Charles Dodgson, Modus Ponens, Achilles, and the Tortoise

Eve explains why requiring all proof to be recursively, discursively priced is a form of skepticism that is simply a denial of reason. There is a real sort of skeptical attitude which is the thirst for truth, but there is also simply the refusal to believe something which lazily uses the impossible standard Eve very clearly describes.

Last Eden

Charles Dodgson, probably better known to most by his pen name Lewis Carroll and his books Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, was a logician and mathematician at Oxford University.  The Alice books are actually wonderfully full of logical puzzles and paradoxes, and I have heard the claim made that the reason that everyone in Wonderland is insane, is precisely because they are all perfectly logical, within their own parameters.

I want to talk about something else today, though.  At one point, Dodgson wrote a short dialogue between swift-footed Achilles and the Tortoise, sometime after Achilles, impossibly, has caught up with the Tortoise and is riding on his back.  For some reason, the conversation has turned to a discussion of the modus ponens, the logical validity of which Achilles is trying to persuade the Tortoise.

Modus ponens is one of the most basic valid argument…

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Material People are Immaterial

There is a problem which Materialists face that is rarely talked about. (Materialism is the belief that only matter and physical forces exist, i.e. that all disciplines are really a form of applied physics.) And the problem is a fairly basic one: what is an individual person?

In one sense this is a silly question because we all know. But the problem, for Materialists, is that what we all know directly contradicts Materialism. And it contradicts it because what makes a particular person that person transcends the particular matter which they’re made of. A materialist denies that there is anything can transcend the particular matter; all that exists are sub-atomic particles and a few forces acting on them. How, then, could a materialist possibly define what a person is?

This is an especially hard problem over time, since the matter which makes up a particular body changes through the years. All proteins, fats, sugars etc. get recycled by the body in its process of continual renewal. Even more of a problem is that a person starts off weighing less than ten pounds and usually ends by weighing over 100, often quite a bit more than 100 pounds. By adulthood their original matter is largely long gone, and any matter which by chance is the same is a tiny fraction of the original. Other changes such as larger muscles, longer hair, shorter hair, losing a limb, growing extra teeth, and many other changes significantly change the physical configuration of the matter. Neurons in the brain are constantly being made and new synaptic connections forming and others going away. Neither the particular matter nor the shape of the matter can be used to define a person. And according to the Materialist, nothing else exists.

There’s even a further problem that Materialists face in defining people: if the only real thing are sub-atomic particles and forces, there isn’t a good way to distinguish between the person and the chair he is sitting on. Individual molecules have inter-molecular attractions, but so do the molecules in the person and the molecules in the chair. The wood is a different density than the person’s skin and muscles, but those are a different density than the person’s bones. And if this is hard, what about when two people shake hands?

In my experience, when you point this out to a Materialist, their reaction is to get annoyed and say, “come on, you know what I mean.” Or, “and yet I can reliably tell what is a person and what isn’t.” I’ve never understood why it is supposed to be an argument in the Materialist’s favor that in practice not even he believes the nonsense he’s saying.

Believing our Imagination

After I posted about whether we can choose to to believe something, my friend Eve Keneinan pointed out to me that I had left out the subject of imagination. In particular, that it is not merely a question of whether we close our eyes or look at reality, we can also choose to look at our imagination and mistake that for looking at reality. The phenomenon of falling in love with a theory is a subset of this practice.

Imagination is a very interesting subject and one remarked on probably less than it should be. Even the simple question of what is imagination is not asked very much. In broad terms, imagination appears to be the ability of the mind to take on the form of something with which it is not in contact. (This is in reference to the Aristotelian idea that knowledge consists of the mind taking on the form of the thing known; where form refers, very roughly, not to the physical shape of a thing but essentially to what makes it what it is.) The mind can take on the form of something not real, such as when one writes fiction, or it can take on the form of something real but simply not present, such as when one calls to mind the face of a friend.

There is a problem with the latter type of imagination, when it is derived from reality, because we are fallen creatures: we can call things to mind imperfectly. This immediately introduces problems, though it can largely (though rarely perfectly) be corrected by consulting other aspects of our memory to make sure that our reconstruction of our memory is in fact correct. Our imagination is notoriously misleading when it comes to eye-witness testimony, identifying a person we’ve never seen before, and other things courts of law rely on all too often, but that’s not the main point here.

In Immanuel Kant’s killing off of knowledge in the last days of Modern Philosophy being a living endeavor, he proposed imagination as a substitute for knowledge. Not pure imagination, of course, since that would be absurd to even a brilliant man, but imagination which is then checked against experience (where practical). If experience confirms it, then we continue to count our imagination as “knowledge”, if not, we must try to imagine something else which does conform to our experience. For a fuller explanation, check out Kant’s Version of Knowledge.

