Category Archives: Worldviews and semantics

My current political position.

I used to define myself as a libertarian socialist (I still do in response to questions, if anyone asks me). I do not follow political labels any more, because I’ve come to the conclusion that groupthink is harder to overcome than ideological error, and it seems like all political groups have heavy groupthink attached to them. Bringing up feminism (real feminism, I mean) is a big no-no even in actual leftist circles. Antinatalism and population reduction, surely one of the biggest issues of our time, are usually relegated to the margins (this is changing slightly, and the discussion has started, although barely). There is no way, even in leftist groups, to try to bring up other radical issues without being attacked.

The best I can say is that I am a radical leftist. That, of course, can be misinterpreted. People, especially Americans, seem to think that “leftist” means “liberal.” Extremists of many kinds are called “radicals.” This is unfortunate, but there’s nothing I can do about it.

Nowadays, I prefer to think about ideals. I’ve gotten very much into Iain Banks’ Culture series, which is about a far-future utopian anarchist galactic society governed by super-intelligent AIs. If I had to point to any book which highlights what I believe in, that would probably be it. There’s also The Dispossessed, by Ursula LeGuin, which I’ve been recommending for a long time. These provide an ideal of what could be, and what direction we should be thinking towards.

There are downsides to this. Some people will argue that pointing to far-future utopias demonstrates that those utopias cannot exist right here and right now. While spurious, this argument also shows the need to discuss current-day liberationist structures as well, like self-managed businesses, autonomous communities, freedom schools, and so on. There is no reason, apart from the interests of existing power structures, why we can’t have liberationist structures anywhere.

This position already has a name: fully automated luxury communism (FALC). It is not a widespread position (not yet, anyway), although it’s starting to get some popularity. It is a hyper optimistic position, which may seem to contradict my pessimism. I personally have little to no hope that FALC will ever exist in human societies, mostly because we’re going to exterminate each other before that happens (even if liberationism ever catches on). But I hold to it as an ideal which should inform our political views in the here and now. We all know deep down, even the worst conservatives, that the ideology of the future is not one of exclusion and petty limitations.

People might call me out for not caring about the present. It’s not that I don’t care about the present, but rather that I think people need ideals more than ideas. We are at a time in history where it seems like we have arrived at the horrible end of history, that capitalism has won, that democracy has won, and that we are about to destroy ourselves. Devoid of living alternatives, devoid of ideals, the opposition is reduced to a bunch of whackos trying to stake a claim of being the only true political alternative.

On present time politics, I prefer to concentrate on individual issues, like I do on this blog. Bottom-up politics, if you want, instead of top-down. Really getting into the details of a handful of issues and getting to the truth of it can then become a litmus test: any ideology which does not conform to what I already know is definitely true cannot be right. The reverse, forcing specific positions based on one’s general political views, can lead straight to absurdity, because their opinions are unchecked by good sense or logic, only by one’s internal logic.

Right now, I think the most important issue concerning politics is the issue of population control. And yet this is an issue that is not discussed very much at all. Here I am not talking about antinatalism, but about population ethics and population reduction in general. There is an urgent need to start reducing population worldwide. This is also connected to other issues like feminism (since much of procreation is caused by the exploitation and objectification of women), radical environmentalism (since population control is overwhelmingly the most efficient and only permanent way of reducing human impact on the environment), childism (since population growth is driven by childist arguments), antitheism (since so much procreation, and opposition to abortion, is driven by religion), antinatalism (obviously), and so on.

In terms of social organization, there are so many different problems and issues with their own importance that it’s hard for me to just name one. An old school leftist would probably point to the lack of class awareness as the core problem. Again, I think the lack of ideals has a lot to do with it.

Bad adaptationist arguments, and how not to make them.

For a refresher on the three main categories of explanations for human behavior (adaptationism, constructionism, anti-causalism), see these entries:
Three categories of explanation of human behavior.
How can we explain human behavior?
Where does individuality come from?
Is there such a thing as “evil people”?

I have made no secret that I am a social constructionist. Mainstream seculars, and even some radical seculars, believe that adaptationist is the only “scientific” position that one can take. They are sorely mistaken in that belief, but I acknowledge that they hold that belief. I think they hold it because they believe that biology is “real science” and anthropology is not “real science.” But their adaptationist position not just contradicts all our anthropological data, it’s also quack biology.

I want to talk about some bad adaptationist arguments, which I really wish people would stop making, because they don’t advance the discussion and they just waste everyone’s time.

1. “You’re a constructionist, so you don’t believe in evolution!”

That is a very silly statement. Evolution is a scientific fact, and I do believe in it. Actually, evolution is at the core of my argument. Implicit in this statement is the idea that constructionists don’t believe that the human brain evolved, which is equally silly. Rejecting just-so stories about human behavior does not mean I don’t believe the structures of the brain are a consequence of biological evolution. This is as silly as arguing that anyone who rejects capitalism must therefore reject cause and effect in the production or distribution of resources.

