Why Neutrality

Larry Sanger

I drafted this article for Ballotpedia.org, where it first appeared December 2015. I since published a slightly updated version (not the one below) in Essays on Free Knowledge.



As a teenager, I habitually scanned encyclopedias, newspapers, and textbooks—angrily. I was on the lookout for bias. I had discovered, to my frequent irritation, that writers of authoritative texts would present only one side of a dispute, as if it were uncontroversially true. Honest and important debates were treated as if they didn’t exist. An encyclopedia writer, for example, was supposed to be an objective source imparting facts. Where a dispute existed, the writer was supposed to represent a broad range of opinions fairly, and anything controversial should have been left up to me to decide for myself. Instead, these writers were indoctrinating me, or trying to. What an abuse of a position of authority! How infuriating!

Later in life, given the opportunity to start an encyclopedia, I was a zealot for neutrality. My teenage ire at shamefully biased writers and editors found expression in Nupedia’s neutrality policy, which in turn became Wikipedia’s. I defended these policies at length against criticisms, but I never carefully articulated or defended my views on neutrality in a paper. Finally, I have an opportunity to do so. Ballotpedia has asked me to write this paper as part of their effort to adopt more formal, systematic principles and practices surrounding neutrality.

In this essay, I will defend neutrality as the preferred policy for some types of writing. I will define neutral writing, lay out four arguments in favor of a policy neutral writing, and refute some common criticisms. I will conclude by suggesting that publishers adopt both neutrality guidelines and editorial processes to make sure that the guidelines are followed.

Criticisms are lurking in the background throughout this essay, and let me tip my hat slightly at them before I dive in.

I concede that neutrality is a headache. It is so difficult to achieve that bias is the norm, and it will continue to be the norm unless it is deliberately eradicated.

Neutrality, even if it is a writer’s aim, can be very hard to achieve. Neutral writers have to have mastered their subject and then be extremely careful and fair-minded. Otherwise, they are almost sure to display bias. In my experience, neutrality doesn’t come easily to any of us, but is a discipline that must be practiced. Some of us don’t even seem to have the concept, or rather we confuse it with objectivity or being scientific or describing a middle ground or taking the most mainstream position. Even if we understand the ideal of neutrality—understanding it does make it easier to achieve—and our writing is successfully unbiased, others may misunderstand what we have achieved. Partisans might think we are soft on “the other side” (meaning the one they’re opposed to) or even biased in its favor. Neutral writers might even be accused, perversely, I think, of “false balance.” So, as difficult as it is, a neutrality policy might seem more trouble than it’s worth.

Besides, not everyone is on board with neutrality. Bias (in the sense of tendentious, one-sided communication) has its apologists. Some claim that neutrality is not just difficult but actually impossible. We are each hopelessly biased and we simply cannot keep our biases from coming out, they say. Some go further to claim that neutrality is simply wrong or unreasonable in many cases. Some points of view do not deserve any expression. And where the truth is known, it is wrong to pretend it is not.

I disagree. What if I were to tell you that, if you write biased encyclopedia and newspaper articles, you’re doing a moral wrong, and what you’re doing is on a par with propaganda? Ridiculous, you say? But it’s true, as I’ll argue further down.

What is neutrality?

1. Defining “neutrality”

First, let’s define neutrality.

Here’s the basic idea: if you’re neutral, you don’t take a position. You present all sides fairly and let your reader decide which is correct.

A disputed topic is treated neutrally if each viewpoint about it is not asserted but rather presented (1) as sympathetically as possible, bearing in mind that other, competing views must be represented as well, and (2) with an equitable amount of space being allotted to each, whatever that might be.

On this account, neutrality is a concept dealing specifically with disputed topics, and it has three basic requirements.

First, if an issue that is mentioned in the text is disputed, the text takes no position on the issue. Neutrality is not some midpoint in between competing options. A political moderate’s positions are not “the neutral positions”: they are positions as well. Neutral writing takes no position, left, right, or middle.

Second, there’s the requirement of tone, or the strength of the case made for a viewpoint. Basically, if you’re going to be neutral, you have to represent all the main views about the topic, and you have to represent them all sympathetically, i.e., according to their best, most convincing arguments, evidence, and representatives.

Third, there’s the question of how much space it is fair or equitable to spend in a text on the different sides. Prima facie, it would seem that spending a numerically equal amount of space on both (or all) sides is fair, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Exactly how to apportion limited space is a complex question I’ll address further down.

Basically, to write neutrally is to lay out all sides of any disputed question, without asserting, implying, or insinuating that any one side is correct. If a debated point is mentioned, you represent the state of the debate rather than taking a stand.

As I will explain below, it is probably practically impossible to achieve perfect neutrality, if that were understood to mean neutrality with respect to all cultures and all historical eras. I will also mention the notion of a “good enough” neutrality. One observer noticed that these concessions seem to commit me to the proposition that neutrality comes in gradations or aspects—which is something I happily admit. What I advocate might be described as a strict or professional standard of neutrality.

2. Some principles of neutrality

Here are some general principles that are more or less implied by this definition. I don’t claim that these principles have no exceptions but only that they give a fairly good idea of what neutrality entails.

It is impossible to tell reliably what side of a disputed issue the author of the text is on, if the text is neutral with respect to that issue. The text avoids word quantity, choice, and tone that favors one side over another. Both or all sides agree that their side is fairly represented. Barring that, the text will tend to anger or dissatisfy everyone equally, although for different reasons. Generally, there is a focus on or preference for agreed-upon “facts.” If an opinion is included, it is attributed to a source. The debate is not engaged but rather described and characterized, including information about proportions of people on the different sides, where available. Controversial claims—i.e., claims that a party to a dispute might want to take issue with—are all attributed to specific sources. The author does not personally assert such claims. Biased sources are either eschewed or used in approximately equal numbers on both or all sides throughout a document. A document that uses many biased sources on only one side looks biased itself. When there is a “significant” (this word admittedly glosses over an important problem) ongoing debate and a source implies a definite stand on it in an article that is not about that debate, at the very least there must be some acknowledgment in the text that a disagreement exists. When it makes no sense for articles to be individually neutral, reporting and publications that are neutral with respect to a debate, or a field, will publish in equal amounts on both or all sides of an issue. If a publication favors one side because more papers are received on that side, or because more of the research community embraces that side, that might appear fair and reasonable, but it is not neutral and equally balanced: it will tend to make one side look better than the other.

3. Neutrality distinguished from rationality, scientific writing, and objectivity

Let’s get clear about one thing: neutrality is different from being rational, scientific, or objective. People often use these terms as if they were synonyms. For example, at least one journalist has argued that “ ‘neutral’ journalism can’t die fast enough,” but only by glossing over the distinction between neutrality and objectivity, and his piece simply did not consider the notion of neutrality discussed in this paper.

Rationality means (roughly) following the rules of logic and careful observation and proportioning belief to the amount and quality of the evidence. Being scientific (also roughly) means following the scientific method and, again, not believing a hypothesis unless it has been well established by the canons of science. Objectivity means deciding what to believe (or write) not based on mere feelings or prejudice, but strictly based on substantive considerations of evidence that are supposedly independent of our personal views.

Rationality, scientific method, and objectivity all concern epistemology or methodology, i.e., they are standards of knowledge, or else methods we use to determine our beliefs in an attempt to arrive at knowledge. Neutrality is in a different category altogether: it’s a standard of exposition, of expression. If I write neutrally, I am simply refusing to take a position. As I am neither evaluating or staking out a claim, the rationality, scientific merit, and objectivity of my claim are not at issue. It is true that in writing neutrally, I might help others to be objective. But neutrality is a style of writing, while objectivity is a state of mind. Expression is neutral; people and their mental states are (ideally) objective.

Neutrality and those other qualities are orthogonal. You can have one without the other. In fact, if you have written much in a neutral way, then you’ve probably represented views fairly that you believe to be irrational, unscientific, or subjective. You have simply not taken a position. Similarly, you can write a perfectly rational, scientific, and objective treatment of a topic—which takes one particular position in a hotly-debated dispute.

For example, suppose in a piece of writing, you discuss the measles vaccination controversy. If you’re going to write in accordance with the canons of science (and also rationality and objectivity, no doubt), then in my opinion, you will support the view that children should be vaccinated, period. But if what you write is going to be neutral with respect to current American society, you will have to withhold any such forthright claim. Rather, you’ll report that while a very large majority of doctors and scientists strongly advise vaccination, something like 9% of the population thinks that the measles vaccine is unsafe. You will not take or project any stand one way or another, although, to be fair to the vast majority of the public in favor of measles vaccination, in some kinds of articles you might spend only about 9% of the article on the anti-vaccination position.

