December 20, 2011


The Keystone pipeline controversy offers a good example of the irrationality into which American public discourse has devolved. In brief, the proposed pipeline would bring oil processed from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to refineries in the US, ultimately as far south a Texas. Despite a completed environmental impact study, the environmental lobby has persuaded the Obama administration to block the project, chiefly (though not exclusively) on the grounds that tar sand development is proving to be an environmental catastrophe in Canada.

No one, not even the oil industry, disputes that the damage being done to northern Alberta is monumental. There is no hiding the destruction that surface mining tar sands is creating. If this were the 1960’s, and the world had plenty of oil reserves, we might be able to stop this tragedy. This is not the 1960’s however. There are no cheap and available oil reserves to tap. Even Saudi Arabia is in decline. If the demand for oil had not exceeded the supply, they wouldn’t be processing oil out of tar sands in the first place. It is naïve to imagine that, in an ongoing liquid fuels crisis with oil at $100 a barrel, and gasoline fluctuating between $3 and $4 a gallon in the US, than everyone in the world is going to put the interests of Canadian wildlife before their own. The Canadian government has been very clear about their intentions. They will develop and sell the oil, if not to the US with a pipeline going south, then to the Chinese with a pipeline going west. Thus, unless the American environmental lobby is advocating and immediate US occupation of Alberta to end the development, their efforts will not save a single fish or caribou. They can have their moral satisfaction with higher fuel prices, and the heightened economic ripple effects such prices must inevitably produce, while the dirty evil tar sand extract propels trucks in China. Personally, I’m a realist. I don’t think that fish or caribou really want to die, but neither do I think they particularly feel better about dying if they are killed for non-Americans. These nasty resources are going to be tapped. The worse the global economy gets, the more desperate people will become and the more environmental concerns will recede from their attention. One should not be proud of this, but to imagine it will be otherwise is simply to deny human nature. People may love nature in the abstract, but not many will be happy to freeze or starve for the sake of preserving it.

On the other side of the debate, the oil industry and their political allies have trumped up the story that the tar sands offer a solution to American dependence on middle eastern oil. Based on the scale of Keystone, this would appear to be simply a lie. The total capacity of the pipeline, upgraded to its final phase, would be 1.1 million barrels per day. US oil demand stands at about 18.7 billion barrels per day. Keystone then, could meet about 6% of US oil demand. We currently import over half of our consumption (some sources estimate much more), so it doesn’t look like 6% from the Alberta tar sands is going to let us kiss our OPEC friends goodbye. Fools on the left, liars on the right. Take heart though – this is only the beginning.

December 14, 2011

Love and Indifference

“We cannot avoid using power, cannot escape the compulsion to afflict the world, so let us, cautious in diction and mighty in contradiction, love powerfully.”
                                                                                                       – Martin Buber

Those who have read my other essays may either be puzzled by my choice of such a topic, or will wince in expectation of my ruthless dissection of it.  I will try not to disappoint.  Love, in my view, is no more than a state of the human brain – and probably a state that occurs in the brains of many other animals as well.  What could be in any way demeaning or discouraging about that?  Each of us is a unique physical process – a process endowed with the extraordinary capacity of consciousness.  We stand in relation to one another, and to the rest of the world.  What is love but a state of relation?  Why should we be afraid to examine and consider it as we would any other part of the world?  Is the dawn less beautiful because we understand what gives the light its color?

The term “love” has many different meanings, especially if one widens the scope of inquiry to languages other than English, but what I want to explore here is the common thread that binds all of the various meanings together.  What is fundamental to love, in other words.  There are obvious differences between loving a lover, a friend, a thing, an activity, or an idea. Yet, in all these cases, love does share a single salient characteristic:

Love is always the dissolution of the distinction between oneself and the object of one’s love.

Physical love involves the obvious collapse of the usual social barriers of space and clothing.  Non-physical love of another person consists of the collapse of the distinction between their interests and one’s own.  It is to be happy or sad for another, rather than merely for oneself.  To love an object is to extend one’s own identity with that object.  In this sense, the painting is an extension of the painter.  To love an activity is either to experience some physical pleasure from it, or, again, to extend and enhance one’s identity through it.  A piece of music is something a musician publicly projects into the world.  The music, the musician, and the performance are inseparable.  To love an idea, too, is to define oneself in terms of that idea.  To love justice is to perceive oneself as just.  All love, then, is an expansion of the self.

It is not true, however, that every entity or process with which a person becomes inseparable is the object of love.  As I type, I do not think about the location of the individual keys.  I think about the words; my hands move over the keyboard, typing the letters.  Typing is a part of my being in some very real sense, but I do not love to type.  I do not hate typing either.  I am indifferent to it.  It is an extension of my capacity, but not of my identity.  I never take pleasure in my identity as a typist. Sadly, one can have similarly loveless deep familiarity with fellow human beings, from loveless marriages to the superficial geniality that is often the pattern of modern life.  We can even be indifferent to our own beliefs.  Most of us espouse at least a few ideas we have simply inherited from others – ideas we have never reflected on, ideas we wear rather than embody in some whole, robust sense.

It is possible, too, to be attracted to something without wanting to attach it to oneself.  Many physically attractive people have very unattractive personalities, and are thus both attractive in one sense and repellant in another.  One may be deeply fascinated with the idea of going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, but that doesn’t mean one would ever actually want to.  It is possible to be attracted to someone or something without having the slightest intention of including that person or thing into one’s life.  Love requires both attraction and a commitment to embrace the object of love into one’s life in a substantial way.  It requires a willingness to give time, and a willingness to let oneself be changed and defined, at least to some degree, by that which one commits to love.

If love is the expansion of self into realms beyond one’s own consciousness and physical existence, then the countervailing tendency is not hate but indifference.  Hate is a revulsion or fear of something, often something previously close, which has violated an individual’s security or sense of equilibrium.  To hate something is, at least, to stand in some relationship to it.  Indifference, on the other hand, is the denial of any relationship.  Indifference is a contraction of one’s universe where love is its most ebullient attempt at expansion.  Love embraces – indifference excludes.  Love risks – indifference hedges and protects what it has.  Love for mere objects, in a petty, possessive sense, can be seen as a weak form of love, or perhaps as a substitution for love.  To love inert things is, after all, less risky than loving living breathing beings with motives and vicissitudes of their own.

Virtually all of human behavior can be examined in terms of these two countervailing forces – love and indifference.  Life is an ongoing boundary dispute between these natural adversaries.  From a strictly evolutionary point of view, it isn’t always obvious which strategy is best.  Love is not entirely benign.  Like hate, it is a blinding emotion.  It is nearly impossible to see the object of one’s love with any sort of clarity, just as it is nearly impossible to see oneself with any sort of clarity.  The musician and the music, the artist and the art, and the writer and the text – all are too tightly joined to ever know, except in fleeting glimpses, their relationship with external observers.  It must be admitted, too, that political or religious fanatics are possessed by a kind of love – by the total submersion of their identities in some idea.  The fanatic does not know his own position in the larger world – but, unlike the artist, he doesn’t want to.  Indifference, on the other hand, has its strengths.  A position of detachment offers at least the possibility of objectivity.  It lights the way to real knowledge.  Indifference explains the world in facts and causes – love explains the world in narrative and poetry.

To stray too far into the bland neutrality of detachment is to abandon the very force which gives life purpose.  To stray too far into a life of unchecked passions is to lose the equally important, equally human capacity that gives the world order and coherence.  In my heart, I wish you luck in finding a balance – but in my best objective estimation I don’t give any of us particularly good odds of staying on the tightrope at all times.

Extensively revised 7.3.14

December 13, 2011

Responses to M.C. Planck's comments on my most recent OWC article

Mr. Planck has brought up some interesting issues in response to my most recent Occupy Wall Street assessment, which I think are worth addressing. Here’s an extract from his comments:

“Another flaw in our public media is this meme of equivalency. Yes, there are loons on the Left; but sheer honesty compels us to admit that the Right, especially Fox news, is completely out of control. Yes, Dems play partisan politics; but the current environment of automatic filibuster and non-negotiation is unprecedented.

“And yet the media, which tries so hard to paint OWS as ugly, refuses to show history: that Republicans are acting ahistorically obstructionist, that the wealth gap is ahistorically large, that the rejection of science and embrace of religion by politicans is ahistorically pointed. We are in a period of truly frightening change, and all of it is coming from one side of the line.

“Despite OWS, we can't expect more than 50% of young people to bother to vote. Despite OWS, we can't expect anybody to understand bank regulation or support it. Despite everything that has happened, the American electorate simply can't be bothered to pay attention, learn a little history, and vote.”

I am not entirely sure what Mr. Planck is referring to as the public media’s “meme of equivalency“. I admit that I do not spend hours rigorously scouring television and the internet everyday, tallying up the sentiment, but on the whole it appears to me that the public media is only becoming ever more partisan. In some cases, this no doubt reflects the genuine political sentiment of the owners and the editors of the media outlets in question. In other cases, it is probably just the natural outcome of the discovery that inflammatory positions are good for ratings. In any case, I have seen very little news coverage lately that implied the opposing parties in American politics were “equivalent”. I do take the position that they are equivalent, in some sense. So does Ralph Nader, in a somewhat different sense. There is a certain tendency among the more moderate media outlets to pretend that we are not in pivotal times, and that if you ignore the world and click the heels of your ruby slippers together three times you’ll be just fine. If this is what Mr. Planck has in mind, I would agree that some portion of the press has been deceitfully inattentive. Whatever one may feel about the state of the world, one may not rationally believe that we can settle back down into a state of inert material bliss in which smart people in high places will take care of everything. Economics and nature both have other ideas.

Unlike Mr. Planck, I really do see a sense in which the two great motive groups within American politics are essentially equivalent, though not necessarily similar. I choose my words carefully here. I say “motive groups” because there now appears to be considerable weakness in both formal political parties. Inevitably, I will have to over-generalize simply to be coherent, using the terms “right” and “left” as though they represented homogeneous groups – which neither term does.

I would distill the current aggregate position of the American right as follows:

America is in an economic and security crisis because of a weak president, a corrupt congress, and decades of failed liberal policies. We need to restore our economy by de-regulating business and reducing the tax burden on people who create jobs. We need to restore our standing in the world by getting tough, particularly with the enemies of Israel. We need to get back to our traditional values to stop the general rot of our culture. We have plenty of oil; the liberal environmentalists are all that stand between us and energy independence.

Alright, now let’s take this apart. For me, that last position is the most important and the most absurd, so we’ll start with that. Newt Gingrich and others have recently made the claim that the US not only has enough oil for itself, but enough to supply Europe as well. In reality, the US hit peak oil production in the early 1970’s and has been in a general decline ever since. Under the second Bush administration the US oil industry experienced the most favorable conditions imaginable: high prices, self-regulation, and massive subsidies. Yet oil production didn’t rise. Is it plausible that, in the most heavily explored region of the globe, we’ve now suddenly discovered oil we couldn’t find for the last four decades – and right before an election? No, it isn’t plausible. The politicians are simply jiggering the numbers as usual, counting all the theoretical oil reserves, and not the recoverable reserves. Since the real basis of economics in any modern industrial state is energy, this misconception is the linchpin for all the others. The real economy, the manufacture of real tangible wealth as opposed to the practice of inventing money out of thin air, cannot take place without energy consumption. Growth cannot take place without increasing energy consumption. The broadly acknowledged global peak production of oil is now several years behind us. Globally, we are now in something a bit worse than a zero-sum game. Until or unless someone finds a viable replacement for oil, we are in a declining game. Thus, none of the Reagan era thinking about just giving business a free hand can make any headway against the erratic but remorseless decline in liquid fuel supplies we can expect. Money left in the hands of the wealthy will probably do what it has done since the fall of 2008 – wait for favorable conditions that may never come again. In the mean time, all the trumped up jingoism does nothing but provide a conscience-saving veil to hide our ongoing efforts to control the world’s remaining oil reserves. If Bin Laden had never existed, we would have had to invent him soon. The minor resurgence in traditional values issues is, in part, is a genuine reaction to a culture which has grown nauseatingly decadent and valueless. It is also, in part, merely a naïve attempt to reclaim a half-remembered past when ordinary Americans were better off and more secure. On the whole, rather little about the worldview of the right is grounded in reality. It is bound to lead to disappointment, to put it very mildly.