In general, constructionists believe that human behavior can be mostly explained by social incentives, social indoctrination, common values, and so on. There is no way to get from there to a denial of evolution. When we look at social species, we find that, as their minds get more complex and adaptable, their social forms also become more varied and flexible. The fact that humans have greater mental adaptability is in itself the result of evolutionary pressure. The adaptationist view that the brain is hardwired and inflexible does not reflect what we understand about complexity in human beings. If the adaptationist claims that our brain is a simple collection of hardwired modules all solving specific problems, then how did evolution produce such an exquisite immune system and yet produce such a simplistic brain?

If you think someone might not believe in evolution, ask them first. Don’t assume that being a constructionist means they don’t, because there’s no relation between the two.

2. “You’re a constructionist, so you believe in free will!”

As it happens, I do not believe in free will. And there can be no connection between constructionism and free will, because free will is an anti-causal concept, not a constructionist concept! I suppose someone can believe in free will and be a constructionist, although that wouldn’t make much sense: the core belief of constructionism is that human behavior is modeled and molded by the environment, a cause and effect relationship which could not happen if our decisions were unconnected to physical cause and effect.

Don’t use this argument, because it’s simply false. Connecting constructionism with free will doesn’t work.

3. “You’re a constructionist, so you believe in blank slate theory!”

No one believes in blank slate theory any more, it is a discredited idea, and so this is basically an insult, in the same way that “you believe in phlogiston theory!” would be an insult. It’s a way of saying constructionism is old hat and adaptationism is the cutting edge scientific answer. But there’s no science in it anyway. The correct way to ask this is to just not ask it, because it’s insulting.

4. “How can you seriously believe that genetics play no role in human behavior?”

I do think genetics plays a great role in human behavior, we just, again, have a disagreement on how this is happening. In general, the adaptationist believes that human behavior is robotically dictated by brain modules, which are hardwired by genetics, while the constructionist believes that the human brain can adapt to all sorts of different social forms, and is not robotically stuck to one solution (almost always the Western solution, which is then called universal, absolute and eternal).

I think that anthropology proves that the constructionist claim is the correct one, since humans have, and continue to, live under a wide variety of social forms. But whether you agree with that or not, This is the same basic error I highlighted with point 1: the belief that disagreement on the details means that one rejects the entire area of study. This is an arrogant claim, the claim that if you don’t believe in my position then you can’t have any coherent position on the subject.

If you want to use such arguments, keep in mind that other people may rationally disagree with you. If you are interested in dialogue, and not just pointless dismissal, then acknowledge the positions of your opponent.

5. “How can you believe that we are all equal? Some people are just better/more skilled/smarter than others.”

This is the to-go answer when constructionists discuss about the social causes of poverty, for example. I am illustrating here a tendency of adaptationists to conflate different kinds of equality: in this specific case, conflating equality of intelligence or skill with other forms of equality. Certainly no one is disputing the fact that humans are not equal in terms of skills or intelligence (whatever that means exactly). What we disagree about is what this implies in terms of how we should behave towards other people.

The general right-wing view is that the worth of an individual is tied to how much they contribute to society (as measured by profits, diplomas, specific jobs, or accomplishments). Adaptationists tend to be right-wingers because their belief that some people are worth more than others can only make sense if people are born with superior or inferior minds. Belief in the soul does not provide such justification (although Christians still believe some people are naturally inferior due to racist or sexist beliefs), and neither does constructionism. Most constructionists are radicals, and the radical position is that all individuals should treat each other as equals, except for those people who attack others’ freedom or rights. The “equal” in this sentence does not refer to equality of intelligence or skill, but to equality of values: that we should treat other people’s values as being as important as our own, unless those values support aggression against innocent people.

In that sense, we are equal, and the proposition “we are all equal” is not refuted by the proposition that “some people are more skilled than others.” The correct refutation would be something like “there are people who are born natural superiors and people who are born natural inferiors.” Indeed, many people have argued this, and continue to argue it, about people of color, women, children, poor people, and so on. So far, they have always been wrong.

In order to not make these kinds of arguments, take into account the equivocations that are made on the word “equality.” Do not use that word unless you are specific in what you are describing. If the question had been formulated “how can you believe that we are all equal in skill?” then the silliness of the question would have been exposed immediately, and there would have been no discussion needed.

Is there such a thing as “evil people”?

Morality is concerned with evaluating values and actions. Ethics is concerned with evaluating rules and institutions. Neither of these fields could exist without the basis of the individual as a moral and social agent, but they are not concerned with evaluating individuals. An individual cannot have a moral or ethical status because individuals are organisms, facts of biology, therefore beyond evaluation (even when we talk about natalism or antinatalism, it is the existence of individuals, not individuals themselves, which is evaluated). Properly speaking, there is no such thing as a “good person” or an “evil person.”