For many people this idea of “knowledge” has replaced actual knowledge, and interacting with the world becomes an almost solipsistic exercise in playing with the phantasms conjured up by our imaginations. Even where it hasn’t, it is a common practice to understand something by trying to imagine it from incomplete knowledge, very frequently supplying the gaps with pieces of ourselves. That a great many people assume that everyone else is just like them only makes this more misleading whenever it is applied to people or things which are not just like them.

Perhaps most dangerous of all, it is exceedingly easy to fool ourselves into thinking that by looking things as we imagine them, we are actually looking at the world. Not only do we go astray but we don’t even realize our own ignorance. Having applied ourselves with great effort to learn about things which exist nowhere else but our imaginations, we feel like we’ve tried. Worse, it is painful to realize all that effort was wasted, making admitting our mistake to ourselves very difficult indeed.

It is possible to be lazy and ignorant, by not trying. But it is also possible to be very industrious and still ignorant, by looking in the wrong place.


There is a saying that Modern Philosophy was born with Descartes, died with Kant, and has roamed the halls of academia ever since like a zombie: eating brains but never getting any smarter for it.

No One Preaches Radical Freedom to Children

Radical freedom, if you’re not familiar with the term, is basically just “do as you will is the whole of the law”. There are many variants of it, but in general it’s the proposition that there are no binding constraints upon a person’s actions—no good or evil—except what they themselves impose.

If this sounds like pure madness, it is, but it’s always coupled with some variant of the belief that humans are innately good and never (or very rarely) want to do wrong, so the people who profess it always assume that it will produce the exact same results but with less guilt. You can see this in the ads by an atheist group on the side of buses—I believe it was in London—saying, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying an enjoy your life.” A friend said that a famous atheist once answered a question about morality if nothing is forbidden because God is dead, “I’ve already murdered the number of people I want to: zero.”

In defense of the people who propose ideas like this, they’re not complete idiots and do know that there are people who do murder, steal, rape, etc. There isn’t a single response to that, but I think in most cases they classify anyone who does this as mentally ill and think all such behavior should be dealt with medically.

You could even make a case that Ayn Rand should be classified as a preacher of radical freedom, since her version of radical selfishness was somehow supposed to involve everyone working together towards the common good. (They were supposed to realize that cooperation to mutual benefit was their best way to benefit. I think they’re also supposed to recoil in horror from benefiting at the expense of another or by receiving anything which they haven’t earned. Because that’s obvious to everyone who is rational. I’ll wait until you’ve stopped laughing to type more.)

But something I’ve noticed about everyone who preaches radical freedom is that they never preach this to children.  They always wait until somebody who doesn’t believe in radical freedom has painstakingly, over many years, trained children children to do what is right rather than whatever they want to do, until the children largely want to do what is right, by habit. Only then do the preachers preach radical freedom. Then they look and notice that people who are largely set in their ways don’t much vary their ways if they start believing that anything goes and conclude they were right that radical freedom is harmless.

Or at least people don’t vary their ways much at first. Another thing I’ve noticed is that the people who preach radical freedom don’t tend to follow up, over decades, with the people they’ve converted. Not that it would matter, since if any of their followers do bad things, it is because they were defective, or mentally ill, or irrational, or whatever, and never because all human beings face temptation and need support in virtue.

And they never seem to ask what happens to the children raised by their followers. In part, of course, people tend to abandon radical freedom as a doctrine once they’re forced to raise children because telling a child that what they really want to do is share their favorite toy is just so utterly doomed to abject failure that almost no one ever tries it. And of course when followers practice some amount of realism raising their children, they are no longer followers, or are heretical followers, or just don’t show up to the monthly do-whatever-you-want meetings because children make it hard to belong to clubs. Whatever the reason, the preachers of radical freedom never talk about the practical aspects of raising children. And in the end, I suppose it shouldn’t be shocking that people who never consider how to raise children should be unaware that degeneration generally happens by generations.

Choosing to Believe

I recently saw the question posed whether it is possible to choose what one believes. The answer is obviously not. Having said that, it clearly is possible.

Before I get into either answer, I want to briefly define what I will mean by the word reality. It is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.

It is clear, then, that it is not possible to choose what one believes because belief is, simply, what reality appears to be. Beliefs are, in this sense, passive, like sight or hearing. We cannot choose what we see—we look and there it is.

But even in saying that, we can begin to see why it is possible to choose our beliefs: You can choose where you look.