Now let’s look at the current aggregate position of the American left:

American is in an economic crisis because of the greed of the ultra-rich and their Republican cronies. Our security crisis is the result of militarism and adventurism by Republicans, culminating in the second Bush administration. We need to help the poor, the unemployed, the underprivileged, and the immigrant population until such time as the crisis has passed and they can help themselves. We can do this by taking a fair share from the rich. We won’t need to worry about the rest of the world if we just show them what nice people we are. Our only significant cultural problem we have is the racism of the right . We might be running out of oil, but global warming is a bigger problem. Both will be solved by some combination of wind, solar, and biodiesel, which will also jump start the economy by producing new jobs.

Having taken the position that energy is the key issue on the table, I will start with that again. Wind, solar, biodiesel, et al, are lovely and useful things. We’ll see more of them in our future. To borrow a phrase from James Kunstler though, they “will not be enough to run Disney World, Walmart, and the interstate highway system.” The numbers don’t add up. You can’t have a liberal, middle-class, 20th century lifestyle on green energy any more than you can have a conservative, middle-class, 20th century lifestyle on non-recoverable oil. Neither Volvos nor Suburbans run on dreams. Nature never guaranteed us a perpetuation of the present -- only nicer. Likewise, while green energy will no doubt produce some number of new jobs, you cannot rebuild prosperity by making the energy sector more expensive and more labor intensive. Cheap oil was the magic of the industrial age. Without it, we are now in a completely different game. Given this reality, the dream of government riding to the rescue of ever growing numbers of unfortunates is simply untenable. Keynesian economics depend on periods of prosperity to restock the coffers of the treasury. If the depression goes on long enough, spurred by high energy costs and the high cost of the international competition for a variety or scarce resources, Keynesianism is thrown back on the fatal option of an inflationary monetary policy to pay its bills. It is painfully apparent that we’re already there, with the government creating money to make up for a revenue shortfall with no end in sight. The bitter irony is that inflation is the most regressive tax of all. The only people who prosper in inflationary times are people who own real, tangible assets (gold, land, capital equipment) – this is to say, predominately the rich. The poor may subsist for now on various “entitlements,” but they must also become ever more dependent on them, in an environment in which everyone’s dollar buys less and less. On the matter of foreign policy, it is true that the Bush administration undermined any affection the rest of the world might have had for the US, but we are now entering and era of global completion for dwindling resources -- which will not be decided by popularity in any case. The Arab world will not give up their remaining oil because we institute a Muslim outreach program, and neither will the Chinese give up their toe-hold on prosperity to make sure Americans can retain their lifestyle. As I’ve said, this is a whole new game. Taxing the rich of their increasingly devalued paper may or may not be justified, but it will not resolve the underlying problem of a shrinking economy. This is a political strategy, not an economic one.

To summarize, the left and the right share a common problem of having utopian delusions of endless and inevitable progress – they simply have delusions of different flavors. Personally, I’m not very interested in determining which unworkable fantasy is better than the other. They are equivalent insofar as neither is tenable.

On the matter of Mr. Planck’s lament that “Despite OWS, we can't expect more than 50% of young people to bother to vote,” I am compelled to ask – what encouragement did OWS ever give anyone to vote? OWS was, from its inception, an abrogation of the normal political process of voting. Their goal was never to elect people to represent them, but simply to blackmail the existing leadership into compliance by creating disorder. They may well be correct in this approach, given the corrupt condition of our public institutions, but it seems odd to even ask why they have not spawned voters and candidates. The Tea Party movement, whatever one thinks about it, must be admitted to have been far more focused on “getting out the vote.” OWS, a symptom of our decline, has no solutions to offer at all – not even untenable ones.

November 21, 2011

Occupy Wall Street Update #1

In an earlier post I stated that Occupy Wall Street was straightforwardly a youth movement.  I still think that is basically true, but its character has begun to change in certain ways that merit a note.  The original gathering in New York appeared to consist mainly of middle class college students, not only from New York, but from other parts of the country.  They seemed to be a pretty typical body of college students, full of enthusiasm and naïveté, out to save the world from itself.  Some of the subsequent protests, notably the ones in Oakland, appear to be of a wholly different character.  The movement has begun to attract the underclass.

I suppose this was inevitable, but I cannot be blindly enthusiastic about the underclass either.  There is, to be sure, a huge population of Americans that we sometimes refer to as the working poor.  I have some sympathy for this group, having once been one of their number.  These people often have some real right to complain, but they are unfortunately not the sort of people who tend to show up at protest events, or at least not those who make the most noise.  Rather, that role often falls to what Marxists would call the lumpen proletariat -- those people who would not want productive work if they could get it, that are predisposed (for one reason or another) to have their way by violence or larceny, who come with a brick rather than with a sign, and delight in cracking the heads and breaking the windows of strangers while decrying how unfair life has been to them.  These are the people who will burn their own neighborhoods to the ground given only the opportunity, then blame the rest of us for making them do it.  These are the people who will turn a peaceful protest into a bloody riot.  Put them up against a militaristic police force like that of Los Angeles, and you are bound to get exciting TV.  The 2012 TV season appears to be shaping up nicely.

To continue in that vein, but on a different note, it is fascinating how the protests get covered by the right wing press.  They appear to have dusted off their rhetoric from the 1960's and found every word of it still serviceable.  Thus, they portray the protesters as drug-addicted, unclean, sexually promiscuous, lazy bums whose sole purpose in life is to defecate on a police cruiser.  This is eerily familiar.  No doubt some of the protestors do check one or more of those boxes.  The problem is, no crowd of ten thousand people or so is going to be composed purely of angels.  People get beaten, sometimes to death, at professional baseball games -- but no one suggests that baseball fans as a group are murdering thugs.  When we don't look at the crowd as a whole, we can paint them almost any way that suits us.

It may seem contradictory to say that the Occupy Wall Street movement is accumulating a bad element, and then go on to say that they are being unfairly characterized.  This is not so.  In Oakland, and other places, a non-constructively militant element has begun to assert itself.  This does not mean that the college students, the recently unemployed, and other constituents of the movement are inclined toward violence.  It means, rather, that protests are organic entities that attract different sorts of people at different stages of their development.  One cannot blame the entire crowd for the actions of one segment, but it is also true that one brick, or gun, or Molotov cocktail is bound to ruin everybody's day.  Everybody, that is, except the right and left wing media outlets -- each of which can find at least one brute in the riot on the other side that will hammer home their ongoing narrative.

November 18, 2011

Social Freedom

In an earlier essay (, I examined the idea of free will, which I take to be chiefly concerned with freedom in an absolute sense – whether or not we can be original sources of causation. By “social freedom,” I mean something rather different. In this essay, I intend to focus on the way our actions are constrained by others within a broadly social context. Political freedom, economic freedom, and religious freedom can all be subsumed under the broader topic of social freedom. The fact that these topics have usually been treated independently has been the source of much confusion, and it is this that I hope to rectify.

Social freedom in its most general sense concerns itself with what we may or may not do because of the assent or constraint of other people. It excludes questions that concern abilities or constraints we have because of the impersonal and unconscious laws of nature or due to our own intrinsic qualities. No one constrains our freedom to fly by flapping our arms rapidly. One will neither be arrested, nor fined, nor excommunicated for attempting to fly in this manner. It simply will not work. On the other hand, presuming one is minimally able-bodied, nature does not constrain us from the act of shoplifting. We are constrained from shoplifting because it is antisocial, criminal, or sinful. This is the realm of social freedom.

Other people can constrain our freedom in a variety of ways. Most obviously, if one is physically imprisoned, one is constrained by barriers put in place by others. Constraints need not be physical, however. The threat of violence, or constraint, is itself a constraint. An awareness that one is under surveillance is a consraint. Likewise, the threat of ostracism is a functional constraint. Humans are social animals. To be part of a society is to avoid creating too many social barriers between oneself and others on whom one is dependent. Limitations in available resources are also constraints. The ownership of land is a simple example. One may be free, in a legal sense, to purchase a certain parcel of land, but this freedom is effectively nullified if the land is owned by someone else who adamantly refuses to sell. In all cases, social freedom is more-or-less narrowly defined by the customs, laws, perceptions and prejudices of the particular society in which one lives.

To make the unqualified statement “I am free” or “I live in a free country” is to assert nothing. It is essentially like saying “I am big”. Without some context to refer to, the word “free” means no more than the word “big”. You are free, probably, to read the next sentence in this essay and to draw your next breath. Beyond that, your freedom is wholly contingent on the vagaries of circumstance. Social freedom has no natural guarantor that stands above the social context that defines it.

It is usually more meaningful to talk of specific rights than to discuss freedom in some extra-contextual sense. Again, we must avoid the vague connotations usually carried by the term "right," and reduce it to some workable definition. A right is behavior or state of being that is acceptable within a certain social context. To exercise a right is either to do something acceptable or to be something acceptable. Rights are entirely social in nature. Copper does not have a right to conduct electricity nor does it need one. The electrical conductivity of copper is inherent rather than volitional. There is no copper that can elect to be non-conductive. Similarly, the brute fact of one’s existence cannot be socially constrained. One can be ostracized, or even executed, but no one can be utterly removed from the physically causal world. Even if someone kills you, you still were, and your existence in one region of space-time will continue to yield consequences indefinitely.

Rights sort all behaviors into acceptable and unacceptable realms. They define both individuals and the societies they inhabit. Societies, in an important sense, are no more than the application of a certain set of interpersonal constraints to a certain body of people – and rights are merely the field of action left unconstrained. If one had the universe entirely to one’s self, the idea of rights would have no meaning.

Being the product of the vicissitudes of human beings, all rights are both temporary and provisional. There is no such thing as a right which cannot be taken away. Beyond one’s brute existence, however fleeting, there are no actions or future states of being (other than death) which cannot be constrained by some human agency. We have rights only at the sufferance of others.

I will not go so far as to say the term “rights” is synonymous with the term “privileges”. The term “privilege” carries connotations which imply something even more fleeting than a “right”. Privileges are always granted by specific authorities, whereas rights may be basic assumptions of a certain culture, not granted by anyone in particular. Indeed, many rights are no more than a reflection of such cultural norms. If someone cuts us off in traffic most of us feel we have a “right” to honk our horns. This is an actual right, as it is certainly possible to imagine a society in which such horn honking would be unacceptable. It is not, however, a delineated “privilege” that anyone in particular has bestowed on us. It is merely an acceptable display of frustration in our culture.

Politics and Economics

A great error has occurred in assuming that political and economic rights are somehow neatly separable. John Stuart Mill and other like-minded people put forward a notion of freedom that was almost wholly political. In other words, all excessive social constraints worth our concern originate with political authorities. The government, whether oligarchic or democratic, present the only important danger to individual freedom in Mill’s view. Karl Marx and others of his school took essentially the opposite view. They believed that the most important impediment to individual freedom is economic. In other words, that it is not the government that enslaves a person but the employer or the landlord. In truth, the entire distinction between political and economic authority is illusory. Let me illustrate with two examples.

Imagine a society with a high degree of individual political liberty – universal suffrage, equal rights before the law, all the usual trappings of a liberal society – but no constraints whatsoever regarding the exercise of property rights. Now, imagine a family living in a house they own, but which is wholly surrounded by someone else’s property. The only access to their house is across this second party’s land. One morning the family wakes up to discover that their neighbor has posted a “NO TRESPASSING” sign on their access route. The family’s dilemma is simple. They may break society’s rules by violating their neighbor’s property rights, or they may starve. In such a case, the government has not curtailed the family’s freedom, but simply upholds the property rights of their neighbor.1 One could argue that, as the guarantor of property rights, the government is still responsible for the family’s fate, but it is clearly not the active agent in the curtailment of the family’s freedom. Anything the government might do to resolve the matter, perhaps allowing the family to cross their neighbor’s land in order to vote for example, would necessarily constrain the neighbor’s right to choose who may or may not cross his land. Is it less of an assault on freedom for the government to actively constrain the neighbor’s right than to passively constrain the family’s? Political freedom alone simply will not save us from this kind of situation.

