On the Soul

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

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

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

Let me dive into the first question without further ado.

The Sort of Thing the Soul Is

Socrates, probably just after having asked ti esti?

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

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

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

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

Not an accurate depiction of what the soul does.

So far, I seem to have identified 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 experience, 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 (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 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, but 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 (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 a certain 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 a childhood ball game. But just as we can say there is proprioception of the entire body, 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), so also we can introspect various passing thoughts, emotions, imaginary fears bubbling up from the subconscious, all of which are part of yourself. Just as you have a generalized sense of your body quite apart from any specific sensation you feel within it (or about it), 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. Similarly—and 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

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, as a 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 the same; so, clearly, they are not the same. There 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. 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, particularly if we are at all reflective. If the arguments above are correct, we can also know that we can (and often do) introspect a soul—something that is properly called our own soul. 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. The secular scientific mind not only concludes that 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. 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 have not tried to understand why they think we could, but a few seem to think so.

It may be more apt to take any such strange frontiers of physics—which presumably do not make people doubt the existence of physical objects—as a metaphorical illustration of why we should not be terribly disturbed if it should turn out that we still do not know what the soul is, despite knowing more and more about psychology and brain science.

For all his smug scorn, there is 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.

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. Remember that there are many states the mind or soul can be in. Philosophers may say the soul is a "simple" thing, but how it interacts with the world is anything but simple.

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

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 the 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. It turns out that the claustrum is not that far from the pineal gland; Descartes was not far off.

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. Brain science is downstream of introspective psychology and always will be. Discoveries made about brain science, therefore, cannot refute the datum that I am aware of my soul.


A Rationalist Approaches Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

Please add your comments on the essay here, below!


Not all ways of changing the world are good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Why God Might Exist: A Dialogue Concerning Unnatural Religion

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

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

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

The Supposed Absurdity of God

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

Absurd or no?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

...

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

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

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

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

Is the Existence of God Still Absurd?

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

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

Cosmic Megastructures - Could We Build a Ringworld?
Ringworld

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

True.

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

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

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

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

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


On Attitudes Toward Evil

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

Secular Western Society

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

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

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

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

Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, and Manichaeism

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

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

Hinduism

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

Buddhism

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

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

The New Age Movement

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

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

The Judeo-Christian Tradition and its Difference

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secular Western Society Redux

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

What do you think? What have I missed?


Why I Have Not Been a Christian, and Why That Might Change

A Personal History of My Nonbelief

I think I lost the faith I was raised in (Lutheran) when I was 16, a few years after the family stopped going regularly to church. That was when I first started studying philosophy more seriously. To be specific, I stopped being Christian because I stopped believing in God.

A methodological skeptic

I had no particularly special reason to reject belief in God, back then; it was just heaved overboard with virtually all my deepest beliefs when I went through a process of systematic doubt, one not unlike Descartes'. Before I had read Descartes, I decided that it was extremely important that I have the Truth, with a capital T, in all its depth and complexity. So I decided that the only way to arrive at that would be to systematically study philosophy and to begin by ejecting all my beliefs, a stance called methodological skepticism. The belief in God was, of course, one of these, although I think I had already started to doubt a year or two before the philosophy bug bit me.

The reason I desperately wanted the Truth and went through what was an intellectually and even to some extent emotionally wrenching period for some years, in my late teens, is that I had come to understand that the truth about how to live and how to think about the world was actually extremely important. One example I gave myself was some people I knew who had gotten deeply into drugs. I knew (because they told me) that they thought drugs were really cool, that they could expand your consciousness, man. But I watched as several of those people descended into what looked to me like a brain-dead stupor and even crime. It occurred to me that their former beliefs about drugs turned out to be not just false, but quite dangerously false. I then extrapolated from that example to many other life situations. In this way I clued myself in to an idea that I think many adults never do learn—that errors in our thinking that have consequential impact on our lives tend to be systematic and deep. They tend to be about important, broad matters, often aptly described as "philosophical" even if a person knows nothing about philosophy.

Veritas

This is not to say I had no thoughts whatsoever about proving the existence of God. It was obvious enough that belief in the existence of God was, to be sure, one of those extremely consequential beliefs, with systematic, deep impact on our lives—enabling, as it does, an acceptance of various kinds of (theistic) religion and everything that entails. But none of the arguments I encountered seemed adequate. For example, I seem to remember criticizing the cosmological argument, that the universe must have had a beginning and that there must be some explanation of that beginning that was outside of time. Well, doesn't that mean there might have to be some explanation of this entity that exists outside of time? What does it mean, anyway, to exist outside of time? Sounded like potential nonsense, and I did not want to accept anything that I did not quite clearly understand. And perhaps the universe always has existed and that there was indeed a cause of the Big Bang in some unknowable state prior to it.

My formal study of philosophy in college and then grad school (lasting from 1986 until 2000) did not change my skepticism. I remember a student at Ohio State coming up to me around 1995 and asking what my response to the fine-tuning argument was, and I had to concede that I didn't have a response off hand, and that it was certainly among one of the strongest arguments for the existence of God. In fact, I was much struck by this fact, at the time, and it made me wonder if perhaps I was not giving theism short shrift after all. Later on, in 2003-5, I taught philosophy of religion a few times at Ohio State, and learned about the arguments in more depth. I was able to explain the arguments both for and against the existence of God with enough plausibility that the class was evenly divided on the question, at the end of the term, of whether I myself was a believer, an agnostic, or an atheist. I never did tell them that I was an agnostic, in fact.

Might exist

How I Might Become a Christian

It is 2020. Has anything changed? Well, yes. I find myself taking theism in general and Christianity in particular much more seriously these days. I notice, of course, that this runs directly counter to my old methodological skepticism, which has not really changed, in general. So let me explain a few things I now believe about Christianity, and why I might make an exception to my skepticism for it.

The first thing I want to point out is that, now that I am older and more experienced, the dangers of false belief—i.e., the moral hazards to me, personally—do not seem to be nearly as pronounced as they might have been when I was younger and relatively naive. My experience of life means that, even if I do accept something quite incorrect, I am less likely to get involved in something life-ruining at this stage in my life.

Was He a zealot?

Besides, in the case of Christianity, decades of experience have brought no great and deep insights into anything that I would call dangers associated with Christian religious practice. This isn't to say zealotry and radicalism don't exist, which of course they do; it is just that I know that I am very unlikely to get involved with them. This is true of the most sincere believers I know. They are, quite simply, extremely pleasant people to be around, and they are, far from being crazy, some of the most sane and grounded people I know. It is also quite plausible that it is their faith that has grounded them. They take morality seriously, as something they should act on. They understand and live by the notion of Christian humility and charity, the combination of which make them perfectly docile.

