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Is Naive Realism the Cure for Postmodernism?

Book ReviewsPosted by David Ramsay Steele Tue, March 12, 2019 07:05:22

Is Naive Realism the Cure for Postmodernism?

Quee Nelson, The Slightest Philosophy. Indianapolis: Dog Ear Publishing, 2007.

Quee Nelson is a classical liberal who has written a book on metaphysics and epistemology, well received by many libertarians. Several libertarians told me it was a book I ought to read. It has received numerous compliments but, as far as I know, no serious discussion. I very much disagree with the main thrust of Quee’s argument and in this review I will try to explain why I disagree.

Quee’s book is entertaining, humorous, unpretentious, readable, and displays evidence of a lot of reading and thought. It’s a book about philosophy but one that clearly aims to include among its readership people who have not read much philosophy. This present review is the same kind of thing; it’s not the sort of review you would expect to find in a philosophy journal, but rather one on about the same level as Nelson’s book, that is, one which takes nothing for granted, which is inclined to ramble, and which does not hesitate to ‘naively’ address some elementary points.

I see this review as a kind of cognitive therapy for libertarians who think like Quee, but unlike most therapy, I am offering it for free. So, you have a real bargain here, and libertarians are supposed to love a bargain. I also see this review as an encouragement to readers to get involved in the marvelous intellectual adventure of philosophy, which entails coming to grips with real arguments at their strongest, and understanding why these arguments do convince intelligent people, rather than pulling faces at conclusions you don’t like.

Nelson claims to adhere to an unpopular, minority view in philosophy—naive realism. I adhere to a different unpopular, minority view in philosophy—critical rationalism. Critical rationalism may be better known as Popperianism, though there is a well-known law of nature that all Popperians have at least one major disagreement with Popper, so we should prefer the more impersonal term, ‘critical rationalism’.

However, on most of the issues covered by Nelson’s book, I adhere to the conventional, consensus, or default position among present-day English-speaking philosophers—representative realism. So, most of the time, I will be defending a fairly mainstream philosophical position against Quee Nelson, though occasionally I will come up with a critical rationalist twist.

Here are the main points I will be making in what follows:

1. Nelson calls herself a naive realist but never lets us know what ‘naive realism’ is.

2. Nelson misrepresents mainstream academic philosophy by claiming it is completely dominated by anti-realism.

3. Nelson mistakenly claims that postmodernism is rooted in skepticism about perception (and that it is derived from Hume and Kant).

4. Nelson doesn’t understand the force of the arguments of Hume and Kant.

5. Nelson mistakenly claims that idealism is a powerful movement in present-day English-language philosophy.

6. Nelson relies upon an argument against representative realism which is purely semantic and therefore inconclusive.

7. Nelson advances a theory about the historical causation of political outcomes by philosophical ideas, which is full of holes.

Naive and Representative Realism

Nelson tells us that she is arguing for “naive” or “vulgar” realism (pp. 2–3). She says she prefers the term ‘naive realism’ to ‘direct realism’, because she thinks that the latter could be taken to deny the complex causal chain involved in perception (pp. 10–12). But other philosophers who advocate what they call ‘direct realism’ don’t deny this at all.

David M. Armstrong argues in favor of direct realism in his 1961 book. As far as I know, this is the best case ever made for direct or naive realism, but although Nelson mentions this work (p. 9), she strangely does not say how much of it she agrees with, or whether Armstrong’s direct realism is the same, or roughly the same, as her naive realism. This is part of a general problem, that Nelson’s actual position, the delineation of what she calls naive realism, is elusive. The reader can only be puzzled as to what Nelson’s naive realism is.

All forms of realism agree that physical entities, such as tables, chairs, rocks, trees, stars, and clouds, exist independently of our minds. Disputes between representative realism (representationalism) and naive (direct) realism have focused on the question of whether, when we see an object such as a tree, we do so by means of seeing a mental representation of that object, or whether we don’t see any representation but only see the object itself. (I don’t approve of that way of framing it, but naive realists usually do frame it in some such way.)

A different distinction is that between common-sense realism and scientific realism. Some people think there’s a troubling conflict between these two. Common-sense realism is the view that the things we suppose we observe as we look around in everyday life exist, independently of our awareness of them. Scientific realism is the view that the entities described by physics and other natural sciences exist, independently of our awareness of them.

I don’t see common-sense realism and scientific realism as competing alternatives. My view is that where common sense and science clash, science is probably right and common sense even more probably wrong. So here my view is contrary to that of Nelson, who thinks that common sense trumps physics (pp. 7–8).

Common sense is not fixed. Today’s common sense among educated people is partly a product of science, or of the scientific modification of more old-fashioned common sense. It used to be common sense that iron boats could not float, and when gas lighting was first introduced, many people couldn’t believe that the pipes carrying the gas did not heat up. Common sense is an assemblage of theories, a product of culture, it consists of memes, it is inculcated into individuals largely by the use of language, it varies among cultures and among sub-cultures, it has evolved over the centuries, and it is always further revisable. Common sense often contains valuable suggestions and it should not be ignored, but it carries no authority.

It would be nice to be able to state Nelson’s own characterization of naive realism and proceed from there, but unfortunately this is not straightforward. She tells us (pp. 2–3) that naive realism is the view that the things we perceive “comprise” an external universe which doesn’t depend on our perception. This implies that cosmic rays, magnetic fields, and dark matter are not part of this universe (they either don’t exist or belong to a different universe).

We can probably assume that this is not what Nelson intended; what she might have meant is that the things we perceive are parts of a universe which also contains many other entities. But this also is unsatisfactory, because this definition would apply to all forms of realism, representative as well as naive. So, this definition would not identify what’s peculiar to naive realism. We never do learn how Nelson wants to define her own naive realism, so as to distinguish it from common or garden representative realism.

Again and again, she seems as though she’s just about to define naive realism, or her version of it, but then she simply defines realism, in a way which would include representative realism. To take just one example, she says that naive realists like herself have an “unwavering faith in the actual existence and intractable mind-independence of locomotives” (p. 10). Yet, allowing for some uneasiness about the word “faith”—but let’s not quibble—this is just as true of representative realists as of naive realists.

The closest Nelson comes to criticizing representative realism is with the brief section headed “The Irrelevance of Representationalism” (pp. 12–15). Here she complains that many different philosophers have advocated many different conceptions of whatever it is in the mind of the perceiver that links the perceiver with the perceived object. She complains about the profusion of terminology as well as definitions. And she says this doesn’t really matter, it’s a “technical side show,” because all that “really matters” is realism versus anti-realism, the question of whether perceived objects exist independently of the perceiver’s mind. But if you’re claiming to advocate naive realism, and you disparage its major alternative, representative realism, and many of your opponents are representative realists, it’s incongruous to say that the issue of representative realism doesn’t matter.

In another brief discussion of representative realism (pp. 5–7), Nelson addresses only the question of color realism. In fact, someone reading this passage with no previous knowledge of these issues might easily conclude that the distinction between naive and representative realism lies entirely in the color question. Galileo, Locke, and many others, have held that whereas some aspects of objects like shape and size are really ‘in’ the perceived objects, aspects like color, smell, and sound are generated in the mind of the human observer.

Today almost the only philosophers who discuss color realism at any length are those specializing in this issue, and most of them take the view that color is a real property of objects (see for instance the article by Johnson and Wright). However, this, if correct, would not entirely dispose of the color question, for there are certain apparent facts about colors (such as ‘There can’t be a reddish shade of green’) which, taken naively, seem to be undeniable facts about objective colors, but are in fact (so science tells us, and here I believe science) entirely due to the ‘design’, or specific structure, of our body’s perceptual apparatus. As Günter Wächtershäuser said, there’s more to vision than meets the eye.

Rejecting Realism

The historically most influential form of non-realism (unless you count Plato) was idealism, classically exemplified in George Berkeley, and fashionable at the end of the nineteenth century in the version known as ‘absolute idealism’, as taught by F.H. Bradley, J.M.E. McTaggart, and Josiah Royce. Idealism claims that all our knowledge is essentially mental and subjective, and therefore the only things we can know about are ultimately products of the mind.

Idealism has little following today. Opposition to realism mostly comes from cultural relativism or social constructivism, sometimes lumped together as ‘postmodernism’. Postmodernism has very little following among philosophers, but it has a huge following—it is almost the reigning orthodoxy—among academics in literary and ‘cultural’ disciplines.

Nelson conveys the impression, once or twice by direct assertion but much more often by insinuation, that non-realism is the dominant position among anglophone philosophers. But this is mistaken; probably most philosophers (meaning faculty and grad students in university philosophy departments) are realists. I will mention some indications of this fact, and of how Nelson misrepresents the current state of academic philosophy, as this review proceeds.

To avoid possible misunderstanding, I should add that philosophy as an academic discipline has become so specialized that many philosophers never have occasion to address metaphysical issues like realism, and also that some people I would classify as representative realists may not call themselves by that term. Representative realism is such a wide and general category—the obvious default category—that some adherents may not see the need for any identifying label.

For the sake of brevity and simplicity, I’m going to cover just two forms of realism—representative realism (representationalism) and naive (or direct) realism. I’m not going to offer my own distinction between naive realism and direct realism, as some writers do, but will treat these as equivalent. Nor will I give separate attention to different aspects of realism, such as truth, objectivity, and mind-independence. Since I am reacting to what Quee Nelson says, I completely neglect a number of important arguments and distinctions which don’t arise in her discussion.

In this review I’m concerned only with realism about perceived physical entities. Realism about moral or aesthetic matters would introduce a lot of additional considerations. Many people are realists about physical objects and non-realists about morality or aesthetics. When I use the term ‘skepticism about perception’, this is short for ‘skepticism about perception as informing us of a world of things independent of our minds’.

Misrepresenting Today’s Academic Philosophy

‘Realism’ may be crudely stated as the view that the universe is largely composed of entities which exist independently of any human awareness of them. For instance, if all conscious minds were to be wiped out, the stars and planets would continue to exist. This is a view I hold, in common with most philosophers.

The mainstream view in English-language philosophy is that perceived objects do independently exist, and this has been the mainstream view since about 1910–1920, by which point the formerly dominant ‘absolute idealism’ had begun to be abandoned, mainly due to the work of Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore.

To a very large extent, current controversies about realism versus non-realism take the form of a battle between philosophers and non-philosophers. Realism has its stronghold in university philosophy departments while anti-realism has its stronghold among non-philosophers in humanities disciplines such as literary theory, sociology, and culture studies.

Nelson conveys the impression that academic philosophy is a bastion of non-realism. This is not true. She states that “a skeptical anti-realism” is “still more or less in the driver’s seat” (p. xii). In the world of English-speaking academic philosophy, no form of skeptical anti-realism has been in the driver’s seat since the 1890s.

Nelson not only falsely identifies anti-realism with mainstream philosophy, but also falsely roots present-day anti-realism in skepticism about perception. Skepticism about perception was originally at the root of idealism, the philosophical movement which had its heyday in the nineteenth century. Today’s anti-realism is normally rooted in cultural relativism and social constructivism, tendencies extremely popular among people in non-philosophy humanities disciplines and decidedly unpopular with philosophers. Cultural relativists and social constructivists rarely (if ever) make arguments which appeal to skepticism about perception.

The Professor and the Student

After the first two chapters, Nelson develops her argument by means of a dialogue between a “Student” and a “Professor.” She identifies with the Student, while the views she opposes are identified with the Professor. Her Professor is testy and dogmatic, shifty and evasive, making feeble arguments with a display of arrogance, and frequently saying things that are blatantly ignorant or silly, while her Student embodies sweet reasonableness, judicious fair play, encyclopedic erudition, and wisdom beyond his tender years.

The views preached by Nelson’s Professor are, taken in their totality, views which no one holds. They are views made up by amalgamating different philosophical doctrines (or selected portions of these doctrines) which Nelson doesn’t like, and which are unlikely to be simultaneously held by the same person. You will never find anyone who is simultaneously a Berkeleyan idealist, a Kantian, a post-Kantian, a Hegelian, a phenomenalist, a postmodernist, a Kuhnian, a pragmaticist, and a pragmatist, but Nelson’s imaginary “Professor” is such a chimera. In fact you would be extremely unlikely to find anyone who combines even two of these, though I admit that conceivably could happen. On almost every page, the Professor says something that no professional philosopher would ever say.

The net effect of this portrayal of the Professor is to further emphasize Nelson’s misleading claim that anti-realism is the dominant, orthodox, or mainstream view. Since Nelson purports to be arguing for naive realism, it would be more appropriate to have the Professor as a representative realist, or perhaps to have five interlocutors, representative realist, naive realist, idealist, phenomenalist, and postmodernist—with the understanding that idealism was included as a historical curiosity.

The Specter of Postmodernism

Nelson begins her book by talking for some pages about postmodernism. Why does she do this?

There’s no agreement about the definition of ‘postmodernism and I won’t try to come up with an authoritative definition. I will say that postmodernism in philosophy, postmodernism in the arts, and postmodernism in discussions of popular culture, are often very different, and attempts (including attempts by some of their followers) to represent them as being aspects of a single movement don’t work. The word ‘postmodernism’ has different usages, and in some of the more popular areas, it may have little, if anything, to do with non-realism or non-objectivity.

In philosophy, postmodernism is usually taken to refer to several French philosophers (including Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jean Baudrillard), but these writers don’t follow a single party line, and it’s hard to arrive at a single doctrine which they all advocate. As an example of variation in the use of the term, the ‘postmodernist’ writings of the cultural-Marxist (or perhaps former cultural-Marxist) literary theorist Fredric Jameson, immensely influential among students of literature and popular culture, advance a concept of postmodernism which has little in common with that of the French writers labeled postmodernist, or with the concept of postmodernism as equivalent to social constructivism and cultural relativism, or with any kind of non-realism.

Philosophical postmodernism is often identified with the claims that ‘reality is socially constructed’, ‘truth is culturally relative’, and ‘there is no truth, only various interpretations’. Here I’m going to accept these positions as a rough working definition of philosophical postmodernism, which seems to broadly agree with the way Nelson uses the word. In this sense, postmodernism can be seen as a form of non-realism, since it denies that there is a single objectively true account of facts. But postmodernism is very different from old-fashioned idealism.

Use of the word ‘postmodernism’ to denote a style or movement of philosophy dates from the 1970s, but postmodernism’s influence on American literary and culture studies began earlier, when it, or something like it, was called post-structuralism, deconstruction, social constructionism, or constructivism.

There’s no dispute that some writers commonly labeled postmodernist have said things which cause our eyebrows to elevate. To take the most famous example, when archeological researchers, after examining the mummy of the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II, concluded that he had probably died of tuberculosis, the French philosopher Bruno Latour, sometimes described as a postmodernist, objected that this finding must be wrong, because tuberculosis hadn’t yet been ‘constructed’ by medical science in ancient Egypt, and therefore couldn’t have existed at that time!

You misunderstand the situation in philosophy today if you don’t appreciate that the majority of philosophers, including French philosophers, view Latour’s assertion as totally hilarious, just as I do or just as Nelson (presumably) does. Notice that the way of thinking that leads Latour to suppose that tuberculosis didn’t exist until the medical concept of tuberculosis was ‘constructed’ is not like old-fashioned idealism and has nothing to do with skepticism about perception.

Scholars in literary and ‘cultural’ disciplines have lower IQs and less exacting standards than philosophers, and these disciplines are happy hunting grounds for Marxism, Freudianism, postmodernism, and other fanciful belief systems currently rejected by philosophers. (I wish I could add feminism and critical race theory, but I have to acknowledge that even professional philosophers are often susceptible to these unsightly conditions.) These disciplines taken together have a much higher head count than philosophy departments. (Last time I looked, some years ago but I doubt it has changed much, faculty and grad students in philosophy departments in the US amounted to about 7,000, whereas disciplines such as history, sociology, psychology, religion, and ‘culture studies’ each amounted to several times that number—I’m including women’s studies, African American studies, and so forth, among “culture studies.”)

Postmodernism is one of a succession of French philosophical tendencies, beginning with existentialism in the 1940s, which came into anglophone, mainly American, literary theory and from there into more popular discussion, largely bypassing anglophone philosophy. Generally speaking, these tendencies had proportionately far more support from American non-philosophers than from American philosophers or even from French philosophers. Most French philosophers were never existentialists and never post-modernists.

So, the recurring pattern is that a trendy but distinctly minority ‘coterie’ movement within French philosophy is transmitted into American literary and ‘culture’ disciplines, gets media attention, is swallowed by pundits, educational bureaucrats, and other ignoramuses, and is resoundingly rejected by American and British philosophers, who then occasionally offer criticisms of that tendency. (Perhaps even before World War II, Bergsonianism might have followed much the same pattern, but I don’t know enough to be sure of that.)

Nelson says: “Unfortunately postmodernists didn’t get that way on account of ignoring the teachings of the philosophy department, but on account of sincerely imbibing them. The terrible truth is that postmodernism is what happens when honest, intelligent people read the canonical philosophers and believe them” (p. x). This “terrible truth” is, at best, a wild and unsupported surmise, and Nelson offers no corroboration for it. But it does explain why Nelson begins her book with postmodernism even though the great majority of her book is not about postmodernism and the great majority of philosophers are not (in any sense) postmodernists.

Her claim is that postmodernism (though she acknowledges that most philosophers reject it) follows from what most philosophers believe, and that is, in her account, Hume’s and Kant’s views on perception. But it is not remotely accurate that postmodernists became postmodernists because of the Humean-Kantian views on perception they learned from “the teachings of the philosophy department.”

If it really were the case that postmodernism were due to Hume and Kant, we might wonder why the great majority of philosophers, familiar with Hume and Kant, have no time for postmodernism, while people in literary and ‘culture’ fields, knowing nothing about Hume or Kant, subscribe to postmodernism. We might also wonder why postmodernism waited till the 1960s to put in an appearance, instead of beginning in the eighteenth century.

The Downfall of Idealism

Indeed, we might take our curiosity about history further and wonder why non-realism in the form of idealism dominated English-language philosophy until the 1890s, and was then rapidly dislodged from this dominant position by Russell and Moore, since when representative realism (in various forms) has had considerably more influence. (Probably the major rival of representative realism would be phenomenalism, which I will not pursue here, except to say that it owes something to Hume and nothing to Kant.)

The story of how the dominance of idealism in anglophone philosophy was (rather dramatically and suddenly) overturned is told in Peter Hylton, Russell, Idealism, and the Emergence of Analytic Philosophy. It’s true that Russell later moved to a position known as ‘neutral monism’, an attempt to avoid both idealism and realism but which Karl Popper claims is fundamentally similar to idealism (Realism and the Aim of Science, pp. 90–91). However most anglophone philosophers didn’t necessarily accept neutral monism and probably continued to embrace some form of representative realism. Many of them became materialists. We can define materialism (or ‘physicalism’) as realism plus the view that reality consists entirely of what used to be described as ‘matter in motion’ but is now more fashionably rendered as ‘particles in fields of force’.

A good insight into what happened to philosophy in the English-speaking world is provided by A.C. Ewing’s fine book of 1934, Idealism: A Critical Survey. Ewing was a realist, at a time when avowed idealism had become a rapidly dwindling minority among philosophers. He wanted to explain just what the disappearing idealism had been and why it was demonstrably incorrect, while preserving certain valuable insights he believed some idealists had contributed. Ewing’s book is a respectful autopsy on idealism; it gives a meticulous account of the arguments which had led earlier philosophers to embrace idealism, and the more recent counter-arguments which had led them to abandon idealism.

Many of these counter-arguments were not so much demonstrations that idealism was wrong as demonstrations that arguments in favor of idealism were flawed. Remember, Aristotelian or syllogistic logic had recently been replaced by modern logic, and this was a big deal.

One thing we should be clear about is that, historically, idealists were no less respectful of the objectivity of truth than realists. They didn’t suppose that they could make up the truth about reality according to their taste, or that any theory was as good as any other. They thought that the only reality we could know was constructed by our minds; they did not think that we had any discretionary control over the way this happened. Confronted with the contention that the Copernican account of the solar system is no more or less objectively accurate than the traditional account of some hunter-gatherer tribe (a view now commonly held in literary and culture-studies circles), Bradley, McTaggart, or Royce would have had pretty much the same response as Russell, Quine, or Searle, including astonishment that any functioning biped could countenance anything so ridiculous.

Idealism held that we’re not free to choose for ourselves the way in which the mind shapes reality: this is something involuntary, determined independently of our will. Idealists and realists would agree completely on the facts of astronomy, mechanics, or medicine; it’s just that idealists considered these facts to be inescapably and irreducibly molded or ordered by our minds, while realists maintained they were descriptions of a reality which was independent of our minds—though of course the descriptions themselves were products of our minds.

In one sense, idealism is the diametric opposite of postmodernism, because idealism holds that the necessary structure of the mind—the same for all minds and indeed for all possible minds—determines how we must inescapably conceive of the world, while postmodernism holds that different and contradictory ways of conceiving the world can be equally valid (a view that would have been quite baffling to idealists). This diametric opposition was understood by at least some of the originators of postmodernism, who deliberately included Kant and Hegel among the ‘moderns’ they were repudiating.

A Misleading Depiction

One of the misleading things about Nelson’s account is that she supposes that because Hume and Kant are ranked by knowledgeable people as outstanding philosophers, therefore philosophy students are encouraged to read them uncritically. This is ludicrously far from the case. No one is taught Hume or Kant in a philosophy course without being given a barrage of standard objections to their arguments. The student will be told about naive realism, representative realism, and perhaps two or three forms of non-realism, the points in favor of each of these positions and the points against. There will be explanations of Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant, including criticisms which explain why much of these authors’ work is not accepted by philosophers today.

Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is acknowledged to be difficult (though no more difficult than, say, first-year college physics minus the math; Nelson’s contention, p. 143, that no one can make any sense of it is mistaken), and the student will probably use a short published ‘commentary’ or introductory guide. A short commentary will draw attention to things in Kant which can’t be accepted, things which are problematic because of specified objections, things where there is dispute about exactly what Kant meant (with attention to the vulnerability of what he meant on each interpretation), and so forth.

Anyone who regularly talks to a lot of faculty and grad students in philosophy departments knows that postmodernists are very thin on the ground, whereas they’re very thick in literary and ‘culture’ disciplines. The year before Quee’s book appeared, a little book by Paul Boghossian came out, Fear of Knowledge, straightforwardly debunking “relativism and constructivism” from a very conventional philosophical standpoint.

Here Boghossian points out that “anti-objectivist conceptions of truth and rationality” are generally rejected within academic philosophy, and as a result, there has been “a growing alienation of academic philosophy from the rest of the humanities and social sciences, leading to levels of acrimony and tension on American campuses that have prompted the label ‘Science Wars’” (Fear of Knowledge, p. 8).

Despite its simplicity and brevity, Boghossian’s book was favorably reviewed in prestigious philosophy journals. The review by Harvey Siegel concludes: “Boghossian has wise things to say concerning the contemporary split between ‘academic philosophy’, which by and large rejects the target views [relativism and constructivism], and the rest of the humanities and social sciences, which, unfortunately in Boghossian’s view as in my own, are far more welcoming of them.”

The truth is that contemporary philosophy tends to be realist and philosophers suffer because of their opposition to the fashionable anti-realism prevalent in other humanities disciplines. Meanwhile, Nelson spreads the story that mainstream academic philosophers are responsible for the non-realism of these non-philosophers, a story which is some considerable distance from the truth.

Nelson maintains that postmodernism derives its anti-realism from Hume and Kant and in general from skepticism about perception. But if you look at the arguments proponents of postmodernism offer for their anti-realism, you find that they appeal to cultural relativism and social constructivism, not to skepticism about perception, and if you look at current philosophical critiques of postmodernism, such as Boghossian’s Fear of Knowledge, you find that they barely mention skepticism about perception.

To take another example, in his excellent little introductory book on metaphysics, Peter van Inwagen, a realist philosopher well acquainted with non-realist thinking gives an account of idealism, the arguments for it and against it (pp. 58–67), and here discusses skepticism about perception, and separately he gives an account of modern non-realism, what I have been calling postmodernism, the arguments for it and against it (pp. 93–108), and here he doesn’t mention skepticism about perception.

I have said that Nelson gives the false impression that anglophone philosophers are predominantly non-realist. Mostly she does this by innuendo and rhetorical spin, but on page xi, she offers two pieces of direct evidence for her claim.

The first is a reference to John Heil as cited in Michael Devitt’s book Realism and Truth. Heil reported in 1989 that the number of current books advocating anti-realism exceeded the number of pro-realist books. This doesn’t tell you how many philosophers belong in one camp or the other, and the realist Devitt seems to acknowledge (p. xii) that his earlier impression that anti-realism was “rampant” was mistaken.

