A Good Man

Imagine—let us give him a name—Joshua. We say he is a good man. To say so in general is to say that he supports and preserves life wherever it is found. This is the essence of good action, but action springs first and foremost from feelings and motives, and therefore let us begin there. We may well imagine that Joshua’s actions toward others flow from a sense of benevolence, even love. His actions generally exhibit kindness, or helping because of fellow feeling, particularly helping those who are in need and in danger. That makes some sense, I hope. After all, those who who have plenty and are safe do not need his help.

There is something, we might say, natural or earthy about him; he is the human embodiment of the same kindness found at least occasionally throughout the animal world. Decency to others just seems to come naturally to him. You have no doubt been delighted to meet kindness in people like Joshua; it is not altogether uncommon. When circumstances permit, he uses his time, his abilities, and his wealth to help others, especially those who cannot help themselves so well—particularly, of course, his immediate dependents. He does this without calculation: it is simply obvious to him that it is the right thing to do.

As a supporter of life itself, we might well imagine Joshua to be a man married with a wife and children, all of whom he loves deeply and supports. He knows from common experience that he cannot stray outside of marriage without ultimately destroying the chances of making a happy marriage, to say nothing of contracting diseases. Moreover, he keeps himself fit, not only because he has a healthy love of his own life, but also so he can live long and provide well for his wife and children. He also avoids excessive drinking and drugs, again because he knows that this can ruin his health and his ability to live well. There are various words for this latter cluster of virtues: temperance, moderation, self-control, even purity.

Now, we must not imagine Joshua to be living in an idealized utopia. He lives amidst the same viciousness that can be found throughout animal- and humankind alike. He is beset by all the selfish, hostile, and strange psychology of people, in a particular culture with particular beliefs, practices, and government—some good, some bad, some downright evil. Many of his virtues are a response to less-than-perfect situations he finds himself in.

For example, Joshua lives among predators of various kinds. As a champion of life, as it were, he is gentle and caring, not unnecessarily violent. A habit of violence would make him a danger to others and himself, after all. But he is also strong and adept at fighting when necessary, meaning he is an excellent protector; although he avoids fighting whenever he can, he refuses to let violent, unjust bullies take advantage of the weak. For this, he needs courage above all, as well as the discernment to judge those who deserve his protection and those who have earned his enmity. In choosing who, how, and when to fight, he needs wisdom, or good practical judgment. He is no fool.

Let us suppose that, fortunately, he lives in a time and place of relative peace, so he need not fight constantly. Still, of course, life for Joshua is not all roses. He also has personal conflicts, not just in protecting other individuals but on his own behalf. These might be conflicts over money or property or a woman or any of a number of other things. Now, if there is one thing that repeated human experience teaches us about conflict, particularly when it is between powerful people and especially heads of state, it is that conflict can become extremely destructive, not just of relationships, but of lives—even entire states—even civilizations. Again, mere observation of daily life as well as history teaches that skill in avoiding conflict, when unnecessary or unproductive, is one of the best ways to preserve life.

Practical wisdom (or to put it negatively, not being a fool), already mentioned, is one key element in such conflict avoidance. A second is justice: a devotion to treating others fairly, without giving anyone any undue advantage or disadvantage, reward or punishment. Justice is crucial because the animal kingdom (not just human beings) have an in-built notions of fairness. Joshua is deeply sensitive to that.

A third is humility. Humility is closely allied with justice and bears special mention. This implies, ultimately, that Joshua does not particularly weigh his own life and its advantages over those of others; rather, he takes the real value of others seriously, and he weighs the value of his own life appropriately, fairly, justly, as one among many. Such humility follows, with justice, from his being, at root, a preserver and defender of life, and of all human life particularly.

Consider a person who lacks humility but instead acts out of pride. To say so is just to say that such a person consistently places his own life and happiness above all others; he will find himself acting in ways that most of us will recognize as selfish, mean, calculating, vicious, and cruel.[1] Such people are almost universally hated, at least eventually. They rarely become heroes, who sacrifice themselves in war or emergency, who rescue those in peril, who go out of their way to help the needy. Typically, it is only those who acknowledge the essential dignity and equal value of all human beings that are capable of the conflict-avoiding virtues of justice and humility, which are so universally applauded.

And that, of course, is how our Joshua is. All acknowledge him to be a humble man. This does not mean he is pliant and docile—he is no “pushover.” But, as I said, he avoids needless, foolish conflict, and he genuinely loves and helps others, precisely because he sees his life as one among many, each of which has intrinsic, precious value. And this humble self-evaluation manifests itself in an attitude of ease with and support of children, women, the poor, the elderly, the foreigner, and the bereaved. He has no reason to elevate himself above others, so naturally he does not.

Now, Joshua is not perfect. He makes mistakes. He can even act viciously, cowardly, foolishly, proudly, and selfishly at times; he is human. But he knows that others are, if anything, even less perfect than he is. It is natural, to some extent, for us to harbor resentment for past wrongs. Joshua avoids doing so, because he knows it will lead only to worse and worse conflict. He practices forgiveness, because that truly is essential to being able to interact with others in a way that really supports them. He also begs forgiveness when he knows he is wrong; he is quick to apologize and to express remorse, seeing this as again essential to smooth interaction with fallible human beings.

I could, but will not, go on at much greater length about how various essential virtues, such as I have listed, ramify into greater and greater details as special cases arise. But I do want to add one virtue which might be described as a “covering” virtue, which goes under various names: integrity, honor, decency, and righteousness. As I said before, Joshua is no fool. He reflects on his actions, is reasonably well educated, and he is familiar with the wisdom of his place and time. He reflects, to some extent at least, on the very fact that he is a being subject to moral constraints. So he does not merely happen to practice good habits or virtues as I have stated; this is no accident. Rather, he quite deliberately chooses and cultivates principles. That he lives up to a moral code is a matter of righteous pride for him—this “pride,” of course, is decidedly not opposed to the humility he also practices. The opposite of this better sort of pride is not humility but a sense of his own abject worthlessness: simply, he could not live with himself if he were to do certain horrible things, and he knows this about himself. The word dignity, in one sense, conveys the same thing.

I invite you to consider all of these life-supporting virtues together. I say that nothing could be more natural than these virtues that characterize Joshua’s life. If you confess that you are somehow unfamiliar with them, then you thereby also confess that you are immature, or perhaps incredibly idiotic, or else monstrous, inhuman, and lacking a soul.

Now, without exactly constructing a moral theory, I want you to notice that these various virtues do as it were militate in favor of life. They create and preserve life. They also enhance life; they make it better. Moreover, practiced in concert with others, these principles have the power to create splendid civilizations—which bring even higher degrees of flourishing life. Some such cluster of life-affirming virtues has been essential to the development of civilization on all the habitable continents of the Earth, wherever civilizations have taken root, some wealthier and powerful and some less. But in all of them, by whatever degree mixed with other, vicious tendencies, decent behavior has been regarded by the wise as a key element of a flourishing civilization. This is famously true of Israel, Greece, and Rome, but also of various Chinese dynasties, India, Muslim societies, and African tribes. All can be interrogated as to their moral ideals, and similar notes can be found in all of them.

I say “similar note” advisedly, and grasping this is important if you are to avoid misunderstanding me. I am certainly not saying that there have been identical moral principles throughout the world and throughout history. Clearly there have not; there have been great differences, especially on the details. For example, the precise Judeo-Christian principle of humility is hard to find among the ancient Greeks; but the Greeks did speak of a vice of hubris, overweening pride, which would inevitably be punished, and they did sometimes celebrate a virtue of modesty, or avoiding shameful behavior, and generosity or beneficence was regarded as a key virtue. But again, the Judeo-Christian notion of self-effacing humility and putting others first was foreign in ancient Greece. Still, the Greeks did have some notion of humility, and like everyone, they would have admired Joshua.

Is Joshua unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition? Or to the West? Surely not. Surely you know this sort of person. And he is admired wherever he is from, and held up as a paragon of virtue in all cultures. He is the sort of man that good people everywhere celebrate.

Am I wrong?

My new book is launched in paperback: Here are some quotes

I am announcing that my book is now available on Amazon in paperback. Please show your appreciation for this blog (and my other attempts to enlighten the world) by buying it!

