Aquinas and the limelight (III)

This post is about Thomas Aquinas’s comprehensive legal and juridical theory, as it relates to constitutive charters and public reason. It is part of a series loosely based on my reading of Rawls’s The Idea of Public Reason [discussed here and here]. Aquinas’s legal theory is based on public-facing associative reasons, and ultimately I would like to explore the possibility that any account of legal publicity must be at least public-facing. But even if you don’t care about that stuff, the exercise in comparing and contrasting Aquinas and Rawls is worth doing for its own sake. So let’s get on with it.

For exegetical convenience, it would be instructive to talk about non-Rawlsian accounts of justice in terms that are broadly commensurate with the Rawlsian point of view, since Rawls is both more familiar and more perspicuous, and therefore easier to defend in good faith. So, for the sake of argument, I would like to imagine how a modern-day Thomist might think about justice if they set themselves to imitate Rawlsian ways of speaking, which means bringing his theological convictions to heel. I articulate a conception of Thomism that is based on notes from my reading of the first two volumes of the Summa Theologicae. Yet this conception only inspired by Aquinas, since his theological convictions are indefensible from a scientifically literate point of view, and therefore uninteresting. So, because my reading willfully departs from Aquinas’s own views, I will self-consciously invent an object of comparative analysis that is inspired by Aquinas, but which jettisons his metaphysical views. I refer to it this composite view as Nomism, advocated by the imaginary Nomas Baquinas, a bizarro fusion of myself and Thomas Aquinas. That does not make the exegesis immune to criticism, since if our man Baquinas strays too far from the real Aquinas, then the exercise will have been a waste of time. But I hope you’ll permit the indulgence.

Oh, and to be clear — not only I am not a Thomist, I am not even a Nomist. I, personally, am only trying to see how well that one instance of a comprehensive theories of justice, and public-facing associative reasons, might fare in accounting for legal publicity in appropriate contexts. That’s the (relatively nerdy) axe I have to grind. It is not, however, meant to be a strawperson. The Nomistic view has a set of disadvantages and advantages that distinguish it from the Rawlsian one. The point of contrasting them is to enlarge our cultural imagination, at a time when inter-civilizational justice is in high demand and mature justicial intellectual programmes are in short supply.


Everyone agrees that the idea of ‘justice as fairness’ does not capture the full scope of a theory of justice. And by ‘everyone’, I mean, everyone including Rawls, who stressed the point very early on in his Theory of Justice. But suppose we take insufficiency of scope as an essential defect in the idea of justice as fairness. Why might we prefer a theory that covers a wider range of issues?

Like all issues in conceptual analysis, our convictions about the acceptability of a characterization of a concept has got to do with the inferences worth caring about, as far as they bear on the usage of a term (embedded in sentences). One thing worth worrying about is that Rawls has gotten the wrong unit of analysis. Perhaps the proper unit of analysis for a theory of institutional justice — the ‘basic structure of society’ — is a civilization, considered as best advice for sovereign rule, and not merely the social, economic, and political apparatus of a Westphalian nation-state, as Rawls takes it in his Theory of Justice. In that case, a theory of justice should be compared to Rawls’s Law of Peoples. Call that the macroscopic objection. But we might also think that the development of moral agency is one of the basic institutions that we need to account for in a theory of justice, just in case we think that the self is at least partly a social construction. In that case, the constituency of a civilization is not found in citizens, but in the reasons and intentions that compel them to act in social contexts. In which case, the scope of analysis would be much larger than either the Law of Peoples or the Theory of Justice, extending to a theory of law, morality, and meta-ethics. That is the microscopic objection.

Why would anyone adopt a view of such a wide scope? What’s the point of being a hedgehog on steroids? Doesn’t a comprehensive account of this kind detract from the narrow focus of a theory of justice? (The reason ‘why not’ is, I suppose, obvious. I can’t help but comment that one might need to look no further for a reason to look for alternatives to comprehensive doctrines than by observing the prohibitive length of the Summa.)

Well, there are programmatic reasons to think that perhaps the wider view is best. For one thing, it looks as though comprehensive theories are more directly capable of handling wide reflective equilibrium as a means of justification. (Granted, this is a cheap shot — ‘direct’ does not necessarily mean ‘better’.) But for another thing, we might be convinced that justice is a living thing, like a seed, which is planted in one’s own convictions and capable of growing and flourishing to the point where it becomes a model of civil life. One does not understand the form of the nature of the tree without being able to understand where it came from, and how it can and must be nurtured to survive. On this view, the constitution of a thing can be found in its genealogical facts. To provide a political theory of justice that is structured around public reason, we would need to treat those diachronic questions as being of secondary concern. But if we think that the very idea of justice is inextricable from the flow of history, then the Rawlsian synchronic approach might strike us as wrongheaded.

Anyway, if we think these requirements of scope are well-motivated, then we could say that we are seeking a theory of justice based, not just on the ideal of justice as fairness, but on a broader ideal fit for larger social circumstances — that is, on justice as goodness, i.e., where goodness is rationally beneficial, useful, and pleasant. That is the Nomistic view, for whom the idea that justice is a disposition to do right by all. Considered in the context of contemporary theories of justice, this conviction is both unexpected and unexpectedly rewarding in its consequences. But considered as a restriction of law, it is potentially disquieting, if not totalitarian, constraint on personal conduct.


On my retelling, Rawls’s political theory has five notable features. (1) It uses a device of representation, the original position, which functions as a procedural effectuation of the values of freedom and equality among citizens. (2) Original citizens are presumed to be sincerely interested in securing a reasonable state of cooperation — that is their strategic orientation. The output of the original position is a hypothetical contract with certain rules: (3) concerning the ideal structure of government, and (4) the demands of institutional justice. (5) The demands of institutional justice will relate both to conceptions of both the rule of law and legal validity.

