Some Common Incorporeal Things

I recently made this joke on Twitter:

There are of course plenty of non-corporeal entities which atheists ordinarily believe in, but many of them they have some alternative explanation for. Logical propositions are just expectations, as are mathematics, mathematical structures, etc. But they do tend to believe in the existence of agreements between people which are not easily reducible simply to expected behaviors.

In my tweet I chose one of the bigger agreements between people, the United States government, but really any sort of agreement will suffice, even something as simple as an agreement to borrow a shovel and return it when its use is finished. I like the example of the US government, though, since it exists not only through time but even through generations; it existed among people who are now dead and exists now among people who were not alive at its creation.

But clearly the United States government is not made up of any particular matter; there is no physical experiment one can device which would detect it. It has no weight, nor color, nor smell, nor sound. We know about it only through testimony and by its actions. And it only acts in the physical world through people.

In theory, if the principles that many atheists put forth were actually their principles, they would have to deny that the United States government exists, or at the very least claim that there’s no evidence for it.

But of course it’s not very hard to show that “their principles” are not in fact their principles. The much harder question is: so what are their principles?

That’s an excellent question I’m still trying to figure out the answer to.

The Irrational Rationalists

I was recently talking with my friend Andrew Stratelates of the Escaping Atheism Project about the odd topic of people who believe in both subjective morality and self-improvement. In my experience the most common approach to reconciling these two is along the lines of “I subjectively want to do things that I subjectively want to call self-improvement”. The Distributist made a good video about a thought experiment in which one is offered a pill which would instantly wipe out all traces of impulses to conventional morality, enabling one to live out a hedonistic life with far more success because of one’s ability to manipulate and use others without guilt. I strongly recommend it:

His basic point is that when one considers the idea, one knows that it is wrong, even though one’s theory holds that there should be no reason not to and perhaps even a good reason to do it. I recommend watching it.

That said, there is still the easy response that the person doesn’t want to because part of instinctive (arbitrary, groundless) moral impulses are to retain them. And this is, ultimately, unanswerable. If one is claiming that one wills something, not that it is true, this is unanswerable. One can debate truth, but one can’t debate will. (Which is why you can kill a man in self defense but not because he has a persuasive argument.)

And the whole thing would be utterly unremarkable except for the oddity that the people who are taking this easy out of disclaiming rationality in favor of pure will also claim to be the most rational people around. I’m not going to get into why—in part because I’m still working on the psychology of the thing and have no answers I’m yet confident enough to give—but I do want to note this oddity. The people who most often talk about being rational and being unwilling to be as irrational as their opponents also (when pressed) explicitly disclaim being rational on most every human subject. It’s ironic, but also quite interesting.

What Is the River?

In the course of a small conversation I had with Mr. John C. Wright in the comments of one of his blog posts, I said that if moral agents persisted across time, they must necessarily be outside of time and therefore conjoined to time by something outside of both and one is then just a little bit of thinking-things-through from God. His reply contained this very interesting question which I’d like to answer at length:

If the Ohio river is inside time, and flowing, and the water changes from moment to moment, in what way is it wrong or illogical of me to call it by the same name “the Ohio river” on Wednesday as I had done on Tuesday?

(I should note, if anyone is unfamiliar with Mr. Wright and his work, that he is a Catholic ex-atheist and is discussing the idea of atheistic ethics in the grand Catholic tradition of taking ideas seriously regardless of which “team” they might benefit because nothing is more important than the truth. Christians are in the pleasant position of not needing to fear the truth, because Jesus Christ is the truth. And the way and the life, but that does not directly bear on the moment.)

Unfortunately the only way to begin to address this question is by asking another question, and one so basic as to make most readers understandably grown: when we say “the Ohio River”, what, specifically, are we talking about? I know, I know, but hear me out. I promise I’ll keep it short.

When we say, “the Ohio River”, we are in truth referring to the form of a river which is instantiated in a particular place, for a duration of time. If we want to talk about the matter of the Ohio River, we must use far more cumbersome language, such as “the present riverbed of the Ohio River” or “The water flowing at this moment through the Ohio River”. Now, I think that the only reasonable position with regard to forms is Scholastic Realism, which is a sort of hybrid between Platonic realism and Aristotelian realism; scholastic realism holds that individual forms participate in the ideal of their form which exists in the mind of God, and it is from that participation that we can refer to two things by the same name and actually mean something by it. However, we need not go down the path of scholastic realism for the present purpose because the Ohio River is not a moral agent.