Here: Essays on Free Knowledge: The Origins of Wikipedia and the New Politics of Knowledge, Sanger Press (my own imprint), ISBN 978-1-7357954-1-6. 12 essays. 270 pages. $18.75 for the paperback. The ebook version is best purchased on Gumroad ($9.95), but it is now available on Amazon as well (same price). I will make an audiobook version if there is much demand. So far about four people have requested an audiobook version. If the number of requests goes over ten, I guess I will make an audiobook.

Wikipedia celebrates its 20th anniversary in January, but as I explain in this collection of essays, it began by organizing a decentralized, global community to catalog their knowledge neutrally, with minimal rules. The results were amazing, sparking debates about whether amateurs really could declare "what we all know" and whether all this free knowledge could replace memorization. A decade later, as control of knowledge has become more centralized and closed, I ask: should we decentralize knowledge once again, and if so, how?

What do you get? In addition to front and end matter (including a full index), these twelve essays, which I include with some perhaps representative quotes:

The Early History of Nupedia and Wikipedia: A Memoir

The focus on the encyclopedia provided the task and the open content license provided a natural motivation: people work hard if they believe they are teaching the world stuff. Openness and ease of editing made it easy for new people to join in and get to work. Collaboration helped move work forward quickly and efficiently, and posting unedited drafts made collaboration possible. The fact that we started with a core of good people from Nupedia meant that the project could develop a functional, cooperative community. Neutrality made it easy for people to work together with relatively little conflict. Finally, the Google effect provided a steady supply of “fresh blood”—who in turn supplied increasing amounts of content.

Two Early Articles about Wikipedia

Wikipedia’s content is useful, and so people are starting to link to it. Google and other search engines have already discovered Wikipedia and the daily traffic they send to the project produces a steady stream of new readers and participants. The greater the number of Wikipedia articles, the greater the number of links to them, and therefore the higher the rankings and numbers of listings on Google. As they say, “the rich get richer.” So it is far from inconceivable that the rate of article-production will actually increase over the coming years—in fact, this seems rather likely.

But why all this activity and interest? Surely that is puzzling. Wiki software must be the most promiscuous form of publishing there is—Wikipedia will take anything from anybody. So how is it possible that so many otherwise upstanding intellectuals love Wikipedia (some, secretly) and spend so much time on it? Why are we not writing for academic journals, or something?

Wikipedia's Original Neutrality Policy

Wikipedia has an important policy: roughly stated, you should write articles without bias, representing all views fairly. This is easily misunderstood. The policy does not assume that it is possible to write an article from just one point of view, which would be the one neutral (unbiased, “objective”) point of view. The Wikipedia policy is that we should fairly represent all sides of a dispute, and not make an article state, imply, or insinuate that any one side is correct.

Why Neutrality?

To ... put it metaphorically, neutrality does not give us a free ride. It throws us into the issues and requires us to swim through them under our own power. This can be difficult and frightening (thus Kant’s injunction, sapere aude) but it also makes us feel empowered to decide for ourselves. Neutrality supports us both intellectually and emotionally in the act of exercising autonomous judgment by presenting us with all the options and providing us the tools to judge among them for ourselves. ...

When you write with bias, you are treating your readers as your pawns, as mere means to your ends. You are not treating them as autonomous agents, capable of making up their own minds rationally. You are not respecting their dignity.

Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism

There is a deeper problem—I, at least, think so—which explains both of the above-elaborated problems. Namely, as a community, Wikipedia lacks the habit or tradition of respect for expertise. As a community, far from being elitist (which would, in this context, mean excluding the unwashed masses), it is anti-elitist (which, in this context, means that expertise is not accorded any special respect, and snubs and disrespect of expertise are tolerated).

How the Internet Is Changing What (We Think) We Know

[T]he superabundance of information makes knowledge more difficult. ... [F]or all the terabytes upon terabytes of information on the Internet, society does not employ many more (and possibly fewer) editors than it had before the advent of the Internet. When you go to post something on a blog or a web forum, there is no one called an editor who decides to “publish” your comment. The Internet is less a publishing operation than a giant conversation. But most of us still take in most of what we read fairly passively. Now, there is no doubt that what has been called the “read-write web” encourages active engagement with others online, and helps us overcome our passivity. This is one of the decidedly positive things about the Internet, I think: it gets people to understand that they can actively engage with what they read. We understand now more than ever that we can and should read critically. The problem, however, is that, without the services of editors, we need our critical faculties to be engaged and very fine-tuned. While the Internet conversation has made it necessary for us to read critically, still, without the services of editors, there is far more garbage out there than our critical faculties can handle. We end up absorbing a lot of nonsense passively: we cannot help it.

Who Says We Know: On the New Politics of Knowledge

[T]he public deserves a seat at the table it did not have throughout most of history. Wikipedia’s tremendous usefulness shows the wisdom of that policy. Still, it is no exaggeration to say that epistemic egalitarianism, as illustrated especially by Wikipedia, places Truth in the service of Equality. Ultimately, at the bottom of the debate, the deep modern commitment to specialization is in an epic struggle with an equally deep modern commitment to egalitarianism. It is Truth versus Equality, and as much as I love Equality, if it comes down to choosing, I am on the side of Truth.

Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age

The educational proposals and predictions of the Internet boosters described above point to a profoundly illiberal future. I fear that if we take their advice, in the place of a creative society with a reasonably deep well of liberally educated critical thinkers, we will have a society of drones, enculturated by hive minds, who are able to work together online but who are largely innocent of the texts and habits of study that encourage deep and independent thought. We will be bound by the prejudices of our “digital tribe,” ripe for manipulation by whoever has the firmest grip on our dialogue. I see all too much evidence that we are moving headlong in that direction. Indeed, I fear this is already happening. I honestly hope that I prove to be an alarmist, but I am a realist reporting on my observations. I wish the news were better.

Is There a New Geek Anti-Intellectualism?

The more that people have these various [anti-intellectual] attitudes, the more bad stuff is going to result, I think. The more that a person really takes seriously that there is no point in reading the classics, the less likely he will actually take a class in Greek history or early modern philosophy. Repeat that on a mass scale, and the world becomes—no doubt already has become—a significantly poorer place, as a result of the widespread lack of analytical tools and conceptual understanding. We can imagine a world in which the humanities are studied by only a small handful of people, because we already live in that world; just imagine the number of people all but vanishing.

But is this not just a problem for geekdom? Does it really matter that much if geeks are anti-intellectuals? The question is whether the trend will move on to the population at large. One does not speak of “geek chic” these days for nothing. The digital world is the vanguard, and attitudes and behaviors that were once found mostly among the geeks of yesteryear are now mainstream. Geek anti-intellectualism is another example.

Introducing the Encyclosphere

A few thousand people work regularly on Wikipedia. But what if millions more—orders of magnitude more—wrote encyclopedia articles and rated them, as part of a completely decentralized knowledge network, with no individual, group, corporation, or government in charge of the whole? That is surely possible. There are surely that many people who, if given the freedom to do so, would be highly motivated to volunteer their time to add to the world’s largest collection of knowledge.

We could create a knowledge commons, defined by neutral, open, technical standards and protocols: a network that decentralizes encyclopedias, exactly as the Blogosphere has done for blogs.

Declaration of Digital Independence

We declare that we have unalienable digital rights, rights that define how information that we individually own may or may not be treated by others, and that among these rights are free speech, privacy, and security. Since the proprietary, centralized architecture of the Internet at present has induced most of us to abandon these rights, however reluctantly or cynically, we ought to demand a new system that respects them properly.

The Future of the Free Internet

Even more fundamentally, what the decline of Wikipedia and social media have in common is the concentration—the centralization—of authority on the Internet. This centralization of Internet authority has many and terrible consequences. It turns out that placing so much power in the hands of Internet executives undermines us, our relationships, our minds, even our sanity, and ultimately our politics. Who knew this would happen, even ten years ago? Some open source software stalwarts foresaw some of it. But as to the general public, they had little notion, perhaps beyond a vague inkling. It is all too plain now.

Buy it!

Essays on Free Knowledge (book)

New book: Essays on Free Knowledge

I published my first book this morning. The current cost is $9.95. It is a 270-page ebook, first published on Gumroad, where I'll get a higher percentage. A paperback should arrive in about a month on Amazon if I don't get distracted by other things.

Buy via the embedded ad below, and after that, I'll have a few notes for my regular blog readers.