4. Does equitable division of space always mean equal space?

You might well disagree with the latter sentence. Even if it is a minority view, why should the anti-vaccination position get only 9% of an article? It does not seem obvious that that’s fair. If we’re trying to help people make up their minds, why isn’t 50% fair and neutral? If neutrality means, ultimately, that the reader cannot guess your position as the writer, then a case can be made for 9%, and a case can be made for 50%.

I suggest that it depends on the type of writing. Consider two examples.

First, news reporting of scientific studies: each time a news service reports a new study on a scientific controversy, neutrality does not require that the journalist give equal space to all competing theories. That would be unreasonable. Neutrality, then, is not an article-level concept but a service-level concept. For example, the news service might have a rule to the effect that major studies supporting competing theories should be covered in proportion to how often they appear in major journals. Perhaps the journalist is obligated to acknowledge briefly that there are one or more competing theories, and if there happens to be a debate or disagreement about the study itself, that debate should be covered neutrally.

Second, articles introducing policy debates: surely we do expect an encyclopedia or debate website article on the vaccination issue to be scrupulously even-handed, and perhaps that really does mean giving approximately equal time to both or all sides. But why? Why should a description of the debate give 50% of the space to the anti-vaccination side if only 9% of the public (and probably less than 1% of doctors and medical researchers) are on that side? Why not give something like 9% to the anti-vaccination side? Wouldn’t that be fair? Why should the minority position be dignified to that extent?

I think the answer stems from the premise that the major purpose of reporting on a controversy is to enable people to come to their own conclusions about it. In that case, devoting more space to one side, even if it is the majority side, would suggest that that side is correct. This in turn would interfere with the mission of supporting readers in deciding the issue for themselves. Scrupulously presenting both or all sides in approximately equal proportions, and with the best available arguments, etc., gives readers no clues as to “the right” answer, requiring them to fall back on their own critical thinking skills. In other words, covering the debate in a strictly even-handed way enables readers to be more rational.

Advocacy journalism, I am well aware, rejects my premise that the purpose of reporting on a controversy is to enable people to come to their own conclusions about it, though. Still, that ought to clarify at least somewhat better what I mean by the third part, on fair apportionment of space, of my definition of “neutrality.” It gets more complicated, as I will explain in sections toward the end of this paper.

5. Traditionally neutral texts

There are at least three categories of text that are traditionally neutral: encyclopedia and reference writing, straight news writing, and basic textbooks. These aren’t always neutral, of course, but they are generally expected to be. Why? Why should they be expected to be neutral when opinion pieces, art, documentaries, scholarly papers and monographs, and various other forms aren’t?

Lower-level textbooks (through the junior high school level, say) are expected to impart facts and avoid controversy in order to give a student a basic foundation of knowledge. If an elementary school textbook is full of opinion, theory, and controversy, it’s less likely to be used, because students are expected to begin their studies with commonly known facts, which are more than enough to learn. At higher levels, a range of opinions and controversial theories may and indeed should be included, but even then, if they are not neutrally presented, the text runs the risk of alienating students and their parents. By making textbooks neutral, we make them satisfactory for everyone in a diverse society. Of course, there are biased texts—especially at the high school and college levels. Thoroughly biased texts, which inculcate only one political or religious view, are used especially by highly ideological teachers and professors, at religious schools, and in home schools; but such texts and teaching generally earn the contempt of many of us because the students who emerge will not be so well prepared for life in a more intellectually diverse society. Besides all that, texts that are biased are more likely to get the facts wrong, as I will argue with respect to journalism.

Not all journalism is or is expected to be neutral, of course. We think of journalism as straight reporting, but it also includes outright opinion pieces, advocacy journalism, and opinion and debate broadcasts. These biased forms have become dominant in 21st century society, especially on cable news shows, opinion websites, blogs, most news magazines, and talk radio. Yet even in our modern, cynical news consumption societies, “straight news” is still a fairly well-understood category and is generally expected to be neutral, even if it comes from Fox News or MSNBC. In a straight news story, the journalist’s opinion is irrelevant and distracting. Partly this is because there is typically a lot of news to report and reader time is quite limited as well. In addition, there are a lot of people—I am one—who simply don’t like any opinion mixed with their straight facts.

But a deeper reason is that ideologues seem to get the facts wrong so often when reporting the news. Reporting the straight facts speedily and readably with a maximum of accuracy and relevance is surprisingly difficult. Seeing the world always through red- or blue-colored lenses makes writing easier, but the hard job of accuracy on a deadline harder: it tends to blind writers to facts that sit poorly with their filters. So we naturally and rightly distrust the factual claims contained in reporting that strikes us as biased (cf. the “backfire effect”).

Finally, the function of encyclopedias and other reference material is to serve as highly relevant compendia of searchable facts. They are expected to be neutral for similar reasons to the foregoing. On the one hand, mixing opinion with straight factual writing wastes our time and distracts us from what we’re using reference materials for: learning the basic facts of what is known and believed about a topic. On the other hand, again, we don’t trust a reference to catalog complex facts reliably if it is also trying to persuade us of a particular point of view. Getting the facts right is hard enough as it is.

So, for the rest of this essay, I’ll refer to “traditionally neutral texts,” meaning encyclopedias, straight news, and textbooks.

By the way, there have been societies in which the news, encyclopedias, and textbooks were, all three, expected to reflect a single point of view, as if none other were possible: totalitarian societies are like that. The old Soviet Union—with its Pravda newspaper serving as the voice of the Communist Party, its Great Soviet Encyclopedia the source of state-approved facts, and its notoriously propaganda-laden textbooks—is perhaps the most famous historical example. Such openly, complacently biased publications strike us in the 21st century West as deeply problematic subversions of their traditional forms, serving as especially pungent illustrations of why totalitarian societies are so problematic.

Four arguments for neutrality

6. Neutrality respects personal autonomy

So, why neutrality?

I have attempted to explain why, traditionally, we expect certain texts to be neutral. Next, I will advance four arguments for neutrality that apply equally to all traditionally neutral texts.

My first argument is the longest and most important, and it’ll take several sections to go through.

Consider some examples of neutrality and objectivity:

  • a science textbook fairly explaining competing theories
  • a detailed encyclopedia article breaking down competing narratives and explanations of the Great Depression, and you can’t tell what side the author is on
  • a scrupulously balanced news article clarifying the latest policy debate, with all sides fully and sympathetically presented

I admire such approaches. Probably, you do too. But why do we?

It’s because neutral writing respects the reader. It shows the author is treating us like adults who wish to make up our minds rationally, using reason, logic, and evidence. If somebody is being conspicuously neutral, it inspires confidence that we are getting the facts, all the relevant facts, with emotion-driven rhetoric left out. We’re being left to decide the matter for ourselves, rationally.

Someone who writes neutrally supports our natural desire to be rational and thus puts us on the road to truth. The choice of belief is left entirely up to us.

Neutrality, I’ll argue, respects our personal autonomy.

Autonomy can be roughly defined as the capacity to govern oneself freely, independently of other influences generally (metaphysical autonomy), of the moral dictates of others (moral autonomy), of law and government control (political autonomy), of religious dictates (religious autonomy), and of the pressure and indoctrination of authorities such as educators (intellectual autonomy).

It is our intellectual autonomy that neutral encyclopedists, journalists, and educators respect. They leave us free to make up our own minds for ourselves. Naturally, we appreciate that—assuming we value our autonomy, as we should and typically do.

Propagandists, by contrast, sometimes insist that neutrality is impossible or wrong, and they use such assertions as an excuse for taking definite, controversial positions in traditionally neutral forms. Hacks try to control their readers. They don’t want to leave them free to make up their own minds. They don’t respect their autonomy. Propagandists aren’t interested in giving readers the tools they need to decide rationally, for themselves; they want to indoctrinate or trick them into believing precisely the way they believe.

7. Independent, rational deliberation respects autonomy

In my mind, autonomy is bound up with two good things: free will and the Enlightenment.

Autonomy is essentially the same as freedom—as in the freedom of the will—and therefore it is deeply important to morality. My view is that to act with free will is simply to act with an unencumbered, mature ability to think our decisions through. Our ability to deliberate rationally on what we ought to do is what gives us our freedom, or autonomy. It is also what gives us our dignity as individuals: it is our own intellects—our independent, reflective minds and our ability to make them up for ourselves in a mature, adult fashion—that command that basic level of respect we call dignity.