If you hear a belief proposed which depends for intelligibility on knowledge which you don’t at present have, the belief will necessarily not be believable. You might have no reason  to disbelieve it, or you might take it on the authority of whoever told you as likely to be true (whatever it means), but you will not actually believe it. To give a concrete example, suppose someone is telling you something about relativity, and says that some property is true of the Lagrangian near massive bodies. If you have no idea what the Lagrangian is, you can trust that he isn’t wrong, but you can’t believe what he’s saying because you don’t know what it means. For you to believe it, it must seem to you an accurate description of reality. Until you understand it, to you it is not in fact a description of anything at all. Now, it is quite possible to, by choice, refuse to ever learn any of the base knowledge necessary for the belief to be believable. If you did this, you would be choosing not to believe the belief.

A practical case I deal with all the time is that young children will not listen to any evidence about the toy store being closed because they are unwilling to believe the necessary corollary to it: that they cannot go to the toy store right now. Toy stores can’t close, and I’m a monster for not taking them there, now. It is true that they don’t believe the toy store is in fact closed, but in shutting themselves off from all evidence because they can’t deal with the consequences, they are clearly choosing to believe that the toy store is in fact open. (To be clear, I picked this example because it should be familiar to everyone and is ready to hand, I am not trying to subtly call all atheists children, nor anything like that. I do my best to restrict rhetoric to posts in the rhetoric category and with a warning up top about how to read them. I believe in active aggression, not passive aggression.)

In a similar way, it is also possible to choose to believe something: in the spirit of inquiry, one could seek out all of the knowledge necessary for a belief. Properly, one would be attempting to believe it.  There is an asymmetry here, because the best one can do is try to believe something whereas ignorance can be guaranteed. It is always possible that, having all the necessary groundwork for a proposed belief to be believable—in other words, fully understanding the idea—it still does not seem to be an accurate description of the world. This is always going to be true of false beliefs, like the terrorist attacks of 9/11 on the world trade center being an inside job or the one-gene-one-protein theory which was recently chucked into the dustbin of biology. It may even be the case of true beliefs  where we don’t understand them well enough, like people who rejected the Monty Hall problem despite knowing a lot about probability and thinking they fully understood the problem specification.

But it is very important to note that what constitutes attempting to believe a belief is not purely an act of will. It is the will directing the intellect where to look. That is as far as the will can go; the intellect will see what it sees, just as will can literally make your eyes look at something but your eyes then see what they see, and not what you wished to see. It is a question of the will overcoming laziness or fear and putting in the work of learning, not a matter of the will overcoming the intellect and creating something in it. Human will is a powerful thing, but it cannot do the impossible, and it is not possible to create impressions upon the intellect through sheer will. The intellect is always fertilised by the reality it perceives. Will can no more create a belief in the intellect than a man can impregnate the color blue.

Update: My friend Eve Keneinan pointed out that I didn’t address the complication that we can choose to look at our imagination rather than at reality or nothing at all. I’ve fixed that in its own blog post.

The Argument Against God from the Existence of Atheism

I recently came across an argument which attempts to prove that God does not exist. It’s interesting for two reasons:

  1. It’s not the standard dodge of saying that the burden of proof is on others, as if all of life is a debate, rather than the burden of investigation being on all rational people to find out what is actually true of the world.
  2. It seems to be a novel argument, which would mean that Saint Thomas did not in fact give an exhaustive list in the Summa Theologica. (This is of course possible; Saint Thomas was only human.)

The original version of the argument apparently comes from a book, but is summarized here. It is fairly long and uses a term which it doesn’t define, “meaningful conscious relationship”. There are several possible meanings according to ordinary English usage, each of which makes the argument break down in different places. If it’s not obvious where, let me know and I’ll explain in detail, but suffice it to say it is not explained what would be wrong with a meaningful subconscious relationship.

It is not explained because “meaningful conscious relationship” is useful in this argument precisely insofar as it means “belief”, in the sense of “propositional belief”. That is, the sort of belief you state in words. If you have in your heart a conviction you can’t articulate that the world actually means something and isn’t just a bad joke with no punchline, that is a belief in God but not a propositional belief in God, since you can’t articulate it.

So right away, this argument can be more briefly stated, “If God existed, he would make everyone believe in him because to not know that God exists would be unthinkably cruel.” (There are variants which assume that God’s #1 priority is having people believe in him, as if he were Apollo from the Star Trek episode Who Mourns for Adonis? and the existence of atheists proves that he is not omnipotent, but this is idiotic and I prefer to focus on the most favorable interpretation of someone’s position.)