I first had the idea of making a collection like this over ten years ago. I decided to do it now because I was thinking of combining fundraising for the Encyclosphere with a course. But to get publicity for a course, I thought it would be good first to remind folks of my writings (and qualifications) to teach something like this. A book would help publicize both the Encyclosphere and the course. I also thought if I were going to keep plugging away at my (time-consuming) consulting business, a book would help spread the word for that as well (although I have had more business than I have had time for). Finally, the fact that Wikipedia is going to have its 20th anniversary this coming January means the book should have a better audience than it would otherwise.

I hope you will get your hands on it (or rather, get it on your handheld) soon, but I will have a paperback available hopefully in about a month, if that is more your style.

God Exists

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"Being understood by the things that are made"

As I read through the Bible once quickly, I try to take it as an interpretive principle—which is just an extension of the principle of charity—that I should try to understand the text in a way that will make it come out true, on the theory that that is more likely to be what the author meant.

Now I recently began reading the Epistle of Paul to the Romans. In the first chapter, I came across this very famous, philosophical text:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who [d]suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because what may be known of God is [e]manifest [f]in them, for God has shown it to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and [g]Godhead, so that they are without excuse, 21 because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like [h]corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.
Romans 1 (NKJV)

I had read this passage several times before, being one of relatively few texts in the Bible that contain something approaching an explicit argument for the existence of God. Even more remarkable is the claim that the unbelievers and pagans "are without excuse" because they "knew God" who is "understood by the things that are made." In the past, I always frowned at and moved on quickly from this startling claim, as something it is unlikely I am able to understand, if indeed there is anything to understand. Frankly, it sounds absurd: atheists surely do not understand God through the creation, let alone "know God." Nor do polytheists understand the nature of a personal monotheistic deity through the creation, surely.

But this time I asked myself, "Suppose this is true. What could Paul possibly have meant?" So I looked out the window at "creation," and there I saw some bare March trees and yellow-green grass and patchy grey clouds, and I asked myself what it would be like to see the creator in that. I saw a sort of stark beauty. It was easy enough to remember more spectacularly beautiful scenes. Of course, such scenes are not God. But if Paul is right, perhaps he means that our reaction to them—one of pleasure, joy, delight, sometimes awe and wonder, and even sublimity—is a reaction, in some sense, to God.

Our sense of beauty is something we are well aware of, but of course we might deny that it is a reaction to God. And yet Paul writes that God is known in some common way, no doubt "both to the wise and to the unwise" (1:14), and hence it is not likely that the manner in which we come to know God (if we do) is something particularly intellectually challenging, knowable only to scientists and philosophers, for example. It is more apt to be something emotional or "spiritual." If "what is known of God is manifest in" us "by the things that are made," then it seems likely that indeed the beauty of the world is that through which, Paul claims, we come to know God.

That is very interesting; it is as if aesthetics were a key to metaphysics. Through our sense of beauty, we come to know God—that, I suggest, is what Paul is saying. But if so, what could that possibly mean?

The text itself is not silent; it does give us a clue. It says "His invisible attributes are clearly seen...even His power and Godhead," and moreover, the proper reaction to such an act of perception is glorify god and to be thankful. What we experience as beauty (or sublimity) is our quite natural and even universal reaction to the "attributes" of the godhead, with the one attribute being his "power." We witness the works of great power indeed with awe and pleasure at beauty; and we witness evidence of the greatest power with a sense of sublimity. The experience of sublimity in the presence of the awesomeness of nature just is the experience of God's power. And you are without excuse, Paul says, if you do not immediately conclude that God is there—that the creator of the universe delights in, intends, and is responsible for the beauty that you see.

Some philosophers will be quick to say, "Of course that does not follow." That would be the category of philosopher I have been in. But if you stop there, then perhaps you will not understand what Paul is saying. For his part, Paul says you are a fool if you do not understand.

Let me suggest that Paul might not be merely doctrinaire and bigoted (and arguing ad hominem) when he says such "wise" philosophers are "fools" for failing to see God in the sublime beauty and power of the creation, something that the "unwise," even (or especially) little children, are perfectly capable of seeing. Again, let us be charitable and try to come up the very strongest construal of his point of view. What could he possibly mean, that would make him turn out to be right, perhaps to the consternation of the philosophers?

He would mean not that we understand some analogy, some design argument, since the philosophers probably do understand such arguments well enough, as far as they go. It would have to be something more basic. And what leaps to mind here is something very basic indeed: there is what, in epistemology, we call a direct perception of God in certain states of affairs in the world. A sense of beauty or sublimity, the thing we cannot deny, is not a reaction to a random configuration of stuff. You can try to reductively explain it, perhaps, in terms of such things as balance and color and whatnot, but even then you still have not explained the gestalt, the overall impression we have of a beautiful scene, let alone why the aspects of a scene should strike us, or some of us, so profoundly.

For some reason, I always think of my childhood piano teacher when I think about "seeing God in nature": she said she believes in God because of the design evident in the creation. I always thought she was endorsing a design argument. But no, not necessarily. The reason many people believe in God, even deists who do not believe in the Bible, is not that they draw a conclusion from their perception of divinity in nature, but rather because of the perception itself. In other words, it is not a conclusion. It is, as two much-admired philosophers, Alvin Plantinga and the late William Alston, put it, a basic belief, rooted in something very much like a perception of God. Alston even wrote a book called Perceiving God. Now I have a better idea of what he meant. This belief is based, Paul suggests, on the direct, unreasoning witnessing of God's power in creation, something we naturally react to with delight and awe, and which we should react to with reverence and gratitude. God, Paul tells us, made a sort of very basic knowledge of himself, the power behind what is observed, available to even to little children. We can see God in creation, he says, as plainly as we can see the trees, grass, and clouds.

But we can, of course, deny this knowledge. "Wise" fools do, Paul suggests; they simply deny this fact staring them in the face, which of course they may do.

So that is approximately what Paul meant in that passage from Romans, I think.

I will leave you with this question. If the creation does naturally (again, if we let it) leave us with reverence and gratitude at God's power, how might that natural reaction help to cultivate the humility, moral ambition, and faith in this power that the Bible wants us to have? Are these things connected? It seems that they would have to be if the God we see in creation is also the God of the Bible.

On the Soul

Discourse about the soul is ancient, continues to this very day online and in academia, and spans many languages and traditions, with research spanning multiple disciplines and, all told, literally thousands of relevant books. I cannot hope to do all of that justice in this essay, so I will not try. My aim is much more modest: simply to satisfy myself, for now, on two questions:

  1. What is the soul?
  2. Does the soul exist?

As a philosopher trained in analytic methods, I will begin by talking about words a fair bit, for the simple reason that this is an excellent way to clarify precisely what the subject is. Some, but certainly not all, philosophical problems can be resolved by carefully examining how we use words.

Let me dive into the first question without further ado.

The Sort of Thing the Soul Is

Socrates, probably just after having asked ti esti?

With any ti esti question (Greek for "what is it?"—famously, Socrates' type of question), the first thing to do is to circumscribe the concept to be defined or analyzed. To this end, I can think of several subsidiary questions, but here is a good place to begin: Is the soul something different from the mind? After all, the mind is something that many of us acknowledge exists; but if we say it exists, do we thereby affirm that the soul exists?

It does not seem so for the simple reason many people are happy to acknowledge that the mind exists, while believing that the soul either does or might not exist. In any event, the concepts seem to be distinguishable, even if the things themselves are not. And even if I decide they ultimately are the same, it will be good to settle on which concept I take to be my target to analyze, because the words, clearly, have different semantics.

It is relatively easy to concede that the mind exists, because it is a much broader and as it were forgiving concept. I mean, there are substance theories of mind as well as bundle theories of the mind; even behaviorist and reductive materialist theories, which deny any inner experience or "qualia," have been construed as "theories of the mind."

Hence the mind is not the thing I want to focus on. The soul, whatever else it is, is irreducibly spiritual, mental, or "inner." Moreover, while we need not endorse any particular theory of substance, the mind is held to be an object of some sort and not merely a bundle of properties, actions, habits, states, or events; it is correct to attribute properties, actions, etc., to it (you cannot correctly attribute properties to a bundle, I think). It simply cannot be a theory of the soul to say the soul just is some mental event such as the perception of a bird or the memory of a smell, or a state of pleasure or pain, or the habit of thinking, or an instance of cogitation. That is simply not the sort of thing a soul is. Such mental events might, perhaps, be said to occur to or within a soul. Nor can a soul be a "bundle" of many such items. A soul is said to be that to which such events occur, if it exists.

