment etc etc. That doesn’t mean every lie or distortion can be identified but it does put strong limits of the scale of any deception.

In addition, for Hoyt’s claims to be true and the world population be substantially less than 7 billion, multiple governments would have needed to lie in the same direction in a way consistent with all their other lies for decades and gone undetected despite multiple different kinds of agencies and demographers looking at them.

Uncertainty is not the same as knowing nothing. Any vaguely numerate person should be able to understand that estimates of a figure has an error range. The uncertainties you are pointing at help circumscribe that error range and it simply isn’t big enough for 7 billion to be substantially wrong without a huge systemic error on the magnitude of at least half a billion people. Show me an error of that magnitude with some better evidence than an anecdote and I’ll give the claim that its less than 7 billion more credence.

“I note that you have entirely ignored the influence of international aid on population figures. If East Bongoliastan can get another couple of million bucks from the UN by inflating their population numbers, and the UN -wants- them to inflate those numbers, then I do not find it unreasonable to suspect they are inflated.”

I didn’t rely on UN figures, I also used US figures which aren’t exactly the same but also point at 7 billion. So let’s check US foriegn aid. Is it based on population size?

On Wikipedia is a table that shows the top 25 recipients of US foreign aid. Here are the top 5:

County$US Millions
Afghanistan4533.51
Israel2961.04
Egypt1566.24
Jordan1211.83
West Bank/Gaza1007.73

Oh my gosh! Looks like foreign aid has got very, very little to do with population size. Your theory is based on a very faulty assumption that aid is doled out on a per-capita basis. Some aspects of aid may relate to particular sizes of groups (e.g. people in a refugee camp) but that’s different from census data — heck a lot of aid is for displaced people who don’t get captured in census data well (because the host country doesn’t count them as living there and the country they fled from prefers to claim they are a tiny number) and actually tend to be UNDERcounted in national population figures.

Does that mean nobody ever, ever lies for the purpose to inflate aid? No, but the assumption that lying about a national population size will get you more aid is nonsense. It is also another area where a cynical or pathologically lying government has contradictory pressures. You as dictator of Phantomland would need to exaggerate the number of people living in extreme poverty or the number of people without fresh water or without adequate medical care to get more aid — simply exaggerating the national population won’t get you anything. Yet that means basically exaggerating the number of people your government isn’t looking after properly. In reality, if you as a dictator are going to lie to get aid then you aren’t going to do it with census figures but with lies about infrastructure projects or lies about how your opponents are all communists funded by Iran.

Anyway, for kicks, I decided to find general data on aid totals which I got from here: https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/countries-with-the-most-foreign-aid-in-the-world.html and then plotted that against UN population figures from Wikipedia.

Look, honestly thinking that the amount of aid a country gets should have SOME connection with how many people live there is a reasonable and humane assumption about how the world should work. It isn’t remotely true though. Now I grant that the graph is somewhat distorted by India being in the data set but even with India removed, the connection just isn’t there.

I could keep slicing the data down until we got some group of nations where maybe population size made an observable difference but by that point, the bias (if it existed) wouldn’t be enough to have any serious impact on the 7 billion figure. Heck, if the top FIVE recipients of international aid actually had zero people living in each of them, the world population would STILL be greater than 7 billion!

“I mean, look at the US ground-station data for temperature. We know that’s been inflated for sure. Why else are there so many official NOAA thermometers in the middle of asphalt parking lots? Hundreds of them. Whole websites are dedicated to documenting it.”

And as you’ve read here before, you never rely on one data set. Don’t believe the ground station data? Then compare it with the satellite data. Don’t believe the UN data? Then compare it with the US data. The fallacy you are illustrating in both cases is one often used in FUD style arguments.

The fallacy of FUD: If there is some degree of doubt or uncertainty around a figure then we know nothing at all about the figure. (To be applied selectively to figures we don’t like.

It’s nonsense because no real world figure is ever measured to perfect accuracy or is immune to some degree of human error or foolproof to somebody lying about it. The reason we don’t all collapse into a fetal position of doubt is that we know that error has limits.

For example, we’ve never met, you certainly don’t trust me but if I say I’m 5 foot 9 inches tall (I’m not*) then it is still absurd to say that you have zero idea about how tall I am. You know I’m not 15 foot tall or 1 foot tall. You know it is reasonable (i.e. you are unlikely to be wrong) to assume I’m within a few inches of 5 foot 9 inches.

“So my point on Sarah’s post was that I do not know what the true population of China or India is, much less Venezuela, Cuba, Congo, North Korea or even South Africa. And neither do you. You’re saying we’re all crazy to question the UN numbers because it suits your rhetorical purpose, not because you have any evidence to support those numbers.”

The ‘true’ population? Sure! Likewise I don’t know my own true mass – it’s constantly changing by small amounts due to eating and pooing and sweating and breathing as meat robots do. I don’t know my ‘true’ height either as that literally fluctuates and my tape measure isn’t perfect. Your observation isn’t saying anything useful at all. The question is not can we know a true figure but how ACCURATE our ESTIMATES of the true figure is for all of these things.

Honestly, I’d have thought that was just common sense and while I could admire the bravery of a radical scepticism that says that the only true knowledge is perfect knowledge and hence we know nothing, I know for a fact that isn’t a position either you or Hoyt hold. Heck, you’ll believe all sorts of stuff based on limited information or even no information or worse yet when the information says the exact opposite.

For example, let’s take this specific claim from Sarah Hoyt in the original piece:

“Not to mention that it’s just a coincidence, I’m sure, that countries that are net recipients of international aid PER CAPITA have the highest population growth. I’m sure.”

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

Countries that are net recipients of international aid per capita versus population growth? OK, that’s something we can graph using the data sources I’ve already listed. “Growth” here is per cent change from 2016 to 2017.

I’m just a not sufficiently humble blogger but I’m not seeing much support for Hoyt’s claim there. I guess she means in a broad brush strokes sense in so far as wealthy European nations have low population growth and are net providers of aid and developing nations often (but far from always) often have high population growth and tend to be net receivers of aid. However, the data shows that aid isn’t driving population estimates among the major net receivers of aid.

“If a person lies about all kinds of things all the time, it does not mean that for sure they are lying -this- time. But it does mean one would be imprudent to assume they are not.”

Let’s generalise. If a person is verifiably wrong about all kinds of things much of the time, it does not mean that for SURE they are wrong -this- time but it does mean one would be imprudent to assume they are not. Heck, we can just go and check! Oh surprise, surprise! They were wrong, again…

*(Obviously Camestros Felapton is an abstract cognitive meme-complex to which spatial dimensions don’t apply. The meat robot is bigger than 6 foot and shorter than 2 metres.)

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/