The problem with arguments from how unthinkably awful something is consists in the fact that they are never thought through. How can you know that something is so awful that no good could possibly be greater than it, except by thinking out in detail how bad it really is? And here we come to the real crux of the problem, for it should be obvious by now that this is just another phrasing of what C.S. Lewis called, “the problem of pain.” (It was Saint Thomas’ first objection to the existence of God.) No one can think out exactly how terrible something is in detail, nor can they think out what sort of goods might be better and available only if the bad thing is permitted. No one can do this because there are too many details. What a person can know is how afraid he is of some particular suffering as he imagines it, and this is invariable what we are actually presented with. This is not thinking, this is being afraid.

What we cannot know because our experience and our minds are finite, God can know because he is not finite. There is no suffering so terrible that it is not theoretically possible that permitting this evil allows greater good to be brought about. And so we come to the real answer to the problem of pain: trust God. God is good, wise, and powerful, and though we cannot see how things are presently being worked to the good, our sight is so very limited there is no reason to expect that we could see it. Not seeing it is, therefore, not only not a contradiction to faith in God, but actually consonant with what we would expect if we are being realistic.

Incidentally, this last part is also why freedom can only be found in obedience to God. To be free, one must be able to choose. But to choose, you must be able to apprehend what it is you are choosing. On our own, since we have no idea what the full consequences of our actions are, but the consequences of are actions are in fact the content of the action, we cannot actually choose anything on our own. Apart from God, we are simply slaves to our environment. We can hope, but our hopes are invariably disappointed. Only by joining our will to the will of one who can apprehend our actions because he knows the consequences of our actions, can we actually do what we intend. It is true we do not apprehend the action in its fullness, but because we will to do good, and God wills that we do good, by joining our will to his in obedience, we actually do accomplish what we intended, though we find out what the intention was after it happens while God knows it in his eternal now. This is the most that freedom can mean to a finite creature that lives in time.

The Lessons of Beetles

I once heard a story which I have dearly loved ever since. It was originally told as a joke, I believe, but I think it actually captures an important theological insight:

Some time in the seventeenth century a naturalist, funded by the crown, returned from one of his voyages and came to an audience before the Queen, who was the one principally responsible for his being funded. After he recounted some of his more interesting discoveries the Queen asked him, “And what have your investigations into the natural world taught you about the Creator?” The naturalist paused for a moment to consider, then replied, “That he has an inordinate fondness for beetles.”

Beetles currently comprise about 25% of known life-forms and 40% of all known insects, with new species of beetles being described all the time (currently there are around 400,000 described species of beetles). Clearly, God loves beetles. But humans who love beetles are considered quite weird: in movies they’re usually played by scrawny guys wearing glasses and bad haircuts and given dialog which proves in every line that they have neither social skills nor friends. And in fairness, God does stand alone; “from whom does God take counsel?” and all that. But the critical difference is, of course, why.

Human beings, being fallen creatures, love things primarily out of need. We are a dying species in a dying world, and we seek scraps of life wherever we can get them. This is almost a literal description of eating food, but it is more relevantly a description of the things we enjoy. We go on hikes because the beauty of trees and rocks and sunshine fills us up for a little while. We go on roller coasters because the rush of power reminds us for a moment that we are alive. We’ll even go to the ruins of ancient buildings made by long-dead hands because, remote as it is, we can feed on the crumbs of life which spilled over when someone was so filled with life that he built something only that it might exist. Art, when it is not purely commercial, is an act of generosity, and therefore life, because things are generous precisely to the degree that they live.

God stands apart because God is fully alive, and therefore needs nothing. He is not just fully alive, he is life itself, or as Saint Thomas Aquinas put it, the “subsistent act of to be”. (Subsistent in this case meaning to be in itself, rather than in another as a subject; the terms of scholastic philosophy are rather specialized.) God loves things in a purely generous way. He does not love anything because it is interesting; it is interesting because he loves it. When Saint John famously said, “God is love”, that might reasonably be rendered, “God is generosity”. Generosity, after all, comes from the same root as “generate”.

God loves all things into existence that he may give them more and bring them from potentiality into full actuality with him in his eternal actuality, which is why God does not disdain the smallest thing. We disdain the small things because our needs are so great; God needs nothing, and so he disdains nothing. God is interested in everything because his ability to give is so great.

God loves beetles, and he even loves the dung which the dung beetles feed on. There is no spec of dust on any cold and lonely planet so far from its sun that the sun just looks like another star in its sky which is not immediately in the presence of God. Most of our lives are made up of mundane moments no one would ever make a movie about; perhaps we can all take comfort, as we trudge through the details of everyday life, from the fact that God is inordinately fond of beetles. For it means that the smallness and dullness of our lives is only a defect in our sight.

