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November 27, 2009

Ideological Inconsistencies

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Before moving on to topics less explicitly political, here's Zdeno on ideological inconsistency.

* * * * *

Earlier, I wondered about the origin for our political and ideological beliefs.

Today I’d like to explore the topic of ideology and where it comes from a bit more. Today’s question is: What opinions do you hold that are exceptional for a person of your general ideological leanings? Are you a tax-hating, hippie-stomping gun nut - who happens to be rabidly pro-choice? Do you worship at the temple of Obama - but think every last homosexual should be shot behind a barn? What are the political beliefs that you would reveal in a conversation with like-minded individuals if your goal was shock and awe?

For extra credit, take a stab at explaining why it is your views on those questions are out of line with the rest of your thinking. I’ll kick things off:

I would describe myself as equal parts Conservative and Libertarian. While wearing my “Conservative” hat, I hold wacky, exceptional opinions such as support for gay rights and drug legalization. If I want to piss off my Libertarian friends I can talk about my preference for effective law enforcement over civil liberties, ask why eminent domain is such a big deal, and wonder aloud that we might want to think twice before adopting completely open borders.

I can’t think of any specific policies in which my thinking deviates from the Libertarian-Conservative party line, but I suspect my values could be described as vaguely Progressive. Also, my persona and lifestyle are very much SWPLish.

So, Blowhards: What’s your exceptional belief? Why are your feelings different on that one (or two, or three) question(s)? Why are the rest of your ideological brethren off base here and here alone?

* * * * *



posted by Donald at November 27, 2009


I'm a social conservative(pro-life, anti-tolerance of alternative lifestyles, think there can not be a society without a common culture and morality), but I'm an atheist.

Economically, I'm conservative - I want low-taxes(like a 3 to 5% maximum tax rate), small and limited government. I hate intrusive, large governments. However, I have some doubts about the free market. Living in a rural area, I see many people who work extremely hard and long hours and their work benefits others, but they can barely make a living, and can't afford things such as health insurance or to send their kids to college. When a person can not make an adequate, comfortable living working a 40-hour per week blue collar job(even in the booming 1990's), something is very wrong with our system. I don't want more government intervention, but I'm not sure what the solution would be.

Posted by: JasonMPA on November 27, 2009 11:58 AM


Your views seem pretty similar to those of the HBD-sphere ( Roissy, Sailer, Half-Sigma, Moldbug). So if you give that group its own label, then you views are very consistent and un-exceptional for that group.

Basically, the group you belong to are a group of male, internet-savvy, SWPL dissidents.

Posted by: Devin Finbarr on November 27, 2009 1:19 PM

I don't mean to derail things, but, until recently, I never got the idea that Libertarians were complete open borders nuts. I mean, Milton Friedman, Hayek, Jefferson, Madison and others that are usually considered the ideological leaders of the Libertarian movement were not huge fans of this thing known as Open Borders.

So, if I call myself a small 'l' libertarian, does that now imply that I am in favor of Open Borders?

Posted by: Usually Lurking on November 27, 2009 4:25 PM

Though I'm conservative/libertarian and believe strongly in property rights I favour strict laws on animal cruelty even if they do violate property rights. It's an emotional thing I suppose, but I don't care. I despise the cretins in the right wing blogosphere who are constantly bragging about hunting and killing animals for no reason or sneering at vegetarians.

Though conservative on most social issues I've recently changed my mind on abortion. I used to oppose it but now support it due to its eugenic effect.

Posted by: CanadianObserver on November 27, 2009 6:40 PM

One topic that I find uncomfortable to discuss with pretty much anyone, perhaps because I'm not myself sure what to think of it, is evolution and Darwinism. I have yet to meet anyone with strong opinions on this matter, whether in real life or on the internet, whose views on this topic I wouldn't find irrational in at least some way.

On one side, there is the overwhelming majority of people who instinctively reject evolution without understanding it because it contradicts their religious beliefs. Here I count both those who reject evolution out-and-out (i.e. creationists/ID-ers) and those who believe in a naive PC liberal caricature of evolution where humans are somehow magically exempt from it, at least neurologically, and -- as per the environmentalist metaphysics and ethics -- life on Earth has some magical proper natural order that it's sinful to violate.

On the other hand, there are people who indeed understand what Darwinian evolution is about and aren't afraid to discuss its un-PC implications. Yet, even they behave as if they are unaware that: (1) the only philosophical position compatible with real Darwinian evolution is the most radical and absolute blackest nihilism, and (2) there is the baffling and inexplicable mystery of how come that we're conscious (or at least I am?) if we're just lumps of chemical reactions that happened to achieve a high degree of spontaneous order and complex behavior through Darwinian natural selection. (And for the love of all that is holy, please don't quote Daniel Dennett as someone capable of answering this latter question.) Thus, again, I can't help but observe a high degree of intellectual naivety, or at least inconsistency, among these people too.

So, basically, a strong proponent of pretty much any position on Darwinian evolution would find some reason to get angry with my observations about it.

Posted by: Vladimir on November 27, 2009 7:01 PM

Usually Lurking: Not necessarily; there are culturally conservative libertarian / anarcho-capitalist types who take an entirely different tack on the matter; though they share an affinity for the anti-open-borders mentality, they argue that under a minarchist state, or under anarchy, all land becomes private property, to be policed by the landowners as they see fit, and if the roads are all toll roads, then, literally, there is no-where for 'illegal aliens' to go, unless they purchase property, of course. The Last Ditch (webhost, BTW, for several F. Roger Devlin essays) is a site that seems to take this tack. Now, one can of course argue whether or not this is particularly realistic; to me, it seems to shift the burden of national defense entirely onto landowners whose properties touch the foreign countries - but does nothing to prevent foreigners from simply buying property, and gaining entry thus. But then, I've always viewed ideologically pure libertarianism / anarcho-capitalism as a pipe dream (where the bowl is filled with 'wacky' 'baccy), too utopian, and not realist, in the slightest.