Meanwhile, the more I have learned about the psychology and practices of both atheism and left-wing thinking, generally speaking, the more I am forced to admit that no small amount of my own nonbelief might have been rooted in not just general skepticism but also in propaganda. In short, modern Western society, especially in academic and intellectual circles, is deeply hostile to Christianity, so that it simply has not been given a fair shake. I don't just mean that Christians have been made to look like bigoted fools—though indeed they have been so slandered—I mean the best side of the religion has been systematically hidden. It has not been shown to the best advantage.

I'd like to read a few books like this

In practice, this has meant that I have not been exposed to the best versions of the arguments for God and Christianity, I have not really understood the Bible (and also did not grasp that there was something quite interesting to understand), and I have been largely ignorant of the details of Christian apologetics. In a society more sympathetic to Christianity, those possessed of the more compelling arguments for God would receive a more frequent hearing, I would have studied the Bible properly at some point (I am reading it all the way through for the first time now), and I would be more thoroughly familiar with apologetics as its elements would be both commonly studied and "in the air."

I am not ready to call myself a Christian because I am not ready to declare and defend a belief in God. But, privately and publicly, I have been re-examining many of the, to me quite familiar, arguments for the existence of God, and I have come to a new perspective on several of them.

Reflections on Philosophy of Religion

Any one argument for the existence of God is not particularly persuasive, but taken together, they are more so. If you take the various specific conclusions of specific arguments as data, then "A personal God with whom it is possible to have a personal relationship" becomes an explanation of the set of them, and thus the conclusion of an argument to the best explanation (also called an abductive argument). In other words:

  1. Probably, there is something outside of space and time that explains why there is something rather than nothing.
  2. Natural laws and constants seem fine-tuned for the existence of matter and the rise of life.
  3. We have experience only of minds producing such timeless or abstract things as natural laws and constants.
  4. The only explanation we seem to be able to come up with for why there are these natural laws and constants is that they are aimed at, or have a purpose or function of, the origin of the universe and ultimately of the life we see around us.
  5. Any such purpose would seem to be benevolent and to suggest rules for us, insofar as it allows us to live well, if we live in accordance with our nature and circumstances on earth.

I hear he had some arguments for God

Individually, conclusions like 1-5 look relatively weak, but they are, nevertheless, in need of some explanation or response. (Perhaps I could add to this list.) We can respond critically to each of them, indeed, which is what I have been doing for decades. But an idea I never have really taken seriously, until quite recently, is that we can explain them all together by reference to an eternal, non-extended mind-like entity, originating not only the universe but the laws according to which it runs, which entity has purposes and even benevolence toward life. Thus all of the various "arguments for the existence of God," or several of them anyway, become so much data, or explananda, for a single overarching argument to the best explanation, the explanans being the ordinary notion of a personal God.

I'm not sure precisely what to make of this argument—not that I haven't had thoughts about that. I might elaborate those thoughts later.

Said he believed anyway, go figure

Anyway, to get from there to Christianity, it is necessary to move well beyond what philosophers call "natural religion," i.e., conclusions you can arrive at without any "revealed religion." Why should the God of the Bible (called variously Yahweh/Jehovah, the LORD, and Jesus) be identified with the entity posited as an explanation of 1-5? I'm working on an answer to that as well. It's not simple.

For one thing, it requires that one grapple with the idea of the soul or spirit, of a mental entity independent of any body. While I have always thought it to be beyond doubt that there are mental experiences and hence minds in some sense, the notion of a mind independent of any body (so, a soul) has always seemed puzzling to me. Frankly, one of the stronger arguments for souls is near-death experiences, a reported phenomenon I have never been able to rule out.

But this would mean I would have to re-evaluate the physicalism I have long adhered to, when it comes to philosophy of mind. I have thought that the mind is a property of the body, and the thing that makes it seem to be so completely different from anything material is quite the same as what makes the problem of universals so puzzling: what are properties, anyway? I'm not quite sure I can see my way clear to abandoning that rather elegant solution. But I can admit that, even if (as Hume emphasizes) I cannot introspect a self independent of any passing thoughts or feelings, I do seem to have a sense of a self. I always thought of that as being my body (so that my thoughts are properties occurring to me, a body). But I suppose now that there is something rather absurd about that suggestion. I mean, look, when I say that I'm happy or sad, thoughtful or confused, virtuous or weak, am I referring to my body (such as my brain)? Surely what I mean—and this is an important point, since the whole argument turns on what I am introspecting—is something quite different from my body. Which part of my body is happy? My mouth, which smiles? No. My head? Don't be silly. My entire body without any differentiation? That does not make sense. My brain? That seems more plausible, but I'm not thinking about my brain, surely, when I say I am happy. No, it's my self I mean, which is something I have a definite sense of and which is different both from my body and from any particular idea or feeling I have.

Well, it's possible.

This probably doesn't quite entail that I have a soul, much less that I have an immortal soul. Anyway, I'll leave that there for now.

In any case, if I am going to take all of these things seriously, and consider embracing a belief in God, let alone in Christianity, then I admit that I would have to abandon my methodological skepticism. And I am not really sure I want to do that, as it seems to me it has served me well.


On the "God of the Gaps"

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo

If God exists, he knows all the physical explanations of all the phenomena. From his point of view, there is no "God of the gaps."

Hence our inability to explain something about the world is no reason to infer that God makes human-style arbitrary choices. In other words, for example, God's mechanism for creating life would be evolution, of course. Where there are inexplicable-seeming leaps, surely God would know of the explanation. But our ignorance is no argument for theism in itself, of course, any more than any scientific fillings-in of erstwhile gaps in our knowledge is an argument for atheism or scientific materialism.

Even if we had a perfect scientific explanation of everything from the Big Bang, to the universal constants, to the origin of life, to every last evolutionary gap, one might still feel impelled to the conclusion that the explanations themselves seem to be guided by purposes. It is not the random-seeming things in the universe that might reveal divinity, but the awe-inspiringly ordered and comprehensible things.

It is not the random-seeming things in the universe that might reveal divinity, but the awe-inspiringly ordered and comprehensible things.

If we could not state what these purposes were, then this would seem to be mere superstition. But scientists become theists because God's purposes seem clear: the universal constants permit the existence of spacetime and the coalescence of matter, and in particular stars and planets; certain unlikely chemical facts (we don't understand them all) are absolutely necessary in order for life to exist; certain incredible evolutionary leaps seem designed to lead life on earth ever onward to greater awareness and knowledge, culminating in man.

It is not the gaps in explanation that would lead one to infer God from the cosmos, if one were inclined to make that inference. It is the fact that the insanely particular natural laws and constants we have discovered indeed have resulted in such a splendid cosmos.

It seems indeed so splendid that the specific laws and constants that explain it all appear to reveal a mind with purposes. That, surely, is the thought that has driven so many people to accept the design argument—not that divine intervention is necessary to fill in the current gaps in our explanations.