We Are All Beasts of Burden

If you spend much time in certain parts of the Internet you’re likely to come across the hot topic of the Burden of Proof. By which I mean people like to pass it around like they’re playing hot potato. And if you’re lucky enough to be in the right part of that part the Internet, you will occasionally see my friend Eve Keneinan put on her oven mitts, reach into the oven, and pull out a second hot potato and stuff it down the pants of someone who was trying to pass the first hot potato to her. Her wording varies, but usually it looks something like this:

You say that the burden of proof is on the person making the positive claim. That itself is a positive claim, so by your own principle you now have the burden of proof to prove that it’s true. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

There’s a very interesting reason why she does that, but before we can talk about it we have to talk about what the Burden of Proof is. So, what is it? There’s no one answer because people have borrowed it and come up with variations of it, but it’s primarily a concept in courts of law and (by imitation) in debating clubs. It exists to solve a specific and big problem which courts have: what do you do when there isn’t a clear answer?

And what courts do varies. In American courts there is, at least in theory, the presumption of innocence for the accused so that if the prosecution does not meet the evidential criteria set forth at the beginning of the trial, the accused gets to go home like he wants to. This is the prosecution having the burden of proof. However, courts are not always set up this way. Many courts have been set up under the assumption that if the police or crown or what-have-you have gone to the trouble of arresting a man for a crime, it’s for good reasons, and so the accused must prove that the competent authorities are in fact wrong. Should he fail to meet the evidentiary threshold of proving them in error, he can’t make the police not put him in prison. In this case, the defendant has the burden of proof. Even in the American legal system, once convicted a person is presumed guilty and the burden of proof shifts to him on appeal to prove that something very wrong has happened.

So what is the unifying theme in all of this? It’s this: the person who most wants something to happen must demonstrate to the people he wants to do it why they should do it.

Which results in numerous conversations that go something like this:

Atheist: If you want me to believe in God, you have to prove God to me.

Theist: I’m fine with you not believing in God, but you now have the burden of proof to show me why I should treat you like you’re mentally competent.

Atheist: You awful, terrible person. You must treat me like I’m a genius, for some reason. It would be rude not to. Didn’t Jesus tell you to treat all atheists like they’re perfect?

Theist: No, and I’m a generic theist anyway, so why are you lecturing me about Jesus?

Atheist: If I’m honest, because of daddy issues. Officially because all theists look alike to me.

Theist: Am I supposed to pretend it’s for the official reason?

Atheist: It would be offensive of you not to.

Theist: Why? You just explicitly contradicted yourself, and for some reason I’m suppose to not notice?

Atheist: I didn’t make the rules. Don’t shoot the messenger.

Theist: I’m pretty sure you just did make that rule up.

Atheist: OK, maybe you did, but if you take everything I say seriously, we’d have nothing to talk about. I mean, I don’t believe in free will. For Christ’s sake, I don’t even believe that thought is valid! I will say, with a straight face, that all of our thoughts are just post-hoc explanations for warring instincts. If any of us took what I say are my beliefs as my actual beliefs, I’d make the guys who think that they’re Napoleon look sane!

Sorry, I get carried away with dialogs sometimes. It’s just so refreshing to talk with a self-aware atheist for once! The problem is that it’s not a stable position—self-aware atheists tend to cease being atheists after a while. It’s like my friend Michael’s question about why there seem to be no atheists today who really take Nietzsche seriously. There are, but typically then they stop because they’ve become Christians. Nietzsche was a unique case because while he could see the stark raving irrationality of the atheist position, he couldn’t escape being an atheist. So he ended up dancing naked in his apartment and telling his Jewish landlord that out of gratitude for the landlord’s kindness he would wipe out all of the anti-semites. (I forget whether he was going to personally shoot them all or wipe them out with a mere thought.)

Please pardon the stream-of-consciousness of his post, but, after all, the subtitle of this blog is “Quick Observations on a Variety of Subjects”.  You can’t fault me for truth in advertising, at least.

Anyway, getting back to the point, there are a great many people who were raised in a particular sort of mostly secular way peculiar to a christian heritage which I will call social hedonism. It is probably a kind of practical utilitarianism, but its basic tenets are very familiar to anyone who grew up among non-christians with a christian heritage: fulfill your emotional needs, primarily with human relationships, and have fun, constrained by being at least halfway decent to the people around you, especially with regards to having arguments and disputes. It’s a stage in societal decay, so it is not stable and there will not be many generations of people who think like this. (If you prefer the term societal transformation to societal decay, I won’t argue it with you.) It is almost accidentally atheistic, but the real point is that it is a definite set of beliefs which people are raised with and therefore never considered. Most people never ask themselves whether the things they were raised with were true unless they run into someone who asserts something contrary. That’s why religious belief is often on the wane in pluralistic societies: it gets challenged more than other beliefs, some more true some less true, do. And now, we’re finally able to get to the question that this post started with.