This does not stop people from making such evaluations routinely. And it is so ingrained in the way we talk that it’s easy to make statements of that nature. However, it’s important to remember that such statements are generalizations or metaphors, not literal truth. If we say “the nazis were bad people,” we’re basically saying that they did bad things routinely and that therefore they could not be trusted to do good. It does not entail that there was literally badness inside of them, like some kind of gremlin or metaphysical substance, because that would be silly. No such substance exists.

However, anti-causalism (i.e. the belief in a soul, free will, or some other anti-causal form of volition) and adaptationism (the belief that evolutionary causes are sufficient to explain human behavior) both present a challenge to that position. Anti-causalists believe that people do good or evil things as a consequence of the kind of volition that they have. Adaptationists believe that people do good or evil things as a consequence of their biology. In both cases, the evaluation of actions implies an evaluation of the individual actor: doing evil means that you are evil, because you have some quality of evilness either in your soul/volition or in your brain.

First, let me get the issue of validity out of the way: I don’t believe that either of these positions are valid, as I’ve explained before. The concepts of soul, free will, and specialized brain modules, are all without merit. Not only are they invalid, but neither anti-causalism nor adaptationism are able to give a coherent account of how human behavior arises. If they fail at explaining human behavior, then we cannot use them to evaluate anything related to human behavior, including individuals.

I’ve already discussed these points. What I do want to discuss here is that the view that people are “good people” or “evil people.” For one thing, this is a reactionary view. Radicalism by definition seeks the roots of social problems in institutions and the basic principles they implement in our societies. It is this identification of institutions as roots of social problems which leads to the desire to change society. But institutions are only relevant because they influence human behavior. If people are innately good or evil, and are not influenced at all by institutions, then radicalism cannot be true.

Neither can egalitarianism be true. If some people are innately good and some are innately evil, then egalitarianism is a hollow farce. It is no wonder, then, that advocates of anti-causalism and adaptationism think egalitarianism is a hollow farce. The only alternative is conservatism, which is basically the view that some people are inherently better than others and deserve power within a set of “traditional” structures. One may disagree in what criteria should be used to judge people as inherently better (Libertarians, for example, believe that the economic arena is the only proper space to judge people, as opposed to most other conservatives), but any such disputes would still take place within the conservative framework.

Furthermore, the view that people are innately good or evil is at odds with the desire to change society, which is based around a view of human nature that is both knowable and changeable. Under anti-causalism, human nature is not knowable, since it exists in some unnatural, mystical realm. Under adaptationism, human nature is not changeable, and changes in the way society operates should be futile in the long run (e.g. from monarchy to democracy). Nothing but the one correct way to organize society around our biology should be “successful” at all. Yet clearly this is not the case, since a wide variety of cultures are “successful.”

I have commented many years ago on the fact that the belief that people are innately evil is reactionary. The belief in people being innately good or evil is merely an extension of that view. But in their case, “good people” usually means “people who are like me” or “people who agree with me.”

Still, there are plenty of people who use these terms without necessarily wanting to be reactionary. For example, one can believe that the Nazis were evil, or that cops are evil, and believe that this is not a reactionary belief. I would agree with such statements, but they are not literally true. No Nazi was an “evil person” and no cop is an “evil person.” The reality is that they are morally depraved and untrustworthy. But they are not “evil people” who have “chosen to be evil” or who have a “corrupt soul.” This reflects a superstitious attitude towards the world, that is to say, attributing material form to a concept (a process which philosophers call reification).

By and large, when we are talking about social behavior (what is usually referred to when we talk of “good people” and “evil people”), people are motivated by incentives, because incentives provide people with the physical and psychological benefits of living in a given society. People will ignore incentives if they have an even more powerful reason to do something, but usually this is not the case. These incentives are created and sustained by institutions, and aim to perpetuate an institution’s actual purpose. Since institutions can be at odds, incentive systems may also conflict, in which case other factors will influence behavior as well.

It is difficult to speak about incentives in general terms, so let’s talk about specific examples. Even though we live in a supposedly liberated era, most people still get married and have children. From the contra-causal standpoint, people simply do so, with no causal reason at all. But with all the lifestyle possibilities that exist, how would most people just randomly do the same thing? So the contra-causal explanation makes about as much sense as flipping 100 dice, getting 80 of them rolling a 6, and then doing this again and again. Surely the possibility that the dice are weighted makes more sense than the absence of any cause.

The adaptationist explanation also doesn’t work, because we know of societies without monogamous marriage, or without marriage as we understand it (including Western societies, where pair bonding is generally temporary). If the adaptationists were right and we are biologically made for lifetime pair bonding and child-raising, such societies could not exist at all, or at least they could not last very long. There could also never be such a thing as childfreedom or antinatalism, any more than there exists people who preach freedom from food (breatharians notwithstanding) or freedom from social norms (although many statists like to pretend that Anarchists are like this).

So why do people get married and have children? States have a keen interest in keeping population numbers up in order to receive more taxation revenue, unless they are indisputably overpopulated. Therefore States offer numerous privileges to married people and lucrative economic rewards to parents. Proselyting religions, which also depend on numbers, strongly encourage their believers to breed, and have in the past used strong-arm tactics (and some still continue to do this, like the Catholic Church) to ensure breeding within marriage. Generally, people who are married and with children are seen as having a higher social status, and are given more attention than those who do not (e.g. in the workplace or in health care).