Not an accurate depiction of what the soul does.

Let me sum up the latter considerations, which probably went by very fast. There are, I propose, at least three things that characterize the concept of the soul, that help to distinguish it from other, related concepts: first, it is irreducibly spiritual and not material, whatever that means; second, it is an object (a proper subject of attribution); and third, mental events such as seeing or feeling pain or imagining are all, at least possibly, things that occur "within" a soul. So if materialism (or physicalism: I use the terms interchangeably) is true, then souls certainly do not exist; if there is nothing like a substance, object, self, or subject of experience, then souls do not exist. On the other hand, it does not immediately follow that, if materialism is false, therefore souls exist. Nor is it very clear to me that if we have an immaterial self or mind that is the subject of experience, that that is the soul. But maybe it is. I will examine that question next.

The Semantics of 'Soul', 'Mind', and 'Self'

If I have a pain, or see the clock on my wall, or remember an appointment, we can (although some do not want to) say that I (emphasis on this word) am the subject of such pains, perceptions, and memories. But am I my soul? If so, then my soul is the subject of mental attributes. Now, again, those willing to countenance the existence of minds are happy to say that pains, perceptions, and memories are had by minds and, less often, by selves—but, again, not nearly as often, by souls.

So, is the soul, if it exists, supposed to be the subject of experience—or would it be something else? How we answer that question depends entirely on our specific notions about the soul, but in the Western (Christian-influenced) world, we speak about the soul in various quite relevant ways such as:

  • "Caring for the soul": Ensuring that your moral habits and religious, maybe especially prayer, practices are excellent.
  • "A wounded soul": A depressed or bereaved person, or perhaps a person whose faith in God is weak.
  • "With all your soul": With faithful feeling or earnest motivation.
  • "Kindred souls", "soul-mates": People who relate to one another, often due to some similarity, at a deep level.
  • "A feeling deep in my soul": An intuition, emotion, or conviction that perhaps you cannot account for but which you feel strongly.

These sorts of phrases indicate that indeed the soul, whatever else it is, is spoken of the subject of at least some of our experiences, but perhaps especially our deeply-felt emotions and convictions. Can we also attribute evanescent and trivial sensations, feelings, and memories to the soul, or not? I can see a case being made both ways: in describing some slight twinge of pain, we rarely say our "souls" experience such things; we are more apt to attribute such things to our minds or even our bodies (or nerves or brains).

This suggests that 'soul', 'mind', and 'self' differ in function, i.e., the purpose to which they are put in our conceptual schemes. It seems that all three can be the subject of experience. What, then, is the function of the concept of the soul, and how does it differ from the functions of 'mind' and of 'self'?

The usage examples given above suggest that 'soul' is pressed into service when we want to speak of our deep feelings, passions, and religious faith. 'Mind' is much more general, although in ordinary language it tends to be pressed into service when we are speaking of the intellect, i.e., mental activity involving abstract knowledge and logic; although it certainly can be used much more broadly than that. As to 'self', especially insofar as it is used in pronouns like 'himself' and as a strict synonym of 'ego' and 'I' (when referring to one's own self), this is colloquially pressed into service, rather imprecisely, to mean both mind and body, "the whole package," and especially as it exists through time. 'Self'-talk often is used to talk about whole individuals rather than of just the mental or spiritual activity of individuals.

Another important functional difference between 'soul' and 'self' on the one hand and 'mind' on the other is that the former are sometimes spoken of as existing after death—the 'mind', per se, not so much. Probably the reason for this is that minds are associated with embodied experience, i.e., with how we interact with the world, beginning with the senses. If we live on after death, the part of us that lives on might not interact with the world, and certainly not through the senses. This might also be why it is strange to attribute passing bodily sensations to the soul.

But just because we in modern colloquial usage speak about the soul this way, it hardly follows that, if the soul exists, it should be considered to be a different item in our ontology (i.e., the set of distinct items that we say exist) from minds and selves (not to mention spirits). I maintain rather that, however these words differ in conceptual or linguistic function, all three are often taken to refer to a subject of experience (understood broadly, meaning a subject of mental attributes), assuming indeed there is such a thing as a subject of experience. Now, it is conceivable that we have two different subjects of experience within us, a mind and a soul; but this specific suggestion is rarely made and I, at least, am not aware of having such a split personality, as it were. I can confirm in my own case that I possess what philosophers call "the unity of consciousness." I might come back to this issue.

So, although they have different semantic functions, I am inclined to take 'soul', 'mind', and 'self' as synonyms in the sense that they have the same referent, namely, a subject of experience or of mental attributes. The terms refer to the same ontological items. Again, another synonym would be the "I" or the "ego" (which is just the Latin word meaning "I"), as long as this is understood to exclude the body.

Introspection, sort of

Introspecting the Soul

So I say that I or my self is, in a sense, my soul. So what am I? What is my soul? I say in turn that this cluster of semantically related concepts all refer to the same thing, namely a subject of experience. So the soul, whatever else it might be, just is the subject of experience, assuming the subject of experience exists. So if we want to know what the soul is, we should examine what a subject of experience is. There might be, and doubtless is, much more to it than that; but it is at least that.

As it turns out, this is not at all an easy question. We have an intuitive understanding of what it means, and can easily give examples in language that seem to refer to a subject of experience, but explaining what this item is is by no means simple. Whole books are written about it, including one called The Subject of Experience by Galen Strawson. But I have no time to review the literature, and it is not as if I have not already read a lot of the historical source literature about the problem; Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Kant all have important things to say. But I am going to dive in with my own narrative—here goes.

Let me quickly mention the notion that the subject of experience, whatever it is, just is the brain or nervous system. On first glance, this looks like nonsense. The reason is that the brain has a number of physical properties that it is utter nonsense to ascribe to my soul. My brain weighs about three pounds; my soul does not. And while it seems to make more sense to ascribe mental processes like feelings and thoughts to the brain, we are not now talking about a mental process but instead about a subject of experience. Here, of course, is where physicalists say that that is why they say a subject of experience does not really exist. The "feels" of your experience are just what your brain and nervous system is like "from the inside," so to speak; but there is no immaterial soul or self lying behind it, except as a spurious mental construct. I will return to this view later.

To bring out an insight about the subject of experience, let me draw your attention to the phenomenon of the internal perception of one's own body, called proprioception. I will spend a bit of time on this; I have a specific reason for doing so.

Proprioception is different both from sense-perception insofar as the senses we use to perceive the external world do not appear to be involved (although scientists have described many systems used for proprioception). If you feel an ache in your legs or a tickling sensation under your nose when nothing is tickling it, or if you feel your body to be hanging upside down or to be in motion or falling, you are experiencing proprioception.

While it is possible to sense specific parts of your body, it is also possible to sense your entire body, as when you have the feeling of dizziness. Just as you can have proprioception of missing "phantom" limbs, such whole-body proprioception need not be veridical (i.e., genuine, accurate); you can have the feeling of dizziness and spinning even when your body is at rest.

Through proprioception, you become aware that you are dizzy.

As you can see, there are two different kinds of subjects of proprioception: individual body parts and the entire body of which they are parts. This is true whether or not some proprioception (some internal sensation) is veridical.

Now we can draw an analogy. Consider first that we can sense what is going on inside our own minds via the process, or "faculty," called introspection. Just as there is proprioception of a specific pain in my stomach, there can be introspection of a specific instance of remembering, say, a childhood ball game. But just as we can and do describe proprioception of the entire body ("I'm dizzy!"), can we also speak of introspection of the "entire mind"? And would that not be introspection of the soul?

What would introspection of the soul be like? Again, just as we have a sense of passing internal sensations that are part of an entire body (that we can also sense; "My arm is tingling!"), so also we can introspect various passing thoughts, emotions, and imaginary fears bubbling up from the subconscious, all of which are attributed to yourself. Just as you have a generalized sense of your body quite apart from any specific sensation you feel within it (or about it; "My whole body is tingling!"), you can have a generalized sense of your whole mind, or soul, or yourself.