The Ancient of Days by William Blake


On the Burning of an LGBTQ Flag

Last summer, Adolfo Martinez, 30, of Ames, Iowa, stole the LGBTQ pride flag hung above the entrance to the Ames United Church of Christ, and burned it in front of the nearby Dangerous Curves Gentleman's Club. He pled guilty to the crime—for which he was sentenced to 16 years in the state penitentiary.

This surprising sentence will be infamously controversial. Of course, stealing and destroying property is very wrong. But when the property is a flag, 16 years in prison is ridiculously and obviously excessive.

The Facts and Disposition of the Case

Adolfo Martinez

By his own admission, as you can see in a video, Martinez tore down the flag from the church, took it in front of a local dive, and burned it. That was the whole extent of the crime.

Aggravating circumstances made it worse than just that. Martinez is not a pleasant character, to hear Cmdr. Jason Tuttle of the Ames Police tell it. Martinez was a "regular patron" of the bar—where he had been kicked out, after causing a disturbance—in front of which he burned the flag:

He came back [to the bar] at some point and told the bar, the people in the bar, that he was going to burn the place [presumably, the church, not the bar] down, and at that point made a reference to burning "their flag."

The case files((To access the case files, click here, then input (exactly) "Martinez" for "Last/Firm Name", "Adolfo" (with an "f") for "First Name", set County to Story.)) indicate that the charges against Martinez were: arson in the third degree (by itself, in Iowa, an aggravated misdemeanor), considered by the court a hate crime; harassment in the third degree (a simple misdemeanor); and reckless use of fire.

Martinez represented himself. Clearly, that was a bad idea.

Judge Steve Van Marel

Story County Attorney Jessica Reynolds said Judge Steve Van Marel "agreed to the 17-year sentence because Martinez has a long history of harassment and is a habitual offender and never showed any remorse." Maybe he has a long history of serious crime elsewhere, but not in Iowa. According to Iowa court records, the worst he has done in the last four years in Iowa is one count of drunk driving.

Reynolds, the prosecuting attorney, also claimed, "The defendant stated that there was nothing the judge could [do] to stop him from continuing this behavior and that he would continue to do this no matter what."

Not Actually a Nice Guy, But...

Martinez is shamelessly outspoken against the pieties of the Ames United Church of Christ. "It was an honor to [burn the LGBTQ flag]. It was a blessing from the Lord," Martinez declared to a KCCI reporter on camera. My view is that this sentence is an official state repudiation of that religious view, and so it violates Martinez' First Amendment freedoms of speech and religion.

Ames United Church of Christ

"But given the threatening things he has said, why think so?" you might ask. "Surely it's not so clear-cut." That is true. Let me spend some time explaining why it is not, in fact, quite as clear cut as it might appear at first.

Martinez stole and burned a symbolic piece of cloth. He was clearly making a statement that was doubtless obnoxious to everyone in the courtroom. The statement itself is not the crime, but stealing and burning someone else's property is. He was charged with arson, but of course it was only misdemeanor arson since the burned property was just a flag. Still, his crime was aggravated since it was a hate crime, and as the law is written, this label seems credible.

It is credible, in fairness, maybe not just because of the flag burning but especially because of what he said after the flag burning. See Iowa Code sect. 729A.2: “...committed against a person’s...property because of the person’s...sexual orientation...” He did say some pretty threatening things about the church. Not only did he reportedly (though this is hearsay) threaten to burn the church down, he said on camera: "It is a judgment and is written, to execute vengeance on a heathen and punishments upon the people." You can easily imagine how ominous such Biblical-sounding language would sound to the worshipers at the Ames United Church of Christ.

Not a popular Bible verse at the Ames United Church of Christ

So if we are going to be quite fair, we must admit that Martinez's own statements make it clear that he lacked remorse, and he no doubt continues to believe that the church—and its LGBTQ community—deserved what he gave them. Moreover, if you can credit the prosecutor (I would need to see a direct quote), Martinez threatened to do the crime again.

But let us look even more closely.

The Sentence Represents a Violation of Martinez's Free Speech

Martinez was not prosecuted or convicted for a barroom threat or invocations of divine justice. That was not his crime. Presumably, if he were imprisoned for a while, that might make him think twice about carrying out any such threats; prevention is a prime purpose of punishment, after all. But it is decidedly not a principle of Anglo-American jurisprudence that criminals should be punished in order to prevent them from committing crimes they have not committed, even if they have threatened to do so. Yet if we take the prosecutor, Reynolds, at her word, that seems to be what she and the judge did.

This is, however, not even why Martinez was punished. It is a fig leaf covering a shameful sentence. Let us concede that Martinez stole and burned a flag, was a reckless and drunk driver who smoked pot, issued barroom arson threats, and was wholly unrepentant—and he even implied that he might do it again.

Even if all that is the case, does it deserve 16 years? Of course not. If he were to do the same crime two or three more times, surely he still wouldn't deserve 16 years, regardless of any sentencing guidelines. In this case, the maximum sentence for third degree arson as a hate crime was five years. Martinez was given 16 years in total just because he had priors. But what was his worst prior in Iowa? Drunk driving. Did you know that the average sentence for rape was about 12 years (in 2006)? So this man, who burned a flag—a gay pride flag—had a more severe sentence than most rapists receive.

Clearly, the real explanation for Martinez's excessive sentence must be that he expressed something deeply offensive and hateful to the LGBTQ community, period.

Protected free speech, say the Supremes. Only if it is your flag?

Moreover, and importantly, the defendant's right to free expression by the burning of a flag, upheld by the Supreme Court in Texas v. Johnson, seems not to have been considered in sentencing. After all, national origin is a protected class. But if someone were to steal and burn an American flag, making imprecations and calling for divine vengeance against (say) the outrageously immoral American way of life, would that be a hate crime? Of course not.

Martinez was certainly expressing his religious point of view by burning the flag. He is not free to burn other people's things; I do not deny that, of course. But neither was the judge free to pretend that the presence of a "hate crime" made it possible to punish the content of Martinez's speech, and to ignore his freedoms of speech and religion.

Stealing the flag and burning it are punishable misdemeanors, certainly. We can even concede that they should be punished harshly, because Martinez expressed no remorse and made threatening statements. But none of that removes the fact that expressing a religious statement by burning somebody else's flag is protected free speech. The question is not whether you have a right to burn someone’s property to express your opinion. You absolutely do not. The question is whether the court has the right to mete out more severe punishments for offensive opinions. It absolutely does not, and yet that is precisely what happened in this case. Just because Martinez committed a misdemeanor, it does not follow that the court can regulate the content of Martinez's speech by sentencing him more harshly for what he had to say.