  1. Device of representation. I would like to say that Baquinas’s device of representation is not the original position, but something more like the position from eternity. The thought-experiment looks like this. Suppose that you were the ultimate sovereign over a whole universe, and you wished to generate the greatest potential goodness for the people who will come to populate it. Suppose, though, that the life-situation that the citizens in your universe come to experience will be fully determined by your understanding of yourself. Imagine, in other words, that you are in the narcissistic position that Kant asks us to be in with his first formulation of the categorical imperative — that you ask whether the maxims of your intentions, when generalized, could become laws of nature. How should you think about yourself, if you were placed in the position of ultimate benefactor or master role model? Aquinas suggests that you should be rather nice to yourself — that is, you ought to have an absolutely loving intent, a love for your powers of creativity, and a love for constant activity and motion. If you, a perfect being, held yourself in any lower esteem than as a perfect being, then your universe would not be conducive of the good — the people within it would have no sense of reason, or would not appreciate what is useful, or would be in an unrelenting state of misery, without that Northern Star to aspire towards. In our terms, Baquinas argues that we should adopt an optimistic political attitude.
  2. Strategic orientation to action. Since we are assuming that goodness is necessarily rational, we should want our citizens to exercise their agency through reason, and hence to govern themselves rationally as best they can. What counts as ‘best’, though, is already conditioned by the setup. First and foremost, Baquinas suggests that the most rational option is the one that encourages generally good consequences, and seeks to minimize bad consequences. And, second, direction towards the good demands the preservation of life, and the need to seek good according to reason. The upshot, throughout, is to act charitably. These are the ways that agents behaving in an optimistic mood will behave, and expect others to behave, insofar as they participate in the position from eternity through the possession of reason. However, we should also encourage a degree of stoicism, since excessive solicitude creates misery through hypervigilance.
  3. Ideal government. Baquinas thinks ideal governments should be ordered as a patriarchy. The sovereign should do their best to prize the flourishing of the sublime arts, the sciences, and the trades — essentially, the apex vocations which make a life worth living, and which make the day-to-day survival of a community possible. In this sense, political economy and distributive justice are of first concern to an ideal government. The task of the upper classes is to come to a consensus on — and then to publicize — a plan for collective action that maintains and enforces service to the community and also the requirements of charity. The second tier of government involves the means of maintaining life and order — judicial and legislative systems, health care systems, and police and military. These offices should exist and function only to the extent that they produce a society where all people are free to pursue and attain excellence. And, in the third tier, the government should take care of enriching its citizens — it should be ordered in terms of municipal associations, a scholarly community, and a system of education, all geared towards making more virtuous people. These lower tiers of government should be directed towards the preservation of a just system of rule. Because the proprieties of government are patriarchical, the system is one of associative reason.
  4. Institutional justice. There are two kinds of justice — distributive and commutative. In this scheme, distributive justice demands respect for dignity, i.e., the relative contribution of a person to the community. This is broken into two kinds — duties to the sovereign, and duties to the community as a whole. By ‘dignity’, Baquinas means deference to the apex vocations, and especially, the masters of the sublime arts. Respect for dignity is given expression in a criminal code with a handful of seven basic imperatives: respect and obey the sovereign, pay your taxes, don’t harm people, don’t steal and destroy the property of others, don’t break trust, take care of your own thoughts, and pay your debts. Meanwhile, commutative justice is directed towards a principle of reciprocity, which requires, e.g., a duty of reparations and the golden rule. In all of these contexts, private reason does not have much of a place.
  5. Legal validity and rule of law. Bad rulers can exist under the following conditions: if they fail to act charitably, order themselves in a strict class system, do it prudentially, and with a system of laws based on dignity and reciprocity. Disobeying the orders issued by tyrants is not strictly speaking breaking the law, since human law is an expression of the right, and an attempt to do well by justice, and only legitimate to the extent that it protects us against imprudence and injustice. So, ultimate legal validity of law is found in the higher law. To be sure, in normal contexts, insurrection against the rulers is illegitimate, since all authorities are at least a little bit good. Still, citizens can determine for themselves if emergencies exist requiring lawful insurrection, since is law mainly about rules that fit normal conditions.


On the first point, we can notice that neither Rawls or Baquinas are foundationally liberal, since neither of them permit free choice in political mood or attitude. There is nothing in their respective devices of representation that encodes the ability for original participants to choose their attitude. That said, Rawls permits relatively wider latitude: for him, the only requirement is that we not be in what in the last post I called the ‘pessimistic’ political attitude, i.e., for whom it is presumed that we have neither collective solutions nor any means of knowing them. Meanwhile, Baquinas is decidedly less liberal, as he makes optimism mandatory.

Second, Baquinas endorses a teleological theory of the right. It is similar in some respects to consequentialism, since all just actions is to increase the stock of good and reduce the bad. It is not quite act-consequentialism, though, for two reasons — first, because at some points he suggests that the right and the good are intertwined, or mutually adjusting, in the sense that sometimes the right is derived from the good, and sometimes the good from the right. Second, because virtuous practical action is stoic, and so directed towards satisficing, not optimizing, reasoning. In contrast, Rawls’s theory of justice is based around contractualist ideals, not consequences. Hence, his device of representation is directed towards the formulation of policies adopted by original citizens, and is concocted for the sake of securing a society based on freedom and equality that they can own, and results in scheme of justice where the demand for the right of equal liberty is lexically ordered above consequentialist considerations related to distributive justice.

The strongest points of difference concern their approaches to ideal government and institutional justice, as far as these relate to public and private reason. For Rawls, all offices are potentially open to any member of the public. The open status of governmental offices issues more or less directly from Rawls’s commitment to public reason, or common reason for the commons, where all have free and equal opportunity to participate. For Baquinas, the point of government is paternalistic, with stations at the top devoted to the masters of right and good. Their form of reasoning is public-facing, since their reasons are meant to bring order our public institutions, and expressly need to be promuglated. But this view of reason is nevertheless a form of associative reason, since it is not conducted by the commons or in common view. The sciences, trades, and sublime arts are not offices open to all.

What are their attitudes towards private reason? In the previous post, I noted that Rawls asserts there is no such thing. But he was mistaken. So, a stronger version of Rawlsian politics would argue that private reason has no justificatory role in developing a democratic constitution, even though it is vital to our understanding of liberty. Meanwhile, though Baquinas believes that both free choice and liberty of conscience are necessary presuppositions in moral inquiry, this freedom does not have a central place in his political theory, since the liberty that is implied is not reflected in either natural right or in ideal government. Further, Baquinas suggests that private reason ought to be tolerated, but only as a matter of prudence, since a government that pokes too much into the free conscience is one that is doing work inefficiently.

Legal validity and rule of law. Also for Rawls, while there is a wide range of reasonable disagreement among subjects, some overlapping consensus can still be found over the right and the good, and which will direct government action at any particular moment. Citizens have a duty to civil obedience that fits broadly into this conception. Rawls referred to his position as ‘dualism’, which is a fascinatingly opaque descriptor. I am not sure a normative ‘dualism’ is fully consistent with his considered opinions, however, since the ordinary law is subordinate to the higher law. In contrast, for Baquinas, the only overlapping consensus we need should be found in the upper classes — the technocrats who are looking out for the public good. The job of subjects is to obey for the right reasons. If, however, subjects found themselves in agreement that the vanguard is a form of tyranny, then the right to rule would shift accordingly. That reflects the Nomistic natural law, where definite moral duties conclusively override the dictates of the rulers, and the dictates of the rulers derive their authority from the moral law. Which is all just to say that, on this point, there is may not be a lot of blue sky between Rawls and Baquinas.

[Collage] On and on and on

…the fact that an aeviternal thing is neither inveterate, nor subject to innovation, comes from its changelessness; and consequently its measure does not contain “before” and “after.” We say then that since eternity is the measure of a permanent being, in so far as anything recedes from permanence of being, it recedes from eternity… Therefore these are measured by aeviternity which is a mean between eternity and time… In this way time has “before” and “after”; aeviternity in itself has no “before” and “after,” which can, however, be annexed to it; while eternity has neither “before” nor “after,” nor is it compatible with such at all.

