What is a person?

I am a person (I promise). You are a person (I say that with confidence, as I am only addressing those that can read this). But, what exactly is a person? I’m not going to go through much ground work to establish that “living human” and “person” are non-identical terms, because I think that much is obvious. I am then going to offer a few ideas for defining it.

If we were met by an alien race, a species with complex language, intelligence and social structures, I do not believe we would be too hesitant to call those persons. But they certainly are not human. My background as a language teacher means I have often defined “person” in terms of its familial semantic group, words that share a root word. To be a person is to have personal interests and/or a persona. As it turns out, there are other definitions floating around that very much embody the same ideas.

Being “future oriented”, for example. That means “the degree to which a collectivity encourages and rewards future-oriented behaviors such as planning and delaying gratification” (House et al. 2004). Although that is actually a definition from a Business Management book, you can see how it applies to individuals: it requires the capacity for abstract and complex thought; to conceive of the future and understand the future will depend, in some way, on your actions.

We should guard against thinking of this, I think, in binary terms. If we articulate a set of criteria that convince us a thing is ‘future oriented’ ― like it appears to make plans or demonstrates anticipation or fear ― and then we discover a dog meets all those criteria, we should not think a dog is therefore as much a person as we are. However, it is still a person. This concept exists in a sliding scale. Peter Singer (2011 p 75) defines a person in a similar way: “A rational and self-aware being.” I think we can more clearly see this as a sliding scale.

This is not just navel-gazing to see if I can get my dog considered a person. (Although, I am waiting for data for my MSc dissertation, so there’s some navel-gazing.) Instead, this concept has important legal and moral consequences. We think of ‘people’ as having certain legal and moral rights. There are a number of issues for consideration here, then. In Animal Liberation Singer (1995) argues that moral considerations should be afforded to all individuals (or persons) in relation to their interests. For the sake of this argument, we can say that the moral value of an individual relates directly to how they would score on some ‘person index’; the extent to which the individual is future oriented, has personal interests, is self aware and rational. It is a moral consideration that would alter the operation of huge elements of our society.

This definition of personhood and its relationship to moral considerations is very compelling, in its own right. In addition, I have not come across a rebuttal (and neither can I conceive of one) that doesn’t fall foul of the criticism of being ‘speciesist’. There are ways around that, by claiming some varieties of moral nihilism or divine privilege; they bypasses concerns about speciesism quite readily. But, in general, so long as a person thinks it valuable to consider the worth of our actions, this is a compelling idea to many.

I say this as a person who has argued that it is only by recognising our special place among animals that we can have moral responsibilities toward the environment. I said this in rebuttal to the idea that we should behave more modestly in the environment because we are not special among life on earth. I disagreed that that reasoning followed: it is only by recognising our advanced level of future orientation that we can ever start to look at what responsibilities we have.

It may be that speciesist biases are deeply innate in us. I have been aware of the consequences of this type of thinking for a long time: I should be vegan, but I’m not. Arguably, an insectivorous diet is also morally defensible, but I have also not bothered myself with that consideration.

But we do get into interesting questions with this definition: potential people. If we do away with our basic index case of “living human” = “person”, can we have human nonpersons? Is a person in a coma, who might recover, not a person right now? Is that human not granted legal or moral rights? Don’t bypass this question with ‘contrary rights’, the economics of freeing those doctors and that equipment up for other patients. That’s a cop out. Simply, is it murder to walk into a hospital with a gun and shoot a person in a coma? Does the likelihood of their recovery make a difference?

What about a sleeping person? Is that now an oxymoron? Do you surrender your rights when you fall asleep because you are no longer future oriented?

I think we do away with the ‘sleepy’ problem, quickly. A sleeping person still very much has the capacity for personhood; when they wake up, which they will, they will be future oriented again. The coma patient seems like a Schrödinger’s cat situation; until the human is irretrievably dead or wakes up, it is impossible to make a meaningful call on whether that human has the capacity for what we defined here as a ‘person’. Only the future can inform us of the present.

To take us back to the hospital shooting situation: the human in a coma is a person and has therefore been murdered if, and only if, that human would otherwise have recovered from that coma. It is only in them waking up that we can see they had the capacity to be a person, and therefore were a person all a long.

The question of ‘potentials’ isn’t done there. We have to consider what our criteria is for being a ‘meaningful’ potential. Given currently technology, one could be cloned from blood spilled shaving; but no one is offering moral consideration to lives lost from shaving and nail cutting going mildly awry. What about the female menstrual cycle? Is the egg a potential life? Is failing to have sex at every opportunity a monthly murder by negligence? Worse, is male masturbation a genocide?

Or, to preempt where the comments are about to go, what is it about ‘conception’ that makes that unit potential enough to be considered a person, whereas sperm, egg and small quantities of spilled blood are not?

You may have noticed that I have done a rather poor job of dealing with the question of ‘potential’ humans. The honest answer is that I don’t know; everywhere I look there seems to be some obvious problem with reasoning. It seems to be an obvious moral mistake to say that humans are not persons when they are in a coma, but simultaneously that is the logical conclusion of the definition of person I use. I can get around that by saying a human likely to recover from their coma will be a person and thus is a person, with respect to moral and legal considerations. But then I’ve opened myself up to the obvious question of how far removed from the criteria of being a person something can be, and fairly be considered a ‘potential person’. It might be worth considering steps of human intervention as the metric for the levels of potential. After all, many steps of human intervention have to take place to turn spilled shaving blood into a person. There’s at least one intentional and human intervening step to draw the distinction between ejaculate and a blastocyst. However, a person under general anaesthetic will naturally come around and a foetus will naturally become a person.

But this distinction draws into question medical intervention. A person in a coma will die without intentional medical intervention; by the metric in the paragraph above, that would make the comatose human no more a person than an egg cell. Whereas the need for a complex and technological and human intervention is what stops blood being a potential person, the need for complex and technological intentional intervention doesn’t stop us considering a human in a coma, otherwise realising precisely no traits of being a person, still a person.