When hate crime legislation was first introduced, I remember being disturbed and worried about the implications for free speech. This case perfectly illustrates that worry. What can we expect next? Doubtless, certain speech being outlawed on grounds of being the hate crime of harassment directed at a protected class.

Punishing the misdemeanor of third degree arson (flag burning) more severely than a serious felony, like rape, means the court had essentially treated a minor hate crime as hate speech—which, no matter how obnoxious it might have been to the court, is protected by the First Amendment.

Again, it was obnoxious, wrong, and deserving of punishment to steal and destroy the church's flag. A fine was certainly warranted, and perhaps a bit of jail time. But 16 years for this misdemeanor is such an outrageously imbalanced response that the sentence itself should be made an example of.

- fin -


Why Pedophilia Is Evil

However it is defined, pedophilia is wrong; but beyond that, it is evil. In a deeply disturbing trend in the last few decades, pedophilia apologists have tried to soft-pedal the condemnation of this horrible crime and criminal ideation. They are very wrong. Here is why.

Prefatory notes, July 13, 2019—I wrote the first draft of the following essay about the horror of pedophilia in late 2016 or early 2017 and posted it on Medium and Quora, where it got quite a bit of attention. Since I deleted my accounts on those sites last winter, this essay (and a number of others) have been unavailable. But I want this and a number of other essays to keep circulating, so I will be posting them here on my blog. The following essay in particular seems important in light of the Jeffery Epstein imbroglio.

But it was not the Epstein case, or any particular case, that originally led me to write about pedophilia. It was, rather, a long-standing interest in applied ethics in general, together with the (to me) jaw-droppingly incredible fact that people defend pedophiles. (As was the case with philosopher G.E. Moore, a lot of my philosophical writing is basically in reaction to absurd positions that other people take.) When I first encountered this rhetorical phenomenon in 2002—that was when pedophiles first descended upon Wikipedia—I simply could not believe it. My naive incredulity disappeared through repeated encounters with pedophiles in connection with Wikipedia. In fact, I came to believe I had an obligation to do at least a little something about it, which is why I reported Wikimedia Commons' pedophilia pages to the FBI in 2010 (which took no action that I know of).

All that said, this is no more a pet cause than any others in applied ethics. I have also written about the evils of murder, racism, antivitism (a neologism of mine), censorship, violations of privacy, and other topics in applied ethics. I especially like my essay on "Our Moral Abyss."

I have rewritten the essay slightly, and follow it with some replies that I made to comments by real, live pedophiles (they are online and quite shameless, in fact) that I hope will clarify my arguments.

Updated again December 6, 2019.


The word “pedophilia” has two senses. I want defend the thesis that pedophilia in both senses is not just “bad” but deeply evil. This is not a thesis about either psychology or the law, but instead about morality.

Everyone seems to agree that the word can mean (a) sexual attraction to prepubescent children (or, sometimes, any children below the age of consent). This is the clinical definition. But we often more colloquially use the word to mean (b) actual sex with children, i.e., what is more correctly described as child sexual abuse or (these mean the same) child rape.((Pedophiles sometimes quibble, absurdly, that only sense (a), only the attraction to children, counts as pedophilia; but we hardly need consider the bizarre case in which an adult has sex with a child without feeling sexual attraction to the child. It is reasonable to assume that if sense (b) applies, so does sense (a).))

It is distressing how poorly the evil of pedophilia seems to be understood. When I first sat down to write this essay, I was shocked at how little was available online explaining why it is evil. So I wish to make this quite clear, beginning with (b) actual sex with children. The evil of the act is easier to explain, and the evil of the criminal ideation ultimately depends on the evil of the act.


The moral horror of child rape

The rape of children((I.e., any sex between adults and children. Since, as we will see below, children cannot consent, all such sex constitutes rape.)) is a horrific evil because it traumatizes the child for life. In this regard, it may be compared to torture and rape of adults; even after the act is over, it continues to wound. It fills the child with undeserved shame and low self-esteem for life. For some adult survivors, this pain becomes so unbearable that they take their own lives. It can permanently alter—pervert—the child’s understanding of sex. Some suffer, and that is the right word, from hypersexuality (sometimes called "nymphomania"), and some become completely closed off to all sexual relationships. Horrifyingly, it also makes victims more likely to become abusers when they grow up—perpetuating what has been called a "cycle of abuse."

Child sexual abuse is an act so damaging and degrading, and at the same time shockingly selfish, that it deserves to be called evil, if anything is evil: for some moments of pleasure, the adult causes the child life-long trauma.

So the immediate moral horror, the physical shock, and the pain of the act itself often give way to a lifetime of psychological suffering and dysfunction. The act of child sexual abuse is horrifyingly harmful. It is an act so damaging and degrading, and at the same time shockingly selfish, that it deserves to be called evil, if anything is evil: for some moments of pleasure, the adult causes the child life-long trauma.((As I put it in my essay on this blog, "A Theory of Evil," "Evil is contempt for the humanity, the human life, of others." Child rape is not merely cruel, it evinces contempt for the very humanity of children. Therefore it is a textbook example of evil by my definition.))

I want to assert very clearly and forcefully that anyone who presumes to evaluate the morality of child sexual abuse without discussing the horrible facts about these consequences is, by that omission, perpetuating the evil. The proper moral evaluation of child rape absolutely requires confronting its appalling consequences. That is why we must condemn those pedophile advocates who want to speak only about positive experiences with children—as if such were really possible—and who do not discuss the more typical and probable trauma the act causes. Even if the probability of trauma were relatively slight, the severity of the harm can be so extreme that the act is simply not justifiable.

Indeed, one of the most shocking indications of just how extreme the trauma caused to children by rape is the fact that it can result in dissociative identity disorder (once known as "multiple personality disorder").

Every discussion of the subject should make unequivocally clear that sex with underaged children is a horrific evil and is intolerable. Unfortunately, ignorance has meant that pedophilia is not understood widely enough to be the terrible evil that it is. But, however defined, shameless advocates of pedophilia really do exist and can be found all over the Internet, as I will explain below. So, for the sake of those who might be at all confused on this point, it is incumbent on the rest of us make it quite clear.

Another shockingly incorrect stance on this topic is that sex with prepubescent children is wrong only when the child “does not consent.” We may reply that legally, children cannot consent, of course. Sex with prepubescent children is always rape. This is for good reason: children are not capable of consenting, because they do not understand the nature of the sex act or its consequences. But I think a stronger reply is this: the trauma described above will happen whether or not “consent” seems to be given by the child. Anyone using such phrases as “if the child consents” is using the language of pedophilia apology and is very highly suspect. It is, after all, the design of many confirmed, repeat pedophiles to groom children to win their "consent." No one ought to credit what a child says in such a sickening situation; blame falls every bit as much with the raping adult as in the case in which if a child says "no" and resists.

