Category Archives: Epistemology

What does it mean for something to be possible?

At first glance, the question in the title seems like a no-brainer. When we say an event is possible, we’re saying that it could happen. It is possible for me to meet an old friend tomorrow, because it could happen (note that it is possible from my point of view regardless of whether it will actually happen tomorrow). It is not possible that the Earth will fall into the Sun tomorrow, because that can’t happen according to the laws of physics.

So what are we talking about when we talk about the existence of something being possible or not? Is it possible for God to exist? Is it possible for there to be a teacup on the dark side of the Moon? Is it possible for ghosts to exist? In order to make such pronouncements, we must have evidence of what can exist. We know what can or cannot exist based on what we know of nature, history, the laws of nature, and so on. So for example, minds are predicated upon working brains, therefore it is not possible for ghosts to exist.

People who do believe in ghosts may very well reply that it is possible for ghosts to exist because some people have seen them. No one is denying that people see something that they identify as ghosts, but this does not prove that disembodied minds or spirits can exist. The identification is done with the concept of ghosts already in our minds, and all we’re doing is associating assorted phenomena with the concept of ghosts. We know that identification changes depending on prevalent beliefs: we used to believe that sleep paralysis was the result of demons, and now we associate them with aliens. So this is a cultural construct, not a fact.

What I am talking about is actual evidence. We have no actual evidence that ghosts could exist, because we have no evidence that there can be such a thing as a disembodied mind (let alone a disembodied mind that can still do bodily things like talk or make a room colder). Can you conceive of a ghost? Sure. In fact, it’s quite an ordinary thing for us to conceive of ghosts. But that doesn’t mean ghosts could actually exist.

And this is the big problem that I see with Christian apologetics: they can’t understand that being able to conceive of something does not necessarily mean it is possible for that thing to exist. Christian belief is all imagination-based: no one’s ever actually seen a god or a soul, and in order to make sense of those things we have to imagine them. This leads believers to blur the line between imagination and reality. If God is real (according to their worldview) and can only be apprehended through the imagination, then the imagination becomes, at some level, evidence of the reality of something.

We construct our beliefs, in a large part, from narratives. Older religions exploit this quite heavily, by presenting the believer with all sorts of stories about the creation of the universe, the early history of humankind, gods and demons traipsing around and manipulating humans, human heroes or demigods, and so on. These stories all have attributes of myths and fables, and lack any sort of realism, but most believers accept them as being at least partially real.

This is in contrast with other areas which are also populated with narratives. Take politics, for example. While the domain of politics is full of false beliefs and logical fallacies, there are still measurable aspects to the things that we have beliefs about, and therefore those beliefs can be verified (whether the believers care or not is another matter). By and large, people agree with what is being observed, they disagree on how to interpret it, and I would say that’s in a large part due to religion and prejudice, not for any rational reason. We can observe people and institutions, we can’t observe gods and demons.

We see this confusion in many areas of Christian apologetics. For example, they are always very insistent to point out that “Creationism is a theory, just like evolution.” The main issue with that sort of pronouncement is that they don’t understand the word “theory.” A theory is an explanation for the observed data. Evolution is a theory because it explains the data, and Creationism does not.

But even if we interpret the statement to mean that Creationism is a hypothesis (which seems to be what they really mean), well, that implies that Creationism is possible. Of course this is predicated on the belief that God is possible. But it’s also predicated on the belief that God creating all the life on Earth ex nihilo is possible, and we know of no mechanism that can explain such a process. The possibility of Creation has never been demonstrated, it has only been assumed, and we have no reason to assume that it might be true.

The most important thing we must have in order to ground a belief in reality is material evidence. Supernatural entities either do not interact with reality, in which case no evidence could ever be found and we must reject their possibility out of hand, or they do interact with reality, in which case we need to demand to know how those interactions are possible. Belief in the soul, for example, begs the question of how a soul, which is supernatural, could interact with a material body. If we cannot even begin to explain how such communication could take place, then we cannot deem souls possible, no matter how much we conceive of them.

Does determinism imply fatalism?

I have already addressed the more extreme and bizarre versions of associating determinism with fatalism, the versions where determinism is some kind of external force that you can trick or fight against. But there are more subtle versions of this confusion as well, which are not as clearly wrong or bizarre, and therefore are worth addressing.

I want to address two specific sort of arguments here. The first is that determinism is incompatible with knowledge, and is similar to an argument used by Christian apologists about the incompatibility of evolution with knowledge. The apologist argument is that we should not expect evolution to have brought about a brain which generates truths, and that the human brain would be fundamentally unreliable if evolution was true. There are many things we can reply to this, but the main objection is that the brain is not a proposition-generating machine but rather a versatile tool which, like other parts of our body, can be used for many different purposes. One of these purposes happens to be finding rationally justified propositions.

The anti-determinist argument is somewhat similar to this, but basically replaces evolution with determinism. If determinism is true, then our thoughts are the result of predetermined processes in the brain, therefore we cannot assume that our beliefs are correctly justified. This is usually accompanied by a fallacious argument from incredulity: how can we assume that any proposition that is the result of random natural processes will be properly justified?

The main fallacy with this argument is the assumption that natural processes are random or unguided. Everything humans do is determined and regulated by natural law, and yet we don’t say that buildings or computer chips are random, came into existence unguided, or necessarily unreliable. If it would be laughable to assume this in the case of buildings or computer chips, then why should we assume it in the case of human reasoning? When I construct an argument and justify it rationally, am I not acting in a determined manner and in accordance with natural law? The main difference is that a building is an entirely physical product while an argument is a conceptual product, but both require the careful use of our minds in constructing justified beliefs (about construction or about concepts).

Saying that a thought was determined instead of volitional does not change the nature of the thought, or its justification or absence thereof. The only way we can tell whether a proposition is justified remains to look at arguments or lines of reasoning in favor of, or against, it. What I believe about, say, the sky being blue still hangs upon observations of the sky and the facts about light passing through air, regardless of how my brain arrived at the proposition. For that matter, a Markov chain algorithm could theoretically compose an entire argument (with premises, logic, and conclusion) on some subject: the argument would still be true or false on its merits, regardless of the fact that it was the result of an unthinking algorithm (note that I am not arguing that we are anything like a Markov chain algorithm!).

This argument also begs the question of how a volitional brain could use evidence to formulate reasoning. After all, we are told that volition is not affected by physical processes, since anything caused by a physical process is determined. Perceiving evidence is a physical process. So how can a volitional brain process evidence?

The second argument I wanted to discuss is one which attacks the ethical consequences of determinism. In its simplest version, the argument is simply that determinism cannot explain why people change their minds, or how people can consider arguments and “choose” one side over the other. Sometimes this takes the ironic form that determinists are self-contradictory because they are trying to change people’s minds about agency, when that is impossible according to determinism.