Before I get to the obvious objection to scholastic realism, let me address the Aristotelian objection to scholastic realism. Which is that the form of the Ohio River exists within time because it is subject to change. The Ohio river came into being and will probably go out of being; it grows and shrinks and occasionally has changed course. But the problem is that something is needed outside of the particular form in order for this to be the same form, rather than one form giving birth to another form and dying in childbirth. Why is it one Ohio River rather than many Ohio Rivers, in the way that wood gives birth to fire but is not fire? Aristotelian realism isn’t wrong, it is merely incomplete. (Which is why Saint Thomas could baptize it.) And so we return to the obvious objection, which was raised during the Endarkenment (more commonly called “the Enlightenment”).

The obvious objection to saying that the Ohio River, as a single thing, participates in the idea of Riverhood within God’s mind is simply to deny that the Ohio River is really one thing, but is instead a collection of things so similar that we give them all the same name. In this view of the name “the Ohio River” does not describe a thing in itself but rather a relation to us. “The Ohio River” thus means, “all that matter which is related to us in the manner of the water currently in the riverbed located as you’d find it on a map labeled ‘Ohio River’.” More colloquially, whatever water happens to be in a particular set of places going in particular directions. As with all forms of reductionism, it is unanswerable in itself except by negation. If a man says that there is no chair, only a collection of atoms in a particular arrangement he finds it convenient to call “chair,” there is nothing one can do to help him, except possibly giving him a vigorous beating with the object in question. No one is a sincere reductionist.

But it doesn’t matter, for the Ohio River is not a moral agent. If the Ohio River does something destructive, such as flooding a man’s house and property, no one holds that justice demands that vengeance be exacted upon the river. And in the case of one who holds the functional view of the river, he holds that it is not even possible to exact vengeance upon the river, for the water which did him harm is long gone.

This is not the case with moral agents. If a man killed my brother yesterday, I claim the right to kill him today because it is the same man who killed my brother. If I told people, “I claim the right to kill this man because he reminds me of the man who killed my brother” they would laugh at me or restrain me, depending on how serious they thought I was. And if they asked me, “But is he the same man?” and I replied, “I call him by the same name as I called the man who killed my brother.” they would grow angry with me. “Is he the same man or not?” they might reasonably demand of me. And if my final answer is, “He is not the same man but I am accustomed to treating him as the same man”  it may well end with my fellow villagers striking me down. And if I were to say, “He isn’t but for convenience I will say that he is,” it would be to the shame of my fellow men if they did not strike me down.

Morality requires identity across time to be meaningful. There may be no such identity, but if so there is no such thing as morality. This is why, to uphold morality, is to uphold identity across time. And once a man believes in actual identity across time, it is just a short hop, skip, and jump to believing in God.

Which is probably why pagan philosophers so often did believe in God.

The Angriest Atheists

If you hang out in the right parts of the internet, and especially if you’re a Christian who ever talks about atheism, you’ll encounter a variety of atheists lecturing you about:

  • Atheism just means a lack of belief in God, despite acting as if God doesn’t exist
  • Atheism is a free-floating proposition with no consequences or presuppositions
  • Theism is irrational
  • Despite possibly being true
  • There’s no evidence for God
  • No religion has even a shred of evidence for it
  • Evidence can’t exist for religion
  • Logic!

And so on. Many of these people seem to be simply repeating things they’ve heard from more charismatic people. But among the atheists one meets, there’s a subset who is astonishingly angry. They’re extremely aggressive, and at the same time generally very poorly educated and uninterested in thinking. By and large, they do nothing but make extremely confident assertions and accuse you of logical fallacies in your response. Even if you didn’t make any sort of argument at all but just asked a question. And very curiously, they get almost frothing-at-the-mouth angry if you simply make contradictory assertions to their assertions.

One possibility for some of them is that they are cult recruiters. Many of their qualities are exactly the approaches of cult recruiters when interacting with skeptics in front of potential recruits. (The key is to realize that attacking the skeptic is showing off for the potential recruit, who in this case would be a non-cult-member atheist looking on.) I’m only at the stage of wondering about this possibility; the behavior seems to line up fairly well, but that’s circumstantial evidence at best. All sorts of things are compatible with all sorts of theories; compatibility is very weak evidence.

Another interesting possibility is demonic possession. Some of these sorts of atheists may be cooperating with demons for the purpose of sewing discord and disorder, and whatever the man may think the object is, demons are concerned with souls. To try to make Christians angry and wrathful would be a victory for a demon. Peace is the right ordering of the world according to God’s will; sin is, therefore, disorder. Demons like to scatter out and separate.