There are other reasons why sex with children is wrong. Children can be physically injured by sex—there are cases in which small children died of injuries sustained from abuse. It can result in pregnancy among pubescent girls as young as 11 or 12. STDs can be contracted by both boys and girls, which only compounds the horror. Child rape is one of the most egregious violations of the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit. It deeply damages families and family life. And of course it is against the law, and age of consent laws exist for very good reasons, as I hope I have explained.

But it gets worse. There is a dimension of the evil of child rape that bears special mention: as with young women, children can be and are enslaved and sold for sex throughout the world. It is estimated that perhaps hundreds of thousands of children—many young teens—are sold into sexual slavery, incorrectly described as "prostitution," every year in the U.S., and two million globally.

Child sex trafficking pedophiles: the wealthy Jeffrey Epstein and the famous Jimmy Savile.

The normalization of pedophilia, therefore, supports not only individual instances of child rape, but an entire $99 billion-per-year sex trafficking industry in the U.S. alone; compare the movie industry, which earned $43 billion in 2017. We are battling not just an individual crime, but organized crime. When we consider that men and women seek enslaved children to buy and sell for sex compounds what is already an unthinkable horror.

It gets even worse. There are multiple instances of child sex trafficking rings not just among the lower classes, but among the richest and most powerful eschelons as well. One needs only to investigate the cases of Jeffrey Epstein, Jimmy Savile, the NXIVM cult, the DEN pedophile ring, and many more.

When I first drafted this essay, I thought pedophilia was mainly a criminal and moral issue. But I now understand it to be one of the most pressing civic issues of our age. It is crucial that we make no excuses for pedophilia. We must come to understand it for the horrific evil that it is.

One sometimes hears that the word "pedophilia" applies only to desire for sex with pre-pubescent children, and that sex with older children is better called "hebephilia" and "ephebophilia" depending on the age. One can draw this distinction, but narrowing the scope of the term has little moral import. That is precisely why the word "pedophilia" continues to be popularly used as a general term. It applies to the crime of sex with the too-young in general. Let us be quite clear. The moral horror can attach just as much—or nearly as much, anyway—to sex with teens as with small children. One ex-offender confessed, in response to this blog, to the profound damage that he had done to the life of a 16-year-old girl. Plenty of women bravely revealed the great harm done to them, when they were teen girls, by Jeffrey Epstein and his elite cadre of rapists. The suggestion that what happened to them is not bad enough to be tarred with the brush of "pedophilia" is beneath contempt.

Illustration by Winsor McCay: let us agree that sex trafficking is "the shame of civilization."


An evil mental disorder

Some writers demand that everyone use the words “pedophilia” and “pedophile” according to senses defined by psychiatrists. But, just as we may opt not to extend our everyday use of “fruit” to tomatoes, even though biologists tell us they are fruit, so we may opt to continue to use these words in their popular senses.

As a philosopher, i.e., someone trained in the definition of concepts and argumentation over how to apply words, I want to advise the opposite: you may and should continue to use these words as you always have, at least in most contexts. A pedophile, in this popular sense, is someone who sexually abuses children, or who tries to do so, or who wants to. To be clear, I am not saying that these ought to be the scientific or clinical uses of the terms. I am saying that the everyday use, which I am discussing here and which is catalogued in many dictionary definitions, need not mirror the clinical use.

The medicalization of a condition clearly does not preclude its moral evaluation, and the broader category is morally relevant, which is why it stays in currency.

But now let us discuss the clinical sense: the desire to have sex with children. This, too, is a moral evil.

Some will bristle at the mere claim that this "clinical condition" is evil. They act as if the fact that psychologists write about, and treat, pedophilia means that, since pedophilia is just a medical condition, it is off-limits for moral evaluation. This argument is so obviously fallacious that it actually serves better as a reductio of the premise; in other words, the medicalization of a condition clearly does not preclude its moral evaluation. Just because psychiatrists, who do whatever is necessary to eliminate a condition, adopt what sounds like a nonjudgmental stance, it hardly follows that we need do so as well.

After all, consider what we are talking about here: desiring and fantasizing about sex with children, also called child rape. The word for such thoughts is criminal ideation, as psychiatrists often speak of homicidal ideation.

Others will say that mere desires obviously cannot be morally evaluated. Among the people who write about this subject, it is a less popular stance to say the desire and not just the act is evil. But in fact most of us are perfectly willing to place the label "evil" on it. No polls are available, but doubtless a large majority would find pedophilic ideation to be "evil."

I do not, of course, present this as an argument for the claim that desire for sex with children is evil. But it does put into a sobering context the practice of some—which is frankly bizarre and disturbing—to treat pedophilia as merely a psychiatric disorder, as if it were not a very deeply serious problem for other people as well. Let us grant that pedophilia, in the sense of desire for sex with children, is indeed a psychiatric disorder; indeed, there seems nothing well-ordered about it. But most of us simply could not care in the slightest that it is a psychiatric disorder, i.e., we do not care that there is something wrong with the brains of pedophiles, except insofar as such people pose a threat to our children. Pedophilia as a disorder per se rightly strikes us as a threat, and such a monstrous threat that it is evil.

So, yes, well spotted, pedophilia is a disorder. But that is not incompatible with our condemning it as something quite evil, and not just a clinical condition like, say, high blood pressure. I do so condemn it, and so should we all.

Why are we talking about sympathy, again?

I do not mean to say I have absolutely no sympathy whatsoever for the psychological condition of a person who wakes up one day finding himself wanting to violate little boys and girls. It is, rather, that I prioritize the health of families and communities far above whatever pain an illicit desire might cause such a person. In fact, the priority of the former is so much greater that I can say that the only significant reason that most of us need care about the mental health of a pedophile is that, through caring, we might perhaps prevent child sexual abuse. There is no other important reason. It might well turn out in some cases that strong moral condemnation, rather than sympathy, would motivate pedophiles to rid themselves of their desire more effectively.

We may draw an analogy with people who want very badly to rape women. They fantasize about it, they watch rape porn, they might have come close at times. Some have actually done it, although others have never done it. Call such a person a rapeophile. That is a label we might place an extreme form of a DSM-5 category, sexual sadism disorder. Now, if pedophilia is a mental disorder, I think it is safe to say that rapeophilia is one too. To be sure, being a rapeophile might cause a person great mental anguish; it certainly should. But in this situation, whom do I care more about: the rapeophile, or women who might possibly be in danger from the rapeophile? Obviously, the latter — even if the rapeophile has never acted on his desires. And rapeophilia constitutes criminal ideation, of course: would we not, in an age in which the Establishment fights against "rape culture," deem it to be profoundly evil?

Do we care about the violation of innocent children less than we care about the violation of grown women? Surely not.