This argument always puzzles me because there is no logical connection between determinism and being unable to be convinced by an argument. All that determinism says is that the processes in our brain are the result of natural processes. It does not indicate anything about the kind of thoughts we can or cannot have. Of course we can change our minds, as is demonstrated every day. Indeed, most or all determinists arrived at their position because some argument or discussion changed their minds on the subject. It would be very silly for a determinist to deny that we can change our minds, but we don’t need to, since there is no logical argument going from “determinism is true” to “we cannot change our minds.”

Sometimes the argument is actually backed by a kind of fatalism: people cannot help being what they are. But this is not a position about whether natural law applies to the brain, this is a psychological position. Whether human beings have some “true nature” which is always reflected in their thoughts or actions or not, this has nothing to do with determinism. You can believe in “fixed personalities” (to give a name to this belief) and be a determinist or an anti-determinist, and you can believe that there are no “fixed personalities” and be a determinist or an anti-determinist.

I think the idea that there are “fixed personalities” is silly because people do change their minds. Nothing about this fact has anything to do with determinism, except the obvious conclusion that such changes take place within the realm of natural law, i.e. are a psychological result of some prior psychological cause. Some people are more set in their ways and less likely to change, while others are more tolerant of new attitudes or ideas. This is a very interesting subject, but, again, it has nothing to do with determinism.

“I’m so thirsty right now.”

I’ve done one of these before, but this one is more about epistemology than ethics. It was also inspired by a Doug Stanhope skit. I’ve posted the video of it before on this blog.

***

A: “I’m so thirsty right now.”
B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “Ah, thank you for telling me about it. *takes the cup and pours it in their ear* Hmm, I’m still thirsty. It’s all your fault.”

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “That’s what you believe. I believe that it’s orange juice. And it’s my belief against your belief, so none of us have the absolute truth in the matter.”

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “But there is a probability that it’s not actually water, right? You don’t know with absolute certainty that it is actually a cup of water. So you should remain agnostic on the matter and not go around spreading misinformation.”

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “You don’t have any scientific studies proving that it’s water, though. It could be gasoline or even strychnine. Until you can show me actual scientific proof that it’s water, I have no reason to accept your claim.”

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “So you’re saying someone, you have no idea who, pouted water into that cup and put it on that table, waiting for me to drink it? What are you, some kind of conspiracy nut?”

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “You’re pointing at it, but your finger is dirty. Therefore, I don’t believe you.”

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “I said I was thirsty, and right away you showed me a glass of water. Clearly, the sound of my voice saying that sentence must have materialized the water out of thin air.”

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “Will the water heal my cancer, though? Either the water is all good, or it’s all bad. If it can’t cure my cancer, then it’s all bad, and it shouldn’t be drunk by anyone.”

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “Can you drink one molecule of water? Clearly not. And if one molecule of water is undrinkable, than how can any number of molecules of water be drinkable? Therefore, no one can drink water.”

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “That’s just one person’s opinion. It’s not a fact just because you state it.”

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “But the glass is not really made of water, otherwise it would melt immediately. So your statement is irrational.”

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “How would you know that? Are you seeing molecules composed of hydrogen and oxygen with your naked eye, or are you just assuming it’s water?”

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “My basic premises entail that there cannot be a glass of water where you are pointing. Therefore, there is no glass of water. You are simply mistaken.”

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “The world would be simpler to understand if there were no glasses of water. Therefore I classify the existence of glasses of water as an irrelevant detail.”

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “You say that only because you have a pro-water bias. You believe the lies the media tells us about cups of water lying around everywhere.”

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “What is a glass of water? The definition of a glass of water is anything I believe is a glass of water. I don’t believe that’s a glass of water, but I believe that you are a glass of water.” A then tries to drink B.

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “I disagree. It is written on its surface, ‘BEST GRANDMA EVER.’ Clearly, this is actually a grandmother, not a glass. You’re cruelly objectifying this delicate, short, cylindrical woman with a handle on her back.”

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “Am I a butterfly dreaming I’m a man… Or a bowling ball dreaming I’m a plate of sashimi? Either way, neither butterflies or bowling balls drink water, so I can’t drink that water.”

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “The glass and the water I perceive are part of the illusion of physical reality. Actually, there is nothing but atoms in movement, always changing, in an eternal dance. Reference to stable constructs such as a glass or water comes from ignorance.”

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “How do I know you exist? How do I know anything exists outside of my consciousness? I know my thirst exists, because I perceive it directly, but I don’t perceive you, or the glass of water, directly.”

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “Sure, but what does that have to do with my thirst? We believe there is a cause and effect relationship between drinking water and being less thirsty, but that doesn’t mean one will always follow from the other. Some people have drunk water and died from it. I would rather not risk it.”

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “I choose to believe that I am already quenched. You’re trying to give me self-doubt by saying that I need to drink anything to be quenched. I need to cut negative people like you from my life.”

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “You see the glass as half empty, I see the glass as half full. That just goes to show you that your outlook in life can change everything.” A then looks at B with a smug, self-satisfied expression.

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “That is really a reflection of what’s in your heart, nothing more. You believe that you need water to live, and so you see water there. If your heart was pure, you wouldn’t see water around every corner.”

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “I can’t drink that water. Tap water is a Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.”

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “I interpret this Bible verse here to mean that God said that water cannot be contained in glasses. Therefore, you are going to Hell.”

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “The only nourishment I need is God’s holy words. I hope that someday you will allow Jesus into your heart.”

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A: “Well, we don’t know who put the glass there. Science can’t prove it one way or the other. Therefore, God did it.”

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A punches B.

B: “There is a glass of water right over there.”
A takes out a police baton and starts beating on B.

Feelings are not a good basis for believing things.

What is people’s relation to the truth? I would say that most people are not insanely preoccupied by ideologies, and therefore do not think about such trivial topics. To them, “the truth” can mean a lot of things, even contradictory things. People who care about what’s true and what’s not see it quite differently. To them, there is a core issue at stake: how do we know what’s true? Knowing this, we can then reject inadequate methods. The hardest challenge, then, is to remain consistent and honest.

Is it really that important to know how to find the truth? Well, I think it may be mildly useful to divide truth into categories here. For instance, there are truths that are widely known and do not require any special ability to reason. Most of our practical, day-to-day truths are in this category. There are also truths that populate the technical and scientific fields. While these truths may be under fire depending on prevalent ideologies, all that matters is that those training to take the mantle of the discipline in question understand and uphold them.

Note that I am not saying that all propositions widely believed in these categories are automatically truths. There are plenty of propositions that are widely known, and propositions that are technical in nature, which are not truths. I am speaking here only of the truths (that is to say, of propositions acquired rationally).