Now, our beliefs themselves are frequently out of our direct control. For example, if I am an atheist, I cannot simply up and decide, “Today I’m going to believe in God.” But we can control the inputs of our beliefs. We can control whether our beliefs are informed by facts and reasoning, or instead by emotion and rhetoric. We can control how long and how carefully we think a view through, before we accept it or that we are committed to it.

If we carefully think through the issues, especially if we consider all sides and all the evidence, then we embrace, as genuinely our own, whatever conclusion we come to. That we have reasoned our way to a conclusion means we accepted it freely. By contrast, if we simply find ourselves with an opinion after idly, passively receiving messages from our friends and from mass media, we are less likely to take responsibility for that view. It seems to be less “our own” and easier to reconsider.

If that’s true, then the more independently deliberative we are, over the course of our lives, the freer we are. This is the conclusion that Spinoza came to, famously, in his Ethics (e.g., see this). The more that we guide our beliefs by our own careful reasoning and observation, the more freedom or autonomy we have.

Intellectual autonomy was naturally a key feature of the Enlightenment, and it remains robust and important to this day; we’re still encouraged to think for ourselves far more than we were in the Middle Ages. Immanuel Kant opened his essay, “What is Enlightenment?” with these ringing words: Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage [immaturity]. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) “Have the courage to use your own understanding,” is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.

We like and admire neutral writing because it fosters our personal enlightenment. Bias, by contrast, treats us like immature children—who are in “nonage”—who cannot be trusted to arrive independently at the beliefs some authority wishes us to have.

8. Neutrality fosters autonomy

I say neutrality respects autonomy. It also fosters autonomy. So, how does it, exactly?

Neutrality has at least two features: (1) it involves presenting competing positions, and (2) it presents them sympathetically, according to their strongest arguments. Let’s take these in turn.

(1) If various competing views are presented, then we must naturally fall back on our own resources. Neutral writing removes the crutch of simply accepting the single view that the author informs us of. If we are simply “told the One Truth” about a topic, then we do not engage our own brains or curiosity, and we become dependent on the author and less autonomous or free in how we think about the topic. By contrast, if we are given several options, our natural curiosity and desire to settle upon the truth will impel us to reflect on those different options. That is just what intellectual autonomy requires of us.

(2) Moreover, if the competing views are all presented sympathetically, in their strongest forms, we will be given the best data, evidence, and arguments—the tools needed to make up our minds rationally. Armed with those tools, we will be more likely to deliberate rationally in an attempt to arrive at the truth.

This, again, is exactly what intellectual autonomy requires of us: fully adult, intellectual freedom isn’t simply a matter of choosing a view by whim, emotion, or social pressure, but only after carefully examining and comparing the competing arguments and evidence for ourselves.

Bias, by contrast, frequently encourages us simply to leap to a view based on our prejudices, on emotional and social appeals, without thinking the matter through. Even when one side is presented in great rational detail and the other is not mentioned, the lack of mention itself implies without argument that the view is not worth spending any time on. In any event, we are made dependent on whoever propagates a single view. To the extent that we are subject to emotional manipulation or other kinds of fallacy, we are less autonomous or free in how we think about the topic. In short, bias is a tool of control, especially but not only emotional control.

Bias more generally dulls the brain. In an educational setting, it actually discourages people from forming, and exercising, the habits that constitute intellectual autonomy. In civil society generally, it dulls the practice of individual reason, encourages groupthink, and devalues the coin of rational debate.

To sum up both points and 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.

9. Bias makes us less morally responsible

A case can be made, though I can’t make it here, that there is no more to autonomy than doxastic (belief-related) autonomy. In other words, the only real sort of free will we have stems from our ability to deliberate, to think things through for ourselves. That’s what Spinoza argued in the Ethics, and (after long reflection, of course) I agree with him. But free will is what makes us morally responsible; if we aren’t free when we act, we aren’t responsible for what we do. If that’s true, a surprising consequence follows: bias has a tendency to make us less morally responsible. The more that we are simply told what to think, the less our beliefs are our own, and the less morally responsible we are for our own actions.

Perhaps that just sounds strange. But on reflection, we can see that it is true. Consider the infamous Milgram experiment, in which a browbeating scientist presented his subjects with exactly one option: to deliver what they believed to be (but in fact were not) painful electric shocks to other subjects. There was a doubly shocking bias at work—in favor of continuing the experiment. Think of any number of cults in which the leadership, possessing ultimate religious, moral, and intellectual authority, issues not-to-be-questioned rules and commands, impelling members to do things they would otherwise never dream of doing. The leaders’ injunctions were presented in a thoroughly biased fashion. Reflect on how powerful Nazi and Communist propaganda campaigns made it possible for the hapless citizenry to demonize the “enemies of the state,” dissociate themselves from their own appalling behavior, and act as informants and tools of the state. These are all particularly appalling examples of bias.

If bias can have such horrifying effects on our moral autonomy, then our obligation to strive for neutrality is very strong, indeed. Neutral writing makes us more reflective and therefore more capable of taking moral responsibility for our commitments.

10. Bias as a moral failing

If I am right, neutrality is not just being kind and respectful to readers; it is a positive obligation. When we write neutrally, we help others to be free, and so neutrality is a virtue. Bias, by contrast, is revealed as a moral failing.

Perhaps it should not be surprising that Kant—champion of the Enlightenment—also believed we have a fundamental obligation to respect others’ dignity, their basic, irreducible value as human beings. We should treat others as ends in themselves, Kant famously wrote in his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, not as mere means to our own ends. And what is it that gives us our dignity as human beings? Again, I, like Kant and other philosophers, maintain that it is our autonomy or free will, our ability to deliberate rationally, as adults should, that gives us this basic value, this right to be considered not as a mere means to others’ ends. (Cf. the Second and Third Formulations of the Categorical Imperative.)

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.

This is especially the case when you are writing in a traditionally neutral form, one in which people expect to learn the whole story or debate. Admittedly, if you are writing an opinion piece, it is up to the reader to find alternative points of view; while you should still be fair-minded, it is not necessarily your job to make your opponents’ case for them. But if you are writing in a traditionally neutral form, then your audience expects you to lay out everything relevant. If there is some dispute in the relevant community, and you take sides, you’re putting one over on your audience, for your own purposes. I say—though it might sound like hyperbole—that’s morally wrong.

I mean it. But let me clarify. When I say you’re treating your readers as pawns or as mere means to your ends, I don’t mean that you think that way consciously. Maybe what I’m suggesting never occurred to you. But the fact of the matter is that, if you’re writing in a traditionally neutral form, and if you give your readers just one out of various possible views to consider, or only one is presented sympathetically or with all the most convincing evidence and argument, then you are in fact treating your readers fraudulently: you are falsely portraying a controversial issue as if there were only one view that an uninformed person would want to be fully and fairly informed about. Neutrality respects people as autonomous individuals, capable of hearing all sides and judging the evidence fairly for themselves.

Encyclopedists, journalists, and textbook writers should all take note: neutrality is the best policy for free people.

11. Neutrality as adversarial, bias as inquisitorial

The phraseology “hearing all sides and judging the evidence fairly” suggests an analogy: an encyclopedist acts as a fair and impartial judge, enabling the dueling sides to call their witnesses and present their cases as forcefully as possible. Presented with a full airing of all evidence that both sides deem relevant, the jury will, we hope, arrive at a just verdict.

In an analogy with neutral writing, the judge, who organizes and oversees the proceedings, is the author. The counsel are the partisans on the sides of some issue discussed, the witnesses are experts and eyewitnesses, and the evidence and arguments are precisely analogous in both cases. The jury is the reader; the jury’s verdict, the reader’s judgment of the truth. The analogy, then, is that just as we trust that a fair presentation of both sides will result in a fair verdict in a court case, so also we may trust that a neutral account of a dispute will maximize the reader’s chances of believing something true.

What, then, is the analogy to biased text? I propose that it is the elimination of an adversarial jury trial altogether. In the inquisitorial system, the judge leads the trial, never engages a jury, and determines the verdict from the bench, speaking from authority. And this is essentially what biased texts do: the ultimate judging role of the individual reader is dismissed. How justice plays out depends on the abilities of the judge, but generally, the details of a position are not covered if the judge deems that position implausible. Perhaps justice, or the truth, will be arrived at. However that might be, the judge, or author, decides for us all, thereby infantilizing us and failing to respect our autonomy and dignity as free people.