The second piece of evidence Nelson reports as follows: “One of the latest books from Oxford University Press still assures us of “our epistemological enlightenment, where we have corrected our ordinary, naive view, and accepted that external items are not accessible to sense-perception.” Here Nelson conveys the impression that the stated view is alive and kicking among philosophers, and perhaps that being published by Oxford University Press is a seal of approval for a work’s conclusions.

The book referred to here is by John Foster (1941–2009), well known as that peculiar and possibly unique anomaly, a contemporary advocate of Berkeleyan idealism. Oxford University Press publishes dozens of philosophy books every year, few of them advocate anti-realism, and almost none of them advocates idealism. John Searle’s 2015 book advocating direct realism (naive realism) was also published by Oxford University Press.

If you do a quick online search for reviews by philosophers of Foster’s books, you’ll easily find half a dozen, and if you read them you’ll find that almost all the reviews mention, in passing, the odd, bizarre, or unfashionable nature of Foster’s idealist position.

So, Nelson’s reference to Foster is misleading, and it is part of a seriously misleading pattern.

Where Hume and Kant Were Coming From

David Hume (1711–1776) thought that “philosophy” showed that belief in a ‘real’ world, existing independently of our awareness of it, was unfounded and indefensible. Since Hume was by temperament a hard-headed Scot, he found himself unable to accept this conclusion. He never did accept it, and he spent much of his life discussing the world based on the assumption that realism is true.

As Hume himself puts it, though “profound and intense reflection” leads to skepticism anent the world of independently-existing physical entities, “carelessness and inattention” come to the rescue, and anyone briefly convinced by skeptical arguments will find himself returning to realism within an hour (A Treatise of Human Nature, p. 218).

This is often called “the Humean shrug.” Though he believes that “philosophy” demonstrates that realism is indefensible, he thinks we have no alternative to accepting realism, even though we can only do so on completely slapdash and illogical grounds, because our rational faculties are overpowered by habit and short attention span, which automatically cause us to accept realism as a practical matter. Hume found this conclusion unwelcome, but he couldn’t see any way out, and he went on to take realism for granted in all his writings on religion, history, society, and economics.

Hume’s starting point is empiricism in the strict sense. Empiricism in the strict sense is the view that all human knowledge comes from experience or observation, which involves relying on the evidence of our senses. We accumulate knowledge by observing the world around us and by performing logical operations on our observations. We have sensory experiences, and from these we deduce the existence of tables, chairs, mountains, stars, and the rest of it. We start with an empty mind, a ‘tabula rasa’ (blank slate), and anything that gets into our mind gets there from observation, and therefore comes through our sense organs, such as our eyes and ears.

‘Empiricism’ in the looser, everyday sense means that we should take empirical evidence very seriously. All schools of philosophy are empiricist in this platitudinous sense, and from now on I will use the word ‘empiricism’ to mean only strict or empty-mind empiricism.

The impulse behind empiricism is the conviction that our view of the world is, or ought to be, derived from evidence about the world, and should not be prejudiced by gratuitous preconceptions. Since our evidence about the world can (according to empiricism) only be the information we get through our senses, our view of the world has to be derived from what our senses tell us, and from that alone.

Empiricism thus gives rise to the empiricist project or challenge: show that our common-sense or scientific ideas about the world are or can be derived from our observations of the world, and from nothing else, by a process of pure deduction.

Hume concludes that this cannot be done, that we can’t get, by any rationally defensible method, from accumulated observations (or sensory experiences) alone to a common-sense theory of the world (involving material objects, space and time, arithmetic, cause and effect, and so forth). For example, no observation of the world can ever, by itself, give us good evidence for causation. Hume acknowledges that some truths, such as 2 + 2 = 4, can be established by logical analysis, without any appeal to experience. But these are what Hume calls “relations of ideas,” not specific claims about material reality.

Since empiricists normally start out by wanting to be able to accept realism, empiricists down the centuries have labored long and hard to come up with a defensible way to reason from the evidence of the senses to the existence of physical entities (from now on let’s stipulate physical objects, except where otherwise stated, as the easiest type of physical entities to talk about).

Unfortunately for the empiricist project, once we accept that everything has to be deduced from the evidence of our senses, what ultimately must follow is that all our knowledge about the world is inferred from or constructed from our sensory experience. But since all our experiences are necessarily subjective and mental, this seems to imply that our view of the world is composed of elements that are subjective and mental. Thus, empiricism has sometimes led to idealism, the view that the world (or of any aspect of the world we can think about and talk about) is itself made up of subjective mental elements.

Some philosophers, to this day, agree with Hume throughout (only in broad outline, of course; all Hume scholars accept numerous detailed criticisms of Hume). They are empiricists who agree that empiricism shows realism to be rationally indefensible and they agree that we are in practice bound to accept realism, and thus they defend the “Humean shrug.” Hence the realist Willard Quine’s remark that “The Humean predicament is the human predicament” (quoted by Nelson, p. 38). Others are still trying to find a way to rehabilitate empiricism by reasoning from observations alone to an objective world of physical objects, or in other words, by demonstrating that induction can be valid. Some still hope to refute Hume’s demonstration of the impossibility of valid induction by deriving induction from Bayes’s theorem (a well-known theorem in probability theory). Good luck with that.

Quee’s Student and Professor make a total hash of Hume’s problem of induction. The Student comes out with inane remarks, and the Professor, since he is just Quee’s other glove-puppet, has no idea what to say and burbles irrelevantly. Nelson’s Student triumphantly asserts that something can be logically possible but physically impossible (p. 210), as though this were something Hume hadn’t thought of! Of course, Hume’s point here is precisely that the conclusion that something is physically impossible can never be deduced from observations alone.

Where do we get the notion that anything is physically impossible? It’s not a truth of logic, so according to empiricism, it must be derived from observation. What Hume has seen is that the claim that something is physically impossible is a conclusion supposedly derived from a finite number of instances, applied to an infinite number of instances. As we might say today, it is a conclusion derived from an infinitesimal bit of spacetime, applied to all of spacetime. Any such supposed inference is deductively invalid. (It is invalid according to modern logic and it is also invalid according to the more primitive and incomplete Aristotelian or syllogistic logic known to Hume.) So, Hume’s question is: What’s the basis for this conclusion, since it is not a truth of logic nor a logical inference from observations? A universal generalization, such as a scientific law or a piece of folk wisdom, can never be deduced from observations alone.

Hume demonstrates the incompatibility of empiricism and realism, but Hume doesn’t address the fact that this conclusion leaves it open which of these is to be discarded. He seemed to take for granted that empiricism is equivalent to “philosophy,” or at least, to high-quality philosophy. However, instead of rejecting realism, we can consider rejecting empiricism.

If empiricism be discarded, then we don’t have to start with an empty mind which is then filled with information from observations. We can start with a mind which, before it experiences anything, is already furnished with preconceptions or expectations. According to this approach, the human mind is not a blank slate at birth; it has plenty already written on it (by billions of years of natural selection, but neither Hume nor Kant knew that), and without that stuff that’s already written on it, the mind would be unable to form a picture of the world.

If this is right, then to defend realism requires abandoning empiricism. One way to abandon empiricism is to say that the mind is not tabula rasa but has built-in preconceptions. We can’t form a mental picture of nature without putting something of ourselves into our picture of nature, right from the get-go. This is what Kant thinks, and to this extent, Kant is right.

Kant maintains that the mind comes equipped with general faculties which impose ‘categories’ on our experience. These categories include time, space, causation, and number. Kant holds that, since these concepts cannot be logically derived from the data of experience, they must be already innate in the mind. He considers them indispensable preconditions to having meaningful experiences of the world, and not themselves logically derivable from experience of the world. This leads him to make a distinction between noumena (things in themselves) and phenomena (things as they appear to us in experience). We can’t experience things without ordering them according to the categories, and so we can never get at pure ‘things in themselves’ (things as they are before they are ordered by the categories).

Kant maintains that all observations are the combined product of external reality and mind-imposed ‘categories’, and that we cannot get anywhere by questioning these categories. For instance, we can’t conceive of objects existing without their existing in space. We cannot but conceive of objects as positioned in space, and we cannot question the fundamental nature of spatial relationships, because our minds are so constructed that we can only make sense of the world by thinking of it in terms of spatial relationships. Later neo-Kantians got rid of ‘things in themselves’, and thus became more unambiguous idealists, but this was a departure from Kant.

Everyone now accepts that no one can defend original Kantianism, not only because of the anti-idealist arguments of Russell and Moore in the 1890s and 1900s, but also because of Einstein’s revolution in physics. One of Kant’s assumptions (a very widely held assumption in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) is that Newton’s theory of celestial mechanics simply has to be true. Newton’s theory includes the Euclidean conception of space. We now accept that Newton’s theory is false and that space is not Euclidean.

Euclid is correct in the sense that the theorems follow from the axioms, but the axioms do not correctly map reality. Euclid’s world is fictional and therefore Newton’s world is fictional. The shortest distance between two points is not a straight line and the square of the hypotenuse is not equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, because spacetime is curved, something which Kant assumes that we can never seriously entertain as a possibility. Because of this, present-day Kantian metaphysicians like Michael Friedman have to accept that the ‘bounds of sense’ are much less constraining than Kant allowed, though they persist in maintaining that there are some bounds there.

If empty-mind empiricism can’t give us realism, whereas we can hope to get to realism by accepting that the human mind has built-in preconceptions, one possible conclusion, at first glance a very natural one, would be that some kind of guarantee of the truth of some propositions, perhaps very general propositions, is innate in the mind. That’s the way Kant reasoned.

But this step of Kant’s is mistaken, according to critical rationalism. Critical rationalism combines the ‘Kantian’ view that the mind has to contribute something logically prior to all experience with the ‘empiricist’ view that there are no guarantees of the truth of any claims about the way the world is, even the most general claims. (For a clear exposition of the critical rationalist position, as it emerges from the criticism and refutation of Hume and Kant, see Realism and the Aim of Science, pp. 31–88.)

(There is much more to Kant than I am mentioning here. For example, I am saying nothing about his argument from the “antinomies” or his use of the transcendental type of argument, both of which give him additional reasons to reject pure empiricism and supplement empiricism with self-evident truths known independently of experience.)

Critical rationalists say that Kant is right to conclude that the mind cannot make sense of the world unless it has built-in preconceptions which it tries to impose upon the world, but Kant is wrong in thinking that these preconceptions have to take the form of unquestionable, immovable truths. From a critical rationalist point of view, humans have an innate drive to jump to conclusions about the world, a thirst to believe in theories, along with the capacity to abandon any individual theory and replace it with a new and different theory. These theories can’t be inferred (by any valid logical process) from experience but can be suggested by experience, and once formed, can sometimes conflict with experience, and therefore can be tested against experience, possibly leading to their abandonment and replacement with new theories.

The mind is not a passive recipient of observations, but is an active explorer. Any active explorer has to begin with expectations or preconceptions. Observation must always be preceded by theory (including the unconscious theories which we only become aware that we held when they are surprisingly contradicted by experience).

The Ascent from Naivity to Physics

A classic argument against naive realism is the illusion of the bent stick. A straight stick half immersed in water looks (to someone with no prior experience of half-immersed sticks and not having been told about optics) as if it were bent. Usually, most of us learn at some point in childhood that the stick is not really bent, even though it looks bent.

Nelson’s Student has a fine old time ridiculing this point by appealing to the fact that most of us have experience of half-immersed sticks or have been told about optics (pp. 56–64). But this entirely misses the point. (Indeed, it implicitly denies the point, which is absurd. A straight stick half-immersed in water does indeed look bent.) It is question-begging to appeal to the common-sense conclusions we have accepted, as data, when what we are evaluating is precisely the claim that those conclusions were arrived at invalidly—that there is no logically sound way to get from experience to those conclusions.

Learning that the bent-looking stick is straight is one of many corrections we make to the infant’s ‘naive realism’ as we go through life. Another well-known case is the understanding that objects in the distance look smaller because they are further away. This understanding is not automatic but has to be discovered.

Traditionally, the BaMbuti Pygmies lived in the forest and never left it, their visibility always restricted to about a hundred yards. Colin Turnbull went to live among the BaMbuti to study them, and he took one of them outside the forest to the plains:

“As we turned to get back in the car, Kenge looked over the plains and down to where a herd of about a hundred buffalo were grazing some miles away. He asked me what kind of insects they were, and I told him they were buffalo, twice as big as the forest buffalo known to him. He laughed loudly and told me not to tell such stupid stories, and asked me again what kind of insects they were. He then talked to himself, for want of more intelligent company, and tried to liken the buffalo to the various beetles and ants with which he was familiar.

“He was still doing this when we got into the car and drove down to where the animals were grazing. He watched them getting larger and larger, and though he was as courageous as any Pygmy, he moved over and sat close to me and muttered that it was witchcraft. . . . Finally when he realized that they were real buffalo he was no longer afraid, but what puzzled him still was why they had been so small, and whether they really had been small and had suddenly grown larger, or whether it had been some kind of trickery.”

I grew up in England, where ambulances have a clearly marked two-note siren. As a child, I was vaguely aware that when an ambulance went by me, the pitch of its siren would drop. (According to my recollection, the fall in pitch was well over a whole-tone, in fact nearly a third, but this seems incredible now, and perhaps my memory has exaggerated it. Of course, the exact drop would depend upon how fast the ambulance was going.) I am sorry to say that I never figured out by myself that the drop in pitch was an illusion, caused by the fact that things emitting a sound and moving away from the hearer are perceived as having a lower pitch than things emitting the same sound and moving towards the hearer. It was only when I read about the Doppler Effect that it suddenly dawned on me that this was the explanation of something I had heard many times without paying attention (and, by the way, that I was an idiot). I surmise that there might even be some adults who never learn this, and continue to think that the pitch of a sound has dropped when really it has remained the same.

When I was four or five, I spent the summer with my grandparents in Rothesay, Isle of Bute. Walking with my grandfather I pointed to the sky and said “What are those white things?” He looked at me intently and said “Clouds,” or since he was a Scot, “Cloods.” I surmise he had a puzzle. Was I seriously retarded, or could it be that children from English cities had never seen clouds?

I had a puzzle, which, being an introvert and half-Scots, I would never mention. Did he mistake my question as referring to those big fluffy white things which were, obviously, duh, clouds? Or was he correctly answering my question, and was it the case that those objects I was asking about really were a special, rare type of cloud? Soon after this, I came to understand that these small semi-translucent circular white objects were not in the sky at all, but in my visual apparatus, that they were ‘floaters’ (and, by the way, that I was an idiot). My sharp awareness of the floaters was temporarily enhanced by the unusual experience of a ‘big sky’, undistracted by buildings, tall trees, or other objects.

We repeatedly make corrections to our picture or theory of the world, as we learn by trial and error to interpret the evidence of our senses more accurately. The naive realism of the toddler gives way to the less naive realism of the adult, and then to the even less naive realism of the scientifically informed adult.

You might wonder what happens in the first few weeks, months, and years following birth. We have recently come to know a lot about this, thanks to Alison Gopnik and her colleagues. The answer is that even more elementary ways of interpreting the world have to be learned by conjecture and refutation, or trial and error, the only way they could be arrived at. The fact that objects can continue to exist when they disappear from view has to be discovered by trial and error. Some of these things we learn so fast that it seems likely we have an inborn proclivity to learn them. For example, contrary to what used to be supposed (on the basis of armchair speculation), the baby understands he is an individual separate from the rest of the world by no later than the first few weeks after birth.

We learn from science that the Sun does not move across the sky, instead, the appearance of the Sun’s movement arises because the Earth is spinning. The stars do not twinkle; the appearance of twinkling is due to the interference of our planet’s atmosphere. We sometimes see a rainbow in the sky but there is no object there, corresponding to this rainbow; it’s a trick of the light. There is no pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow, not just because there are no leprechauns, but because there is no foot of the rainbow. There is no water in the desert in the experience of witnessing a mirage; another trick of the light. A pain in my toe is not in my toe at all; my brain makes a map of my body and the pain is in the ‘toe’ part of that map—hence, I can experience a completely genuine pain in my toe even if my legs have been amputated.

As we learn more and more, our realism becomes less and less naive. Educated people take for granted that the vast majority of the volume of a solid object such as a granite rock is empty space, and that there is more heat in an iceberg than in a red-hot poker, though these assertions, now common sense among the scientifically literate, would have sounded like mystical riddles as recently as two hundred years ago.

Bertrand Russell famously made the remark, quoted by Nelson, that “Naive realism leads to physics, and physics, if true, shows that naive realism is false.” (The Slightest Philosophy, p. 68).

Russell was fond of paradoxical-sounding bons mots, but the truth stated here, slightly misleadingly for paradoxical effect, is not a genuine paradox. When science corrects naive realism, the scientist replaces naive realism with a less naive realism, and this is in principle no different from the corrections a normal adult non-scientist has been making all her life. When a correction is made, all the previous observational history of the person making the correction is re-interpreted. Some parts or aspects of the earlier naive realism are preserved in the not-so naive realism that supplants it. The person, so to speak, checks to make sure that nothing she did when getting to the new theories relies upon the now discarded parts of the old theories.

Science refutes many notions held by naive realists, but it does so in such a way that we can (and do) adapt our common-sense notions to certain corrections by science. In doing so, science explains the partial or approximate truths contained in our early version of naive realism. It is a key part of critical rationalism that false theories, including theories once held to be true but now acknowledged to be refuted, can continue to be very useful.

The air of paradox in the Russell quote arises from our tendency to read it as saying that science is somehow indebted to uninformed naive realism. Although this is true in terms of chronological progression, it is not true in terms of the logic of statements. By the time someone is undertaking scientific enquiry, they have corrected and replaced their earlier naive realism. Thus the statement “Naive realism leads to physics” is parallel to “The belief that the Earth is stationery leads to the belief that the Earth is moving,” or “Newton’s theory of gravity leads to Einstein’s.”

Common sense is a set of theories of how things are, and as we become more scientifically educated, we understand that common sense uninformed by science includes false theories which require correction, though often false theories that have some workable approximation to the truth within a limited range. But a new common sense emerges among scientifically educated people. The new common sense is less naive than the common sense of the scientifically illiterate. The old picture is abandoned and the new picture is closer to the truth.

The new-born baby’s naive realism is corrected and revised, eventually leading to the very different naive realism of the toddler, which is further corrected and revised leading to the very different naive realism of the adult. If the adult paid attention in high-school science (and if the teacher still teaches any science instead of leftist ideology), his realism will be even more different and his conception of the world even more accurate. But the picture always remains incomplete; it may be indefinitely modified and improved.

If we ever get an opportunity, it would be fruitful to analyze the ‘common sense’ of a feral human, such as one raised by wolves. (Thanks to the techniques developed by Gopnik and others, we can now analyze what babies, and presumably feral humans, think about the world, even though we can’t literally ask them.) Past incidents of this phenomenon seem to show that the feral human is, once past a certain age, permanently unable to learn some aspects of even the most naive form of normal adult ‘common sense’. I conjecture that such a research project would find that exposure to language is essential for arriving at the adult’s naive common-sense view of the world. If so, this would indicate that mere observations of physical objects would never be enough for the child to acquire the rudiments of common-sense understanding. Even the most naive common sense of which we are normally aware is a highly elaborate theoretical system that might require an input from culture, especially language. If this were true, it would predict that a child raised from birth by a single adult in an isolated cottage, where the adult didn’t talk much, would be mentally retarded.

The Semantic Argument for Naive Realism

Nelson has an argument, which she apparently thinks is an argument for naive realism, which I can summarize as follows:

Skeptics have claimed that when we think we see external physical objects, what we really see are impressions, or appearances, or sensations, or sense-data from which we infer the existence of external physical objects. But this is wrong because we really do see external physical objects.

Her Chapter 3 is particularly concerned with this issue, though it makes numerous appearances elsewhere in her book.

The thing you have to be clear about when approaching any argument like this is that it is semantic. It’s not talking about the way things are in the world, independently of our discussion, but only about the rules governing the way we talk about things in the world. Here the assertion is that we’re not allowed to use the verbs ‘see’ or ‘perceive’ in a particular way, even though that way is part of actual English usage. If you fail to grasp this point, you will be bewitched by mere words and unable to talk any sense about actual perception.

The simple fact is that in English, we can use ‘see’ or ‘perceive’ either to refer to the experience of seeing or perceiving, or to refer to the experience of seeing or perceiving when that experience is appropriately linked to the existence of an independently-existing object seen or perceived.

Nelson supposes that the word ‘see’ must be used either for seeing a physical object (when it’s really there, and the appropriate causal connections between the object and our visual apparatus are in place), or for having the experience of seeing a physical object (when this might be a hallucination, and the object might not be really there, or the appropriate causal connections might not be in place).

In correct English, the word ‘see’ can be used for both, and it has several other meanings too (such as ‘understand’, ‘ensure’, or ‘match a bet’). Many words in natural languages have several meanings, sometimes related, though distinct, other times not obviously related. Take the word ‘table’ for instance. And I recently wrote an article in which I discussed two quite different though related meanings of the word ‘fact’.

Nelson’s “Student” and “Professor” go on for page after page arguing to no effect because they don’t acknowledge the simple truth that the word ‘see’ has both meanings in English. This is allowing yourself to be bewitched by words.

Nelson says that “if the relationship between your brain and your retina is called ‘seeing’, then we’re going to need a new word to refer to the relationship between your eyeball and a boat on the horizon” (p. 53). No, that is simply a false statement about English usage. We have to accept that, in the English language, the word ‘see’ has more than one meaning, just as many other words do. The word ‘see’ can be a phenomenological report, describing a subjective experience, or it can be a claim to have had that subjective experience in an appropriate causal relation to a real external object.

Both uses or senses of ‘seeing’ occur in English. It’s somewhat ironic that Nelson gives a chapter the title “Seeing Things.” ‘Seeing things’ is a standard and very common term in English for hallucinating—seeing things that aren’t there and don’t exist at all.

It’s a fact about the English language that ‘see’ has more than one meaning, and can be used to apply to subjective visual experiences with no external correlate. If you were instructing a foreigner learning English that the word ‘see’ could not be used in this way, you would be telling him an untruth and impairing his grasp of English.

You might wish that ‘see’ did not have this meaning in English (and the corresponding term in, at least, all closely related languages I’m aware of, such as French, German, and Spanish). You might propose that we adopt a different convention for epistemological discussions, and get rid of this meaning of ‘see’. This is what some philosophers, including some quoted by Nelson, have proposed. You might even make this proposal as a linguistic change in the English language, the way some folks advocate that we should load the language up with 272 pronouns to stand for 272 ‘genders’. But as things are, the use of ‘see’ to denote the experience of awareness of a mental image is normal, correct English.

The fact that there is a logical gap between our experience of seeming to perceive an external object and the actual existence of the external physical object is not a fact that can be made to go away by any mere analysis of terminology.

Since I was reviewing Nelson’s book, I skimmed through John Searle’s recent book in which he advocates naive realism, though he prefers to call it “direct realism.” Searle is an outstanding philosopher and I was much impressed by his work on intentionality and on consciousness (though I was already prepared for the possibility that he might screw up badly, because of his really terrible attempt to derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’.)

I found that he has an argument essentially the same as Nelson’s. Searle says that we “directly” perceive external physical objects, and that when we mistakenly think we’re perceiving an object (mistaken because there’s really no object there) we’re not actually perceiving anything.

This argument, in its Nelsonian or Searlian form, is a linguistic or semantic argument. It is pure talk about talk, and even as such it is false. It claims that what we mean by ‘seeing’ is seeing an external physical object, and that therefore it must be wrong to say that we ‘really see’ some intermediate mental entity between ourselves and the external physical object. This is simply a false allegation about correct English usage. Other writers, some of them quoted by Searle, who say that we only ‘see’ in the sense of having a visual experience, and that we don’t really see external objects, are of course equally wrong.

Thus Nelson’s and Searle’s arguments (really the same argument) fail. We can be said to see something intermediate between the object and ourselves. But also, it’s not essential to talk that way. In other words, it’s a fact about English that ‘seeing’ (in one sense) can be used as synonymous with ‘seeming to see’ (where ‘see’ has another sense). We can put the same point differently by saying, for example, by saying that we can have the same visual experience whether or not there is really some external object (and precisely the appropriate external object) causing that visual experience. Whether or not we choose to say that the experience without the object is a case of ‘seeing’ is simply a question of freedom of choice within linguistic convention and gives us no information whatsoever about perception or epistemology.