And then there are abstract, non-technical truths. These truths are often just as crucial to human existence and human societies, but they are not widely agreed-upon. They tend to be of a philosophical nature, simply because “philosophy” is, generally speaking, the rubric under which we stuff everything that’s abstract but not scientific. Things like epistemology (how to know), morality (the standards upon which an individual’s actions should be evaluated), ethics (how the rules of society and its institutions should be constructed), politics (the study of power, its distribution, and its application), and the origins of human thought and behavior, are included under this label. Religion is another vast area of abstract, non-technical truths (unless you delve into the mechanics of specific doctrines in an inter-subjective manner, that is to say, assuming the doctrines are true, in which case they can become quite technical).

The first two categories are generally not problematic. We learn day-to-day truths through growing up and observing adults or being taught by them. We learn technical truths when we learn a trade or a field of study. We learn how to groom ourselves from our parents, and we learn algebra from our teachers and school books. While they may be prone to errors (especially in family structures and school systems, which have powerful intellectual distorting effects), neither of these methods are particularly complicated.

Abstract, non-technical truths are another thing entirely, because they are highly partisan and therefore difficult to consider dispassionately. Take religion, for example. Most of us are indoctrinated into following one religion or the other. The question of whether God exists, or whether God is a moral standard, is not merely an issue of fact but also a worldview issue: a person may be unwilling to look at a fact, or any fact, related to this question because doing so would put their worldview into question. Questioning one’s worldview creates mental insecurity and can be painful, and we seek to avoid pain (unless doing so creates the risk of more pain down the line).

This is not, by the way, an issue of “rational” versus “irrational,” or “reason” versus “faith.” It is perfectly rational, if you want to use that word, to seek to avoid pain. Actually, you’d probably call someone a fool or a masochist if they did otherwise. People only deconvert when the cognitive dissonance they are experiencing makes continuing to believe more painful than the alternatives. Again, it is a basic moral imperative that we seek to avoid pain, so this is not too surprising.

It is these abstract, non-technical truths that concern me on this blog, and which also concern a great number of people in some fashion. It seems humans have a thirst for universal, absolute truths about the human condition. Given that fact, how best can we arrive at any sort of truth within this area?

Well, I think that you have to maintain a strict separation between what you know to be true, on the one hand, and what you feel is true, what you want to be true, or what fits your pre-existing worldview, on the other hand. In general, any personal criteria for belief are unlikely to be valid, because it is very unlikely that universal, abstract truths have anything to do with your feelings or desires. The things which have to do with our feelings and desires are usually either personal or inter-personal. You may care about what you desire, but the laws of reality don’t.

Now, there are some people who think that subjective reasons for belief are valid because, after all, we are dealing with humans, and humans are moved by their feelings and desires. What they fail to realize is that there are two different things to talk about here: the thing being analyzed and our truths about the thing being analyzed.

This is a complicated point, so let me use a pretty clear-cut example, that of homeopathy. Homeopathy is clearly absolute, laughable nonsense, but there are enough people who believe in it to sustain a flourishing worldwide industry worth billions and billions of dollars. Most people who believe in some form of alternative medicine do so on the basis of their own subjective evaluation (“it worked for me!”) or on the basis of other people’s subjective evaluations. I acknowledge that this is the case. However, that does not mean that I must accept those evaluations as true, only that the other person believes they are true.

The fact that health is influenced by subjective factors does not mean that my evaluation of that fact itself must be subjective. My belief that “health is influenced by subjective factors” is based on scientific studies about the placebo effect, prayer, meditation, and other such methods. These methods take effect in the body in ways that we can analyze scientifically, without ever appealing to the subjective domain.

I hope this illustrates my point well enough. As a general rule, we must analyze subjective effects on material systems using our observations of those material systems, not with subjective evidence. Or more simply: what we know to be true must be separated from what we feel is true or what we want to be true. The fact that the material systems we are analyzing are human-run systems does not change that fact.

For example, a few years ago I wrote a great deal about theories of price, comparing STV (subjective theory of value, generally upheld by ancaps) and LTV (labor theory of value). To simplify, the STV holds that price of a product is whatever people agree upon as the worth of the product. This is pure illogic. But they arrive at this conclusion by observing that everyone values products at different levels, and that people buy or do not buy products based on how much they desire them. In short, the evidence is entirely subjective. But we know that’s not how prices work.

Even if that was how prices worked, that would not therefore mean that we should analyze prices subjectively, for desires still come from somewhere and that must be analyzed. You see a lot of that fallacy in pseudo-feminist analysis, where desire is held as primary and therefore outside of analysis. But desire cannot be primary, as our desires are constructed by the sort of society we live in and the context we personally live in. All you’ve done is drawn an arbitrary line and said “this far and no further, shall you look.” But this is likely to convince only the incurious or people whose worldview would be harmed by looking.

This brings me to the last point, which is that we should strictly separate what we know to be true and what fits our worldview. Now, to a certain extent it is impossible to follow this principle becaue of our cognitive biases, but this should not stop us from trying to correct this state of affairs as much as possible.

First, we must acknowledge that the ideologies we believe in all have tensions and contradictions. This is true of the most absurd ideologies and the most reasonable ideologies, the main difference being that the tensions and contradictions in the former are clearly visible to anyone who thinks about it for more than a minuite, while the tensions and contradictions in the latter are less obvious and require more effort to see. No matter what you believe, it is important that you seek out those tensions and contradictions, and try to resolve them. This is a good exercise because it forces you to look at your system of thought from outside of it, and it stimulates change and growth.

Second, we must read the best counter-arguments we can find, the most credible opponents, and try to answer them. I say “the best,” because there’s obviously a lot of nonsense objections to all sorts of things. For instance, an antinatalist shouldn’t waste his time answering a hundred variants of “why don’t you just kill yourself?”, and I wouldn’t expect a feminist to waste her time answering “you must be really ugly and incapable of getting a man.” We should go for arguments which are at least sophisticated. In some cases this is very difficult. Finding sophisticated objections to anti-childism is impossible because, as far as I know, they simply do not exist. Likewise for the pro-abortion position. In other cases, like atheism or socialism, finding sophisticated objections is not too difficult (but still harder than finding stupid objections, which are legion in any case).

Does atheism logically lead to non-rationality?

James N. Anderson, on his blog Analogical Thoughts, posted an entry called “Atheism, Amoralism, and Arationalism.” The entry starts from the premise that atheism leads to amorality, the absence of moral norms, and tries to draw an analogy between this rejection of moral norms and the rejection of epistemic norms. Unlike most apologists, he does not dwell on the refutation of moral norms, confining it to the following:

You get the point: the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, are “soft atheists” because they deny God yet still want to affirm moral realism. The problem is that their position isn’t a coherent, stable one, because it seeks to affirm some phenomenon — in this case, objective moral norms — while denying the one metaphysical framework that could plausibly account for that phenomenon.