12. The evil of totalitarian propaganda as takes the badness of bias to an extreme

There is yet another way into the same argument.

We agree that totalitarian propaganda is wrong. We resent totalitarian personality cults and indoctrination in schools and mass media. The Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, is generally thought to have been among the worst of the worst Nazis. There is surely something deeply alarming and oppressive about being expected not only to say certain things but also to believe a certain way, on pain of punishment by the authorities.

We in the liberal West regard these episodes with horror. Their horror is not just a reflection of the horror of mass killing and the threat of concentration camps. There is something soul-killing about the propaganda, the cults, the indoctrination itself.

I think the Goebbelses of the world, the puppetmasters who perpetrate totalitarian propaganda, have tremendous contempt for our right to make up our minds for ourselves. The propagandists do not want us to think for ourselves; they want to do our thinking for us. An independent mind—an enlightened one, in Kant’s sense—threatens the regime.

Totalitarian propaganda seems obviously bad; but why is it?

The answer, my arguments suggest, is that propaganda offends against human dignity because it does not respect our intellectual autonomy. If it is an essential part of human nature to be able to deliberate and reach our own conclusions, if that gives us our freedom, our dignity as human beings, then totalitarian propaganda is a deliberate and systematic attempt to totally deny us our dignity and our full humanity.

But if this is correct, then the error of more ordinary bias—journalistic, encyclopedic, and pedagogical—is no different, except in degree, from the crime of totalitarian propaganda. Nazi propaganda strikes horror in us because, in treating us as mindless drones, its offends against human dignity. If so, shouldn’t we be horrified, albeit to a smaller degree, when a journalist comes out in favor of a certain proposal, repeating only one side’s most persuasive talking points and failing to interview anyone on the other side?

13. Neutrality’s democratic consequences

There is one last variant on the theme of autonomy: it is that neutrality fosters democracy, a system in which power is ultimately vested in individual citizens. The consequences of neutrality are not just epistemological and moral, but also social and political.

Journalists have the franchise like everyone, and naturally they individually favor one party or another. Fully and fairly stating the evidence and arguments of all political parties, not just their own, doubtless harms their own party’s chances in an election. Still, the practice of neutrality is very important, for it has deeper and more important consequences than the temporary victory of this party or that.

I want to maintain that the robust practice of neutrality by the fourth estate strengthens democracy itself. It keeps power more firmly in the hands of independent, individual citizens, and out of the hands of an elite. It does so in remarkably many and diverse ways.

Neutrality requires that political journalists give a fair and colorful account of the drama of policy debates. This practice informs voters, allowing them to make fairer choices. It makes voters more anxious, as they should be, about the necessity of actually being informed when they do vote. It calls attention to and raises interest in substantive policy debate, causing more of such debate to occur. It calls attention to the details of policy and the evidence for and against positions and thus, one hopes, improves everyone’s quality of reasoning. It causes voters to reflect on that substance and not just react to slogans and personalities. It raises expectations that politicians ought to be serious thinkers and not just empty suits. It causes us to take our leaders and our fellow voters more seriously.

Last but certainly not least, it makes the practice of politics more intellectually complex, making us better appreciate the sort of critical, liberal arts education that is necessary to a robust democracy. It gives us an added incentive to mold our young citizens into well-prepared participants at all levels of the process, which can only be to the good of everyone.

All of this is contrary to the ethos of an authoritarian society. Journalists, encyclopedists, and teachers all bear a very heavy responsibility to fight against the authoritarian tendency—by being scrupulously neutral as they report the debate and not just the horse race.

14. The argument from the Golden Rule

My second argument is much simpler: the Golden Rule holds that we should treat others as we want them to treat us. (For philosophers, I might just as well put this in terms of Kant’s First Formulation of the Categorical Imperative, for example. Interestingly, perhaps, my first argument may be cast in terms of Kant’s Second Formulation.)

Suppose you’re writing an encyclopedia article about some topic on which you have a strong opinion, such as politics, religion, or sports, and you have to represent an opinion you think is completely wrong.

Well, the Golden Rule asks, how would you want to be treated in this situation? So let us imagine that someone else is doing writing the encyclopedia article, and you are the reader. The issue is one you are fanatical about—but the writer takes the other side. Perhaps you’d like them to ignore their own opinions and repeat yours. But that isn’t going to happen: they disagree with you. You wouldn’t want to put aside your own opinion and repeat theirs, either. At the very least, you’d like your opinion represented in this encyclopedia article, not ignored. Indeed, you want it explained fully and fairly. In fact, you want the best arguments and the strongest evidence offered. But you’ll grudgingly admit that other opinions have to be given the same treatment, as long as yours is as well.

So the Golden Rule says that that’s how you, too, should lay out opinions you disagree with. As a result, you’ll paint the whole dialectical landscape in its most vibrant colors, and not just one part of it.

In short, when people set themselves up to be authorities, condescendingly telling you The Truth when you might want to disagree, you naturally find it irritating. You want to be treated like an adult, presented with all the best arguments, so you can make up your own mind. So, since that’s how you want to be treated, the Golden Rule would have you treat your readers that way, when you sit down to write a traditionally neutral text.

15. The argument from cooperation

So far, I have given two main arguments for neutrality, which are conceptually related: first from autonomy and second from the Golden Rule. A third, from cooperation, and fourth, from reliability, I can state much more briefly.

Here’s an argument from cooperation.

Wikipedia’s predecessor, Nupedia, originally adopted a neutrality policy, which Wikipedia inherited, partly because neutrality provides a way to defuse potential problems when people collaborate. If people are working together on the same text, the text can’t take a controversial position without potentially alienating some co-writers. Of course, if the collaborators share the same views, this is not a problem. But if the collaboration is, as on Wikipedia, open-ended—if you don’t know who, in the future, will be working on it—then the prudent way to avoid conflict is simply not to let the text take a position on controversial issues. Insisting that shared text in a collaborative project remain neutral provides the basic diplomatic framework that enables such projects to exist without permanent ideological warfare.

But since this argument is relevant only to open wikis and other collaborative works, that’s all I’ll say about that here.

16. The argument from reliability

Let’s consider one last argument, from reliability. The basic claim is simple: neutral writing is truth-conducive. Neutrality makes it more probable that readers will arrive at true and nuanced beliefs. (Compare the following argument to Chapter 2 of J.S. Mill’s On Liberty.)

The conclusion here is that the exercise of rationality is truth-conducive: we are more likely to have true beliefs if we base those beliefs on cogent arguments and solid evidence. Neutral writing supports the exercise of rationality by presenting us with, ideally, a full battery of arguments, with all the relevant evidence on all sides. This better equips us to determine what is true than if we receive only one side ex cathedra.

We’ll be more likely to have true beliefs if, as a matter of policy, we are presented with neutral writing. The more points of view we consider, and the more fairly and sympathetically the arguments for the various competing views are represented (even if they are wrong), the more likely we will be to arrive at true beliefs as a result.

17. A shotgun has a better chance to hit a fuzzy target

Some people might find this to be wrong or puzzling, in cases in which the truth is known. Ideally, they’ll say, of course the best way to ensure that a reader has the truth is to determine in advance what the truth is and then present it and only it in all its glorious detail. Generally, I find nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes; however, it doesn’t go very far, as it assumes the truth to be known and—this being the sticking point—uncontroversial. What if there is significant disagreement about what the truth is, and undecided readers know this?

In such cases, undecided readers have no rational grounds on which to prefer one source over another, everything else being equal; if they wish to follow Kant’s advice, sapere aude, they must make up their own minds. If they see different experts and credible resources saying different things, which are they to believe?

What if there are five different expert views on a question, each having adherence of 20% of the expert population and a similar chance of being right? Suppose an article advocates only one of these, and it turns out to be the wrong one. Then the chance of the article’s readers reaching a true belief, based on this biased account, is 0%. But if we canvass all five views, at least those readers who settle on the correct view will have a true belief.

More generally, if one side is ignored, or made to look very bad, and that side turns out to be correct, readers are discouraged from learning it. That is what my young friends would call a “fail.” And even if the truth happens to be presented with a favorable bias, it won’t be presented in its strongest, most rationally persuasive form if the reader can’t compare it to the other, wrong side.

Suppose instead that I have indeed made up my mind about something and, fortunately, I am correct; still, neutral sources inform me about other, incorrect views. That often helps me to understand and support my own position better.

In short, a neutral presentation at least exposes readers to the truth (if anybody has it) and, by comparing it with false views, enables them to understand it better.

18. A complete map of the dialectical landscape

It’s more complicated than that, though, of course.