Zdeno: Re:

For extra credit, take a stab at explaining why it is your views on those questions are out of line with the rest of your thinking.


Why are the rest of your ideological brethren off base here and here alone?

Another interesting question people might be challenged to answer, if they please, is, if they feel their position is consistent with their worldview, why is that so?

For example, I've heard (as I'm sure you have, too) certain Canadian Liberal M.P.s, like Tom Wappel, who take a pro-life stance on abortion, argue that they are consistent in that (with their otherwise liberal views) because the Liberal Party is all about 'sticking up for the little guy', and what 'little guy' could be more defenseless, and worthy of being protected by law, than a fetus?

To me, that kind of question is just as interesting as the questions you have posed. (Why and how are you actually consistent with your professed beliefs, yet your brethren wrong, on this one point?)

Posted by: anon on November 27, 2009 9:28 PM

Intriguing question!

I guess I'd call myself an old school liberal. Not for affirmative action but for civil rights laws, for example. I'm pro-abortion w/o apology, am for gay marriage, don't like nation building or messing with the internal affairs of other countries.

I part ways with the Democratic party on illegal immigration - which pushes the lower middle class of the US into Mexican standards of living. Where's the concern for poor Americans? Guess that's just a ruse to get votes.

Also I think education is mostly a waste of time. Everything up to college is day care as far as I can tell. I agree with Conservatives in that people are what they are and education isn't going to make silk purses out of sow's ears.

Posted by: Ed on November 28, 2009 2:19 AM

I don't know that I have any ideological confreres, really. I tend to hang with techies (many of whom are liberals), wargamers (who tend to be conservatives), and SF fans (libertarians).

My personal agenda tends toward effective use of technology for law enforcement and social regulation, with little concern for liberal values or libertarian fears. (I also believe that the same technologies can check abuses of authority.)

I'm non-religious, but I am no more than annoyed by the alleged menace of "Christian fundamentalism", and I consider abortion to be murder.

I'm a social conservative, but I think the number one tech need of the world is better contraception. Also, I expect that within 50 years, artificial wombs will be standard in the First World.

I'm pro-Israel, but I believe the Balfour Declaration was illegitimate and the original Zionist project was based on false assumptions.

I'm a strong environmentalist who thinks "global warning" is a scam.

That enough contrarianism?

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on November 28, 2009 4:18 AM

As one of the token "progressives" [aka G*d d@mn marxists] around here I'd say the extremely strong importance I place on the First Amendment means I do not believe in so-called "hate crime" legislation and am especially opposed to "hate speech" provisions. I may personally be intolerant of intolerance and prejudiced against bigots, but believe they should have the right to say stupid, hateful things ... just as I have the right to call them racist idiots for doings so. And, generally speaking, when someone vandalizes a synagogue or beats someone up for being a homosexual I see no need for a special law that makes these crimes different than other acts of vandalism or assault. Our system already allows juries and judges to consider specific details of the case such as the intent of the perpetrator and various extenuating circumstances when reaching judgment and determining sentencing, which should be enough leeway to adjudicate crimes committed where bigotry is an underlying element.

Another area I question is the logic and utility of perpetual Affirmative Action. This is more nuanced because I accept the underlying premise behind AA, namely that groups actively discriminated against for generations deserve some added consideration to help them catch up, however I do not believe this should be open ended.

While I am not against immigration per se and would prefer some way of dealing with those here illegally other than mass deportation, I am in favor of tighter borders and slowing the rate of immigration.

Posted by: Chris White on November 28, 2009 6:40 AM

Orwell called it doublethink. The ability to hold mutually contradictory thoughts in one's head and not notice the logical inconsistency.

A lot of people think a little bit, but never push their values to their logical conclusions.

Posted by: slumlord on November 28, 2009 11:34 AM

Vladimir, I agree with you thoroughly. Not so much about the necessary nihilism. But definitely about the mind-body problem and the grand comedy of the current attempts to solve it.

Sometime I wonder whether, even assuming no evolution toward greater religiosity, people 300 years from now will laugh at us -- for becoming philosophical materialists just as soon as we understood three or four things materially. In the end, its not because we have any sensible materialist ideas about mind; its because quantum mechanics, relativity, and perhaps more importantly the technology derived from them all "impressed" us more than our own minds.

I'm not a believer, just an agnostic, though I do have a biologic nature that would suit religiosity.

Posted by: Eric Johnson on November 28, 2009 11:48 AM

@ Usually Lurking:

That's actually something I've thought about writing a post about. The Libertarian-Lite commentariat's near-obsession with the open borders issue. Briefly, my observation is that "Beltway" Libertarians, i.e. McCardle, Wilkinson, Cowen, and to a lesser extent Kling and Caplan, make a lot of noise about the Progressive policy implications of Libertarianism (open borders, drug legalization, gay marriage) because doing so earns them greater respect, professionally and socially, than advocating for reactionary Libertarian policies.

I could be fairly described as a Libertarian (with some caveats). I am pro-drug legalization, pro-gay marriage, and although I think immigration policy as it is practiced in the western world today is criminal, I think in a better-governed future - i.e. one in which immigration policy is not driven by the political implications of importing legions of progressive voters - I would support as few restrictions as possible on the ability of productive citizens to live and work where they want.