This is yet another example of the presupposionalist affection for arguments from incredulity: Anderson can’t demonstrate, or even start to demonstrate, that there’s no other framework that can account for objective moral norms, he just assumes that there cannot be one because he can’t think of one.

There are two fatal problems with this (lack of) reasoning. The first is that, if God exists, then there cannot be objective moral norms, since any norms originating in God’s consciousness would by definition be subjective. Apologists have rationalizations for this fact, but they cannot deny the fact itself. For instance, they will say that “God is necessarily good,” but whether this is true or not does not deny the subjectivity of the norms. All it shows, if true, is that God’s subjective norms are good. This is of no concern to us.

The second is that there are plausible accounts of the existence of objective moral norms. Although I am no fan of utilitarianism, it does present objective moral norms attained through abstract calculation, and it is widely known. Someone who claims to be well-versed in theories about morality, like Anderson, should already know this. As readers of this blog probably know, I support evolutionary intuitionism as the best meta-moral position there is. Others may disagree, which is fine, but to claim that there is no atheistic framework that can account for objective moral norms is laughable and only exposes the speaker as completely ignorant of moral theories.

Before I go on to his analysis of possible defenses of epistemic norms, I do want to give my own position on the subject. I think there exists moral norms as well as epistemic norms. But I also agree with Anderson that, in the absence of moral norms, then there cannot be epistemic norms either, and I agree that this presents a problem for the atheist who claims there are no moral norms. If we cannot distinguish right from wrong, desirable action from undesirable action, then we cannot distinguish right way of thinking from wrong way of thinking (since thinking is just another kind of action), desirable methods from undesirable methods. The desire to be rational is in itself a moral position, rooted in our nature as evolved, thinking organisms dealing with an uncertain world. There is nothing innately right about seeking the truth, and the proposition that sometimes it may be wrong to seek the truth is not, in itself, absurd. We see this in debates around the debunking of free will and the supposed need to keep thinking we do have free will even though we don’t; although I strongly disagree with this supposed need, I don’t think it is a priori wrong.

Unfortunately for Anderson, this is a deep problem for Christianity as well: if Christianity, by definition, cannot justify moral norms, then it cannot justify epistemic norms either. There is ultimately no way for a committed Christian to defend his beliefs: if you keep asking “why do you believe this?” and dig long enough, you will eventually arrive at a dead end. They cannot rely on commonplace methods like science, induction, or the uniformity of nature, because a Christian is committed to subjective norms and therefore cannot be committed to any of those things.

If the Christian is committed to anything on matters of fact, it’s faith. But none of them have been able to adequately define or clarify what this means. So we see them descend into complete irrationality, like the much vaunted theologian William Lane Craig, who said that, if he went back in time and saw with his own eyes that Jesus never came out of the tomb, he would still believe in the Biblical account. Observing something directly and denying what you saw: that is about as direct a statement of irrationality as you can make. And yet this is the kind of thing we should expect from people who cannot be rational.

So let’s move on to Anderson’s attempt to demonstrate that the atheist who denies moral norms must also deny epistemic norms.

Option #1: Epistemic norms are just a subset of moral norms. On this view, to be irrational is just to be immoral in some way, to be intellectually irresponsible or blameworthy. This is probably the least attractive option for the atheist, because it would mean that amoralism entails arationalism. Any difficulty in accounting for moral norms on an atheistic basis would immediately carry over to epistemic norms. (There are other problems with this option, but I won’t get into them here.)

Option #2: Epistemic norms aren’t a subset of moral norms, but they’re analogous to moral norms. This doesn’t seem much more appealing to the atheist than the first option, since it still closely connects the two kinds of norms, such that they will tend to stand or fall together. If the two kinds of norms are analogous, then presumably they’ll have analogous grounds or origins. But if atheism invites amoralism then (by an argument from analogy) it will invite arationalism too.

These two options are very similar, so there’s no point in examining them separately. As it happens, I agree with both of them: amoralism does entail arationalism. As I pointed out, this is a problem for the Christian and the atheist who rejects moral norms, but not for the atheist who holds that moral norms exist.

Option #3: Epistemic norms are deontological in nature; they amount to intellectual duties or obligations. I mention this as a separate option, although I suspect it reduces to #2 or #3. In any event, this doesn’t look like a good option for the atheist. Duties and obligations can only arise in a personal context. So which persons give rise to our intellectual duties, our obligations to think in certain ways and not in other ways? Does the human race as a whole somehow impose obligations upon its individual members? Or do some members impose obligations upon other members? If so, on what authority? Why do I owe it to you or anyone else to use my cognitive faculties in a certain way? Intellectual duties appear to be no more explicable on an atheistic basis than plain-vanilla moral duties. If an atheist could account for the latter, presumably that would go some way toward accounting for the former. But isn’t that precisely the problem?

I don’t understand why Anderson thinks this is different from option 1 or 2: duties and obligations are moral constructs, and therefore they are part of moral norms. Again, I don’t think Anderson understands moral theories very much. Anyway, what Anderson is missing, I think, is the fact that humans are social animals. As we’ll see in his answer to option 7, he seems to be totally blind to that fact, and this greatly hinders his ability to think about morality, since morality and our status as social animals are inextricably linked. You cannot discuss one without discussing the other.

Our obligations and duties (at least, the ones that are actually moral in nature) basically exist because our well-being depends on the cooperation of others in our society, not on the basis of authority. Any obligation or duty conferred on the basis of authority would not be moral in nature: might makes right is not an argument about morality, and external obligations cannot be transferred to the individual. All obligations and duties must be generated internally, or they are not actual moral obligations or duties.

Besides that, he’s right that “the human race,” as an abstraction, does not impose obligations upon its members. That wouldn’t make any more sense than to say that “nature” imposes its laws on humans. In both cases, we’re talking about, at best, linguistic metaphors. But Anderson seems to believe that his metaphor is morally relevant, and that if it does not hold, then that tells us something about morality. This is semantic confusion. Whether the “human race imposes obligations” has no relevance to the existence, or lack thereof, of such obligations.

There is a further problem with the term “personal context.” In a trivial sense, everything we know, including moral and epistemic norms, arises in a “personal context”: our own minds. So it is true that “duties and obligations can only arise in a personal context,” but this is true of everything else, including one’s particular interpretation of the Bible or divine commands, one’s beliefs about morality, or one’s trust that the Sun will rise tomorrow. If by “personal context,” Anderson is using “personal context” to mean “only comes from persons,” then the problem equally applies to Christians, whose morality comes from… a person.