Frequently, there are not just two bare claims on some narrow question; instead, there are various competing webs of interdependent claims, which are best weighed at the same time. The claims, taken together, make up what I might call the “dialectical landscape” surrounding a position: all the arguments, facts, details, attacks on the other side, rebuttals to their attacks, history, and context of some core proposition. For example, the dialectical landscape of a typical Democratic Party approach to the Affordable Care Act is very different from that of the Republican Party. Whatever you think of them, both are complex, both involve many subtopics and specialized claims, and they don’t even always address the same questions.

Truly neutral text, then, fully maps out the dialectical landscape on both, or all, sides of an issue, in a way that the sides can recognize as fairly representing their views.

A map of the opposing camps provides an invaluable service to us undecided interlopers. This isn’t just because we have a better chance of deciding rationally whether the core claims are correct, but also because the quality of our understanding is greatly improved the more familiar we are with all parts of the landscape. Even if we finally embrace some false claims, our minds are improved by being exposed to the context of all the claims. After all, in the dialectical landscape surrounding all competing claims are typically many others that are uncontroversial and yet very important to evaluating both sides.

Biased writing, by contrast, tends to be comparatively simple, too often appealing to emotion and employing fallacies and simplistic versions of arguments. Even if a piece fully and fairly canvasses one side, a biased account that mentions the other side makes a caricature of it, often simply to make its own side look more reasonable. Such caricatures propagate falsehoods—they are false portrayals of what the best representatives of the other side actually believe. But the point is that such caricatures actually stand in the way of improving the sophistication of our acceptance of our own side.

Arguments against neutrality

19. Examples of “good enough” neutrality exist

I want to deal with some objections. There are two big ones: (1) neutrality is impossible, and (2) in some cases, it is simply the wrong approach.

When defending neutrality as a policy, I often hear the following. We all have our views; nobody is unbiased. Those views are bound to come out, one way or another, in any exposition of a controversy. We can try to be unbiased, but we will always fail. It’s inevitable.

Yet many of us have had the experience of taking a class from a teacher who presented both sides of controversial questions sympathetically, and at the end, the teacher asks, “So, what do you think my view is?” And nobody could tell. I taught a philosophy of religion course once and at the end of the course asked for a show of hands: “Who thinks I believe in God?” About a third of the class put their hands up. “Who thinks I believe God does not exist?” About the same number of hands went up. “Who thinks I am agnostic?” Again, about the same number of hands. That was a proud moment for me.

Similarly, many of us have—I certainly have—had the experience of reading a news or encyclopedia article covering some debate, and it occurs to us that we cannot tell what view the writer endorses. The article seems admirably even-handed.

Perhaps it is true that one can always, in any text above a certain length, find something to improve as regards neutrality. Neutrality is extremely difficult to achieve—a point I will elaborate toward the end of the paper. But “good enough” neutrality, neutrality robust enough to earn our praise, plainly exists because we have seen many examples of it.

There is a different way into the latter objection. One of the main insights that motivate some people to say that neutrality is impossible is that objectivity is impossible. We all have a point of view, goes the objection, and this makes claims that certain propositions are “objectively true,” or true independently of any observer, very problematic—perhaps indefensible. (This issue is discussed in Thomas Nagel’s well-known book The View from Nowhere.)

I doubt that this is a problem for claims about neutrality, however. As I said above, “objectivity” and “neutrality” are two quite distinct concepts. The first is a quality of beliefs or attitudes; the second is a method of or constraint on exposition. I can be as subjective and “biased” as you like, in my heart of hearts, even as I am crafting a supremely neutral text. Similarly, the claims made in such a text can be neutral, fair, balanced, or untendentious without being objectively or subjectively true or false. The point of neutrality is to be fair to what people actually believe. One can be fair despite taking a side.

20. Chomskyan cynicism

Some people claim that neutrality is impossible basically because they have a cynical view of the world. To them, neutrality is always a front, a show—never sincere. Politics, like life, is nothing but a power struggle, they believe, and any claims to neutrality are instead just a cynical device for smuggling an ideology into a reader’s thought-world under cover of such precious epithets as “fairness,” “objectivity,” or “neutrality.”

Given the abundance of examples of apparently neutral writing, such a cynical stance seems unwarranted and merely puzzling. How can these people justify their cynical attitude in the face of such seemingly obvious examples to the contrary? What are they thinking of? They seem too cynical. Perhaps this is how they think; but it is most assuredly not how everyone thinks.

I find in conversation that the cynics frequently defend their views in terms of Noam Chomsky’s influential book Manufacturing Consent. Chomsky and his followers state that the news media may be given a “propaganda model,” i.e., the news serves merely propagandistic purposes for our corporate masters. They argue that the various “filters” that make up this model put the lie to pretensions of journalistic neutrality. Basically, the news is filtered: some legitimate stories are excluded, and others are distorted by mechanisms of “money and power,” including such things as the size of mass-media firms, advertising, reliance on establishment sources, “flak,” and “anti-communism.”

The most common thing one hears, along these lines, is that the big news media organizations are owned by corporations and thus inevitably biased in favor of corporate interests—for example, ABC is owned by the Walt Disney Company, Comcast owns NBC, and National Amusements is majority shareholder of CBS. If corporate interests are in control of the news media, how could the news fail to be biased in favor of such interests and of capitalism generally?

21. Chomskyan cynicism is unconfirmed and doesn’t establish the thesis

There is no brief way to address Chomsky’s argument head-on, so I won’t try. Instead, I’ll simply discuss this type of argument. The difficulty with it in this context is that it is a hypothesis formed more or less a priori—the news must be “filtered” because it is subject to the mechanisms of money and power—and while the hypothesis might be true (although, frankly, I doubt it), it can be confirmed only empirically.

What would go into confirming the claim? At a minimum, one would have to find some way to identify instances of bias and then confirm that that bias tends to be significantly associated with Chomsky’s “filters” such as corporate interests. The question then devolves from the rarified, abstract air of “systemic bias” to the more humdrum, concrete instances of bias that can be detected in actual reporting. Even if Chomsky and his followers were able to marshal some convincing examples of bias in corporate-sponsored reporting, the fact remains that there are plenty of examples of unbiased reporting. At least, in my opinion, there have been lots of news articles that lack any significant amount of bias.

Even if it is completely correct—and falsifiable—Chomsky’s cynical hypothesis appears to be that there is one source of thoroughgoing bias due to the influence of “filters.” It does not follow that neutrality is in principle impossible. In other words, even if we can identify something like “systemic” bias, or the bias of the whole (unreconstructed capitalist) system, it does not follow that there is bias in every instance of every publication, every article, every paragraph, and every sentence.

Another response is simpler: Chomsky’s criticisms concern only corporate news. What about private, independent media, individual and small bloggers, academic and independent encyclopedias, and various non-corporate textbooks? Even supposing that corporate news is hopelessly and systemically biased, that would not establish that neutrality per se is unachievable.

22. Is neutrality relative?

Next I will address a different sort of argument that neutrality is impossible. Its basic premise is that neutrality is relative.

This is hard to dispute: it seems to follow from the very definition of neutrality. If neutrality is a matter of fairly representing the various opinions on a question, one is right to ask which opinions should be included. We routinely exclude the extreme minority, idiosyncratic, and personal opinions from traditionally neutral texts, and we don’t call them biased for this reason. But we also routinely exclude (or fail to weight) opinions from foreign cultures. And for this reason—I will have to agree—our texts are typically biased in favor of our own cultures.

New York Times article about the American policy debate over gun rights and gun control, which is remarkably even-handed in its treatment of Republican and Democratic approaches, correctly looks extremely biased to a Briton, for whom the very idea of “gun rights” seems ridiculous and horrible. And so it is. The Times article is biased: it carries an American bias. One may also say that an encyclopedia article for the Catholic Encyclopedia might be unbiased with respect to liberation theologians and conservatives, while remaining biased, as one would expect, in favor of Catholicism generally. And the same may be said for textbooks and encyclopedias and so forth: even if they are neutral with respect to a particular community, they are biased in favor of the more distinctive aspects of the community’s outlook.