But it is completely ridiculous to me that anyone with Libertarian values in 2009 could possibly regard these issues as important. If human freedom from state oppression is your prerogative, you should be writing blog posts advocating the abolition of the United States of America, or at least a reversion to a literal interpretation of the Articles of Confederation. Perhaps once America has re-privatized the financial, automotive and health care sectors, ended the reign of gang-warfare barbarianism in vast swaths of every major city, recalled her troops from Astan and Iraq... well, maybe then it would be time to start bragging about
smoking pot.

@ Vladimir:

When you claim that Darwinists tend to conclude that the only rational response to evolution is nihilism ("vee believe in nuthink!") who are you referring to? Certainly not Darwin!

Roissy, for all his tough-guy claims about living a Dionysian life of self hedonism, seems to put an awful lot of effort into maintaining a blog dedicated to his own conceptions of truth and justice. Maybe he's in the pay of the RealDoll people. If not, his nihilism isn't as nihilistic as it appears at first glance.

Also, while I think Dennett (and Pinker) make a decent attempt at explaining our subjective experience of consciousness, the former annoys me to no end. I'm curious as to where you disagree with their explanations of consciousness - any comments?

@ Ed:

I'm tempted to ask what beliefs you hold, outside of support for legal abortion, that qualify you as a liberal! I take it your position on civil rights/affirmative action is similar to mine - that governments should make no laws that even mention races and ethnicities. This view, in the western world in 2009, qualifies you as extremely right wing, and quite possibly racist.

Regarding abortion, I believe it should be legal. But if it is to be done, it should be as early as possible. I fail to see any justification for permitting abortions past the first trimester of pregnancy. Do you? If not, once again you find yourself (surprise!) right wing.

@ Rich:

Are techies predominantly liberal in their political leanings? I had hoped/assumed that s profession consisting of bright people operating in one of the few fields outside of government influence would gravitate towards the libertarian right. (Especially if they read a lot of sci-fi.)

I share your "contradictory" views, i.e. on the environment and AGW, as well as on the relative importance of law enforcement over civil liberties. How odd, that in a city where half the neighborhoods are no-go after dark, police infringements on civil liberties are worried about so much!

@ Chris White, aka our resident &%$# Marxist:

What a pleasure to find some common ground! As a longtime 2blowhards reader, I've always respected your ability to deviate from the lefty "party line." It's a rare person, on the left or the right, who does anything more than recite the cant that's been drilled into them.

Obviously I share your views on hate speech laws, and I think that, had I been alive in the 60's, I may have supported AA and the Great Society reforms as well. In 2009 though, I don't see how anyone can look around the western world and conclude that the modern welfare state, and perhaps even social democracy entirely, has failed. America is still a fine place to live, in most respects. But the path she is on is not a good one.

If I may derail this thread a bit, I wonder if you or anyone else could recommend some good capital-P, non-economics progressive blogs? I haven't found any yet that have impressed me enough to earn inclusion in the RSS feed.



Posted by: Zdeno on November 28, 2009 4:28 PM

I guess I would describe myself as a paleo-conservative atheist and radical environmentalist. I don't particularly care for the egalitarianism of the left or the free-market globalism of the right.

Posted by: B.B. on November 29, 2009 2:50 AM

Zdeno: the techies I know tend to be more conservative than liberal-arts majors; but a lot of them are social liberals and reflexive Democrats.

"a city where half the neighborhoods are no-go after dark": In the U.S.? Not Chicago - AFAIK there are no "no-go" neighborhoods. Unlike, for instance, Rio de Janeiro, where desperate police have turned vigilante, summarily killing supposed criminal elements - and have enjoyed the support of terrified citizens. It's when law enforcement is weak that the danger of abuse is greatest.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on November 29, 2009 2:53 AM

My own conservatism is indiscriminately pro-human, so that I sometimes find myself agreeing with the Spiked/Open Borders crowd, though I'm by no means one of them.

I'm concerned by any attempts to improve the human stock. Whether by breeding or by education.

Educated people put a higher value on their own existence, and persuade others to collude in this. Yet the obese waddlers down at the mall never came up with anything as wicked as AGW, litcrit, or soy icecream. Of course, educated people have come up with good stuff, like Haydn and artificial knees, so it balances out.

I certainly don't think the government should pay people to be slobs, as it now does in Australia. I just don't want it to deliberately tamper with the human mix. It's true we've got enough yobs, but we've also got enough John Donne theses, corporate psychologists and human rights lawyers. So, easy on the education.

As for attempts to improve the human stock through actual breeding or selective migration, be aware that this kind of tampering can produce...Adelaide!

Posted by: Robert Townshend on November 29, 2009 3:07 AM


When you claim that Darwinists tend to conclude that the only rational response to evolution is nihilism ("vee believe in nuthink!") who are you referring to? Certainly not Darwin!

It seems like you didn't read my post carefully, or I was perhaps unclear. I objected to the inconsistency of people who are professed Darwinians and nevertheless not nihilists. Properly understood, Darwinian evolution leaves no room whatsoever for any philosophical position but absolute nihilism, and I can't help but diagnose severe doublethink in people who profess Darwinism, fully understand it, and draw correct conclusions from it as far as biology goes, but then suddenly start discussing various human issues where values, ethics, morality, etc. come into play in the same lively and engaged way as non-Darwinians. I'm not arguing here against either Darwinism or nihilism; I'm merely stating that the former necessarily implies the latter.