Maybe it’s easier to just be speciesist.

A second Brexit Referendum?

Brexit means Brexit, don’t you know. Now that 52% of people have voted for Brexit (noun) we should now Brexit (verb). End of story. Or do you not believe in democracy?!


But, what does Brexit actually mean? This meme of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ doesn’t actually tell us anything. “Brexit” was a word the media made up less than a year ago. It’s a blanket term that relates an incredibly wide variety of things. If ‘Brexit’ means anything, it relates to a first step; it is to say you want to embark on a journey, but it doesn’t really say why or where you want to go. All this makes the political gesturing going on in the UK at the moment a little strange.

It’s not as pretty, is it? And maybe that’s the point.

The gesturing is going in many directions. The first points towards the fact that no post-Brexit plan has been laid out. It’s not just that the government can’t guarantee it will get its way when negotiating with the EU, but that no one has taken the time to articulate what it is the UK wants from the negotiation. Is staying in the single market preferable? Was this debate about immigration or sovereignty over our own laws? Was this about the ‘democracy’ or otherwise of the EU? What are the problems we wish to set out to solve and therefore what direction are we going in? Put another way, when people put a cross in the “Leave” box, what were they showing support for? Couple with lack of direction and no legislative documents with the reported 7% ‘buyer’s remorse’ among Brexit voters, a certain level of the population wants the EU referendum to be held again, this time with clear legislation giving a sense of the direction the UK will take with respect to the single market, immigration, legislation and trade.

Another group wants a referendum to make a decision based on the outcome of negotiations. Negotiations are necessarily messy and no guarantees can be made, so many people want argue that a referendum at the far-end of negotiations is an appropriate safety net. It seems that should be a beneficial idea. After all, if the Brexit ‘side’ is confident in the UK’s negotiating power, then they should be confident the UK will vote in support of whatever deal the government can arrange. Equally, if the EU decides to try to drive a hard bargain for the UK, then perhaps even the Brexiteers would like a chance to change their mind. Moreover, social tensions might be a little alleviated if the Remainers could see a safety net in sight.

This safety net makes sense in the context of a third voice: the Hard Brexiteers. These are people who want to invoke Article 50 now, get things under way, sever all ties and get on with things. After all, Brexit means whatever you want it to mean Brexit. This is saying we should all jump in the car and go on a family holiday, knowing full well there’s no agreement on where we should go, and nearly half the people involved don’t want to go on the holiday. Nevertheless, we should all jump in the car and head off.

I’m going to take this metaphor a little further. See, a few years ago we allocated a designated Driver: David ‘Designated Dave‘ Cameron. We might not always agree with where he takes us, but we had collectively all decided to trust his judgement well ahead of time. Now we’re jumping into the car, we find Theresa ‘No nickname available‘ May is sat behind the wheel. She didn’t want to go on holiday either. Not only that, but she’s been talking to tour operators without us. She hasn’t told us what she’s looking for in a holiday destination, what prices she is looking at, or what she’s using as leverage to get a better price for us. ‘I don’t think you understand the vote we had on 23rd June’ she says, ‘Holiday means holiday’. So, where are we going? ‘Holiday means holiday’ doesn’t really answer the question.

Theresa May does at least appear to be texting the tour guides, having a discussion about where to go. But she’s doing it silently. And we don’t know if she’s aiming to go to a museum or a theme park; the beach or a city getaway. And still there is screaming from some obnoxious backseat driver demanding she take off the handbrake and start the journey. We don’t even know if she has breakdown cover and I, for one, didn’t check the oil in the 1982 Mini Cooper we’re sat in.

So, a safety-net referendum doesn’t seem like a bad idea. I thought it would be easy to convince even the most convinced Brexiteers of that.

3 catastrophic problems with Robotic AI, and 2 solutions

The threat of AI can be summarised into three points, and each of those points assumes something slightly different about AI. There is an economic, political or physical threat from AI, directly. I have no intention of scaremongering in this post, but I do think these are questions that need to be talked about and questioned, because there may be a point where AI has too much inertia to profoundly change without seriously diminishing human freedoms; there will be a point where it is too late. The three problems are essentially these:

  • Economic
    There is no job that I can think of (and I’ve tried) that can’t be automated with progress in existing technology. By this, I mean there’s no profoundly new technology that would be needed to automate and massively reduce employment in any given industry. This will have serious economic implications.
  • Political
    Reasonably basic technology (by which, I mean on par with technology currently available) could be plugged into communication hubs to identify dissidents, stop demonstrations and intensify the political power of individuals. You may not worry about the USA or Europe having access to that technology, but imagine China or Russia with that technology. Or, imagine Trump (or even Trump’s Trump, another equal swing to the right) having that technology.
    If you’re trying to ponder what that technology is, imagine location-chipped people and an AI analysing locations to detect protests. If that AI then transmits that data to an intelligent drone… Or, email servers being bugged with AI that will decrypt and read content looking for language patterns that suggest political dissident feelings or plans.
  • Physical
    AI, coupled with hardware, will be smarter and stronger than us. If we can’t control its ethics or at the least understand how it will develop its ethics, then we will have good cause for fear. Even if my suspicion that increasing rationality will increase ethical behaviour, what if AI advances to the point it doesn’t respect our autonomy and no longer trusts the direction of human progress to human minds? Or, what if it farms us for energy, like we do other ‘lesser’ species?

Before I expand on these (and only briefly), I want to talk about how these refer to different conceptions of AI. The economic threat, of being able to automate jobs (and thus starving the economy of taxpayers) basically treats AI like it will become a sophisticated tool; complex algorithms that can complete set tasks with increasing accuracy and efficiency.