The fact that the Nelson-Searle argument is purely semantic can be confirmed by translating the traditional discussion of perception, including the arguments for representative realism, into Nelsonian or Searlian terminology. Instead of saying that we ‘see’ an immediate ‘object’ of sensory experience, we can say that we ‘seem to see’ or that we have ‘a visual experience of’. The arguments are unchanged by this translation, and still make the same sense, confirming that the Nelson-Searle argument is exclusively about the meanings of words.

Other Arguments for Direct Realism

Searle, of course, gives other arguments for what he calls direct realism, and I won’t try to cover most of them here. I will mention one argument, because it’s very simple, and he finds it completely convincing while I find it totally unpersuasive. The same argument is given by Armstrong—both of them acknowledge getting it from Berkeley (who used it to argue against representative realism and therefore in favor of non-realism).

Searle’s argument is that representative realism claims that the sense data (or whatever we want to call the subjective experience of perceiving) resemble the object perceived. He says this can’t be right because the object perceived is invisible and undetectable except via the sense data, therefore the sense data and the object cannot be said to resemble each other. He claims this is like saying I have two cars in the garage which resemble each other even though one is completely invisible (Seeing Things as They Are, pp. 225–26).

But how can Searle avoid saying that the experience we have of seeing something has some resemblance to the object seen? If it doesn’t, it can’t allow us to conclude that we are ‘seeing things as they are’, can it?

Anyway, this argument proves too much, because it rules out all cases of becoming aware of B through awareness of A, where there is no other way to become aware of B. Searle’s argument would imply that it must always be wrong to say that a model we have mentally constructed of some phenomenon we have detected resembles the phenomenon. And this is trivially false.

For example, consider the technique of observing the structure of deep layers of the Earth by means of tomography. (Think of the guy looking at the computer screen in Dante’s Peak.) There is no other way to observe this structure except through tomography, but we don’t therefore conclude it’s meaningless to say that the graphic which appears on the screen resembles the structure of the deeper levels of the Earth.

You might object to this that it is not a pure case of perception, since we are using normal vision to look at the graph on the computer screen. This is actually irrelevant, but if it bothers you, imagine that, some time in the future, when for some reason it becomes vitally important to be aware of changes in the structure of deep levels of the Earth, people’s brains are wired to the tomography equipment, so that they don’t look at a screen but just see the graphic as a visual experience. People would be perceiving the structure of deep layers of the Earth, by dint of the fact that they were having a subjective experience of seeing something which resembled the deep layers of the Earth. Searle would have to say they are directly perceiving the deep layers of the Earth and Nelson would have to say they are naively seeing them.

After all, what does ‘resemblance’ mean, in the context of perception? It means that the mental entity gives us information about the external entity perceived. For example, a histogram showing the weight by age of the US population resembles the distribution of weight by age in the US population, and we can say this because the former gives us information about the latter. Again, if it bothers you, imagine that people’s brains are wired to the output of the research organization which collects and processes this statistical data, and they then have the experience of seeing a histogram. We would then be perceiving the distribution of weight by age in the US population, and we could say that our experience of perceiving the histogram (which would exist only inside our skulls) resembles the actual distribution of weight by age in the US population, something that we would have no other means of observing.

Someone might feebly object that providing information is not the same as resemblance, but in that case we can say that representative realists don’t need to employ the word ‘resemblance’. The representative realist can simply say that the experience of seeing, when it is veridical, gives us information about the object seen.

We come up with the hypothesis that physical objects exist, in order to make sense of our subjective experiences of perception. Generally, we come up with this hypothesis in our first couple of weeks outside the womb. How can that seriously be disputed?

If I have two cars in the garage, one of which is invisible, and we’re thinking about the hypothesis that properties of the visible car are caused by properties of the invisible car, then it makes perfect sense to say that the visible car resembles the invisible car. This assertion would be the statement of a hypothesis, a guess, a surmise, a conjecture, of course. But all our statements or beliefs about the world are hypotheses, guesses, surmises, or conjectures. They can never be anything else, or so I surmise.

The title of Searle’s book is Seeing Things as They Are. But this might be taken as hyperbole. Aside from optical illusions, which are everywhere, our perceptions are highly selective: we don’t see an object’s mass, chemical composition, electrical charge, radio-activity, ultra-violet ‘color’, or temperature. There could be an organism which saw all these, but did not see size, shape, or color in the human-visible range. Presumably such an organism would, according to Searle, also be seeing things directly (or, according to Nelson, naively) and ‘as they are’, even though its visual experience or sense-data would be very different from ours. Presumably a bat which perceives objects by echolocation also perceives things, naively or directly, as they are. And the same goes for a dragonfly or a paramecium. So, there could be many quite distinct ways of ‘seeing things as they are’ which were vastly different. I won’t say this is an incorrect use of the phrase ‘seeing things as they are’, but it’s a bit different from the most natural and immediate understanding of that phrase, according to which there would be just one form of visual appearance which could be called ‘seeing things as they are’. In that sense, there is no such thing as seeing things as they are, and never conceivably could be, because there are many different ways of seeing things, not one of them privileged over the others. In that sense, we can only see things as they are represented, though we can speculate about the accuracy of the representation, and even subject it to tests, perhaps improving it.

Is There Some Representational Entity between Perceiver and Perceived Object?

People who defend naive or direct realism sometimes frame it like this: when we perceive a physical object, there is nothing, such as a mental state or distinctive subjective experience, intermediate between us and the object.

This strikes me as so absurd that it is not even intelligible. Nonetheless, naive or direct realists do tend to use turns of phrase that evoke it. They seem uncomfortable with any admission that there is anything which might be called sensa or sense-data. The vague notion that it’s possible to deny the existence of any ‘intermediate entity’ may be what unconsciously lies behind the appeal to the purely semantic argument I refuted earlier.

Nelson agrees that “it’s hard to object to the claim that we can perceive an oncoming freight train only by means of data we have gathered by means of our senses” (p. 14). Indeed, very hard! This looks like a grudging admission that sense-data do exist, but one page later, Nelson refers to “representationalist reifications,” insinuating that the data we have gathered by means of our senses don’t really exist. (To reify is to culpably treat an abstraction as though it had concrete existence.) As we read on, later in her book, we continue to get the feeling that Nelson has a hard time letting go of the ‘absolutely unmediated’ theory.

Some naive realists apparently feel that if they grant the existence of something intermediate, such as a person’s subjective experience identical to that involved in perceiving an external object, they will have given the representative realist a foot in the door. That’s right!

Historically, some sense-data theorists got themselves into a pickle because, being mostly materialists, they felt they had to try and explain sense-data in terms of the physics of perceptual processes. If my experience of seeing a tree is not the tree (obviously correct), and not in the tree (also obviously correct), then perhaps it’s somewhere in my optical apparatus, such as in my retinas or in my brain. Hence the many different views and coined jargons in this area. But I would say that we might not yet know enough about subjective mental processes to explain them in worked-out physical specifics. (There can be little dispute that the subjective experience of perception occurs somewhere inside the perceiver’s skull.)

We can explain the essential point here and elsewhere in purely phenomenological terms (we can stick to the subjective experience without trying to translate it into physics or physiology). Whether we see a tree or have a hallucination of seeing a tree, we have a certain type of visual experience. The visual experience is common to seeing a tree and hallucinating seeing a tree. (It’s also common to a third type of possibility, for instance that we’re seeing a hologram of a tree.) That visual experience of seeing something is the kind of thing that used to be called a sense-datum. The term ‘sense-datum’ is currently still in some bad odor (which arose because of many philosophers’ involvement, in the 1950s and 1960s, with the vogue for ‘linguistic philosophy’ or ‘ordinary-language philosophy’, derived from J.L. Austin and the later Wittgenstein). I don’t care whether we rehabilitate it or drop it. We can call it a perceptual-seeming experience, or whatever. It is something that objectively exists, as any subjective experience objectively exists, and in the case where the perception is veridical, it is intermediate between the perceiver and the external object perceived.

I will briefly mention one elementary blunder often made by naive or direct realists I have talked with. They think that seeing something on television, or in a mirror, or through a telescope is indirect whereas seeing something with the naked eye is ‘direct’. This distinction is bogus. If seeing something with the naked eye is direct, then seeing something on television, or in a mirror, or through a telescope must be direct.

I see some things with the aid of spectacles. I could use contact lenses. Or I could have laser surgery on the lenses of my eyes. It should be obvious that there is no distinction in principle between these three. My body has equipment, and it can make no difference in principle if I artificially modify or augment my body’s equipment. When Armstrong or Searle call themselves ‘direct realists’, the directness does not lie in the causal process of perception, but in the alleged non-existence of the sensory experience as an object of perception.

Some deaf people can be cured of their deafness by installing a cochlear implant in their skull. This equipment works on completely different principles than the natural human apparatus of hearing. But, after a bit of practice by the patient, the result (when the operation is successful) is very similar (as described in Michael Chorost’s book Rebuilt). It is clear that we can’t reasonably say that the cochlear implant is any more or less direct than the natural system. Artificiality in itself does not make perception any less direct (and epistemology fails unless it easily encompasses cyborgs).

If any perception is direct, then all perception is direct. However, as a matter of fact, all conscious perception is indirect, and can only be indirect, in the sense that the experience of perception is not the external object perceived, and persons do conjecture the existence of the external object perceived to account for their experiences of perception.

Is This a Hallucination which I See Before Me?

In an attempt to head off the implications of the fact that people sometimes hallucinate—seeing things that aren’t there—Nelson (through her glove-puppet Student) maintains that hallucinations are always misinterpretations of something that’s really there (pp. 74–75). So there are no genuine hallucinations, only misinterpretations of things perceived. This bold claim heroically contradicts everything that psychologists know about hallucinations.

For example, there are about one million sufferers from Parkinson’s Disease in the US, and over a third of them experience hallucinations, most commonly seeing someone they know who isn’t really there, often someone who has died (Oliver Sacks thinks that these hallucinations are not due to the disease, but to the medications). These Parkinson patients see a real person, large as life, in complete detail, every hair in place, a few feet away from themselves.

Are these sick people misinterpreting a speck of dust or a ray of light as a human being? There’s no evidence for this, and if it were true, the gap between the objective stimulus and the hallucinated object would be enormous; for most purposes the situation would be the same as an apparent perception with no external stimulus at all.

In any case, arguing for skepticism about perception by appealing to hallucinations or illusions is ultimately merely illustrative and rhetorical. If, as far as we could tell, perception were always one hundred percent veridical, there would still be a logical gap between the subjective experience of perceiving an object and the independent existence of that object, though I admit it might then be tougher, as a practical matter, to get anyone interested in that fact.

Searle says that he prefers the term ‘direct realism’ to ‘naive realism’, because ‘naive realism’ has become associated with a group of philosophers known as disjunctivists (Seeing Things as They Are, p. 15). The fact that Nelson seems to deny that one can have the same subjective experience when hallucinating as when seeing a real object makes me surmise that possibly Nelson is a disjunctivist. But since I haven’t read much of the literature on disjunctivism and since Nelson’s definition of naive realism is so very obscure, I’m not sure of that.

Armstrong’s Three Arguments against Representationalism

I have said that Armstrong’s 1961 book is the best statement I have seen of a case for direct or naive realism. Armstrong starts by assuming that in the theory of perception there are three live alternatives, representative realism, direct realism, and phenomenalism. Armstrong has a chapter on the refutation of phenomenalism (much of which I agree with) and a chapter on the refutation of representative realism, in which he presents three arguments.

First, he says that according to the claim that sense-impressions are the only immediate objects of perception, we can have no reason to believe that there are physical objects. But, as I have pointed out, talk about what is or is not an immediate object of perception (or immediately perceived) is nothing more than talk about talk. If we recast the same point in different language, we remain with a logical gap between experience and external objects, and so the same objection applies to direct realism. The direct realist does not deny that a subjective experience of perception is essential to perception, nor that the subjective experience of perception is not the external object perceived, nor that the properties of the subjective experience of perception are not the properties of the external object perceived.

Armstrong states that if the representative theory is correct, “we have no evidence at all for passing from the immediate perception of sense-impressions to the mediate perception of physical objects” (p. 29). This is pure Hume, and as far as it goes, properly interpreted, it is perfectly correct.

Armstrong then considers the point that although we have no inductive evidence of the existence of the physical world, “we might form the hypothesis of the existence of the physical world; and, having formed it, we might find that it served to explain the regularities and irregularities in the flow of our sense-impressions” (p. 30). This is excellent, but Armstrong avoids the natural conclusion with the following interesting passage:

“The objection seems just, and blunts the edge of the argument. But it does not turn it altogether. For surely we are not prepared to degrade bodies into hypotheses? We want to say that our assurance of the existence of the physical world is far stronger than any assurance we could obtain by indirectly confirming a theory. If the Representative theory were true, it would be proper to have a lurking doubt about the existence of the physical world. Yet such a doubt does not seem to be proper” (p. 30).

This passage begins with a careless slip, since it is not bodies themselves which are being “degraded” into hypotheses, but our assertion or belief or theory that there are bodies. We may want to say that our assurance of this or that is stronger than any assurance we could obtain by indirectly confirming a theory, but if so, that want must be forever unrequited. The assurance we get from indirectly confirming a theory is the strongest possible assurance for any statement or belief. That’s as strong as it gets. Some might say that logical truths are stronger, and I don’t dismiss that out of hand, however no one claims that the existence of physical objects is a logical truth. The whole passage tends to confound our subjective feelings of conviction with what we can logically demonstrate.

Armstrong’s second argument is the one about resemblance, which I have already refuted in reference to Searle. And again, the essentially semantic nature of the question as posed by Armstrong and Searle means that the objection simply reappears with direct realism, for, setting aside the language of direct and indirect perception, the fact remains that the subjective experience of perception has qualities quite different from the objective properties of physical objects. This logical gap cannot be made to go away, which is of course why we ought to acknowledge that the subjective experience represents the physical object.

Armstrong’s third argument I find difficult to understand. He claims that it makes no sense to think of a physical object that can in no way be “immediately perceived” (p. 33). Again, this is leaning heavily on the semantics. He says that we can’t say that all perception of external objects is mediate, because this implies that they could be immediate, and if they could be immediate they must sometimes be immediate (that doesn’t sound like a fair summary, as it is so obviously wrong, but it is the best I can make of what he says on p. 33).

This kind of reasoning is fallacious. Just as we can entertain the possibility that there are no disembodied minds, no living things that don’t respire, or no particles lacking relativistic mass, so we can entertain the possibility that there are no examples of conscious perception without a subjective representation which is distinct from the external object perceived (but which conveys information about the object perceived and in that sense resembles it).

Political Implications of Epistemology

Views like Nelson’s have often been prevalent among libertarians, usually stemming from Ayn Rand, though as far as I noticed (Nelson has no index) Rand is not mentioned by Nelson. And I don’t know whether Rand, though she was certainly extremely naive in some ways, would have admitted to being a naive realist.

Libertarians who embrace certain metaphysical or epistemological views often believe that these views are somehow congenial to libertarianism, whereas any views they find unconvincing are the first steps to the Gulag. I criticized some of these theories about the link between epistemology and politics in my 2002 article ‘Ayn Rand and the Curse of Kant’ and here I will just add a few observations.

As Nelson seems to uneasily acknowledge, historical claims about the causal relation between philosophy and politics have nothing to do with the merits of the philosophical theory in question. For instance (an example she mentions, p. 140), supposing it to be true that Darwinism caused the Holocaust, this would have exactly no bearing on the truth or value of Darwinism as a scientific theory.

So, even if it were true that skepticism about perception had to lead to the Gulag and the Final Solution, this would not affect the question of whether skepticism about perception is sound or reasonable. But it would be saddening, and to some discouraging, if it were the case that the dissemination of a sound (or even minimally defensible) philosophical analysis led by necessity to a horrendous political outcome. I don’t think we have to worry about that, because the kind of historical causation from philosophy to politics advanced by Rand, Peikoff, Kelley, and Nelson clashes with the historical evidence at so many points.

Nelson gives us no extended discussion of politics in this book, but she sprinkles in brief remarks about politics here and there. Here are some examples.

She repeatedly associates David Hume with Nazism (pp. 222, 231, 239). The only tangible link mentioned is that Johann Georg Hamann and Johann Gottlieb Fichte each admired Hume and each influenced German nationalism. So this, as Huck Finn might say, is a stretch.

She attributes Jonathan Edwards’s role in the Great Awakening, and the fact that some of Edwards’s followers burned books, to the fact that Edwards held to a quasi-Berkeleyan idealism (pp. 228–230). But many evangelical preachers with more impact than Edwards, such as the Wesleys and Whitefield, don’t seem to have been influenced by skepticism about perception. Evangelical ‘revivals’ may be explicable by common factors such as residual Christian beliefs among the population at large, plus people’s innate desire for an all-embracing theory that will help to make sense of their lives, plus the new theological idea (preached by the Moravians and from thence transmitted to John Wesley) that a kind of emotional born-again experience could provide the believer with assurance of salvation.

Book burning has been an occasional feature of Christianity for two thousand years. Edwards was a Calvinist, and the Calvinists sometimes burned books, two centuries before Edwards (or Berkeley). The Calvinists in Geneva not only burned Servetus’s writings, but, just to be on the safe side, burned Servetus too. It’s excessively creative to scan the history of Christian book-burning, find this one preacher who was a philosophical idealist, and attribute the book-burning by some of his followers (not by him) to his idealism (of which those followers were probably unaware). Nelson says Edwards was “inspired” by his idealism, which goes beyond the evidence. Robert Lowell wrote a poem perhaps implying that Edwards was inspired by his observations of spiders, equally a stretch, though more forgivable in a poem.

Out of all the dozens of evangelical preachers, who are realists, just one of them is (in his philosophical writings unknown to the wider public) an idealist. Therefore idealism causes evangelical revivals. The logic is certainly . . . impressive.

Since I have already warned that I might ramble, I will also draw attention to the fact, often briefly mentioned in the literature on Berkeley, that there is a tension between idealism and Christian doctrine. Berkeley, a bishop in the Church of Ireland, had to watch his step. The Bible is realist. The teaching that God became flesh in Christ does not easily harmonize with the notion that flesh is nothing more than an idea in the minds of various persons. Genesis 2:7 tells us that God made man out of the dust of the ground. So, the dust of the ground predated man. And so on.

The fact that proponents of traditional religion would sometimes point to the skeptical literature to support their resort to ‘faith’ doesn’t have the ominous ramifications that Nelson imputes to it (pp. 40–41). There are many such historical facts; people use whatever arguments they find to hand. For instance, defenders of traditional religion will sometimes say that science keeps changing its mind (which is true), while some sacred scripture stays the same (also true). This shouldn’t make us look askance at the fact that science is always open to revision.

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Christian teachers pointed to skeptical arguments as showing how we couldn’t rely on our own abilities to get at the truth, and should therefore accept what Christianity taught. Nelson apparently concludes that philosophical skepticism strengthened belief in Christianity. But does Nelson really suppose that if these skeptical arguments hadn’t been published, those Christian teachers would have volunteered that Christian doctrine was open to doubt? In any case, this was just one response. The more orthodox line was that basic elements of the religion, such as the existence of God, could be demonstrated by natural reason.

One of Nelson’s cute throwaway lines is: “A Cambodian guerrilla deep in a steaming jungle carries a paperback copy of Rousseau, and the next thing you know, a million people are dead” (p. 17). Did I somehow miss the memo that the Khmer Rouge renounced Marxism-Leninism and went back to Rousseau? This would imply, for example, that the Khmer Rouge must have repudiated collectivism in favor of private ownership.

Although historians disagree about the extent of Rousseau’s influence on the American Founding Fathers, no one would dispute that there was some appreciable influence. A thousand times more likely than a Khmer Rouge soldier carrying a copy of Rousseau is one of George Washington’s soldiers carrying a copy of Rousseau or Hume, and this would account for the fact that the United States immediately became a totalitarian dictatorship. Oh, wait . . .

How might metaphysical anti-realism lead to hideously repressive forms of government? Two stories are detectable in Nelson. The first is that being skeptical about perception, or doubting objective reality, directly has the effect of making you more prone to totalitarian views. The second is that skepticism about perception historically caused romanticism (which includes disbelief in the efficacy of reason, or valuing emotion above reason), and romanticism historically caused totalitarianism. That’s where Rousseau comes in, since he has been seen as the father of romanticism. But Rousseau influenced Kant, not Kant Rousseau, which looks to be the wrong way around.

A problem with historical cause-and-effect stories like this is that they depend on numerous thinking individuals reacting deterministically in a specific manner to a specific situation. So, people who are skeptics about perception must be bound to respond by valuing emotion above reason (and anyone who values emotion above reason must not be doing it for any other reason than skepticism about perception). But if they’re bound to, why does it take generations for them to do it? Then, someone who values emotion above reason (and we must assume that there’s nothing else to romanticism) must respond by becoming politically totalitarian in outlook (and there must be no other reason why anyone would become totalitarian in outlook). If any of these postulates doesn’t hold, the theory is in trouble.

Other questions follow thick and fast. For instance, German metaphysics when the middle-aged Kant started his revolution, was dominated by the rationalism of Christian Wolff. Would something less or more anti-realist have come along if Kant had died at the age of fifty-six, or would Wolffian rationalism have continued? I suggest we just can’t say. Were Rousseau’s proto-romantic writings somehow connected with skepticism about perception? I doubt it. And is it self-evident that Rousseau’s influence, in its net effect, favored totalitarianism? Nelson alludes to something called “romantic totalitarianism” (p. 231). Really? Is that a thing? If the works of Byron, Berlioz, or Poe somehow advanced the cause of totalitarianism, must we accept the corollary that Balzac, Stravinsky, or Joyce fought back on liberty’s behalf?

What tends to happen with believers in such a wondrously far-fetched story is that they cite a few cases which comply with the story, or cases which their own limited knowledge enables them to falsely suppose comply with the story. However, a few compliant cases do not really corroborate such an ambitious theory of historical causation. All cases, or at least a big majority, must conform, or we ought to discard the story.

For example, what made a lot of people support totalitarianism in the twentieth century? What we find, if we look at the evidence (and I have looked), is that totalitarianism emerged out of economic collectivism. And people became economic collectivists for specific, identifiable reasons: popular theories about economics pointed to collectivism. These economic theories owed nothing to skepticism about perception or to romanticism.

So, to take one strand out of many (but the most prominent strand), if we examine the historical record of those who became socialists, and more particularly Marxists, we observe a number of things. They were epistemological realists, and they denounced skepticism about perception as the worst philosophical crime. They were not romantics by ideological background, but if anything, anti-romantics, adherents of what has sometimes been called scientism or ‘scientific ideology’. They had quite specific reasons for thinking that socialism was both preferable to capitalism and the inevitable successor to capitalism, and these reasons (the most important of which I enumerate in ‘Ayn Rand and the Curse of Kant’) had nothing to do with romanticism and everything to do with a self-consciously ‘rational’, scientific approach.

Nelson’s epistemological views are similar to those of dialectical materialism, the ruling ideology of the USSR. Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism has essentially the same anti-skeptical metaphysics as The Slightest Philosophy, and The Slightest Philosophy (leaving out the few sentences directly about politics) would have been heartily applauded by the ideological commissars of Soviet Communism in its heyday. The Slightest Philosophy could, making allowance for references to more recent developments, have been written by a very devout Communist Party member circa 1930. (I know, you’re wondering whether this means that The Slightest Philosophy will cause a million or more deaths. I hope not, but we can’t be too careful.)

How does it come about that the first and greatest totalitarian regime of the twentieth century, and a major causal influence on all the others, had a strictly imposed official philosophy which made a huge point of insisting that skepticism about perception is philosophically the root of all evil? Why did Communist philosophers always talk about perception exactly like Quee Nelson?

Nelson alludes to Frederick Engels’s 1843 claim that German philosophy ought to culminate in communism (pp. 30–31). But if we look at this remark by Engels, it should be understood in exactly the opposite way to Nelson’s construal.

The young Marx and Engels, formerly Young Hegelians, were suddenly converted to the atheism, realism, and materialism of Ludwig Feuerbach and David Friedrich Strauss. This conversion signified a conscious and systematic rejection of idealism. Engels considered that Feuerbach’s materialism brought an end to German philosophy and directly pointed to communism (though Engels thought it was a failure on Feuerbach’s part that he did not perceive that materialism implies communism, just as presumably Nelson might think it a failure on Quine’s part that he didn’t see that realism implies laissez-faire capitalism). It’s no exaggeration to say that in Engels’s thinking as in Marx’s, it is the total repudiation of all idealism and the unconditional acceptance of realism which points to communism.