Thomas Aquinas, ST. I-I, Q10A5.

It is, I say, evident from what has been said in the foregoing Parts of this Treatise, …that visible Ideas are the Language whereby the governing Spirit, on whom we depend, informs us what tangible Ideas he is about to imprint upon us, in case we excite this or that Motion in our own Bodies.
George Berkeley, Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge.
CONSIDER the following sentences:
“Those spots mean (meant) measles.”
“Those spots didn’t mean anything to me, but to the doctor they meant measles.”
“The recent budget means that we shall have a hard year.”…
[F]or all these examples an approximate restatement can be found beginning with the phrase “The fact that…”; for example, “The fact that he had those spots meant that he had measles”…
When the expressions “means,” “means something,” “means that” are used in the kind of way in which they are used in the first set of sentences, I shall speak of the sense, or senses, in which they are used, as the natural sense, or senses, of the expressions in question.

Paul Grice, Meaning, Philosophical Review.

A memeplex is a set of memes which, while not necessarily being good survivors on their own, are good survivors in the presence of other members of the memeplex.

Richard Dawkins. The God Delusion.

Some marine bacteria have internal magnets (called magnetosomes) that function like compass needles, aligning themselves (and, as a result, the bacteria) parallel to the earth’s magnetic field… If a bar magnet oriented in the opposite direction to the earth’s magnetic field is held near these bacteria, they can be lured into a deadly environment… this appears to be a plausible instance of misrepresentation. Since, in the bacteria’s normal habitat, the internal orientation of their magnetosomes [naturally means] that there is relatively little oxygen in that direction, and since the organism needs precisely this piece of information in order to survive, it seems reasonable to say that it is the function of this sensory mechanism to service the satisfaction of this need, to deliver this piece of information, to indicate that oxygen-free water is in that direction.

Fred Dretske, Misrepresentation.

[C]onsider honey bees, which perform “dances” to indicate the location of sources of nectar they have discovered. Variations in the tempo of the dance and in the angle of its long axis vary with the distance and direction of the nectar. The interpreter mechanisms in the watching bees-these are the representation consumers-will not perform their full proper functions of aiding the process of nectar collection in accordance with a normal explanation, unless the location of nectar corresponds correctly to the dance. So, the dances are representations of the location of nectar. The full representation here is a dance-at-a-time-in-a-place-at-a-tempo-with-an-orientation.

Ruth Millikan, Biosemantics.

Nature is an endless combination and repetition of a very few laws. She hums the old well-known air through innumerable variations.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, History.

[The plausibility of the idea that there are such things are homogeneous units of labor] allows [Marx] to formulate the crucial definition of “value” as “socially necessary labour-time;’ which “is the labour-time required to produce any use-value under the conditions of production normal for a given society and with the average degree of skill and intensity of labour prevalent in that society:’ He concludes, “What exclusively determines the magnitude of the value of any article is therefore the amount of labour socially necessary, or the labour-time socially necessary for its production”.

David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital.

The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated. This holds not only for the art work but also, for instance, for a landscape which passes in review before the spectator in a movie. In the case of the art object, a most sensitive nucleus – namely, its authenticity – is interfered with whereas no natural object is vulnerable on that score. The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.

Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

Starting without prior meaning or communication, how are we supposed to get to the most desirable sort of equilibrium? Once there, why do we stay there? Lewis offers answers to both these questions. A signaling system, like any convention, is maintained because a unilateral deviation makes everyone strictly worse off.

Brian Skyrms, The Evolution of the Social Contract.

I originally took my clue on how to read the performativity of gender from Jacques Derrida’s reading of Kafka’s “Before the Law.” There the one who waits for the law, sits before the door of the law, attributes a certain force to the law for which one waits. The anticipation of an authoritative disclosure of meaning is the means by which that authority is attributed and installed: the anticipation conjures its object. I wondered whether we do not labor under a similar expectation concerning gender, that it operates as an interior essence that might be disclosed, and expectation that ends up producing the very phenomenon that it anticipates. In the first instance, then, the performativity of gender revolves around this metalepsis, the way in which the anticipation of a gendered essence produces that which it posits as outside itself. Secondly, performativity is not a singular act, but a repetition and a ritual, which achieves its effects through its naturalization in the context of a body…

Judith Butler, Gender Trouble.

Others instead obey a norm just because they recognize the legitimacy of others’ expectations that they will follow the norm. My definition of what it takes for a social norm to exist and be followed takes into account the fact that there are different types of people. All have conditional preferences for conformity, and all need to believe that enough people are obeying the norm to make it worthwhile to conform. What makes people different is the nature of their normative expectations: Some just need to believe that enough other people expect them to conform, whereas others need to believe that others are also prepared to punish their transgressions. In both cases, I stress that preference for conformity is conditional. If expectations change, so does conforming behavior… A situation can be interpreted and categorized in several ways, with very different consequences for norm compliance. An observed exchange, for example, can be perceived as a market interaction, an instance of gift-giving, or an act of bribing. Depending on how we categorize it, our expectations, predictions, and emotional responses will be very different.

Cristina Bicchieri, The Grammar of Society.

[The fluidity of imagination and belief] is noted in the case of liars; who by the frequent repetition of their lies, come at last to believe and remember them, as realities; custom and habit having in this case, as in many others, the same influence on the mind as nature, and infixing the idea with equal force and vigour. (1-5)

Men will scarce ever be persuaded, that effects of such consequence can flow from principles, which are seemingly so inconsiderable, and that the far greatest part of our reasonings with all our actions and passions, can be derived from nothing but custom and habit. (1-10)

In a little time, custom and habit operating on the tender minds of the children, makes them sensible of the advantages, which they may reap from society, as well as fashions them by degrees for it, by rubbing off those rough corners and untoward affections, which prevent their coalition. (2-2)

David Hume, A Treatise Of Human Nature.

For the translation of values into needs is the twofold process of (1) material satisfaction (materialization of freedom) and (2) the free development of needs on the basis of satisfaction (non-repressive sublimation). In this process, the relation between the material and intellectual faculties and needs undergoes a fundamental change. The free play of thought and imagination assumes a rational and directing function in the realization of a pacified: existence of man and nature. And the ideas of justice, freedom, and humanity then obtain their truth and good conscience on the sole ground on which they could ever have truth and good conscience – the satisfaction of man’s material needs, the rational organization of the realm of necessity.

Herbert Marcuse, The One-Dimensional Man.

In my approach, the focus of inquiry is not needs but rather discourses about needs. The point is to shift our angle of vision on the politics of needs. Usually, the politics of needs is understood to concern the distribution of satisfactions. In my approach, by contrast, the focus is the politics of need interpretation.