Option #4: Epistemic norms are teleological in nature; they pertain to the natural purpose or function of our intellectual faculties. I think it makes good sense to understand some epistemic norms as teleological in nature. Alvin Plantinga’s proper-function epistemology is a case in point: to think rationally is essentially to use one’s cognitive faculties as they were intended (read: designed) to be used, for the purpose of acquiring true beliefs and avoiding false beliefs. But as Plantinga and others have observed, while a proper-function epistemology fits comfortably with theism, it sits unhappily with atheism. It’s easy to see why: atheism is no friend of teleology in nature. The primary appeal of Darwinism for atheists is that it purports to explain the appearance of purpose and function in nature without any appeal to final causes (specifically, without any supernatural final cause).

I have already refuted Plantinga’s evolutionary argument, which proposes that cognitive faculties which are a product of evolution are necessarily unreliable. What Anderson is describing here seems to be the flip-side of that argument, showing the “correct” answer that our cognitive faculties must have been designed. But this flip-side is wrong for the same reason that the original argument is wrong: while our brains were not designed for anything, including truth-seeking, there is no particular reason to believe that brains which evolved to fulfill some other function cannot also be used for truth-seeking. This argument is about as stupid as saying: pins and sharpened pencils can reset electronic devices, therefore they must have been designed to fulfill this function. No, clearly pins and sharpened pencils originally served an entirely different function, and were later adapted to the new function, much like our cognitive faculties.

There is one flaw in my analogy: pins and pencils were created, and the human brain was not. But this exposes the main problem with Anderson’s argument: it assumes that our cognitive faculties were designed for truth-seeking. If that’s the case, then whoever designed them was a very poor designer, making God look rather like a fool (the same thing can be said about the supposed designed nature of parasites and diseases). It is very clear (at least, to anyone who is not out to push an agenda) that the human mind was definitely not designed for truth-seeking, but that it was, again, consciously adopted for that purpose by human beings.

To make another analogy, our hands did not evolve to manipulate keyboards, mice, or controllers, and they were clearly not designed for those functions either. Rather, humans took an existing ability (using our fingers and hands to manipulate objects) and adapted it to new functions. Clearly our hands are not optimal, by far, for such functions (anyone who suffers from carpal tunnel can testify to that), but they are serviceable.

Option #5: Epistemic norms are subjective in nature; they’re grounded in human desires, feelings, preferences, goals, or something along those lines. On this view, an epistemic norm like one ought to proportion one’s beliefs to the evidence is true because of certain human psychological states (either individually or corporately). The problem, of course, is that this is consistent with arationalism; it basically concedes that there are no objective epistemic norms. What we’re looking for here is an atheistic account of objective epistemic norms. This option is a surrender rather than a solution.

I completely agree with Anderson’s statements here. To claim that epistemic norms are subjective (in the sense of being justified by desires or feelings) would be a surrender of rationality. So what does that tell us about Christianity? What are Christian epistemic norms grounded on? They cannot be grounded in reality, because Christians have no grounds to believe in things like science, logic, induction, or the uniformity of reality. If we exclude those, then the only methods left are subjective methods.

In the Christian world, propositions like “I feel the guidance of the Holy Spirit”, “I just can’t imagine that this life is all there is,” or “I believe that the Bible proves [insert non-literary proposition here]” are at least on an equal footing (and often, on a higher footing) as propositions grounded in reality. This is the sort of insanity that a subjectivist worldview like Christianity generates. As Anderson says, “this option is a surrender rather than a solution”- surrender to God’s will (as subjectively interpreted by the believer), not a rational solution.

Skipping option 6, because I have nothing in particular to say about it, we get to the last, and longest, option in Anderson’s list. There is much to discuss here, so it will be divided in parts.

Option #7: Epistemic norms are evolutionary norms, in the sense that they further evolutionary goals or ends; they characterize cognitive operations and processes that are advantageous in evolutionary terms. I suspect many atheists will gravitate toward this option for much the same reason they gravitate toward an evolutionary account of morality. In the absence of God, one has little choice but to seek purely naturalistic explanations of what we are, where we came from, and why we behave as we do. Mother Nature and Father Darwin will together deliver the goods.

This is another great example of the subjectivist norms of Christianity. Biological evolution is one of the most studied, and the most well understood, natural phenomenon on this planet. Based on the mass of empirical data that we have, we know for a fact that it happened. But to the Christians who reject evolution, their subjective trust in a book trumps all the scientific evidence. They then have to reframe this scientific evidence in emotional terms (“Mother Nature and Father Darwin,” dragging down nature and science to the paternal nature of God) to hide the flimsiness of their position. This is pathetic religion and even more pathetic philosophy. But he continues on more serious grounds:

The basic idea, then, is that human cognitive faculties have evolved via purely natural processes, with natural selection acting on genetic variations providing most if not all of the driving force, and epistemic norms characterize how those cognitive faculties operate to give us true beliefs which serve the ‘ultimate’ end of effective reproduction and survival. A cognitive operation or process is rational or irrational just in case it tends to produce, respectively, true or false beliefs. True beliefs promote survival. False beliefs hinder survival. Thus epistemically normative ultimately reduces to biologically advantageous.

There are several serious problems with this account. In the first place, the assumption that natural selection will tend to favor cognitive faculties aimed at truth is highly questionable. Organisms can survive just as effectively with false beliefs as with true beliefs; indeed, most organisms on the planet reproduce and survive very effectively without any beliefs.

Furthermore, as Plantinga and others have argued, evolution as a purely naturalistic process would be entirely blind to the propositional content of our beliefs (and thus to whether they are true or false). Given naturalism, only the physical properties of our brains and the physical consequences of our brain processes could have any causal influence on evolutionary outcomes. In short, evolution pays no heed to what an organism believes, only to how it behaves. As philosopher Stephen Stich (among others) has frankly admitted, “natural selection does not care about truth; it cares only about reproductive success.”

It’s funny how Anderson presents what is supposedly the evidence-based view, and then debunks it with more evidence. Talk about a straw man. Of course we are well aware that organisms can survive as effectively, if not more, with false beliefs as with true beliefs: religion is a prime example of this phenomenon. Not only that, but religion is the biggest source of other false moral and epistemic norms. So it is quite clear that the straw man account presented by Anderson is exactly that, a straw man.

As I discussed before, Anderson seems to believe that using a tool for a specific purpose must mean that this tool was designed completely for that specific purpose, and that any other alternative is an inferior explanation. But this is not rational. Our cognitive faculties did not evolve through producing true beliefs, just like our hands did not evolve through manipulating electronics or our legs did not evolve through dancing. And yet we use them for those purposes. There is no logical reason to believe that any given purpose of an organ or object must be its original purpose, and that design must be involved in that process.