How would you go about trying to persuade yourself that you have the capacity of such "whole mind" introspection? In much the same way you persuade yourself that you have "whole body" proprioception: you cut out localized, specific sensations. After ignoring all the various pains, pressures, positional information, etc., about your body, there remains a sense of your whole body. Consider something similar but with regard to the whole mind. It helps if you close your eyes and retreat to a quiet, unbusy place—if you ignore the passing thoughts, imaginings, memories, and perceptions, as you attend to what is passing in your mind, you do, contrary to Hume, find that you are aware of something in addition to all that.

The proposal, then, is that that is you: your listening self. Your soul.

If this is correct, then it is perfectly natural if it said to be in prayer or meditation that we best come in contact with our own souls. Both of those involve tuning out the "blooming, buzzing confusion" of both external sensations and undisciplined internal thoughts, and instead focusing on the "still small voice" of your conscience or best self in conversation with God, in the case of prayer, or on nothing at all except the bare self, in the case of much of meditation. Even when we are lying in bed with our eyes closed, waiting for sleep, behind the mad rush of worries and happy thoughts, I propose we can more easily distinguish in our awareness that which has the thoughts.

We are, I maintain, well acquainted with our souls, even if we cannot articulate this acquaintance very well. Of course, the soul- and self-deniers will say that this hard-to-articulate sense of ourselves does not show that there is in fact a soul. It is, at best, a piece of highly fallible evidence, they will say. But I maintain, to the contrary, that there is no reason to doubt this internal evidence. The sense of our selves—and that it is our selves, or our souls—is as clear, if we know how to attend to it, as any other evidence we can have from the senses or from introspection.

Descartes, the great proponent of the introspective argument

It was on the basis of something like this introspective argument that Descartes concluded, in the Second Meditation, "I exist." And his focus was indeed on himself and the nature of this "I" that exists. The mind, he thought, was better known than the body. As he puts it:

What is the 'I' that seems to perceive this wax so distinctly? Surely I am aware of myself not only much more truly and certainly, but also much more distinctly and manifestly. For if I judge that wax exists from the fact that I see this wax, it is much clearer that I myself exist because of this same fact that I see it. Possibly what I see is not wax; possibly I have no eyes to see anything; but it is just not possible, when I see or (I make no distinction here) I think I see (cogitem me videre), that my conscious self (ego ipse cogitans) should not be something. ... Further, if the perception of the wax is more distinct when it has become known to me not merely by sight or by touch, but from a plurality of sources; how much more distinct than this must I admit my knowledge of myself to be! No considerations can help towards my perception of the wax or any other body, without at the same time all going towards establishing the nature of my mind. And the mind has such further resources within itself from which its self-knowledge may be made more distinct, that the information thus derived from the body appears negligible.
Descartes, Second Meditation, trans. Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Thomas Geach

Wax, which occasioned much discussion about the thing that senses it

Philosophers have long contradicted Descartes, saying that all he introspects is a sensation (or imagination, etc.) of the wax, and not himself, i.e., his self. But it is clear from a close reading of the text that Descartes is very specifically claiming to know not merely a sensation within him, but indeed his self. He does not say he is "thinking" or "thoughts," but a "thinking thing"; he is a res, not merely cogitans. And while he does not use the language of "introspection," it is clear that he and his argument depend on introspection of himself.

I can endorse this in my own case: that these passing thoughts I have are occurring to me, to myself. I would quite naturally use the word 'I' in attributing them to the object to which they occur, to, as it were, their owner. I only go a bit farther, when I "close my eyes," "stop up my ears," and "turn away my senses from their objects" (as Descartes puts it in Meditation Three), and claim that I can positively introspect that whole mental self, just as I can without any trouble "propriocept" my whole physical body.

Does the Soul Exist?

If we can (veridically) introspect the soul, then of course it exists, just as you could not (veridically) perceive a tree without the tree existing.

What we have not established, however, is that the thing we decided we could introspect deserves to be called "the soul." I said earlier that the soul is (1) irreducibly spiritual, (2) an object, i.e., proper subject of attribution, and (3) has mental events such as thinking, intending, remembering, and perceiving occurring within it. It seems to me this is a good set of requirements for a soul, so if we have good reason to think something satisfies (1)-(3), then it is a soul.

I can introspect, I argue, my "whole mind," i.e., something analogous to proprioception of my whole body. I can also introspect that various mental events occur within this thing I also introspect; i.e., I am aware of pleasures, pains, and ideas occurring to (or "within") myself. All I mean is that when I, for example, remember a pleasant walk from earlier in the day, and then close my eyes and introspect my "whole mind," then of course the thing that I am introspecting just is that which has the memory: it is myself. So this object of introspection satisfies (3). But at the same time it satisfies (2), because it is I who remember.

Heavier than my soul

The only thing left to establish, at least to my present satisfaction, is (1): that this soul is "spiritual," whatever that means; and to establish this, it suffices, I think, to establish that it is not physical. I raised this question earlier when mentioning that my soul does not weigh three pounds although my brain does. This line of thought is worth spelling out in more detail.

This is a commonly-employed argument for dualism: that there are things true of the mind, or mental events, which are certainly not true of physical (brain) events. I can introspect the experience of yummy delight in ice cream, but in so doing, I am not coming to know any brain event. Even if there is some assignable brain event that invariably accompanies pleasure in ice cream, that pleasure, which is wholly accessible to me, is utterly unlike any firing of neurons.

I once, when I was a firmly committed physicalist, thought I had a response to this: there is no need to be able to introspect the appearance or anything, really, about the underlying physical state of a mental event. Having a certain experience just is the system's natural response or operation when a certain corresponding brain event is occurring. There need be no expectation of an ability to introspect anything about the underlying brain event.

I now see, however, that I was only grasping at straws with this response; I was not taking the problem seriously enough. The physicalist's claim, again, is that mental events just are brain events. But if that is true, then when I am coming to know a mental event, then I am coming to know a brain event. On the physicalist's view, they are supposed to be one and the same; but, clearly, they are not the same, since I can be intimately familiar with the qualities of some introspected experience without knowing anything whatsoever about the brain. There just is no easy response to this argument. It is simple, to be sure, but it is powerful.

Now, I cannot pretend that this brief discussion puts physicalism to rest for good. I state it here only by way of explaining to you, the reader, and to myself why I have come to this conclusion now. While being irreducibly mental might not be quite the same as being "spiritual" or "of the soul," I have already established that the soul is held to contain (or be subject to) "mental" events just as the "mind" and "self" are. Indeed, I am satisfied, so far, that the soul, the mind, and the self are the same, because again I doubt there is more than one subject of experience within me. So if various mental events are "irreducibly mental," that by itself establishes that they are "irreducibly of the soul," or spiritual.

So the "whole mind" or soul we can introspect satisfies condition (1) as well. "I" am a subject of experience, of various mental events, and these are indeed irreducibly mental.

So the soul exists.

The Knowability of the Soul

We know a great deal about "what goes on" in our own souls or minds, particularly if we are at all reflective. If the arguments above are correct, we can (and often do) also introspect a soul—something that is properly called our own soul. And we can know that we introspect it, too. But that is not to say that we understand what our souls really are. We have no idea of what "soul-stuff" might be (in ancient times, it was held to be "breath").

It is around this point in the narrative (if not much before) that we are likely to see an outburst from physicalists, who see exasperating, willful ignorance at play here. After all, they say, we are learning more and more about exactly how the mind is encoded in the brain. We can locate specific mental processes in specific parts of the brain. We are learning more and more about the biochemistry of the brain, and thus how specific drugs affect the brain. For 25 years we have even been able to communicate via computer connections with the mind via the brain's predictable architecture (i.e., the so-called brain-computer interface). Scientists have even observed how the MRIs change when a subject is introspecting rather than paying attention to sensory information. What is this if not the discovery of ever greater detail about the underlying physiology of the mind and of evidence that undermines the existence of a soul?

Maybe more to the point, why is there any need to posit the existence of some spiritual feature—a "subject of experience" that is a soul—only to declare it to be unknowable? Why should the physicalist not laugh this claim to scorn? The soul does seem unknowable, indeed; but perhaps the reason for that is that it does not exist. And there something else to justify such scorn, more than just a failure to respect Occam's razor ("do not multiply entities unnecessarily"); there is the keen awareness by an irreligious, rational scientist confronted with a belief that shows every sign of being motivated by the wishful thinking of religion. After all, it is precisely the belief in the soul that permits us to believe in life after death, in a higher state of being (e.g., existence in heaven), and indeed in God (or the gods), who is (or are) supposed to be a "great soul" who can help and comfort us as, various religions have repeatedly confirmed, nothing else can. Secular, scientific types infer that not only there is conclusive evidence against the soul, but also that the belief in the soul is transparently biased and irrational. How can the soul be defended against such an onslaught?