Also, while I think Dennett (and Pinker) make a decent attempt at explaining our subjective experience of consciousness, the former annoys me to no end. I'm curious as to where you disagree with their explanations of consciousness - any comments?

I can't say I "disagree" with them. What I find is that they don't even begin to offer any sensible explanation; in fact, their words on the subject don't make even the slightest passing sense. If you believe that humans are just complex lumps of chemical reactions whose behavior can be explained by Darwinian natural selection, one would reasonably expect that these lumps should be as devoid of consciousness as any other lumps of matter. Indeed, consciousness is a phenomenon completely unaccounted for by the scientific materialist reductionism that is otherwise so successful, and on which Darwinism also rests. From the standpoint of this reductionism, consciousness is truly as baffling and mysterious as if we actually saw ghosts and magic come to life.

Of course, humans being what they are, these simple, yet uncomfortable facts tend to drive many otherwise fine minds into fits of absurd denial. For a good critique of this phenomenon, I recommend Jaron Lanier's "You Can't Argue with a Zombie."

Posted by: Vladimir on November 29, 2009 3:21 AM

> "a city where half the neighborhoods are no-go after dark": In the U.S.?

No-go is a little subjective. Maybe you are a huge burly dude, born with a working semi-automatic pistol attached where your left hand was supposed to be -- ?

I'm rather rationalistic and not over-emotional; I would not freak out for weeks or months over being mugged. But getting beat up is one semi-common street crime that would be worse than getting mugged.

Posted by: Eric Johnson on November 29, 2009 4:42 PM

We do have something worth living for in an agnostic universe, and we do have innate morals. The only way in which Vladimir is right, that I can see, is that we now lack a real basis for urging the rare amoral and occasional hypo-moral individuals to conform. We only have force. We can also use reason to explain to them why we are likely to follow through on our threats of force; this is sort of implied. But moral intuitions themselves are emotions, so you cant reason much about them.

In a lesser way, we also lack a way to have an organic tradition that could make people conform their moral sense to a particular interpretation that suits a particular historical situation -- AKA an elite-determined culture that would differ subtly from other elite cultures. But we still have many non-transcendental arguments and emotional appeals we can make, rather than just using force -- whereas with the amoral or very hypo-moral person we have no such non-transcendental common ground because morals and moral instincts are not really matters of reason.

But (general) "nihilism" is a strange term for this situation. Even "moral nihilism" would seem like a bit much -- but it is definitely a big improvement in clarity not to just say "nihilism" period when moral nihilism is meant. "Nihilism" period usually means finding very little value in remaining alive and doing the things of life -- or finding little value in perpetuating a certain civilization.

Posted by: Eric Johnson on November 29, 2009 5:05 PM

> Indeed, consciousness is a phenomenon completely unaccounted for by the scientific materialist reductionism that is otherwise so successful, and on which Darwinism also rests.

Exactly, science was always about objects.

Emergentism is my favorite dumb philosophy of mind. People say that just as one water molecule has no boiling point, one neuron has no consciousness -- so there's no mystery at all!

But of course the boiling point of water is determined solely by the electric field of the H2O (and how it interacts with other identical electric fields from other H2O molecules). If there were only one molecule of water in the universe, and you could figure out its electric field exactly, you could theoretically calculate, with great difficulty, the boiling point of water, by using a perfect model on a powerful computer. Nothing *actually* "emerges" when you create universe's second-ever molecule of water (or whatever substance), and then the next 10 grams of the stuff ever to exist.

But you cant calculate, or in any way derive, consciousness from one neuron! One neuron is fundamentally the same thing as one muscle cell. And they are both the same thing, at bottom, as a rock. Ergo, emergentism is fundamentally just a poor analogy.

Posted by: Eric Johnson on November 29, 2009 5:14 PM

I am curious as to why Vladimir thinks that "properly understood, Darwinism leaves no room for anything but nihilism" (paraphrasing of course). This strikes me as little more sophisticated than the common believer's response when I tell them I am an atheist: If -I- was an atheist, I'd kill myself/you/as many people as possible. (I take it as a variation of the old "if Mankind isn't Everything, then it must be Nothing" trope.)


Posted by: Narr on November 29, 2009 5:56 PM

Like JasonMPA I'm an atheist. But I also find myself on the side of hierarchy, which from a traditional standpoint culminates in God.

Lest this seem irrelevant to how society is organized and whether it stays healthy or sickens and dies all one has to do is look at where the other way of apprehending the world - the liberal commitment to egalitarianism and non-judgmentalism - leads. Total tolerance - which follows from committed egalitarianism - is death. Death for the society that puts it into practice. So it is not a parlor exercise, whether one is a hierarchical traditionalist or an egalitarian liberal.

To sum up: all worldly wisdom springs from the fountainhead of religion; all the folly in our world springs from the rebellion against religion, which is to say the rebellion against belief in God. This I know and yet I also know that I will never make the leap of faith. It's simply not in me. A contradiction that has to be live with. By me...and by how many else?

Posted by: ricpic on November 29, 2009 8:37 PM

I am fascinated by the insistence on extreme absolutes so prevalent among those commenting here. "If one accepts (and properly understands) the Darwinian theory of evolution then one must, to be intellectually consistent, be a nihilist." "Liberal egalitarianism leads to death for any society." These go hand in hand with the meme that any liberal or progressive inclinations or values lead inevitably to Stalinist communism and other variations on the theme that any political debate isn't between the right and the left but the right and the wrong.