The case using opposite conditions is even more straightforward. Imagine a society with all sorts of economic guarantees – the right to work, free healthcare, public pensions, etc. – but which excludes the general public from all meaningful political processes. It is easy to see that under such circumstances any rights exist only at the whim of those who govern. The government is, after all, that body which is sustained neither by its wisdom nor by its benevolence, but ultimately by its monopoly on the legitimate use of force. When governments are unconstrained by the annoyance of democratic institutions and find it desirable to curtain individual rights there is seldom any mechanism in place to stop them.2

In actual practice, both economic and politic spheres preside over exactly the same question: who is to exercise material control over a society’s material assets, and thereby exercise control over other peoples’ lives. To be politically powerful is to be able to set people and things into motion to carry out one’s will. To be economically powerful is the same. Power is fungible. Typically, political and economic rights are played off against one another by people who benefit from increasing the centralization of power in one realm or another. An understanding of what freedom means within the context of any particular society involves more than the veneration of whatever rights it happens to bestow – it involves a critical examination of the constraints its citizens take for granted.

At this point, we also need to acknowledge that freedom is a somewhat self-contradictory notion. To grant everyone the right to vote, for example, is also to deny everyone the right to be an unelected despot. We are accustomed to thinking of universal suffrage as a freedom, and a laudable thing, but it is a curtailment of freedom in some absolute sense. It deprives one of the freedom to rule arbitrarily. That this is probably a good thing is beside the point. Many constraints on individual freedom are certainly in the public’s best interest. Few if any of us would prosper long under conditions of absolute anarchy. Too often, though, people confuse freedom with equality, when the two are actually contrary notions. To be guaranteed equality in any area of life is to have someone else denied the freedom to excel in that area. To have freedom in any area is by necessity to have the potential to excel beyond someone else’s talent or means.3


Religious freedom is nothing short of an oxymoron. All religions are, or at least contain, elaborate systems of constraints on individual behavior. Even a religion like Zen Buddhism, which at first blush seems unburdened by arbitrary rules, constrains its followers to certain patterns of thought. Even such self-serving belief systems as Satanism demand that their followers be obediently anti-altruistic. Thoroughgoing nastiness requires a certain dedication, after all.

What is usually meant by “freedom of religion,” then, is the freedom to practice whatever system of religious constraints your upbringing and inclinations happen to mark out for you. It means that the government promises not to go out of its way to oppress you for oppressing yourself. Of course, when governments do persecute certain religions (or the denial of them) it is, straightforwardly, a curtailment of individual freedom too. Again, our interest here is to describe the nature of social freedom, not to argue about what is or isn’t beneficial. Arguably, a government which criminalized a belief in ghosts would do the public a service by advancing the cause of truth, but this must be balanced against social costs of employing such draconian interventions against the minutia of peoples’ beliefs. Those societies perceived as un-free are not necessarily those that have the most constraints, but are often those who impose constraints the most gratuitously.

Within religions themselves, I am aware of no rights that are offered in the usual sense of the term – that is, in the sense we would use in saying one has the right to vote or the right to free speech.4 Gods are capricious, and do not grant to mortals any concessions that they cannot overturn if the whim suits them. Rights within a religious context would constrain omnipotence. Rather than enumerating freedoms, religions generally promise rewards for obedience and conformity. I have heard such constraints described as freedom, just as I have heard the world we live in, complete with disease, natural disasters and all the other sources of human suffering, described as evidence of “God’s love”. While constraints may be a good thing, and may even be conducive to individual happiness, it is incoherent to say that freedom is constraint, just as it is incoherent to say that causing or allowing untold suffering is an expression of love. This is simply to hijack the positive connotations of a certain term and apply them to its opposite.

Like political and economic systems, religious beliefs prune away the myriad ways in which an individual might behave and think and leave behind a relatively uniform, predictable personality. We are defined not by our freedoms, but by our boundaries. If you know a person has a certain job, lives a well-adjusted life in a certain culture, and ascribes to certain religious beliefs – you can infer a great deal about them. A truly free individual, unconstrained by any social conventions or beliefs, might behave and think in any number of different ways, being bound only by the ineliminable forces of nature. The socially adapted individual must conform to a great many behavioral expectations if society is to function at all, and what remains to be recognized as freedom is merely the residual latitude a society is prepared to tolerate.


It would be a mistake to think that we constrain ourselves by conscious choice or that human societies are unique in having constraints. Any pack of wolves or troop of baboons will show plenty of examples of social constraints and even ritualized behavior. Obviously the wolves and baboons do not sit down and discuss a sort of social contract under which they will live. They do not delineate their rights in documents. They know instinctively that they live safer, easier lives when they cooperate, and between this instinct and subsequent learning they become functional members of their own small societies. Human beings are not different in kind from wolves or baboons in this respect, but differ from them only in their capacity for abstraction and complexity. Each of us trades freedom for security to a high degree, and does so unconsciously and uncomplainingly. Our genes compel us to do so. Those who are indifferent to society’s scorn are aberrations, and suffer predictably.

If one has a desire to understand one’s place within a social context, rather than merely react to one’s perceptions, it is well to remember no one is ever really free. Questions of freedom are really only questions about what rules we will have – not about whether we will have rules. The consistent feature of episodes of social anarchy is that they are hastily replaced with some degree of order. Power abhors a vacuum. Sooner rather than later, people coalesce around a leader who, for better or worse, will offer them the promise of security. The equal, free, and ungoverned society that 19th century anarchists proposed was never more than a dream. They believed that human societies could get along perfectly well with neither leaders nor laws. The objective evidence of history, however, shows that social stratification is not an artificial condition created by a few avaricious miscreants at the top, but a normal state of affairs in which almost everyone gravitates toward their own particular social position. Constraints on individual freedom thus arise spontaneously. Any society which provides tolerable conditions for enough of its members will be stable as long as it can do so. I myself may chafe under constraints on information access or constraints on speech, but I know well that many of my fellow citizens would live quite happily without these things, and would be quite content with food, shelter, a little alcohol, and a football game on television. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can, for most, be adequately replaced with life, stability, and the pursuit of entertainment.


1 For those who imagine this sort of exercise of power by the private sector is farfetched, consider the various historical applications of the truck system in which employees were paid in either goods or company scrip instead of standard money. ( ) Here we have a system that was the functional equivalent of slavery, but which, in most cases, operated in a political context that gave its victims the right to vote, legal equality, and exactly the same property rights as their exploiters.

2 Soviet Russia is the trite but apt example. Initially, a great deal of effort was invested in giving soviet citizen various positive economic rights, but in time, as power became more centralized, these rights withered. Stalin continued to give lip service to the Marx’s ideal of a state organized for the common man while in fact presiding over the most centralized authority imaginable.

3 Equality, too, is self-contradictory. It must be granted that no real body of human beings is equal by nature. We all have differing abilities as well as differing starting circumstances. Thus, equality must always be artificially enforced by some governing authority. Members of such a governing authority, however, must necessarily be unequal to those governed. Were they not so, they would have no authority.

4 Thomas Jefferson’s poetic formulation in the American Declaration of Independence is an interesting, and generally misunderstood, example of the juxtaposition of rights with religion: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The legal meaning of “unalienable” is non-transferrable. It is certainly true that neither one’s life, nor one’s liberty, nor one’s pursuit of happiness can be transferred to another person who is either dead, enslaved, or unhappy. I am convinced, too, that this is precisely what Jefferson meant. While there may have been additional reasons for amending Locke’s formulation of “life, liberty, and property,” it is plain that property is readily alienable. Jefferson was making an observation about the uniqueness of these entities; he could not have been suggesting that they were entities that it was beyond the capacity of human beings to curtail. He was certainly aware of gallows, prisons, and the many ways that the pursuit of happiness might be impeded. To say that these entities are endowed by a creator was, for a deist like Jefferson, not much more than saying that they exist. If he had believed that the creator was prepared to protect such “rights” against human interference he could not have been aware of the realities of 18th century life. His intention, then, had to have been to establish these rather general notions as rights within the new republic, not to assert that a creator was the guarantor of these freedoms. In his reference to equality too, it appears that Jefferson may have only been referring to the equivalence of one individual’s state of being alive with another’s state being alive -- or free, or happy, as the case might be. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are unquantifiable and in some sense equal in potential. If that is all he meant, Jefferson was not asserting much about equality in any practical sense.

Note: I made minor revisions to this essay on 9/26/14.  I have noted a steady internet traffic to this work from the time that I posted it, often from quite interesting places.  If you have read the work and have an opinion, I would love to hear it.  Frankly, I would also just like to know who you are and why you are interested in the topic.  If you enjoyed this essay, you might also be interested in Why is Slavery Wrong?  (  -emc

October 26, 2011

What does the Occupy Wall Street movement want?

The goals of most American protest movements have been obvious. Consider those of the last sixty years. The Civil Rights movement wanted black people to have the constitutional rights that they had been promised. The anti-war movement of the 1960’s wanted an end to the Viet Nam war, or at least an end to the draft. The Equal Rights movement wanted equal rights for women. The Gay Rights movement wanted equal rights for gays and lesbians. The Tea Party movement wants a reduction in taxes and, more generally, a reduction in the size and power of government. But what exactly does the Occupy Wall Street movement want?

The initial demand around which the Occupy Wall Street movement coalesced, the only demand the movement has ever articulated more-or-less clearly, was that President Obama “ordain” a commission tasked with ending the influence of money in Washington D.C. On its face, this is unworkable to the point of being quixotic. The framers of this demand have apparently never read the President’s delineated constitutional powers. This is perhaps a minor objection, since neither Obama nor his immediate predecessor seem to have read them either. A worse oversight is that they don’t seem to have taken note of who the Presidents friends are. I doubt that either Tim Geitner or Larry Summers are big proponents of the removal of money from politics. One might as well demand the Federal Highway Administration “ordain” a subcommittee to abolish cars.

The protestors are not, it seems, a coherent, well-organized movement with a succinct objective. They are a vague mass of human beings whose interests cannot really subsumed under is single slogan. They rally around certain websites and internet entities (such as Adbusters and Anonymous) but do not appear to be under any organization’s actual direction. This is contrary to what both the liberal and conservative media establishments would have us believe. The Occupy Wall Street movement is not an energetic junior branch of the Democratic Party, no matter how many Democratic politicians and liberal academics rhapsodize about them, with a timidly raised fist and a twinkle of nostalgia in the eye. Neither the movement the tool of American communists and socialists that Fox would have you believe it is, notwithstanding that a handful of communists and socialist have pitched tents among the protestors and are carrying out their usual desultory recruitment efforts. As of now, at least, this is a youth movement plain and simple. If you watch the protests on TV, you will see plenty of interviews with older people in the crowd. If you watch the more random, less crafted clips on YouTube that were shot by the protestors themselves you will rarely see a person over thirty.

Unlike the anti-war youth movement of the 1960’s, in which at least the young men involved had an obvious goal – to avoid being thrown into the senseless meat grinder of Viet Nam – this protest’s connection to its object is far more abstract. While it is true that money has greatly, perhaps even irrevocably, distorted the American political process, the young are probably the group least equipped to detect and understand that influence. It isn’t as though they have seen their purchasing power steadily eroded over decades, or worry much over the potential collapse of Social Security. They grew up in a world where rapid change was the norm, and tend to believe that any person over thirty years old, any idea over ten years old, and any gadget older than last Thursday is not only worthless but contemptible. They have only just begun to notice that events outside of their circle of friends might be important. Fine comprehension of political and economic matters is simply not the hallmark of the young, in this generation or any other. Action and enthusiasm are. Accordingly, to stand with one’s friends and chant at a very old building down the street full of detached, wealthy, middle-aged men seems like a possible way to change the world – especially if the commercial media has told you every day of your short life that yours is the smartest, best, and coolest generation that ever existed. Youth has always been an uncomfortable mixture of naïve innocence, passion, and not-quite-insufferable narcissism. And courage too, if only born of blind belief. This has not changed. The protestors are there because they have been promised more than the real world can give them, or, to put it another way, because the difference between how cool they think they are and how indifferent the raw world of economics is to their aspirations is intolerable. Maybe shouting and making a nuisance of oneself will work. It sometimes does with adults.