These are all very powerful incentives, but they are magnified many times over by the fact that children are raised by their parents to want these things. Parents do this because marriage and having children are considered to be part and parcel of the life blueprint. Parents raise their children to be “normal” and “successful” (the alignment paradigm).

The Nazis are the usual example people trot out to explain “evil people,” so let’s look at that. At its peak, the Nazi Party’s membership included 10% of the German population. Why were people members? Well, many jobs required party membership, which in itself is a powerful incentive. Also, the Nazi Party fueled German people’s hopes through strength and fear of the Other, like all right-wing regimes do in times of economic and political crisis. The general point here is that people didn’t join the Nazi Party because they were evil. They, by and large, did so because they thought it was the right thing to do, for themselves or their country.

And this is a point that’s really important to understand when it comes to “evil people.” The adaptationists are correct insofar as there are some people who are sociopaths, and who have no intention of doing good. But this is a tiny minority of the population. Generally, people who do evil do so out of a misdirected desire to do good. Studying cults for a long time has shown me that people who end up doing tremendously evil things don’t do so because they are mendacious. They usually join cults out of a desire to do good, to find some higher truth, to help themselves grow, to help others. They end up doing evil because they are brainwashed into believing that their actions are for the greater good. Like cults, institutions mislead us constantly on the nature of good and evil, although in a much less coercive manner, especially if they can count on parents or the media to do the dirty work for them.

Now, I know some people will read this and think that I am trying to excuse “evil people,” to rationalize their evilness. This is what people always say when you look at the causes of evil behavior. They fail to grasp that understanding something and rationalizing it are two very different things. The goal here is not to divest people of their responsibilities, quite the opposite. The anti-causalist cannot explain responsibility, because whatever is making “choices” (whether a soul or some supernatural agency) is not “me” in any meaningful way. Adaptationists, on the other hand, can justify responsibility, but only some of it: they can justify a person being responsible for their own actions, but they cannot justify collective responsibility, so they only have one small piece of the picture.

On the constructionist account, the individual is responsible for their actions because the individual is the last link in the causal chain that led to the action. To make an analogy, we may say that “Paul made the pie” insofar as Paul put the pie together and cooked it. But his actions were only the last link in the causal chain that led to the existence of the pie, a causal chain which extends towards the beginning of time (as Carl Sagan famously said, if you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create a universe). The beginning of time, however, is of little interest to us. The point here is that both positions vastly underestimate the scope of responsibility by excluding the collective responsibility contained within any action. As it turns out, and contrary to common belief, it’s the adaptationists who reject large swaths of responsibility. As reactionaries, it is their job to reject collective responsibility as a concept.

To address another common objection, to acknowledge collective responsibility does not mean supporting cultural relativism. Actually, it’s exactly the opposite. Cultural relativism holds that all cultural practices are equally valid. But the only way this could possibly be true is if we divorce evil actions from the incentive systems of culture. To a constructionist, this makes no sense: evil actions are perpetrated because of the incentive systems present in our society, which includes culture. Because it rejects the causality between incentives and actions, cultural relativism is closest to the anti-causal position, and it is people who preach about choice, free will and agency who are most likely to be cultural relativists. Radicals are by and large not cultural relativists.

Besides, “culture” is not some kind of entity that rises ex nihilo from a community or a society. Culture evolves from, and is inextricably linked to, the material, psychological, political, and spiritual condition of its people. A lot of this is itself the result of incentive systems. It’s always important to remember that when we talk about systems this complex, we are talking about feedback loops. Not simple “this caused that which caused the other thing,” but systems constantly re-creating and molding each other. Institutions, cultures, ideologies, human actions, all cause each other to some extent, change each other to some extent, and evolve in parallel.

My libertarian socialist political position.

For a while now, my political position has been within the domain of libertarian socialism. Libertarian socialist ideologies are anti-State, anti-capitalist center-left (in absolute terms, not in terms of political parties, which are mostly all right-wing), and they center around self-management and federated structures.

Fundamentally, politics is about the distribution and organization of power (and who gets to distribute and organize it, and who benefits from the distribution and organization). Statist ideologies mainly differ in the concentration of power they will allow the State, and other institutions, to abuse. Much of the disagreements between them lie in the balance of power they think is ideal for society.

Anarchists in general distinguish themselves from all those ideologies because they believe that power should be dispersed amongst the population, not concentrated in a few powerful institutions. This is a radical difference, which is seldom understood. Many ideologies have sought to bring about egalitarianism through concentrating power into a benevolent institution (like the Soviet State). No matter how well-intentioned, such institutions must fail because of the incentive systems which necessarily follow concentrations of power. Hierarchies seek to perpetuate themselves and power is an easy, addictive method to do so. And inevitably enemies of the regime will use that to their own advantage, as well.