Engels’s slightly coy statement in his brief article of 1843, quoted by Nelson, was succeeded by The German Ideology (1846) and Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886), where Engels’s and Marx’s hostility to idealism and their view of a tight connection between materialism and communism are spelled out in great detail. Just to be clear, I don’t accept that any metaphysical or epistemological theory implies or causes any social or political theory, much less any political movement. Yet it would be easy to formulate a thesis that the rejection of skepticism about perception and the embrace of metaphysical realism lead to totalitarianism; after all, we observe that totalitarians are usually motivated by certainty, not doubt. I don’t think there’s anything in such a thesis, but at least it would not be as spectacularly contrary to the historical evidence as Quee’s thesis is.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell has the Party boss O’Brien propound the theory of “collective solipsism,” according to which reality is whatever the Party says it is. Nelson says that Orwell is “caricaturing collectivist epistemology” (p. 31). But was there, as a matter of fact, any collectivist epistemology to caricature? I discuss this point in my book on Orwell (Orwell Your Orwell, pp. 307–311).

Although O’Brien’s argument is a remarkable anticipation of some aspects of social constructivism (these had been prefigured by Otto Neurath and by Mannheim’s ‘sociology of knowledge’ but it’s doubtful that Orwell knew of these), we have to be clear that no actual totalitarian regime has ever employed the “collective solipsism” type of reasoning, and it’s very unlikely that any actual totalitarian regime ever could, because totalitarian regimes, when they tell untruths (or even truths which they find it useful to draw attention to), always intend to communicate that what they say is true by the traditional absolute and objective standard of truth. Orwell is not caricaturing any existing “collectivist epistemology” but inventing a fictional epistemology in order to caricature totalitarian practice.

Notoriously, the Communist parties would sometimes suddenly switch their position on various issues, saying the opposite today of what they had said yesterday, and sometimes propagating falsehoods to help justify the current party line. Actually, this aspect of Stalinism was barely noticed by most non-leftists, while non-Communist socialists like Orwell were always acutely aware of it. The Wobblies even had a song about it (“Our Line’s Been Changed Again”).

Orwell applies to this phenomenon the type of satire he had learned from Jonathan Swift: he has the totalitarians preaching what he considers them to be practicing. The Communists never did preach anything like this; in fact, as fanatical adherents of materialism, a form of metaphysical realism, they always preached the opposite.

Orwell’s hero Winston Smith expresses the view, against the Ingsoc Party, that “reality is something external, objective, existing in its own right.” It doesn’t surprise anyone knowledgeable about Communist thinking to learn that the leading Communist ideological authority Rajani Palme Dutt, responding in 1955 to Nineteen Eighty-Four, commented that this remark by Winston Smith states what is in fact the Communist view (Meyers, George Orwell, pp. 287–88).

Finally look at this sentence by Nelson: “In the same century that Heidegger, Habermas, and DeMan imbibed totalitarian collectivism as National Socialists, Althusser, Gramsci, Sartre, Camus, Putnam, and Rorty imbibed it as international socialists” (p. 30). You might think that Nelson is here giving us evidence—looks like quite an accumulation of evidence!—for her historical thesis. But exactly what does this all amount to?

What three writers “imbibed” (one of them as a child, one as a young adult, the other in middle age) hardly shows that their distinctive philosophical views resulted from the ideology they imbibed, or vice versa. After the war, none of these three showed any obvious political influence of National Socialism. It’s not playing fair to smear Habermas because he was a schoolboy under the Third Reich. Heidegger seems to have cheerfully embraced the National Socialist regime partly because of career opportunism. To what extent he was a realist or an idealist is sometimes debated (this is the ambiguity of Husserl’s legacy, though Heidegger’s ‘being in the world’ has been seen by some as an attempted answer to Humean skepticism), but at any rate he was no romantic and he didn’t endorse National Socialism before it came to power or after it had been overthrown. De Man (presumably Paul, not his uncle Henri/Hendrik) wrote some antisemitic stuff in Nazi-occupied Belgium, apparently for reasons of self-preservation and self-advancement (for he discreetly helped out individual Jews he knew). After the war he promoted deconstructionism in literary theory. He doesn’t appear to have been influenced by skepticism about perception. He wrote a book on romanticism, which might be considered an unmasking of romanticism’s pretensions.

Gramsci and Althusser were both materialists, therefore hardcore realists (Gramsci’s concept of revolutionary praxis is not, despite what you sometimes hear, a departure from philosophical materialism; there is a question mark over Althusser’s last writings, but they have had no influence). Neither Gramsci nor Althusser were romanticists. Sartre and Camus were philosophical realists and in their literary output decidedly unromantic. Putnam and Rorty vacillated on the question of realism and they were not associated with romanticism. Of course, they had generally leftist worldviews, and that may be what bothers Nelson, but that’s the predominant fashion amongst all twentieth-century intellectuals, including the realist and anti-romantic ones. Some of the harshest attacks by realists on postmodernism have come from leftists (Chomsky, Detmer, Eagleton, Sokal).

So, all in all, if we deconstruct Nelson’s flurry of names, we just don’t find much corroboration for her historical thesis. Nelson’s method, as she scans a lot of historical data, is to pick out a handful of instances which seem to confirm her story, while ignoring the far greater number of instances which starkly contradict it.


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How I Could Have Made Hillary President

PoliticsPosted by David Ramsay Steele Thu, February 22, 2018 06:31:41

How I Could Have Made Hillary President

In his book Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter, Scott Adams analyzes the formidable persuasion skills of Donald Trump and the comparatively feeble persuasion techniques of the Hillary Clinton campaign of 2016. The book is very funny, full of insights, and well worth reading. For those who haven’t read it, what I’m going to talk about here is a tiny sliver of the richly entertaining material in the book, but it does illustrate Adams’s approach.

Adams compares what he calls Trump’s “linguistic kill shots” with the attempted kill shots of the Hillary campaign, and he compares Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again” with the numerous easily forgettable slogans considered or actually employed by the Hillary campaign.

Here are the more powerful of Trump’s linguistic kill shots:

● Low-energy Jeb

● Crooked Hillary

● Lyin’ Ted

● Lil’ Marco

● Pocahontas

Scott Adams analyzes these in detail to show exactly why they’re so effective. They all appeal to the visual and they all plan for “confirmation bias.” Probably the best of them is “Low-energy Jeb.” The very day this nickname came out of Trump’s mouth, Scott Adams blogged that Jeb was finished, as indeed he was, though no other commentator saw what had just happened. Recall that Jeb Bush had a war chest of many millions and spent far more than Trump. He was a natural for traditional Republican voters and for the fabled “Republican establishment,” as yet another dynastic Bush but a more likeable personality than the preceding two Bushes.

Even after Trump had released his kill shot into what we can call the rhetorosphere, most seasoned pundits were still naming “Jeb!” as the most likely nominee. Yet, Trump had given Jeb Bush what Adams calls his “forever name,” and it was henceforth to be altogether impossible for anyone to see Jeb or think about him without instantly thinking Low-energy. His presidential ambition had been killed stone dead, not just for that electoral cycle but for all time, in a fraction of a second, by the Master Persuader, Donald Trump.

Adams offers similar analyses for the other nicknames. “Pocahontas” was the name given to Elizabeth Warren, one of the leading Democratic Party politicians and a likely future Democratic presidential candidate. Warren, a blue-eyed blonde, had claimed to be of Native American, specifically Cherokee, ancestry and had gotten an academic job by impersonating a “minority.” The Cherokee Nation, which has a database of everyone they have been able to find with Cherokee ancestry, has repeatedly protested against Warren’s claim. Warren also once contributed a “Native American” recipe to a book of supposedly Native American recipes called . . . wait for it . . . Pow Wow Chow. It turns out that Warren is not Native American, the recipe was not Native American but French, and the recipe itself was plagiarized from another source.

A look at this book on Amazon shows that Warren is in even deeper trouble. The subtitle of Pow Wow Chow is A Collection of Recipes from Families of the Five Civilized Tribes, and the book is published by Five Civilized Tribes Museum. This blatantly insinuates that the Apache didn’t routinely solve quadratics or use trig to calculate the circumference of the Earth, and this is indisputably the filthiest kind of racism.

I would be irresponsible if I didn’t point out that this kill shot illustrates Donald Trump’s disgraceful carelessness with facts. The Cherokee belong to the Iroquoian group, whereas the historical Pocahontas belonged to an Algonquian-speaking tribe. How low have we sunk when our president tells such appalling lies?

Everyone could see that Trump’s nicknames were effective, and so the Hillary campaign burned the midnight oil to come up with an effective nickname for Trump himself. They tried three in succession:

● Donald Duck

● Dangerous Donald

● Drumpf

“Donald Duck” is obviously the sort of thing a committee would come up with. “Duck” tries to make the point that Trump was “ducking” various issues and various criticisms, including releasing his tax returns. But of course, associating Trump with a beloved if distinctly ridiculous cartoon character doesn’t mesh well with the idea that Trump is a fearful Hitler-like menace.

“Dangerous Donald” doesn’t really work, especially because a large portion of the electorate positively wanted someone “dangerous,” someone who would go to Washington and break things.

“Drumpf” is the real surname of Trump’s Austrian immigrant ancestor, a perfectly respectable German name which isn’t so congenial to Americans, so it was changed to “Trump.” This idea that having a non-Anglo-Saxon name in your family tree is a dirty little secret is not a winner, for several obvious reasons.

As everyone knows, Trump’s election slogan was “Make America Great Again.” This is a brilliant slogan which can hardly be faulted. Adams lists its strong points (Win Bigly, pp. 155–56).

As against this, the Hillary campaign considered eighty-five slogans (yes, 85!, according to Scott Adams, p. 157, citing the New York Times) and eventually ended up with “Stronger Together.” Here are the ones which were actually tried out.

● Love Trumps Hate

● I’m with Her

● I’m ready for Hillary

● Fighting for Us

● Breaking Down Barriers

● Stronger Together

These all have the flavor of mediocrity and ineffectiveness that comes out of committees, and especially committees of bigoted leftists. “Love Trumps Hate” literally begins with “Love Trump,” and as Scott Adams points out, people’s attentiveness declines steeply, so they often pay more attention to the beginning than to the end of a sentence.

“I’m with Her” and “I’m Ready for Hillary” both have a patronizing tone, as though you can prove yourself by being open to a female candidate, just because she’s female; that kind of thing is off-putting to some voters. And as Bill Maher pointed out, “Ready for Hillary” evokes the resignation of being “ready” for that uncomfortable tetanus shot from that possibly sadistic nurse.

“Fighting for Us” makes you wonder who the “Us” really is. During World War II, George Orwell pointed out how a British working man might interpret the government poster that said: “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution, will bring Us Victory” (the first three sets of italics in the original, the fourth definitely not!).

“Breaking Down Barriers” has good rhythm but an uncertain appeal because most people feel strongly that they really want some barriers between them and some kinds of other people.

“Stronger Together” was the final throw, and it came just as voters could hardly ignore the fact that violence was coming from the left. Some of Hillary supporters were bullies, and bullies are always stronger together. The news was already out that the “violence at Trump’s rallies” was deliberately engineered by paid agents of the DNC.

Scott Adams Doesn’t Give His Alternatives!

Although Scott Adams does an excellent job of identifying the strengths of Trump’s slogan and nicknames for opponents, and the weaknesses of Hillary’s, he doesn’t come up with his own, better proposals for Hillary.

This is a bit of a disappointment, and a surprise, as he emphasizes that it’s all a matter of conscious technique, not instinct.

And so, I decided to cook up my own suggestions. Here goes!

My proposal for the nickname Hillary should have given Trump is:

● The Don

Here’s how this works. Before Trump announced for president, he was often called “The Donald,” a phrase which usually went along with either patronizing amusement or mild and grudging admiration. Use of “The Donald” died out, presumably because the US population was mobilizing into two great camps, one of which viewed Trump as a satanic monster, the other of which saw him as the nation’s redeemer, and neither of these would perceive “The Donald” as entirely apt.

My plan would be for Hillary supporters to refer to him several times as “The Don,” and just occasionally, for those who might be a bit slow on the uptake, “The Godfather” (or variations like “The Godfather of Greed”). Hillary would then take up “The Don,” as an already established nickname for Trump.

Trump has many of the popular attributes of the Mafia boss: a commanding presence and a weakness for vulgar display (his golden toilets). All the points actually made against Trump’s character by Clinton could have been given a slightly different coloration. Thus, when making the allegation that Trump had stiffed some of his sub-contractors (which the Hillary campaign did), this would be described as “making them an offer they couldn’t refuse.” You could throw in a reference to one of Trump’s business dealings with someone who has since passed on, and add the jocular remark, “He now sleeps with the fishes.” When complaining about the fact that Trump wouldn’t release his tax returns, this could be framed as “the Trump Family [Family, get it?] has sworn the oath of Omertà never to reveal their sources of income.”

But aren’t mafiosi supposed to be Italian? Yes, but now they’re often Russian too. Hillary’s campaign promoted the story that Trump had “colluded with the Russians.” This appears to have been a pure fabrication, simply made up (no one has ever faulted Hillary for being over-scrupulous or excessively candid) but it would have been so much more believable if associated with the Russian mafia.

It’s a self-evident truth that every Russian has “ties to Vladimir Putin,” and this can always be asserted of any Russian without fear of rebuttal. Similarly, it’s a self-evident truism that every Russian businessman has “ties to the Russian mob.” It would have been a simple matter to dig up every occasion when Trump did business with a Russian, call that Russian an “oligarch” (who could deny it?) and declare that this Russian oligarch had ties to organized crime (or deny that?). In this way, it would have become impossible for voters not to think of Trump’s business activities as steeped in criminality.

Now, what about a campaign slogan for Hillary? This is quite difficult, because of the fact that Hillary had spent the previous eight years as Secretary of State within the Obama administration. She could not therefore put any emphasis on “change,” and it would be hard to imply anything radically new. But anything that looked like a defense of the last eight years could only run the risk of implying that “the status quo is fine and we just want to keep things the way they are.” This is a disadvantageous position to be in.

A slogan that goes negative and tries to focus on the evil of Trump is liable to boomerang—remember that meeting of Democrats, where a speaker referred to Hillary using the word “honest,” and the entire room spontaneously erupted into laughter?

As Scott Adams hilariously points out (p. 159), a rather different kind of boomerang was a major feature of the campaign. One of Trump’s problems, as a former reality TV host, was to get voters to take him seriously as a real president. Hillary continually urged voters to “imagine” Trump as president, and thus provided Trump with exactly what he needed. He needed people to imagine him as president, and Hillary did an excellent job of helping voters to do just that.

The Hillary campaign slogan has to have the following qualities:

● It mustn’t directly mention the rival product.

● It mustn’t be easily interpreted as merely a response to Trump’s slogan or campaign.

● It can’t, unfortunately, make a bold plea for change.

● It can’t, unfortunately, make a bold claim for Hillary’s trustworthiness or other personal virtues.

● It must have rhythm.

● It mustn’t allow the interpretation that some special interest will be benefited.

● It must take the high ground.

So here’s my proposal:

● A Win-Win for America

This slogan would occasionally follow the words “Hillary Rodham Clinton.” (It’s bad luck that “HRC” doesn’t trip off the tongue like “LBJ” or even “JFK.” There is no other memorable version comparable with “Doubleya”. “HRC” might evoke “hardcore,” but we probably don’t want to go there.)

The slogan is positive and inclusively patriotic. It therefore crowds out the undesirable thought that Hillary appeals chiefly to welfare recipients, criminal aliens, and billionaire hedge-fund managers. “For America” takes the high ground and crowds out the thought that Hillary’s election would be a win for Hillary, an undesirable thought because Hillary might be considered a loser, and also because we don’t want voters thinking about any personal advantage Hillary might reap.

The term “Win-Win” has several functions. Literally it refers to a situation where we win, whichever of two alternate possibilities occurs. There would have to be a story about this, ready for those times when Hillary or her henchmen were directly asked about the meaning. But that’s unimportant. We could even come up with a dozen different stories and get people arguing about which one was true. Really the term is simply a repetition of the positive word “win,” and gives the slogan distinctiveness and rhythm.

It also has something which Scott Adams has talked about on a number of occasions: he has pointed out how President Trump utilizes the tried and tested marketing ploy of putting slightly “wrong” formulations into his tweets to enhance their effectiveness. A slightly doubtful formulation or a feeling that something is not quite conventionally correct helps a phrase to lodge in the memory. “Win-Win” therefore gains something from the fact that what it means is slightly obscure and off-key, while its emotional associations are entirely positive.

So there we are, Trump is The Don and Hillary’s slogan is A Win-Win for America. This would have been enough to give her the electoral college, though it wouldn’t have hurt to have also done a bit more campaigning in Michigan and Wisconsin.

Hillary threw tens of millions of dollars at various “consultants” who were out of their depth and out of touch with public feeling. As I’ve just proved, I could have gotten Hillary elected by a few commonsense marketing touches. Given my unpretentious proletarian origins and unimpressive net worth, I would have done it for, say, half a million dollars. That would have been a terrific deal for Hillary, and would have enabled me to pay off a good chunk of my debts.

But, I can already hear you saying, you’d be enabling this disgusting warmonger, purveyor of PC bigotry, and criminal sociopath to take power. Could you really live with yourself?

Yes, I have to admit, I would feel bad about that. So, make it a round million.

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Beverly Hills Tale

ArtsPosted by David Ramsay Steele Mon, May 04, 2015 22:15:30

I composed this little tale about fifteen years ago, and sent it to a couple of magazines which promptly rejected it. I then forgot about it until recently and thought of sending it to a few more, but upon re-reading it I see it is out of date in many ways but not yet ancient enough for retro appeal (“zero cool” still had a gleam at the time, but is now covered in verdigris). My first thought was that I might update it, but that would actually be a lot of work and I might never get around to it. So rather than just waste it entirely, I’m sticking it here.

I’ve never been to Beverly Hills, except in the sense that we all have.




Lucy moved all her stuff into Dan’s old office. The last item she carried in was the “Under urgent consideration” pile of current scripts. She placed this in the tray on the left of her desk, then gazed with satisfaction at the Sony Pentium notebook, the phone, the bowl of polished stones, the herbal bouquet, and the purplish black candle in the little silver candlestick. This desk would never look so tidy again, until maybe, a couple years down the road, she had her next major promotion, probably to president of the agency. And then someone else would take over from her the office she had now taken over from Dan.

The phone rang. It was Fiona in Human Resources. “Lucy, I have an Officer Martinez here, from the police. Do you have a minute to talk with him? It’s about Dan.”

Ninety seconds later, Fiona appeared at the office door, with a young man, single by the look of it, who was wearing, not a police uniform, but a gray-green jacket and aqua shirt which went quite well with his dark skin tone. Not bad, thought Lucy.

This being her first day, in fact her first five minutes, in her new office, she had a choice of uncluttered chairs to offer Martinez. He was looking at her Welsh brooch.

“Is that . . .?”

“A spiritual symbol. Would you be a spiritual person?”

“No.” And then by way of explanation: “Catholic.”


“Just a few points we need to clarify. This was Daniel Zegarac’s office? Ms. McGregor informs me you now have Mr. Zegarac’s job.”

Martinez’s black eyes darted about like a snake’s tongue. Lucy had been looking forward to a few minutes alone to gloat over her new corner office with the zero cool view and enough bookshelf space to encompass a basic herb garden in seven earthenware pots. It might have been better to have seen the cop in a conference room.

Martinez asked a few general questions about Dan and quite naturally slipped in a few about Lucy. She explained the nature of Dan’s job, now her job. She gave Martinez her routine little chat about the work of the agency, representing creative talent in the Hollywood jungle, getting the most promising scripts to the right people in the studios. Fiona should have taken care of this.

She vaguely wondered why the police were interested at all. Maybe they needed to rule out suicide for insurance purposes, though if she’d considered it seriously, she’d have known that wouldn’t be police business.

Martinez paused and Lucy picked up a hint of awkwardness. She thought she knew what he would say next. She almost helped him along by inquiring “Just what kind of a script is it?”

But she was mistaken. Martinez was not about to mention his screenplay, or his girlfriend’s or brother-in-law’s screenplay.

He said: “We now believe that Daniel Zegarac’s death was not accidental. Mr. Zegarac was murdered.”

His eyes had stopped their restless flickering. They were fixed on Lucy’s face. What he saw there was an instant of pure, unfeigned astonishment.

“We were told it was an accident,” said Lucy. “Wasn’t he working on a boat?”

“He was building a yacht. He fell and broke his neck. Since the autopsy, we now believe someone gave him a push.”

Deftly massaging the truth was second nature to Detective Martinez. He didn’t explain that a witness had seen someone leaving Dan Zegarac’s place close to the time of his fatal fall, and only because of that had the police and the coroner looked more closely for signs of foul play. There was nothing in the autopsy report to definitely indicate homicide. Once they looked, however, they found details of the fatal scene that were atypical in this kind of accident.

She said: “Wow, that’s . . . Why would anyone kill Dan? You have any idea who did it?”

Fortunately, Lucy had not yet put up her movie festival posters. Martinez was sitting in front of a plain peach wall, which made it child’s play to scrutinize his aura. Applying her well-honed technique, she could instantly make out that this aura had blue and turquoise points. Not a man to be taken lightly, but no signs of unusual potency, at least not of a spiritual kind. Years of experience had taught her that by a little deeper concentration she could see beyond the immediate manifestation, to a faint kind of secondary aura, invisible to all save the most spiritually discerning. She perceived a thin brown smoke, some underlying ominous quality, an emanation of violence. Not surprising in a homicide detective, given the kinds of experiences he must be familiar with almost daily. This whole analysis took less than two seconds. Lucy was very good at it.

“It’s early in the investigation,” said Martinez. How well did you know him? Would you know if he had any enemies?”

“Not really. Not that I can think of. A lot of people around here didn’t like him, but not enough to . . . want to hurt him.”

“Not mixed up in anything shady? Drugs or anything like that?” The purpose of this question was to ascertain whether Lucy would snatch the opportunity to send him off in an irrelevant direction; she merely shook her head.

“Did you personally like him? Did you get on well with him?”

He made my life a misery. When I heard about the accident, I felt like celebrating. “Dan could be very trying. We had our issues, work-related issues. But . . . I was just appalled that he died. I couldn’t believe it. I was really upset. We all were.” If Martinez had not already been informed that she had loathed Dan and fought him bitterly over the recent negotiations with Bernstein at Columbia TriStar, someone was sure to tell him.

“Okay.” Martinez made a slight movement in his chair, a hint that he was about to get up and leave. “Uh, one last thing. This is a routine question we have to ask everyone. Where were you on the night of May 6th?”

She checked her palm pilot. Nothing on that night.

“I must have been at home watching TV. Yeah, I’m sure I was. Then in bed. Asleep.”

“Alone all the time?”

“Totally.” She pulled a mock-dismayed face and added: “No alibi.”

Martinez didn’t smile, but his voice was soft enough to perhaps indicate sympathy. “It’s routine. We have to check on everyone.”

Not so routine was the call she took from Detective Martinez a few days later. He asked her to stop by police headquarters. He was ready to say that she needed to be there to look at an artist’s sketch of the person seen leaving the scene of the homicide. Surprisingly, she agreed to be there, without any need to invoke this contrived rationale.

When she showed at headquarters, Martinez had more questions of a general nature. Then: “Would you say you’ve been lucky in your career?”

Uh oh. “Some good luck. Some bad luck. A whole lot of hard work.”

“As a matter of fact, you’ve had some lucky breaks.”

Lucy guessed what was coming next. So they’ve noticed. Well, they can’t know anything. And even if they did, what could they do about it?

“As I look at the trajectory of your career, I see you’ve had three big breaks. And each one of those lucky breaks has been precipitated by the death of a colleague.” Trajectory. Precipitated. Definitely has a screenplay.

Lucy felt slightly dazed but not anxious. If she’d been even moderately perturbed she’d have gone straight into Great Pan breathing for serenity of soul, but this hadn’t been necessary.

Martinez said: “Quite a coincidence.” He paused and looked around the room in an oddly unfocussed way. Lucy abruptly knew that colleagues of Martinez were watching her reactions from an adjacent room and—of course—videotaping them. Weren’t they supposed to warn you in advance when they did that? Or at least tell you they considered you a suspect? This is so LAPD. Either they would swear under oath that they had warned her, or, if they thought they had a case against her—not that this could ever happen—they’d swear that not informing her was a careless and deeply regretted slip.

Martinez had Lucy’s basic bio on a sheet of paper, and was checking off each item. Yes, in her previous job she had worked for the Tom Davenport agency. Yes, twelve years ago she had been assistant to Mary Nolan. She got on badly with Nolan, who had recommended that Lucy be canned.