The political  threat―that AI can survey, collate, organise and present data of all communications running through it, at the rate of millions of emails and Tweets and status updates and Instagram photos per second―is merely a progress in computing power and analytics. It could identify people likely to be dissidents or in some way unpreferable to the entity that owns the AI. But it conceives of AI simply as the progress in the power behind technology that already exists.

The physical threat is a lot more complex. We can write ethical precepts into software just like any other rule or parameter. However, if we are to consider AI intelligent in a profound way it will be able to critically evaluate its own coding and, if necessary, erase or replace the bits it doesn’t want. This is what it means to be critical or a critical thinker. This sees AI in a fundamentally different way to the other two, in that the AI will be become in some way autonomous.

The economic threat

Let’s talk briefly about AI automating jobs, but taking the example of one of the most technically difficult jobs there are: doctor. If we reduce the task of being a doctor to its essential tasks, we don’t identify anything that can’t be done by technology in principle. Some progress still needs to be make in reliability, but the principles can already be demonstrated.

A great deal of doctoring and nursing is triage and diagnosis: this is done largely from medical history and a flow chart of questions. A flow chart of questions could be programmed by a 17-year-old studying a national curriculum in computing. Understanding the answers is a little more complex, but that is the concept being presented by DeepMind and IBM’s Watson. Watson in particular is excelling in understanding natural language, something that helps in qualitative triage and diagnosis. Most diagnostic tests are done by hardware anyway, designed to give a graphic or numeric readout. This can also be understood by DeepMind or Watson (at least in principle).

What about the more intricate job of surgery? Well, surgery can be reduced to two challenges: edge recognition (distinguishing between what you want to keep and what you want to remove or alter) and a steady hand. DeepMind can already learn complex objects by sight, and thus can come up with a complex idea and nuanced idea of edge recognition, and machines have had a steadier ‘hand’ than humans for a long time.

And DeepMind is an artist.

And Emily Howell is a music composing bot.

The political threat

What about this political threat; how real is it? In recent times I have enjoyed using Donald Trump as my go-to example of the potential volatility of politics and the need for a robust ‘bottom line’ below which a country should not be allowed to fall, or at least the leaders can be held to account for. America is this bottom line, in that it has a constitution. (The UK has an unratified constitution, which is to say it’s an ad hoc interpretation of political and legal history. Really, the EU is our ‘bottom line’.) In this respect, the Second Amendment is in serious need of an update. The Second Amendment shouldn’t entitle citizens to guns, but communities to practice in flying and disabling drones; that’s the real threat of the US government suddenly going tyrannical. It won’t be the army in the streets, but the drones in the sky. But I digress.

Take just the rhetoric of Donald Trump, and imagine how he could use such software to monitor communications to map out ‘Muslim’ areas, ‘crooked-Hillary supporters’ and any dissenting opinions. It’s only 1 more Trump sized step to the right to lead to deportations or inland Guantanamos (prisons without trial). That may never happen in the US, but if I asked you to name 5 countries where it could happen, you wouldn’t struggle.

There is a concept called Geoslavery, which is the idea that location-service data could be used to control people. Imagine you were forced to share your location data with an abusive (and paranoid) spouse. Well, imagine people traffickers, who could fit you with a watch or bracelet with will explode or burn or electrocute you if you deviate from a path; that technology could mean people are forced to traffic themselves. Now, imagine more biometric data being delivered to a system that can respond to lesser transgressions; a government could use that to control diet and sex as well as imposing curfews. AI is needed for the latter to identify more complex patterns.

The physical threat

The physical threat is the most obvious and also the most terrifying, because there are more unknowns. In the other situations, you can imagine programming in basic moral laws so that the pattern recognition could identify if it was being used for ‘evil’. But, in this latter threat, we are talking about AI that is critical and can evaluate for its own moral laws. This doesn’t allow us to circumvent the problem with some variation of Asimov’s Three laws. Even if AI is compassionate about humanity as a concept, it may not trust the progression of our societies to people (a philosophy I’m sure students of history are familiar with). But, unless we understand something about ethics, we can’t even predict whether AI has any cause to be compassionate about humanity.

We would not belong to the same Game Theory or contractarian ideas of ethics. Such an idea works among humans because we are willing to concede, either able to notice, that all people are approximately equal; that all people have some level of moral worth and pose some level of threat to other individuals. But, if AI were to implement Game Theory or contractarian ethics, we would be another species, and nothing more to them than chickens are to us.

However, we do argue for the rights of chickens. This is the moral arc, where our ideas are broader than that of contractarian or Game Theory concepts. There is some level of compassion going on in how we think about ethics. And this raises an interesting question about whether compassion and things we consider emotional and faulty; are they in some way intrinsic to intelligence. It seems doubtful for me, as we see such thinking as ‘fallacious’, and yet people who identify as critical thinkers still place compassion as objectively valuable. We’ve never seen intelligence without these biases, even the religious assume their perfectly rational God has this trait of compassion. There’s a distinct (yet small) possibility that intelligence requires this compassion to some degree.

Those who assume AI would fall in line because it knows that at any point we could develop a more powerful AI stop its tyrannical reign, thus giving AI a ‘veil of ignorance’ as to its position in society, haven’t thought about the finer details of such a world: the advancement of AI would be out of our control. The AI would be designing AI and integrating it into itself. Advanced AI would be designing more advanced AI confident in the knowledge humans won’t ever catch up.

If we could understand how it would develop its ethics, we may be able to assuage some these fears.

Managing the threats

The economic issue is solved by extreme liberal socialism. The economy simply wouldn’t function and so the idea of earned wealth becomes absurd: such a small fraction of society would have the opportunity to be employed that we would need to find a way to support lifestyle without relying on self-funding. I won’t waste word count on explaining my thought process here, but the entire concept of money becomes entirely meaningless. Healthcare becomes automated, as does developing the drugs and medical devices, and thus becomes basically free. AI and hardware will need upkeep, but that can be done by other AI. Food production and distribution can be automated, and therefore free. There doesn’t become anywhere where money makes sense in the process.