This is interesting, but it is not very obviously a serious objection to a neutrality policy. It might cause us to review the arguments in favor of the policy. Indeed it seems we are indoctrinated, by our newspapers, encyclopedias, and textbooks, into our community’s basic assumptions. Are we less free for that indoctrination? Cosmopolitan philosophers like Descartes (Discourse on Method, Part 1) and Spinoza (his Ethics again) certainly thought so—to say nothing of contemporary philosophers like Martha Nussbaum and Kwame Anthony Appiah. I think so too. But it is surely too much to ask that writers somehow take account of the enormous range of views from across the whole globe when they write in traditionally neutral forms—or even always to care about those views. Arguably, it is human to be part of a culture, and, globalism notwithstanding, there is really no such thing as a “global monoculture” with respect to which writers should be expected to be neutral. Maybe that will exist someday, but it doesn’t yet.

I suppose a committed multiculturalist or relativist might want to take me to task for this, saying that it would surely be a grand thing that we be exposed to the broadest range of views from across the globe and across all ideologies, religions, and philosophies. (But what about eras? Shouldn’t we canvass historical views as well? We are surely present-biased.) Such a perspective is what one hopes to gain from international travel and a broadening, liberal education. But with the possible exception of remarkable polymaths, probably none of us has such a global perspective that we could make sense of a globally “neutral” newspaper, encyclopedia, or textbook—one that comprehensively takes account of an entirely global range of views.

Wikipedia itself might be thought to be committed to such a completely international neutrality, and in places, its policies have seemed to hold it to that utopian ambition. But of course it cannot be and it is not. The English Wikipedia’s articles about science most clearly betray its Western and especially Anglo-American provenance, and articles about, for example, philosophy are mostly about Western philosophy. I see nothing really wrong with that. There are many pages that report comparative information about conditions all over the world; but I have never seen a page that actually tries to synthesize and compare opinions from around the world, about controversial questions. It might, perhaps, be a worthy goal to create a new version of Wikipedia that is fully committed to being internationally neutral. If it succeeded, it would be the world’s first and only encyclopedia (or traditionally neutral text of any sort) that is fully neutral. I’m not claiming that many people would find it to be very useful. Maybe it would, but I might instead prove to be a curiosity of interest only to a few scholars.

23. Are some positions unworthy of inclusion in a traditionally neutral text?

The last major objection to a neutrality policy that I will consider is perhaps the most potent for many journalists: sometimes, certain points of view simply don’t deserve inclusion in a traditionally neutral text. Surely, some opinions are simply wrong—scientifically disproven, grossly offensive, or just plain idiotic.

Journalists sometimes make this objection. They react with exasperation at accusations of “liberal bias” from conservatives, arguing that sometimes, since one side of a dispute is clearly false, any balance would be “false balance.” The mission of journalism is to uncover the truth, and its first commitment is to accuracy. Accuracy, these journalists say, forbids us to strike a spurious balance between what are in fact two very unequal views.

I think some journalists can use this device as a cover for naked partisan bias: if there is a legitimate debate and an activist journalist refuses to find a “false balance,” that’s a fallacy. Whenever journalists choose a side, on grounds of avoiding “false balance,” they owe us an argument that the disfavored side really does not deserve neutral treatment. What sort of argument would do the trick?

Consider some points of view that mainstream journalists often find unworthy of uncritical coverage: global warming skepticism; creationism, intelligent design, or creation science; the anti-vaccination movement; homeopathic medicine. Those examples are from science, and similarly controversial examples might be drawn from recent events and history: Holocaust denial; “birtherism”; the 9/11 conspiracy theory; the Bilderberger or Jewish banker conspiracy theory.

The popularity of such views combined with the relative silence about them in the media suggests that journalists would find neutral coverage of such topics to be “false balance.” These also suggest at least two different variants of the argument to consider: a moral variant and an epistemological variant.

On the moral variant, the reason we should not fairly represent certain positions is that the positions are morally reprehensible, harmful, and/or dangerous. This is a common German attitude toward Holocaust denial. Moral concerns, therefore, outweigh society’s interest in neutral reporting.

On the epistemological variant, the reason is that the positions are so unscientific or otherwise ill-supported that it simply insults readers’ intelligence for a writer to treat them seriously. This is a common scientific attitude toward homeopathy and global warming skepticism. Here, epistemological concerns outweigh society’s interest in neutral reporting.

In either case, the argument is simple: certain views are either morally or epistemologically bankrupt to an extreme degree. So, the claim goes, traditionally neutral texts are under no obligation to include them. Therefore, since there are exceptions, neutrality is not a universal, absolute principle. It has its place, my journalist friends tell me, but it operates within ethical and epistemological constraints—which they determine, of course.

24. The relevance of morally repugnant views depends on the context

This all seems reasonable. Heroically, I shall proceed to disagree.

Let me begin by conceding that there do seem to be instances of positions that I would want to exclude from an encyclopedia, for example. It it does seem I would want to do so on grounds that they are thoroughly (morally) reprehensible or utterly (epistemologically) ridiculous. Is shoplifting to be represented as a legitimate hobby? Do the attitudes of child molesters or sociopathic killers toward their crimes merit serious discussion? Do we really need to spend any time on Holocaust denial? For some, these seem to be rhetorical questions; but I won’t treat them that way.

In a list of hobbies covered by an encyclopedia, we wouldn’t include shoplifting, even though it serves as a hobby for some people. But there are perspectives in psychology or sociology that consider shoplifting that way. And while a general encyclopedia might not include shoplifting among the hobbies, probably we can justify that exclusion not on grounds that it is immoral or criminal but because it simply is not ordinarily classified among the hobbies.

Similarly, in news reports of crime statistics, crime’s impact on communities, and police and legislative strategies to defeat it, discussion of the attitudes of child molesters and sociopathic killers is an unnecessary and unwelcome intrusion. That is because they are irrelevant to the concerns of news readers. But criminal attitudes are certainly a focus of sociologists and criminal psychologists, who need to understand the motives of criminals; in criminology textbooks, criminal attitudes are crucial to include in chapters about criminal psychology. And sometimes, criminal motives are newsworthy. For example, we all wonder what impels a handful of inner-city blacks to shoot white police officers without provocation—and vice-versa.

Even Holocaust denial is open to the same sort of context-based analysis. There is no need to include Holocaust denial as an “alternative theory” about German history in WWII, for the simple reason that it is an extreme minority position; textbooks are under no obligation to include extreme minority positions. Of course it is repugnant, but its repugnance is not why it is not covered in textbooks. After all, there are circumstances—e.g., the politics of modern Germany, or German sociology—in which the views of Holocaust deniers, and getting the facts about them correctly and even sympathetically stated, might be important.

This discussion should make it plausible that it is not the moral bankruptcy of certain views that would lead us to exclude them from traditionally neutral texts, after all, but just considerations of relevance. It depends on the purpose of the texts. In some sorts of texts, thoroughly reprehensible things are described in stunning detail. In others, they simply aren’t relevant.

25. The same sort of analysis given to teaching creationism in schools

So much for the moral argument. What about the epistemological version? Is such an analysis possible for those cases in which a position seems legitimate to exclude because (on the view of many scientists or scholars) it lacks any sound intellectual basis?

I can’t sidestep the issue when it comes to, for example, creation science or creationism in biology textbooks. I won’t pretend to be able to adjudicate this politically charged issue in a short space, but I will make a few germane remarks and draw some limited, tentative conclusions.

On the one hand, the public and their representatives in Texas certainly have the right to ensure that public school children are exposed to views about what fundamentalist Christians believe about the creation of the world and the origin of species. In the U.S., they do not have the legal right to teach only those views in public schools, because that would run afoul of First Amendment prohibitions of the state establishment of religion. But it seems perfectly unobjectionable that those views, if placed among others, are canvassed in public schools.

On the other hand, scientists have an excellent point when they maintain that creation science is an extreme minority view among scientists. Even scientists with a Christian point of view generally endorse evolutionary theory, as does the Catholic Church. If the purpose of teaching biology is to impart facts and theories that biologists stand behind, then biology classes should do so.

A policy of neutrality would have us determine what the relevant community is. In science class, that would seem to be the scientific community. But science class is taking place in the larger context of enculturation by the school system, and there the relevant community is the general public, not just scientists.

Bearing this in mind, I think adopting a policy of neutrality would entail the following recommendations:

  1. Insofar as biology class is canvassing the views of actual biologists, creation science has no place there; for better or worse, the vast majority of scientists simply do not consider it to be a scientific theory at all, but a theological one. So it is simply incorrect to represent it as one view among many.
  2. Insofar as biology class takes place in the context of a broader schooling context, however, the people of Texas (and other such places) have the right to insist, not that the science be taught a certain way, but that students be informed that a large number of citizens disagree with the science. Little time need be spent in informing them of this disagreement in science class, because the disagreement is not a topic in science but in the broader culture. But the dignity of students and their parents is best respected when their disagreement is officially and respectfully acknowledged.
  3. In the interests of neutrality, in addition to evolution as taught in biology, students should be taught about (neutrally, of course) a variety of religious, philosophical, and scientific views about cosmology, creation stories, and other topics that religion, philosophy, and science all speak on. Such an interdisciplinary class or unit would be the place in which creationism would be canvassed. Needless to say, perhaps, students in that class whose parents do not want a neutral approach to this subject should not be forced to endure it.