How can pedophilia be evil if is beyond a person’s control?

But, some critics will say smugly, you are missing an obvious objection: how can pedophilia be evil if is beyond a person’s control? The short answer is that it is not entirely beyond a person’s control. But first I want to back up a bit.

As a philosophy instructor for many years, I taught undergraduates the common maxim that "ought implies can": if you ought to do something, you should be able to do it. That in turn means that one cannot be responsible if one has no ability to do something, if one lacks freedom; if we ought to do something then it must be the case that we are free to do it. How can we be obligated to do something that is not in our power?

When psychiatrists inform us that pedophilia is a mental disorder and when certain (I think quite contemptible) activists insist that pedophiles cannot control their desires, these claims are sometimes used draw the definitely false conclusion that pedophilia, in the psychiatric sense, is not bad.

So I deny the premise. I claim that pedophilia, or the desire to have sex with children, can be controlled.

Another mental disorder

Alcoholism too is a mental disorder and it can be controlled, albeit with great difficulty. That is why I maintain that alcoholism can be quite morally bad, in the following sense. (By the way, many recovering alcoholics agree wholeheartedly with me on this.) All acknowledge that alcoholism is an addiction, and I can concede that it exhibits features of a disease. But this does not absolve anyone caught in the grip of this addiction of any moral obligations. Few would object to the good advice that we should not allow ourselves to sink into that awful swamp in the first place, before the addiction gets that bad. Indeed, we bear a huge obligation to ourselves to avoid it, especially if others in our family were alcoholics. Even if we cannot easily stop ourselves from drinking once we are addicted, we can stop ourselves from overindulging if we are not addicted.

Desires and compulsions are not unalterable facts of nature. This is a profound feature of our lives as moral beings with free will.

Admittedly, once we are addicted, it becomes more understandable if we do not suddenly and heroically de-addict ourselves. Still, even then we bear a very heavy burden—and it is a moral burden, what else?—to lift ourselves out of addiction as well as we can, and, after the fact, we can still be blamed for allowing ourselves to become addicted. Perhaps we are less to be blamed if we are genetically predisposed to such addiction; but there are people with that genetic predisposition who never touch alcohol for that very reason. We have free will. As we exit addiction, we will bear this burden until the addiction no longer afflicts us. Then we will still bear the burden of not letting ourselves sink back into it. To deny these platitudes is to deny both common experience and the reality of free will.

Desires and compulsions are not unalterable facts of nature. This fact is a profound feature of our lives as moral beings with free will. This fact is a deeply important point that must not be passed over lightly, much less dismissed. It is entirely unrealistic—as well as cynical and corrupting—to deny the malleability of desire. After all, a great deal of morality and psychiatry both, as well as rehabilitation in criminal justice, are concerned with changing unwelcome desires. To treat desires and compulsions as unchangeable forces of nature is essentially to give up on moral improvement, psychiatric recovery, and criminal rehabilitation.

Universal experience teaches that intense desires rarely arrive full-blown in our heads. They creep in, as it were, experienced as mere possibilities. We consider them, perhaps briefly, musing. If something is quite taboo — for example, murder, incest, or uttering certain forbidden words and thoughts — then most of us will drop the idea immediately, and the desire has little chance to germinate.

Let us suppose there is a person who, for whatever reason, has unusually weak self-control. If this person finds himself with a desire, he has no filters to rein it in; it does not occurs to him that he should not reject it. Instead, he nurses his desire. He thinks about it. He considers and discusses with himself; he imagines; he plans, but without acting on the plans.

Suppose that person is a pedophile.

The pedophile then, finally, decides that he has a problem, that it might be wrong for him to have these desires. Is such a person not morally culpable, foolish at least if not actually evil, for allowing such desires to fester unchecked? Why would he not be? Think about any illicit or undesirable desire you might have had in the past — for cigarettes, too much porn, dessert, alcohol, drugs, game time, or whatever your vice might be. It can be hard to stop yourself from indulging in bad habits, especially if they are quite addictive. But do you not also remember when you developed those bad habits, and when you could have much more easily reined them in?

Why should the desire for sex with children be any different? Do not just claim that it is different; explain very carefully how and why it is different. It is not.

Someone might argue that I am comparing bad habits like overeating or drinking too much alcohol — and those are actions — with an undesirable desire, which a pedophile does not act on. If he or she never indulges the desire, why think the mere desire is bad?

The desire is horrific, because it might lead to a horrific action. Would we not also be horrified by a big man with poor self-control who confessed that he had recently started thinking, constantly, about raping women?

This is a fair question, but there is a clear answer. The thoughts are bad, of course, because people who lack the self-control to order their thoughts often lack the self-control to restrain the behavior that the desire would lead to. We do not leave children alone with people who confess that they have pedophilic desires, because desires might lead to action.

The desire is horrific, because it might lead to a horrific action. Would we not also be horrified by a big man with poor self-control who confessed that he had recently started thinking, constantly, about raping women? I certainly would be. And why? Because he might start actually acting on his thoughts. Should we

This is the main reason, then, that pedophilia in the clinical sense is horrifically evil: it can, and sometimes does, lead to a horrifically evil action. It is idle and sophomoric to insist that, after all, it might not lead to that action. A person who lets such an evil desire fester and grow strong has for that very reason demonstrated a lack of self-control. The risk is significant, and it is a risk of a great evil.

Let me consider one final reply. What if someone claims to have this desire but that it is fully under control — that he would never rape a child, and would only ever fantasize. Putting aside worries about the risk, surely mere fantasizing hurts no one.

Well, no; it is not fantasizing per se that makes pedophilia so evil. It is, first and foremost, the risk. Anyone who is so out-of-control as to permit these feelings to fester in himself is a risk, so far as the rest of us know, no matter what he may say. And while the fantasizing considered just by itself (without regard to its consequences) might not hurt anyone, it certainly does increase the risk.

Pedophilic feelings have other ill effects. They can cause someone to go looking for child pornography, which creates a market for actual child rape. Even drawn child molestation can increase the chances of a desire for the real thing, thereby creating a market. After all, if a pedophile enjoys looking at drawn pictures of children being molested, surely he or she might get even more excitement from actual photographs.

It is also an undesirable desire because the pedophile must never act on it. It is, for that reason, in addition to be horrifically evil, also pointless.

Let me clarify one last point. In this section I have been arguing that pedophilia, considered simply as a desire for sex with children, is appallingly evil. But I am not saying that psychiatrists or clergy or others who are working directly with pedophiles should be highly judgmental. I have no opinion on that; I suppose psychiatrists should do whatever in their clinical experience reduces the disorder most efficiently and permanently, while remaining humane, of course.((It is interesting to me, in this connection, that a pedophile wrote a whiny reply to this essay, to which I wrote a scathing answer; he then responded by saying that this harsh judgment was exactly what he needed. Of course, this one case proves little in itself regarding a proper course of treatment.))