I show my age, I know, but I will not give the young, en masse, more credit than they deserve. Some are more precocious than others. Most will become more circumspect and practical if they live long enough. Few if any are capable of sifting the details of such enormous questions as they are confronting with anything approaching wisdom. None of us would be willing to let a twenty-year-old perform surgery on us; it should be no less worrisome to imagine a large number of them dictating the future course of the nation – or the world. Not, I will admit, that their elders have been doing much better.

A restive population is an animal in search of a head. It may find one, or create one, but it is usually better off if it does neither. The jeering, absurd face of Anonymous is not a much more comforting entity than anything it claims to oppose. Only a teenager could want the world to be ruled by a cartoon, generated by nameless hackers from the depths of cyberspace. Adults generally prefer computer games they can turn off, and at least want leaders who will lie to them in honestly televised flesh. Anonymous and similar groups have basically brought phishing to politics, as if things were not already illusory enough.

Like the Iranian and Egyptian movements from which it derives some inspiration, Occupy Wall Street is bound to the culture of texting and tweeting that have become the modern norm. This is likely to give it both staying power (as any kid with a cell phone can be an organizer now that he or she knows how) and vulnerability (as anyone who wants to either monitor or infiltrate the movement’s activities can easily do so). It is likely to also keep the movement vague and unconcerned about specifics, as it is far easier to gather a thousand people for an event than to arrive at any consensus about what the event is supposed to accomplish when they get there.

Occupy Wall Street is not, at least at this point, in any position to accomplish anything other than minor disorder and misleading press coverage. It is not a cure for a disease, but rather a symptom. Like the Tea Party movement, it is an indicator that most people are angry at having been functionally disenfranchised by political and economic processes that favor a few elites to the exclusion of everyone else. Unlike the Tea Party, it is unlikely to spawn a new class of congressmen and senators. To be a congressman you have to be at least twenty-five, and that is already the twilight years of cool. The movement can only accomplish things by scaring people with an overdose of anarchy, and that will not be pretty, nor will the results be predictable. It will not go away, however. Expect all sorts of sound and fury.

September 9, 2011

The Unexamined Game

Considered in the abstract, there are striking similarities between the near collapse of the global financial sector in 2008 and the series of events that precipitated the First World War. The kind of reasoning we use in connection with human institutions often transcends the specific purposes of the institutions themselves, applying as well to major banks as to national governments. Let us first consider, briefly, the events that lead to war in 1914.

In the minor nation of Serbia there was much bad feeling toward the neighboring Austrian empire. Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian patriot, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Austria demanded that Serbia redress the matter in a way that would effectively nullify Serbia’s sovereignty. Serbia only partially complied. Austria used this less than complete submission as a pretext to declare war. Russia, bound by treaty to protect Serbia, mobilized its army. Germany, allied with Austria, declared war on Russia. France, allied with Russia, declared war on German and Austria. Germany invaded Belgium as a militarily favorable route to France. Britain, bound by treaty to defend Belgium, declared war on Germany. Four years of carnage and bloodshed were required to break the ensuing military deadlock.

What is notable here is the nature of the alliance game. Every government that was pulled into the war had sought to manipulate the political system of Europe to enhance its own influence and security. None had formed alliances with the immediate intention of going to war. They had all either hedged their political adventures by allying with a major power, or, in the case of the Russo-Serbian and Anglo-Belgian agreements, had attempted to protect weak friends from the ambitions of powerful enemies. The general conflagration that followed was the result of no one’s explicit intention. Rather, it was the collective result of each participant’s pursuit of advantage and risk mitigation.

Consider the events that led up to the crash of 2008. Prior to the crash, there was a huge proliferation of risk mitigation through the use of hedge funds. In essence, the large banks formed a network of interlocking alliances and agreements that gave them sense of security that was not really merited. While each individual risky derivative investment was mitigated by some carefully crafted bet, few people were paying any attention to the dynamics of the system as a whole. As in the First World War, when the first domino fell the rest followed inevitably.

It is a weakness of human beings that they tend to take the stability of the environment their institutions operate in for granted. While they recognize that their institutions themselves can have ups and downs (advancing one’s country or one’s business is the whole point of any political or economic game) there seems to be an innate assumption that game itself is more-or-less immutable. Thus, in Europe before the First World War statesmen jockeyed for position within the European balance of power, but never fully grasp that their own actions would collapse the European political system as a whole. Likewise, banks finding ways to leverage thin air into unprecedented levels of nominal wealth never really grasped that they were undermining the very basis of real wealth – the forces of industrial production.

Clearly, neither Serbia’s nor Austria’s national pride were worth the sixteen million deaths attributed to the First World War. Similarly, it is difficult to image the extraordinary expansion of paper wealth for a few in any way compensates for either the loss of real wealth for the many, or the wholesale damage to global economic stability which is still playing itself out. Neither event, however, appear to be the result of malice in any pure sense. In truth, humanity is simply ill-equipped, at least at this point in our evolution, to cope with nations and business institutions of the current gargantuan scale. To paraphrase the popular aphorism – we act globally, but think locally.

September 1, 2011

Before the Crash

If you have ever been in a car crash, you have probably experienced a moment, just before the collision, in which you became aware that it was inevitable. In that instant, everything falls away. Your journey becomes irrelevant. Your plans evaporate in the face of a future both violent and unpredictable. Perhaps there is terror. Perhaps a certain feeling of detachment. Life holds its breath.

That feeling seldom leaves me now. The world has gotten away from us. It follows its own trajectory, beyond anyone’s actual control. Some confluence of overpopulation, resource depletion, and climate change awaits us. Governments unravel. The global financial system shudders and buckles. The idea of eternal progress – more and better every year, more and better every generation – reveals itself to be little more that a comforting fairy tale. A circus act. A gross, insulting lie. We will be waking up from our collective dream now. Brace yourself! Get ready!

But how does one get ready for the unknown? Especially when, to be sure, most people still cling tightly to that dream. “…Look at my new smartphone – see? I can tweet with people in Uganda if I want to. We will all have electric cars soon! There’s no problem! There are some very smart people out there who will take care of everything! I was guaranteed a future – you understand me – GUARANTEED!!!...” I shrug. I hold my breath. Time slows. The moment drags on, month by month, a car crash in extreme slow motion. Most of the other passengers still believe we will just be at the mall soon, and that once we get there everything will just get better and better. More and more…

I cling only to physics and to history. To facts. I am here. I look out the windshield in mute amazement. My existence, the momentary flicker of my consciousness, may be snuffed out by what’s to come. In hard times, people suffer. People die. There’s your guarantee, if you want one. A rough impact after a high speed run. Brace yourself! Get ready!

August 29, 2011

Power and Distance

In any relationship in which one person or group of persons holds some power over another, the likelihood of that power becoming oppressive increases as the likelihood of contact between two parties decreases. This law holds true regardless of the type or nature of human institution in question. It is as true of left wing governments as of right wing governments. It is true of corporations. It is true of religious hierarchies. While it is always possible for people to treat one another badly face-to-face, it is always easier to deal callously with people that one neither knows nor sees.

This principle sounds so obvious as to hardly be worth mentioning. We have all been on the receiving end of someone else’s thoughtless policy at one time or another. We have all asked ourselves “what idiot made that rule?” Nevertheless, whether we lean left or right, we tend to think that there is some ideal way to organize society. We believe that creating a decent society is just a matter of getting all the rules right. My contention here is that any manipulation of other peoples’ lives on a large, impersonal scale, no matter how well intentioned, will eventually degenerate into an attempt to make human beings conform to the needs of a system, rather than making a system conform to the needs of human beings.

One example of this is the rise of industrial regulation. Unquestionably, it is a good thing that industries be prevented from despoiling their environments in gross and obvious ways. It is a good thing that they should be prohibited from producing unduly dangerous products, or putting employees in serious danger. The guiding principle in all such regulations is one of safety. However, human institutions have a life of their own. Beyond creating rules to advance the cause of safety, the work of the regulator will eventually creep into other realms. They will produce regulations to benefit themselves, or to manipulate industries to suit someone’s theories, or, often, simply for the reason that they can – in other words, purely for the exercise of power. Many laws and policies produce paperwork without producing any tangible benefit to anyone. Of course, in the absence of industrial regulation one finds abuses of similar character rendered by the industries themselves. When it is profitable to despoil someone else’s land or extract money that does not correspond to any actual goods or services it is a rare corporation that will quibble about ethics. It is not a failing of this group or that group. It is simply in the nature of human perception that the problems of distant parties are always tenuous abstractions while producing benefits for oneself, one’s family, one’s institution, or one’s cronies is a far more pressing concern.

Neither should we think that we are discussing a tendency that is a unique disease of power. While this sort of moral myopia is most dramatically expressed by those who wield authority, it is the social distance, not the possession of authority, which is the root of this tendency. Consider the September 11th attacks. A great many Arabs around the world openly reveled in the attacks, not because they hated any of the victims personally, but because they hated America, the ally of Israel, in the abstract. Likewise, many quite peaceable Americans, the sort of people who would readily come to the aid of any real individual in distress, were calling for what amounted to blood vengeance on behalf of their country. Patriotism is nothing if not the reduction of individuals to abstractions. It is the mass dehumanization of both the enemy and oneself. Yet none of this, on either side, was whipped up by any real authority. Rather, it sprang spontaneously from ordinary people.

If, as a species, we want to build a future with less suffering than our past then we had better put at least two unworkable ideas behind us. First, we need to give up on a magical belief in ideal systems. We cannot legislate and organize our way to utopia. To value any idea as more important than a life can only end in denigrating life. Second, we need to drop the recently revived idea that we can extract moral perfection from a careful study of nature. Everything is nature – including the Holocaust. It is only the plasticity of human beings that offers any real hope. The trick is to invent without falling in love with our inventions, not to maintain unwavering fidelity to the customs of banobos and baboons.

August 19, 2011


Almost every day I see some person standing by an exit ramp. Usually the person is young. Nine times out of ten the person is male. Nine times out of ten he is white. He holds a sign made of corrugated cardboard. Almost invariably it reads, “I will work for food.”

Some open their hearts, or their wallets at any rate, and hand the man a dollar or two and the requisite allotment of pity. Some hurl insults and accusations. Most pretend he isn’t there, and wait impatiently for the green light to release them from his presence. He’s a polarizing figure, this man with the sign. He gets on our nerves.

When I am in a rational frame of mind, as I do endeavor to be, I ask myself what I can actually know about a stranger based on a scruffy appearance and a sign. I cannot know much. I cannot know his personal history at a glance. I cannot know whether or not he has made an honest effort to find work. I cannot know whether or not he is a habitual panhandler or simply someone who has fallen on hard times. I can reasonably infer, though, that the purpose of the sign is more to elicit plain charity than to advertise a willingness to work for food. No one picks up strange men by the highway, takes them home to mow the yard, and gives them a can of beans in payment. People buy off their consciences with cash from the safety of their cars. Even if work were offered, certainly it must be more profitable to stand by the road holding a sign than to do some menial task for actual food. The sign, at least, is merely a cliché – and almost certainly a lie.

There are, of course, few jobs to be had. Our country is not organized to assure that there are either jobs or dignity. There is much talk of these things, in high circles and in front of the camera, but people have been shed from the economy year after year, decade after decade. What remains is only a thin, fragile shell of professionals, nervously clinging to their jobs, and various detached elites who only shuffle paper and juggle numbers. For most of the rest, there has been the indignity of either public charity or Wal-Mart jobs. We have outsourced the making of things to others. A great nation has been traded for a credit bubble.