The reason for focusing on discourses and interpretation is to bring into view that contextual and contested character of needs claims.

Nancy Fraser, Talking About Needs: Interpretive Contests as Political Conflicts in Welfare-State Societies.

Then Sisyphus watches the stone rush down in a few moments toward that lower world whence he will have to push it up again toward the summit. He goes back down to the plain.
It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.

A monotonous and unvarying order was established in my whole economy. Everything unable to move stood in its appointed place, and everything that moved went its calculated course: my clock, my servant, and I, myself, who with measured pace walked up and down the floor. Although I had convinced myself that there is no repetition, it nevertheless is always certain and that by being inflexible and also by dulling one’s powers of observation a person can achieve a sameness that has a far more anesthetic power than the most whimsical amusements and that, like a magical formulary, in the course of time also become more and more powerful.

Kierkegaard, Repetition.

The Heaviest Burden. What if a demon crept after you into your loneliest loneliness some day or night, and said to you: “This life, as you live it at present, and have lived it, you must live it once more, and also innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh, and all the unspeakably small and great in thy life must come to you again, and all in the same series and sequence – and similarly this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and similarly this moment, and I myself. The eternal sand-glass of existence will ever be turned once more, and you with it, you speck of dust!” – Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth, and curse the demon that so spoke? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment in which you would answer him: “You are a God, and never did I hear anything so divine!” If that thought acquired power over you as you are, it would transform you, and perhaps crush you; the question with regard to all and everything: “Do you want this once more, and also for innumerable times?” would lie as the heaviest burden upon your activity! Or, how would you have to become favourably inclined to yourself and to life, so as to long for nothing more ardently than for this last eternal sanctioning and sealing?

Nietzsche, The Gay Science.

The first question is by no means whether we are satisfied with ourselves; but whether we are satisfied with anything at all. Granting that we should say yea to any single moment, we have then affirmed not only ourselves, but the whole of existence. For nothing stands by itself, either in us or in other things: and if our soul has vibrated and rung with happiness, like a chord, once only and only once, then all eternity was necessary in order to bring about that one event,—and all eternity, in this single moment of our affirmation, was called good, was saved, justified, and blessed.

Nietzsche, The Will to Power.

The categorical imperative is thus only a single one, and specifically this: Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law… Because the universality of the law in accordance with which effects happen constitutes that which is really called nature in the most general sense (in accordance with its form), i.e., the existence of things insofar as it is determined in accordance with universal laws, thus the universal imperative of duty can also be stated as follows: So act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.

Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.

“The thing is,” says [Alan] Moore, “we don’t have free will, or at least that’s what I believe, and I think most physicists tend to think that as well, that this is a predetermined universe. That’s got to pretty much kill religion because there aren’t any religions that aren’t based on some kind of moral imperative. They’ve all got sin, karma or something a bit like that. In a predetermined universe how can you talk about sin? How can you talk about virtue?”

This leads to a humanist philosophy that is not without its own morality, albeit one that this is self-imposed and unique to each individual. It means, says Moore, that you should be careful not to do anything in life that you cannot live with for all eternity.

“We’re talking here about heaven and hell, we’re talking about them as being simultaneous and present, that all the worst moments of your life forever, that’s hell; all the best moments of your life forever, that’s paradise. So, this is where we are. We’re in hell, we’re in paradise; both together, forever. I’m saying that everywhere is Jerusalem. That in an Einsteinian block universe, where all time is presumably simultaneous, then everywhere is the eternal heavenly city.”

Dominic Wells, on Alan Moore’s Jerusalem.

Extinctions, of course, have been happening for millions of years: animals and plants were disappearing long before people arrived on the scene. But what has changed is the extinction rate. For millions of years, on average, one species became extinct every century. But most of the extinctions since prehistoric times have occurred in the last three hundred years.

And most of the extinctions that have occurred in the last three hundred years have occurred in the last fifty.

And most of the extinctions that have occurred in the last fifty have occurred in the last ten.

It is the sheer rate of acceleration that is as terrifying as anything else. We are now heaving more than a thousand different species of animals and plants off the planet every year…

Even so, the loss of a few species may seem almost irrelevant compared to major environmental problems such as global warming or the destruction of the ozone layer. But while nature has considerable resilience, there is a limit to how far that resilience can be stretched. No one knows how close to the limit we are getting. The darker it gets, the faster we’re driving.

Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See.

Scattered thoughts on religion

Oh, look! Here are two hands. They are balled up into tight little fists. Each has a perspective in it and both are mine.

Hand one: I take comfort in those who criticize religion thoughtfully, because the criticism reflects the vibrancy and strength of a society of free (albeit well-trodden) thought. Indeed, I think religious claims to authority ought to be vigorously challenged in the public sphere to earn their keep. Moreover, I find the ‘meaning of life’ question more honestly answered by watching the Discovery Channel than by the Summa Theologica or the Tao Te Ching. In epistemology I observe a relatively thick distinction between reasons and evidence, and insist that putatively divine ‘datum’ (revelations, intuitions, insights) do not count as evidentiary.

Hand two: Still, if you call me ‘atheist’, there is some sense in which my introspective life makes you a liar. I pray, and have prayed, as a form of meditation. Increasingly, existentialism has seemed rather point-missing (with the exception of Paul Tillich, who was canny). I think that Alex Rosenberg’s nihilism marks the low water mark of new atheist metaphysics. As far as the ethics of belief is concerned, I think William James had it over W.J. Clifford, owing to the histrionic bombast of the latter (despite some of the feeble arguments of the former). While I think people should generally assert what they know, uptake demands simplification, so knowledge is not a constitutive norm of rational assertion.

I can’t pretend that I’ve always had these views. As a boy, I was pious in the way that boys are, being attracted to the idea of playing a role in a bigger story. But gradually, I realized that the impulse to pray in Western Protestantism is often toxic, based on wish-fulfillment instead of enlightenment — and that felt creepy. Once I realized that culturally fashionable forms of prayer provided me with no moral comfort whatsoever, religion lost most of its appeal. I stopped caring as a matter of principle. As a young man, I preferred the term ‘apatheist’, meaning, constitutively agnostic owing to not giving a shit about the God question. Later, after witnessing the growth of religious lunacy in the US, I preferred ‘quietism’, meaning that I think religious belief is not public business.

The times have pressed me into transcendentalism, which holds that natural cycles are valuable independently of autonomous or collective volition. Transcendentalism fits nicely with my general, uh, shtick. There is certainly quite a lot of virtue in collecting your thoughts away from social media, and in rooting your sense of value in what can be justified independently of pragmatic consequences. The transcendentalist asks the individual to think of nature as a source of value — and this seems to require us to look hard for patterns of behaviors and to revel in them. In this sense it is the philosophy of discovery, of empirical daring-do.

Transcendentalism also has a better account of absurdity than existentialism, in the sense that a lot of life’s absurdity comes from the plain fact that quite a lot of nature is utterly, wonderfully, mechanistically bonkers. Not just because there is a conflict between the internal and external points of view (though there is), but because nature is weird in itself.