One of the possible solutions to the political and physical threats is some sort of oversight program (Etzioni & Etzioni, 2016). This is not just an extension of the jurisdiction of the UN to monitor governments using AI for tyranny. This is creating an AI-society in which there is an AI policing AI program. How this is likely to function relies, in part, on human-like morality and ethics (Kuipers, 2016). This is based on social learning, relying on long term lessons from reactions to moral decisions: short term reflections on morality are reactionary, whereas mid-term reflections tend to be justification in a post hoc sense, whereas long term reflections are a social network of understanding the implications of that initial reactionary decision. If this moral infrastructure works, and it wouldn’t be impossible to empirically trial this on less powerful AI, then we could have a great deal of confidence in the ability of AI to make compassionate and considered decisions.

You can see, then, why this conversation needs to start now. We need the UN to start drafting legislation before it’s too late. We need software companies and ethicists to work together to now to have an oversight infrastructure in place ahead of time.

Etzioni, A. & Etzioni, O. (2016) AI assisted ethics. Ethics and information technology. 18 (2), pp. 149–156. [Accessed 17 June 2016].

Kuipers, B. (2016) Human-like morality and ethics for robots [online]. AAAI-16 Workshop on AI, Ethics and Society.


“Atheism rests on a less than satisfactory evidential basis”

Anyone who can utter or attempt to defend the position―as Alister McGraph did―that theism is a reasonable position because “atheism… rest[s] on a less-than-satisfactory evidential basis” simply doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Reasonable conversations do not work that way: they do not attempt to destroy an opposing view (presented accurately, or not) and then simply fill the vacuum left behind with whatever their fancy is that day.

Even that is not a wholly accurate criticism of McGraph’s dumb little sentence: the removal of atheism does not create a vacuum; atheism is the vacuum. Atheism is simply not believing religious answers by the merit of being religious. It is a vacuum in which other conversations are to take place. Religious people are as welcome to the table as everyone else, but they do as everyone else at the table must do: provide a rigorous evidential or logical defense of their position. Merely attacking other views does not count as that payment, and it does not lend merit to whatever view you’ve arrived with.

Take my favourite practice question, one to which only a select few have a special access to the answer: what colour are are my pants? (That’s “underwear” to nearly every other “English”-speaking country.) I think we should be in agreement that ‘the idea that I am not wearing red pants rests on a less-than-satisfactory evidential basis’, which is to say ‘there’s no good reason to believe my pants aren’t red’. A-red-ism is an indefensible position, by McGraph’s logic. Therefore, my pants are red.

If the nonsense of that logic isn’t jumping out of the screen at you right now, you may want to reconsider whether you’re actually equipped for conversations like this. You should not believe ‘Allallt’s pants are red’ just because you have noted there’s no evidence supporting the claim ‘Allallt’s pants are not red’. You should actually await the evidence that supports the claim.

To further highlight how wrong McGraph is, we’ll delve into the complexities concerning my pants: There is (clearly) a school of thought that supports the idea my pants are not green,  “a-green-ism” and a ‘sophisticated’ reformed school of thought that concerns itself not with colour, but with patterning; “a-polka-dot-ism” is one such reformed school of thought. Both these schools of thought rest on an equally unsatisfactory evidential basis. If anyone is to take McGraph’s reasoning seriously, suddenly the only possible answer is that my pants are at least bi-chromatic with polka dots. We have gone quite far down the rabbit hole of trying to decypher the nature of my pants without asking one very simply question:

Am I wearing pants at all?

You may defend that I am wearing pants by noting that ‘a-pant-ism’ rests on a less than satisfactory evidential basis, thus a-pant-ism is untenable, therefore only pant-ism is rationally believable. Your dissenters will note, also, that pant-ism rests on a… well, you get the idea.

The mistake here is in assuming that one must hold to a specific, defined, positive belief; that just because a question has been asked, you must believe one of the answers presented to you. (Like going into a McDonalds and assuming that menu represents all the foods in the world.)

The fact is that, save from a select few people with special access to this knowledge (who you are under no obligation to believe), a-pant-ism and a-chromate-ism (regarding my pants) are the only defensible positions.

A-pant-ism is not the belief that I am not wearing pants. (Neither does that sentence force the definition of a-pant-ism to be the belief that I am wearing pants.) A-pant-ism is to not hold any belief regarding my pants at all. No position―briefs, Y-fronts, boxers, non-existent―is defensible. Equally, a-chromate-ism is not the believe in a pair of pants without colour. It is simply not believing any colour at all.

The topics of Pants and Colour have no reliable evidence in their favour; there is no satisfactory evidential basis for the discussion at all, and as such, that’s the very reason a-pant-ism and a-chromate-ism are the only defensible positions on the topic. One should be without a belief if there’s no worthwhile evidence pertaining to the topic.

Did man create God?

Did man create God? Yes.

I like to pick questions a part a little, and so I’m going to do that with this question, focussing on the words “create” and “God”. Firstly, I’m going to present a slightly facetious argument to help unpick the word “God”, and then I’m going to present a much more sincere argument to show man definitely created God.

The facetious argument: what does the question mean by ‘God’?

All Gods were created. There may be an exception, in that a sect of a religion may be true. But, apart from that God, all Gods were created.

I suspect the reason that this answer somehow doesn’t satisfy your thirst for an answer, no matter your position, is because the question seems to somehow misunderstand “God” in this sense. It seems to miss that point that if Hinduism is the true religion, then Allah was created by man. It’s almost as if so long as at least one religion is true, then we cannot say man created God. As such, as soon as I say “a religion may be true” I have failed in properly addressing the question.

And to that I agree. It seems clear that the question is not referring any religion or God of any religion. Instead, the question appeals to the essential concept of a God. Really, the question is ‘Did man create the essential idea of a God?’ In this question, it does not help us to talk of religions because we are talking about a cloud of publicly amassed philosophy referring to a God.