These extreme absolutes are about as useful and valid as medieval arguments among theologically minded philosophers regarding the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. All of these extremes begin with the insistence on accepting some set of unproven and un-provable beliefs as if they were immutable facts. This blind absolutism could be heard the GWB quote, "I don't do nuance." These extreme arguments absolutely fail to convince.

Posted by: Chris White on November 30, 2009 8:31 AM

Innate morals don't help us at all. An argument called the Euthyphro Dilemma, supposedly derived from Plato (where it had different content, a different context and a completely different aim from atheists like Pinker who misuse and misunderstand it--Plato's aim clearly being to demonstrate the logical nonsense of the basis for the trial and death of Socrates, not the supposed dilemma involved in deriving morality from God), nonetheless validly demonstrates that you can't get morals from something relative (not as its major proponents seem to think, from something that has an intellect and will, like God. The ED fails utterly as an attempt to refute the necessity of rooting morals in the absolute and transcendent--see Julian Baggini's ignorant and incompetent attempted takedown of then Cardinal Ratzinger for an example of how NOT to use the "dilemma").

And innate morals are indeed relative, are often in conflict and therefore in need of moral principles to resolve the conflict which are themselves not innate, and therefore provide us with no guidance at all on whether something is really right or wrong.

Hume had a different argument that leads to the same conclusion: you can't get ANYTHING moral from any combination of statements of natural fact...and innate "morals", if they exist, are natural facts, not moral ones.

I'm not sure I go with Vlad's strong point about Darwinism requiring nihilism, but the bizarre and utterly unconvincing reductionist materialism so prevalent, at least at the level of claim, among many proponents of Darwinism, does indeed require nihilism if the proponent is to in any way be consistent with his professed beliefs.

But reductionist materialism is a metaphysical, faith-based leap beyond Darwinism proper. Darwinism, as far as I can tell, doesn't require or forbid, any religious or metaphysical commitment from its defenders.

As is the case with so much modernist insanity, the issue lies in the philosophy, the metaphysics, the quasi-religious commitments, of the looney-tunesies. Not in the science, which tells us waaaaaaay less about anything than its more wild-eyed worshippers think it tells us about everything.

Posted by: PatrickH on November 30, 2009 10:35 AM

I'm basically a liberal agnostic, but I believe in MUCH stronger immigration control, both at our borders and within the companies who hire illegals. I'm also in favor of limiting abortion access to the 1st trimester.

Posted by: JV on November 30, 2009 3:52 PM

Vlad is right. The logical consequence of Darwinism is nihilism, since implicit in the acceptance of Darwinism it's concomitant acceptance of an empirically limited metaphysic. i.e one that does not admit non-empirical realities. Morals can't be seen touched or measured, therefore there are no morals.

I am fascinated by the insistence on extreme absolutes so prevalent among those commenting here.

And whats the alternative? Flexible absolutes? (Notice the contradiction:a beautifully Orwellian term by the way) Truths that are self-evident till they are not? Morals are either absolute or they're not; and if they're not, then there are no morals. It's not my opinion it's logic.

Posted by: slumlord on November 30, 2009 3:57 PM

Darwinism, as far as the theory of evolution goes, does not require nihilism at all. It does not attempt to explain the why's of existence, and as far as I can tell, morality can be explained quite nicely within a materialist viewpoint, mostly around the need for it for our survival as a species. Any religious/symbolic trappings attached to that can persuasively be argued to be just that: human-made symbolism.

Maybe Social Darwinism is what is being referred to?

Posted by: JV on November 30, 2009 4:30 PM

> Morals can't be seen touched or measured, therefore there are no morals.

Sure they can. Gross morals are the same in every human society. Dont murder within your polity: it makes a mess of the polity you need for the defense of yourself and your family. Dont rape, steal, sleep with other men's women within your polity: same reason.

Finer morals, such as the ones we fight about within the West, are obviously not universal at all. Saudi Arabia's different from us, now and (I think) 500 years ago, and pre-islamic arabia was even more different from the modern west. The early modern west also differs from the contemporary West in doing things like torture-executions executions of criminals (breaking on the wheel from bottom to top). And regular executions (at least -- I'm not sure if worse was ever done) for fairly mild thefts.

Christianity, and every other moral system worldwide, may have impacted but certainly failed to ever end the rape, murder, and dispossession of hostile peoples during and after conquest -- industrial wealth ended that. Only today are those things truly (ie, efficaciously) immoral.

Posted by: Eric Johnson on November 30, 2009 5:09 PM

Note the "implicit", one of those lovely words that means one assumes something not actually stated to be the case. Many, if not most, who accept Darwin's view of biological evolution seem quite capable of separating biology from metaphysics. Morals cannot be seen, touched, or measured and are therefore outside the province of biology. Given that morals vary from culture to culture and within given cultures over time it seems logical to conclude that they are not absolutes. That does not imply that they have no existence or validity.

The alternative to absolutes is optimal balancing between competing goods. Tradition may be good; innovation may be good. If tradition is accepted as an absolute good is it not implied that no innovation could ever be accepted? What point in time should we decide that tradition achieved perfection? If innovation is an absolute good is it not implied that tradition must be eradicated? Either of these assertions seem patently absurd to me.

Posted by: Chris White on November 30, 2009 7:38 PM

There's an interesting little brouhaha going on between Caplan and Hanson that might be of interest to some of you on the whole materialist thing.