Sophistry

Stop the pedophilia apology

Online discussions of pedophilia should always clarify how evil child sexual abuse is. So, do they? All too often, they do not. The more typical narrative is that pedophilia is just a feeling, and feelings cannot be controlled, so non-offending pedophiles—"virtuous pedophiles," in their Orwellian self-description—are not bad. The horrors of abuse, and the fact that "just a feeling" can and too often does lead to abuse, are often not mentioned or quickly passed over. This popular narrative is not only wrong, for reasons I have already explained, it is also quite dangerous.

Even those who acknowledge that child rape is a great evil can unwittingly contribute to this problematic narrative, when they speak as if pedophilic desires were unalterable facts of nature. When a behavior seems to spring from a desire, maybe especially when it is a psychiatric diagnosis, modern commentators and even psychiatrists are in the unfortunate habit of treating the desire or diagnosis as a morally neutral medical condition for which the "patient" is not quite responsible.

To debunk this narrative, the services not of a doctor but of a philosopher are in order. There is a funny thing about free will: the more we believe that something is in our control, the more control we have over it. By contrast, the more we believe that something is out of our control, the less we will be inclined to do anything about it. It is as if a belief in free will gives us free will—more precisely, though, the belief in the thing gives us the willingness to exercise it. And inversely, abandonment of the belief in free will saps your motivation to act contrary to your present inclinations.

Therefore, I am afraid that those who characterize pedophilia as an unchangeable desire are contributing to the very problem of pedophilia. It would be like telling alcoholics that they are not responsible for becoming alcoholics and cannot ever free themselves of their hankering for alcohol, as if their compulsion were doomed to be as strong as it is at its strongest. If they believed that, then why would they even try to beat their addiction? If the rest of us believed that, why would we try to resist the slide into alcoholism in the first place? Just imagine saying something similar aloud to, again, those "rapeophiles": "It is a shame that you find yourself with a strong compulsion to rape women. But it is not your fault, because it's just a desire and desires are out of your control. Still, now that you have it, make sure you never act on it." We cannot imagine anyone with such a complacent attitude in the #MeToo age. Why countenance such an attitude toward those who desire to rape children? Again, are children less worthy of protection than women?

If your illicit desires are absolutely unalterable, you bear no responsibility for them—and then why fight them? This morally enfeebling message is repeated throughout those parts of our decadent culture that reject personal responsibility. Addicts everywhere hear and obey.

Heeding this message too,  many pedophiles regard their condition as just “another sexual orientation” that may be responsibly indulged (i.e., only in fantasy). One can find a sympathetic group for practically anything online, including pedophilia. I am sorry to report that pedophilia propagandists are online, active, and emboldened.

The logo of the "North American Man-Boy Love Association."

Propaganda produced by pedophiles—and on their behalf—is disturbing. Consider:

  • Media discussions of pedophilia are dominated by pleas that we should “understand” pedophiles first and foremost. Somehow, this will make children safer. Such articles rarely give much attention to the risk of abuse, and they of course never take the position that pedophilia is evil.
  • Establishment sources have tried, over the years, to normalize pedophilia via organizations. Everyone has heard of the North American Man-Boy Love Association, or NAMBLA, which still exists and is actually online. NAMBLA's perhaps most famous member is its co-founder, the lauded poet Allen Ginsberg, and they were defended by the ACLU. Incredibly, such "activists" have argued for decades for “age of consent reform,” as if advocacy to abolish one of the most horrific crimes imaginable were somehow “progressive.” Others groups online include "Virtuous Pedophiles" and "Celibate Pedophiles," who make it their business to argue that non-offending pedophiles are fine. They merely have another "sexual orientation," which is a position that has been discussed in at least one college course.
  • There are aggressive demands of tolerance of drawn depictions of child molestation — created by and for pedophiles — because it is a “victimless crime." Never mind that what is depicted is, for all decent people, one of the most heinous of crimes, worse than ordinary rape because it is the rape of children. Never mind that the consumers of such depictions are pedophiles derive great pleasure from fantasies of committing this crime, and that they must restrain themselves from that crime. Wikipedia documents in remarkable detail the state of the law on this in various places in the world.((I reported the Wikimedia Foundation to the FBI over such illustrations in 2010, and many people on the group blog Slashdot, for example, roundly condemned my position.))
  • Then there is the tone. The tone taken is always high-minded, as if the defenders of pedophiles were better and smarter than you and I. Writers condescendingly chide society for failing to consider that non-offending, long-suffering pedophiles really are a thing. One German program treats pedophiles as "victims, not offenders." They seem to sneer that we are ignorant of the science, due to our hatred of what is a deep moral evil and societal cancer; the implication is that pedophilia a matter of clinical study and treatment, and the implication that moral evaluation is somehow unscientific and reactionary. (Of course, my response to this is to laugh in disdain at this tone-deaf propaganda.)

Such propaganda seeks to normalize pedophilia.

If there is one reason that we as as society should insist that pedophilia constitutes criminal ideation as well as a disorder, and that it is horrifically evil, it is that we must take a firm stand against those who would, quite deliberately, try to normalize it. If it is normalized, this will embolden all too many of the weak and the malevolent to indulge their desires. Indeed, to the extent that it has already been normalized, the weak and malevolent have already indulged their desires—and they do so with devastating frequency.

Pedophilia must never be normalized. Have no compunctions about calling it evil; it is important that we do call it evil; we prevent this evil from spreading by identifying it as such.

Perhaps, indeed, we do have less to fear from those who are strong-willed enough not to act on their desires. That is all very well, but no one is going to admit to being weak-willed, and malevolence always wears a mask of lies. Faced with criminal charges, most offending pedophiles will pretend to be "virtuous." Many of the activists, and activist scientists, writing on the subject oddly seem to avoid mention of "vicious" pedophiles. In this regard they strike me as being, ironically, both unrealistic and irrational. A more realistic and rational view acknowledges that the world is filled with weak and malevolent people who only too readily indulge their desires when the opportunity arises, and indeed who go out of their way to give themselves opportunities.

There is no social or individual benefit to be gained from normalizing pedophilia. If there is one thing that deserves to remain taboo, it is this. Pedophilia must never be normalized. Have no compunctions about calling it evil; it is important that we do call it evil; we prevent this evil from spreading by identifying it as such.

- fin -

One personification of evil


Note: what follows are some replies I made to some real-life pedophiles, who commented on the Medium copy of the above article. I'm not including the pedophiles' replies because I did not save copies of what they wrote when I left Medium.

Reply #1

This is a reply to a teenage self-confessed pedophile who said he'd never acted on his feelings and that I was very mean for lacking empathy for his plight.