The panhandler is what America has produced. We will see more of him. He is the product of our collective ambition and complacency -- the delinquent offspring of our contempt and our self-satisfied generosity. We shrink from his image because he wakes us from our cultural conceit. We fear we might become him. A nameless artifact, standing by an exit ramp. Invisible. Despised. Unnecessary.

August 11, 2011

Why I am not a Bright

I do not oppose the promotion of a naturalistic worldview. To the contrary, have spent a good deal of effort, both in personal interactions and in writing to promote and clarify just such a view. I do not believe in any exceptions to a fundamentally materialist perspective. Nothing in my unique experience has ever required anything beyond a straightforwardly monistic ontology – this is to say that I believe that there is matter-energy, in all of its astonishing variety, and I have never encountered either empirical evidence or logical necessity of anything else. Nevertheless, I disagree with the Brights Movement on several points.

The Brights Movement has accepted the following definition of a bright (lower case “b” – a person who meets the criteria to join the movement):

• A bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview
• A bright's worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements
• The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview

My worldview aligns perfectly with the first two criteria. I shall have much to say about the third, but, at least by my own interpretation, this seems almost a corollary of the previous two. It is difficult to imagine an individual whose ethics and actions are independent of his or her beliefs, naturalistic or otherwise. One can, or course, fall short of one’s own ethical standards, but this does render those standards non-existent. On the other hand, to have a naturalistic worldview and a deliberately theistic ethical system would be incoherent. I suppose one might conduct one’s life in a generally unexamined way, accepting whatever cultural norms happen to be prevalent without really thinking about them, but I hesitate to call such a heuristic of blind conformity “ethics”. The matter of actions is even more straightforward. If one’s actions do not align with one’s worldview, a serious neurological problem is usually indicated. Action has a kind of primacy over mere assertion. If a person eschews the supernatural in public, but prays earnestly to hedge his bets, it is the prayer rather than the assertion that defines his beliefs. We are as we do, not as we merely say.

The purpose of the third criteria becomes clear as you read more of the Brights Movement web site ( ). The people who composed the guiding principles of the movement are never succinctly credited, though one may assume Paul Geisert, Mynga Futrell, Daniel Dennett, and perhaps Richard Dawkins were involved. Whoever composed them, it appears the belief they are trying to foster, as a sort of subtext to the movement, is that naturalism and egalitarianism are inseparable.

The site recognizes, then brushes aside, a great diversity of beliefs and opinions among those who might fall under the general category of brights. Any bright can be a Bright (upper case “B”) – a person who formally registers with the movement. One finds, in an explanation of the second principle of the movement, the following almost breathtaking statement:

“Each person deciding whether to self-identify by the shared characteristic—a naturalistic worldview—has employed a personal understanding of the terminology (including supernatural and mystical) and of any brief elucidation elsewhere on the site. We see little need to reach a common understanding of these terms, or to explicate beyond what is provided on the home page. We anticipate that those individuals who joined the constituency employed for all these terms some understanding in general use that they personally find apt.”

I believe the intent here was to avoid being mired down in philosophical hair-splitting, but throwing the definitions wide open is extraordinary. A movement founded on the notion that there is some concrete reality that underlies experience is taking an incongruous stance when it shrugs off specifics in the interest of not offending anyone. Still, I suppose we are all in this together.
The only important distinction to be made from the Brights’ perspective is between brights and supers:

“Antonym: A person who is not a bright is a super. That’s the noun term for someone whose worldview does incorporate supernatural/mystical element(s). In other words, a super's worldview is not naturalistic.
Individuals are either brights or supers (can’t be both). There are brights of all stripes and supers of all stripes – one humanity, one world.”

Alright then, we have a simple bifurcation of “one humanity” into two camps – albeit divided by a line it would be impolite for us to survey carefully -- brights on one side, supers on the other. All Brights are necessarily brights. Any bright who wishes to join the movement can do so simply by signing up -- that is, by choosing to self-identify as a Bright. Logically then, there can be no prerequisite to becoming a Bright other than the three quoted above – essentially, having a purely naturalistic worldview, whatever that happens to mean to that individual. To state this another way, by definition there can be no brights that are not eligible to be Brights. If you are not eligible to be a Bright, it can only be because you are a super.

The stated principle goals of the Brights movement are:

A. Promote the civic understanding and acknowledgment of the naturalistic worldview, which is free of supernatural and mystical elements.
B. Gain public recognition that persons who hold such a worldview can bring principled actions to bear on matters of civic importance.

C. Educate society toward accepting the full and equitable civic participation of all such individuals.

Setting aside any perverse pleasure one might take in being persecuted, no one with a naturalistic worldview can object to being granted a respectable status by his or her own society. This seems a worthy and entirely laudable set of aims. The problems occur elsewhere. Principle number eight is elucidated in this way:

“We intend to work to grow a constituency of Brights able to exercise social and political influence in a constructive fashion. The Brights movement is not by design an anti-religious force in society. The overall aim is civic fairness for all, which necessitates there being a place in politics and society for persons who hold a naturalistic outlook.
There is a human penchant for creating us/them classes in which the "them" is viewed as negative or repellant. Although some individual Brights may have negative views of persons who hold supernatural beliefs, the Brights movement does not proclaim superiority or a disdain for others. What is sought is social acceptance and civic equality. This movement unequivocally rebuffs not only verbal comparisons that cast Brights as lesser citizens than the religious, but also those that cast the religious as lesser citizens than the Brights.”

I must tread carefully here to avoid the idle charge of bigotry, but the text has now led us into a contradiction. It is certainly possible to have a thoroughly naturalistic worldview without being absolutely egalitarian. Perhaps I want to constrain people in group X because of some real, empirical experiences I have had, or, indeed, because of some scientifically conducted study I have seen. If this is the case, I still meet the criteria necessary to be a bright (including, I think, the ethics and actions criterion) – but I am clearly at odds with the movement’s founding charter. The idea that I can be an accepted part of a movement that “unequivocally rebuffs” views that I might, given sufficient evidence, publically hold is a non sequitur. Functionally, entertaining any negative views about members of a religion as a class disqualifies one from the Brights Movement. The term “bright” is descriptive, but the term “Bright” is normative. To join the movement is to formally assent to a certain ethical and behavioral restrictions not encompassed within a naturalistic worldview itself. Tiresome though it is to say so, the Brights Movement blithely stuffs its head into Hume’s Guillotine, slipping deftly from an “is” into an “ought”.

Christians often try to score a point against atheism by pointing out that Joseph Stalin, an atheist, was a mass murderer on a spectacular scale. Dawkins and others have pointed out, quite correctly, that Stalin was not a mass murderer because he was an atheist. Following the reasoning of the Brights Movement, however, we would have to conclude that Stalin was a super because he was not egalitarian. One can certainly bifurcate humanity in whatever way suits one’s purposes, but the bifurcation begins to break down when you help yourself to the ultimate attribution error, however nicely or cleverly you do it.

The notion that one must treat all religious persons as equal citizens is, frankly, irrational on its face. It may well be a workable and enlightened position if your neighbors happen to be Buddhists or Unitarians. It becomes less workable and enlightened, however, when one has the misfortune to live next to the Westboro Baptist Church. Tolerating the vehemently intolerant rarely produces reciprocity. If one’s neighbors happen to be hard-line Wahabi Muslims, or anyone else whose religious beliefs relegate non-believers to the status of non-persons, a rigorous adherence to the principle of civic equality is a unilateral fantasy. Civic equality can only exist between compatible parties, and some beliefs are simply not compatible.

Now let’s return to the third criteria of the bright definition:

• The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview

If one’s goal were simply to further the civic status of brights, one would not necessarily have to begin by defining a set of ethical standards. If brights are viable as a social group at all, it can only be because they share some common practical interests. The bare desire for acceptance may well be a sufficient common ground in itself. Virtually all brights, however egalitarian or anti-egalitarian, would have to agree with such an appeal to self-interest. When one promotes an egalitarian set of ethics in this context it can only be either as a goal in itself or as an expedient tool in accomplishing the movement’s stated aims. The terms “fairness,” “equitable,” and “justice” are bandied about so often on the site that there can be little doubt that the authors are either extremely cynical or they genuinely believe in equality as something more than a temporary expedient. They are entitled to such beliefs. The problem is not that the authors have a certain concept of equality that they desire to see promoted, but that they have conflated equality with naturalism, either naively or dishonestly.

In the web site’s Action Area #1: Reality about Human Morality the authors proceed to lay out their program:

“Prerequisite to all activity is that we acquire expertise to assemble an absolutely indisputable basis for our assertions in the morality domain (the foundations of morality are understood by scholars). It is important to firm up understanding within the constituency of what is known about the natural underpinnings of human morality so that Brights can more effectively counter ‘common knowledge’ that morals are presented to humanity by a supernatural deity through scripture.

When we can articulate and defend a naturalistic basis of morality, then we can proceed to set forth goals for educational action, develop clear and soundly based messages (in terms that can be readily understood by lay persons, and especially transmitted via media), build a useful resource ‘tool box’ for Brights on the Web for their explanations, and so on. We must get together both our ‘subject’ and our ‘lesson plans.’”

The intention is to deduce morality (and by extension egalitarianism) from nature. This should be a more straightforward task than they are making it -- though they are correct that convincing the ignorant is a different matter altogether. If one has a purely naturalistic worldview then it follows that one does not believe that anything exists apart from nature. The question of whether something is natural or not becomes simply a matter of asking whether it exists or not. Unnatural is synonymous with non-existent. If anyone is moral, including a delusional supernaturalist, then it is at least trivially true that morality itself is natural. However, it must also be admitted that the supernaturalist’s delusions are the product of nature in exactly the same sense. If evolution were a guarantor of good epistemology, we would not need to even have this discussion! Proving that morality is a product of nature gains one nothing. Error and brutality are likewise products of nature. If morality were the necessary product or nature, again, we would have no problems.

A more honest, and I think more naturalistic, approach to the question of morality is to accept the fact that human behavior and beliefs are quite plastic. We are not entirely bound by genes. While some rudimentary aspects of morality are no doubt innate, all developed moral systems are essentially cultural artifacts. They are, to use Dawkins’ word, memes. Most religious strictures, however strange, served some function at one time. They were practical experiments in social organization, whether their organizers realized it or not. They often accomplish good things, like developing a sense of social cohesion, and bad things, like narrowing the minds of their adherents. The Brights Movement itself is just such a social experiment. It gives most of its members a certain sense of belonging. It espouses high ideals. It does not turn a very critical eye on its own principles and their cultural origins. To an outside observer, it is apparent that the Brights Movement is not a haven for the rigorous atheist or skeptic, but simply a re-branding and re-focusing of modern western liberalism, complete with all the multicultural baggage such an origin entails. Those who direct the movement raise equality and civic justice as inspiring banners, but they are not truly serious about such principles in actual practice. Again, from Action Area #1: Reality about Human Morality:

“…Beginning this project, The Brights' Net provided means for constituents who indicated interest in its goals to communicate with one another to plan a strategy. That mechanism proved unwieldy and unproductive, and so we abandoned the process and established a committee of Brights with a designated project director to lead the effort.”

It would seem that in the bright new world some animals are more equal than others. In the Brights Movement, the doctorate is power. I have serious reservations about democracy too -- but at least I do not pretend otherwise. The history of political movements organized and run by academics is not so encouraging that I would care to entrust them with either my identity -- or my ethics.
All Quotations cited from

July 7, 2011

What We Can’t Know

Consider a snail. If you have ever watched a collection of snails in an aquarium over some reasonable period of time, you may have noticed that their behavioral repertoire is rather limited. Snails move about, eat, mate, deposit eggs, and recoil from attack or contact with certain substances. They have sufficient senses to allow them to locate food, and to determine whether an object they encounter is something edible, another snail, something attacking them, or something composed of an objectionable substance. The variability of behavior from snail to snail is not great, though some are more active than others. They do have some capacity to learn, but most snail behaviors appear to be intrinsic to their genetic makeup rather than the result of learning. New hatchlings and large adults behave identically in most respects. It is, at least at present, impossible to say whether or not the snail is “conscious” in something like the sense that human beings are. It is also impossible to say whether it perceives any experiential difference between what it “knows” genetically and what it “knows” as the result of learning.