As the soul is nonphysical, you cannot make a picture of it. This is not the soul.

The physicalist is well advised not to be too smug. For one thing, their view is far from univocal or a consensus position. Other philosophers and scientists think that, despite progress in brain science, we will never "crack consciousness," a problem that bears a close relationship to understanding what the soul is, insofar as what David Chalmers called the "hard problem of consciousness"—the subjectivity of experience, the "what it's like"-ness of consciousness—is evidence that consciousness will never be reduced to any physical thing or process. A few scientists even think we can learn about the soul from quantum physics—I do not quite understand why they think we can, but a fair few seem to think so.

Strange strands of physics and psychology might go so far as to have people doubt the existence of physical objects. It may be more apt to take any such new frontiers not as especially plausible, let alone established, as an interesting illustration of why we need not be terribly disturbed if it should turn out that we still do not know what the soul is, despite our learning more and more about psychology and brain science.

For all the physicalist's smug scorn, he has no good response to the Cartesian argument that we can introspect the soul with a high degree of certainty, in much the same way we have proprioception of the whole body. This is because such introspection is data, not theory. To be clear, there is theory involved, namely, that what is introspected deserves to be called the soul. But that is something I have established, so far, to my own satisfaction, and in any event, the data gathered from such acts of introspection cannot be gainsaid, as far as I am concerned.

As I said, there is a great deal we know about our souls—i.e., about what they do and experience. The thing we do not know is what they are. This is no more a confession of intellectual bankruptcy than would be a 17th-century scientist observing confidently that there are physical objects without knowing that they are made of atoms.

The nature of the soul, and the many and detailed features of subjective human experience, "spiritual" and otherwise, is simply not discoverable by any examination of physical stuff. That is merely a reflection of the fact that they are not physical. And that means, in turn, that the scientific methods that work only on physical stuff will not work on mental or spiritual stuff. Again, we cannot infer what anything is like from the most advanced and complex understanding of the brain and nervous operations. An MRI might well let a scientist "read thoughts," but no brain scan can never reveal the subjective experience of those thoughts.

"I am the captain of my soul," something very rich and complex—not simple.

Remember too that there are many states the mind or soul can be in. Philosophers may say the soul is a "simple" thing, but how it processes and interacts with the world is anything but simple. It is not as if the rich experiences of fully human lives, and everything they entail, are trivial. No, the stuff of our souls is precisely the stuff we write our greatest literature, poetry, and philosophy about. This is what inspires those religious sentiments that lead people to worship, sacrifice, and repent.

We, those of use who believe in souls, need not be irrational or anti-science. I do not wish to deny or minimize any of the scientific discoveries made about the operation of the brain. I concede entirely—why would I not?—that our inner lives are deeply tied up with the operation of the brain, somehow. I am sure Descartes would not have wished to deny that, either, had he learned the details. I remember my college class laughing in 1987 when we first read Descartes, since he thought the seat of consciousness was the pineal gland. I think we are not apt to laugh quite so much anymore, since we discovered a place in the brain that seems to be responsible for consciousness, the claustrum, can be stimulated in a way that causes instant unconsciousness, as if it were an "off" switch for the waking mind. It turns out that the claustrum is not that far from the pineal gland; Descartes was not so wrong.

There is no amount of discovery of the neural concomitants (things occurring together: I choose the word deliberately) of mental phenomena that will render introspection and proprioception irrelevant. Data from these purely mental abilities of ours will always undergird any future conclusions of brain science; we can "read thoughts" (in the very imperfect way we can) by examining MRIs only because experimental subjects have, in the past, informed scientists about what they were thinking. Brain science is downstream of introspective psychology, and it always will be. Physicalists must never forget this. Discoveries made about brain science, therefore, cannot refute the datum that I am aware of my soul.


To claim that the soul exists is typically to imply a raft of other claims: we will live on after we die; we might go to heaven or hell; our souls might leave our bodies; our souls might come under spiritual attack from demonic forces, and receive spiritual assistance from angelic or divine forces; we are similar to God the Father and the angels precisely in that we have souls. I have not proven or even given so much as a lick of evidence for such claims. Am I uninterested in them? Surely I must be interested, because if I am not, what is the point of insisting on the existence of the soul in contradistinction to the mind or the self? Only soul-talk carries such baggage.

I am indeed interested in those claims. Moreover, I think that separate arguments can be made for them. While they need the soul to be independently established, as in this essay, the conclusion of this essay would be greatly strengthened if these turned out to have (otherwise) independent evidence in their favor. For example, if some interesting evidence for "life after death" can be adduced, that would require the existence of the soul, and in so doing make the case for the soul stronger.

There is one essential philosophical question I have entirely ignored in the above, and that is what the relationship is between the soul and the body, if the soul exists. I can happily concede the effect of brain-altering drugs, for example, on the mind—and hence, the soul. Similarly, injury, diseases, and surgery done on the brain can all greatly change how our minds work—and hence again, the soul. It seems impossible to gainsay that the soul causally depends on the body. Only the few adherents of parallelism (mind and body are miraculously coordinated in advance), like Leibniz, and of occasionalism (God coordinates things on the fly), like Malebranche, bravely deny a causal relation. But a causal relation seems perfectly obvious for more prosaic reason, such as that the perception of a red ball in my soul is caused by the red ball I see.

In philosophy of mind, some fans of qualia ("raw feels" or subjective experiences that cannot be reduced to anything physical) try to dodge the problems here by saying that only properties are mental, not any objects or substances. (This is called property dualism.) But if you believe in the soul, you believe in a spiritual substance or, if you do not endorse the metaphysical complexities of "substance" talk, then a spiritual object. And then you endorse what is called substance dualism, precisely the "common sense" theory that Descartes defended. Descartes is the whipping boy of practically all Phil 101 classes, which love to poke holes in substance dualism. But this is not to say it is impossible to defend substance dualism in the 21st century; many Christian philosophers, perhaps most notably Richard Swinburne, do just this. Perhaps I will update this essay at some later date with further discussion of the question.

For now, though, I cannot say I have proven that there is a soul, but only rehearsed some good reasons to think there is one.

A Rationalist Approaches Christianity

I am privately linking from here (below) a new essay about Christian religious epistemology, 20,700 words (if you can believe that). Here is the first paragraph:

The purpose of this discussion is to determine whether I should—whether it is rationally justified to—conduct a systematic study of natural and revealed religion, in order to decide whether I can in good conscience declare myself to be a Christian.

The question I examine is not whether Christian belief is (or can be made) rational. That is a very big question. Instead, I examine something more preliminary: Whether a person in my present position could explore Christian belief rationally despite some admitted biases, whether on various bases a peremptory judgment may be made against Christianity, what a rational procedure of exploring it might look like, whether such a procedure is consistent with my long-standing methodological skepticism, and finally, if so, whether I should in fact give up that skepticism. Inter alia I do explore what underlay and initially kindled my recent interest, and later also I share what specific (mostly philosophical) lines of thinking I have explored that gave me hope that a rational Christian belief might be possible.

The essay is here (210K, password protected); I have given some people the password. If you don't have the password but want access, send me an email at larry (at) sanger (dot) io.

I will probably post a later version of the essay here on this blog after I get feedback.

Please add your comments on the essay here, below!

Not all ways of changing the world are good

Not all ways of changing the world are good.
Some edges you don’t go over, ever.
Some edgelords are the enemy.
Some rebellion is shockingly evil.
Sometimes, wearing the clothes of the devil means you’re the goddamn Devil.

Getting To Know Aleister Crowley, The Wickedest Man In The World

Some actions and people are objectively evil—the enemy.
Not everything in life is a game.
Some appalling outrages are dead serious.
We do not laugh.
If the trappings of evil are fun and “cool,” then some fun and cool things are evil.
Evil people are often smiling, charismatic liars who love nothing so much as fun and cool.