And again, actions merely being consistent with a theory is extremely weak evidence. I’m not trying to oversell this; while demonic possession is real it seems to be uncommon and so skepticism at any given possession is not the same thing as skepticism of possession in general. But the nice thing here is that erring on the side of caution is practical. At least it seems to me that the best thing to do after interacting with an anonymous demoniac online would be to keep the knowledge of God’s dominion over the world close to one’s heart, to keep in mind that Christ has defeated death and overcome the world, and to pray for the demoniac. That is also a very good strategy if it’s merely an angry unthinking blasphemer one is dealing with.

The Difficulty Defining Cults

(Part of a series of ongoing thoughts about cults. See Online Cults and A Few More Thoughts About Online Cults.) I suspect that the fundamental problem with defining a cult is that a cult is, essentially, a parody of legitimate religion. This gets complicated because not all legitimate religions are correct; Christianity is correct and legitimate religions are correct only insofar as they agree with Christianity. But they can still be legitimate religion—as opposed to a parody of a religion—where they are wrong. And now I need to explain what the heck I mean by this.

A legitimate religion offers several things to a person:

  • Something greater than themselves to exist in relation to
  • Meaning
  • Purpose
  • Peace

These are related things, in that peace comes from living in a proper relationship to the ordering of the universe, which means in a proper relationship to that which is greater than oneself. Meaning and purpose are related, since purpose comes from meaning; meaning is intrinsic to reality but comes from religion in the sense of “is learned about from religion”, which consists of knowing how one’s life fits into a greater whole.

And of course these are the things which a cult offers. What makes the cult a parody is that the thing greater than themselves is typically just another thing in the world which itself needs justification—the cult itself. Sometimes it is a sort of esoteric knowledge, but always a kind of esoteric knowledge about which no thinking is possible, and therefore the only real concern is, once again, the cult. And there are some cases where the esoteric knowledge might legitimately be something one can think about, but it comes with the provision that the one revealing the knowledge is the most important man who ever lived. As such the man and not the knowledge is the focus of the cult. That last type is, I suspect, the sort of cult which actually lasts and becomes something of a real religion—once the man is dead. Though the degree to which that happens probably varies; and worshiping a man is worse than worshiping even a god, which is much worse than worshiping God. And such a cult will probably be plagued with the difficulty of keeping its later religious adherents from learning about its origins; that will probably trap it in cult-like behavior since there’s no way to escape from a bad founding.

Similarly the purpose a cult offers is a parody in that it all relates to the cult itself, and not to any greater good. The expressions will vary, but cults are often quite destructive of family ties, for example; they tend to discourage any sort of involvement with outsiders beyond proselytizing.

And relatedly, the peace that a cult offers is a parody because it consists of unthinkingly accepting the teachings and practices of the cult, that is, the meaning and purpose which a cult gives. This acceptance without understanding is essentially reducing a man from a rational animal to an irrational animal; it is the peace of giving up being a man and instead being a horse. That brings relief from the troubles of being a man, but not by rightly ordering one’s life but instead by simply refusing to live most of one’s life.

And all this is what makes it so difficult to distinguish a cult from a legitimate religion. Counterfeits are, of their nature, hard to spot. That superficial similarity is where the counterfeit gets all its power from, so there is both a motivation and an evolutionary selective pressure on cults to be superficially similar to legitimate religions. In short, distinguishing unrelated things tends to be easy but spotting fakes is much, much harder.

A Few More Thoughts About Online Cults

I’m still in the early phase if thinking about this subject (my earliest thoughts are in Online Cults), but as I read about offline cults, a thought occurred to me about how to sift out what’s necessarily in person from what isn’t.

Many cults use techniques to pull people in quickly which rely on being in-person, especially cults that use very long classes which cause sleep deprivation and hunger to dull the thinking of their victims. But while this may be a common tactic, it may simply be more effective than the tactics which can be used online. Hence if it’s available, it will be preferentially be used but where it is not available its lack of use will simply lead to less (or slower) efficacy.

Of course, it’s always important to be careful with this line of thinking, because if applied incorrectly it can be used to wave away crucial distinctions in a plausible-sounding way. But I don’t think that’s the case here; and I think this can be seen by looking at something of an analog. Nigerian Oil Scammers (the scams where someone claims to be nigerian prince with lots of money he needs to hide in a foreigner’s bank account) tell a very implausible story, and I’ve heard the theory that this is to weed out anyone who isn’t extremely gullible. Every person who responds costs them time, so their time will be better spent with as few false positives as possible. Accordingly, they make their story sound ridiculous so that the only people who respond are people who will believe and go along with anything.  This of course means that they get false negatives—i.e. people who, with a defter hand, could have been swindled. It seems very plausible that something analogous is working, or could work, with online cults.