I agree that reductionist materialism implies nihilism in the sense that it isn't compatible with any kind of universal natural law, but that doesn't prevent morality from existing as it is experienced by humans. Sure, we are just a collection of physical substances (or so believes this materialist) but we are collections of substances and exhibit a strong reaction to a universal human set of morals. I think murder is wrong because my ancestors who believed murder is wrong were more successful at producing offspring. So what? I still think murder is wrong. If people think about moral laws, and act on those thoughts, in what sense does morality not exist? "Hunger" is the result of a series of naturally selected biochemical reactions, does "hunger" still exist according to a strictly Darwinist epistemology?

Anyways, that's why I 1) Lean towards strict materialism, and 2) Don't shoot the homeless for sport. I would still call myself an agnostic on this, and most other questions of spirituality, simply because there may be truths my puny human brain is incapable of realizing. With my pre-singularity limited faculties however, materialism seems about right =)








Posted by: Zdeno on November 30, 2009 7:50 PM

If people think about moral laws, and act on those thoughts, in what sense does morality not exist? "Hunger" is the result of a series of naturally selected biochemical reactions, does "hunger" still exist according to a strictly Darwinist epistemology?

Sentiment and morality are two totally different things. Moral principles are rules, sentiments are feelings. Revenge feels good but is it right? The whole thing about morals is that it's about living beyond your feelings. Doing what is right as opposed to doing what feels right. Darwinian moralism is contingent on genetics, there is no good or bad, just the chemical imperative.

Posted by: slumlord on November 30, 2009 8:45 PM

> I think murder is wrong because my ancestors who believed murder is wrong were more successful at producing offspring. So what? I still think murder is wrong.

Exactly. I dont know about others, but personally I dont find it changes any of my emotions significantly to realize that I am probably feeling that way for evolved reason X. Even on things a lot less important that murder. And I know kind of a lot of evo psych.

To take an obvious example, are you going to stop having a libido when you learn that sex evolved for exchanging DNA?

Posted by: Eric Johnson on November 30, 2009 9:39 PM

Facts about matter are natural facts, not moral ones. No amount of material facts can lead to a single moral conclusion of any kind. There is NO connection at all.

The fact that morals may have evolved is irrelevant to the question of whether any action is right or wrong. Whether we feel that an action is right or wrong is irrelevant to whether it is right or wrong, even if that feeling "evolved".

Zdeno, you may indeed "think" murder is wrong because your ancestors who thought that way bred more successfully and led to you as a result. That is utterly irrelevant to whether murder is wrong. It simply is no justification of any moral position at all to say it evolved. We have lots of impulses, all of which "evolved". So what? Which impulses do we give in to? Resist? Sublimate? Intensify? Evolution give no answer at all. It can just tell us where those impulses came from, not whether any of them is right or wrong.

You can't get an ought from an is. CANNOT BE DONE. Hume. Remember him?

And facts of evolution are a big bunch of is-es. You cannot derive a SINGLE moral truth at all from all the facts of evolution put together, squared, cubed, multiplied by 14 (or even 15!)

And same with Eric. That you feel no change in your moral emotions when you realize those emotions are the result of evolution is irrelevant. You cannot provide a reason for any of your moral emotions or beliefs based on evolution, or on science, or on any physical fact of the world at all.

Materialism does indeed lead to nihilism if it is applied consistently. Fortunately, Zdeno and Eric J and Stephen Pinker are all nice guys who with admirable inconsistency fail to live down to their "ideals".

Thank God materialists aren't just made of matter! Soul will out, guys, soul will out...

Posted by: PatrickH on November 30, 2009 11:06 PM


Those Neo-Darwinist atheists must be really good people inside. God (the rhetorical one) knows if someone like me swallowed their worldview whole, I'd be far more apt to do nasty things if I thought I could get away with it. I mean if there wasn't some sort of bare flickering candle in me that refuses to go out despite everything my logical mind tells me, I would have given in long ago.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on December 1, 2009 12:05 AM

(After writing this comment, I realized it's terribly long-winded and rambling, but I'll still post it as a reply to the numerous comments above. Despite bad writing, the main points should be clear.)


I could have guessed that my comments about Darwinism would stir up more controversy from all sides than anything else mentioned in the entire thread. So, for all of you who believe that my views are even slightly exaggerated, consider the following.

First, if you believe in true (i.e. absolutely materialist and reductionist) Darwinism, the first superstition you must discard is free will -- from your perspective, someone who believes in free will in any meaningful sense of the term might as well be professing belief in ghosts and miracles. The blobs of complicated chemical reactions known as "humans" feature complex behavior, but this is merely because as a consequence of Darwinian natural selection, they contain computational modules running certain algorithms that produce such behavior. There is no more "free will" in these blobs than, say, in piles of carbon atoms that, heated above a certain temperature in the presence of oxygen, oxidate into CO2 while generating heat -- the latter is a much simpler process, but not essentially different in any way.

Think about what this means, hard. Try to really think of yourself and other people as just complicated piles of chemicals inexorably following the laws of physics and chemistry, with everything that happens in human life -- language, family, society, politics, technology, science... -- being merely a complex arrangement of mutually interacting piles of molecules, brought by Darwinian selection as a local reduction of entropy enabled by the energy coming in from a nearby star. Now try to imagine a non-nihilistic philosophy that might be consistent with this view. It doesn't even begin to make any sense. Any view of human behavior and human interactions necessarily involves a religious belief inconsistent with Darwinism if it sees anything in humanity beyond chemical reactions playing themselves out as they must. As soon as you open your mouth talking about human life in any terms except a cold description of an ongoing chemical reaction, you might as well be reciting the Nicene Creed.