It is not that power is an inherently bad thing. As Anarchists have identified, it is power in the form of hierarchies which creates the biggest problems, because hierarchies magnify the use of that power by their manpower and credibility. As St. Augustine said in the famous Pirates and Emperors story, “because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor.” Private criminals are not one hundredth of the problem that corporate crimes and State crimes are.

We recognize the necessity of having some power around, if only to stop people from inflicting (physical) harm on each other or from generally impeding social autonomy (by destroying or diverting vital resources, for example). However, concentrating this power, whether in a State or some other institution, is a generally bad idea. Concentrating the power to determine what is legal and what is illegal is an even worse idea.

As a general principle, power should be kept in check by strictly delimited roles, direct accountability and, most importantly, task rotation. Keeping power in the hands of the same people year after year creates a group of people with interests that slowly diverge from those of the rest of the population, eventually creating a ruling class. The same is true of a State or a corporation.

Democracy is said to provide the accountability and task rotation. But this is a naive sort of statement. Democracy is a tool of the ruling class designed to provide the illusion of accountability and task rotation, while keeping power within the same class of people and not giving the population any real alternative which would erode their class interests. The only time egalitarian measures are implemented is when the more centrists amongst the power elite fear retribution.

What would replace democracy in a libertarian socialist system? All workplaces and cities would be self-managed, meaning that decision-making power about something would rest in the hands of those who use it, whether it’s a piece of machinery, a bridge, or a neighborhood. Each group would elect a representative or representatives to speak for them at a higher level, and on all the way up to the world level. While some decisions may have to be taken at the world level or the industry level, most decisions, I think, would be handled at the local level. The general rule is that decisions should be left to the lowest level possible.

With self-management being put in place and corporations replaced with work collectives, capitalism is necessarily done for, since it is predicated on the distinction between labor and capital. This does not mean that all work collectives would automatically start acting in the interests of the general population. However, from all the examples of self-managed workplaces I know, this tends to be the case. Workers generally live in the cities where they work, and have no intention of shafting their neighbors and friends, or attracting the ire of the population. This is partially because, in our capitalist systems, they often need material, legal, or political support from the public in order to flourish, since the States are never happy to concede anything to self-managed workplaces.

The main positive accomplishment of capitalism has been to link the world with flows of production. However, this positive accomplishment has come at a very heavy price, as neo-liberalism has amply demonstrated. In general, these flows drain valuable resources from the Third World for the consumption of the Western world. Self-management at a world level would reverse this, if only because these neo-liberalist resource drains do not benefit the population of the Third World countries that are targeted: they only benefit the power elite, that is to say, the business owners and politicians (the people who support so-called “free trade,” which really means: “free movement of capital”).

The same general principles apply to law and justice: the administration of justice and the construction of law must come directly from the people. I am not talking here about the conceit of jury duty, which is not administrated correctly anyhow. In our current system, the purpose of jury duty serves the same general purpose as democracy: to rubberstamp the condemnation of people who can be credibly condemned, whether they are really guilty or not. A true justice system serves the interests of the people, not the State. It does not imprison millions of people for the crime of being considered second-class citizens, for example.

Furthermore, as I don’t believe in blame, I don’t believe in the punitive function of justice. The courts should not exist to exact revenge on the guilty but to do what serves the needs of the people: restitution, i.e. trying to leave society in as good a shape as it was before the crime. Courts should not be adversarial but should seek to find the truth. But by far the most important element of any Anarchist justice system is the reduction of the incentives of crime. The end of the State and State police, economic equality, the elimination of sexism and racism, the end of the family being an all-important social unit, would all contribute to a dramatic reduction in crime. The fewer crimes there are, the easier it is to have a fair and timely system.

The construction of the laws themselves would follow federated lines: those who are affected by a law are responsible for its construction and maintenance. So for example the workers in a self-managed industry would make laws regarding their workplaces, consumers would make laws regulating products, women would make laws regarding VAW, abortion, and other women’s issues, and so on. Discrimination and prejudice would be countered, not by sporadic generosity from the power elite, not by the almighty “free market,” but by the equal power of those discriminated to assert their own humanity.

Here are some basic political principles I believe in:

1. The Chomsky Principle: We should in principle reject any hierarchical relation or structure unless it’s proven to be justified in some way. Since hierarchies are not a priori necessary for anything, we have no reason to accept them passively. The statement that a hierarchical relation or structure should continue needs to be be tested using the same standards of evidence that we would use to test any other statement of fact. Question with boldness the validity of any hierarchy, because the individual and social costs associated with any hierarchy demand a justification.

2. Egalitarianism: We should always assume that all human beings are equal, and to treat them as equals, unless we have contrary evidence. For example, we may measure two individuals’ “intelligence” as being different, but this does not mean we should treat one as superior over the other. Every instance where we treat people differently from each other needs to be justified, and we should also not keep pretending there is equality where there demonstrably is not (but that this does not automatically mean that some people should be treated as inferiors, unless THAT can be justified as well). This is basically just an extension of point 1.