They can’t be with a person every minute, they can’t make a person not eat or sleep, but they can sucker in those who simply don’t think well enough to require those sorts of impairments to be convinced to join. Especially since they won’t be asking nearly as much of the applicant. If you remove the requirement for all attractive female cult members to sleep with the leader and all male cult members to travel far and wide to attract new cult members, they don’t need to be nearly as brainwashed to join. Essentially, cults may exist on a spectrum.

Again, this is all very speculative, and further any time one defines things as being on a spectrum one has to answer the question, “how far along the spectrum do you have to go before there’s actually a problem?” Spectra can easily be used to tar the low end with the reputation of the high end.

But there is the curious thing that many atheists one meets online do have an odd sort of aggressiveness, a hyper-pronounced us-vs-them mentality, an inauthenticity to their conversations which makes it feel like one is dealing with a robot or a telemarketer, and an odd obsession with scoring points as if that somehow accomplishes anything. It’s suggestive, but as of yet I’m not sure precisely what it suggests.

The Allure of Novel Ideas

I’m currently reading the book Snapping, which was recommended to me by Max Kolbe of the Escaping Atheism Project when I had put our a request for recommendations on books about cults. It’s interesting, so far, though I’ve yet to get to the really good part (I’ve only just gotten to chapter 5), but I encountered an interesting point I’d like to discuss in more detail than it appears here:

The first steps in that direction were taken by the poets and writers of the Beat Generation, who set off to mine the rich spiritual lodes of the East.

Those rich spiritual lodes weren’t really all that rich, as people eventually discovered. Protestantism is often pretty dry, though even it isn’t monolithic, but Catholicism has a rich mystical tradition which would not have been overly hard to tap into for the writers of the Beat Generation. And I submit that one of the major reasons why they didn’t is that they knew where Catholic mysticism ended up. It ended up in Catholicism.

The whole reason why Buddhism and Hinduism and various other eastern practices seemed to be so rich with potential is that no one in the west knew where those practices end up. But of course they end up in Buddhism or Hinduism; if the Indians are not all in constant bliss, which they obviously aren’t, there’s no particular reason to believe that borrowing their practices would lead to constant bliss.

This is a surprisingly common mistake—it didn’t work for him, maybe it will work for me! Usually, I think, the result of a salesman’s winning smile coupled with a hefty does of desperation.

Online Cults

This is just some preliminary thoughts about online cults—by which I mean purely online versions of cults like those of Jim Jones, Manson, or Moonie cults. (This is related to my post In What Ways is Atheism a Cult?) What actually defines a cult is a very thorny topic; in many cases the easiest way to define a dangerous cult (as opposed to a good religion) is simply by being wrong. Which isn’t very helpful; so I was sketching out a list of possible attributes common to most dangerous cults:

1. The meaning of life is found by being a cult member, exclusively
2. Thinking is discouraged
3. Dry runs with suicide pills
4. Traditional morals, especially sexual ones, are relaxed, not in service of a stricter law, but in service of the cult itself
4.a. Traditional morals are relaxed just for fun
5. Cult members have a powerful self-assurance vastly in excess of anything they can support
6. Heavy [drug use / sleep deprivation / fasting / etc] to reduce a member’s sense of reality
7. The leader is more than just a man (often divine in the sense of having special knowledge of divine things such that he’s more important than other men)

To some degree this list (which I emphasize is still just a sketch) is avoiding those aspects of cults which require physical proximity, such as:

A. Everything living together on a communal property / the leader’s property
B. The leader gets to have sex with most/all of the female cult members
C. Rigorous enforcement through physical abuse
D. Everyone gets a suicide pill

I’m actually having trouble thinking of many items to go on the second list, though that could just be exhaustion from little children waking me up in the middle of the night several nights running. But it does suggest that the most recognizable events related to cults may not be that integral.

And in fact there is a curious relationship possible to the virality of viruses (i.e. how destructive they are): it could be that the more of the proximity-requiring traits that a cult has, the shorter-lived it is since it tends to burn through members. Many of the proximity-requiring rates above are self-destructive rather than self-reinforcing.