I guess this is all on my mind because, a few weeks ago, while enjoying my coffee, I overheard two Protestant evangelicals explain their feelings to each other in terms of apocalyptic death parables. They used code-phrases that were, apparently, quite significant to them; “keep the porch light on” being a favorite. That was followed up with rapturous references to Revelation theology, and the building of the third temple in Jersalem, and, etc. It does not take a master cryptographer to understand their meaning. It only takes an episode of Star Trek:Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra“. For them, “keep the porch light on” implies, roughly, “let me have something to live for”; and the apocalyptic references imply, “Or else.”

The thing that makes philosophy so difficult, and so valuable, is that it asks us to try to avoid errors in judgment that are associated with certain kinds of analogical conceptual processing. You see, the ways that we categorize our concepts have a direct effect on the ways that we ascribe and detect errors when we go about making inferences from one judgment to another, insofar as our inferences feature those concepts. Philosophy, at its best, asks us to raise our conversational game, to infer according to rules that are more theory-like and less story-like.

For the educated person, the dangers of losing oneself to the story-telling mind are all too clear. For it is possible, and all-too-easy, to find yourself reasoning exclusively by analogy or meme, operating from one dogwhistle to the next. Hearing people talk that way about how they think is absolutely, positively uncanny.

Oh, look! Here are two hands. They are balled up into tight little fists. In the one, I have the weird — Douglas Adams (of Last Chance to See), Ursula K. LeGuin, and China Mieville; in the other, the transcendentalists — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller.

Two is the loneliest number

Abstract: The solipsist believes himself to be the only thing that exists. That is, the solipsist thinks that there is only one thing that exists in the world, and further, thinks that that thing can be accessed through self-reference. Assuming they are rational, what argument could convince them out of this position? Well, it is sometimes thought that solipsism can only be refuted by begging the question against it – that no contrary arguments can find sufficient common ground to function as leverage against them. To the contrary, I will argue that it is possible to substantially refute the most persuasive variety of solipsism by taking its most plausible version seriously, and then showing that it is not rational to hold.

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Continue reading “Two is the loneliest number”

On the connection between natural science & philosophy

On Tyson’s recent comments on philosophy (taken from the Nerdist podcast around 20 minutes in).

Pigliucci’s rebuttals are okay, but it’s pretty much a cop-out to say “Philosophers contribute to science” without actually citing the relevant research. The whole point is that guys like Tyson don’t believe that post-1920’s philosophers make any contributions to the natural sciences, so telling them to Google it is not by itself going to help very much. They want specifics. Since for my part, I know for a fact that plenty of 20th/21st century philosophers contribute actively towards the clarification of methodological and epistemological disputes in the natural sciences, it is all the more frustrating that names go unnamed.

(That said, I also think that most philosophers in the profession do not celebrate philosophical colleagues that are actually doing work at the frontiers of science. If that is the case, then it would be both understandable and a strong indictment of the profession. But I also think it’s a different kind of criticism.)

So I thought I would cobble together a collection of works in philosophy that do the opposite of what Tyson thinks is going on. What follows is a highly conservative bibliography which obeys the following criteria:

– Professional philosophers: it is co-authored by one or more faculty members who are either members of a department of Philosophy (or faculty members in cognate departments that teach some courses in philosophy), so long as they possess a doctorate in philosophy;
– Influential: it is a noted work, which I stipulate to mean 50+ citations according to Google Scholar;
– Discipline-specific: at least on the face of it, the work concerns itself with the theories and methods of a particular scientific discipline (i.e., not “philosophy of science” in general);
– Natural science: it concerns the natural sciences (e.g., physics, biology, or chemistry);
– Unique: individuals are only listed once so that one or two names do not hog the list with their CV. (That said, if you want to look at more of their work, click on their name and you will be directed to their home page);
– Theoretical philosophy: the works are in a theoretical and not an ethical, historical, or meta-philosophical vein;
– Non-bullshit: the works are not radically out of step with, or patently uninformed by, the relevant established science (e.g., Fodor/Piattelli-Palmarini on natural selection, McGinn on physics).

(There are regrettable gaps in the list if we follow these criteria. e.g., I don’t get to mention David Bohm since he wasn’t a professional philosopher, even though his mid-century work was rooted in metaphysics. Oh well.)

Feel free to offer corrections or suggestions in the comments area. This is not intended to be a comprehensive list. But it might serve as a launching off point for anyone who would like to offer a more serious critique of the connection between philosophy and natural science in our time.


Biology and neuroscience

Evolutionary biology


* — indicates I was unable to find the name of the program.

(I reserve the right to update this post shamelessly and without notice.)

With thanks to the various posters at New Apps for their contributions, comments, and criticisms. [1, 2]

A quibble over godlessness [tpm]

[Originally posted at Talking Philosophy Magazine blog]

Atheism and agnosticism. If you ask some people, atheism is just a sexed up version of agnosticism. After all, atheism is about what you believe (or don’t believe), and agnosticism is about what you know (or don’t) — so when we say that we’re atheists, we’re just putting accent on the fact that God is really really really super unlikely.  But others will say that atheism and agnosticism are perfect companions. They’ll tell you that agnosticism is just a closeted form of atheism. After all (they’ll say), since agnostics dislike being called ‘theists’, they must be atheists — the one position collapses into the other.

To see an example of this contrast in action, consider the views of Bertrand Russell and Anthony Grayling. Russell argued for atheism in public, and only called himself an agnostic among philosophers. That’s because he thinks there’s a significant gulf between atheism and agnosticism. By contrast, in a difficult-to-parse exchange with Jerry CoyneAnthony Grayling begged to differ — an agnostic is either an atheist, or just plain irrational.

Grayling does himself a disservice by repeatedly claiming that “an assimilation of proof concerning matters of fact to proof of the demonstrative kind”, when that doesn’t really seem to be exactly what’s going on. This post is going to be my attempt to make sense of what Grayling is up to, and an argument about why he hasn’t got it right.



This fight comes down to a complaint in the theory of knowledge. Grayling’s claim is that Russell tacitly bases the distinction between atheism and agnosticism on “a quibble about proof”.

Russell thought that you can’t disprove the existence of a corporeal object — like, say, a mountain made of gold — in the same way that you can disprove 2+2=6. You can prove that 2+2=4, alright; but you can’t prove, strictly speaking, that God (or the golden mountain) doesn’t exist. You can only say, “A golden mountain is pretty unlikely”. Moreover, it would seem that the two kinds of proof can be measured on a common scale — that of certitude. For Russell, following Hume, deduction and induction involve different degrees of warranted certainty. The idea here is that we ought not have as much confidence in inductive proof as we do with deductive proof. Logic and mathematics occupy a kind of heaven, an epistemic ideal; inductive proof, like most of our commonsense knowledge, will always be in perdition. As a result, while it’s tempting to believe that “Rain is wet”, I am really only warranted in believing that “rain is probably wet”. Likewise, you’re only warranted to believe that God is really really really not likely, though you might brand yourself as an atheist.