But there’s a more fundamental problem here. Even if we grant that evolution would tend to favor cognitive faculties aimed towards true beliefs, an evolutionary account of epistemic norms would still fall short, for this simple reason: there’s nothing objectively normative about evolutionary outcomes. Evolutionary theory seeks to give a naturalistic explanation for where organisms came from and why they are the way they are. But it’s a descriptive theory — as must be any explanatory accounts derived from that theory (such as accounts of our cognitive faculties). From an atheistic perspective, there’s nothing objectively ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ about what evolution produces. The outcomes of evolution aren’t objectively good (or objectively bad, for that matter). They simply are what they are.

Anderson commits one gigantic equivocation in this passage: he goes from “evolutionary outcomes”/”what evolution produces” (i.e. organisms, organs, etc) to “evolutionary theory” (i.e. the actual evidence and the structured data derived from them). These two things are not the same at all. He’s trying to prove that “evolutionary outcomes”/”what evolution produces” do not inform our norms by appealing to the descriptive nature of “evolutionary theory.” Either he did not realize he was equivocating, in which case this is sloppy writing, or he did, in which case he is being blatantly dishonest.

Evolutionary theory is descriptive, like all truly scientific theories. In that he is correct. But evolutionary outcomes do heavily inform our moral and epistemic norms. To see how absurd it is to think otherwise, could you design a set of precise physical instructions which would enable all animals to move forward? No, of course not. Animals with legs move completely differently from animals with fins or wings, and even within these categories there are vast differences. The evolutionary product in every case, the organism, differs so much that designing such a set of instructions is impossible. Without knowing what the evolutionary product consists of, we cannot design “walking norms.”

The same basic idea applies to the intellectual faculties. The moral norms applicable to the individuals of each species depend to a large extent on their nature. It would be futile to apply human moral principles to chimpanzees or dolphins (in the same way that it would be futile to try to move a salmon like a buffalo). Of course social context also has a big role in this (not just in humans, as observations of other primates has demonstrated). But the fundamentals of our moral and epistemic norms lie in our nature as organisms and the way our brains work.

Anderson’s basic error is to fail to recognize that humans are social animals. Right and wrong are only necessary because individuals interact in fluid ways within various social structures: Robinson Crusoes need know-how and drive, not morality. I may be wrong in my interpretation, but Anderson seems to believe that individuals can only impose morality on each other, presumably within hierarchies (whether it’s the hierarchy of God-over-humans or any human hierarchy). But within that narrow framework, morality is pointless. All we have to guide action is power, and the application of power is not morally relevant. Obeying God’s orders, or obeying a tyrant’s orders, is not a recognition that those orders are moral, but a fear of the consequences of disobedience. Therefore the problem highlighted by Anderson equally applies to his belief system: divine command theory is descriptive (it describes God’s desires), not prescriptive (especially since, as I’ve already linked, external obligations cannot be transferred).

In a sense, his statement that “there’s nothing objectively ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ about what evolution produces” is trivially true, insofar as evolution is not a person and therefore it cannot be right or wrong in producing anything. But persons, which can be right or wrong, are the product of evolution, they are part of “what evolution produces.” The nature of the organisms produced by evolution dictates the fundamentals of what is right or wrong for those organisms. Therefore, “what evolution produces” does entail “things that are objectively ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.” This is the case under any secular moral realist theory that I know, whether they include it in their reasoning or not. We cannot dissociate our knowledge, including our knowledge about morality and epistemology, from our nature as knowers.

The most an atheist could say about the ‘goodness’ or ‘rightness’ of certain evolutionary outcomes is that they’re subjectively good: they’re good because we ourselves value them (presumably because we value things like our own survival, having true beliefs, having pleasurable experiences, and so forth). But in that case option #7 has collapsed into option #5 and the atheist is no further forward.

Here Anderson seems to be reiterating his mistake in option 3: equating the “personal context” with subjectivity. This is incorrect because it would make all knowledge subjective by definition. Knowledge doesn’t float around without context, knowledge is necessarily knowledge acquired by someone, within their personal context. The fact that we value something doesn’t automatically make it subjective: if that was the case, then all values, including those of the Christians, would be subjective, making this argument self-refuting.

I see no other clear way of interpreting this paragraph. Option 5, the position that epistemic norms are actually subjective (i.e. based on our desires, feelings, and so on), cannot be the end point of this line of reasoning, because there are a great deal of reasons why we hold certain values. Having true beliefs is not good solely because we all desire to hold true beliefs: most people (including Christians) don’t really care if they hold true beliefs or not, at least not explicitly. Having true beliefs is objectively good because (amongst other reasons) it helps us make accurate evaluations about actions and situations.

To take a clear example, the false belief that epileptic seizures are caused by a voodoo curse (a belief which still exists in certain parts of South America) may cause you to take actions against spirit possession instead of taking your loved one to the doctor, thus prolonging their suffering. The false belief is undesirable because it causes you, in this case, to take an action which you would find undesirable otherwise. Or to take another example closer to home, the false belief that homosexuals are cursed by God cause a lot of people to create hardships for their loved ones, when such hardship is wholly unnecessary and undesirable. In both cases, holding the false beliefs as true is wrong because people rely on those beliefs and act accordingly.

I suppose this entry is a peculiar form of criticism, insofar as I agree with Anderson’s main point (that a lack of moral norms entails a lack of epistemic norms). Yet his reasoning is so flawed that I think his entry highlights not only the weaknesses of Christian apologists regarding morality, but also their many projections on the subject.

You’re all a bunch of SHEEP!

Hey, this is Skippy the Skeptoid. How are you all doing? Well, I DON’T CARE! I hate you because you’re just a sheep bleating what authority figures say to you! Bleeeet! Bleeeet! You’re so pathetic, I want to shear you and make a sweater out of your wool that says “A is A” on the front, okay?

People say a lot of things to me. For instance, some morons tell me “but that’s my foot!” or “you’re really hurting me!” This is such bullshit. Can’t they say anything original or rational or just not contradictory? Other people tell me things like “please, sir, put that shotgun down and no one will get hurt” or “we’re agents from the FBI, and we are putting you under arrest for wire fraud.” I’m like, WHATEVER! People tell me so much shit! Can’t you learn to be more logical and not, you know, fall for all the obvious fallacies, okay? I know all the fallacies: fallacy of post hoc ergo prompter hoc, fallacy of petitio principii, fallacy of carpe diem, fallacy of not agreeing with me.