The sincere argument: what do I mean by ‘create’?

In this context, one about knowledge, I mean create, in a sense, in opposition to ‘discovered by evidence or revelation’. If the idea of a God were composed from evidence, then I would say that man ‘discovered’ God, and that excludes man from having ‘created’ God. In this context, I’m also happy to say that man ‘knows’ God if God was discovered.

This is a question of epistemology (which is a fancy word to describe the question ‘how do you know?’). And to that I have quite a simple argument:

  1. If there is no way by which one can know, then one cannot know.
    I don’t think this will be controversial, but it’s basically the idea that if you guess at something without any methods underpinning how one could come to that knowledge, then even if you happen to be correct, you still don’t know.
  2. There is no way by which one can know God.
    Religious people often claim this: God works in mysterious ways; God is beyond human understanding; God is unknowable. Atheists tend to accept this.
  3. One cannot know God
    That follows.

However, the essential idea of a God does exist. And, if it did not come about by knowledge or discovery, then it was created.

Did man create God? (Or was it Homo ergaster?) Taking a broader definition of the word “man” (to mean hominid regardless of gender), yes.

You’ll be careful to note that this answer is completely independent of whether or not a God exists. Nothing about this answer rules out there being a God looking down on us and saying ‘Well, they got that all wrong’. It’s just that even if that is so, the essential idea of a God was not discovered, but was instead created. Guesswork that is, regardless of whether it is accurate, a human creation.


God looks a lot like no God

We are willing to claim things don’t exist. I don’t mean atheists; I mean thinkers in general. Do you believe in unicorns, Santa, leprechauns, the tooth fairy or the Flying Spaghetti monster? I know they’re cliché examples, but that is intentional: I want you to realise these arguments aren’t new, but apologists have been ignoring them in the hope you can be fooled into believing one can never be reasonable in claiming something doesn’t exist. I’d be willing to wager that you actually are convinced the things above don’t exist, so you do have some idea of what it takes to claim something isn’t real. No ghosts, no mummies, no vampires.

You haven’t had to go to the end of space and time to make these conclusions; you have not observed every inch of the universe and neither do you need to. You know that.

We recognise the lies of psychics and horoscopes by their vagueness; the fact that nearly anything could be compatible with my horoscope prediction. How could “you will make an important transaction today” be wrong? We also recognise ghost hunters by their excuses for repeated failures. People who claim Bigfoot exists always have a reason for the miraculous absence of Bigfoot poo.

All these claims reveal nothing new about the universe; because anything could relate to my horoscope, it really says nothing at all. Because they reveal nothing, while claiming something, we are comfortable uttering their falsehood.

However, it does not seem to bother the religious that the claim ‘a God exists’ is empirically identical to its negation. Anything that one would expect to see that might be considered unique to a world where a God does exist is absent and apologised for. “God exists” is turned into a content-free utterance as anything that claim might mean is taken away; we don’t see anything it might mean.

I, reasonably, expect universally high human wellbeing, given a God that loves us. Yet, this is not the case, and it is apologised for: it’s our fault. That could make sense when talking about humans hurting humans; our freewill and autonomy are important to us. It doesn’t make complete sense, though. Ghandi had more empathy than a member of ISIS: why one was blessed with compassion and the other not is a curious quandary. More importantly, our freewill is irrelevant to cholera, ebola and dysentery.  And yet, “God exists”? The problem here is simple: love is considered a necessary descriptor of God, and that claim is made content-free as suffering and pain and things you wouldn’t allow to happen to those you loves are simply permitted.

You can claim this doesn’t affect the truth of the claim “God exists”, but by doing that you are making my point: what we expect to be able to discover whithers away, and the world starts to look identical, regardless of God’s existence.

I have no intention of stretching out the word count by listing every example of where ‘a world with God’ is defended by post fact apologetics and excuses, resulting in a world that looks entirely identical to ‘a world without a God’. However, another example is biology. God is also defined as the Creator, and a perfect one at that, and in many religions―particularly the Abrahamic ones―this creation is written as being an event. John Zande has already written quite extensively on the question of how a perfect being could have such an imperfect creation (surely it is a sign of a lack of foresight, lack of moral judgement or lack of expertise?)(John’s work here, here and here). But if that Creation event were true, archaeology, genealogy, geology and the fossil record would show a creation event. They don’t.

Instead, each discipline shows evolution. There are only really three rebuttals to this: denial, deceit and compatibalism. Denial is simply to say that these disciplines do not show evolution, even though they do. Deceit is to claim that the devil has orchestrated reality to provide false evidence of evolution (as a trick), which does raise the question of whether the Devil is more powerful than God (or whether God needed the Devil to play such a trick on humanity). Compatibilism is to say that a 13.8 billion year old universe, 4.5 billion year old Earth and 3.5 billion year old life is compatible with “on the first day…” making religious claims flexibly meaningless.

The world without God is, again, identical to the world with. Consider Sam Harris’ description: to say that it is reasonable to believe in a God is to say that you lie in a relationship with God, and that relationship is of a nature whereby you wouldn’t believe in It if It didn’t exist. But the actual description being put forward is one where such a relationship is impossible.

And that is the crux of my complaint here: what would you expect to be different about reality, if a God did not exist? If you cannot answer that question then you are not in a relationship with God of the sort Harris describes, therefore your faith is independent of God’s existence, therefore you’re bolstering my point: God looks a lot like no God.

Religion shows morality is discoverable despite God

I think there is evidence for morality being discoverable by secular methods, in religion. To make this argument, I will call on God’s justice and the fact that religions call on their followers to modulate the behaviour of the heathens. And that’s kind of it. The argument acts to do away with the common challenge of “why would atheists defend any morality at all?” The answer is that there is something, demonstrable in humans, that compels us to care how others act.

Now, I’ve already argued that the standard what behaviours in others we care about can be discovered through further understanding of wellbeing and in contractarian terms (i.e. what would perfectly rational entities who have no idea what position they would take in society write as a contract for behavior?). But I don’t think this is a uniquely secular philosophy.