The face of evil is seductive.
Many good people can easily be taken in.
If only they saw into the minds of their seducers.
They would be shocked—outraged—appalled—sickened.
Power corrupts because the powerful wield corruption with a smile.
It looks fun and innocent—at first.

What a Drag: Corrupting the Innocent at Children’s ...

The innocent, especially rebellious youth, are most easily taken in by the games the corrupt play.
They can’t conceive of how utterly monstrous the hearts of their smiling “friends” can be.
They think evil in front of their eyes is impossible; it is only a childhood fairy tale.

Evil people—they exist—hide their evil often even from themselves.
They are enlightened, not evil.
They are beyond good and evil.
They are winners at life, the better sort—not corrupt.
Don’t be so naive, they say.
All life is a joyous struggle, and I—I am merely winning the fight.

Come join me, I will show you how to win, they say.
It’s fun. It's cool.
I’ll take you places where the rich people and cool kids are.
Don’t be shocked, you baby.
That’s how the world works.
Money and sex are what make the world go around.
Ha! You didn’t know—now you do, they say.

Why God Might Exist: A Dialogue Concerning Unnatural Religion

Modern religious skeptics often declare that the reason they are atheists is that there is no good evidence for the existence of God. It is as if they were mere dispassionate judges, and no one has yet submitted adequate reasons to adopt a belief in God to them—the immaculate Tribunal of Reason, of course. Such self-described rationalists vehemently deny making the claim that God does not exist, and thus they reject the notion that they must have positive arguments for the conclusion that God does not exist.((If they are sincere, then I would call them 'agnostic' and not 'atheist'. Most self-identified activist atheists—i.e., aggressive "New Atheist" types—think 'atheist' means simply 'one who lacks a belief in a god', and that 'agnostic atheist' is not a contradiction, but this is neither the common usage, nor was it ever my usage, of these terms. Fortunately, this semantic dispute does not matter much to the present discussion.)) If their supposedly rational stance were sullied by a positive declaration that God does not exist, then they would have to have positive arguments for that declaration.

New Atheists. Submit your arguments to their Tribunal of Reason. They're better than you.

So, naturally, they want to avoid such a commitment. This seems reasonable. After all, it is among the canons of rational skepticism, if anything is, that we avoid unnecessary commitments. The modern skeptical view is that both the existence and the nonexistence of God are just such unnecessary commitments.

The Supposed Absurdity of God

As I was reflecting about my own lack of belief, it occurred to me that one of the most persuasive arguments against God—certainly one that I personally have taken very seriously—is a Humean argument,((David Hume makes a similar argument in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.)) as follows.

Absurd or no?

Whatever else the Judeo-Christian God is supposed to be, he is supposed to be a soul, albeit a very great and important soul.((For the sake of this argument, I am setting aside any doubts about what souls are and whether they exist.)) Now, the only way we have of conceptualizing what souls are is by comparing them to minds. And while we have plenty of experience of our thoughts interacting with our bodies to create stuff like houses and cakes, we have absolutely no experience whatsoever of a mind-like entity creating an entire universe ex nihilo (from nothing) without the use of a body. Especially to the 21st century scientific mind, increasingly well understood as it is by neuroscience, the idea that something like this lump of grey matter might, just by an exertion of thought, cause a universe to pop into existence is not just unsupported and hard to conceive of, it is just ridiculous.

Now, you do not have to conclude from that argument, "Therefore, God does not exist." But if the above is your earnest reasoning, then surely that is the conclusion you come to.((Well, not necessarily. You could take credo quia absurdum est seriously.)) And as I think very carefully about my own past mental states, it occurs to me that that is how I have thought about the matter, although I did not want to admit it to myself. I wanted to avoid drawing the conclusion that God does not exist in order to avoid a rational and rhetorical burden of proof, but in all honesty I reflect that I did, in fact, draw that conclusion. I was never sure, of course: I take my methodological skepticism seriously. But look here, if by definition 'God' refers to a soul that created the universe, if the only way we have of understanding that basic claim is by analogy to our own human minds, and if it is absurd to suppose any such thing might create solid matter with mere thought, then that absurdity definitely suggests that God does not exist. So no such whole-universe-creating soul exists.

Still does not appeal to me. (Tertullian did not say this.)

As an argument for the conclusion that God does not exist, this is not a deductively valid argument (it is an argument by analogy, after all), but it is inductively strong and very persuasive to me. That is, this argument is by itself a persuasive reason, maybe the very most important reason, that I personally could not take theism seriously. Minds do not create matter, and certainly not ex nihilo. I often went a step further, by way of hedging: if there is a God, then I have no idea what sort of thing God could be.

World-Building Tech Might Exist. So God Might Exist.

Recently, I have been re-examining arguments on all sides in the philosophy of religion. As I thought again about the argument above, it suddenly occurred to me that I had since more or less refuted it. How?

A couple of years ago on this blog, I did a bit of speculative philosophy. Modern technology, I wrote, would have looked like magic to people long ago. It is not hard for us to imagine a Matrix-type AI system that constructs the very world we seem to live in, some centuries from now. Now, I wrote in that blog post, let us extrapolate even further:

Mr. Anderson, a creation of a super-intelligent AI.

We literally cannot imagine what scientific discovery and technological innovation will make available to us after 500 or 1000 years. Now let’s suppose there are advanced civilizations in the galaxy that have been around for a million years.

Isn’t it now hackneyed to observe that life on Earth could be a failed project of some super-advanced alien schoolchild?((A suggestion again from Hume's Dialogues.)) After all, we already are experimenting with genetic engineering, a field that is ridiculously young. As we unlock the secrets of life, who’s to say we will not be able to engineer entirely different types of life, every bit as complex as the life we find on Earth, and to merge with our inventions?


But what if there is some alien race that has evolved past where we are now for millions of years. Imagine that there is a billion-year-old superbeing. Is such a being possible? Consider the invention, computability, genetic engineering, and technological marvels we’re witnessing today. Many sober heads think the advent of AI may usher in the Singularity within a few decades. What happens a millions years after that? Could the being or beings that evolve create moons? Planets? Suns? Galaxies? Universes?

Now, I do not claim to be able to draw any positive conclusions about the universe from this sort of argument, though some bolder people do.((Most famously, Elon Musk says that we are probably living in a simulation, i.e., something like The Matrix is not just possible, it is probably true.)) But it occurred to me that maybe there is a good answer to the atheistic argument above. To wit:

As it turns out, our souls—our minds, anyway—individually or collectively, in the distant future, might be able to create a universe. If we can cleverly conceive and take seriously the possibility that some ultra-futuristic humans, or human-AI hybrids, might create planets, stars, galaxies, and ultimately universes, then it is possible that God—a "great soul" and creator of the universe—exists. The suggestion that such a powerful "mind" exists is not absurd.

A lot of people seem to think so. I'm still thinking about the one, and that is enough.

Is the Existence of God Still Absurd?

I can imagine the atheist responding, "But God is supposed to be unlike a futuristic Matrix-creating AI; he does not create machines that fool us into believing that we are living in a real universe instead of a simulation. He creates the universe itself, the real deal. Moreover, he is supposed to do this ex nihilo, which no one says we do."

This atheistic response does not take the argument seriously. We are to imagine a billion years of technological advancement, with the assistance of an AI accelerating discovery even beyond present levels, which are historically outrageous. We can imagine future engineers tapping into the levers of planet-building as in Niven's Ringworld and Dyson spheres. We can imagine more than that even. Moreover, we are already engineering brain prostheses, and theorizing how we might upload our brains into computer systems. It seems possible that some future mental structure—no longer neural, but still mental or soul-like—might create a universe with a thought. We cannot rule this out as absurd.

Cosmic Megastructures - Could We Build a Ringworld?

"Ah," says the atheist, "but you are still imagining creation happening within an already-existent universe. You are not imagining the creation of an entirely new universe ex nihilo. You have never addressed the absurdity of that."


But I notice that the atheist is retrenching to a much weaker position.((At this point, if I wanted to get into the weeds of abstract philosophical theology, I could talk about creation of a contingent, dependent universe ex nihilo by a necessary, independent being, but that would be a distraction, and I want to focus on the argument at hand.)) Initially, my (Humean) argument persuaded me that a universe-creating mind was absurd, yet here I find myself quite able to take seriously the suggestion that future human minds might be able to create universes with a thought. I am not saying that I think such a wild science fiction story probable, only that it seems conceivable just by extrapolating from the technological advancements we have seen so far. The only thing I continue to find puzzling is the idea of creation ex nihilo. And that is not exactly absurd, but only a difficult problem; after all, physicists do not have any clear cause for the original state of things that gave rise to the Big Bang.