This is where Grayling and Russell part ways. Grayling believes that Russell is wrong to think that you are warranted in being any less certain about induction than deduction. In other words, Grayling thinks that it is just as provable that rain is wet as it is to say that 2+2 = 4. Instead of putting deduction in heaven, and induction in hell, the two modes of reasoning stand side-by-side. They just seem to be adhering to different standards.

What deduction and induction have in common is that both are capable of their own kind of proof. Grayling seems to think that proof is defined negatively for all kinds of discourse, in terms of what is irrational to reject. As he puts it, a thing is proven so long as we can adduce “evidence of the kind and in the quantity that makes it irrational, absurd, irresponsible or even a mark of insanity to reject the conclusion thus being supported.” So, any belief that is scientifically invalid (e.g., “next time I go out in the rain I won’t get wet”) is just as irrational as a belief that is, for all intents and purposes, impossible to demonstrate (e.g., “rain does not wet anything”, or “2+2=6”). The parenthetical quotes are cases of propositions that are disprovable, and hence (I think it is fair to say) certainly wrong.

This relates to agnosticism and atheism in the following way. Grayling thinks that the concept of “God” is as absurd, irrational, irresponsible, and possibly insane as the concept of “2+2=6” or “rain does not wet anything”. For Grayling, if a person says that they are agnostics about God, they might as well be saying that the jury is still out on whether or not two and two make six. Russell, and a great many following him, would prefer to say that while ‘2+2=6’ is demonstrably false, other howlers (like “there is a golden mountain”, or “rain does not wet anything”) are only probably false.



Optimus prime mover.

Or, at least, that’s how I’ve interpreted Grayling. He hasn’t made it easy. The problem is that when he accuses Russell of “an assimilation of proof concerning matters of fact to proof of the demonstrative kind”, the accusation can be made just as effectively against his own view. For while it may be true that Russell is measuring the two kinds of proof along a single spectrum of certainty, there is a sense in which Grayling is doing the very same thing, but in another way! After all, he’s assimilating them negatively: by saying that proof of any kind is the sort of conclusion that is “irrational, absurd, irresponsible or even a mark of insanity to reject”, once supported by sufficient evidence.


A more serious problem is that Grayling hasn’t got the commitments of atheism squared away. Grayling argues that “if you seriously mean that you think it might be conceivable or possible that there could be evidence for a deity, [then you are] agnostic, not atheist” (“possible” meaning, I presume, “rationally possible”). In this, he provides an implausible formulation of what it means to be “agnostic” and “atheist”. For an atheist might think that there is no God, or even that it can be proven that there’s no God, while still admitting that God is a rational possibility.

Recall, the only thing that an agnostic needs to say is that they don’t know whether or not God is real. Atheists, in the strongest sense of the term, claim to know that there is no God; in a weaker sense, atheists claim to believe that there is no God, and live their lives accordingly. Grayling is effectively saying, “there are no weak atheists. Go strong or go home.”

Unfortunately, contrary to Grayling’s claims, atheists can possess warranted doubts against their atheism, even if they think it is proven that there is no God. For one does not need to be convinced that God is rationally impossible in order to be an atheist, any more than one needs to think that Yeti are rationally impossible in order to think that they belong in fairy tales. That’s because, while it is indeed quite irrational, absurd, and irresponsible to believe that God exists, that doesn’t mean that it is rationally impossible to believe in God’s existence.

For you to believe that God’s existence is rationally impossible, or “inconceivable”, you must mean “inconceivable by everyone, everywhere, even at their best”. After all, “impossible” is a tough-guy word, a heavy-duty blunt instrument — when you say something’s impossible, you mean business. To say something is “impossible” is to say that it is “necessarily not”; and “necessary” implies universality; and ‘rationally necessary’ implies universality across the class of rational people. So when you say that belief in God is rationally impossible, you’re saying that no rational person can believe in God.

So what’s the difference? Well, since we’re talking about a crowd of rational people, that presumably means that we must assume that even the ideally rational, bold, imaginative, and informed person is in the crowd; and we have to have faith that the most rational person would agree that God has been proven to not exist. By contrast: to prove a thing — even in Grayling’s sense of “proof” — is not to suppose that you believe it as an ideally rational and informed agent, or even that you would retain the same beliefs if you were closer to the ideal. It just means that, according to some standards of discourse, denying a proposition is daft. Never mind whether or not the standards themselves require revision.

Here’s the punchline. If you are rationally compromised (to any substantial degree), then you might have proven something, alright; it’s just that the thing you’ve proven, could be working with suboptimal standards. For, as a matter of fact, while you might think that belief in God is irrational, etc., you might also think that you might be (to some substantial degree) irrational, irresponsible, or insane — that is, to think that you’re an ordinary Joe believer, slumming it with the rest of us. Long story short: “rational impossibility”, if it means anything like what it says on the tin, is an idealized standard that belongs to the epistemic angels, while Grayling’s sense of “proof” belongs to mortals.

So why does Grayling think that God is rationally impossible, or inconceivable? Evidently, he has a narrow view of the impossible. Grayling says that God and Yeti are not the same sort of thing, because at least people can think of the conditions under which the existence of a Yeti might be confirmed (e.g., as being a furry Wookie-like creature). By contrast (he says), it’s not even clear what research programme could be contrived to figure out where there is a God, because the concept of God is a catch-all wish-fulfiller.

I agree that belief in God is madcap all the way, because the idea of “God” in the mainstream Abrahamic faiths is a nebulous blob, a Rorsharch for the credulous. (To me, this is like determining what feats of strength and vigor are possible by visiting a leper farm. But anyway.) Suppose that Grayling’s programme is plausible. If it is, then the fact that it is both irrational to believe in God and irrational to believe in 2+2=6, ought to tell us that it is rationally impossible to think that there is even any evidence that they might be true claims.

And yet, and yet, and yet… ! — people still reject Grayling’s account. Because (Grayling says) people hold some lingering fidelity to Rome, one final chain around our ankles, and that we have yet to emancipate ourselves from it. But that implication seems pretty unlikely when thinking about avowedly Godless heathens and Grayling-dissenters like Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins. So there might be a better explanation of why people may be resistant to Grayling’s programme.


First, “conceptual clarity” doesn’t matter in the way Grayling thinks it does. For my part, I agree that “God” is a bullshit concept. But that isn’t really very interesting or important when we’re trying to figure out whether or not the existence of God is rationally possible. Meanings can be clarified — and sometimes, even the relevant, supposedly deep ontological features of the concept can be reconceived — without improving the epistemic standing of the doctrine or the worldly practices of the conceivers. For instance, five years from now, the Roman Catholic Church might declare that God lives in a slum on one of the planets in the Hades Gamma Cluster, thereby turning God into a more exotic sort of Yeti. But this really wouldn’t make any difference to how skeptics think about the Catholic worldview. We’ll never see Hades Gamma, or develop any means of seeing whether he’s out there. The Hades Gamma version of the Catholic Church is just as irrational, madcap, and irresponsible as the Orthodox version.