Anyway, this is just some very preliminary thinking-out-loud on the subject, all of it subject to change without notice. 🙂

The Problem with Talking to Dimwits

Out of pity for some atheists who regularly show up in the comments to my videos, I’m working on a response video about the rest of Logicked’s video about my conversation with Rob from Deflating Atheism. If you’re not familiar, in that conversation, this exchange happened:

Me: “There are a lot of interesting things to say about atheism precisely because at the end of the day one values atheists. They’re human beings. They’re worthwhile. And therefore their lives actually matter.”

Rob: “Which is very easy to lose sight of when you’re in a position like I am and you’re constantly debating them and you see them almost as cockroaches that need to be stamped out. [I laughed.] Quite honestly, no, I mean, I feel like I’m a bad Christian because I feel no agape love for these people. I consider them pests. Quite honestly.”

Which Logicked took to be about genocide. Literally. Here’s a tweet he posted:

Hey nice job chuckling at the genocidal sentiment. Genocide is funny lol atheists are subhuman filth who must be destroyed 😃

And I eventually made this reply in which I explained in excruciating detail how Rob wasn’t joking about genocide:

So as I said, I’m taking pity on some atheists in my comments section and making a video about the rest of his video, which frankly was only marginally better and that only if you are counting the stupidity to be slightly hidden.

And here’s the problem I’m facing: it is really hard to explain something to a dimwit. If a man is merely unintelligent it’s not so bad if he respects you because he will tell you when he doesn’t understand and ask for clarification. But if that’s not the case he will assume everyplace he doesn’t understand you is your fault and it’s because you’re stupid. That would be the end of the problem if I was trying to address Logicked, but I’m not. Among other things, he has a financial interest in not understanding me (he makes $2200/video on patreon).

But if somebody thinks that Logicked’s rather stupid response wasn’t stupid, it means that they were taken in by his self-serving oversimplifications. And the problem when trying to help such a person out (assuming that they really are asking in good faith what I make of his response) is that his simple narratives will be massively tempting in the face of a more complex explanation I can give.

Worse, explaining how what Logicked said is irrelevant is not directly addressing it, i.e. it isn’t directly showing how it’s wrong, and so it will always feel like not addressing Logicked. But except for factual errors, it is impossible to directly address an argument. This comes from the fact that a fallacy doesn’t not guarantee that an argument is wrong. Consider the following argument, which is overly simplistic merely for the sake of making the illustration simple:

p → p
∴ p

Is that modus ponens or the fallacy of affirming the consequent? It’s both. But the conclusion follows from the premises, so it is a valid argument. That is the only requirement of a valid argument; the only requirement to be an invalid argument is that the conclusion does not follow from the premises. But the only way to show that is not to show that there exists a way in which the conclusion doesn’t follow (necessarily) from the premises, one must show that there is no way in which the conclusion follows (necessarily) from the premises. And the only practical way of doing that is to show how the premises can be true and the conclusion false. Which means ignoring the argument and showing the conclusion. Which means ignoring the argument.

In other words, a good counter-argument necessarily has a rhetorical weakness. When an audience is intelligent enough to remember both the original argument and the counter-argument and to relate the one to the other, this will not be a great weakness. Where the audience can’t hold these things in their head at the same time, they will always be left with the feeling that the original argument wasn’t addressed, and so may be valid after all.

In What Ways is Atheism a Cult?

My friend Max Kolbe has often described atheists, and especially prominent atheists on Twitter and YouTube, as cultists. I had always taken this as a metaphor, that is, as rhetoric. That is, that they had many of the qualities of member of a cult, such as an absurd degree of credulity, an astonishingly twisted and poor understanding of the outside world, and so on.

My problem was that, for whatever reason, I hadn’t realized which member of the cult he was saying that they are. For some reason I took him to be (rhetorically) saying that there was one giant cult and all of the atheists he was talking about were sycophantic followers in it. Obviously that wasn’t literally the case; they didn’t live on a giant compound and there was no leader for them all to have pledged allegiance to. And this sort of cult is always a cult of personality which requires a leader.

Then it finally hit me: he didn’t mean that these people were followers in one giant cult. He meant that they were each the leader of their own small cult. And that is way closer to literally true. It is, of course, possible to identify elements of a cult of personality in any popular figure because popular figures will have fans. Fans and sycophantic cult members do have some traits in common, and though I think that there are qualitative differences, it’s tempting to take the difference as being simply one of degree. But this is not what I mean here. First, the internet atheist’s relationship to his fans is one of revealing truth. Well, not exactly, since all the secrets of the universe he has to offer are that he doesn’t know any secrets of the universe, but this doesn’t seem to really bother the people involved. They still feel like somehow they have special knowledge.

