Can abortion ever be banned, while maintaining female rights?

Madblog recently wrote a series of posts. (Recent relative to when I wrote this, anyway.) Her posts were about abortion, the two pertinent points being this: abortion is a genocide, just like the Nazi extermination of the Jews; and, in response to the indignation she subsequently received, to set the challenge for atheists (because, as everyone knows, “pro-choice” is just code for “atheist”) to explain how abortion and genocide were objectively and inherently morally different. The challenge was to explain why genocide was objectively and inherently wrong, while not giving an explanation that would also cast serious judgement on abortion as well.

And that takes me straight to an aside: abortion should not be a preferred method of contraception. Abortion is a trade-off. It’s not nice. Women do not tend to make the decision lightly and any anti-abortion rhetoric that suggests otherwise should be met with the appropriate level of incredulity and scorn. Abortion is not a fantastic thing to be celebrated. It is a difficult decision for anyone who has to consider it, and it can cause both emotional and physical harm. I don’t think anyone is arguing it’s some moral excellence.
What I argue when I partake in this debate is that it’s not a moral equivalent to murder, or even killing a cat. It’s a bad whose moral worth is abrogated by the good of female reproductive rights. It’s one of those ‘pick between these awful options’ thing. And ceasing female reproductive rights (or stopping them forming in the first place) is decidedly worse than abortion.
(Madblog said nothing of this sort, I’ve added this aside for a wider audience.)

However, my answer to Madblog’s challenge was something she implored me to extend to the wider atheist community (particularly females). And I do really want answers to this, to the point that I am actually going to ask you to reblog and link to this to get as many answers as possible. I’ve not seen anyone argue this before, and so this is entirely new ground for me.

I have adapted my comment for the sake of this post, and it was this:

The act of murder induces fear and misery in the survivors, and ends an actual self-sustaining human life. Genocide is worse, because there are more lives involved and the sheer arbitrariness of it deepens the fear held by the survivors: ‘maybe the next arbitrary condition for murder will include me!’ It’s the ultimate dystopia, not least because many genocides are perpetrated on the false promise of a utopia.

Foetuses are not human lives. There is no medical definition of human death (and therefore human life) that includes a foetus until, at earliest, week 21; and that relates to brain-stem activity. Trying to define human life to extend to foetuses results in all sort of medical complications and paradoxes. And hopefully no one is arguing for a special case of just adding foetuses to the definition of human life as an addendum, because that is special pleading. The death of a human, legally and medically, relies on the cessation of brain stem activity. Murder, then, is just a subset of conditions relating to death. Pre-21 week abortions are not murder.

Not only do foetuses not have the brain activity to be human lives, but they are not self-sustaining lives. They are biological parasites (if they are not wanted). Biological parasites are different from social or financial parasites, like dogs and born children, which are self-sustaining life entitled to rights (at differing levels ― according to species and ability to suffer). I couldn’t, for example, demand a right to have our bodies links so that your body supports mine, if I were to ill to sustain my own life.

Although abortion may induce repulsion in many people (and that’s understandable), abortion does not lead anyone to reasonably fear for their own life, nor does it end a self-sustaining human life.

The fact that one is the cessation of a self-sustaining human life and the other is the removal of an unwanted growth is precisely the difference.

You may argue that foetuses have the potential to be self-sustaining human lives, and therefore we are talking about moral equivalents here. But that is a non sequitur: there is no reason one should consider “potentials” and “actuals” in the same way. For one, given current technology, tumours have the potential to be human lives. (You may find the comparison repugnant, but that is not the same as seeing the difference.)

Something seemed off about my answer. It was somehow incomplete. So I went on to do something I think many may rail against me for: I future-proofed my morality by permitting an absolute ban on abortions, given certain technological progress:

There may be a good argument for creating a broader definition of human life: If you define human life as that which is self-sustaining, with technological medical intervention, then this will include the babies born at phenomenally early-term stages and survived (as has happened). But, it can also include babies born at increasingly early stages, as technology advances. I don’t think there is anything inherently silly about this idea, as I believe human ecology is defined by knowledge and technology and so our species should have a dynamic definition of this technology-dependent sort.