Second, because doubt matters to scientific integrity. Both Coyne and Dawkins make a virtue out of retaining it, and they seem to do so for the sake of the institution of science. A measure of doubt is always sublime.

The unquiet scientist [tpm]

[Originally posted at Talking Philosophy Magazine blog]

Science communication is not easy, for a lot of reasons. For one thing, reasonable people disagree about what science communicators ought to try to achieve. Should communicators just try to keep people up-to-date on the latest cool things happening in the world of science… or should they try to foster a critical way of thinking about the world? For another thing, it isn’t clear how you would go about science communication if you tried — since, as any grade school teacher could tell you, it is hard to figure out how to get your audience to care. And for another another thing, if the aim is to foster a scientific mindset, then it’s not clear that mass media will be of any use whatsoever. (Presumably, one does not learn chemistry by repeated viewings of Gil Grissom working ponderously over test-tubes.)

These are all important and interesting topics, well deserving of thoughtful and passionate dialogue.

Enter Chris Mooney. Mooney is an activist for communicating science. He is the author of The Republican War on Science, and is the co-author of the controversial book Unscientific America (with Sheril Kirshenbaum). Mooney holds a degree from Yale, a fellowship with the Templeton Foundation, and is a member of the board of the American Geophysical Union. He blogs at the Intersection. Mooney/Kirshenbaum’s ultimate legacy appears to be that they succeeded in starting a passionate conversation about the subjects listed above.

Which brings us to the topic of the present post. In addition to being in the science communication business, Mooney and Kirshenbaum are both critics of atheist activism. Mooney and Kirshenbaum have argued that activist atheism is detrimental peripheral to science communication, and that activist atheists are often uncivil. Their critical remarks have created a tumultuous debate in both online and national print publications. Not incidentally, Coyne, Dawkins, and many others have publicly argued that there is an intimate connection between science and atheism. (Full disclosure: although it shouldn’t make any difference to this post, on this issue — as on most things — I’m in the “Jason Rosenhouse camp“.)

On first blush, it seems as though there are two major issues here: civility, and the role of the naturalist worldview in science. But a little over a year ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Mooney about the role of passion and conflict might have in getting people to think about science. And from that conversation, I learned that Mooney acknowledges a third sticking point.

BN: I was glad to see that you didn’t focus on the deficit model in explaining scientific illiteracy — that’s really good. [Edit 2010: Roughly, the “deficit model” is the idea that science communicators should presume that citizens that are not scientifically literate are responsible for their own illiteracy.] And the alternative is to look at what people do know. So for example the mechanic has a body of knowledge that I can only dream of — I just don’t know how a car works. We ask ourselves how people have all this impressive statistical knowledge about baseball and things (without knowing about science), and the reason is: baseball is useful in some way. People are embedded in a social group and they know that this knowledge will be useful to talk about.

This can also help us understand how misinformation works. For example, the George Will episode. People will say “Atta boy” and pat him on the back for acting like an idiot.

CM: I think you’re right. These things have utility, is what you’re saying.

BN: Exactly. And this leads me to the atheism thing. So you’ve gotten into a bit of trouble with some folks online, because atheism has utility for them. And I’ve found that I’ve learned quite a bit on these atheist forums.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. Because you’ve been interpreted as saying to folks like Jerry Coyne: “Don’t make atheistic arguments, because you’re putting atheism in the same truck as science, and people are not going to take science seriously because they’re religious.”

But atheism is a way of getting people interested in science. So Dawkins writes “The God Delusion” and he presents this panoply of interesting bits of information leading up to an argument.

CM: I understand exactly what you’re saying. People say all of these different kinds of things serves a purpose for them — I think that’s absolutely true. And I really like how you framed it, because I haven’t put it in quite that way, but it’s totally right, and it’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard to talk about bad information.

But that doesn’t change my particular view on atheism to point that out. I guess what I’m saying is that a lot of people in what we call the New Atheist movement have formed a community around a set of information, and it has utility for them, in your terms. There’s no doubt about that. You see them doing it so much, so fired up about it.

My argument is that almost in direct proportion to how it’s useful to them, it’s not useful for something else. And that can happen — a community can form around a shared body of information and another community can think it’s awful. That would totally work in your model. And my point is that even as they’re agreeing, scratching each other on the back, creating a dialogue that’s mainly amongst themselves, if you look at how that affects the broader dialogue in the country, it’s a different dynamic entirely.

So I think what I’m saying is: be aware that the way you talk about atheism works for you, and yet it also isn’t working in a different world. I think both those things can be true.

BN: A counter-argument is that you have religious folks who want to defend their views. The Ray Comforts of the world. And to the extent that they want to defend their views in any interesting way, they have to engage with the explicit arguments that are put forward by the atheist community. So that way it becomes something like a dialogue, so that at least it appears as though there’s something defensible going on [on Ray Comfort’s end].

So I have this underlying feeling that conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We can’t ever put ourselves in a place where we say, “Oh, no conflict, that’s no good”. And that seems to be what you’re doing — you call yourselves “accommodationists”, or at least that’s the label that’s been put on you. Conflict, to the extent that we want to have a debate, is okay. It’s just a certain kind of unproductive dialogue that sometimes goes on.

CM: Yeah. I think there’s all different kinds of conflicts. And there’s many things you can spend your time debating. We all pick and choose. My point on the general conflict between science and religion in the United States is that I don’t think it’s an incredibly fruitful one, and I don’t think it does the public understanding of science a lot of good to be hitched to the religion-bashing way. I think there are many ways to talk about science in religion in American society that would work better, and I think there’s a lot of evidence to support that, in terms of the way people react.

I’m sure that some people are getting engaged because of New Atheism — I’m sure some people are learning, some people are thinking about science — but I think it’s also clear that a lot of people are not getting engaged or are being negatively polarized. So it’s a difference of goals, in part, that explains the debate I think.

I think it is fair to say that, by far, Mooney and Kirshenbaum sparked the most outrage with their comments over civility. But the ensuing drama has drawn attention away from some of the most interesting questions. How does Mooney think people ought to communicate science? What does “science communication” involve, for him?

One thing is pretty clear. Mooney wants to offer strategic advice about communicating science. Both in person and in his written works, he aims to communicate the art of publicity to scientists, under the auspices of teaching them the art of communicating science to the public. This work is predicated upon the assumption that everyone has the same priorities, in the minimal sense that at least that everyone is on board with the “science communication” project.