With apologies to the biologists who study such animals, I believe the behavioral outline above offers a reasonable basis for making inferences about the cognitive world of the snail. It must surely be conceded that a snail’s understanding of the cosmos has limitations, even if the character of its understanding (what it is like to be a snail) remains alien to us. We can reasonably claim to know, for example, that no amount of patient training is ever going to allow a snail to read a sentence – even if we use Braille characters that the snail could, at least, perceive. A snail’s nervous system consists of a few connected ganglia, sufficient for its narrow repertoire of senses and behaviors, but clearly not much more. It can no more use its simple nervous system to read a sentence than you or I can fly by flapping our arms.

That a snail lacks the physical capacity to read is obvious, yet many human beings (including many very intelligent ones) believe the kilogram and a half of fatty tissue in their craniums gives them sufficient capacity to generate a fact from any state of affairs whatsoever. To put this more colloquially, we tend to believe that everything that can exist or occur is knowable to us. We don’t believe, of course, that any human being is omniscient -- able to attach facts to all states of affairs at once. We would also admit to certain spatial and temporal constraints. For example, we do not claim that we can know, at present, any minor details of the local conditions on any of the extrasolar planets astronomers have discovered. This is a spatial problem – we could know if we where there. Likewise, we don’t claim to know whether the statement “Socrates ate more than 100 kilograms of olives in his lifetime” is true or not. This is a temporal problem – we do not have access to unrecorded states of affairs from the 5th century BCE. What we do tend to believe is that any given state of affairs is understandable to at least one exceptionally intelligent member of our species, given that he or she is in the right place at the right time with the right set of observational instruments. It would not occur to most of us that, perhaps, we only glide across the glass of some aquarium, inside a larger universe that we not only do not know – but cannot know.

If a snail could somehow devote one of its ganglia to the knowledge that its capacity to understand the universe was limited, it would not be to its evolutionary advantage. Its nervous system is probably already taxed close to its limits by the meager cognitive tasks it has, and it is hard to see how being aware of its epistemic limitations would help it survive and propagate its genes. Most human philosophers have not been notably prolific breeders either, so it would be unfair to expect great biological success from a philosophically inclined snail. A more complex animal, like a cat, probably has plenty of neuronal capacity to spare on the knowledge of its own cognitive limitations, but lacking an abstract language in which to think it would have no way of formulating such knowledge. If we can imagine that there are states of affairs beyond our capacity to know, it is only because we can model such a situation symbolically. If your cognitive world consisted wholly of sensations and memory, you would have nothing to model the unknowable with. One cannot conceptualize the unknowable directly, but describing it by analogy is fairly easy -- as I have just done by comparing us with snails.

The great majority of human beings could probably understand the argument for cognitive limitations I have made above, even if the idea itself has never occurred to them. That it is not the common view, however, is probably natural. As a species, we have not had language (by which I mean language capable of expressing propositions) very long, and written language is an even more recent development. We don’t think it odd that the ancient Greeks did not discover DNA, even though there is every reason to believe their brains were just as capable as ours. One needs to discover other things first. The acquisition of knowledge is a cumulative endeavor.


While what we usually think of as our “collective knowledge” expands from generation to generation (and seems to be expanding at an ever greater rate) there is no reason to believe this trend is without limit. Not only do our brains (or perhaps any brains) have physical limitations, but there may be a limit to the number of states of affairs that could, even for some hypothetical omniscient mind, correspond to uniquely meaningful facts. Although the number of states of affairs may, in some sense, be infinite, finite descriptions of at least some infinities is possible even for normal human beings. For example, one could imagine a ball in any one of an infinite number of positions along a 1-meter long track – arguably even this would represent an infinite number of states of affairs. We can, however, express this infinite number of states of affairs with a single, finite description:

A ball in any one of an infinite number of positions along a 1-meter long track.

This sort of description is, in general, what the laws of science attempt to do. E=mc2 is just a simple way of expressing a relationship between an enormous number of actual concrete particles of matter and their equivalencies in energy. Science can be described, in fact, as an attempt to reduce the incomprehensibly large number of states of affairs to a manageable collection of symbols. Not that this reductionism is the unique province of science. Any generalization we make is an attempt to make our cognitive world more manageable. Consider:

Zeus is the source of all lightning.

While this may not be a very satisfying explanation to us, it is at least a causal reduction of the phenomenon of lightning. It gives the initially chaotic phenomenon of lightning a locus we can relate to. To the snail, lightning flashes can only be random occurrences, not interpretable in any broader context. To the cat, perhaps, lightning correlates with rain. A cat might derive such an association through experience, but without a propositional language the causal underpinnings of the phenomenon must remain forever inaccessible. Neither the snail nor the cat can have any awareness of states of affairs beyond its senses. Only a being with a language capable of manipulating abstractions can penetrate the limit of its own direct perception.

The difference between empirical and purely imaginary models of the world is worth noting. Let’s stay with our example of explaining the origin of lightning.

The empirically derived explanation of lightning is that it is an electrical current caused by an enormous difference in electrical potential between a storm cloud and the ground. This is a simplified explanation, but it should suffice for our purpose here. It is an empirical explanation because, with the proper instruments, we can detect this difference in electrical potential – or to put this another way, we can extend our senses with instruments to become aware of a previously unknown state of affairs. Using this explanation as a starting point, we might construct devices that produce lightning on a smaller scale. Or, we might produce devices that predict lightning before it occurs. Knowing that metal conducts electricity more readily than air, we might construct lightning rods to protect our buildings from potential fires. Empirical models let us uncover relationships in nature, and in so doing let us make make predictions that are reliable enough to be useful.

Now, consider a purely imaginary explanation. What do we gain by attributing lightning to Zeus? As I’ve said, it does give the phenomena a psychological underpinning (it gives us a feeling of understanding) – but it offers little else. We cannot devise a means to either detect or predict Zeus’s’ actions. Neither are we likely to build machines that emulate powers that we assume to be unique to Zeus. We merely trade the mystery of lightning for the mystery of Zeus’s power. Such supernatural explanations of phenomena effectively preclude further inquiry. We cannot study magical, invisible, capricious beings empirically, even to disprove their existence. All that we can do is add conjecture onto what is already a conjecture, speculating that we might appease Zeus with such and such a sacrifice, that Zeus was displeased with the farmer who’s olive tree the lightning struck, etc. We can, in fact, create hypothetical causal chains with no empirical basis ad infinitum. You can posit a god to explain what has happened or what is happening, but not to reliably tell you what will happen – so the necessity of maintaining coherence requires that such explanations always be created post hoc. Language makes this possible, just as it makes science possible. The Zeus hypothesis does not let you predict that farmer X will probably be struck dead if he stands on top of a hill holding a pitchfork during a thunderstorm -- it only lets you conclude, in hindsight, that lightning must have struck farmer X because he sinned against the gods.


To return to my original line of thought, we might be tempted to think that science and technology will eventually gives us the power understand everything, or, more technically, to uncover facts to describe each and every state of affairs. After all, look at what the last few decades alone have brought: telescopes in orbit which plumb not only the depths of space but also of time, and particle accelerators that fission matter into ever finer and more elementary particles. Impressive though these things might be, the snail metaphor is still instructive.

Imagine you equipped a certain snail with a device that let it detect the sound of food pellets being dropped into its aquarium. Further assume that these pellets always fell slowly to the same spot on the aquarium’s floor. The snail might learn to associate the new stimulus with the future appearance of food in a particular place. It would be able to detect a state of affairs beyond the normal capacity of its senses and it would “know,” at least from a functional perspective, something that other snails didn’t. But would a snail so equipped have any greater capacity for knowledge? Obviously not. It would still be limited by having only a very rudimentary nervous system. While sense-augmenting devices let one detect new things, they do not make brains any bigger or any more capable. There is plenty of evidence that challenging mental activity increases one’s intelligence, but again, it is obvious that no amount of stimulation is going to make a snail literate.

One might argue that certain devices, like computers, do more than merely expand our senses. They perform calculations and other sorts of arguably “cognitive” tasks. Might intelligent machines expand our cognitive capacity to the point that all states of affairs will be knowable to us? While the expansion of knowledge that has been brought about through the use of computers is truly breathtaking, the answer to this question is probably also no.

Facts are cognitive entities – propositions which correspond to states of affairs. They are the exclusive province of beings. For something to be knowledge, it requires a knower. In the end, however a fact is discovered, whether by sight, smell or the study of the output of a computer program -- it must be knowable by a being to be a fact. If, hypothetically, a computer where to produce some article of data that no one was capable of understanding, such data could not constitute a fact. Artificial Intelligence advocates might claim that such a computer would itself possess knowledge. John Searle’s Chinese Room argument seems a pretty compelling refutation of this position, but whether a computer can have intentionality (can “know” in other words) or not is irrelevant. Even if our hypothetical computer were fully intentional, if it knew facts that we cannot know – they would not be facts to us. For us to ascribe such artificial knowledge to ourselves would be like saying that primeval lungfish discovered Relativity because Einstein ultimately evolved from such organisms. The number and nature of potential facts is limited by the number and nature of states of affairs, but the number and nature of actual facts is limited by the capacity and circumstances of individual knowers. To express this point another way, every individual’s total knowledge is limited to some subset of the universe of potential facts that it has both the capacity and the particular fortune to possess -- whether that individual is a snail, a cat, or a human being.

In this light, what exactly do computers do? Computers are tools, analogous in certain respects to written language, particularly the language of mathematics on which they depend. Computers process and sort information much more rapidly than we can, allowing us to assimilate that information in new ways. My point is not that such tools cannot put new facts within our grasp, but only that they cannot do so without limit. If an individual finds Einstein’s Theory of Relativity incomprehensible given any number of analogies and explanations, there is nothing a computer can do to overcome this limitation. Returning to our snail analogy, no device, no matter how clever, is going to let a snail comprehend a sentence in the way that you or I do.

It is of course imaginable that computers or some other technological device will extend our cognitive grasp just enough for each individual state of affairs to be knowable by some human being or other. Again though, there is no reason to assume this will happen. Extending a snail’s cognitive horizons with some range of sensors and calculating devices would not be sufficient to put all states of affairs within its grasp, certainly. There is little difference between the assumption that we can know everything using only our innate capacity and the assumption that we can know everything using our innate capacity augmented by a few very useful but problematic tools.

Collective Knowledge

We should be wary not only of the idea that we can share facts with hypothetical artificial intelligences, but also of the idea that we can share them with one another. The idea of collective knowledge is deeply deceptive, whether we are discussing the totality of facts possessed by humanity as a whole or merely some small set of facts known by two individuals. (For our purposes here, we will define knowledge as some collection of facts.) We are accustomed to thinking of any discoveries recorded by human beings as having been placed into some vast Jungian unconscious that we somehow share in just by being human. We realize, or course, that to understand the principles of Relativity we are probably either going to have to read Einstein’s work or have it explained to us by someone who already understands it, but there is still a sense in which we tend to feel such knowledge is the discovery and communal property of our species as a whole. I assert that such a notion of collective knowledge is meaningless. In truth, Relativity or any other collection of facts must be “discovered” by each individual who possesses it. Our individual discovery of Relativity differs from Einstein’s only in that we have Einstein’s written documents to point the way, whereas Einstein had only the less developed works of his predecessors. Einstein may have made the discovery, but to share his facts we need to understand them just as he did. What we refer to as collective knowledge isn’t knowledge at all, but merely the collection of expedient paths to facts that have been wrested from the material universe by others and recorded in symbolic form. Facts reside in individual beings -- not in species or in books.