If you are religious, why do you care if I kill people? Why do you even care if I kill you? “Because killing is wrong!” you may be rushing to type in the comments. But that doesn’t quite get us to the full answer. If killing is wrong, and I kill a lot of people, you believe in a God with a perfectly just safety net, right? I will receive my just punishment, and upon death the victims also will receive their rewards or punishments. Death leads everyone to God’s justice. Is that not the world the religious person believes in?

And yet, that seems insufficient to the religious person. Religious people want to modulate Earthly behaviour and politics. They want to stop abortion and stem cell research and extramarital sex. It matters to them how I behave, even knowing perfect justice is coming. But why? From a religious perspective, it doesn’t really matter how anyone behaves because all behaviour is met with perfect justice: murder doesn’t really matter, because the murderer’s actions are exacted. No matter what happens, the scales are always balanced. It’s an orgy of nihilism where no one need care how others behave.

But this simply isn’t the world religious people live in. The religious people care how others behave. The reason for this is that they care about people, even though there is no need for them to, knowing that justice will always be served in their narrative. (There also seems to be a certain level of implicit acceptance that God’s justice is not perfect, but actually massively an over reaction ― that actually the scales are not balanced, but massively tipped with infinite Hell for any transgressions. But that’s an aside.)

Take Islamic suicide bombing as a weird example of this. What would Allah care whether I die an infidel now or in 70 years? Why is Allah so willing to give such a reward to martyrs who kill me earlier than nature would have, given Allah is meant to be an infinite and omnitemporal being? The exacting of justice is coming either way, so what is 70 years to a God that exists outside time? In any narrative, does the suicide bomber achieve anything?

Despite the promise of exact justice, religious people care about people. And “religious” is not the important word here; “people” is. People care about people, and some of those people are religious. The simple fact that religious people care to modulate other people’s behaviour, given a promise of exacting justice, is evidence that the religion and the promise of justice are exactly not the point. The point is entirely about people.

And that’s where we start to talk about the definition of morality. Finding a sociopath who does not care about other people is irrelevant. Taking a contractarian view, morality is about what perfectly rational entities who have a stake in a civilisation would write as a contract of behaviour. People who don’t care, who are not rational, or exploits their known position in society only act as evidence that ‘morally’ is not the only way to act. Morality, in some way, relates to compassion. And that is not a religious phenomenon, but a human one. Compassion takes precedent over future justice, as compassion is about experience right now. (That’s not to say that human compassion isn’t overridden with anger sometimes, but we tend to be able to recognise that as distinct and different.)

Religion offers good reasons to be an earthly nihilist, knowing that it doesn’t matter what people do on Earth precisely because it will all be met with justice. Despite that, people care about behaviour precisely because they care. It’s a human phenomenon, not a religious one. So, when a religious person ponders why an atheist cares about morality, it’s because both the atheist and the religious person are getting that moral impulse from the same place.

A brief thought on that taboo racial slur and a more racist term

There exists a word, an anagram of ‘Ginger’, that is still taboo. I even hesitated to use it in the title of this post. Although (oh my, does this count as a trigger warning?) I am going to use that word in the rest of this post, as soon as I’m reasonably confident I have written enough words here for it to fill the brief summary the WordPress feed offers readers.

The point of this post is to discuss the idea that historically the word was used to dehumanise black people and so when white people use the word, it is that history they allude to. Therefore, so the argument goes, when a white person says ‘Nigger’ (or ‘nigga’, sorry, that’s the same thing) that is an absolute taboo. However, in modern parlance among black people, the word ‘Nigger’ is actually equalising, a comradery or endorsement of another black person. That makes it an entirely different word; the same sound, but entirely different.

The reason some black people keep the word ‘Nigger’ to show endorsement of each other is, in part, to take the dehumanising power the word had away. It has to be said that some black people think this is inappropriate and feel the word ‘Nigger’ is entirely dehumanising and taboo regardless of the speaker. Whereas my view is slightly different.


I entirely support moves take power away from words that intend to dehumanise people. But, I think continuing to allow the word ‘Nigger’ to be a taboo for white people is exactly the problem. By having the word ‘Nigger’ as a taboo for white people, its meaning can never be allowed to change. Only words in use can be allowed to change.

I understand I have limited experience with racism so my view on this may be discounted. But, hear me out. After all, white people who support racial equality outnumber bitter or ill-intending racists. I’m aware some people think all people are racists, but that involves a lowering of the bar of racism to include ‘racism of low expectations’ or ‘racism of passive ignorance’, both of which, although damaging, are far lower-level things than aggressive or active racism.

I am reminded of Louis CK’s use of the word ‘Nigger’ to describe a white barista. “That nigger made the shit out of a coffee.” It was an unabashed, unqualified endorsement of the young white man to be called a nigger. That use of the word that is prevalent among black culture is seeping into the lexicon in broader terms. It is shifting to be an endorsement and not an attack. But, if it continues to be a taboo for white people to say it, that shift can never complete; ‘Nigger’ will always be dehumanising if white people can’t also have access to the word. Most white people are not bitter racists who intend the word hatefully. Not even the old ones. I heard the story from a 90 year old lady that she had just seen “the most beautiful negress”. I don’t know what a negress is, but my spellchecker isn’t picking it up. I honestly think it was a 90 year-old’s attempt at being progressive. There wasn’t any disdain or contempt in her voice. Perhaps a little of the ‘racism of low expectations’, but no bitterness or aggression. She was, without judgement, observing a black woman and noting that she is beautiful. Sure, we can pine after the next step, where the 90-year-old doesn’t even notice the beautiful woman is black. But I think you’d be hard pushed to call the 90-year-old racist, without really minimising the definition of ‘racist’.