So why does Eve ask people to prove where the burden of proof lies? There are several answers which are suggested not infrequently by the people she gets into this particular argument with, all of which are wildly off the mark. They’re also good examples of why knowing a person really helps in understanding what they say.

She’s an idiot.

In fact, she is extremely intelligent. That does not mean that she’s right about everything—intelligent people are very capable of making huge mistakes and in fact are more likely to stick to such mistakes far longer than a less intelligent person because their intelligence allows them plug holes in their theory for a long time. What it means is that she’s not trying to avoid the burden of proof because she can’t handle it.

She doesn’t have any reasons for what she believes.

In fact she is exceedingly well read, and could off the top of her head articulate at least 5 proofs for God and explain them in great detail. She has probably read another half dozen or more, as well as a great many arguments against God. Also everything Nietzsche wrote. And sometimes it seems like half of everything else that was ever written in philosophy. She says that her personal library contains over 10,000 books, and I believe her. I also suspect her library card has gotten a fair amount of use too. She reads Attic Greek and has studied Chinese philosophy. She’s probably seen 99% of the argument anyone has made for or against God, ever.

She’s never considered whether the religion she inherited from her parents is true.

First, she is American Orthodox, which neither of her parents ever was. Second, she spent many years as an atheist and then as a platonist, only finally coming to Orthodoxy. Each step was only after about ten thousand times more consideration than the average internet atheist puts into anything at all.

OK, so why, then?

Because being a philosophy teacher is not just what she does for a living, it’s who she is. Real philosophers aren’t content to know things, they must understand them, as well. Philosophers ask what everything is, and this includes mundane and ordinary things. She doesn’t want to shirk anything, she wants people to ask themselves what the burden of proof is, and whether it’s relevant.

She wants this because the burden of proof is a practical thing for certain cases where uncertainty is not a viable answer and so a mistake is preferable to indecision. This isn’t all of life, or even most of it. If you’re going to hang a man, you need to come to a decision whether to hang him or let him go, then you have to move on. Most of life does not have this urgency coupled with this finality, and this is especially true of big questions like, “is there a God” or “is there anything better in life than sex and drugs then kill myself quickly when they stop being fun?”

Just because we inherited an answer from our parents or rebelled as children against the answer we inherited from our parents does not mean that we may not think about these things any more. Just because we were told that there is nothing more important than getting along with friends, family, and co-workers does not in fact mean that these things are our highest good or even that they will make us happy.  The thing which should be unquestionable is reality itself, not what we’ve been assuming all along.

The point—the real point—is that in the truly important things of life, no one has the burden of proof. We all have a duty of investigation. Every man that lives has a burden of proof for the things he believes and denies. When it comes to the truth, no one may be a rider. We must all be our own beasts of burden.

Appendix A. Authority

Nothing I said above is meant as a disparagement of authority. Life is short and it is impossible to live without trusting. The key is to trust where it is appropriate. Like how helping people and accepting help are good, but adults should still blow their own noses. And all trust of human beings should be done with the fallibility of all human beings never forgotten.

Positively Negative Claims

If you spend much time on the Internet around atheists, you will inevitably hear something like this:

The burden of proof is on the person making the positive claim.

The burden of proof in any conversation is actually on the person who wants to be in the conversation, but if we accept the above statement for the moment it brings up a very important point: negative claims often have positive implications.

Let me start with a trivial example: suppose I were to deny the claim that the prime numbers are infinite. It’s a negative claim so I have nothing to defend, right? Ah, but here’s the problem: the natural numbers have properties, and in particular, they are well ordered. If there are finitely many prime numbers, then there is a biggest prime number. Thus if my negative claim is true, so is a positive claim. My negatively is, therefore, convertible with a positive claim. If I merely said, “I’m not claiming anything, I just don’t believe the prime numbers are infinite”, I either believe that there is a largest prime number or I haven’t thought through what I’m saying. This latter option is what one often sees on the Internet. Basically, “I haven’t considered the claim and you can’t make me consider it”, though it’s never stated so baldly, for obvious reasons.

“But Math is different!” someone might say. If we’re unlucky, they’ll tell us that Math is empirically verifiable. If instead our objector actually knows something about Math he’ll probably say that Math is hypothetical and thus true in all possible worlds or that the properties of the numbers flow out of their definitions whereas real things have properties quite apart from whatever definitions we want to give them. This makes no difference, because real things still have properties, which is all that’s needed. Consider the following, very simplified example:

Everyone agrees with me that the color red exists. I deny that anything else exists but the color red exists.