This is a compromise solution, and I hope a neutral one as well.

I could give similar treatment to other issues. What I want to maintain is that for all the issues listed earlier, there exist sophisticated, often multi-part neutral solutions. In some cases I might seem to favor one part or another; but taken all together, the result will be fair. Journalists, or the state, will not unduly favor one position over another, affording readers and students the dignity and tools to decide important, controversial issues for themselves.

26. Neutrality and global climate change

A few comments about how to write neutrally about climate change should clarify some more issues.

A majority of climate scientists believe in anthropogenic global warming (AGW); exactly which scientists to include as “experts,” and thus which surveys to consider and what percentage endorse it, is a matter of debate. In any case, while there are some distinguished climate science experts who are skeptics, a decided majority are not.

When explaining the science itself—so, in science textbooks and science research news—understanding the controversy is not the primary aim. Understanding the state of the science is. So, presumably, in that context, most of the issues and most of the evidence will appear to be on the AGW side, not because the writers are biased but because most of the actual science happens to be on that side. In other words, if the mission of the text is to canvass the science, the text will appear biased but it will not really be biased; any bias is to be found in the subject matter itself. Besides, there are many skeptical qualifications and objections that will be worth covering, even if they are dismissed by most experts. One justification of covering them, apart from the requirements of neutrality, is that it helps the mastery of any very complex subject (like climate science) to consider objections and qualifications.

But matters are different in a political context—political journalism, or encyclopedia articles or textbook chapters about the politics of global warming. There, as important as understanding the science is, understanding the controversy is even more important. Coverage of such a controversy cannot be done without apportioning space at least roughly equally.

Climate change scientists and activists have dismissed the idea that journalists ought to report neutrally on climate change skepticism by arguing, “If you’re going to give equal space to climate change skepticism, you should also give equal space to Holocaust denial—which is absurd.” But I hope it’s clear how I would respond to that argument: while among the American population, climate change skepticism appears to be a (large) minority position, Holocaust denial is a tiny fringe phenomenon. In an American context, reporting neutrally about the climate change debate does not entail that reporters must so much as mention Holocaust denial. In certain other countries, however, things might be different.

I realize this section’s discussion is just a lot of hand-waving on my part, and more needs to be said. Beyond this, the issues are to be taken up by the experts themselves (those who really care about neutrality). That, as we will see next, is the point: the specific requirements of neutrality in any particular case can be discovered only by careful study of the details of the case. The devil of bias and the angel of neutrality are in the details.

The difficulty of neutrality and how we might eradicate bias

27. Neutrality is complex and difficult

After this long discussion, I hope it will be abundantly clear that neutrality is not a simple concept. “Why can’t journalists just be more neutral?” readers ask, complaining about “media bias.” But this assumes that neutrality is something simple and straightforward to fix, like a spelling mistake. It might appear simple, if you think of neutrality as no more than giving an equal amount of space to each position and avoiding obviously controversial judgments.

Apportioning space evenly and avoiding words that imply judgment is a good place to begin, especially when you’re reporting about a policy debate. But if your purpose is to construct a narrative about a multi-layered, developing situation, neutrality is instead a matter of relaying, while reporting the basic facts, that there are alternative views, mentioning them in the right places, providing different possible explanations, and so forth.

The failure to understand or acknowledge the complexity of neutrality is widespread, even among writers. That failure in turn leads many writers, even of traditionally neutral texts, to underestimate the challenges and fail to take practical measures to meet them head-on. Writers often fail at this and end up writing biased stuff without realizing it, even when they sincerely believe and intend otherwise. The sheer difficulty of neutrality is at the root of this failure.

When we learn to spot instances of bias and look hard for it, we can see it everywhere. For some, this in turn causes cynicism about the very possibility of neutrality.

28. If bias is the norm, it must be eradicated deliberately

Cynicism is understandable. We should expect bias to be the norm, if it isn’t deliberately eradicated.

That bias is the natural state of affairs became obvious to me after I attempted to herd the many biased cats of Wikipedia and Citizendium, and later compared those experiences to what I learned about how the admirably even-handed ProCon.org operates. (Disclosure: ProCon’s publisher is an investor in a startup of mine; but we got to know each other some years before that due to the very issue of neutrality.) ProCon’s executive team told me they have detailed rules about neutrality as well as a thorough process in which people from a variety of ideological perspectives give brutally honest feedback on the fairness of drafts. The result is remarkably even-handed articles.

Well, if ProCon has to invest so much time and attention to make their pages neutral, what makes the rest of us think we can do it without spending a similar amount of time and attention?

29. How publishers can improve neutrality

Publishers, I propose, need to add two features to combat bias: first, detailed neutrality guidelines, and second, specific procedures for making writing more neutral, including specially assigned people.

We would need a complex set of neutrality guidelines to identify neutrality problems and adjudicate issues. I haven’t included such rules in this document. To a great extent, the rules will resemble a style guide. Wikipedia has an extensive guide, and I have developed a guide for Ballotpedia. Other publishing organizations that claim to be neutral or fair ought to be able to articulate exactly what guidelines they follow in identifying and resolving neutrality problems.

Beyond simply having rules, staff need to follow some procedure to ensure that the publication as a whole, as well as individual articles and their components, are all neutral. Some publishers invest money into copyediting and fact-checking, presumably on grounds that it makes their publications more readable and accurate. Similarly, I propose that publishers of traditionally neutral texts ought to care much more than they apparently do about neutrality, and they might wish to assign editors and writers to handle the most difficult neutrality issues and otherwise implement their neutrality methodology.

ProCon goes further, constantly worrying about the issue and following arduous procedures to achieve it. Ballotpedia, too, has hired two people for a new sort of position that will help with neutrality issues.

30. The discipline of neutrality

Let me elaborate the second point here.

I am proposing that publishers add what would for many be a new layer of oversight: not just vague expressions of commitment to neutrality, but specially assigned neutrality editors, or some other way to more actively and aggressively edit for neutrality, in addition to the traditional disciplines of copyediting and fact-checking.

Ballotpedia recently hired its first writers specifically tasked to work on neutrality. I helped hire them. We had the top candidates evaluate the neutrality of a report Ballotpedia had recently done. I immodestly prided myself on my ability to spot problems with neutrality, and the Ballotpedia piece struck me (on a too-casual reading) as having only a few problems—nothing too bad. But after the candidates got through with it, it was clear that the report had many more neutrality issues than I had noticed. The problems were mostly subtle and perhaps understandable, but the criticisms all made sense. And more to the point, they were all fixable. If the writer of that study had had feedback from a neutrality editor, the piece would have been substantially more neutral and better-written as a result.

Similar instances of surprising, “hidden” bias are rife in most news reporting, textbooks, and encyclopedia articles. If we choose to view neutrality as a discipline similar to good spelling, then the bias of today’s journalism, textbooks, and encyclopedias looks clumsy and backward, like the weird spellings one finds in books published before spelling became standardized.

Professional publishing operations already take the time for the traditional disciplines of copyediting and fact-checking, because publishers and readers value readability and accuracy. For traditionally neutral forms, shouldn’t they also value neutrality just as much? The moral and political arguments in favor of a new discipline are as strong. If you do not take the time to edit for neutrality very explicitly, you will simply fail to be neutral. How could you not? The same can be said of copyediting and fact-checking: if you don’t take the time to edit explicitly for correct mechanics and accuracy, you’ll probably screw up. To err is human. If you try hard and are conscientious, you might do a decent job—maybe. If you want to be sure, hire some professionals and set up a neutrality editing process.

31. No newspaper has ever been neutral

If I am right that bias is rife and yet we have good reason to value neutrality, there is a great latent demand for reporting that is neutral in the sense described here. I know that I would take great interest in any news, encyclopedia, or textbook publisher that credibly announced a claim to neutrality in the sense I have defined.

The emphasis here is on “credibly.” Obviously, claims to being “unbiased” or “objective” have long been a cheap but meaningless selling point for various clearly biased publications. Idle claims to the effect of “we are already neutral, of course” are simply not credible.