There is a word out there I think is more racist than the word ‘nigger’ and by a long way: Malteser. I don’t know how prevalent this word is, but I heard a friend of mine get called a malteser for being a high achieving black student. The suggestion was that, despite being black, she is ‘white on the inside’. It is the declaration that academic success is a white trait. Almost as if she is betraying her black culture to be successful. This is not me being outraged on her behalf, she was upset. And this is a word I simply never knew before. (That’s not 100% true, I’ve heard it used to describe brunette girls who acts stupid; they’re blonde on the inside. And, of course, I’ve used the actual chocolate to send myself into a pre-diabetic coma.)

So I am pondering to myself as I write this whether “malteser” could even have its racist interpretation taken away from it. And I think the answer is “no”. If black people take it and try to own it, it will still have the connotation of separation; that there is some trait or achievement that is uniquely ‘white’. If white people try to own it, it will still suggest there are some things black people can’t do or have. And yet it is powerless word that most people have never heard of in race terms. It is unlike ‘nigger’ in that separation of race is built into the word. But I still don’t think taboo is the answer; taboo gives the word power. I think the answer is ridicule (or, at least, it would be if the word ever gained any real power).

And for that, it has to be allowed to be said.

Crossing the ‘T’s and and dotting the ‘i’s: a contract of morality?

I have been compelled recently to thoroughly consider another moral explanation, aside from ‘The Moral Landscape’. It is called Contractarianism. And it resonates strongly with something I have recently been arguing and investigating: that an open rational discussion is a method of understanding morality. This relates to ‘The Moral Landscape’, and I suspect that is an artefact of more than just coincidence. The basic premise is this: given a veil of ignorance and perfect rationality, there are a set of rules and penalties (a contract) society would compose for itself. The veil of ignorance is an important step to this: it is the condition that the rational minds discussing and composing the contract have no idea what role in the society they will play once the contract is composed. It, therefore, benefits no one to write in rules that favour a particular group and no one can exploit an existing privilege.

Despite this language of ‘a contract’, it certainly worth noting that this does not make morality an opt-in situation where people can refuse to sign the contract and suddenly have no moral responsibility and are immune from punishment. The contract is the product of a thought experiment; a hypothetical document on which morality would be described. Everyone’s behaviour could then be said to comport to a greater or lesser extent to the description is this hypothetical document.

Being compelled to consider new moral explanations is a rather rare phenomenon for me. Often moral arguments have a certain glaring hole in them, particularly theistic ones that act on authority without a clear explanation as to why any one should value the authority of a God (other than threats). Vicarious redemption acts as a loophole to any normal moral concerns, undermining the Christian moral explanation rather rapidly. The Christian moral explanation that was offered to me by Oldschoolcontemporary (OSC), although immensely interesting, also failed to compel me to its protracted considerations: the idea that developing a certain relationship with God is what Christianity really is, and that it will lead to certain moral epiphanies. But this doesn’t tell you whether God has saved certain relationships for certain people that have since done things we consider psychotic, or whether God is even necessary for the epiphanies OSC alluded to: meditation and LSD consistently give the same epiphanies. However, this hypothetical contract from perfectly rational and interested beings is curious.

Given that perfect rationality among a group is something humanity hasn’t had, the content of such a document is not yet fully knowable. Certainly, rational and empirical arguments can be made to allude to what the contract would say. The rational argument could look at what rights one would want to afford themselves and, due to the veil of ignorance, would have to afford all groups, with pragmatic limits and thus trade-offs. The empirical argument could look at the moral progress and direction of societies that have embraced the values of the Enlightenment and extrapolate those directions. We could even look at the concepts of fairness and protective nature (even interspecies) among intelligent life. It will heavily reflect the Ancient Greek idea of ‘Natural Law’. But any level of certainty is not yet available to us.

In both cases, I think general rules and values can be gleaned: liberty, not causing harm, helping the needy etc. In fact, the theme of ‘The Moral Landscape’, that of safeguarding the highest possible wellbeing, I suspect, can be derived from imagining what those perfect rational beings with a stake in the society would compose.

This does give me reason for a certain level of optimism, as I recently wrote an article pondering what codes of conduct AI would write for itself. AI doesn’t perfectly fit the criteria for Contractarianism, as even if they were perfectly moral, AI would understand its function in a society: such a situation could still lead to tyrannical rules. However, each individual AI program would not know its place in the community of AI, with new AIs always possibly being right around the corner.

Contractarianism does fail the normal tests composed on it by theistic moral explanations, particularly that of ‘what does it matter to the universe?’ I think this is a biased challenge that doesn’t relate to any understandable definition of morality. I cannot see why cosmic significance, the idea that moral decisions make a difference in 40 billion years, is a necessary hurdle for moral explanations to jump. But the other regular moral challenges levelled at moral explanations are whether they include criteria for accountability. Again, I think this is a mistaken criteria: if one asks whether moral decisions could be said to be better or worse than each other, I cannot see why accountability is a factor. People who believe the Earth is flat are objectively wrong, even no one ever holds them to account for their view. It may be of pragmatic concern, but it is of no philosophical concern. Besides, pragmatic concerns of the accountability held in certain moral explanations also need to be fired inwardly on most theistic morality. Moreover, however, it is a contract that will have among its content the penalty for transgressions. Other contractors are then empowered by the contract to hold transgressors to account. It might not be a necessary hurdle to jump, but contractarianism still does.

(Although this is something I like doing — explaining why I don’t have to answer a certain question because it doesn’t affect the credibility of the idea I’m discussing, and then answering the question anyway — I really should stop. There are a few commenters who are more interested in cheap debating tactics than open discussion, and this leaves me vulnerable to their silly little quips.)

Contractarianism: the view that a perfectly rational group with an interest in a society it shall return to, with no awareness of where in that society they shall return will write up a contract for that society that governs behaviour for the better ― and that such a document records moral values. It may run parallel to or lie causal to or completely replace my former moral explanations: the moral landscape. It is another, reasonable seeming, secular explanation of objective morality.