(I know that in ordinary life you’d assume the fellow who said this was joking or insane, but for the sake of this post not being twenty pages long, please just play along. Examples which are uncontroversial because they were made up on the spot require far fewer disclaimers.)

This necessarily entails the claim that everything we perceive to exist is one or the other of the following:

  1. An illusion.
  2. Made up of the color red.

The negative claim that nothing but the color red exists will also be false unless the positive claim that cats, chairs, and sounds are all made up of the color red is also true. If it turned out that gravity was, for example, a force that attracts mass and not some shade of the color red, this negative claim would be false.

If our very hypothetical a-non-redist were to to actually discuss his claim instead of just use it to shut down all discussion by saying, “where’s your evidence?” like he’s a child’s doll with a cord in his back and only one recording, he would have to defend the positive claim that gravity is actually a shade of the color red. (Or he could maintain that getting fat is an illusion which doesn’t really happen, but unless he’s willing to argue circularly, he needs to make the case that it is an illusion.)

What is true of this silly example is also true of examples I wish were hypothetical, such as Materialism. The claim that there is nothing beyond matter and the forces so far elaborated by physics (or forces substantially similar) entails the claim that everything we experience is either an illusion or material. This is neither a tautology nor a self-refuting claim, so it is one which must be proven, not merely asserted.

Which is why when it is a mere assertion, it is typically asserted angrily. As the (purportedly lawyers’) saying goes:

When the law is on your side, argue the law. When the facts are on your side, argue the facts. When neither is on your side, bang on the table.


Occasionally one will hear a defense of how free will is an illusion which invokes experiments using  fMRI machines. Aside from these things not proving what they purport to prove even if they were conducted perfectly, consider that you can use an fMRI to prove that a dead salmon can read emotion in human facial expressions.

Poe’s Law Isn’t Quite True

There isn’t an official version of Poe’s Law, but basically it is:

A parody of an extremist will be indistinguishable from the real thing.

In a sense this is all but definitionally true, since parody is making fun of something by presenting a more extreme version of it. If something is already maximally extreme, there is nowhere to go with a parody, so a parody will consist of saying the same things.

But… this is not quite true. It is possible to distinguish between an extremist and a parody because the extremist has a different goal than the parodist does. The parodist seeks to make people laugh. The extremist is trying to live life, and no matter who you are, life is primarily mundane. If you pay attention to what an extremist says, you will notice that most of what they say is actually fairly boring.

This stems from something Chesterton observed: a madman seems normal to himself. Since he is normal, he doesn’t think about his extreme views differently from his normal views, because to him none of them are weird. It’s not that’s he’s unaware that most people disagree with his extreme views, but that the disagreement is what will be weird to him, not his own views. We think of his extreme views as some oddity tacked on to the rest of his normal views (such as eating when hungry, sleeping when tired, and washing his hands after using the bathroom). He thinks of his extreme views as fitting in with the rest, since there’s on reality an so everything that’s true about it necessarily fits together. The result is that when he speaks, much of what he says will be prosaic, because he has no reason to speak only about his extreme views. People like to talk about the world, not merely the occasional isolated belief about it.

We thus have a way to tell the difference between an extremist and a parody: the density of extremism in the expression. Or, to put it another way, how funny the thing is. The true extremist isn’t in on the joke, so he doesn’t take care to only talk about the funny stuff. The funny stuff may not even interest the extremist all that much. The parodist, by contrast, is in on the joke, so he takes care to avoid the boring things a real extremist would say.

To put it succinctly, brevity is the soul of wit and the parodist can put on the extremist’s clothes, wear a wig, and even use makeup to change the color of his skin, but he can never change his soul.

The Odd Rhetoric of Atheist=Lack of Belief

(A word of warning: this is primarily a rhetorical, rather than philosophical, post.) Apparently, in the late 1960s a prominent atheist by the name of Antony Flew redefined atheism from the belief that there is no God to the lack of belief in God. This was in light, I think, of what was becoming the primary atheist argument, largely popularized (if not invented) by Bertrand Russell:

You can’t make me believe in God!

That’s not the standard phrasing, which is usually some variant of this:

I don’t see any evidence for the existence of God.

I’m not sure if Bertrand Russell was simply being dim-witted or if he was a liar—he was at least a serial adulterer so honesty was by no means his strong point—but in any event the problem with the “I’m not convinced” argument is that it’s always open to the rejoinder:

But how on earth does that prove your contention that there is no God?