“Business was bad,” Lucy recalled. “They were looking for headcount reductions.”

“Nolan’s body turned up in her swimming pool. So they got themselves a headcount reduction.” Martinez kept the irony out of his voice. He didn’t reveal that the drowning had been viewed at the time as suspicious and a police report had been generated. An unidentified DNA sample was on file. The report was inconclusive and the investigation had been shelved.

Lucy had taken over Mary’s job, an arrangement that was eventually made permanent. When business improved she got her own assistant.

Five years later, Lucy’s boss at Davenport was Eddie McInerny. Though she had been Eddie’s protégé—Martinez didn’t yet know she had also been his mistress—their relationship soured and they held sharply opposed views on the future direction of the agency.

McInerny’s house burned down. Something fatty had been left simmering on a kitchen stove. He slept through the thickening fumes and was dead of smoke inhalation before his flesh began to char. The body contained traces of cocaine and three other controlled substances.

“He could have been zonked on drugs and forgotten to turn off the stove. Or he could have had help.” Help with the zonking or help with the fire, or both. Still, there was no proof this wasn’t a typical accidental blaze.

So here was a second apparently accidental death of a colleague with whom Lucy had developed an acrimonious relationship. A second career boost, as it turned out, for Lucy had quickly concluded the deal that Eddie had been working on, the deal that turned the Davenport Agency around.

Opinions might differ on whether two deaths and two career boosts were or were not an extraordinary coincidence. Subsequently Lucy, with a number of lucrative movie deals to her credit, had moved into a senior position at the Paulsen Creative Talent Agency. And after five years here, bingo, we have a third seemingly accidental death of a colleague who clashed with Lucy, who quarreled with Lucy, and whose removal would likely help Lucy. Surely this is beyond ordinary coincidence.

Martinez had read about individuals who’d been struck by lightning on three separate occasions. Astounding coincidences could happen, were bound to happen once in a while. Or perhaps some persons had physical qualities or chosen habits that made them unusually likely to be struck by lightning. Could there possibly be people whose personal qualities made it fatal for others to get in their way? Detective Martinez didn’t think so. He was open-minded but not unduly credulous.

Martinez was an excellent listener.

“Yes. I did a good job,” Lucy was saying. “You can’t say I’ve coasted to the top by wasting the competition.” She didn’t intend to sound amused, but a little of that came through.

Martinez was thoughtful: “It could be fifty percent job performance and fifty percent luck.” He might have been speaking of his own career in the police department. “A person could do okay on job performance and still decide on some pro-active interventions to improve the odds.”

Even as he said this, Martinez couldn’t make himself believe it. The story just wouldn’t walk, it wouldn’t bark, it wouldn’t wag its tail. And whether he believed it or not, no one in the DA’s office would want to parade it on a leash in front of a jury. Some link had to be found between Lucy Armstrong and the death scenes. So far, nothing.

Looking at her soft countenance, long red hair, and nicely curved figure, Martinez briefly considered the possibility he was mentally exonerating her because he liked the look of her. He didn’t think so. Only six months before, he had not hesitated to pursue and arrest the mouth-watering Mrs. Mulligan, who had quite understandably, after more than ample provocation, hired a contract killer to dispose of her exasperating but well-insured husband.

Martinez could have placed Lucy as a serial murderer if she’d worn tight black pants, cropped hair, a leaner physique, a bonier face. Or, given her actual persona, if Nolan, McInerny, and Zegarac had been poisoned. Any type of person might commit murder, but he couldn’t see Lucy sneaking out to Zegarac’s house at dead of night and pushing him off a ladder. Also, the DNA found at the Nolan drowning was male. And the person seen leaving the Zegarac homicide scene was believed to be male.

Suppose pure coincidence is ruled out. Suppose also Lucy Armstrong did not kill these three people. What are we left with?

Lucy thought of mentioning that she’d been in Denver when Mary Nolan died, and in Paris when Eddie McInerny died. Did Martinez know that yet? He would find out about Europe first, then about Denver. Let him find out.

Martinez was trying a different approach. “You must have thought about this yourself. What did you think?”

A little shrug. “Coincidence?” There are no coincidences. Synchronicity is a law of nature, just like gravity. That was Zuleika, holding forth in her preachy way. Zuleika had been right about synchronicity, of course.

“Anyone else ever comment about this coincidence?”

One time, just before she’d left Davenport, when someone had gone quiet, tailed off in mid-sentence, and the other two people present had looked embarrassed. As though they had some knowledge in common—probably knowledge of a conversation in which they had speculated avidly about Lucy’s benefiting from two deaths in a row.

Then there was Laura. Laura had said: “So the spells worked, then.” Lightly enough to show she wasn’t concerned. Warmly enough that it could have been more than just a joke. Lucy smiled at the recollection.


He’s sharp. “Someone joked about it. Said the spells work.”


Why not? He can find out anyway. “I was into Wicca.” Blank stare from Martinez. “I belonged to a coven.”

“You’re a witch?”

“We called ourselves students of Wicca. This was a few years back. People around the office knew something about it. There were jokes.” Let the Cowans mock.

“You’re not into this anymore?”

“The coven was disbanded. I haven’t really kept it up.” Like the South Beach diet, except that she really hadn’t kept that up.

Disbanded. You could say the Spirits of Light Coven had been disbanded. Zuleika sputtering with rage, her lips positively frothing. “I offered you the world and you betrayed me, you loathsome creature, you rotten hypocrite.” Her Russian accent thickened as her adrenaline level rose. “Your pathetic little act is finished. You’re under my curse . . . yes, my curse!”

“You worshipped the Devil?” Martinez wanted to know.

A brief exhalation of amusement. The usual misconceptions. “Wicca has nothing to do with His Satanic Majesty. Really. It’s nature worship, not devil worship. Though I do know a couple devotees of Satan, and they’re, like, totally nice people who wouldn’t hurt a fly. . . .”

Lucy found herself parroting one of Zuleika’s set pieces: “Wicca sees the divine manifest in all creation. The cycles of nature are the holy days of Wicca, the earth is the temple of Wicca, all life-forms are its prophets and teachers. Wiccans respect life, cherish the free will of sentient beings, and acknowledge the sanctity of the environment.” That’s about all the Cowans need to know.

Martinez considered this. “So. Did you nature worshippers put spells on people you wanted out of the way?”

“We were so totally not about that. Wiccans believe for every action there’s a reaction. If you send out evil energy, it’ll return to you threefold.” Only if your enemy is protected by a sufficiently strong charm. “Using spells to coerce or injure is always evil.” But possible. And evil’s kind of a relative thing.

“Didn’t stick pins in voodoo dolls?”

The absurd preoccupation with physical props. “Oh no. I respect voodoo as an authentic grassroots religion of the Haitian people and an expression of community solidarity in the face of neo-colonialist exploitation.” Lucy had majored in Sociology at Berkeley. “Voodoo is a totally valid kind of folk tradition; Wicca is different.”

She didn’t mention that the Wicca tradition does involve acquiring some of the enemy’s hair or fingernails, and burning them over a black candle with appropriate incantations, on four consecutive nights when the Moon is waning. Let him do his own research. Why do I pay property taxes? But this was a portion of the tradition that she had repudiated, and the online record of her dispute with the Reverend Zuleika LeGrand would attest to that. In any case, it was all totally academic. The DA’s office was not going to indict anyone, in the twenty-first century, for casting spells.

The meeting had been a formality, the concluding handshake to months of negotiations. In the Paulsen Agency’s glass conference room, amid blue sky and green palms, business was over, the chit-chat was winding down, lunch was in the offing, and there came an unexpected voice.

“Ms. Armstrong, do you have a moment, please?” It was Martinez, standing in the doorway, lithe and springy on his feet.

Around the table were Paulsen’s president, Jay Maxwell, Bill Rescher from Public Relations, the writer Joss Whedon, and, in a rare appearance, the legendary Clyde Paulsen himself. Whedon would rewrite his story along the lines agreed to, and the agency would pay him half a million for the option.

“Just a couple of questions.” The voice was as gravely courteous as ever. Maxwell and Whedon didn’t seem to notice: Martinez might just as well be the limo driver. Rescher looked distinctly annoyed at the interruption. Paulsen appeared fascinated, but then, he always did.

Lucy found Martinez’s feeble ambush both mildly diverting and mildly irritating. For him to appear like this, without prior warning, while she was with other people, was a planned attempt to disconcert her. She was slightly embarrassed for him because it wasn’t very well done.

“How can I help you this time? Why don’t we go to my office?” A warm smile and a cheerful lilt, but in that moment Lucy decided this would be the last interview. Before saying goodbye to Martinez, she would let him know that all future communications had to go through her lawyer. One-on-oneing with Martinez had been fine, but she wouldn’t be Columboed, even ineffectually.

Over the next few weeks, Lucy’s attorney Steve Gordon heard from Martinez a couple of times with what seemed like trivial inquiries. Martinez appeared at the Paulsen offices more than once, and she heard of other people who had been questioned.

Laura was away in Cannes, lucky Laura. In the evenings, there seemed to be more squad cars than usual, making more commotion than usual, near Lucy’s condo. Before going to bed, she would call Laura—it was early morning in Cannes—and exchange reports. They would enjoy a good chuckle about agency office happenings, who was doing what to whom in Cannes, Laura’s own hair-raising adventures, Hollywood scuttlebutt, the hunk Martinez, and the strange investigation into Dan Zegarac’s demise.

The day before Laura was to get back in LA, Gordon took a call from a female cop named Bennett, asking to set up a meeting. Bennett said just enough to convince Gordon that his client was not a suspect, and that she would personally benefit from being present. When Gordon called Lucy, she immediately insisted on co-operating.

So here they were. The two cops, Lucy, and her lawyer.

“We requested this meeting,” said Bennett, “because of a few points we need to clarify, and because we have information Ms. Armstrong needs to be aware of. Let me say right away that Ms. Armstrong is not a suspect. We’re grateful to her for her co-operation. We do have a few questions for her. Then we’ll explain the latest developments in this case.”

Gordon turned to Lucy and was about to whisper something; she held up her hand and shook her head. “I’ll answer. Go ahead.” But don’t trust them.

Martinez asked: “How well do you know William Rescher?”

What the . . .? “I’ve known him for yea long. He was with Davenport.”

“You both worked at Davenport, and now you both work at Paulsen. He followed you here.”

“Yes. He joined us a year ago.”

“Do you know him well?”

“Don’t see much of him. He’s not involved directly with the talent side of the business.”

Bennett asked: “On May 4th, did you tell William Rescher you were leaving town for several days?”

Lucy remembered sharing an elevator ride with Bill. He’d asked her if she was leaving for the airport, “for that Nebraska thing.” She’d said yes. She had been selected as one of the judges at the new Nebraska festival. But the festival had been called off, some scandal about funds.

“I was in a hurry. Conversations with Bill tend to go on too long. I was taking a taxi to LAX but that was to say goodbye to a friend who was leaving for Europe. I didn’t want to take the time to get into the convoluted messy story of why the Nebraska festival was cancelled.”

There was actually a little more to it. She had lied on impulse, not just to save the time of explaining, but because she somehow instinctively didn’t want creepy Bill to know where she was or what she was doing.

It occurred to Lucy that if she’d gone to Nebraska as planned, she would have had a way solid alibi for all three deaths, not just the first two. Yet still the significance of this fact didn’t dawn on her.

“Did you ever date William Rescher?”

Where’s this going? “Yeah. A long time ago. That was, let me see now, twelve years ago.” The week after she started at Davenport. Bill was already there, and that’s where she had first met him.

“Who terminated the relationship?”

“There was no relationship.”

“Can you recall whether one of you wanted to go on dating, the other didn’t?”

“Oh, that would be him kind of wanting to go on, me wanting to stop.”

“He upset about that?”

She had given it barely a thought for twelve years, but now it came back to her. Bill had been younger and cuter then. She’d felt a bit mushy about being so brutal. God, there were tears in his eyes. He was all, “I can’t go on without you. You mean everything to me.” Sweet, at the time, but what a loser. Surely he got over it quickly. Four months later he married that anemic blonde at the front desk, was still married to her, as far as Lucy could remember.

Lucy’s next date was Brad Pitt. It was only once and that was six months before the release of Thelma and Louise, so he wasn’t big BO. But there was a picture in Hollywood Reporter. That kind of publicity never hurt an agency, and Eddie McInerny had been impressed. So much for Bill Rescher.

“William Rescher is in custody, said Bennett. “He has confessed to the murder of Daniel Zegarac.”

What? That’s way wacky.”

“He did it,” said Martinez. “We have independent corroboration.”

“He’s totally putting you on. Did he even know Dan?”

“You’re right. He barely knew him.” It was odd that Martinez said this as though it clinched the case against Rescher.

Lucy sensed that they were now getting to the whole point of the interview. What kind of a trick is this? Lucy was absolutely sure that Bill could not have killed Dan. This just had to be a smokescreen. But why?

Bennett cleared her throat and said: “Ms. Armstrong, we have to tell you . . . because this may cause you some embarrassment when he goes to trial. William Rescher committed murder because of you. He’s seriously . . . infatuated with you. He has been obsessively in love with you for fourteen years. His motive for killing Daniel Zegarac was to help you out.”

Lucy’s head was spinning. She instantly went into Great Pan breathing.

A long pause. Martinez asked, “Did you have any idea he felt this way about you?”

“But that’s just . . . He must be . . . totally out of his mind.”

Lucy was rapidly computing. Numerous little recollections of subtle oddities in Bill’s speech and behavior, at rare intervals over the past twelve years, suddenly made sense. What the police were telling her struck her with stunning force as true, even obviously true, a truth screaming for recognition.

Yet it had to be false, because it contradicted her certain knowledge that she could bring down her enemies by the sheer force of her mind. She knew perfectly well that she had deliberately caused the deaths of Mary Nolan, Eddie McInerny, and Dan Zegarac by her own unique magickal hexing power. Therefore, Bill Rescher could not have killed them.

“This must be a shock for you, and also disgusting, like a violation,” said Bennett, seeking to soften the blow by empathizing. “However the evidence is that you’ve been the center of William Rescher’s thoughts for the past fifteen years.

Don’t panic. Need to think. “You’re saying he did those other killings too?”

“He may never be charged with them, but . . . yes, we believe he did them.” Martinez chose not to reveal that a DNA trace from the Nolan death matched Bill Rescher. Rescher would be offered concessions for confessing to at least two of the three homicides, preferably all three. It didn’t matter anyway: Rescher would likely be acquitted by reason of insanity and incarcerated for life in a mental institution.

In kind of a vertigo, Lucy heard Bennett’s voice, as though from the other end of a long, winding corridor: “Did Rescher ever tell you what he did before he got into the agency business? He worked for an insurance company, investigating claims. Before that he’d been a small-town sheriff for a few years. He knew something about domestic accidents and crime scene investigations. So when he . . . developed this psychotic obsession about you, he could easily see a practical way to help you out.”

It took less than three minutes of turmoil for the mist to be dispelled, for the simple truth to shine forth in all its clarity, and for Lucy to feel once again completely in control. If Bill had directly engineered the deaths of Mary Nolan, Eddie McInerny, and Dan Zegarac, this showed, not that Lucy didn’t have the power to kill at a distance by the trained exercise of concentrated thought, but that this formidable power of hers worked through a human intermediary. Of course. She should have known it. Hadn’t she known it?

Zuleika had once said: “All occult powers work through the human world; all human powers work through the natural world.” Actually the gross old manatee had said this more than once. It was one of her irritating little sayings, as if she could have attained to some kind of privileged wisdom. At the time, of course, they had all hung on Zuleika’s every goddamn word.

All occult powers work through the human world, the mental world. It was true enough, and obvious enough, and therefore it was something Lucy must always have known. Of course Bill was besotted with her and consumed with the mission of serving her interests. Bill was an instrumentality of the hex.

Within a few seconds of this surprising thought, she began to feel that she had never been surprised at all. She conceived that she had been struck with fresh force by a fact she had always taken for granted. The only surprise, it now seemed to her, was the identity of the human agent. And she would soon begin to recall that she had known all along, on some deep level of her being, that it was Bill.

She could picture herself one day explaining the principle of the thing to Laura and a select inner circle of devoted followers: “What’s more in keeping with Wicca wisdom? That a witch might cause the death of an enemy by using mental power to make a ladder collapse? Or that a witch might cause the death of an enemy by influencing the mind of a third person who then kicks over the ladder?” The answer could be no less self-evident to Lucy and her followers than it had been to the sorry old fraud Zuleika.

Now Lucy had Bennett figured out. She was the kind of sympathetic cop who would be first choice to talk to a rape victim or to a witness who had seen a loved one blown away. Probably had a degree in social work.

Okay now, what would they expect me to say in this situation? “This is just awful,” Lucy wailed. “I thought I’d made it this far by my own efforts.”

“It would be unproductive to let that distress you.” Bennett’s tone was almost maternal. “Chance enters into everyone’s life. Many people fail to get the promotion they deserve because someone doesn’t like them, for instance. You didn’t ask Rescher to do any of the things he did. And as far as we can see, he was not mainly concerned about helping your career. It seems he was thinking that each of these victims, at the time, was getting you down, causing you severe emotional pain. The way he thought of it, he couldn’t bear to see you suffer.”

Detective Martinez felt good about the case. Everything, or almost everything, had clicked into place quite smoothly. A week after his first meeting with Lucy, he’d found she had a cast-iron alibi for the death of Dan Zegarac, an alibi she evidently didn’t even know about.

On the afternoon of May 6th, Jordan Pirelli, actuary, e-trader, body-builder, occasional model, and currently unbooked actor, had gone out of town leaving a faucet trickling in his jacuzzi. When wet stuff came through the ceilings of the condos below, the janitor, Frank Vucovic, had to make sure of the source of the flood. Since Pirelli was a security-minded person who had installed additional anti-theft devices, janitor Frank needed to have the fire department break into Pirelli’s condo through the window. Before going to such lengths, Frank wanted to be very sure of the source of the flooding, so he had called the neighboring apartment, Lucy Armstrong’s, at 12:30 in the morning, and when she answered and said she was still up, he had personally gone into her apartment, talked with her, and checked around for any signs of leakage. This had taken about a minute. It wasn’t remarkable that Lucy didn’t recall it—some people do forget unimportant occurrences in the few minutes before they fall asleep. Frank vividly remembered the whole sequence of events, which he was obliged to report in tiresome detail to the building management later that morning.

It was a perfect alibi. Not only did it place Lucy two hours away from the scene of the crime, it was also a purely chance event; there was no way she could have engineered it, certainly not with the required precise timing. This ruled out the possibility that she had arranged to provide herself with an alibi, knowing in advance that the murder would take place. It tended to eliminate her as an accomplice or accessory.

When Bill Rescher displayed an interest in the questioning of Lucy, Martinez, in a reflexive impulse to sow misdirection, hinted that she was the hot suspect. The calamitous look on Rescher’s face intrigued Martinez, who began to feed Rescher with suggestions that Lucy was the investigative target, and to ostentatiously pull her in for questioning. Then Martinez had staged his arrival at Paulsen to confront Lucy in Rescher’s company.

Bill’s pathetic eagerness that Lucy should come to no harm, skilfully manipulated by Martinez, had soon prompted Bill to confess to the killing of Dan Zegarac. Bill knew many details of the fatal scene. It was a couple of days before Martinez mentioned to him that he was also a suspect in the Nolan and McInerny killings. Once this matter was raised, Rescher became exceedingly cagey. He knew that Lucy had excellent alibis for those killings, so he had no motive to confess to them. Martinez had not yet informed him that DNA placed him at the scene of Mary Nolan’s drowning.

Hours of questioning of Rescher and of Lucy had convinced Martinez that they had not been working together. Rescher had acted alone and without anyone else’s knowledge.

There were no major loose ends. Something felt not quite right about Lucy’s failure to volunteer her alibis for the Nolan and McInerny deaths. But she was, after all, a deeply spiritual person, which Martinez quite benevolently took to mean: occasionally out to lunch and in need of a little practical guidance. For all her quick shrewdness, her mind could sometimes be way off someplace on a broomstick.

The Council of Thirteen, the trustees of the coven, were all there. Zuleika screeched: “You’re under my curse . . . yes, my curse!” and slapped Lucy’s face. The next few seconds of intense silence made that slap seem like the snapping of a bone, though some eye-witnesses later argued about whether any blow had actually landed. Lucy didn’t flinch but just glared. Most of the onlookers felt awkward as well as awed. Wiccans don’t talk much about curses, and when they cast them, the entire rigmarole is decorous and painstakingly slow. Yet Zuleika was Zuleika. The members were embarrassed but also filled with foreboding. They fully expected something bad to happen to the delinquent Lucy, though possibly not for years.

That night, Zuleika, never at a loss for captivating words, was paralyzed and rendered permanently speechless by a stroke. Within hours, self-effacing Ben Goldberg, Zuleika’s reliable lieutenant—and heir apparent now that Lucy had vacated this role—was hit by a truck and put out of action. From the following morning when she heard the news, Lucy never doubted her own awesome gift.

No member of the Spirits of Light Coven had any doubts about what these events signified. Lucy didn’t have to say anything. For a few days, she thought she might assume the throne vacated by Zuleika, but most of the members melted away. They were impressed, even intimidated, but having been Zuleika’s apostles they were not ready to switch allegiance to this disconcerting young witch. Only Laura remained. And then, over the years, contacts were made with a few more interested seekers: a new coven was discreetly in the making.

Martinez turned the steering wheel. Bulky shoulders and taut arms, an efficient instrument of justice. He spent some time in Dave’s Gym, no time in Dunkin’ Donuts. He wore a demeanor of solemn dignity like a ceremonial robe. His ancestors, Lucy divined, had been priests of Quetzalcoatl. They could be relied upon to hack out the hearts of an endless procession of sacrificial victims to gratify their ineffably potent god. Lucy was enough of a postmodernist to feel at home with her vision of this vanished mystical empire, with its pitiless established church ever thirsty for more daily gallons of fresh human blood. Our own society is brutal enough in its way, just kind of a different way, what with corporate greed, global warming, and all.

Martinez thought he was beginning to know Lucy better, to pierce beneath her unruffled surface. She had never acted as upset as he’d expected. She was calm; most of the time she radiated an awesome sense of calm; he couldn’t help admiring her amazing calm. Inside of her, she undoubtedly did experience turbulent emotions. Learning of Rescher’s sick obsession had shaken her. The observable signs were subtle, subdued, yet there was no mistaking the juddering impact of tremendous shock, an eight on her personal Richter scale, at the moment when she had learned of Bill’s confession. She definitely had been shaken. She was still shaken. Better see her right to her door.

“For me this is another case to be filed away. For you it must be a little bit traumatic.”

He for sure has a script. Detective Martinez stopped the car right on the corner by Lucy’s condo building.

She said: “I guess you come across some, like, really weird stuff in your job. As weird as anything in the movies. Or even weirder.”

“As a matter of fact . . .,” began Hugo Martinez.

© 2001 David Ramsay Steele

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Misunderstanding Memeplexes: Where Andy West Goes Wrong

SociologyPosted by David Ramsay Steele Sun, September 21, 2014 21:01:02

Andy West analyzes climate catastrophism as a ‘memeplex’. The most complete version of his argument is presented in a long essay titled ‘The Memeplex of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming’, available at his blog <>. This essay, or fragments and summaries of it, have been widely circulated and some climate skeptics have welcomed West’s conclusions.

I’ll begin with where I agree with West. Despite the occasional description of climate catastrophism by Rush Limbaugh and a few others as a ‘hoax’, the term ‘hoax’ implies that the perpetrators don’t themselves believe in it, whereas it’s only too obvious that in this case they do believe in it. Climate catastrophism is no more a hoax than Marxism, Islam, psychoanalysis, or Seventh-Day Adventism. Or, if we want to take examples from institutional science, cold fusion, Martian canals, or Lysenkoism.

Climate skeptics have often likened catastrophism to a religion (and catastrophists sometimes liken climate skepticism to a religion—when they’re not claiming that it’s all paid for by the oil companies and is therefore a hoax). West maintains that this likening of catastrophism to a religion is a basically correct insight, but slightly misdefined, in that global warming catastrophism and, say, Mormonism, are both instances of a category broader than that of religion, a category West calls the “memeplex.”

Up to this point, I completely agree with West, though I more often employ a different terminology. I would say that climate catastrophism and Mormonism are both instances of an enthusiastic belief system. (Come to think of it, Mormonism began with a hoax, when the con artist Joseph Smith dishonestly claimed he’d gotten The Book of Mormon from the angel Moroni, but it’s not a hoax today and has millions of sincere adherents.)