Dispensing with the notion of collective knowledge has very serious ramifications for epistemology in general. Consider the apparent fact that Mt. Everest is the highest peak on Earth. How do we know this? We “know” this because, by a very lengthy and determined application of the laws of trigonometry, a group of 19th century surveyors calculated the mountain’s height. Subsequent groups of surveyors have confirmed the height of Mt. Everest (within some small margin of error). By various means, human beings have also surveyed the whole of the globe sufficiently to have noticed any other mountains which might have higher peaks, and it so happens that none of them do. The laws of trigonometry can be shown to be extremely reliable, as, no doubt, can the other methods both modern and 19th century surveyors have used. The problem is that, by our strict definition of the term fact, only someone who has surveyed Mt. Everest and all of the world’s other high peaks personally, and who has a thorough understanding of all the relevant trigonometric facts used in the survey, can possess the fact that Mt. Everest is the highest peak on Earth. We will set aside, for now, the argument that one’s own senses can’t be trusted. For argument’s sake, let us imagine both our surveyor’s senses and our own are absolutely reliable.

For those of us who are not world-traveling surveyors with an intimate understanding of trigonometry, the information that Mt. Everest is the highest peak on Earth must rest on a series of inductions. Maintaining our earlier use of terms, we induce that the expedient paths to facts that have been set forth by our surveyors would actually lead to those facts if we had the means and inclination to pursue them. In other words, we believe the people who originally made the assertion about Mt. Everest’s height did not merely express an idle opinion, but made careful and systematic measurements that could be repeated by anyone with the means and knowledge to carry them out. We treat the propositions of sources we trust as though they were facts. Indeed, we could not advance very far in our understanding of the world if we had to be rigorously skeptical of all material assertions made by others. To return to our Relativity example, Einstein accepted the results of other people’s experiments as both the material basis and confirmation of his theory. This kind of justification depends entirely on the idea of collective knowledge.

I do not wish to have my position confused with David Hume’s, although there are similarities. It was Hume’s position that inductions were untenable because the future would not, by necessity, follow the past. He asserted that even those facts that we consider laws of nature are mere correlations based on repeated experience. With nothing substantial we can point to as a cause, inductions, no matter how reliable, prove nothing. To offer a common example, when we drop an object and it falls to earth, the explanation offered by classical physics is that it has done so because the unseen force of gravity has acted on its mass. In Hume’s explanation, on the other hand, the existence of gravity is not a fact. What we call “gravity” is merely a convenient description we use to generalize past events.

My critique of induction here is far more modest. My position is that all facts, if we are using the term with philosophical rigor, must be both empirical and personal. We know, and only know, that which we ourselves have experienced. We may induce, after a few observations, that objects released near the surface of the earth are reliably drawn to it. I concede to Hume that we cannot know this has always been so, will always be so, or that something similar would have to occur in all possible worlds. I will even concede that, due to the very incompleteness of our understanding of states of affairs and the fallibility of our sense organs and nervous systems, that by calling something a “fact” we can only mean that it is probable within the sphere of our experience. Despite these sweeping concessions, it is still obvious that induction cannot simply be dismissed. In a practical sense, the observation of correlations between various phenomena is how all organisms capable of learning actually learn. Hume’s objection is interesting and may well be of philosophical use, but I have no intention of trusting in Hume’s skepticism by leaping from a rooftop in the hope that my notion of gravity is purely a habit of mind. It is worth noting that Hume, who lived to the moderate age of sixty-five, does not to appear to have forsworn the mundane physical correlations of the world either.

My position is that experience suffices to assert that the linguistic entity “gravity” does describe a state of affairs, however imperfectly, but that a distinction must be drawn between facts derived from personal experience, and beliefs drawn from the communicated assertions of others. I can test the existence of gravity myself -- even without subjecting myself to the risk of fatality. On the other hand, if someone else asserts that Mt. Everest is the highest peak on earth, unless I want to make the extraordinary effort to test their assertion personally, I must make an induction about their credibility. This must necessarily produce a weaker induction than any I can make from experience. To start with, it suffers from the fallibly of the senses of the person asserting it, compounded by my own in receiving the assertion. Further, I cannot know without empirical verification whether or not the person making the assertion is simply lying. Since I lack direct experience of the cognitive processes of others, this is always a possibility. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the problematic nature of language itself. Symbols are not states of affairs, but representations of states of affairs. Language is always subject to interpretation, which is to say its semantic content varies in accordance with each individual’s understanding of its symbols. Even in essays such as this one, where I am at great pains to define my terms, one must always proceed as though most terms maintain their semantic fidelity without this special effort. Language, too, is capable of describing things that are not states of affairs even without deliberate deception. The party making an assertion can be honest, coherent, and have the same semantic interpretation of terms as the listener – and still be describing something that is a wholly cognitive construct. It is not my intention to imply that information we receive through language alone is worthless. Much of it can and should be believed. Rather, I simply wish to make clear that such information is different in kind from facts derived from experience.

Senses are given a peculiar status in philosophy, probably because of the antiquity of philosophy’s origins. The Greeks and other ancient peoples had a variety of ideas about the physical locus of what they understood as “the mind.” Some thought it was in the heart. Few had much understanding of the function of the brain. Aristotle thought the function of the brain was to cool the blood. All ancient cultures, on the other hand, understood what eyes and ears did, even if they did not know precisely how. They knew the loci of all the physical senses. It is hardly surprising, then, that they thought of senses and minds as very different kinds of things. No one would think that a person without eyes could see, but before the mind was associated with the brain it was at least plausible to think of the mind as non-corporeal. This division of our mind from our senses has persisted, via Descartes and others, into modern times. It might be useful to reexamine this. We now have plenty of reasons to believe that the brain is as necessary to our cognitive existence as our eyes are to our vision. Our minds are features of our nervous systems just as our senses are features of our nervous systems. The cells that make up the critical parts of our sense organs are very similar to the cells that make up our brains. Perhaps it would serve us better to think of our senses and our cognitive capacities as one intimately interconnected whole. If we eliminate the sense-mind distinction and think in terms of whole nervous systems interacting with states of affairs, sense data become more respectable. While admittedly fallible, our direct experience is still the closest approach to knowing a state of affairs we can possibly make.

There are two cognitive realms which are often put forward as non-empirical sources of facts, usually subsumed under the rubric of a priori knowledge. These two candidates are mathematics and logic. We shall address each in turn.


To begin, let’s consider what mathematics is. Fundamentally, mathematics is a language. In application, it is a language that describes states of affairs in terms of either discreet entities or arbitrary divisions of measurable properties. A simple example of how the language of mathematics symbolizes discreet entities is the process of counting.

The figure above consists of 2 dots. By counting the dots, we are engaging in a form of linguistic simplification we referred to earlier. The ability to describe an entity consisting of multiple similar components by naming a single component (“dot”) and assigning it a quantity (“two”) lets us describe an infinite number of entities with a finite number of symbols. Without this ability, a figure of 3 dots would require a completely unique identifier, not merely a concatenation of “three” and “dots.” To symbolize a collection of figures consisting of from one to one thousand dots would require the memorization of a thousand completely unique names. With the ability to count and the example of the figure above, the description “28,721 dots” is not only meaningful but precise. (For the sake of argument, we will ignore potential differences of pattern, size, color, etc.) We need only understand the symbol “dot,” the ten symbols used for decimal numerals, and the system by which decimal numeral symbols are conjoined.

Having learned to count, arithmetic relationships follow naturally with the addition (no pun intended) of a few more symbols. Consider the following constructions:

1 + 1 = 2

At their simplest level, the cognitive operations of arithmetic do not even require symbolization. It seems likely that any sentient animal with an ounce or so of brain could understand the relationship between what we symbolize by “1” and “2” in a purely sensory way. Again, though, the symbols “+” and “=” are abstractions for relationships we can actually see in simple instances but cannot see in large or complex ones. 1 + 1 depicted as dots is easily grasped; 2,329,091 + 28,721 depicted as dots is not.

The problems that occur with arithmetic symbolizations are not ones of coherence (for the most part, mathematics is coherent) – but problems of correspondence. Consider this example:

(The images represent piles of salt.)

If our numeric symbols correspond only to discreet entities, then it is apparent from this illustration that 1 + 1 = 1. Adding two small piles of salt together, we get one larger pile. This is not a trivial matter. Clearly there is some relationship between the original 2 piles and the larger pile that would result from their combination. Just as clearly, 1 + 1 = 1 cannot be taken as a general law of nature. We might as easily have divided the salt from our original 2 piles into several even smaller piles, and concluded 2 = 3, or 2 = 4, or 2 = 5, etc. Even though all entities are countable, the numeric relationships between them don’t necessarily correspond to the language of arithmetic. A quantity “x” cannot equal both 1 and 2. This would violate ex falso quodlibet. (We shall address the factual status of logic later.) If the common arithmetic relationship 1 + 1 = 2 really does symbolize a truth, it is not a universal truth but one which requires additional language to specify its domain.

Well, what about the other possibility -- describing states of affairs in terms of arbitrary divisions of measurable properties? Let’s reconstruct our previous example as follows:

When we measure the mass of the salt (in grams in this case) we appear to have rescued our system of arithmetic as a language capable of reliably describing states of affairs. Again, happily, 1 + 1 = 2. However, by accepting that our system of arithmetic may work on measureable properties like mass but may fail to describe some meaningful relationships between entities we have already dealt it a serious blow.

The problem is that the state of being an entity is not immutable. One might be tempted to think that the problem lies with using vague, amorphous entities like “piles”. After all, a pile is not an entity in any sense but proximity. Unfortunately, the problem goes deeper than the vagueness of the word “pile”.

If one were to dissolve our 2g salt in 100g of water, the result would be 102 grams of salt solution. 2 + 100 = 102. Again, arithmetic has faithfully described the combinations of arbitrary units of mass. Basic chemistry tells us, though, that salt (at least common table salt) is defined by its molecular nature, and that a salt molecule consists of a sodium atom bonded to an atom of chlorine. (For sake of argument, we will treat these assertions about basic chemistry as facts.) By this definition, the entity we identified as salt ceases to exist when dissolved in the water. The salt solution contains water molecules, sodium ions and chlorine ions – but does not, strictly speaking, contain any salt. The term “salt” is not a vague conceptual one like “pile,” but describes an actual material substance – a state of affairs. In other words, the “truth” of arithmetic relationships does not apply to chemical identities either, unless you specify its domain with some non-mathematical language. We might say that two chemical entities have become either one (a salt solution) or three (water molecules, sodium ions and chlorine ions). Here too, the problem is not that mathematics isn’t applicable to chemistry, but simply that it isn’t applicable to all relationships between all types of chemical entities. At least with regard to identities, we always need terms that are not native to mathematics to specify the kinds of relationships that can be accurately described mathematically.

In our examples thus far, arithmetic relationships between arbitrary divisions of measurable properties (mass in grams in the cases shown) have consistently held true. Perhaps arithmetic does, at least, express universal truths for material relationships of this sort. Unfortunately, Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity has shown that even mass relationships are not so simple. It turns out that the mass of an object increases with its speed – an occurrence that becomes significant as the object approaches the speed of light. If we could accelerate our 1g salt pile to various large fractions of the speed of light, it would attain masses of 2g, 3g, 4g, etc. Elaborate and expensive experiments have demonstrated that this actually occurs, so it can be said that 1g, 2g, 3g, 4g, etc. are all quantities that could correctly represent the mass of the same concrete entity under different circumstances. Further, using Einstein’s mass-energy equation (E = mc2) does not save us here for essentially the same reason I have stated above: while the relationship between mass and energy can be expressed mathematically, the entities involved in the relationships must be described in language that is external to mathematics. While this hardly invalidates either the concept of mass or the use of mathematics in symbolizing useful relationships in physics, it does show that we cannot put a naïve trust in even the most basic arithmetic assumptions.