What this would mean is that human death would no longer be defined at the cessation of brain-stem activity, but at the point that current technology cannot reasonably be said to bring back brain stem activity. (These, currently, are the same thing.) One implication of this is that 19-week foetuses could be human: they could be removed from the womb, ‘brought to term’ (so to speak) and have brain stem activity begin eventually. Abortions, at this stage, will have to be replaced with a more intricate operation that removes the foetus carefully. But, abortions at this stage are already surgical.

(Another, less ideal, consequence is that human life will depend on the country or even the region of the country and the medical technology available. That is not a nice consequence, and hopefully one that would encourage medical funding around the world!)

In this case, when technology is sufficiently advanced, it really would be a human life at conception. (That is not to say it really is a human life at conception now. This is strictly a technology-dependent definition. It is only if you accept this techno-centric definition of humanity that an ‘at conception’ blastocyst can be considered a ‘living human, potentially sustained by current technology’. If you don’t accept this definition, then the legal definition as it currently is, stands.) However, in this circumstance, if that is the moral direction we wanted to take (and that’s a big if), then sufficient technology would exist to remove the foetus and support it with medical intervention — and that process would replace abortions. The reproductive rights of women wouldn’t change, just the technology used to realise those rights.

I think that is the right interpretation of my future-proofed position on abortion: I think at the stage a foetus could be removed from the womb a reliably be kept alive, then that is not a foetus anymore; it is a baby. At that stage, I am willing to call that a human life. And so, at that stage, if a woman doesn’t want the child, her options are to undergo an operation to have the child removed and sustained (on the state ― she shouldn’t have to pay; ethics should not be about what you can afford) or carry it to term and put it up for adoption.

Yes, that makes some “abortions” (of course, they’re not abortions at this stage) at later stages more burdensome, but I think that is the result of this meaningful definition of human life.

And, yes, I think it is conceivable that technology will one day be at a stage where a foetus could be kept alive from conception, making the morning after pill a murder. But the technology to remove and sustain the baby will also exist, so the same reproductive freedoms still exist (in all circumstances).


(As a side note, to fund that, you’d need universal health care. I wonder how many anti-abortioners would support that. You maintain the woman’s right to not have the child, and the state pays to provide the medical intervention to ‘bring it to term’ as it were.)

Is atheism a necessary precondition for genocide?

There exists a common charge against atheists and atheism that atheism is instrumental in the genocides of the Western World, in the 20th century. If you let the debate run on long enough, the key actors in this argument are Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, the Kims of North Korea and Mao. The exact tyrants they name depend on the level of understanding of history they choose to present, and how skillfully they think they can argue a particular person is an atheist. You may come up against rhetoric like “are you going to argue ‘tyrant X’ was a good Christian?” as a way of defining someone as an atheist, which is a language game I think is too obvious to argue with: what does one mean by “good Christian”? What does one mean by “good”, in this sense? Is a bad Christian not a Christian?

One strange interlocutor took this argument a step further, arguing that atheism is a necessary precondition for the horrors of the 20th Century in the Western world, alluded to by mentioning the tyrants above. I want to make a series of points against this: not all the people mentioned can confidently be said to be atheists; religious people have led atrocities; and atheism is a poor focal point.

The reason this matters is because the claim being made is that atheism is a “necessary” precondition; if the people at the helm of atrocities are not exclusively atheist, then it cannot be said that atheism is a “necessary” precondition. To a certain extent, the premise being argued defeats itself: the simple fact the parameters are so limited in time and in geography shows a selective sample that is contrived to exclude certain events.