3. Determinism: There is no such thing as individual choice, and no one can be blamed for their actions. Any institution or ideology which is based on the notion that people should be blamed, punished, or on vengeance, cannot exist in a rational society. The prison system is based on the belief that criminals must be punished. The capitalist economic system is based on the belief that poor people are to blame for being poor. Neither of these beliefs are rational.

4. Power should be broken down and distributed equitably amongst the population as much as possible.

5. The emphasis of any political change should be on changing our social systems to adapt to people, not the other way around. Nothing should be a more important consideration than people: not profits, not “law and order,” not power.

Agency Man Fights The Wingnut.

A while ago, I posted a bit from an exciting new play called Agency Man Saves Women. It’s been a huge hit, and there’s a sequel in the works called Agency Man Fights The Wingnut. I’ve had the privilege of reading it, and it’s a great play, almost as good as the original in my opinion. I hope you enjoy this passage.

***

(A political campaign call center. Brock Stone, wearing a tailored suit, is standing in the middle of the room, looking at some documents. There are many tables, chairs and phones. There are “BROCK STONE FOR PRESIDENT” posters on the walls. AGENCY MAN appears from the right.)

AGENCY MAN
AGENCY MAN is here!

BROCK STONE
Hmmm? Who are you and what are you doing here? I don’t know who you think you are, but this is not the circus.

AGENCY MAN
I’ve come to put an end to your reign of terror!

BROCK STONE
Reign of… what are you talking about? Is this about my affair? Because I publicly stated that-

AGENCY MAN
This is not about any affair! I am here to stop you from winning the election. You have stated that you would like to make assault weapons legal across the board. Spreading more guns is not the solution!

BROCK STONE
What, are you accusing me of being some kind of crazed shooter? Because that’s slander. I have never shot anyone.

AGENCY MAN
No, I am not criticizing you as a person, I am pointing out that there’s a systemic bias towards-

BROCK STONE
Stop attacking my choices! I choose to own a gun and that’s my own personal decision! Are you saying I can’t make decisions about my own life?

AGENCY MAN
(confused) I… what? No, I’m not saying you can’t make decisions about your own life. It’s just a fact that having more guns makes all our lives less safe.

BROCK STONE
What are you saying? That we’re all murderers? Because the vast majority of gun owners are upstanding citizens who don’t go around shooting people.

AGENCY MAN
Yes, yes, but my point is, guns themselves, not people, but the guns themselves, are the problem.

BROCK STONE
That’s stupid. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Like I said, most guns are not used to kill people.

AGENCY MAN
Yes, but having guns around gives criminals more incentive to kill more people.

BROCK STONE
So basically you’re saying gun owners have no agency of their own? That’s pretty bigoted. We choose to bear arms, and criminals choose to kill people. That has nothing to do with whether there are more or fewer guns around. Agency is irreducible.

AGENCY MAN
(even more confused) Well, yes, I totally agree. But your agency is bad because it’s killing people.

BROCK STONE
What do you mean, my agency is bad? Aren’t you AGENCY MAN? Aren’t you supposed to stand for everyone’s agency? And if our choice of owning guns is bad because it kills people, what about your support of prostitution, which kills women and gives women PTSD at a higher rate than any other occupation?

AGENCY MAN
Well, that’s um different because um you see… sex workers have agency and um… empowerment…

BROCK STONE
How is it not empowering for me to own a gun and be able to defend myself?

AGENCY MAN
We just live in a gun culture. We need to change the conversation.

BROCK STONE
Excuse me? I am a proud American and guns have been a part of my culture ever since the Revolutionary War, sir. That’s more than 240 years of my culture you’re trying to erase. Are you saying your culture is somehow better than my culture?

AGENCY MAN
If it has guns in it, yes…

BROCK STONE
What right do you have to tell me your culture is better than mine? What are you, some kind of imperialist scum? You need to shut the fuck up and leave people of my culture to talk about these issues. You have no ground to stand on.

AGENCY MAN
I’m an American, just like you. We’re in the same culture.

BROCK STONE
I’ll believe it when I see your long-form birth certificate. Anyway, guns are a part of our culture, and if you deny the importance of guns, you’re not really part of my culture.

AGENCY MAN
Buh… but the abuse of guns victimizes people! It can’t be right to make innocent people victims of your culture!

BROCK STONE
No, what victimizes people is dirty liberals like you who want to take away our guns. If everyone had guns, we’d all be empowered to defend ourselves whenever necessary. By taking away guns, you’re the one who’s literally turning people into victims, by denying their agency and taking away their ability to choose to defend themselves! I’m saying everyone should be empowered to make those choices for themselves. And if they choose badly, then we’re all empowered to do something about it. By denying people’s agency, you’re basically saying that you know better than all of them, that you can save them from the baaaad guns, and that they’re incapable of doing that for themselves. That’s fucked up! What gives you the right to treat everyone around you like that? I’m really tired of your personal attacks against myself and honest citizens who own guns. Why do you hate us so much? Is it because you can’t afford a gun, or you don’t know how to shoot, that you feel like you have to take it out on us? Are you jealous of people who are able to defend themselves? Is that why you prance around in tights and attack other people’s choices? Your bigotry and intolerance will not win. We are empowered and we are free. Assault weapons will be legalized everywhere, it’s just a matter of time. And then we’ll all be safe! Stop being a Firearms-Exclusionary Elitist Liberal, Agency Man, for you are on the wrong side of history!