Now I’ll explain where I think Andy West goes wrong. According to Richard Dawkins, who coined the term ‘meme’ in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, a meme is a unit of cultural transmission, just as a gene is a unit of biological transmission. Anything culturally transmitted is a meme. All of literature, science, religion, music, common-sense wisdom, and technology consists of memes, and nothing but memes. The first law of thermodynamics is just as much a meme as the story of Eve and the Serpent (or we can view each as a set of memes; this makes no difference). Andy West’s writing, like mine and like Al Gore’s, consists of nothing but memes. Any idea, belief, or practice, capable of being picked up by one human from another human and thus perpetuated culturally, is a meme. No exceptions: this is the definition of ‘meme’.

I’ll be focusing here on beliefs, so I’ll equate a meme with a belief. Since it doesn’t affect any of the issues, I’ll ignore here the fact that some memes are not beliefs—a meme may be a practice or an idea that is not believed in, because it does not assert anything about the way the world is.

If every belief is a meme, it follows that every assemblage of beliefs is an assemblage of memes. Andy West, however, wants to exclude some assemblages of beliefs from his category of ‘memeplexes’. He doesn’t see climate skepticism as a memeplex and he’s not going to agree that his own theory of memeplexes is itself a memeplex.

It seems likely from his essay that he even refuses to recognize some transmissible beliefs as memes, and there are certainly numerous passing remarks indicating that West confines the term ‘memeplex’ to a very restricted range of belief systems. Take West’s reference (p. 58) to “Both the laudable and the lurking memetic content” (p. 2) in an essay by Pascal Bruckner (a French philosopher, author of The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse, critical of greenism or what he calls “ecologism”). How can there be a “lurking” memetic content in Bruckner’s essay when every idea in that essay, and in every essay ever penned, including every essay by Andy West, is a meme? And notice how “laudable’ is counterposed with “memetic.” West tells us that “Memeplexes wallow in uncertainty and confusion” (p. 3). I’m guessing he wouldn’t say that quantum mechanics wallows in uncertainty and confusion. He does tell us that “If done properly, science is anti-memetic” (p. 63).

A parallel would be if someone wanted to say that not all bits of a chromosome carrying information about the organism’s structure and behavior are to be called ‘genes’. Some are to be called ‘genes’ and others are not to be called ‘genes’, and we are then going to discuss the baleful influence of these ‘genes’ on the way the organism works, the implication being that the heritable bits of information we’re not calling ‘genes’ (but leaving unnamed and undescribed) are somehow healthy and unproblematic, while the ‘genes’ are a seriously disturbing influence. (And this might even have a popular resonance. A survey of why some people are nervous about genetically modified vegetables found that the main reason was that these people had heard that the vegetables in question contain genes!)

Andy West is not alone. The term ‘meme’ has achieved a currency beyond that of scholars interested in cultural transmission, and as so often happens, the term has changed its meaning as it has passed from specialized to more general usage. So today we often come across the definition of a ‘meme’ as something mindless, something non-reflective, something perhaps even irrational. West has simply adopted this popular modification of the meaning of ‘meme’.

It’s one thing to say that beliefs may sometimes survive for reasons other than their appeal to reason and evidence. It’s quite another to say that only beliefs which survive for such reasons are to be called ‘memes’. One thing that Dawkins’s concept of the meme alerts us to is that an idea may spread for reasons other than the ostensible ones. That is true and can be illuminating, but it does not help to then confine the concept of ‘meme’ to those case where the actual reasons for its spread differ from the ostensible ones. And, let’s never forget, an idea may spread for reasons other than the ostensible ones and still be correct, while an idea may spread for exactly the ostensible reasons and still be incorrect.

I haven’t done a thorough check on whether any other serious writers on memes have adopted, as West has, the more popular meaning. But I do have Susan Blackmore’s fine book, The Meme Machine (1999), sitting on my shelf. This is the book that popularized the term ‘memeplex’ (employed in 1995 by Hans-Cees Speel as a contraction of ‘co-adapted meme complex’, though apparently Speel wasn’t the first to use it). Blackmore makes it clear in several passages in The Meme Machine that she sticks to the original Dawkins definition of ‘meme’, as applying equally to all kinds of beliefs, including those comprising science and technology. For example she writes that “Science, like religion, is a mass of memeplexes,” and “Science is fundamentally a process; a set of methods for trying to distinguish true memes from false ones” (p. 202). So Blackmore accepts that a meme, if it is a belief about a matter of fact, is either true or false, that we can take steps to distinguish true memes from false memes, and that science is composed of memeplexes and therefore of memes.

Now, someone might try to defend Andy West as follows: If West wants to define ‘memes’ and ‘memeplexes’ in a way that differs from Dawkins’s and Blackmore’s original definitions, who is Steele to say that he shouldn’t? True, there may be some verbal confusion caused by the fact that some kinds of cultural transmission are excluded from the memes, and not given an alternative name. But that could be taken care of by clearly distinguishing memes from non-memes.

Unfortunately, however, West never gives a clear explanation of what separates memes from non-memes or memeplexes from other assemblages of memes. And no such distinction can seriously be made—not one that will withstand a few seconds’ scrutiny.

The division of belief systems into those which appeal to reason and evidence and those which do not is a hopeless task. If there are two incompatible points of view, x and y, then an adherent of x will always say that y does not appeal to reason and evidence, or at least does so to a lesser extent than x. And an advocate of y will say the same, only reversing the terms.

Climate Catastrophism and the Actual Climate

West intimates that climate catastrophism has little or nothing to do with the facts of what’s going on in the climate (pp. 1–5), and this is no doubt one reason he has for viewing it as a memeplex in his derogatory sense. But CAGW adherents would not agree with this judgment. They would say that climate skeptics, including West, are the ones who disregard the facts. I disagree with CAGW and agree with West on this issue, in fact I go further, maintaining (as West explicitly does not) that CAGW has been refuted. But the point is that people like West, seeking to distinguish memeplexes from other belief systems, are always going to classify as memeplexes those belief systems they disavow or dislike, and refuse to classify as memeplexes those belief systems they agree with. In other words, once we set out to distinguish memeplexes along these lines, we can’t classify CAGW as a memeplex without swallowing a whole chunk of the arguments of its opponents. Discussing CAGW as West does becomes a way of denigrating it without addressing its arguments. It can easily become an excuse for ad hominem attacks, masquerading as study of memetic processes.

Where have we come across this kind of thing before? Most conspicuously in the case of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysts had the habit of diagnosing their opponents instead of addressing their arguments. If you read Ernest Jones’s life of Freud, you’ll notice how everyone who had a falling out with Freud turned out to be seriously mentally ill, which explains why they adopted the theoretical positions they did. There was therefore no need for Jones to outline these positions or to offer a refutation of these positions.

Perhaps someone might think that the distinction between memeplexes and non-memeplexes can be made by asserting that memeplexes are insulated from reality. Perhaps West is gesturing in this direction with his claim that CAGW has little to do with what’s going on in the climate. I agree with the gist of West’s claim—that catastrophists tend to give insufficient weight to the many observations which appear to go against their theory. But we need to be careful here.

It’s characteristic of scientific theories—virtually all of them—that their adherents tend to brush aside apparently contrary considerations in a way that seems arbitrary to dissenters from the theory or to outsiders to the field. There are many examples of this phenomenon in the history of those scientific theories that we all consider acceptable. For instance, when Pasteur revived, reformulated, and corroborated the theory of infection by germs, numerous experts said something along the lines of: ‘We can see that this theory must obviously be false, because we observe that when several people are exposed to the same conditions, and therefore presumably the same germs, some become sick and some don’t.’ Refutation by observations (or more strictly, by reports of observations) is not necessarily simple or straightforward. The theory tends to dominate the observations, selecting and interpreting them in a distinctive way. When West says that memeplexes “manipulate perceptions” (p. 1), he may not realize that this applies to all theories without exception. This is why there can be paradigm shifts. This is why someone as clever and well-read as Paul Feyerabend can advocate ‘epistemological anarchism’ or ‘anything goes’ as the rule for science.

Can we really say that CAGW has nothing to do with what’s going on in the climate? Surely there would have been no CAGW if global mean surface temperature had not shown a net increase over the past hundred years. If we look at the reaction of CAGW proponents to the ‘Pause’—the fact that global mean surface temperature has not risen in the past ten to thirty years (depending on your favorite dataset)—we certainly do not observe that they are unconcerned about it. They manifestly see it as something troublesome that needs to be accounted for. When the Pause started, many of them denied that it was happening. When this denial became impossible, many of them said it could not possibly last much longer: just wait a year or two, and then you’ll see a big spike in temperature! Wrong again. As the Pause has continued, they have responded in various ways, many of these mutually incompatible. They’re visibly troubled about it. And they will no doubt become increasingly troubled with every year that the Pause continues, especially if we see statistically significant cooling (as many skeptical climate scientists predict). So I think it’s simplistic to say that CAGW is sealed off from what’s actually happening in the climate.

To avoid misunderstanding, I should point out that even without the Pause, the predictions of the CAGW crowd have always been for more warming than has actually occurred. In every case, reality has turned out to be cooler than what they confidently asserted would happen (or, in cases where they gave a wide range of probabilities, the subsequent observations have been at the extreme low end of the range, never close to the central values). Thus, even without the Pause, observations have always told against their theory. And if warming were to resume next year at the rate of the late twentieth century, the new observations would continue to contradict the predictions of the IPCC models. But the Pause is such a contemptuous rebuff by Mother Nature, and something the broader public can so easily grasp, that the CAGW zealots cannot escape the awareness that their theory has landed in deep doo-doo.

West Forays into Functionalism

West asks: “what are memeplexes for?” (p. 18). He thinks it very likely that they must be ‘for’ something. They can’t just be a precipitate of human activity but have to possess a function or telos, if not a purpose.

So he tries to answer this question. His answer is that memes are “for” benefiting society, and we can show this by tracing some of the benefits which various memeplexes have conferred on society.

His chief example is pyramid building in ancient Egypt. Pyramid building used up a lot of resources and yet Egyptian society was successful by various measures. Given that the burden of pyramid building was so huge, West reasons, “it seems highly likely that the overall social payback must be very positive indeed, in order to offset or exceed the huge efforts involved” (p. 20). He assumes that every major social phenomenon must pay. He then checks off some of the indirect apparent benefits that resulted from the building of pyramids. Belief in retribution for bad deeds in the afterlife encouraged altruistic behavior, which contributed to social cohesion and therefore helped society (p. 19).

The logistics of pyramid building “might well have been the catalyst that triggered the formation of the Egyptian super-power civilization from pre-existing tribes, with all that a civilization implies: central administration, writing, a managed food-supply and economy, a large and formally organized professional army, . . .” And so on (pp. 20–21).

West goes on to offer a more general social benefit, maintaining that it causes difficulties for society if people’s beliefs are too dissimilar, and that therefore something that makes beliefs more uniform will be helpful. So societies with strong memeplexes will tend to outcompete societies without them (p. 23).

Where have we heard this before? In Durkheim, of course, and in a whole brood of social anthropologists and sociologists, most conspicuously people like Bronislaw Malinowski. This theory is called functionalism, and it embodies certain misconceptions. (Functionalist theories are not all the same; Durkheim’s functionalism for instance holds that practices are functional inasmuch as they adjust to equilibrium, which is not guaranteed to be nice. We don’t need to pursue these differences here.)

West supposes that if a memeplex exists, it must be because it confers some benefit. (In his case, the benefit seems to be increasing the strength and power of the polity.) He then casts around for what this benefit might possibly be, and hits upon one or two imaginable ways in which the existence of this memeplex had helpful consequences for the population. But the initial question is misplaced. We will always be able to find good (or functional) consequences of any belief system (it’s an ill wind that blows no one any good), and there’s no reason to suppose that this explains the prevalence of that belief system, especially as these consequences may arise centuries after the beliefs have caught hold.

When the Egyptians were trying to secure their prospects in the afterlife by protecting their corpses, what selective mechanism could look ahead and foresee these remote consequences of the prevalence of such beliefs, encouraging them to proliferate and discouraging the alternatives (such as the belief that nothing of your personality survives in your corpse, and when you die that’s the end of you)? There’s no such mechanism. The prevalence of a belief cannot be properly explained by remote and unknown (to the believer) consequences of many people holding that belief.

West looks for a functionalist explanation of the prevalence of certain systems of belief, but such explanations are generally fallacious. This is not to deny the commonplaces of historical enquiry. A group of people may certainly become more or less successful because of some aspect of their beliefs. National Socialist beliefs led to the driving away from Germany of Jewish scientists and to such poor decisions as the refusal to activate Ukrainian nationalism against Moscow. Thus, National Socialist beliefs helped Germany to lose the war. In a famous example, Bertrand Russell maintained that one of the reasons early Christianity prevailed while Mithraism disappeared was that following Mithraism involved undue expense: you frequently had to find a live bull to slaughter. There’s no mystery about these kinds of explanations, and they do not imply functionalism.

Sometimes people may take deliberate notice of the consequences of belief systems, and this may affect their decisions. For example the patricians of imperial Rome applied certain rules of thumb about religious movements. One was that old religions (like Judaism) were to be warmly tolerated whereas new religions (like Christianity) were to be less tolerated. Another rule of thumb was that religious movements focused on following a particular person (again Christianity) were likely to be dangerous, since any such person or his designated successor would automatically become a rival to the emperor. Political leaders have always paid attention to the purely factual consequences (in their judgment) of various belief systems and have acted appropriately, to encourage or discourage those systems. This is not functionalism: in this case someone consciously recognizes the consequences of the belief systems and acts accordingly. The selective mechanism is deliberate, conscious choice by specific individuals. Both social institutions and belief systems evolve partly by cumulative rational selection, as opposed to blind selective processes.

There are also minor quibbles with West’s argument. For example, he tacitly assumes that building pyramids is an outgrowth of preoccupation with the afterlife. No doubt this is true, but it goes against his argument, because if pyramid building is explained by being a result of people’s preoccupation with the afterlife, then there’s no need to explain it by its impact on military organization and the like. We have an explanation: pyramid building arose because of preoccupation with the afterlife, end of story. And if, in the functionalist perspective, pyramid building is a burden, while encouragement of altruistic behavior is a benefit, then the most functional memeplex would be something that encouraged altruistic behavior without building huge stone structures. There’s no logical necessity that a belief system encouraging altruistic behavior must also encourage the building of huge stone structures. Furthermore, the building of huge stone structures clearly indicates that the pharaohs believed that something other than altruistic behavior (to wit, the building of huge stone structures) would benefit them in the afterlife. Therefore belief in the building of huge stone structures represents a denial of the exclusive importance of altruistic behavior: it’s an expression of people’s skepticism that altruistic behavior could be enough, and so it undermines the altruistic ethics which West claims pyramid building exists to promote.

What Are Memeplexes For?

What are memeplexes for? Strictly, this question is absurd. It’s like asking what the aurora borealis is for. The correct answer is that it is not for anything and could not possibly be for anything. Systems of belief do not exist for any purpose, except to assuage the believer’s thirst for truth. Nor do systems of belief exist because they perform any social function.

To bring out the absurdity of this kind of enquiry, consider the following example: Many story plots involve the ‘eternal triangle’ theme of a man’s romantic involvement with two women. What’s the social function of this fictional theme? In other words, what benefits does it confer on society, which benefits can account for the fact that it exists? The answer is that the prevalence of this literary theme, and of other common ‘dramatic situations’ arises automatically from certain basic, all-pervasive facts about human life. It is therefore simply an elementary misunderstanding to ask what it’s for. It’s just not ‘for’ anything and could not be ‘for’ anything.

Given a different interpretation, however, the question “What are memeplexes for?” can be answered simply and conclusively. Let’s restate the question. Why is it that humans have beliefs, especially enthusiastic beliefs to which they become fiercely devoted? And why do groups of beliefs have a tendency to clump together into systems of beliefs?

People have beliefs because they have an appetite to believe. This appetite is stronger than hunger, stronger than thirst, stronger than sex. It’s innate in the human makeup, ineradicable, and dictated by the genes. The human mind is so constructed that it must believe. A belief is taking something to be true. There is no such thing as believing something you think is untrue—this is a straightforward contradiction, because believing something is exactly equivalent to thinking it true. So, people’s appetite for belief always appears to them as (and is in fact) an appetite for the truth.

What’s the nature of this voracious, all-consuming appetite? It’s a demand to have the world make sense. What you believe is always what you think is true, and the demand that you come up with something you think is true (the reason you’re interested at all, so to speak) arises from the categorical imperative to be convinced of a theory about the world. This imperative is hardwired, it is observed in babies (recall Alison Gopnik et al., The Scientist in the Crib) and cannot be shut down except by unconsciousness.

To take the question back a stage further, why are babies born with such a fanatical, dogmatic, uncompromising conviction that the world absolutely must make sense? The answer to this is not obscure—because humans born with such a ferocious hunger for the truth do better at passing on their genes than humans born without any such appetite. Surely this is more or less what we would expect.

Why do beliefs clump together? Anyone trying to make sense of the world will come up with numerous beliefs, and these cannot always be isolated from each other. One reason is that we may have several beliefs about the same thing, and there is the possibility that such beliefs might be inconsistent. We automatically strive to remove inconsistency and harmonize our beliefs. If two of our beliefs are incompatible, we recognize that something is wrong; we feel uneasy and look for a way to make the incompatibility disappear. It’s impossible to believe anything without tacitly acknowledging the rudiments of logic. Just as the whole of arithmetic is implicit in the act of distinguishing two from one, so the whole of logic is implicit in holding that one belief is true and its denial is false.

Another reason is that beliefs are often useful to us, and where they are useful, they are often more useful if they are more general. It may be useful to believe that this tree will bear sweet fruit every summer, but it could be even more useful to believe that all trees with this shape of leaf will bear sweet fruit every summer.

As a child grows up, it will frequently have the experience of learning something that explains a lot, a single insight that puts a myriad of things in a different light, making more sense of them. Thus, the drive to believe automatically tends to encourage the appetite for beliefs of wide application, the limit being all-embracing beliefs which explain everything.

The existence of belief systems (or memeplexes) can be seen to follow automatically from innate factors in the human constitution. With the development of language and other media of communication, most of an individual’s beliefs come from the culture—from what other individuals say. We all believe that there are kangaroos in Australia and that it’s cold at the North Pole, even though most of us have never visited either place (or spent any time or effort investigating the plausibility of these tales we’ve been told). This doesn’t mean that we’re bound to believe everything ‘the culture’ (other people) tells us, though we very often do so until some acute problem makes us question a received belief.

I have given a brief account here of why belief leads to belief systems, without assuming that there is some genetic predisposition to embrace large systems of interlocking beliefs. But, of course, there certainly is some such predisposition, and more generally there is likely to be, not merely a genetically programmed drive to beliefs of wide generality, but a genetically programmed drive to hold certain kinds of general beliefs rather than others. Still the most brilliant stab at such a theory of how the mind strives to order its understanding of the world in a particular way is the identity theory of Émile Meyerson.

The Myth of Irrationality

I surmise that West subscribes to the common view that there are rational and irrational reasons or motivations for believing something. This misconception is criticized at length in Ray Scott Percival’s book, The Myth of the Closed Mind (2012). I believe that the main thrust of Percival’s argument is correct. West may think that adopting a memeplex is irrational. But adopting any belief system is never irrational—though it may sometimes be mistaken or even foolish. Humans just can’t help being rational; they are forever condemned to be rational.

The misconception that humans can believe things for irrational motives often arises from the tacit definition of ‘rationality’ as absence of error. Certainly, humans often commit errors; we all make mistakes. In fact, only a rational being can commit an error; the existence of error (in the strict sense) is proof of rationality. Errors can, as we know, be corrected, and very frequently are.

Some systems of belief are more passionate than others. You could put together all my beliefs about transportation in and around Chicago and call it a belief system. For example, my belief that I can get from the Loop to Logan Square in about half an hour by taking the Blue Line from any of several stations along Dearborn is one belief among thousands. If I had to revise some of these beliefs, it wouldn’t upset me very much.

Other belief systems involve a more visceral attachment. My belief in neo-Darwinian evolution, or in any major part of that theory such as genetics, could not be changed without an intellectual upheaval accompanied by emotional turmoil. I call this kind of belief system an enthusiastic belief system, and I maintain that enthusiastic belief systems, be they religious, philosophical, or scientific, all have common characteristics.

To mention a few: they all involve ‘confirmation bias’; once you accept the system you tend to interpret evidence so that it fits the system. They all dismiss or explain away apparent counter-instances with great facility. They all involve privileged texts (scriptures) and accredited spokespersons, which become imbued with authority. They all exhibit emotional attachment on the part of their adherents and strong feelings of aversion toward people who dispute the system. Attachment to a belief system is very much like attachment to a person; just as love is blind, so our attachment to the belief system makes us overlook its possible faults. All these features are just as much in evidence in belief systems we agree with as in belief systems we reject. In fact all these features are inevitable: science, no less than religion, could never have developed without them (as Percival makes clear).

Why We Should Resist the Temptation to Diagnose

People often disagree with each other. There are many competing and incompatible theories (I view any religious doctrine as a theory). This disagreement arises ineluctably (in human groups of more than a few hundred) because the world is big, complex, and messy and because individual humans are each equipped with nothing more than strip-maps of the world. When an adherent of one belief system encounters adherents of another belief system, there is a feeling of incredulity: surely they can’t possibly think that?

When we encounter a belief system we disagree with, we can criticize it. We can try to show that it is contrary to observed facts, or that it involves inconsistency and is therefore self-contradictory. We can also criticize it simply by finding flaws in some of the arguments in its favor. But having stated our criticisms of the belief system, we observe with amazement that its adherents do not instantly accept our arguments and abandon their belief system. They persist in their erroneous ways, by ignoring what we have said, or by misrepresenting what we have said, or by replying to what we have said with blatantly unsound counter-arguments. This is the age-old pattern of differing beliefs, in science just as much as in religion.

In this situation, it’s tempting to conclude that we have not done enough. Instead of simply refuting these people’s arguments, we may feel we need to try to show that their erroneous beliefs arise from some deep-seated disorder in their thinking. We then try to show that they are guilty of some kind of irrationality.

The temptation should always be resisted. Once we have stated the arguments against their position, and worked on improving these arguments, we just have to keep on restating them and wait for the penny to drop. The arguments against their position (assuming these arguments can’t for the moment be improved) are everything we could possibly have; there’s nothing more to be had.

Here we should remind ourselves of a couple of elementary points:

1. One and the same belief may be held by different people with different habits of thought, different epistemologies, and different methodologies. A true belief may be held for seriously defective reasons and a false belief may be held for impeccable reasons. Logically, there is a disjunction between the soundness of one’s thinking and the truth of one’s beliefs. We cannot validly reason from the unsoundness of someone’s thinking to the untruth of their beliefs, nor from the untruth of their beliefs to the unsoundness of their thinking, nor from the soundness of their thinking to the truth of their beliefs, not from the truth of their beliefs to the soundness of their thinking.

2. What applies to individual beliefs applies to systems of belief or memeplexes. One person may embrace a given memeplex because of meticulous analysis while another may embrace the same memeplex because of disturbed thinking, or seriously mistaken methodology (including uncritically accepting what he has heard another person say). That this is routinely so is a familiar fact. George Orwell famously pointed out that he believed the world was round and orbited the sun, but would be unable to mount a good defense of these beliefs against anyone (with a bit of astronomical knowledge) who disputed them.

Even if every single person who adheres to a particular memeplex does so for faulty reasons, it’s still possible that at any moment, someone may arrive at a defense of that very memeplex for different and sounder reasons.

If the adherents of a memeplex are in fact prey to some thinking disorder, this is immaterial to the merits of that memeplex, for one can arrive at a correct position by disordered thinking or at an incorrect position by impeccable thinking. So the only relevance of their thinking disorder would be that in this case it led them to espouse a faulty position, and once again we find that all that matters is the faultiness of the position and not in the slightest degree the type of thinking that happened to cause any individual to accept it. The position can only be shown to be faulty by direct criticism, never by diagnosing the way its proponents think.

Science has always involved passionate attachment to enthusiastic belief systems. As Blackmore says, “False theories thrive within science as well as within religion, and for many of the same reasons” (The Meme Machine, p. 202). In itself, this is perfectly normal. Fiercely clinging to some theory after it has been shown to contradict experience is a human trait (and according to Percival a necessary and productive human trait) and it occurs in science just as much as in other institutional areas.