Thanks to xPrae, I was caught up in exactly this debate without knowing it. I’d become exhausted with his contorted logic, disregard of basic philosophy and willful ignorance of facts. I had simply decided to irritate him. Poor form, I know, but letting him express his sense of self-worth was a lot more fun than giving him facts and well-reasoned arguments (that he’d simply call “sophistry” anyway). Meanwhile, xPrae, according to himself, had a university debate moderator scoring our exchange. He won, according to the moderator (according to xPrae), but that’s like having a referee declare a 3rd League High School Basketball team the winners against an NBA team who were taking a walk in a park; one team wasn’t even playing.* Even then, the blog post xPrae wrote about shows signs of a biassed moderator. (Read for yourself.)

Who can we not say was an atheist?

I want to look at two groups of people in the suggested tyrant list: those we cannot confidently say are atheists, and those we can confidently say are religious. These groups work to cast doubt on and entirely destroy the premise offered, respectively. Hitler and Pol Pot are both difficult to claim as atheists. The Kims are religious.

Hitler made numerous recorded public and private declarations of faith. The Nazi movement was perpetrated on Hitler’s proclamations of Christian faith. One can blindly speculate that Hitler’s actions exclude him from being a Christian, but his actions did not convince the Catholic Church or a variety of other Christian leaders that Hitler wasn’t Christian. Not only did Hitler say he was Christian, but he also managed to convince a lot of people within Christianity that he was Christian. Not just the leaders and authorities within different Churches, but also the German people. There is nothing about Hitler’s actions that convinced people at the time he was not a Christian. The historical revisionism needed to make that claim now should be staring people in the face.

The entire argument that Hitler was not a Christian comes from some of the people closest to Hitler claiming that his ideas and attitudes did not conform to their own definition or standard of Christianity. But, that is a person’s own definition of Christianity, one that the Church clearly did not recognise at the time. Is Goebbels’s definition of Christianity really the authority on this? Is Goebbels’ opinion robust enough to exclude Hitler not just from Christianity, but deism in the broader sense? Even if you trust Goebbels’ standard of measuring Christianity by action and not on belief, and Goebbels’ conclusion that Hitler didn’t meet Goebbels’ standard of Christianity, that does nothing to exclude Hitler from broader theism. But there is a lot of philosophical work and historical revisionism required to even get to that stage.

Pol Pot was a raised a Buddhist and acted like a Buddhist right up to the point he became a dictator. There was no obvious denouncement or even gradual falling out of Buddhism; no transition. It’s difficult to say he was a Buddhist at one point but stopped being a Buddhist at any point before he was a tyrant. That said, he did persecute Buddhists first. I find this far too mixed a picture to be able to say confidently that he was an atheist.

The Kims aren’t atheists. They are Gods of a religion. A dead Kim is still the leader of North Korea, because the religion (which, I don’t think has a name) doesn’t accept that he died. That’s not atheism. I don’t think that point can be overstated: atheism is not the elevation of one’s self to the position of a God or to assume God’s authority. If that’s the approach one takes to indict atheism of the atrocities, then one is mistaken.

xPrae, for example, argues that committing an atrocity is “seeking to be God”, and that this makes one an atheist. Every step in that reasoning is absurd: some atrocities are the result of defensible interpretation of passages of scripture, and Christianity has a loophole written into it that means no deed is unforgivable. It’s not seeking to be God if one plans to make amends afterwards, that’s simply playing the game. And, for the record, Humanism doesn’t have a loophole like that in it. Seeking to bea god doesn’t even mean you don’t believe in another God; there’s nothing like a bit of healthy competition. Didn’t the Devil seek to be God, knowing full well there was a God?

But that still leaves Stalin and Mao as likely atheists. I could be done here, as once I have demonstrated that the call of exclusivity of atheism in these atrocities cannot be reasonably exclaimed, I have completely done away with the idea that atheism is a “necessary” component.