They act like it, too. In a fair amount of talking that I’ve done with internet atheists, it doesn’t seem to occur to them that technically they are claiming to be ignorant. They invoke the words “atheism is a lack of belief” and “I haven’t seen any evidence” but then proceed in everything they say as if they said, “I know the truth: there is no God.” They like to talk about outsiders as deluded—which they are only in a position to say if they know the outsiders are wrong.

As we are moving from the era of YouTube ads to the era of patreon, we’re seeing more direct support of the leader from his followers, so I expect the cult-like aspects to intensify, but even in the ad-driven era, people will lead cults for affirmation even where they can’t get money out of it. And affirmation one clearly saw a lot of. And of course cults need to get to a certain level of success before the group sex with the leader begins; many would-be cults probably fizzle out before then. That they are not ultimately successful does not change the nature of the group dynamic. (Though of course that fact can be exploited to smear things which are in fact not cults.)

I’m also reminded of the gnostic heresy, in the second century. The gnostics were not a unified, hierarchical group, but rather a sort of network of cults where membership could be somewhat fluid. Cult members would be disciples of one or another gnostic leader, but the fringe members might learn from multiple teachers, though of course only the public knowledge, not the private knowledge taught to the trusted insiders. That structure seems very parallel to modern popular internet atheists, who work together to some degree and generally profess the same core principles. And you see similar dynamics where the existence of such an alliance is useful; it’s much easier to gain groupies from someone else’s group than from the general population, and the total population confers status by association on even the less popular members, but at the same time there will be vying for status and infighting, all of which we’ve certainly seen among internet atheists.

Patrick Tomlinson Tries to Lie About Abortion

Yes, everyone’s talking about this stupid thread from Patrick Tomlinson:

Most people are talking about how it’s a terrible argument, but in some sense this misses the point. This is the argument, if we set it out in syllogistic form:

 1. A hypothetical situation in which you can only save 1 5 year old or 1000 viable human embryos
2. a human child is worth more than a thousand embryos
∴ no one believes that life begins at conception

None of it has any logical connection to any other part of it, so analyzing it as an argument is, while possibly helpful to people who’ve never studied logic and therefore mistake this for some kind of argument, beside the point. This isn’t an argument, it’s pure rhetoric. So let’s look at it as rhetoric.

The first thing to pay attention to in rhetoric is: to whom is this directed. You might be tempted to say that it’s directed at pro-life people, but that’s only hypothetical. If you pay attention, he’s actually addressing pro-abortion people. You can see that clearly in this later tweet in the thread:

He hasn’t changed who he’s talking to, and is unequivocally talking to fellow pro-abortion people. Rhetoric has two main uses (simplifying, obviously):

  1. To demoralize your opponent
  2. To encourage those on your side

And you can tell which object a piece of rhetoric has by the audience to whom it’s address. In this case, he’s trying to bolster the morale of his own side. Why, particularly? Because they are being swayed by the obvious fact that abortion is murder, so he is attempting to counter-act the obvious feeling that their position is unnatural.

His strategy is to then create a narrative in which the pro-abortion people are acting naturally and the anti-abortion people are acting unnaturally. Hence the wildly implausible story he creates which does exactly that, at least if you don’t look too closely. It’s not actually a great story for this purpose and hence this tweet:

He’s got to explicitly tell you that there’s a right answer, because it’s not obviously true. This is a classical rhetorical trick, by the way—state the non-obvious as if it’s just saying the obvious because someone has to.

You can see this in just how much he stacks the deck on his side: In one corner of the room he’s got a crying child. In the other corner of the room you spot a frozen container labeled “1000 viable Human Embryos”. The guy is a sci-fi author and has a decent enough sense of pacing and word-craft to gloss over how absurd this is. Who, looking for a 5 year old child, would take the time to read things inside of the frost-free glass-fronted freezer the fertility clinic presumably bought second-hand when a local grocery store went out of business? No one would, but this implausibility is relevant to the feeling produced. Whatever is inside of this grocery store freezer in a room with a crying child does not register to us as important.

And there are further issues he glosses over to get the desired effect. He never specifies that the box actually has so much as a single embryo inside of it.  The very fact that it’s a box inside of a grocery store freezer with a cartoon-sized label on it suggests that the box is incorrectly labeled. We have no knowledge that it in fact remained frozen and the embryos are still viable. By contrast, we know instantly that a 5 year old child is in fact a living 5 year old child.