After all, the reply is simple: No, you aren’t. No newspaper has ever been neutral. No newspaper has ever even tried properly, as a matter of policy.

Again, this isn’t a complaint about “liberal media bias.” Fox News claims to be “fair and balanced” but of course very few people believe they are. Traditional news broadcasts project a tone of objectivity and generally claim not to be biased. But nobody really believes they’re neutral in the sense defined in this paper. Again, I say this not because I’m accusing them of liberal bias but because neutrality is difficult and simply will not be achieved except deliberately, recognizing the perhaps surprising complexity and difficulty of the job and devoting the effort needed to get it done.

A publisher’s claim to neutrality could be substantiated by (a) publishing a statement of neutrality principles, (b) taking proactive measures to ensure that they are followed, (c) doing studies of reader and external neutrality auditors vouching for success, and finally (d) publishing the results of the audits.

32. There is an unmet latent demand for neutrality

There’s a great latent demand for neutral content, and the demand is unmet.

There will always be a market for biased reporting and opinion. But publishing operations that can credibly state that they embrace neutrality would have an unusual advantage over others. So I speculate that startups in a new “neutrality niche” might do well. There could be newspapers, weeklies, wire services, and more.

I can also imagine startups in reference and textbook publishing that could credibly make similar claims. As an encyclopedia aficionado and former college teacher, I know I’d be extremely interested.

Finally, I can imagine firms offering external audits of the neutrality of publications and research organizations.

Readers can help make this happen, too, simply by making their preference for neutral texts known. You simply need to promote the proposition that publishers should adopt both detailed neutrality guidelines and procedures for ensuring the guidelines are followed.[1]

  1. For discussion and other help, thanks to Kamy Akhavan, Courtney Collins, Angela Consani, Anthony DiPierro, Scott Duryea, Stephen Ewen, Mike Forsythe, Leslie Graves, Sara Key, Greg Lukianoff, Geoff Pallay, Terry Phillips, Jay Rakow, Gerry Sanger, Kristen Smith, Jason Swadley, Anton Sweeney, and Bryan White.

On a Philosopher Defending Pedophilia

Larry Sanger

A series of short videos, all drawn from interviews with philosophy professor Stephen Kershnar of SUNY-Fredonia, has gone viral—because he has the shocking temerity (and I use that phrase totally unironically) to defend pedophilia. This is nothing new, by the way. I’ve been aware of his 2015 book, which I will not link, which defends pedophilia. If his contemptible attempts to change the culture to legalize sex with children will finally be subjected to the Internet’s wrath, I say: excellent.

I do not have time to respond in depth to his philosophical work, and I am not sure it would, in the end, be a very good idea for me to do so. But I thought I would comment on the puerile and shockingly ridiculous things I heard come out of his mouth in the following short clips shared by the @libsoftiktok Twitter account. Here goes, then.

Should a defense of adult-child sex be taboo? Suppose, Kershnar says, an adult man wants to have sex with a 12-year-old girl, and she is a “willing participant.” “It’s not obvious to me that it’s in fact wrong,” Kershnar intones.

My immediate response to this is, “It’s obvious to me that it is in fact wrong. What’s wrong with him?”

Philosophers often put absurd views on the table, saying “It’s not obvious to me that not-p,” and this is regarded as a more or less legitimate move to create some space to argue that p (any philosophical position at all). Others tolerate this move more or less out of respect for the wide-open perspective that philosophy as a discipline requires. If not-p were obvious, then the argument for p could not begin.

There are in fact very few instances in philosophy where you could respond, “It’s obvious to everyone else that that not-p—so what are you talking about, dude? What’s wrong with you?” But the present case strikes me as one; other strongly-held moral principles make other cases. Imagine he had said, “It’s not obvious to me that murdering absolutely innocent people is wrong.” Or, “It’s not obvious to me that raping any woman I want to is wrong.” Or, “It’s not obvious to me that I should not take out a knife and slit your throat.” Would we allow him to proceed?

When he says it’s not obvious to him that engaging in statutory rape of a 12-year-old girl is wrong, he’s declaring the issue to be an “open question,” or in other words, it is not absolutely out of bounds to debate it seriously. And yet it seems to me it is and should remain a closed question. I certainly would never want to take a course from a professor with such views, nor would I want my child taking a course from him, nor would I want to hire him if I were in a position to do so.

This is especially the case because Kershnar goes on to declare that believing sex with 12-year-olds to be wrong is actually “a mistake.” In other words, he’s not just saying it’s not obvious that it’s wrong, he appears to come right right out and say that sex with 12-year-olds is in fact morally permissible (not wrong). Incredible.

Now, this is not to say we could not explain why statutory rape of a 12-year-old is indeed so wrong as to be quite rightly regarded as a taboo (which is what I think). In fact, I have written an essay doing exactly that; it is called “Why Pedophilia Is Evil.” But seriously taking the contrary position strikes me as something that ought to be ruled out of bounds, period.

Anyway, let’s go on.

A question-begging “threshold” argument. Next, he says that we might want to imagine a threshold below which all sex with children is wrong: “I’m making this number up here, let’s say it’s age 8.” What follows? Kershnar says, “Still, that tells you some adult-child sex is permissible.” Really. He says that: watch the video.

Now, obviously Kershnar could be going over some more complex arguments quickly, but the way he puts it here in this clip would be laughable, if it were not seriously outrageous. His argument appears to be:

Suppose

(1) Sex with children age 8 and below is not permissible; sex above that age might be permissible.

It follows logically that

(2) Therefore, sex with some (older) children is permissible.

Yes, this conclusion follows from this premise, but the premise is obviously false. So the argument begs the question.

What is fascinating is not the argument so much as the fact that he actually thinks it is acceptable to make such a terrible argument, and that he continues to hold a position in the SUNY university system.

The wrongness of sex with a baby is not quite obvious to Kershnar. Yes, that is what he says. On what grounds does he motivate remaining open to such an unspeakably evil act? I kid you not, he says:

There are reports in some cultures of grandmothers fellating their baby boys to calm them down when they’re collicky. Now I don’t know if this is true, but this is just, sort of, widely reported as occurring in at least one culture. …and the grandmothers believe the sex works. … If this were to be true, it’s hard to see what would be wrong with it. … I don’t think it’s a blanket wrong at any age.

He says this as if it were a good argument. But it is hard to imagine even a green freshman philosophy student making such a terrible argument.

What this shows about Kershnar is what is interesting to me, as an anthropological point. He seems to think that one can believe what one likes on an issue, even sex with babies, if it is permitted in “at least one culture.” He seems to be trading on multiculturalist, cultural relativist assumptions. Because it is permitted in some culture where grandmothers think fellating babies “works,” and because Kershnar can’t see what is wrong with it, it is (or might be?) permissible.

That he arrives at such a ridiculous conclusion, it seems to me, is a very strong argument against, what philosophers call a reductio ad absurdum of, Kershnar’s ridiculous cultural relativist assumptions.

Kershnar says those wanting to ban “adult-child sex” (i.e., child rape) “bear the burden” to justify such bans. Think molesting children should remain illegal? The burden is on you to justify those laws! Bet you can’t convince Kershnar!

The ridiculous assumptions he seems to be making here are:

(a) There exist no good reasons to ban child rape. (A contemptible assumption. Again, see my essay.)

(b) If no one has produced a careful analysis of such reasons, then child rape should not be outlawed. (One wonders if any analysis could possibly satisfy his twisted, evil principles.)

(c) The vast, strong, long-standing set of taboos against sex with children—regardless of some minor qualifications and some exceptions in some decadent and backward cultures—is not itself a strong prima facie argument against it, meaning the burden rests on the monster who wants to dismantle the taboo. (Of course the taboo is a strong prima facie argument against the practice. Things are and remain taboos for typically good reasons. You don’t get rid of taboos lightly.)

No further comment here seems necessary. His claim about where the burden lies seems just obviously false.

There are evolutionary advantages to adult-child sex. Ugh. This is particularly disgusting. I just can’t.

I’m done. This pair are like movie villains. They’re beyond parody. Chances are, both of them were molested as children themselves.

I think that’s quite enough.

A Good Man

Larry Sanger

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

Larry Sanger

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!

New book: Essays on Free Knowledge

Larry Sanger

Update: Available in paperback on Amazonas an audiobook read by the author

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.

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. 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.

Protected: God Exists

Larry Sanger

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“Being understood by the things that are made”

Larry Sanger

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

Larry Sanger

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.

Conclusion

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

Larry Sanger

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

Larry Sanger

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.