Try also to think of yourself as a helpless passive observer that has no control at all over what your body is doing, merely operating under an illusion of such control. Frightful, eh? But to avoid this conclusion -- again speaking from a consistently materialist perspective -- you need religious faith that you're in fact a magic spirit exerting supernatural control over this blob of chemicals, which are thus not behaving according to physical laws, but instead follow this magical "free will." (By the way, I never understood how people who don't believe in free will can avoid living in dread of what horrible things they might end up getting themselves into, unable to do anything about it.)

Now we get to the second point -- how does this observer come into being, regardless of whether he is passive or active? Why does a conscious observer appear in each blob of chemical reactions known as "human"? (Or am I perhaps really the only one? I'll never know for *absolutely* sure.) While the implied nihilism of Darwinism and other materialist theories is not a fatal problem for them -- merely for all the fuzzy-minded non-nihilist adherents of such theories -- consciousness really seems to be. As I wrote above, it truly is as mysterious and baffling as if we saw ghosts coming to life, and no materialist reductionist perspective can even begin to address this question.

Personally, I won't pretend that I have any answers here. I'm giving this merely as an example of a topic on which I can't find common ground with people of pretty much any ideological persuasion.

Posted by: Vladimir on December 1, 2009 3:21 AM

Nihilism with regard to "natural law" morality is indeed an inescapable implication of materialist Darwinism. So is strict fatalism, perhaps with some allowance for genuinely random quantum events - still, randomness is not free will. I accept both of those conclusions, and I don't believe that there is an extra-human universal law that says "murder is wrong." I am also uncritical of the materialist argument against the existence of free will. By this definition of Nihilism - which, I'm reminded by Wikipedia, is the correct one - I am certainly a Nihilist.

What I don't follow is the insistence that Nihilism implies living and amoral, uncaring existence. If morality is contrived from our evolutionary and cultural background, can I not still give fealty to it? Isn't the existence of radically different moral views regarding the consumption of pork, sacrificing of virgins, sacredness of cows etc. across human societies evidence that we do not share a single universal moral code? Or what about the thought experiment of counter-factual evolutionary biology? If Chimps rather than Hominids had developed intelligence, presumably their attitudes towards sexual morality would be radically different, since Chimps don't pair-bond. Is infidelity still wrong in a species that doesn't consider it so?

With regard to free will, I have never seen an argument that convinces me it exists. What are brains, if not machines composed of physical substances that behave in predictable ways? At what point in human evolutionary history did "consciousness" evolve?

Obviously I have no idea and this is just wild speculation, but I would lay money my dog, who is very bright all things considered, experiences consciousness to some degree. Would you disagree that he is just a meat robot?

In any case, my final point of argument when non-materialists implore me (jokingly, I hope) to lay down on some train tracks, because hey, if it happens it was meant to happen - uncertainty. Even if I believe with p=.99 that free will is an illusion, it is rational in expected value terms to act as if free will exists. On the off chance that it does, I'll have made the right choices, i.e., I won' be killed by a train. Otherwise I'm no worse off.

In any case, interesting discussion, even if the outcome is and always has been predetermined =)



Posted by: Zdeno on December 1, 2009 10:17 AM

By reducing consciousness to an epiphenomenon, that is, by denying it any causal efficacy, materialists have to be nihilists, since moral judgments are a power of the conscious mind, and the moral facts that are needed to constitute the premises of any argument about morals are present in minds, and not in matter.

Richard Rorty said something to the effect that anyone who believes in genuine moral judgment is, whether they admit it or not, practicing a kind of theology. Rorty was an atheist (and a nihilist, IMO, and therefore consistent), and I find myself listening to him and saying, "Yes, actually. He's right. Funny that."

The problem with Zdeno and Eric is that they only think of morality as an effect. The issue is its causal power: how should we behave? The status of morality as an effect (an outcome of evolutionary processes, say) tells us nothing about what kind of causing we should be doing.

And Spike, I think you're right. If you became a materialist, you'd be a consistent one...and that is a scary thought. Spike...the consistent materialist and...the nihilist.

Good to hear you're not letting the spark of soul go out.

Soul is good. Especially because it's what tells matter what to do. And what not to do. And why. Go soul! Choose soul!

Posted by: PatrickH on December 1, 2009 10:48 AM

Well, to a materialist, what I would call a consistent materialist, I guess morality is *not* in consciousness save as an epiphenomenon; it happens without free will. Similarly, he doesnt run into the naturalistic fallacy, because to him morals actually are part of nature, present causally in the computer-like brain and non-causally in the mind.

A compatiblist would reject this and say something I would find unintelligible.

I'm not really a materialist, not on a regular basis. Most of the time I just doubt deeply that science can explain qualia, but I just dont really know what to think overall. And on god, I'm similarly just agnostic.

Posted by: Eric Johnson on December 1, 2009 2:28 PM

Why do I consider myself a liberal? Fair question. I'm not sure. Don't think tax cuts are the solution to everything. Nationalized medicine appeals to me compared with our current system. I have been voting for Democrats in the past. Didn't like Bush. Didn't like McCain or Palin. Lot's of Republicans seem to feel the same way so we have that in common.

I think abortions should be done as early as possible but I'm pretty radical about not telling people what to do with their bodies like that, so I'd be considered far left on abortion.

Posted by: Ed on December 1, 2009 3:25 PM

What I don't follow is the insistence that Nihilism implies living and amoral, uncaring existence. If morality is contrived from our evolutionary and cultural background, can I not still give fealty to it?