Sometimes, under certain conditions, the situation gets bad, as with Lysenkoism and CAGW. These monumental follies arose because the zealots used political power to protect themselves from criticism by stigmatizing their actual critics and intimidating potential critics. Just as competition is required to keep business socially optimal and nothing else can, so debate, the competition of ideas, keeps enquiry on the track of truth, and nothing else can. But monopoly enfeebles the monopolist—“power stupefies”—and ensures that when the memeplex falls, it crashes and burns with spectacular suddenness.

If general cultural conditions favored it, episodes like Lysenkoism or CAGW could actually destroy science. But conditions, though worsening, are nowhere near that bad. Science will survive, at least for the next century or so. CAGW will soon be a thing of the past, a paroxysm of ideological craziness that we will look back upon with amused fascination.

Naturally, the bare bones of the environmentalist belief system will grow different flesh. Just as global warming supplanted acid rain, so some new scare will supplant global warming. (Always eager to help out, I have nominated the use of electronic devices causing a switch in the Earth’s magnetic field.) Environmentalism holds that human activity is destroying the planet, and therefore economic growth must be crippled and millions of Third World babies allowed to die. The specific evil activity which is destroying the planet can be changed, although possibly the environmentalist loss of credibility due to the thoroughness of the discrediting of CAGW will be so immense that the entire environmentalist belief system will be weakened for a while. If so, that will be good news for humankind and especially its poorer half.

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Remembering Tom Szasz

PsychologyPosted by David Ramsay Steele Thu, August 07, 2014 19:32:06

We’re probably in for a fresh spate of critiques and reappraisals of the work of Thomas S. Szasz.

In 1961 Szasz published The Myth of Mental Illness (following an article with the same title, two years earlier). His many subsequent books would preach the same message, and most of these later volumes make much more entertaining reading than The Myth of Mental Illness.

Szasz’s reputation as a writer suffered on account of that early work. Because of its title and its key role in psychiatric controversies, it became the one work of Szasz to cite. People curious about Szasz would usually seek out that particular book. It’s rather dull compared to such sparkling later works as The Manufacture of Madness (1970), The Therapeutic State (1975), or Liberation by Oppression (2002). His Karl Kraus and the Soul Doctors (1976, later reprinted as Anti-Freud) is also captivating, but in this case partly because of the translated remarks of Kraus. Szasz’s own witty, oracular debunking style evidently owed a lot to the author of The Last Days of Mankind, as well as to Mark Twain, Ambrose Beirce, and H.L. Mencken.

Szasz argued that there is literally no such thing as ‘mental illness’. Mental illness is no more than a metaphor. If we speak of ‘a sick economy’, we know this is a metaphor. We don’t try to pretend that economics is a branch of medicine. It’s just the same with human behavior, human feelings, and human thoughts. These do not belong to the domain of medicine. But in this case, we may be tempted to think that there is a branch of medicine—psychiatry—which is competent to deal with problems of behavior, feeling, and thinking. This Szasz denied outright. He did not rule out as meaningless or useless everything that psychiatrists might do—he merely insisted that it was not medicine. He undoubtedly did believe, though, that psychiatry had done a lot more harm than good.

Szasz himself had a private practice as a psychotherapist, as well as being a professor of psychiatry. He defended being a professor of psychiatry by pointing out that few would object if an atheist were a professor of religion. He talked about his own practice of psychotherapy rarely and vaguely: he characterized it as having conversations with people in order to help them with their problems in living. As for helping them by giving them drugs, Szasz held that this should be permitted as long as it was entirely voluntary, but he himself was not a big enthusiast for the practice (and, for all I know, believed it was always wrong). He would say, for instance, that you don’t call in a TV repairman when you’re disgusted with the quality of the programs. This is an entirely typical Szasz bon mot. On the one hand, it strikingly clarifies one facet of the issue. On the other hand, there is a lingering doubt, is there not? For after all, if the entire scriptwriting and production process occurred inside the TV set, it wouldn’t be so obviously silly to get the repairman to fix up the script for It’s Always Sunny.

Szasz—an MD who knew quite a bit about medicine and the history of medicine—didn’t dispute that the realm of behavior often interacts with the domain of medicine. By drinking too heavily, a person may give himself cirrhosis of the liver, which is a medical problem. By bungee jumping a person may give himself a broken neck. What makes him take to drink or go in for bungee jumping is not, in Szasz’s view, a matter in which medical doctors have any special competence. What are commonly regarded as ‘mental illnesses’ are simply ‘problems in living’.

His books are eloquent in exposing and criticizing the absurdities which result when any and all human behavior is viewed in terms of health and disease. Even before such diseases as sex addiction, shopping addiction, and internet addiction had been invented, Szasz had accounted for them, and had pointed out the affinity of such afflictions with drapetomania (the disease diagnosed in some black slaves by a nineteenth-century doctor, the symptom of this malady being the slaves’ desire to run away from their owners) and the mental diseases identified by Soviet psychiatrists in people who criticized the socialist regime.

I first became aware of someone called ‘Szasz’ when I read R.D. Laing in the 1960s; at that time Laing was all the rage in England. At first the ‘anti-psychiatrists’ eagerly quoted their predecessor Szasz, but it soon became apparent that Szasz had nothing but contempt for the anti-psychiatrists. He didn’t like them because they were socialists and because he believed that they sought to glorify the mental states of designated mental patients. Szasz had no patience with those who imputed to mental patients wondrous insights denied to the rest of us. He tended to think of mental patients as, for the most part, a rather pathetic bunch who were often complicit in their own oppression.

Jonathan Engel (in his American Therapy, 2008) gets the chronology wrong and thinks that Szasz was a follower of the anti-psychiatrists. I have occasionally encountered people who suppose that since Szasz was a ‘radical’ in the 1960s and later says things that sound ‘conservative’, he must have undergone a political conversion. But the truth is that Szasz’s fundamental outlook was pretty much fixed by the 1940s and never changed. He was always a classical liberal, an anti-communist, and a ‘cultural conservative’ in lifestyle matters, though of course favoring the repeal of all prohibitions on drugs and victimless crimes. The biggest change he did undergo was from being a psychoanalyst (some said the crown prince of psychoanalysis) to being a hostile critic of psychoanalysis.

The volume Szasz Under Fire: The Psychiatric Abolitionist Faces His Critics (edited by Jeffrey Schaler, 2004), which includes a brief autobiography, also contains an exchange of letters between Szasz and Karl Popper (this is given by Szasz in his reply to the article by Ray Percival). Here, Popper says he thinks that Szasz is ninety-five percent right about the nonexistence of mental illnesses. What Popper meant was that while he agreed with Szasz that the extension of the medical metaphor to every type of human ethical or lifestyle decision is preposterous, we can still reasonably conjecture that there are some few cases where a typical brain malfunction is the cause of some typical cluster of emotional and behavioral problems (even though we can’t yet identify the brain malfunction in question).

Not that Szasz would have disputed the truism that Alzheimer’s and syphilis can cause mental deterioration, and that there are sure to be many other as yet undiscovered diseases of the nervous system that have mental and behavioral symptoms. But he took the position that we can’t describe these as diseases until we have ascertained their physical cause.

In a typically Szaszian crisp summary (and possibly oversimplification), he asserted that we’re not entitled to talk about a disease until a pathologist can identify its presence in a corpse. A corpse can have cancer, bunions, or atherosclerosis. A corpse can’t have schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or paranoia, let alone shopping addiction or obsessive-compulsive disorder. No pathologist can detect the presence of these supposed illnesses by examining a cadaver. To Szasz, this meant that they could not be called literal diseases, even though he allowed that at some future date we might find that they corresponded, more or less, with some presently unknown literal diseases.

Szasz observed that once a genuine physical disease is identified, it tends to be taken away from psychiatry and given to general medicine, as occurred with syphilis of the brain and with strokes, and more recently with Alzheimer’s. Once these are classified as literal diseases with known physical causes, psychiatry can claim no special expertise in these areas. Szasz also pointed out the influence of ethical and religious fashion on psychiatric diagnoses: when Szasz started writing, nearly all psychiatrists held that homosexuality was a disease (this was the official position of the American Psychiatric Association until 1973 and the World Health Organization until 1990). Now most of them don’t. The switch is not in the least due to any new medical evidence, but purely to a re-adjustment of mores and ethical attitudes.

Although on occasion Szasz fully acknowledged that some human problems would eventually be attributed to presently undiscovered brain diseases, the general sweep of his rhetoric tends to give the opposite impression: “. . . we will discover the chemical cause of schizophrenia when we discover the chemical cause of Christianity and Communism. No sooner and no later” (The Untamed Tongue, pp. 215–16).

I agree with Szasz in opposing involuntary commitment of the mentally ill and I admire his exposure of much psychiatric silliness. But the route to those conclusions is not as simple as he believed. Szasz holds that there can be no literal disease of the mind, only a literal disease of the body or a metaphorical disease of the mind. This is strictly correct, but it does not have the sweeping implications he supposes. Szasz attacks people who employ the term ‘mental illness’, but his attacks fail if people are using the term to mean ‘a brain disease with mental symptoms’.

Various drugs can cause you to have hallucinations and infection by rabies will make you terrified of water. So we know that purely bodily changes can change your conscious states and your deliberate behavior in predictable ways, and we can’t rule out the possibility that some such bodily changes may happen without the intervention of drugs or of rabid beasts.

Szasz would say that until we have identified the physical cause (the lesion), we can’t assert the existence of an illness. But, as far as I can see, nothing prevents us from conjecturing that certain symptoms are accounted for by an illness whose existence we can’t yet observe directly. I know a lot less than Szasz did about the history of medicine, but I would even surmise that there have been such cases—consumption, epilepsy, and asthma spring to mind. But even if I’m wrong in thinking that there have been actual cases, it still wouldn’t follow that such conjectures are inadmissible. And if we can do this with physical symptoms, we can do it with mental symptoms: I can see nothing wrong in principle with hypothesizing that a certain cluster of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors is accounted for by a brain malfunction. It’s literally, pedantically wrong to call this a ‘mental disease’ just as it’s literally, pedantically wrong to say that the sun rises, but such casual expressions are inevitably rife throughout language.

Involuntary commitment and other pretexts for imprisonment and torture are very common in our culture, and so is the endless re-iteration of the claim that victims of state coercion are ‘ill’. Yet these two facts are not as tightly connected as Szasz supposed. I can easily imagine a change in semantic fashion, so that state paternalists would say: ‘Granted, these people are not ill, but they are still a threat to themselves and others and therefore need treatment whether they consent or not’. And I can also easily imagine some people coming around to the view: ‘These people are indeed ill, but even sick people shouldn’t be forcibly incarcerated or given drugs or electric shocks against their wishes’.

Szasz wrote about forty books, even one (Faith in Freedom, 2004) devoted to a critique of the views of libertarians on mental illness. The one I found most disappointing is The Meaning of Mind (1996). As you read most of Szasz’s work, you become conscious of an odd lacuna: he repeatedly draws a bright line between consciousness and physiology, as though these are independent realms. This is the more remarkable because he is an atheist with no theological commitments. So, you wonder what he thinks about the relation of mind and brain. With The Meaning of Mind, we find out that he has no coherent view of the relation between mind and brain and (while the book does have a sprinkling of his usual piercing insights) his uninformed comments on those who have carefully elaborated various theories often miss the point and are at times painful to peruse.

Following protracted illness, and a few days after a severe spinal injury due to a fall, Tom Szasz exercised his right to suicide. I never met him but had various phone and email exchanges with him over a number of years. If I had met him in the flesh, I might have mentioned some of my criticisms of his views, though his always thick Hungarian accent might have been a conversational impediment, and I have heard from a reliable source that in his last years he became testier and testier, disposed to see any disagreement as betrayal.

Szász Tamász István (the surname comes first in Hungarian). Born Budapest, 15th April 1920. Died Manlius, New York, 8th September 2012.

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A Moral Defense of Meat-Eating

PhilosophyPosted by David Ramsay Steele Tue, May 06, 2014 20:25:26

A moral case for vegetarianism has been made by some philosophers and has become popular among a small group of people not noted for their reticence. The most influential of these philosophers is Peter Singer. Singer’s argument is that it’s immoral to cause suffering, that the suffering of non-human animals has equal weight with the suffering of humans, that you can’t eat meat without patronizing and encouraging the inflicting of suffering on animals, and that therefore it must be immoral to eat meat, except in cases of dire necessity.

I think this argument is mistaken, and I will now give you my chief counter-argument. My counter-argument contains a lemma—an intermediate conclusion that I can then use as a premiss for my final argument. To keep things short and simple, I’m not going to argue here for the lemma (though I am going to briefly explain the point of it), since I believe that most people, if they think about it even briefly will agree with it. I’m just going to state the lemma and then move on from there. (Although I say “my” counter-argument, I don’t mean to imply that there’s anything original about this. I’ve heard something similar to this before, though I have no idea who first came up with it. After all, it’s pretty obvious.)

Lemma: We’re not under any moral obligation to act so as to reduce the total amount of animal suffering below what it is in the wild, or below what it would be if humans didn’t exist. In other words, if the immorality of eating meat is dependent on humans causing animals to suffer, then it can’t be immoral to eat meat if the production of meat for human consumption does not increase the suffering of animals above what it would have been in the absence of any human intervention.

Explanation of the lemma: In the absence of human intervention, animals like deer and oxen would be eaten by non-human predators. When humans eat meat, they’re competing with other meat-eating animals, such as lions and wolves. If the predators disappear, this may lead to overpopulation of the former prey animals and consequent unwelcome environmental effects such as deforestation followed by soil erosion. The situation is not changed in principle if we move from hunting to the raising of livestock: the morally relevant issue is whether the cows or sheep we’re raising would suffer more, or less, or the same, if they were in the wild and being eaten by lions or wolves.

The lemma allows the possibility that some ways of treating animals may be immoral, but the lemma rules out the presumptive immorality of all cases of treating animals in such a way that their situation is no worse than they would face in the wild. In the case of hunting, this is clear enough. Anyone who knows cats knows that they love to keep their prey alive and toy with it before finally killing it, and this causes more suffering than would be caused by a quick kill with an arrow or a bullet. So human hunting causes less suffering than hunting by at least some other predators.

Could it be argued that by hunting deer, humans are causing suffering to lions and wolves by taking away their prey? This doesn’t look like a promising line of argument. Humans are hunters by nature, and it’s not clear why we would feel obliged to let other species of hunters have prey that we could have. A lion whose potential prey is killed by a human is no worse off than a lion whose potential prey is killed by another lion, and in either case the total lion population adjusts to the availability of prey for lions, with marginal lions always dying or otherwise failing to reproduce because of competition.

As we move from hunting to raising livestock, no important new issues of principle arise. Do farm animals suffer more or less than animals in the wild? It’s not clear that they suffer any more, and it seems likely that they suffer a lot less. The day-to-day life of a cow munching the grass and chewing the cud has less excitement than that of the wild ox, continually fearful of sudden attack by a predator, but I doubt that the cow would get a thrill from dangerous adventures the way some humans do. When death comes to the cow, it does not seem to cause any more suffering than death in the wild—and if we ever found out that it did, we could adjust our techniques of slaughter, without abandoning the practice of killing animals for food. My argument is not that all and any ways of raising and killing animals for food are morally acceptable, but merely that some feasible ways are morally acceptable, and therefore morality does not require vegetarianism.

Some people may feel that the life of an animal in the wild is in some way better than that of a farm animal, even though the farm animal experiences less actual pain and fear. Well, we observe, as real incomes rise, that there is a growing interest in both recreational hunting and in the demand for game animals, animals killed in the wild, in preference to farm-raised animals. The meat of game animals is leaner and tastes better. This trend is merely the tip of a broader movement towards free-range raising of animals. Suppliers of meat can charge more for meat that has been produced in a ‘more natural’ way, partly because of superior taste and partly because consumers feel better knowing that what they were eating was produced in a more natural way. As our incomes rise, we spontaneously move away from factory farming toward free-range farming, and then ultimately to preferring meat from animals that have been hunted in the wild.

If we accept the lemma, then the mere fact that some suffering occurs to animals when they’re raised for meat production is not enough to show that this is immoral. Instead, we have to show that they necessarily suffer more than they (or corresponding animals, which might be a bit different in a hypothetical alternative world) would suffer, if the human population were much smaller and the populations of lions and wolves much bigger.

Although I’m not offering arguments for the lemma, I do want to look at three possible ways of rejecting it. Someone could maintain that our obligation is simply to stop suffering wherever we can. One way to stop the suffering that comes from animals being harvested as prey would be to wipe out those animals. Thus, we could kill all oxen (including beef cows). At the same time, we would wipe out all the predators, the animals that would have eaten the oxen. This would mean wiping out virtually all animal species, including insects, birds, and fish, for all these animals are either predators or likely prey. Some folks would feel sad that all these species had disappeared, but they could console themselves with the thought that being extinct means you never have to suffer, whereas being extant means you do have to suffer.

Consistently, we should extend this to humans: they should be killed off, and then no human would ever suffer again. (Just to keep an eye on things and make sure everyone follows the rules, I’ll be the last one to go.) If allowing suffering is decisively immoral then every sentient living thing, including humans, should be made extinct, because this and only this guarantees no more suffering.

Another person might, however, approach the issue a bit differently. Instead of killing all animals, we could take over and manage the entire animal kingdom, transforming it into something very different from the way it has evolved, intervening with birth control drugs, factory-produced food, analgesics, and anesthetics. The former predators could be fed substitute foods made in factories from soybeans, or even directly from industrial chemicals. Since they would suffer somewhat from not being able to hunt, we would have to provide them with robotic imitation-prey, so that they could continue to experience the activity of hunting. Herbivores could be left to graze the wilderness, but fed fertility-reducing drugs to keep their populations stable. There would still be some suffering: accidents do happen, and every animal has to die, though we could try to limit this suffering by infiltrating the natural world with robots using analgesic and anesthetic dart guns, watching all the while for any impending pain or anxiety.

There are various aspects of this scenario which may not be very appealing. Be that as it may, it is not feasible right now, and won’t be feasible without a huge investment over many decades, if not centuries (think about the difficulty in ensuring that every fish in the oceans is guaranteed never to be eaten). So, even assuming that this ambitious intervention is morally required, we’re stuck for a while with the choice between a certain amount of suffering in the wild and a certain amount of suffering (probably the same or a bit less) down on the farm. And therefore, if we accept the lemma, we must reject the case for vegetarianism on grounds of the suffering caused by meat-eating.

Of course, most vegetarians will reject those two approaches and go for a third approach: simply have humans abstain from meat-eating. But what the lemma helps to bring out is that this option has an arbitrary quality. Turning humans into herbivores means excluding other herbivores from a large area of land, reducing the world's populations of non-human herbivores. So the third approach is a kind of partial and inconsistent version of the first approach. Either we have an obligation to reduce animal suffering every chance we get, or we don't have such an obligation. Eschewing the first two approaches means admitting that we have no such obligation.

We can kill animals for food without adding to the total net suffering in the animal kingdom, and this is morally okay.

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The Bigotry of the New Atheism (by an Old Atheist)

Current AffairsPosted by David Ramsay Steele Sat, April 12, 2014 22:05:39

(I wrote this a few years ago. A magazine said they would probably print it but then held on to it for over two years before deciding not to use it. I’ve just now gone quickly through it and changed it slightly in several places.)

If there’s anything new about the New Atheism which erupted in 2004, it’s the strident proclamation that belief in God is a powerful force for evil. All kinds of atrocities are laid at the door of “religion,” equated with belief in God.

The central message of the New Atheism is that 9/11 and similar outrages have occurred because their perpetrators believed in God. This is explicitly stated and reiterated many times by Sam Harris, but the same tune has been hummed and whistled in several keys by Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens.

If you believe in God, then you have been infected and (twenty-eight days or years later) this belief is going to prompt you to kill yourself and your fellow-humans. So the New Atheists tell us. I view this as a fairytale, just as far-fetched as anything in the Bible or the Quran.

Atheists Do It Better (Mass Murder, That Is)

There’s an obvious problem with the New Atheist claim that theistic religion is peculiarly conducive to atrocities. The last hundred years have seen the rise to power of secular, in some cases overtly atheistic, ideological movements, and these movements have been responsible for the killing, torture, enslavement, and terrorizing of many millions of people.

By any measure, the evil deeds done by these secular regimes within a few decades have vastly outweighed the evil deeds done by Christianity and Islam combined, throughout their entire history—not by a factor of just two or three, but by a factor of hundreds, if not thousands. Institutions claiming to embody Christianity or Islam have murdered thousands. Institutions claiming to embody Marxism, National Socialism, or other types of socialism, have murdered tens of millions.

Since this factual point is so conspicuous, the New Atheists have naturally attempted to account for it. Their most common response is that whereas theists (like Torquemada) committed atrocities because they believed in God, atheists (like Stalin or Mao) did not commit their atrocities because they disbelieved in God. This strikes me as a very strange claim.

Even if this strange claim were true, it would not address the difficult point. The New Atheists maintain that “religious,” meaning theistic, ideologies generate atrocities. History shows that non-theistic or secular ideologies have generated atrocities on a vastly greater scale than theistic ideologies. Now, even if the religious atrocities were committed because the perpetrators believed in God while the secular atrocities were not committed because the perpetrators disbelieved in God, this does nothing to get around the stark fact that ideologies without belief in God have motivated more and bigger atrocities than ideologies incorporating belief in God, and that therefore it looks dubious to single out belief in God as an especially virulent intellectual source of atrocities.

However, the strange claim, if we can make any sense of it at all, can only be false. Belief in God is an integral part of Christianity and disbelief in God is an integral part of Marxism. Torquemada committed his atrocities because of a belief system which included belief in God. Stalin and Mao committed their immensely more ambitious atrocities because of a belief system which included disbelief in God. I can’t imagine how you extract from these facts the conclusion that theists committed their atrocities “because” they believed in God while atheists did not commit their atrocities “because” they disbelieved in God.

Another argument offered by the New Atheists is to cite ways in which the churches were complicit in the crimes against humanity committed by Fascist and National Socialist regimes. The New Atheists don’t seem equally concerned about the complicity of atheist intellectuals in the greater crimes against humanity committed by Communist regimes.

But, in any case, what do such examples really show? Fascism and National Socialism were not Christian movements. The distinctive elements in their ideologies and policies were not derived from what the churches were teaching. When the Fascists and the Nazis were new, small parties with little following, they did not seek, nor did they get, the slightest bit of support from the churches. Until 1933, for instance, Catholics were forbidden by the German bishops to join the Nazi Party.

By the time Fascism and National Socialism became contenders for power, and then achieved power, many people compromised with them, including most of the churches. So did other groups, for example, the majority of scientists, scholars, and journalists in the affected countries. Both totalitarian movements, Fascism in Italy and National Socialism in Germany, gained electoral support at the expense of specifically Christian political parties, which were closed down when the Fascist and National Socialist parties came to power.

It’s also true that some Christians, motivated at least in part by their Christianity, resisted these regimes and paid for it. The truly heroic Claus von Stauffenberg, leader of Operation Valkyrie, the plot to assassinate Hitler, was a devout Catholic.

As well as the Soviet repression of theists, both Christian and Muslim, and such well-known instances as the mass killings directed by the atheist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, it’s worth mentioning a couple of other, lesser-known cases where specifically atheist persons or groups were responsible for horrible acts of violence.

In 1924, the Mexican government ramped up its already severe restrictions on the activities of the Catholic church. Hundreds of priests and other Catholics were imprisoned or executed because they refused to comply with new regulations (requiring, for example, that priests not criticize government officials and not wear clerical garb outside a church). The brutal repression of Catholics led to the “Cristero war” between Catholic rebels and the government, followed by further government assaults on Catholics. The government hunted down and killed priests, just because they would not give up being priests. Graham Greene wrote about this in a documentary work, The Lawless Roads (1939), and then in a novel, The Power and the Glory (1940). The former president and de facto ruler of Mexico at this time, Plutarco Elias Calles, was a highly enthusiastic atheist.

The traditional anticlericalism, often atheism, of Mexico’s ruling elite stems mainly from Positivism, the atheist belief system promulgated by Auguste Comte, a form of pre-Marxist socialism which took root among the Mexican intelligentsia in the nineteenth century. Vicente Fox Quesada, elected in 2000, was the first Mexican president for ninety years who could openly admit to being a Catholic, and even today, a few remnants of the old restrictions remain, for example ministers of religion are banned from holding political office in Mexico.