But the most important point that I’m going to emphasize here is that his stance is self-consciously political. At least to some extent, there is a “difference in goals” between Mooney and the activist atheists — by which, I think, he means a difference in priorities. Mooney does not think that speaking out against religion is a priority, and that it is on the whole detrimental to science education; while others think it is a priority, and that it supports science education in some respect.

What’s interesting that the one thing that Mooney and the rest agree on is this: that activism over atheism really does have some utility in communicating science. It gives us something to talk about.

Can atheism be proven wrong? [tpm]

A friendly debate has come up between the atheists Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers. The question under debate is, “Can atheism be proven wrong?” On the one hand, Jerry Coyne has argued that his atheism is, and should be, capable of being defeated by evidence. On the other hand, PZ Myers has argued that religious claims are incoherent, and so it’s pointless trying to refute them in that way. Even if seemingly divine events did happen, we could explain them as hallucinations, or of the intervention of aliens — there’s no need to talk about God.

On behalf of Team Coyne, Greta Christina has argued that Myers is right to say that religious claims are bullshit, but that Coyne is right to insist that atheism can be defeated by evidence. However, on behalf of Team Myers, Diaphanitas has argued that Christina has missed the point: if you think that religious claims are incoherent, then you can’t think that they can be defeated by the evidence. In order for a claim to be capable of being defeated by evidence, it has to be a coherent claim in the first place. (Edit: Or, at least, that’s the cliff’s notes version. I’m going to be a naughty blogger by not giving more of a summary than that. If you’re interested in the full conversation, click the links above.)

I’ll argue that Christina is right, hoping to score points for Team Coyne, and hopefully be the hero to capture Team Myers’s filthy squid-adorned flag. Specifically, I’ll be arguing against some of Diaphanitas’s core claims. (I’ll avoid the stuff about NOMA, because I want to avoid complaints of tl;dr.) In other words, some interpretations of atheism and theism can both be shown to be wrong according to the evidence, and that’s the only point worth making.


The sticking point between Christina and Diaphanitas is what I’ll call “the semantic principle of bullshit”. Since religious claims on the whole do not hold themselves to common standards of evidence, we have to say that religious sentences are epistemically unstable. Hence, they’re not the sorts of things that can or should be evaluated in terms of evidence.

And it seems to me that, as a matter of fact, the principle of bullshit is correct — religious sentences, when taken on the whole, don’t know whether they’re coming or going. (It doesn’t matter to my argument if you don’t agree; you can just assume it for the sake of seeing my point.) Since atheism is the rejection of theism, endorsements of atheism have an equally small burden. As Hitchens says: “What can be asserted without evidence, can be rejected without evidence.”

Unlike Diaphanitas, I don’t think the principle of bullshit makes any difference to Christina’s point. For bullshit claims can be plausibly interpreted in a literal way, if our aim is to understand the intentions and beliefs of some mainstream religious persons. It seems to me that the only way to defeat a bullshit claim is for us to round up all of the most plausible interpretations of the claim, and then show how each interpretation is false. Hence, you have to refute every plausible use of the sentence: by treating it as a God Hypothesis, and then as an allegory, and then as an expression of self-assertion, and so on.

So that will mean that eventually atheists will have to get around to showing that the best explanation of the evidence does not include reference to any Gods, and hence theistic claims are improbable. In other words: atheists will have to make the argument that Richard Dawkins makes in the first half of the God Delusion (or something like it). And to the extent that you’re arguing in terms of facts, you must also think of yourself as open to criticism on the basis of the evidence. As far as I can tell, this doesn’t mean that atheists like Coyne and Christina are “obsessed with the evidence”. It means that they insist that the examination of the evidence is essential when you’re in the business of interpreting sober, factual claims. If that’s an obsession, it’s a healthy one, as Diaphanitas admits.


So where’s the beef? Evidently, it has something to do with paradigms.

Diaphanitas thinks that evidence plays a limited role in the history of science (and hence, presumably, an even more limited role in the history of atheism and religion). For Diaphanitas, Thomas Kuhn‘s historiography of science is the best way of understanding the relationship between evidence and scientific change.

The spectre of Thomas Kuhn rises often, but it really needs to behave itself when it does. For while it’s true that Kuhn thought that a change in worldview involved a kind of “conversion” or “theory choice”, it’s also true that Kuhn argued that “objectivity ought to analyzable in terms of criteria like accuracy and consistency”. On my reading of Kuhn, these virtues were necessary for scientific practice, though not sufficient. If this means Kuhn was “begging the doxastic question”, then let’s also blame him for getting us to care so much about accuracy.

Diaphanitas, like Kuhn, wants to say that we’re doing more than just consulting the evidence — we’re making a choice, too. That’s fine — but it’s also a very weak claim, and it is consistent with the idea that evidence has to play a central role in scientific inquiry (and factual discourse). To my knowledge, there is nothing in Kuhn that helps us to say that religious claims in the 21st century world are plausible candidate explanations of the evidence. (As survivors of the Great Lisbon Earthquake could tell us, the Argument from Design is simply not consistent with the evidence.) And when you argue in favor of the Abrahamic God using the Argument from Design, you are committing yourself to a kind of game that involves checking the facts — those are the rules that the proponents of the Watchmaker God are committed to. In that sense, contrary to Diaphanitas’s claim, the naturalist and the Watchmaker God are “in the same playing field”. They’re both responsive to the evidence.


Still, Myers and Diaphanitas are correct in the following sense. If the principle of bullshit is right, then that means that it is wrong to think that religious claims must be read as expressions of a kind of unique content. So, any theists who say “The Bible is just an allegory” are wrong, and any who say “The Bible must be taken literally” are wrong too. It’s either one, and more besides. The argumentative atheist has to use the shotgun method, taking aim at one interpretation after the other.

The moral of the story is this. Just because religious claims are unstable, doesn’t mean that the uses of the claims have to be up in the air. One use of religious claims involves the Argument from Design; and the argument from design is perfectly coherent, perfectly stable, and perfectly worthless. Hence, any atheism concerned with the Abrahamic Watchmaker God is supported on the basis of the evidence. If evidence turned the other way — e.g., if a credible argument could be made that the problem of evil was just a pseudo-problem — then the only responsible option for a Watchmaker critic would be to reconsider their atheism.

*Edited for clarity.

Realisms [tpm]

[Originally posted at Talking Philosophy Magazine blog]

Abstract: Sometimes it is thought that the fate of philosophy itself is tied to the debate between realism and anti-realism. According to one plausible rendering of the difference between realism and anti-realism in metaphysics belonging to Crispin Wright, “realism” is a modest doctrine, while “idealism” is immodest. If anyone was an idealist, Bishop George Berkeley certain was one. I argue that, by most lights, Berkeley’s metaphysics was modest, which (surprisingly) makes him a realist. The upshot is either that Wright’s articulation of the realist/anti-realist distinction is off-base, or there is less to the realist/anti-realist distinction than meets the eye. I suspect the latter.

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