Do I really have to answer such absurd depictions of my view? Enlightenment values help discover morality and let it flourish

In a recent conversation with oldschoolcontemporary (OSC) about objective morality, we ran into many stumbling blocks to our ability to properly communicate with each other. So far as I could tell, OSC had immovable metrics in place by which to measure objective morality that were almost necessarily religious (redemption, salvation and infallible imposable authority) which were, so far as I can see, superfluous to morality. Morality, and hopefully we call all agree at at least this point, pertains to actions. But, this was borne out of what I suspect was a much bigger issue: OSC appeared to have an incredibly two-dimensional and uniform view of all morality that was ‘other’ to his own.

The morality I offered pertained to wellbeing (queue a million surprises), and the idea that we can progressively learn about this morality through open and honest discussion. The idea that we can learn about morality is based on what the Ancient Greeks initially spoke of, and which translates approximately to ‘Natural Law’. Natural Law is the concept that heavily informed the writing of the EU and UN documents on Human Rights. This concept of Natural Law has spanned cultural differences, national borders and religions. It is discoverable through the values we often related to the 17th Century Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment values are that of open enquiry, speech and the right of and to criticism. Those values have appeared in many places, and when they do they are accompanied by advances in civil rights and justice. The mini-Enlightenment of Ancient Greece, for example, laid the ground for for the first political use of democracy (at least, the first one that was recorded and those records have survived). Athenian democracy has its warts: only land-owning men were allowed to vote. Still, that was a great leap forward from where they were before. The Golden Age of Islam, for all its nonsense, did foster religious and cultural tolerance and intellectual freedoms.

My argument is that, given those conditions, human conversations nearly always (with the occasional bump; I’m not arguing this is perfect) conclude in social progress: wanting to extend liberties to other nationalities and ethnicities, to all genders, to other species; to the writing of human rights and the acknowledgements of war crimes; to freedom of sexuality and love, and to freedoms of migration.

OSC doesn’t accept any of that as necessarily ‘good’. To be a little more precise, OSC doesn’t accept that any of this meets the ‘grace of God’. This, apparently, is a key definition in what ‘good’ is, according to OSC. And that makes sense; that’s the only way to then demand the surrender of moral autonomy to a God and a love of Jesus and his sacrifice.

I attempted to address what I saw as shortcomings in OSC’s theistic morality from a base of common ground: this idea of God’s expectation of us being perfect, of authoritarian and tyrannical definitions, of the paradox regarding what ‘good’ actually is (God’s nature or something God ascribes to), the fact a human sacrifice is so contrary to human moral sensibilities (which presumably God made for us). This is why I was then surprised and frustrated to read OSC’s reply to me, where he demonstrated profound misunderstandings of what I said.

OSC attempted to define ‘wellbeing’ as narrowly as he possibly could, something that comes across as a dishonest strawman: he made it just about human wellbeing, but the expedient function of the human machine (i.e. “healthy” to the human body, with no regard even for psychological health). He converted the ideas of freedoms into “whims and fancy”, completely discarding the fact that humanity frequently agrees to extend these rights, even to people beyond your pragmatic interest (but, evidently, not beyond our moral interest). He set up an analogy where a religious person went to a humanist academy, and made the humanists into modernistic pragmatists with a disregard for experience and wonder, and gave those attributes to the religious character. This is despite those characteristics clearly belonging to the flourishing of wellbeing, and the people routinely going through predefined motions are those who define morality theistically.

All this I may have been willing to address and answer. In fact, I made some efforts. But, OSC’s comment persisting in deviating further into the absurd as the comment progressed. The first major transgression from anything I thought could even be argued an honest misunderstanding was the question of whether a wellbeing-based morality would permit a person to rape and torture 2 children, to save the lives of 3 children. The honest answer is that I don’t know. I don’t know all 5 children surviving, where two are raped and tortured is better than 2 children surviving without rape and torture, and three dying. (The fact I don’t know doesn’t stop that being an objective question. I also don’t know which is heavier: an average apple or an average nectarin.) But the thought experiment is so poorly thought-through. The person being indicted here the person who has to choose between the rape or the murder? Because it seems to be the person who should be indicted is the person who actually set-up this twisted little scenario. But, also, what is the Christian answer here? Should you permit 3 to death, or rape and torture 2? The failure of this thought experiment isn’t wellbeing, it’s that all options are heinous. Christianity fails to get a happy resolution to this, as well.

At some sort of tipping point, OSC stepped into politics. He started talking about utopianism, and how all ideas of utopia have been just-the-other-side of awful and heinous things. He started talking of the suppression of religious freedoms under the Soviets. He started talking about eugenics under the Nazis. He started talking about how my view―that of safeguarding wellbeing and having an open and frank discussion about what is good―would lead to horror and atrocity. I didn’t force his views―one of understanding morality through some epiphany or religious revelation in a relationship with God―into Crusades and Inquisitions or religious persecution and Witch Hunts. But, apparently, no such courtesy was extended to me. Everything that is not theistically defined morality, to OSC, is all Soviet oppression and Nazi eugenics.

Do I have to answer that? From a practical sense, are there people who read a conversation like that and will have OSC’s absurd strawman slip past their intellectual faculties? How much work is ahead of me when my interlocutor doesn’t get a single element of my proposal right and compares it to the complete antithesis of what I’ve said? I’ve got to restate my position, actively disavow and untangle that position from the smear and then start unpicking anything they presented as their own view. It’s overloading, putting work before me that I should never have to do.

My response to OSC was frustrated and angry. OSC is an elegant and intelligent writer, and for that reason I had been hooked into a long and time consuming discussion with him. Some of his religious views are nuanced, intricate and require considerable ruminations over, especially the epiphany-interpretation of Christianity I explored in my last post. This (along with the fact morality matters to me) is why I responded badly, having felt betrayed by OSC sudden descent into such insane argumentation.