There’s the even further problem that in our current legal environment, those human lives will almost guaranteedly die regardless of what the hypothetical rescuer does, even apart from the difficulty of getting them to another freezer quickly enough. The child still has legal protections apart from what men like Mr. Tomlinson would likely do if they had the power to change the law to permit infanticide up until the age of legal adulthood.

This is how extremely far he has to stack the deck in order to try to get his desired result. Consider how easily one could present the same scenario—as far as principles go—to produce the opposite effect. Here’s one example:

You’re in a fertility clinic and hear screaming behind a door. You burst it open and see in one corner an ugly man wearing a t-shirt that says “registered sex offender”. He’s screaming racist obscenities about how much he hates black people and that it should be a black Jew being burned to death in this fertility clinic, not someone as important as him. In the other corner there’s a man with a t-shirt that says “all men are brothers” crouching next to a small portable freezer and he shouts, “This freezer contains the frozen embryo of my only child. My leg is broken and I’m pinned beneath this fallen girder and I can’t save her. Please take it to safety so my wife can carry it to term as we planned and my child can live and know that her daddy loves her!”

OK, in this scenario there are 999 fewer human embryos being weighed against the one, but the point stands. It evokes a far different emotional response than the original, though obviously the principles being compared—in so far as there are any—are identical. And this is why Mr. Tomlinson insists on his scenario being exactly the way it is:

An argument can be put in any words that accurately represent the ideas involved, but a magic spell must be said with every syllable pronounced correctly in order to have any effect.

But again, don’t forget that the object of Mr. Tomlinson’s rhetoric is only ostensibly to convince anti-abortion people to become pro-abortion. It’s really directed at pro-abortion people to make them feel like their position is not as anti-natural as it in fact is. That’s why he spends two and a half tweets layout out his hypothetical and five and a half tweets talking about how powerful this hypothetical is to utterly smash the anti-abortion position. The actual hypothetical is of only very minor importance; what really matters to his rhetoric is that he has an invincible weapon which has stood the test of time (ten years!) and slain many opponents.

I will note in passing that Mr. Tomlinson’s tirade may have a slight demoralizing effect on anti-abortion people who read it, but if it does this is not because of any sort of assailing of their position, but rather that hearing the enemy rally himself and raise his moral is in itself demoralizing. Hence the prevalence in the ancient world (where sound had a longer range than weapons) of war chants, hakas, and the like, and in the modern world of psy-ops like radio broadcasts and air-dropping pamphlets. This isn’t an argument, it is men dancing to show their enemy that they’re fierce and united. But this is just one guy, if granted retweeted many times, and it does raise the question of whether “the lady doth protest too much”. He may be doing this merely to gain fame or do due his part, but he may well also see how the intellectual poverty of his side oppressing the spirit of his fellows and seek to raise them because they need raising. Coaches often give pep talks about how the obviously losing team can still win the game before they go on to lose in the second half of the match.

On a related note, Mr. Tomlinson is a science fiction author. Given that he has demonstrated that he is willing to use his talents as a wordsmith to lie for the cause of evil, it would be very imprudent to read anything else he’s written. To read any of his fiction is to gamble that his willingness to abuse his talents in the service of evil didn’t come up by some strange turn of events. This seems at best a very poor gamble. In short, to read a man’s fiction is to trust him, and it is a very poor policy to trust a manifest liar.

The God of the Gaps?

I’ve seen all sorts of numerous accusations about how I’m trying to prove “the God of the Gaps“.  (For those who don’t know the God of the Gaps is roughly the idea that you can identify God in those parts of nature which don’t work, i.e. in the gaps in our scientific knowledge.) I find this accusation hurled at me especially often if I’m discussing anything involving wonder at the natural world.  It’s often followed by assurances that atheists have a sense of wonder, though one is forced to wonder what it might consist of in the face of the unshakable conviction that we understand everything.

Anyway, I’ve been wondering where on earth the idea of the God of the Gaps came from, anyway. It feels like the sort of thing you might get from a Christian fundamentalist, though even they usually aren’t this obtuse. Oddly, Wikipedia isn’t much help. In the Origins of the Term section of the article on it, it says:

The concept, although not the exact wording, goes back to Henry Drummond, a 19th-century evangelist lecturer, from his Lowell Lectures on The Ascent of Man. He chastises those Christians who point to the things that science can not yet explain—”gaps which they will fill up with God”—and urges them to embrace all nature as God’s, as the work of “an immanent God, which is the God of Evolution, is infinitely grander than the occasional wonder-worker, who is the God of an old theology.”[2][3]