AGENCY MAN
Buh… guh…

(BROCK STONE shoots AGENCY MAN in the head with an AK-47.)

The confusion between moral statements and political statements.

People make all sorts of statements about things being right or wrong, and we tend to act as if all those statements are roughly equal. Statements based on the Bible, for example, are put on the same playing field as statements based on science.

My point here, however, is to talk about right or wrong from a moral standpoint. When controversial issues like pornography, prostitution, white supremacism, affirmative action, or corporal punishment against children, are brought up, we discuss moral statements and political statements as if they answered each other. But actually those two types of statements cannot respond to each other, since they pertain to completely different things.

A moral statement is a statement which makes an evaluation of right or wrong based on values, or principles derived from values. For example, a statement such as “it is wrong to kill animals in order to feed on their flesh” is a moral statement which may be evaluated based on the values underlying it (concerns for animal welfare, being against suffering, being against murder for self-interested purposes, and so on). Whether you agree or disagree, I think it’s clear that this is a moral statement.

A political statement, as I define it, is a statement which makes an evaluation of right or wrong based on power. I’ve previously defined power, using J.K. Galbraith’s classification, as being of three general types: condign power (force), compensatory power (money) and conditioned power (indoctrination). Any statement which relies on one of these three things is a political statement, not a moral statement.

So if you say something like “it is not wrong to kill animals for meat them because most people are willing to pay for the meat,” that’s a political statement, not a moral statement. Your justification is based on money as the standard, that it is not wrong because people are willing to spend money on it. People spending money on things does not provide any sort of evidence of its morality: one can pay for anything, including hitmen, rape, massive fraud, and States routinely pay for war, torture and political assassinations. All it proves is that enough people feel that they benefit from the action to want to pay for it, and that these people do not particularly care what the victims think.

Here I want to clarify a possible objection. Someone might say that my first example also involves power, in the form of coercion against the animals, and that therefore it is not a moral statement. But it is not sufficient for a statement to include a form of power, or a value, to be of a certain type: we must look at how it’s justified. In the first statement, the coercion is not the justification, but the exact opposite, as it is what is being argued against. In the second statement, money (in the form of consumer demand) is the justification.

It is relatively trivial, though, to retool the second statement to a form like this: “it is not wrong to kill animals for meat them because most people value meat consumption.” That would be a moral statement. Not a particularly good one, since it is heavily influenced by conditioning.

This brings me to my next point, which is that the moral/political dichotomy is not black and white. In Western societies, a lot of moral statements have indoctrination hiding behind them. As a general principle, we should be far more wary of classifying any commonplace statement as moral statement, because statements generally become commonplace because of indoctrination or being promulgated by major social institutions. If someone tells people what they already want to hear, or are used to hearing, then they are likely doing so to curry favor, not to make a rigorous argument.

To take an extreme example, someone proposing antinatalism is not likely to do so to gain people’s favor, but rather generally (but not always) do so out of extensive arguing and weighing the arguments. Someone proposing natalism, on the other hand, is likely to do so to gain support, since it is a position that most people (that is to say, parents) already accept enthusiastically. The same thing is true to a lesser extent of other unpopular ideologies, like atheism, feminism, moral intuitionism, and so on.

Note that I am not saying that all commonplace statements are always wrong. Being classified as a political statement instead of a moral statement does not make a statement necessarily wrong. The fact that not all power can be eliminated from society, even under the most utopian scheme possible, is the most rigorous proof of this. Likewise, there are plenty of moral statements that are just plain wrong.

Let me use these principles on a debate that I’ve written a great deal about, pornography. So you often get an argument of the form “pornography is fine because women get paid well to participate.” This is a political statement, not a moral statement, and therefore has no place in a moral debate. The fact that the producers of pornographic videos have the money to get women to perform sexual acts has no bearing on the morality of said sexual acts, or of their distribution. Rather, it is a statement about a desired distribution of power: that rich producers should have more power, and women needing money should have less power. It is, basically, capitalist logic (whoever has the money makes the rules). Arguing about distribution of power can be a worthwhile subject, but it’s not a topic of morality.

So let’s take an argument from the other side (that is to say, my side), such as “prostitution is wrong because money does not equal consent.” While this argument involves the concept of money, it is a moral statement because it is justified by the moral concept of consent. We can reformulate the statement like this: “Consent is necessary for something to be right, trading money is not a form of consent, therefore prostitution is wrong.” Whether you agree with it or not (I do realize it is not a rigorous logical argument), I think it’s clear that it is a statement about morality.