In another example, the Spanish anarchists, atheistic followers of Mikhail Bakunin (“If God existed, it would be necessary to abolish him”), had come to control some regions of rural Spain by the 1930s. They committed numerous outrages against Catholics, not just the desecration of churches, but also occasionally the killing and mutilation of priests and nuns. These atheist-inspired attacks alarmed many Spaniards, and stimulated support for rightwing enemies of the Republic, helping prepare the way for extraordinary brutality by both sides in the Spanish Civil War. Numerous leftist supporters of the Spanish Republic, like George Orwell, were fully aware of these anti-Catholic crimes and never uttered one word of criticism. Yes, it’s true that these atrocities were “exaggerated by the right for their own purposes.” But the right had something to exaggerate.

Atheist Terrorism

Harris’s explanation for the current spate of suicide terrorism is that the terrorists believe they will be rewarded as martyrs in Heaven. The religious zeal of fundamentalist Muslims is the explanation for suicide attacks. This entertaining story has been continually reiterated by journalists, but it will not withstand scrutiny.

Harris, and following him Dawkins, have asked, rhetorically, whether we can imagine any atheist group conducting suicide terrorism. In actuality, a rather high proportion of suicide terrorists have been atheists. In the years up to 2009, the pre-eminent perpetrator of suicide bombings in the world was the group known as the Tamil Tigers, in Sri Lanka. They were of Hindu background but led by atheists. Opinions differ on whether the Tamil Tigers could accurately be described as “Marxist-Leninist,” but it is not disputed that they were belligerently anti-religion.

Another atheist group responsible for suicide terrorism was the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish nationalist and Marxist-Leninist group active in Turkey. These suicide bombers were atheists and their victims were mostly Muslims. Around 1999 the PKK leadership abandoned its Marxism-Leninism and its practice of suicide bombings, and later changed its name.

Suicide terrorism is primarily political in its aims and rationale. Suicide bombers have political objectives which provide the reason for their actions. Suicide terrorism is the recourse of members of ethnic populations who find themselves completely outmatched by vastly stronger military might. It’s their way of hitting back at the occupying troops, whom they are too feeble to confront directly. It is particularly effective if the occupying power is a democracy. Robert Pape’s study of the backgrounds of Muslim suicide terrorists (Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, 2005) shows that many of them are not especially religious.

If suicide bombers knew of a way to kill an equal number of the enemy without also killing themselves, they would act upon it. The reason that suicide bombing has become much more frequent since 1983 is that it works. The Israeli government, for example, while usually unmoved by peaceful overtures or by (comparatively ineffective) non-suicide attacks, has made concessions to the Palestinians following suicide bombings. Reagan pulled the troops out of Lebanon because of suicide attacks, intended precisely to get US troops pulled out of Lebanon. Pape, who made a thorough study of all cases of suicide terrorism (up to 2003), calculated that about fifty percent of suicide attacks had some demonstrable success in achieving their political objectives—an amazingly high success rate for terrorism, or indeed for any form of political operation by small groups not in control of a government.

This is not to say that suicide terrorism has any moral justification. It is merely to say that it works extremely well. Suicide terrorism is far more effective than any of the alternatives open to militant political groups acting, as they see it, on behalf of comparatively powerless ethnic communities under foreign military occupation. It’s a highly rational, expertly calibrated activity which delivers the political goods.

Some readers will no doubt protest that some of the Muslim suicide bombers really do believe they will enjoy the attentions of seventy-two virgins in paradise. (Some Muslims have told me this is a mistranslation and it should read “seventy-two raisins,” which confirms my view that Islam isn’t much fun.) It wouldn’t astound me to learn that one or two members of IRA-Sinn Fein did believe they would have a friendly chat with St. Peter at the Pearly Gates before being issued with harps. But Al-Qaeda, like the IRA, is an organization all of whose activities are strictly determined by its assessment of how these activities will serve its political objectives. Being prepared to give up one’s life for a great cause is a commonplace of all national cultures, and always positively valued when done for the side we favor.

It’s understandable that someone who picks up his knowledge of Christianity and Islam from the TV news would be innocent of the above facts. (In the wake of 9/11, an operation carried out by Saudis, I kept hearing about seventy-two virgins, but not once did I hear a single murmur on the major TV networks about US troops stationed in Saudi Arabia. These troops were pulled out eighteen months after 9/11, rendering that operation a brilliant success.) Still, anyone of a curious disposition might pause to wonder why, if belief in God explains 9/11, the first fifteen centuries of Islam passed by without a single suicide bombing or anything comparable, whereas suicide bombings (usually assassinations of public figures) were well-known in nineteenth-century Europe. We see this awareness reflected in such stories as The Secret Agent by Conrad and ‘The Stolen Bacillus’ by Wells. Again, we can generally assume that the “anarchists” who committed suicide bombings in nineteenth-century Europe were atheists.

What Makes Religion Dangerous?

Confronted by the fact that atheists have been implicated in both state repression and terrorism to an extent hugely disproportionate to their numbers, the New Atheists offer the rejoinder that these dictators and terrorists, though they may not believe in God, still think in ways that are unreasonable. In one formulation of this rejoinder, Harris says that “although these tyrants [Stalin and Mao] paid lip service to rationality, communism was little more than a political religion” (End of Faith, p. 79).

The first thing to note about this is that in making such a move, the New Atheists casually abandon what had been their central claim—and continues to be their central claim, because they don’t acknowledge that they have abandoned it, but go right back to repeating it. They keep drumming into their readers that religion must be defined as belief in God (or occasionally, the supernatural), and that specifically belief in God is the pathological meme which causes terrorism and mass murder.

If “religion” is to be used to characterize all belief systems which have ever led to terrorism and mass murder, then in shifting from religion-defined-as-theism to religion-which-may-just-as-well-be-atheistic, the New Atheists have tacitly accepted that their original claim is false.

The second thing to note is that while Harris will not apply the term “religion” to his own beliefs, he does not give us a litmus test to distinguish “religion” from non-religious beliefs. But a favorite rhetorical trope of his is to assert that people he disagrees with accept things without evidence, and so I think we can assume that Harris defines “religion” as accepting things without evidence, or, as he sometimes says, without justification.

However, virtually all spokespersons for Christianity, Islam, Communism, or even National Socialism, would hasten to insist that they do not, repeat not, accept anything without evidence. They would go on to assert that Harris ignores the relevant evidence for their doctrines. Harris would naturally reply that he’s not very impressed with their evidence, and interprets it differently. On this point I agree with Harris (as I have unpacked at length in my Atheism Explained: From Folly to Philosophy).

But the crucial thing to remember here is that anyone who takes up any point of view on any subject whatsoever will always claim that the evidence supports this point of view and that the evidence goes against people who espouse a different point of view. So what Harris is saying is that he is right and the theists are wrong. But we are all right about some things and wrong about others, and, while we ought to strive to increase the ratio of our true beliefs to our false beliefs, this in itself says nothing about which false beliefs have the effect of increasing the predisposition to kill people.

And so we find that, in practice, what Harris is saying amounts to the claim that “religion” means belief systems he disagrees with, and people who think precisely the way he does would never commit atrocities. Any Marxist around the year 1900 would have said the same thing.

Why Atheists Have More Blood on Their Hands

While I point out that atheists have perpetrated more and bigger atrocities than theists, I do not attribute this to an inherently greater tendency on the part of atheists to commit atrocities. If the historical facts were the other way round, with theists having committed more and bigger atrocities than atheists, I would then be pointing out that it is a logical error to conclude that theism is inherently more inclined than atheism to perpetrate atrocities.

As I see it, there’s no direct causal link between atheism and atrocities or between theism and atrocities. Neither theism nor atheism is significantly conducive or unconducive to atrocities (or to happiness or health, as I argued in Atheism Explained). But I do have a historical theory explaining why atrocities by atheists in the twentieth century vastly exceeded the far smaller-scale atrocities perpetrated by Christians and Muslims in all centuries up to and including the twentieth.

Enthusiastic ideologies or belief systems, especially when they are able to capture a monopoly of governmental authority, are liable to give rise to atrocities. It doesn’t make any difference to the body count whether such a belief system encompasses theism or atheism. The rise of secular belief systems such as Positivism, Marxism, Fascism, and National Socialism coincided historically with the greatly enhanced technology for committing atrocities. If Torquemada had possessed the administrative and personnel resources of Stalin, he might have more nearly approached Stalin as a superstar of mass murder.

Modern capitalism produces improved techniques and it also produces secularization. But secularization does not mean the disappearance of belief systems with fanatical adherents. Spiritual religions are replaced by purportedly scientific religions, from Mesmerism to Global Warming. Socialism has come and gone, and has now been replaced by Environmentalism. When Environmentalism passes away, it will be replaced by some new enthusiastic belief system, perhaps one associated with Mental Health or the need for contact with space aliens.

In the “third world,” the poorer half of the world, which is now the stronghold of both Christianity and Islam, there remains some danger of atrocities perpetrated in the name of Christianity or Islam, but in the advanced industrial countries, most of the danger of future holocausts arises from secular-minded and pseudoscientific belief systems.

The New Illiberalism

Do we have anything to fear from the New Atheists themselves? Some of the things they say aren’t very reassuring.

Harris informs us that “belief is not a private matter.” (p. 44). The phrase “a private matter” has a specific meaning in the history of liberal thought. It means an area which is none of the business of the authorities, an area where whatever you may choose to do will not cause you to fall into the hands of the police. Hence the chilling quality, to any liberal, of the phrase, “Thought Police.”

Maybe this was just a slip by Harris? Not a bit of it. “Some propositions are so dangerous,” he explains, “that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them” (pp. 52–53). The whole thrust of his book conveys the message that belief in God is the most dangerous of the dangerous ideas for which it is ethically permissible to kill people who have done absolutely nothing wrong. Harris reasons that since thoughts give rise to actions, it’s okay to coerce people on account of their dangerous thoughts alone. The rhetorical tone of The End of Faith suggests that Christian fundamentalists have the moral standing of insect pests. Just imagine the fuss the New Atheists would be making if Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson had so much as hinted that it might be ethically permissible to kill people simply for believing there is no God. But the late Reverend Falwell said: “We [meaning traditional-minded Americans] honor the unbeliever.” You can’t imagine Harris saying anything this nice about Christians.

Commenting on the fact that most Muslims living in the West are tolerant of the non-Muslim beliefs of their neighbors, Harris points out that Muslims in the West are in a small minority, so their seeming tolerance may be just a sham (p. 115).

Quite possibly. And if the New Atheists today, when atheists constitute about two percent of the US population, can cheerfully entertain the ethically permissible liquidation of some unspecified segment of the dangerous eighty-plus percent who believe in God, what should we expect from the New Atheists when atheists have increased their following to forty, fifty, or sixty percent of the population?

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Response to Lee Waaks on Praxeology

EconomicsPosted by David Ramsay Steele Mon, March 10, 2014 02:53:13

[I tried to post this as a comment, but the blog wouldn't let me (too long?) so I'm submitting it as a new post.]

Thanks, Lee, for your kind remarks. My debate with Robert Taylor was on New Year’s Day, so naturally I was in recovery mode, and even slower-witted than usual. I failed to make some key points.

I don’t dispute that it’s possible to formulate a useful deductive system in which conclusions can be spun out from axioms. Euclidean geometry is an obvious example. The theorems follow from the axioms. Furthermore, we feel intuitively that the theorems are true, that is, that they tell us something about the physical structure of objects in space. Yet, as we now know, Euclidean geometry is not literally true of the physical world. In other words, if we take Taylor’s example of the Pythagorean theorem, the conclusion of this theorem is not true of real triangles in space (it is slightly off, because of the curvature of space).

Yet the Pythagorean theorem is true in two senses: 1. The theorem does follow from the axioms, and is therefore true in Euclid’s world, much as ‘elves have a characteristic smell, different from that of hobbits’ is true in Tolkien’s world; 2. The theorem applies to real-world triangles of manageable size with very close approximation. It’s therefore fine for building bridges.

Now, we can assume that ‘Man acts’ is true, and derive from this certain propositions (which then help to define what we mean by that assertion). We can logically derive from these propositions some conclusions about the way humans will act. I don’t deny that we can do this, and that the results will sometimes be illuminating. For example, if we assume that business firms always do what they perceive as maximizing their financial returns, we can make predictions about the behavior of firms which will very often be true (and where not true may draw our attention to some special circumstance, which may be helpful to our analysis of what is going on in the behavior of firms). Furthermore, the assumption that business firms always do what they perceive as maximizing their financial returns is not arbitrary, since we know that competition favors the survival of firms which do better at maximizing their returns. So, I agree that there’s a lot of mileage in the view that important steps in economic reasoning may be made by applying a Pure Logic of Choice. And, of course, virtually all economists would agree with this, and many of them, never having met a Misesian, would wonder why I am saying anything so trite.

However, Mises and Rothbard maintain that all of economic theory is derived by deduction from axioms. In other words all of economic theory is derived from self-evident axioms about human action, and not in the least from empirical observation!

Here we should note the historical fact that Rothbard was a huge influence on the libertarian movement. To my mind, as well as being an entirely lovable person, for I met him several times and had a number of long conversations with him, he was a wonderful pamphleteer and propagandist. He was no great shakes as an economist, and an abysmal thinker about economic epistemology. Despite his shortcomings, he was a huge improvement over the very poor philosophizing of Ayn Rand, which threatened to engulf libertarianism in the 1960s and 1970s. A lot of what Rand said was entirely correct, but totally unoriginal with her, and this ninety-five percent of her output was simply the common heritage of classical liberalism since Locke’s Second Treatise. Whenever Rand came up with an original idea, she was not only wrong but most of the time almost unbelievably sloppy in her reasoning. Rothbard was a scholar who knew quite a bit about the history of liberal thought. He had read and understood, not only Locke’s Second Treatise, the fountainhead of libertarianism, not only Mill and Spencer, but numerous other thinkers, some of them still under-examined, like Bastiat, Molinari, La Boettie, Lysander Spooner, and Franz Oppenheimer. Rothbard had his limitations but he would never blunder as badly as Rand, who was essentially a creature of Hollywood. Rothbard helped a lot of people transition out of Randism into something more defensible, something with more potential for serious elaboration.

Today this ideological background is less important. Rothbard’s following has largely evaporated. The fact that he quit the libertarian movement in the last few years of his life has something to do with it. Today the issue of ‘praxeology’ is hardly ever raised. Economists arguing for the free market simply don’t address it. It still attracts a few enthusiasts like Robert Taylor and animates some of the output of the Mises Institute. But, for example, if you take the work of a capable and effective popularizer of the economic case for the free market like John Lott, you don’t find any appeals to aprioristic reasoning. It’s all empirically based, this is what you expect, and it would be a distraction for anyone to suggest that it all follows from ‘Man acts’.

Mises was a Kantian. He believed that there are synthetic a priori propositions, and that the essential truths about purposive action were among these propositions. I think there are no synthetic a priori propositions. Like Hume and the logical empiricists, I think that what is analytic is a priori and what is a priori is analytic. But more narrowly, though I’m always prepared to be surprised, I just haven’t seen a convincing candidate for a synthetic a priori proposition.

If a statement tells you about the world, it’s an empirical claim and can’t be deduced from self-evident axioms. If something’s deduced from self-evident axioms, it doesn’t tell you anything about the world (except that part of the world which is the theory in question), though it may be useful if you can make the assumption that the world complies with the axioms. I am entirely prepared to accept that we can construct a body of praxeological theory from axioms and that this might include a great deal of economic theory. But in applying this theory to the world in order to draw conclusions about the world, we would be taking a step beyond the pure theory, and this would make our conclusions fallible. The empirical is always fallible in a way that deduction isn’t.

A point I didn’t bring out in my conversation with Robert Taylor is that even if we had a complete body of praxeological theory which we then set about applying to economic life, there would be the question of whether we had applied it accurately. This is more serious than you might think. Take the example of identifying whether something is money. (Jeff Hummel made this point and others like it back in the 1970s, at a time when we were all much more preoccupied with Mises-Rothbardism than anyone is today.)

Although there are strong tendencies for one good to emerge as the single monetary unit, these tendencies do not fully carry through. Today we know that bank deposits, coins and bills, gold and silver, and bitcoin, all function as money. Other entities, like commercial bills, could also be included. The central notion of money is that it is a good which you acquire because it will enable you to exchange for other goods. It follows that goods can have more or less moneyness. Diamonds have more moneyness than machine tools. Once a good has a lot of moneyness, it automatically tends to accumulate more moneyness, but in practice this is not going to culminate in just one good having all the moneyness.

The point of this for praxeological reasoning is that identifying and measuring what is actually functioning as money can be a tricky empirical exercise. So even with our complete praxeological theory, we would still have to do a lot of empirical work to explain, say, what happened to the US money supply in 2008. There would still be empirical issues about whether this or that asset was functioning as money.

However, I do not think we have, or are going to have that complete praxeological theory to start with. For example, praxeology holds that if someone prefers a to b and b to c, they will prefer a to c. This certainly looks convincing as a likely empirical generalization, but is it apodictically true? Obviously not. We might say that someone who prefers a to b and b to c but chooses c when confronted by a choice between a and c is somehow muddled. Yes, but people can be muddled. Even if we never observed a case of someone being muddled, we would still have to say that the very idea of someone being muddled is conceivable, and so the claim that no one is ever muddled would be an empirical claim. But it is false. People actually are sometimes muddled. Psychology experiments have documented that some kinds of muddle are actually quite prevalent. (I have elsewhere argued against the usual conclusion from this fact, the conclusion that people are often irrational. I maintain that people are never irrational—here Mises was right—though they often make mistakes.)

Exhibiting non-transitive preferences (preferring c to a) is just one example; there are many others, such as counting sunk costs. How does the praxeologist handle cases like these? He can accept them as allowed within his theory of human action, or he can outlaw them as contrary to the basic conception of action. One way to do the latter is to say that if someone preferred a to b and b to c, and was then observed to pick c over a, he must have changed his preferences. But then, if economics is to make empirical predictions about the world, it becomes useless, since any false prediction we make can be accommodated by saying that people’s preferences unaccountably changed during the real-life process we were analyzing. In order to keep economics as capable of making falsifiable predictions, we therefore have to add the premiss (not a fundamental component of praxeology) that people’s preferences are stable. Now we have something empirically falsifiable, and therefore empirically useful, but we have introduced something not derivable from ‘Man acts’.

So what if we take the other route and say that we allow people to have non-transitive preferences, and generally to be muddled? Then we can’t get the most elementary market mechanisms started. We will be unable even to get to the downward-sloping demand curve. Not much, if anything at all, can be spun out from the action axiom if we allow that at any point people can be muddled.

If we turn some of the aprioristic claims into empirical generalizations, then we can make progress. We can say, for instance, as a first stab at it, that people are not muddled all the time, and when dealing with a group of people some of the muddles will cancel out, and if the consequences of the muddles become too painful people will pay more attention and reduce their muddles. We can also observe, as Becker did, that since people’s incomes are limited, the downward sloping demand curve is automatically generated as highly probable for any given good (for example, it’s just not possible for someone to adopt the rule to buy more at higher prices for all the goods they buy; their limited income won’t let them do it). So even if individuals’ buying behavior were totally random (I admit that’s impossible for other reasons) we would still observe downward-sloping demand curves in the vast majority of cases, probably all. The downward sloping demand curve, which we couldn’t derive by deduction from actions, starts to look pretty good as an empirical generalization. Is it a law? Yes, or at least it’s a putative law, just like a putative law in physics or chemistry, provided we specify the circumstances of its application stringently enough.

Much more could be said at this point, but to me one of the most interesting aspects of market behavior is that markets behave much more in accordance with textbook models than they ‘ought’ to. We know that real human beings have a tendency to count sunk costs, yet industrial investment goes on as if they didn’t. A study was done of drivers’ responses to different and changing gas (for Brits: petrol) prices at different gas stations. Their behavior was observed and they were questioned as to what they knew about prices at different gas stations. It was found that they knew very little about prices at different stations, yet their actual behavior was quite close to what we would expect if they had had a perfect knowledge of the prices at all the local stations. Of course, we can come up with explanations for these phenomena, and these explanations tell us a lot about the way markets work. But we have come a long way from the Misesian attempt to move from ‘Man acts’ by strict deduction to ‘Consumers buy from the cheapest seller’.

Here are my answers to Lee’s five questions

1. I don’t believe any significant number of economists will dispute that the minimum wage will increase unemployment, but they may still favor a minimum wage. Remember, that a minimum wage will both increase unemployment and increase the wages of those workers who keep their jobs or get new jobs. Some workers do benefit directly from a minimum wage. I have actually seen discussions where economists argue that if the increase in the wages of workers who keep their jobs exceeds the total wages lost by those who are made unemployed, this makes the case for the minimum wage! An economist (a leftist ideologue who happens to be an economist) may also take the view that it’s better for a worker to be on welfare than to be hired in a very low-wage job.

Common political views of the minimum wage are illustrated in the recent report of the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office on Obama’s proposed minimum wage increase. The CBO said the proposed increase would rescue 900,000 people from poverty, and would also cause an increase in unemployment somewhere between “slight” and one million, settling for 500,000 as a probable figure. This CBO analysis was taken by the vast majority of supporters of the increase as complete vindication of the measure: obviously 900,000 is bigger than 500,000! (The White House economic advisor objected and said there would be no increase in unemployment! But that’s the kind of nonsense you expect from someone in that position. White House strategists know that if anywhere there occurs an official endorsement of the claim that any of the administration’s measures will result in any unemployment whatsoever, this meme could mutuate into something fearsome that would come and eat them all up.)

To me the biggest tragedy of the minimum wage is that it takes the least productive and therefore most vulnerable workers and ensures that they will never get on-the-job training which would be one of their likely roads to improvement. Along with welfare and the public schools, it systematically creates a vast class of unproductive criminals. It also ensures that the snow doesn’t get cleared in the Loop every winter, that no one buses tables in diners any more, and that no one cleans your windshield or your tires when you stop for gas.

2. They didn’t necessarily react this way because they had been convinced by praxeological reasoning. It’s characteristic of all sciences that most scientists’ initial response to a challenge is to assume that the currently prevailing view is correct and a new challenge is pretty sure to be flawed (and a lot of the time they’re right; that’s why it’s the currently prevailing view). And, after all, you can give a loose, intuitive explanation of why a minimum wage will increase unemployment, and anyone can see the point of this, without accepting that it’s a matter of apodictic certainty. Remember, it’s not just the minimum wage. This is just one example of a price floor. Price floors have been observed for many different goods. I doubt that anyone would object to the statement that if you announce a minimum price for cement, above the market price, and enforce it, less cement will be purchased.

Some further comments on empirical challenges to the theory that minimum wage increases raise unemployment. 1. From what I’ve seen, the economists who challenge it usually say something like ‘Modest minimum wage increases will rescue people from poverty and will cause negligible increases in unemployment’. The implication is that negligible increases don’t matter. But the consequences for those who are hit are unusually severe and long lasting. A couple of thousand additional teenagers thrust into a life of drug dealing and gang banging is not negligible from where I’m sitting. For a certain percentage of them it will actually be a death sentence. We’re talking about marginal-quality workers, people whom it’s barely worth hiring. 2. Elasticity is always greater given more time, so you would need to look at a long enough time period to see the full effects. 3. The rise in unemployment might not show up in the statistics for total employment. Suppose McDonald’s hires fewer blacks from low-income backgrounds and replaces them with more middle-class students. Why would this happen? Because the middle-class students, many of whom can take the job or leave it, are induced to apply by the higher wage, and they on average possess positive attributes valued by the franchisee, who is, after all, paying more; the franchisee will be able to reject blacks from devastated neighborhoods he might have formerly taken a chance on. The middle-class students will on average be distinctly better at the job; they will find it less of a struggle to show up punctually and to be gracious to customers. If you’re paying $10 an hour, and you can get someone worth $10 an hour, you’ll go for it, even if you would have preferred to do what you’re no longer permitted to do: pay $8 an hour to someone worth $8 an hour.

3. Yes, just as physics is an empirical science and it’s reasonable to speak of laws of physics.

4. I don’t suppose they could ever be sure, but it doesn’t really arise since they usually do find clear enough results in this area. Most studies of the minimum wage look at things like differences between neighboring states with different state minimum wages. Actually, it’s remarkable to me that they can find anything at all, given how small these differences are. You might expect the outcomes to be swamped by market noise, but apparently they aren’t.

In cases where it’s not feasible to observe the effects, you would exercise your ingenuity to find more roundabout ways of testing the theory.

5. No, I don’t think so. We must distinguish between gut instincts about how the economy works and apodictic reasoning. People working in all the sciences are guided in what to look for by intuitive models which lack any formal standing. These intuitive models suggest; they don’t validate.

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