There is an often cited quotation from Galileo: "The book of nature is written in the language of mathematics ...without which it is impossible to understand a single word; without which there is only a vain wandering through a dark labyrinth”. Even setting aside the rather broad metaphor implied by the phrase“the book of nature,” this is a very misleading assertion. As a language, all mathematics is really capable of is describing quantitative relationships between symbols. It is a supplementary language which can only describe states of affairs by conjoining its symbols to the symbols of a natural language. Einstein’s famous equation E = mc2 only means something because its component parts, E, m, and c are quantified symbolizations of Energy, mass, and the speed of light. The formally equivalent statement X = yz2 does not, by itself, represent anything. It may be true or false, depending on the states of affairs X, y, and z happen to symbolize. It is not inherently true by virtue of its form. Moreover, there are relationships in nature that are not inherently quantitative, for which un-augmented natural language is a perfectly suitable language of description. The assertion “deer eat dandelions” symbolizes a state of affairs quite efficiently. Mathematically extended descriptions of the motions of a deer’s teeth and the biochemistry of dandelions could be used to represent the same state of affairs, but doing so would negate the very strength of mathematics – the reduction of complexity.


If mathematics cannot be freed from the hegemony of experience, then perhaps logic will fare better. Obviously, there can be no meaningful inference without logic. The idea of proving that logic is inherently untrustworthy is self-contradictory. Indeed, the significance of such an assertion being self-contradictory is, itself, dependent on logic! Unlike mathematics, the rules of logic can be applied to relationships between states of affairs without the need of specifying their applicable domain. Where X = yz2 is only true for certain material substitution of the variables, the same does not seem to apply to rules of inference. Consider dictum de omni for example:

x → y
y → z
:: x → z

The very nature of logic is such that one may substitute any conditionals that follow the formal structure without fear that our logical language will conflict with the relationships between states of affairs. One may arrive at false conclusions, but false conclusions are not problems so long as they result from false premises. We could say:

(a) All cats are radishes.
(b) All radishes are vegetables.
(c) Therefore, all cats are vegetables.

The logic holds, because the argument as a whole can be expressed as a conditional of the form:

(a & b) → c

Since a is false, c does not follow by necessity. Logic may claim to express relationships that are applicable to all states of affairs, whereas mathematics does the very useful but more limited work of describing specific relationships between states of affairs as those relationships are uncovered.

Because of their universal applicability we may in some sense call the rules of inference “facts,” but they are no less dependent on empirical verification than the assertion that Mt. Everest is the highest peak on Earth. As evidence for this, consider the following (rather drastic) thought experiment.

Imagine a sapient, conscious human being born without any senses whatsoever. This individual must lack not only the senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell, but also any ability to perceive gravity, temperature, motion, pain, or any other entity we would recognize as sensation. Imagine, further, that our unfortunate subject has an otherwise normal, fully-developed human brain. What, we must ask ourselves, would be the cognitive contents of such a brain?

Of course, we cannot know – but we can make educated speculations. There are at least a few mental states that seem to be intrinsic to our brains themselves. Virtually all human beings occasionally dream that they are falling. We can speculate that our insensate human might have such dreams. These dreams end for us when we are startled into consciousness and our physical senses overrule them, but without such senses our imaginary person might continue this odd, non-referential experience of falling indefinitely. On the other hand, it is possible that, lacking the experiences of gravity and motion to refer to, falling dreams might never occur. One can certainly have a latent capacity which circumstances deny expression. People with damaged optic nerves can have the rest of the physical apparatus necessary for sight fully intact. Another universal (or nearly universal) human trait is a fear of snakes. This does not seem to be learned; humans fear the first snake that they see. Is it possible such an instinctual fear might occasionally be triggered without experience? Might our subject have a spontaneous state of anxiety over a nameless imaginary entity, and would that entity be perceived as having a certain form, no matter how vague? Perhaps, but I doubt it.

While we cannot know what such a person would think or know, we are not wholly ignorant of the consequences of less severe forms of congenital sensory deprivation. Studies have shown, for example, that people born deaf and blind have great difficulty grasping the very idea of symbols. It is simply not plausible, therefore, that a totally insensate person would know, a priori, the axioms of arithmetic. In a world without perception, what would there be to count? My assertion is that logic is, in the very strictest sense, a posteriori as well. A prerequisite to understanding any rule of inference is an understanding of the concept that the universe can be divided into discreet entities. Without any empirical knowledge whatsoever it seems likely that the insensate human’s mind and universe would be one and the same.1 Even if, as I’ve conjectured, such a person could experience some manifestation of the universal human fears of snakes, it is questionable whether or not this fear would seem anything other than an unpleasant condition of the universe as a whole. In other words, the entire known universe being comprised of one’s cognitive state, there would be no basis for the concept of any relationship between discreet entities.

While I assert that logic is a posteriori in an absolute sense, the capacity to use certain rules of inference is an intrinsic feature not only of humans, but of many (and perhaps in some sense even all) animals. While this capacity requires experience to manifest itself, the capacity itself is innate to our biological form. When I was taught the rudiments of symbolic logic it struck me immediately that all that I was learning was a language with which to express relationships that I already understood, but that no one had specifically made me aware of. We need to make a distinction between being aware of logical relationships as abstractions, and having the capacity to make certain logical inferences by the very nature of our nervous systems.

Consider the thought experiment in the illustration above. An observer (in this case my cat Laszlo) is positioned to watch a ball roll across a floor. Laszlo does not know anything about formal logic. The ball rolls behind a chair, disappearing at position A and reappearing at position B. After a couple of trials, Laszlo notices the ball reappearing at position B, and thereafter will run to intercept the ball at position B as soon as he sees it disappear at position A. There is only one plausible explanation for this behavior: Laszlo understands the rule of inference formally known as modus ponens:

a → b
:: b

Indeed, any conditional behavior whatsoever implies an innate capacity to apply this rule. Any organism capable of learning to initiate a particular behavior in response to a particular sensory stimulus is capable of applying the rule of inference we symbolize as modus ponens.2 The capacity to apply the rule does not require an awareness of the rule itself, but both the capacity to apply the rule and the capacity to be aware of the rule require experience at least of some fundamental kind, the experience of entities and the relationships between them. Thus, experience is a prerequisite to all knowledge, and may even be a prerequisite to all cognitive activity of any kind.


To put the concepts I have outlined above to some practical use, let us briefly consider the epistemological difficulties of two disciplines: economics and quantum physics.

Economic processes, considered in some raw, physical sense, must consist of the aggregate consequences of some large number of individual human behaviors, constrained, of course, by a large number of non-human physical factors. To follow the logic of reductionism, economics reduces to psychology (plus the non-human physical factors); psychology reduces to biology; biology to chemistry; chemistry to physics. While reductionism raises problems of its own, it is reasonable to assume that nothing in economics is fundamentally outside the physical realm. Looked at as physics problems, however, assertions about economic relationships are considerably more complex than our brains can hope to grasp. It is a problem of sheer scale. Even if we could grasp all of the subsidiary causal steps down to the last displacement of an electron, and even putting the problems of data collection and errors of precision at that scale aside, we would still lack the computational resources, even with modern computers, to solve such problems.

As a consequence of our own limitations, when we attempt to explain economic processes we inevitably derive our explanations from gross behavioral truisms, inadequately substantiated theory and statistics drawn from past events. Of these sources, statistics are probably the most reliable. Statistics are, in principle at least, grounded in states of affairs – in things we know to have actually occurred. However, using statistics to make economic predictions presents at least two major problems. First, the people who compile economic statistics (usually governments) generally have a stake in the figures and bias them accordingly. One need only make a cursory examination of the United States’ Consumer Price Index to see how serious this problem can become. Second, it is fundamentally erroneous to assume that a given set of comparable statistics will yield the same economic outcomes in two populations divided by culture, temperament and time. In other words, experiments in economics are accidental and by nature unrepeatable. Derivation of relationships that obtain in one society in one period of history may be illuminating, but certainly cannot serve as the basis for mathematically precise prediction.

Accurate or not, the mathematics involved in economic calculations can be quite elaborate. Again, mathematics is a language, and being the language of precise definition its use tends to imply a degree of understanding that is not necessarily warranted. It is perfectly possible to express erroneous, or even ludicrous, relationships mathematically. Still, it is entirely fair to ask the question – what fraction of the time do economists get their predictions right? Considered from this perspective, the present state of economic understanding is comparable to the state of medical knowledge in ancient times. If a person were sick or injured in Greece of the classical era, he or she would probably have been better off with a physician than without one; this is not to say, however, that such a physician’s ignorance or hubris could not easily result in fatal consequences.

It is not my purpose to discredit economics as a useful discipline, but rather to put it into some sort of intelligible perspective. One must not mistake mathematics and the aura of credentials for a robust, factual understanding of a subject. Nearly the full content of some disciplines, chemistry and geology for example, are within the capacity of the human nervous system to understand. In the case of disciplines like economics or psychology, however, the greater part of the subject’s domain is necessarily beyond our full grasp.3 We may make asymptotic improvements to our statistical and theoretical models, but we struggle in vain against the sheer buzzing swarm of minute but relevant variables.

Quantum physics presents a different problem altogether. It does not appear, at least superficially, that individual processes at that level of physical organization are incalculably complex, and neither does it seem, with deference to Heisenberg, that data collection itself presents a fatal limitation. Rather, quantum physics appears to tax our very ability to understand the behavior of unseen entities symbolically to, and probably beyond, its limit.4

I once heard Lawrence Krauss, a well-known theoretical physicist, express the opinion than no one has ever understood quantum physics. While this is merely anecdotal, it is worth considering. It is hard to imagine any other discipline, except perhaps the rather dubious study of divinity, in which a leading authority would not only make such a confession, but would make it without the slightest embarrassment. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is accepted to be more than a little difficult to grasp, but physicists don’t say that no one, including Einstein, has ever understood it. I believe what Krauss meant by his statement was that, while we can describe quantum relationships mathematically, they are so far outside our normal understanding of states of affairs that we cannot understand them in any other way.

To return to chemical relationships as a basis of comparison, we can imagine shared electrons circling around nuclei in a certain way, thereby binding atoms into molecules. We can have a certain picture in our heads of how such relationships work. The real states of affairs cannot be entirely like the cognitive models we use to grasp them, but the models provide a close enough analogy that we can accurately understand the relationships.

In quantum physics, the similarities between the analogies we can grasp and the underlying states of affairs that actually exist grow ever more tenuous and provisional. Our understanding is grounded neither by direct observation nor by broadly workable analogies, but instead must rest on our confidence in the syntax of mathematics itself. While the mathematics continues to serve up accurate predictions we have some justification in saying the physicists are learning about new states of affairs, but clearly we are probing the outer limits of our cognitive aquarium. The utter inaccessibility of such knowledge to all but a very few minds should alone provide good evidence that, in this direction, we may be nearing the end of our reach. Sooner or later, even the mathematical reductions of this realm seem likely to prove inadequate. One can only describe the inconceivable in terms of the conceivable. Nothing in our evolutionary legacy made it advantageous to be able to unravel the inner secrets of the strange quark.

Summing up, we can know only what we have the capacity to know, and we generally fall a good deal short of that limit. I do not agree with Wittgenstein’s view that we have no business saying anything about the unknowable, but I would allow that no epistemological work gets done by filling the dark void beyond our reach with either gods or fanciful mathematics. The likelihood that we are not the measure of all things is a worthwhile discovery in itself. The aquarium constrains -- but also defines.


1 There is plenty of evidence from studies of early childhood development that even perfectly normal children are not born with the understanding that the concrete universe is something different from their minds.

2 It is important to note that inanimate objects, or even plants, involved in conditional relationships are not applying modus ponens. Such relationships are conditional, but not intentional. When a plant bends toward the light, it isn’t doing so in response to learning. It is aware neither of why it bends, nor that it bends. Its behavior, like that of pebble dropped into a pond, is utterly non-cognitive.

3 Well, at least the interesting aspects of psychology are beyond our full grasp.

4 I am neither a mathematician nor a physicist. I freely admit that I am basing my assertions more on outward impressions of the discipline than on any exact personal knowledge.