Fealty implies choice which in turn implies free will.
If you deny free will then there is no fealty. In fact there is no morality. What there is, is just you behaving according to your genetic programming. You're a ball rolling down an entropic hill and possess the moral qualities of said ball: None. I'm not saying that your immoral, what I'm saying is that you are of the same moral quality as a brick, a stone or computer, as these things on their own are incapable of good or evil.

Morality begins with Spike's candle. The realisation that you can climb up against that entropic hill. It's not all determined, a man has a choice.

Posted by: slumlord on December 1, 2009 4:24 PM


What I don't follow is the insistence that Nihilism implies living and amoral, uncaring existence. [...] Or what about the thought experiment of counter-factual evolutionary biology? [...] Is infidelity still wrong in a species that doesn't consider it so?

See, your writing still shows deep attachment to concepts that, for a true materialist, cannot be other than metaphysical superstitions with no more basis in reality than the celestial hierarchy of Angelic Choirs. Maybe soul will out after all!

A true materialist can see the human condition only the following way. When coal burns, most carbon atoms oxidate into CO2, but some of them just happen to undergo incomplete oxidation into carbon monoxide. Similarly, through processes that are more complex but with absolutely no essential difference, the blobs of chemical reactions known as humans tend to interact between each other and with surrounding entities in different ways, which mostly follow certain patterns that are called "moral," "caring," or "right" by groups of other humans, but some of them just happen to enter physical states that produce behavior that gets called "amoral," "uncaring," or "wrong."

Actually, even with this formulation, I'm slipping into spiritualism. More precisely, certain signals are transmitted through various physical media as a result of human behavior, just like stuff falling into water raises waves. The signals produced by the patterns of human behavior in some particular physical states interact with other humans so that their speech organs, by necessity of natural laws, end up producing sound waves corresponding to the words mentioned above, just like electromagnetic waves induce currents in conductors according to antenna equations, or litmus paper changes color below a certain pH value. (Though things get more complicated in practice than this simple case because of various feedback and amplification effects.)

Through sociobiology, Darwinian evolution can actually explain how self-reproducing blobs of chemicals will, in certain environments, evolve over many generations into complex state-machines that behave in such ways. I don't dispute this at all. Yet, this theory implies that the blobs of chemicals that we call "humans" behave according to physical laws, and that's it; there is no choice involved in the matter at all. Asking whether "nihilism implies living an amoral, uncaring existence" is completely meaningless -- it's as if a carbon atom asked whether laws of chemistry imply an existence leading to the formation of a carbon-monoxide molecule. Some atoms will go through such existence, and others won't -- and similarly, the same physical laws necessitate that different "human" blobs of chemicals will end up in different states producing different external manifestations, some of which will induce the above-described effects on the behavior of other blobs. Just like the CO molecules coming out of carbon oxidation will react differently with the surrounding environment than CO2.

That's all there is to human life according to a consistent materialist perspective -- except that we can't account for the ghostly supernatural phenomenon of consciousness. Of course, even regardless of that, only a tiny minority of professed Darwinists and materialists are capable and willing to actually view human life in the above described terms.

Posted by: Vladimir on December 1, 2009 9:25 PM


With regard to free will, I have never seen an argument that convinces me it exists. What are brains, if not machines composed of physical substances that behave in predictable ways? At what point in human evolutionary history did "consciousness" evolve?

Regarding free will, I agree -- it's impossible to prove that I'm not just a passive observer trapped in a bizarre 3D theater over which I have only an illusion of control. (Still, the prospect sounds extremely scary to me.)

However, the existence of consciousness remains indisputable and inexplicable at the same time -- and if it conflicts with materialism in general, or Darwinism in particular, then so much worse for the latter. If you want it in Bayesian terms, my consciousness is the only fact in which I believe with the probability of exactly one. I don't even believe that 2+2=4 with the probability of exactly one, since whenever I think of this fact, it might still happen, however improbably, that I got the arithmetic wrong and I'll realize the mistake next second. But when it comes to the existence of my consciousness, it's not one minus 10^(-googolplex), but exactly one.

On the other hand, the probability that, for example, Answers in Genesis has it wrong is pretty damn close to one, but still strictly less than that. Their theories might be a giant pile of wildly implausible special pleading desperately trying to disprove all the mountains of contrary evidence, but they're still strictly more plausible than theories that can't account for the only fact that I know with the probability of one. And indeed, if you read the writings of people who really bite the bullet on materialism and reductionism, you'll see that faced with the problems of consciousness and personal identity, they end up developing views that make Answers in Genesis sound eminently sane, logical, and plausible in comparison. Just check out the archives of Overcoming Bias or Less Wrong for some good examples.

Posted by: Vladimir on December 1, 2009 9:47 PM

That's right Vlad. The problem with Z is that his philosophy is not the privation of consciousness, but its negation. So he cannot even talk about "amoral" or "meaningless" existence, since these concepts only have meaning as privations--of morality or meaning, respectively. But materialism is not about the privation of those things, it is about their utter non-existence. And if meaning does not exist (I mean that the concept of meaning refers to nothing, as materialism must insist it does), then neither does "meaninglessness".

The confusion exhibited by Z on this subject is the same confusion between negation and privation that Russell suffered when he issued his famous Bald King of France pseudo-paradox.

When Z talks about "amoral existence" he is being as meaningful as someone saying that oranges can be bald in the same way a man can, just because they don't have heads of hair.

Posted by: PatrickH on December 2, 2009 9:53 AM

The shorter spiritualist argument: atheists are doodyheads, and only tolerable because they have souls whether they think so or not.

This presents a paradox to me--in a meaningless world, how can spiritualist argumentation be so damn funny?

Posted by: Narr on December 3, 2009 6:49 PM

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