But even on that point, though, I have a sobering realization: one of the denizens of a future human-created universe might well look back at the initial state of that universe and wonder how it was created ex nihilo. The builder of that artificial universe might hand down messages that he is the creator of all. The denizens would be in precisely the same situation with regard to their artificial universe as we are with regard to our (hopefully) real universe.

I am not suggesting that we are living in a simulation or an artificial universe. I am only suggesting that if we can cheerfully conceive of such possibilities without shouting "absurd!", then it should be much easier for us to cheerfully conceive of a universe-creating God.

If world-building technology might exist someday, God might exist today. And frankly, this rejection of my earlier Humean argument gives me more reason to re-examine other arguments about God.

If this book discusses natural religion, this blog post must discuss unnatural religion.

On Attitudes Toward Evil

As I have been thinking in recent months both about different religions—but especially Christianity—and about evil in general, it strikes me suddenly that how different worldviews regard evil is deeply important. This is especially important to me now because of the stunning and sickening amounts of evidence that has emerged that many, not just a few, of our supposed "elites" have been involved in one of the very most evil of human activities, the enslavement and rape of children.

Secular Western Society

It has always been my view that evil, properly so called, is a real and horrible thing, though I did not until recently formulate any clear idea about what it was. But I knew my position was not the intellectually fashionable one, looking at most "sophisticated" modern art and culture, as well as the discourse about evil. The fashionable view seems to be that, while activities traditionally regarded as evil might be abhorrent, there is a certain degree of rebel "cool" and authenticity about them—even about destructive crime. Thus, somehow, The Godfather films, about murderous thugs, are regarded as the pinnacle of sophistication. The callousness of a film like Natural Born Killers is ignored while its edginess is celebrated. The music of criminal gangs literally celebrates crime and is regarded as the trendsetter of cool. So, surely, it is sickeningly appropriate that some of our most admired leaders in politics, science, and entertainment would be close partners and friends with Jeffrey Epstein, a child trafficker.

Of course, most of us are, or claim to be, sickened and shocked by such behavior, and if we happen to enjoy entertainment that seems to elevate evil, we say it is just fantasy. Rarely do we ask ourselves why we find depictions of evil so exciting, attractive, and sophisticated. Similarly, we tend to look at entertainment that elevates honesty and goodness as insipid, boring, and vulgar—or perhaps that is just how the entertainment that Hollywood produces turns out. Movie villains are always the interesting, complex characters; heroes are always dull and flat.

But what should we think about evil? If we put the question seriously, secular scientists and scholars assure us that evil does not really exist. Their views, though doubtless presented as the height of sophistication—because only intellectual sophistication could explain why someone might take such a bizarre stance—strike me as themselves merely naive, if not positively corrupt and dishonest. But more on that anon.

I mention the views of modern, secular Western society toward evil, because I want to compare them to some ancient and religious views of evil. I will save the Judeo-Christian tradition for last.

Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, and Manichaeism

These ancient views embrace the notion that there are two different forces at work within the universe (and by extension within human society), one good and benign, and another evil and malevolent. Thus the view is, in general, called dualism (not of mind and body, but of good and evil as cosmic forces). The struggle between these two cosmic principles is at least part of what leads to suffering.

Now, I am not a historian or religious scholar, so I cannot speak on this with any authority, but it seems to me the key motive behind such dualism is not merely to explain the existence of suffering. It is, also, to explain the evil tendencies within us. If there is a noble struggle, it is the struggle to purify one's soul of the evil in which we are enmeshed. But the power, ultimately, is more or less balanced and not all on one side as in Christianity.


Hinduism predates the aforementioned religions, and it has similarly dualistic notions, but instead of there being two opposing (and specifically personified) forces, it is typically said that there are good and evil in all of the Hindu deities and in all of us, although the gods are generally held to be good and there are supposed to be evil demons opposed to them. The admixture of evil, or bad karma (behavior), in human life is why one of the key requirements of dharma (law) was to live unselfishly and to ritually purify ourselves (not unlike in the Old Testament Jewish tradition).


Compared to Hinduism, Buddhism's stance on evil is relatively simple: while it is crucial that we avoid bad karma, as with Hinduism, the truly enlightened view, which we will have if we achieve nirvana, is the elimination of ego and the illusions of the world. As with Hinduism, this is inherently complex and confusing. But the idea seems to be that evil exists and matters for purposes of weighing up your karma, but it does not really exist if you have achieved nirvana. Since nirvana is a higher, more enlightened state, it seems that Buddhists hold that evil does not really, in fact, exist.

For both Hinduism and Buddism, it is because we are inevitably mixed up with evil throughout our lives that we end up being reincarnated instead of being liberated.

The New Age Movement

While the so-called New Age movement is very diverse in outlook and it is hard to generalize accurately, one of the most common strands one finds in it is gnostic dualism—the rejection of an all-good, monotheistic divinity—via "theosophy." But unlike ancient dualists, New Agers believe that good and evil, though they appear to be at odds, do not really exist, because they are subjective creations of the human spirit. In the New Age of Aquarius, such old ideas will pass away as we all attain some sort of enlightenment, possibly to realize that we are all part of a single universal soul or spirit.

There is something seriously wrong about the notion that evil does not exist because it is a mere construct of unenlightened people; that is a positively pernicious idea that only Buddhism avows. Again, this is not my area of study and so I am only guessing, but the notion that evil seems to be so only due to an unenlightened perspective is not apt to be comforting, in the long run, to those who have suffered from monstrous human evil. Indeed, this strikes me as the sort of doctrine that abusive cults might use to blind their followers to the injustice done in the name of "enlightenment."

The Judeo-Christian Tradition and its Difference

While cognate ethical concepts are to be found across all or most religions, the Judeo-Christian tradition truly stands out in one particular: there is, in fact, one thing in the universe that is utterly pure and holy, namely God, and we fall short of God's purity, which is why it is essential that we be redeemed.

While Jews and Christians traditionally believe in demons, who can be one cause of evil, we fallible humans do not need their help. Evil lives in us due to "original sin," which can be understood as the doctrine simply that we, all of us, inevitably do choose to do something sinful before too long. In this this realistic moral assessment of human fallibility, Judaism and Christianity are much the same as most other religions.

Again, where this tradition differs, however, is in the notion that above us there is an utterly good God. This God does indeed desire for us to live humbly, fairly, and compassionately; most religions are concerned for us to do that. But the God of the Bible (in both testaments) in addition says that the only way we can have a chance at a life made holy is not through any sort of "enlightenment" in the next world, not through not by fighting off opposing forces by which we are inevitably contaminated, not by being joined to a world soul, but—while remaining a separate individual in this world—through the redeeming grace of God. That means that God basically forgives your sins, but only if you have subjected your sinful will to his. God is willing to as it were wipe your sins clean if you are sincerely willing to be made an agent of his (pure, all-loving) will.

Now here's the question: Is the notion of "saving grace," as I have quickly and roughly explained it, a difference that might actually matter?

I think so. All of these other religions have human beings mixed in with evil forces which they cannot properly fight; ultimately, in an enlightened state, the evil on Earth is held not to exist, or not to matter. That seems to imply that it is a matter of perspective—as certain New Agers put it most straightforwardly—that there is, in fact, truly evil in the world.

The Judeo-Christian view is that evil certainly does exist and it absolutely does matter. It is not obviated by a shift in perspective according to which we are one with the universe. We remain individuals throughout. We must, quite individually, take responsibility for our evil, period. But with the help of God, i.e., if we (again individually) enter into a certain kind of relationship with God, then our evil is forgiven or redeemed.

Secular Western Society Redux

If you now want to review what I said about the cynical views of secular Western society toward evil, you will find they have more in common with non-Christian religions than with Christianity. Like dualistic views, Hinduism, and New Age philosophies, we live in an inevitably messy world and are thrown upon our own resources, at least in this world. But, again like Buddhism and New Age philosophies, evil does not really exist according to a more enlightened (scientific, scholarly) views.

What do you think? What have I missed?