I’m the only person out there who’s really able to look at reality in the face, spit at it, and tell it to go fuck itself. You people who follow the liberal agenda believe in magical thinking and don’t understand that you can’t change reality. You have to face the facts. With your face. Your factual face. Only a True Skeptic (patent pending) can be dispassionate and calm enough to take the facts wherever they lead. What’s that? You think GMOs should be labeled? YOU FUCKING PIECE OF SHIT WHY ARE YOU AGAINST SCIENCE YOU’RE SO RETARDED URGH… okay I am calming down… the luminous face of Carl Sagan is beaming down at me… I feel much calmer

Let me give you a little introduction to skepticism. Okay? Because you clearly need it. It’s just basic logic. You do know logic, right? What you gotta do is not commit any fallacies. You gotta memorize them all, like I did, okay?

The first step to skepticism is, you gotta ask for scientific evidence for any claim. Doesn’t matter what claim it is. Like for instance, if a woman says she was sexually harassed, the first thing you should do is ask for PROOF. I mean, any bitch can say she was harassed, right? They get so much from it, like the case of Rebecca Watson has clearly shown. No one talked back to her and her work in the community has been widely applauded. So women have a lot to gain by reporting they were harassed, even if it’s a lie.

Before you start believing it, you need to ask for the same level of evidence that we ask for in science. Not just someone’s say-so. If someone just says they experienced something, that’s subjective evidence, which is not admissible. That’s not worth shit. We need testable, repeatable evidence. Otherwise it’s about as credible as homeopathy, Creationism, or determinism.

Feminism is shit, just so you know. If they really cared about human rights, they’d be humanists. Okay? I’m a humanist. I care about ALL humans on this planet. I don’t care what gender or race they are. I just don’t think women should claim privileges over men. Like being able to walk on the street without being harassed. I got harassed once. Some WOMEN (probably an ANGRY FEMINIST, which is redundant: why can’t they be calm like me?) screamed at me: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO THAT POOR DOG??” She was clearly not a skeptic because she cared about animals. But skepticism clearly leads to the conclusion that there are no such thing as animal rights, because other animals can’t use basic logic. So splitting a dog’s skull in two really wasn’t a big deal. Get over it, lady! So I was harassed, what’s the big deal? No one has the right not to be harassed. It’s called FREE SPEECH, okay, feminist harpies? Like porn. Porn is free speech. And so is harassment. So SHUT UP and SIT DOWN, okay?

Okay, the second step to skepticism is to keep non-skeptic issues from seeping into skepticism. Like, those morons who keep talking about feminism or racism or whatever, that’s so off-topic. There’s no logic in that. It’s all anger and emotions and stuff. They’re SO ANNOYING! Anyway, any time someone tries to raise an issue that’s not skeptical, you have to tell them clearly that they should go and start their own movement. Because that’s not what we’re about.

The third step is that you gotta look at the scientific evidence. And the scientific evidence indicates that men and women are different. I mean, come on! People who deny that are just insane. HAH! HAHAHAHAHAHA! BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Just FUCKING INSANE!!! That’s the low of illogic that communists and feminists are willing to plunge into in order to maintain the credibility of their ridiculous positions. Blank slate thinkers. Utopians. Unable to confront human nature as I define it. The evidence says that billions of years ago, women had to pick berries (that’s all they did, that and raise babies) and figure out which ones were poisonous and which ones were not. That’s why women have always loved pink throughout history. That’s science. Men don’t like pink. Because they didn’t pick berries. Have you ever seen a man pick berries? QED. That stands for Quite Enough, Dumbass. The Dumbass in this case being you.

That’s all you gotta do to be a skeptic! I hope this was useful. Probably not, since you persist in holding on to your outdated unscientific concepts like exploitation or privilege or whatnot. You just can’t confront reality like I can. But listen, don’t despair, okay? As long as you keep having children, you’re fulfilling your evolutionary duty. And isn’t that all we can ask for, really? Okay?

Skippy the Bush Kangaroo Skeptoid

We need critical thinking, not positive thinking.

Proponents of positive thinking have set up this false dichotomy wherein you are either a “positive person” or a “negative person.” “Negative people” are a disease, must be cut off from your life, and the thoughts they put into your head must be exterminated. This blackwhite thinking reinforces their proto-fascist mindset: you’re either for ME or against ME, and anyone who’s not positive with me is against me.

The opposite of “positive thinking” is not “negative thinking.” Both are the unhealthy signs of a person who’s collapsed into themselves. Neither of them are places you wanna be in. The opposite of “positive thinking” is “critical thinking.” Critical thinking is outer-directed, an active process, and it’s not based on repressing yourself. It’s the exact opposite of the positive thinking process, which is inner-directed, mostly passive (apart from censoring yourself), and based on repressing one’s thoughts and feelings.

Positive thinking is useless because it proposes working on oneself (which really means: repressing oneself) as a solution to problems like unhappiness, unemployment, poverty, loneliness, and so on. But these problems are, by and large, social. Thinking positive about them may change your outlook, but your outlook is not the source of your happiness or unhappiness (our happiness levels are actually pretty stable throughout life, regardless of what you think about it). Jobs, money and love will not appear out of nowhere because you’ve decided to “attract” them in your life. By and large these things are controlled by institutions in our society which are impervious to your thoughts, which are wholly contained within your cranium. All it does is make you more hopeful for changes in your life, which may or may not come, but neither outcome happens because of thought-magic.

I’m sure thought-magic believers would object that positive thinking is still useful, even if it’s not literally magic, because it makes the user more capable of seizing the opportunities they run across. After all, no one wants to hire or date a gloomy “negative” person (because “negative” people are icky). I don’t dispute that this sort of self-censorship may be beneficial to a few people out there who were perhaps too obsessed in a “negative” direction, but in general I can’t see how it would help people. I think a lot of people believe they’ve been helped by it, but as for any other quack treatment or superstition, they really cannot know if the help came from the treatment, or if it was simple happenstance, or something else they did.

I have nothing against bourgeois assholes, like Oprah Winfrey or Deepak Chopra, who believe that they’ve helped themselves with it. Again, I think they are deluded, but that’s their business. What I am opposed to is the fact that these assholes try to spread it to the rest of us as a panacea. It’s easy for some rich assholes to believe that their material success was entirely their doing; people routinely do this, and tell each other stories based on this fallacy, even though it’s rarely true.

But to then turn around and tell normal people who are struggling that they are struggling because of a personal defect is just disgusting. It’s preying on the public. People are taken in by the credibility of these charlatans, by their success, and assume that they must know something. So they buy into the program, self-censor themselves, collapse into themselves, and become incapable of examining the real reasons for their position in life or their unhappiness.