And indeed it doesn’t. By refusing to rationally engage the subject, the atheist of yesteryear simply took himself out of all discussion. A great many people are fine with this—they’d rather not be in any sort of philosophical discussions at all, really—but it sits very badly with pretentious intellectuals who want to be admired for understanding the universe through gross oversimplification. I mean, for their brilliance. Hence the redefinition of atheism to something which doesn’t need defense because it’s not a proposition about the world. Now it’s the default position which doesn’t need to be defended! Hurrah! Even better, now all children start off as atheists, so it’s not weird, it’s normal! Could it get any better!?

Well yes, it could, in the sense of actually better, since aside from the few minor points mentioned above, this puts the atheist in a terrible (rhetorical) position. Just for starters, it is not usually a compliment to someone’s understanding to call it childish. Proudly proclaiming that one knows no more about the world than a babe in its mother’s arms is… a dubious compliment to give oneself.

Then if you really think about it—and by “really” I mostly mean, “for more than two thirds of a second”—anything without a mind lacks a belief in God. Trees lack a belief in God, as does algae and literal piles of what the germans call “hund scheisse”. This means that the post-Flew atheist is in the position of proudly proclaiming that he’s no smarter than a gallon of dead krill.

This also puts the atheist in the embarrassing position of the best argument in favor of atheism being a tire-iron to the head.  Cause enough brain damage and you will guarantee that any theist will instantly become an atheist. Which does raise the question, “is atheism actually a form of brain damage?” Lesions to the brain can cause loss of memory or the inability to learn certain things. If atheism can be reliably induced through brain damage, is all atheism just brain damage? I’ll leave that one to the lack-of-belief atheists to figure out. (Or not, since they might be too brain-damaged to do it.)

This also puts the atheist into the very weird position of saying:

Intelligent people might believe in God—even partial idiots might believe in God—but complete idiots are all atheists.

Well, if that’s the company you want to keep… Of course being the sort of atheist whose goal was to cheat so he wouldn’t have to defend his position, the lack-of-belief atheists will immediately claim something to the effect of:

Obviously atheism is a lack of belief in people who are capable of belief.

And will then probably do some metaphorical version of throwing the hund scheisse at you, claiming that you’re as stupid as the stuff he claims to be as stupid as. Pointing out people’s inconsistencies usually makes them angry at you.

Anyway, unless he’s claiming that his lack of belief has some sort of positive aspect, it cannot be distinguished from the lack of belief of a brick. His lack of belief has no properties. The brick’s lack of belief also has no properties. There is, therefore, nothing by which they can be distinguished. On the other hand, if he claims that his lack of belief has a positive aspect, he has thrown away his argument because now that positive aspect is a claim which must be defended.

Of course what’s going on is plain to anyone who isn’t trying to eat his cake and still have it afterwards too. He’s trying to imply that a rational mind—which most atheists being Materialists don’t believe in, but whatever—would have come to belief if there really was a God. This always remains at the level of insinuation, however, because it’s obviously false.

Consider: I lack a belief that the prime minister of France had a pet dog as a child. I’ve got a mind capable of believing that he did. Does my lack of belief in his pet dog mean anything at all with regard to his possible pet dog’s existence? Obviously not. I’ve never so much as looked for any evidence that he had a dog or didn’t. I don’t even know what the prime minister of France’s name is. My ignorance about his childhood pets doesn’t mean anything at all except that it would be a bad idea to ask me for information on the subject.

So it is with lack-of-belief atheists, of course. The main difference between asking them and a dead bucket of krill about God is that only one of the two is likely to answer with verbal hund scheisse. Other than that, well, I’ll leave it to them to make the positive argument that the way that belief in God doesn’t exist in them is somehow different from the way it doesn’t exist in a brick. I mean, other than lack of belief in God possibly indicating brick damage to their brain but not brain damage in the brick.

Update: Fixed a spelling error to Antony Flew’s first name and tightened up the language in the conclusion slightly. Also included the “brick damage in their brain” joke at a reader’s request.

By the way, since this definition of atheism results in all inanimate objects being atheists (so far as we know), it means that more than 99.9999999999% of atheists are incapable of rational thought. So the next time an atheist gives you guff, ask them for evidence that they are capable of rational thought and remind them that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Remember: them being capable of rational thought is a positive claim and the default is to assume that they’re as dumb as a bag of bricks unless they provide you with clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.

And if they’ve really ticked you off, point out that you don’t need to bother listening to evidence presented by something which is incapable of rational thought since being incapable of rational thought there can’t be any evidence which shows that they are capable of it. (Do bear in mind, though, that whatever defect of intellect or character makes this joke about someone appropriate will almost guaranteedly prevent them from getting it. Like Chesterton said about madmen in Orthodoxy, if they could get the joke they would be sane, and it wouldn’t apply to them.)