In 1933, Ernest Barnes, the Bishop of Birmingham, used the phrase in a discussion of general relativity’s implication of a Big Bang:

Must we then postulate Divine intervention? Are we to bring in God to create the first current of Laplace’s nebula or to let off the cosmic firework of Lemaître’s imagination? I confess an unwillingness to bring God in this way upon the scene. The circumstances with thus seem to demand his presence are too remote and too obscure to afford me any true satisfaction. Men have thought to find God at the special creation of their own species, or active when mind or life first appeared on earth. They have made him God of the gaps in human knowledge. To me the God of the trigger is as little satisfying as the God of the gaps. It is because throughout the physical Universe I find thought and plan and power that behind it I see God as the creator.[4]

During World War II the German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed the concept in similar terms in letters he wrote while in a Nazi prison.[5] Bonhoeffer wrote, for example:

how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.

All of its citations are Christians who are saying that this is a stupid idea (there are more, I’ve cut for brevity). And of course it is; the God of the Gaps basically postulates that God is incompetent and didn’t make a creation which actually works and has to be constantly patched up. I’m really wondering why on earth atheists are so obsessed with it, since it’s something serious Christians criticize heartily.

There are a few explanations which spring to mind or were suggested by friends:

  1. The atheists believe in a God of the Gaps, only they call it Science. (i.e. the mis-understanding of science commonly called scientism).
  2. They really want Christians to propose an idea they can beat up by some method other than denying  that human reason can reach truth.
  3. The sort of people who tend to become either atheists or fundamentalist Christians use this argument if they become fundamentalist Christians. As a result, non-fundamentalists never see it but atheists do since they’re almost the only people who regularly interact with fundies.

I’d be curious in hearing other explanations, if anyone has any to offer.

Freedom Or Not

An interesting discussion of the limits of and problems attendant to, freedom.


Hands breaking ropes

I wonder about how humanity goes about policing itself. Not only because I’m a lawyer and incentives, motivations, and systems in general fascinate me, but because human beings themselves are a never-ending source of wonder and amusement.

There’s one school of thought that says “Legalize all the things; people are going to do them anyway. Let them be adults!” The countervailing force is more restrictive that says “Ban all the things; people can’t be trusted!” Me, I’m generally against, banning things, but I do have a strong belief that people need limits.

“Prohibition of anything will lead to unintended consequences, and likely worse problems!”

Perhaps. This was the case with alcohol–prohibition was a failure that helped give power to organized crime. But it’s folly and flat-out wrong to think that organized crime wasn’t there, wasn’t dangerous, and wasn’t strong before America’s experiment in banning alcohol. (Have you read Gangs…

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No Anxiety

The Frank Friar released an interesting podcast today.

He mentioned the difficulty he was having saying several masses which involve a lot of standing and walking, and that he didn’t want to appear weak by limping, but reminded himself that if this is carrying his cross and following Jesus, then he would do so. He called it his vanity—and certainly he knows himself, so I wouldn’t presume to say he’s wrong—but I can’t help but wonder if there’s at least an element of not wanting to let down the people who look up to priests to see the strength of Christ, which would not be vanity but a concern for the weakness of the congregation. Something to think about for those of us in the pews, anyway—do we sometimes let ourselves confuse the man with his office?

Be that as it may, it reminded me of my own minor struggle, which I mention not because it’s important but just because it’s a trivial and therefore potentially relatable example of the same sort of thing. Last night after the children were asleep (I have three young ones) I was getting ready to record a video when my almost-two-year-old started crying. So up I trudged from my office to see what was wrong, and she wouldn’t go back to sleep so I carried her around in the dark, her head resting on my shoulder, so she’d feel secure enough to go back to sleep (she declined the offer of a bedtime snack). And as I was thinking about how frustrating it was that I was about to record and instead here I was having to put her to sleep again, it occurred to me that at least I wasn’t partway through and so didn’t have any lost work, and then it occurred to me that in fact I didn’t have lost work because clearly at the moment caring for my daughter was the work God had for me to do.

It’s very easy to let ourselves forget that when we make plans they are guesses as to the work God has given us to do; it seems to me that part of how to live without anxiety is to remind ourselves as often as we can remember that our plans are nothing more than guesses, and when we receive more certain information as to what God has given us to do, it should not be cause for regret but cause for contentment, like when a parent turns on a night light for a child.

This does mean rather a large project of changing how we think of plans during the planning stages, of course. Something I learned in partner dancing (Lindy Hop) is that the problem usually starts several steps before you actually notice it.