I’m writing so that unformed minds, who might be confused by the likes of you, won’t be. I have absolutely no desire to have “empathy” for pedophiles, any more than I want to have empathy for rapists. Frankly, I think child molestation is considerably worse than rape of adults; it is a truly horrific crime. “Non-Offending Minor Attracted Persons” is no more legitimate than, and no more deserving of empathy, than “Men Who Want to Violently Rape Women But Restrain Themselves.” The only reason to empathize with such a person’s pedophilia is to prevent crime; and the way that crime might be prevented by empathy is not by making the criminal (or would-be criminal) feel better about their criminal ideation but by coming to understand their patterns, motivations, and other things that allow us to (a) catch and punish criminals and (b) aggressively prevent actual child abuse.

If any teen of mine confessed to being sexually attracted to little children, I would (a) explain in great detail why pedophilia is not just a little bit wrong, but horrifically evil (and probably make them read the essay I wrote, and demonstrate excellent understanding of it) and (b) immediately seek professional help from a therapist who agreed with me that pedophilic desires must be treated as criminal ideation, with a goal of eliminating them as much as possible.

It’s silly and absurd to be accused of having a “look-how-morally-upstanding-I-am” tone as I patiently explain how evil pedophilia is. I have also carefully and patiently explained why murder is wrong, and nobody accused me of being self-righteous. That’s because normal people don’t think they’re particularly great because they don’t commit crime. For normal people, that’s just the baseline.

But I will, of course, show no compunctions about telling pedophiles directly and without regret that you are not just “sick,” but deeply morally corrupt, and I don’t mean a little bit or in a hip and edgy way (like, e.g., drug abuse seems to some people), but in a straightforward your-heart-is-black way. Pedophiles are evil. They don’t need empathy. They need therapy in the way that muggers could use rehabilitation — not because we feel sorry for the pedophiles (or muggers), but because society desperately needs them to refrain from their evil behavior. And the notion that pedophilia is a sexual orientation that needs to be normalized is horrifying and beyond obscene.


Reply #2

This is a reply to someone describing himself as a European graduate student in the humanities, who thought he was being clever by making sophistical replies to the arguments in my essay. These are my rebuttals.

Matt, as you are speaking as a pedophilia apologist, and as you are speaking to someone who believes pedophilia (in both senses defined in my original essay) is evil, you have no credibility or authority. So when you adopt a tone of condescension, you merely come across as ridiculous. I’m still laughing at you; you deserve derision and contempt. And this is why I’m not going to reply to your stupid attempts at zingers; they just make you look creepier.

Here are a few replies:

I wrote: “ 'Non-Offending Minor Attracted Persons' is no more legitimate than, and no more deserving of empathy, than 'Men Who Want to Violently Rape Women But Restrain Themselves.”

You responded, irrelevantly: “Exactly how is it not legitimate? Are you suggesting that it is impossible for a pedophile to control their actions? You’ve already argued that they can in your previous article.”

“Rapeophilia” — defined, say, as the exclusive or predominant desire to rape women — is about as legitimate as pedophilia, defined similarly but with regard to children. So imagine someone came up with “Non-Offending Rape Attracted Persons,” or NORAP, and said the various sorts of things about their desire to rape women that you say with regard to attraction to children. They just need help; they shouldn’t be ostracized; they should be “understood”; don’t judge them as a potential rapists because most of them don’t rape; etc. Well, it’s pretty damn obvious that saying these things in defense of a fictional NORAP category is no different from saying similar things in defense of NOMAPs (i.e., pedophiles). Considering that defense of rapeophilia is utterly illegitimate, we can also say that defense of pedophilia is utterly illegitimate.

Now, I’m glad that you at least pay lip service to the notion that pedophiles can control themselves. But I say more than that they can stop themselves from raping children. I say, furthermore, that they bear a heavy burden to deny and rid themselves of their desire to rape children, which they should have denied and repressed the moment it appeared. Instead, they went with it. It is playing with fire to indulge potential criminals by saying that their desire to rape children is a “sexual orientation” on a par with heterosexuality or homosexuality, by saying that there’s nothing wrong with fantasizing, etc. Imagine a group of people, the worst of whom are regular rapists, who say, “There’s nothing morally wrong with people who can only get off on rape fantasies. They can’t control themselves. We should understand them. Some women actually secretly want to be raped, you know — but of course, we believe rape is very, very wrong. (Except, of course, for the people who think it’s just fine, right?)”

You’re not even nearly as clever as you think you are. You’re an idiot. Your bias in favor of people who commit horrific crimes has made you unable to understand basic reasoning. I don’t have many opinions about the best way to rehabilitate pedophiles. I know I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t generally opine about such things. But I do have an opinion about social mores: it should never be an acceptable part of society to encourage adults to accept within themselves their attraction to children. That is, and should remain, one of the strongest taboos we live by. I don’t know or particularly care what therapists say to pedophiles in their therapy sessions.

I also have an opinion about the goal of therapy is the same as the goal of therapy with rapists or alcoholics or drug addicts: to rid themselves of the desire. In this regard, it’s very, very different than the goal of therapy for homosexuals. Most people think we shouldn’t try to “cure” homosexuals; I’m one who thinks we shouldn’t. In that regard, homosexuality can be regarded as a sexual orientation whereas pedophilia and rapeophilia cannot. Similarly, wine tasting and being a whisky connoisseur can be regarded as more or less healthy pastimes; alcoholism isn’t, and alcoholics bear the heavy burden to rid themselves of their compulsion.


A Celebration of Winsor McCay

My favorite illustrator ever, Winsor McCay (1869-1934), worked for decades as a newspaper political cartoonist, illustrator, and animator.

I learned about McCay while browsing through books in the 1990s, I think it was, in a shop in Seattle's Fish Market, and I just stumbled upon a collection of his work titled Daydreams and Nightmares, which has many (not all) of the items below.

What has always struck me about McCay, aside from his sheer skill as an illustrator, is his ability to express important values in a striking and beautiful way.

I found that most if not all of his values were my values, and indeed, the words are right in the images: things like thought, knowledge, truth, hard work, duty, wisdom, books. And many more, too: his political cartoons show that he was deeply opposed to war on principle, a view I tend to support; he hated drugs (and mind you, he was illustrating from the late 1800s to the 1930s); he was serious about Christianity, a theme that came up now and then in his work; there's one that shows he was deeply disturbed about "The White Slaver," with a caption reading, "The most sinister and degraded member of the race! The shame of civilization!"; he has illustrations on the importance of taking life seriously in the face of death; at least two about women's rights; several visions of a fascinating (often incorrect) future; and one against "technocracy," portrayed as a futuristic machine-monster, which seems newly relevant in the age of Big Tech. I saved one of the best for last, "The Children of Ignorance," which I have used several times online throughout the years.