One of the marks of a positive thinking believer is that they are forbidden from asking questions about anything outside of themselves. Their doubts are directed wholly at themselves, not at the outside world. Critical thinkers, on the other hand, concentrate their attention and questions on the outside world. They also doubt themselves insofar as they never take the truth of their own reasoning for granted, but that’s only so they can then look at the outside world more accurately.

In critical thinking, you gotta ask questions, but you also have to try to find answers. Asking questions alone does not make you a critical thinker; using your rationality to analyze the evidence and possible answers, however, does. Here are some questions a critical thinker might think about and try to work out:

* Why is there a stigma on unemployment and poverty? Who tends to be more affected by it? Who benefits from it?
* Why is there a stigma on being single or alone? Why do people feel like they have to be paired off in order to be worthwhile people?
* Doesn’t positive thinking rely on acceptance of these stigmas to get people to try it?
* How can positive thinking make me a better person or a more worthwhile person? Are there better ways of doing this?
* Is it my fault if I get sick, get mugged or raped? If the answer is no, then where are the limits of personal responsibility? Is it my fault if I am poor, get laid off, don’t find someone I “click” with, or am not happy?

I will not give my own answers, as I think people should figure them out for themselves, but if you read my blog you should already have a good idea of what I think.

Ultra-rationality and framing criticism as femininity.


Stairs Pyramid Man makes another appearance (his first one was here).

The criticism of anti-feminists follows clear gendered lines. Their hatred of women leads them to paint their equally hated critics as performing femininity. Anti-feminist advocates such as conservatives, “anarcho-capitalists” and libertarians, MRAs, Objectivists and evolutionary psychologists portray themselves as ultra-rational and logical, independent and courageous thinkers, anti-emotional, having a high degree of confront.

Fundamentalist Christians and nerd culture are exceptions: Christians cannot see themselves as ultra-rational due to the openly anti-intellectual and anti-rational nature of Christianity, and nerd culture is marginalized and therefore feminized itself.

Critics are always portrayed as hysterical, over-emotional and irrational, responsible for everything that happens to them, homosexuals, desirable targets for all kinds of violence.

To sociopaths, everyone else is an Other, everyone else is feminized. Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf:

The great majority of a nation is so feminine in its character and outlook that its thought and conduct are ruled by sentiment rather than by sober reasoning. This sentiment, however, is not complex, but simple and consistent. It is not highly differentiated, but has only the negative and positive notions of love and hatred, right and wrong, truth and falsehood.

He is also reported to have said:

Do you know the audience at a circus is just like a woman. Someone who does not understand the intrinsicly feminine character of the masses will never be an effective speaker. Ask yourself: ‘What does a woman expect from a man?’ Clearness, decision, power and action.

It’s interesting to note that those masses he talks about are at least half composed of men. Likewise, anti-feminists do not mind attacking men, even when they pretend to stand for “men’s rights,” “human rights” or believe in male superiority.

I have previously analyzed three rhetorical strategies that are relevant:

* Statements of human rights and demands for fairness are reframed as “entitlement” by right-wingers.

* Protesting and objecting to the status quo is reframed as rudeness and offensiveness.

* I’ve already mentioned the misattribution of personal responsibility.

There’s also another strategy I have not written about yet (I do plan to do so at a later time), which is scapegoating. The primary characteristic of scapegoats is that no abuse against them is too great, and that there is a natural psychological tendency to escalate cruelty against them. This applies to various hated groups such as people of different religions and “races,” criminals, children, women, and critics also enter into this category.

If critics are labeled as feminine, then it behooves us to see it for what it is: the product of woman-hatred and the association of that hatred with the hatred for any form of criticism shared by these ideologies. All closed, dogmatic systems of thought must generate hatred criticism by necessity. An actually rational person does not hate criticism, but analyzes it critically (is what is said true? is there a vested interest?). The fact that they hate criticism proves that their supposed rationality and much vaunted capacity to confront are facades.

All cruel people describe themselves as paragons of frankness.
Tennessee Williams

This “ultra-rationality” manifests itself in a variety of ways:

* The reframing of their emotions as “rational” and their opponents’ emotions as “irrational.”
* The over-reliance on specific empirical data points, even when such data is insufficient or irrelevant.
* The invalidation of personal experience, even when said personal experience is credible and not used to justify any scientific statement.
* A tendency to either reject altruism altogether or to be suspicious of people’s motives to an obsessive degree.
* The assumption that human actions are, or should be, logical/rational/selfish; The reduction of humans to logic and/or Universal Reason (“man as rational animal”/homo economicus).
* The over-reliance on detecting logical fallacies (especially when no argument is being made) as a substitute for critical thinking.
* Assumption that the status quo requires no further evidence, but the demand that anything that goes against the status quo, no matter how obvious, be proven beyond doubt.
* Radicalism and constructionism are inherently suspicious and are sometimes lumped in with some vague idea of “Communism.”
* The over-reliance on “just so” stories, imaginary narratives, stories, parables, and other attempts at exploiting the imaginary.
* As an extension of the previous point, hiding subjectivity under a veneer of objectivity, and denouncing the opposition’s objectivity as subjective.
* The pretense of being high confront.
* Hiding one’s values under the guise of being “value-neutral,” “free from bias” and “just looking at the facts.” Rejecting empathy, compassion and other interpersonal considerations is called “rationality,” and of course such considerations are framed as feminine.

(perhaps the best example of ultra-rationality in the media is the show Bones, where the titular character is profoundly irrational about anything not directly related to her work but still believes she’s the smartest person in the room)

This last point really cannot be overemphasized. Consider the astonishing fact that empathy and kindness are considered to be “female traits.” What does that tell us about masculinity? And what does that tell us about ideologies which reject femininity?

I don’t think it takes a lot of thinking to realize that, if one defines oneself as being outside of, and superior to, empathy and kindness, then one is likely to be a pretty hateful person and to disguise that hatred under the guise of “rationality.”

Beyond this, empathy and suffering exist beyond reason and cannot be explained rationally, therefore the ultra-rational cannot take it into account, even if they wanted to.

The obsessional is a conformist, constantly splitting emotions off from intellectual operations, and thus presenting a kind of cold rationality or hyperrationality. This type flourishes in families and institutions that promote order for order’s sake, “Prussian” values, sexual suppression, monetary discipline, envy, and affectless intellectualism.
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl

Why use the term “ultra-rationality”? Because overemphasis on rationality, crowding out empathy, common sense and holistic (non-linear) thinking, turns rationality into an abstract, subjectivist, self-reinforcing dogma.

As has been often noted, most recently by the organization Deep Green Resistance, misogyny and anti-environmentalism go hand-in-hand: the way a society demeans women takes part in the same principle by which we disvalue children, other animals, and the land (women are routinely associated with all these things). It is therefore no wonder that ideologies which use femininity as an insult also disvalue these things as well.