Inherent in any moral statement is a pro-rationality, anti-power preface that can generally be described as: “No matter what the law says, any holy book says, or any other external authority says, I believe that…” While external factors are part of any moral evaluation, moral obligation cannot logically be derived from some externally-imposed obligation, such as the law or divine commands. Any statement that cannot thus be prefaced cannot be a moral statement. For instance, you could not say “No matter what the law says, prostitution is wrong because it’s against the law.” “Prostitution is wrong because it’s against the law” is necessarily a political statement (which I disagree with, since the law has nothing to do with morality).

A lot of people do not acknowledge the existence of any form of power beyond force. This means that they will put statements that are justified by money or indoctrination in the category of moral statements. This leads to the absurdity of equating payment with consent, or to say that a child who was indoctrinated in a religion for 18 years now has “freedom of religion” because they’ve become adults. I feel that a lot of moral disagreements stem from things which are actually not about morality at all, and that if we were able to distinguish the two, discussions would be a lot more productive.

“Agency” obscures the real issues of freedom and power.

I’m sorry I keep harping on the topic of “agency,” as I’m sure few people have any interest in such a theoretical topic, but I think there’s still something left to say about it. I’ve talked enough about how the term is used, but I want to talk about the consequences of using this term.

What is the word “agency” really supporting, when it’s used against women? If “agency” is used to blame the victims of pornography, prostitution, and other forms of exploitation of women, as I’ve written before, then “agency” rhetoric is inherently patriarchal. What it supports is men’s entitlement of women’s bodies. The only connection between “agency” and actual freedom is that the women who have “agency” are free to say “yes” to being exploited by men, but they are not free to say “no.” We know this because the liberals who talk about “agency” attack women who fight against the exploitation of women and who argue for the freedom to say “no.” There are few things entitled men hate to hear more from a woman than “no.”

Human rights are only important for people who go against the status quo, because people who say and do the same things as everyone else don’t need protecting. In a similar way, if there is such a thing as “agency,” it must be in the freedom to say “no.” If there is such a thing as “agency” for women, then it must be in the desire to resist being exploited and objectified by men, in the desire to not be beaten down by a system made for men’s pleasure and entitlement. There is no “agency” in being exploited, in being told what to do with your body, in parroting the same arguments used by men to defend their entitlement.

People try to argue for this point by saying that, because “sex work” is illegal and considered marginal, women who engage in it are rebelling against social conventions. But these people confuse illegality with acceptability. Prostitution is illegal, but the concept that men are entitled to women’s bodies is the norm, is the conventional opinion, despite the illegality of some of the more extreme forms of entitlement. This is because we have two main views: the conservative view, that only one man is entitled to a woman’s body (her husband), and the liberal view, that all men are entitled to a woman’s body. Under the former view, prostitution is unacceptable because the women who prostitute themselves are opening themselves to other men instead of keeping to proper marriage and proper sex, which makes them guilty. To them, that’s too much entitlement. The conservatives, too, believe that men are entitled to women’s bodies, just in a different way (they certainly believe men are entitled to make laws about women’s bodies).

Prostitution, pornography, burlesque, raunch culture, BDSM and other kinks, none of that is revolutionary or goes against conventions because the concept that men are entitled to women’s bodies is not revolutionary and does not go against conventions. The only revolutionary act, the only act that goes against conventions, the only act that is truly rebellious, is to say: fuck anyone who believes that men are entitled to women’s bodies, either through marriage or through “sex work” and fuckability standards. Why don’t they call THAT “agency”? But no, they attack the women who say these things as being against other women’s “agency.”

How can one person’s freedom go against the freedom of another? How can one person’s resistance prevent another person’s resistance? When you formulate it like that, it doesn’t make much sense. If one person’s rights entail the destruction of another person’s rights, then one of these “rights” is not a real right. Likewise, if one person’s freedom goes against another person’s freedom, then there’s a problem of definition: one of these is not real freedom. In my view, the “freedom” to conform to social norms is not a real freedom.

I am not saying here that people should be blamed for conforming. I have nothing at all against people who wish to engage in these things. But we have a problem when that conformity (being in favor of “sex work,” advocating for the objectification of women) is reframed as freedom (being pro-“agency”), and when opponents of conformity (radicals) are portrayed as ultra-conformists (conservatives).

Radical feminists have never denied the agency of women under conditions of oppression. But radical feminists have located women’s agency, women’s making of choices, in resistance to those oppressive institutions, not in women’s assimilation to them. Nowhere in the more “nuanced” feminist liberal literature on choice is women’s resistance to pornography and surrogacy stressed as a sign of women’s agency. What about the agency of women who have testified about their abuse in pornography, risking exposure and ridicule, and often getting it? What about the ex-surrogates who choose to fight for themselves and their children in court, against the far greater economic, legal, and psychological advantages of the sperm donor? If we want to stress women’s agency, let’s look in the right places.

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.