Religious people have led atrocities

The fact that not everyone on the list can be said to be atheists is not the only way to demonstrate that atheism has no exclusive position at the helm of the atrocities. In fact, they could all be atheists and that still wouldn’t support the premise of atheism being necessary. The other way is to point out that people we can confidently say are religious have led atrocities. The Solomon empire, the Inquisition, Witch Hunts, Jorge Rafael Videla, and The Lord’s Liberation army are all pretty well-known examples.

But we also live in a world where Jihadists are committing genocide, Sunnis and Shi’ites are committing genocide against each other, Christians are committing murder against huge numbers of Muslims in the Central African Republic, Buddhists are exterminating Muslims in Myanmar. I’ve written before about the ways in which religion can inspire violence: it’s role in defining a tribe as well as it’s actual commands to violence. Religions are difficult to interpret, and Abrahamic religions are even more difficult still to interpret peacefully. When someone says a religious murderer or tyrant simply got their religion wrong, they are making the profoundly arrogant assumption they are getting the religion right; different to how people throughout history and modernity have interpreted it, they know what’s right. (Are they claiming themselves a God? Who knows?)

xPrae has a response to this: that people who commit atrocities are usurping the authority of God and are therefore atheists. If that’s the language game you want to play, then xPrae’s conclusion is incontrovertible. But, I think the sophistry xPrae is employing unravels as soon as you choose to think about it. Being a tyrant doesn’t mean usurping God’s authority, especially when God commands such things (Sharia law, the Canaanites’ extermination); that’s a surrender of moral autonomy to God, explicitly. But, even if one does usurp the authority of God, that’s not atheism; they might plan to make amends near the end (the Christian loophole) or be assuming a new covenant with God; they could deny God’s authority in this life but accept it in the next. The only way to follow xPrae’s argument is to change the definition of all the keywords. (Ironically, if one tries to hold him to the real definition of the keywords, then that person is the sophist, not xPrae.)

Religion is very much still a prominent factor in many wars and atrocities across the globe. And that’s not to mention that the religiosity (Christianity) of the Nazis was a necessary precondition for the Holocaust. They needed to be Christian to be convinced they could justify what they were doing and of Hitler’s speeches (even if all they were was rhetoric). For all the debate to be had about Hitler, the actual foot soldiers were Christian.

These examples may fail to meet the criteria of the premise: Western. But I’d argue that is an entirely contrived parameter, written in for the implicit purpose of excluding these examples. Not only are the Kims, Mao and Pol Pot also not “Western” (leaving only Stalin―and only arguably―in the argument, which isn’t much of an argument at all, is it?) but such a limit undermines the whole idea of atheism being a “necessary precondition”. If atheism were necessary, it would not be so context-specific as to exclude nearly all the atrocities that are actually happening.

So, not only are all the “atheists” not atheists, but they are also not the only people that commit atrocities.

Why try to focus on atheism at all?

There is a clear agenda present in trying to make atheism the focus of modern atrocities. It involves a contorted logic to exclude religious tyrants, and to try to make atheists out of people who are not atheists, and it serves a goal (which might explain why it’s so important to some people). But atheism is precisely not the issue. The issue is what people actually believed, and in every case, what the person at the helm believed, and convinced others of, was basically religious.

Take Stalin, the most likely person in our list to have been both atheist and Western (although, it’s a bit of a stretch on being Western). He was anti-theistic. You may think that being an atheist is self-evident, if we accept he’s an anti-theist. I disagree. I do not have to withhold belief or disbelieve in the government of North Korea to dislike it. Equally, Stalin does not have to withhold belief or disbelieve in God to be anti-theistic. Stalin probably was an atheist, but that’s not the necessary step. And, if you refuse to focus on the necessary step, you may as well pick some other arbitrary feature; after all, all the named tyrants breathed. Is breathing a relevant necessary precondition? Why not make efforts to focus on what is relevant?

The relevant claim that the tyrants believed and convinced others of was this: there is a better world available at the other side of this action, therefore, this action cannot be thought of as bad. It was an unwavering belief in a utopia existing at the other side of an atrocity. It is this dogmatic certainty and willingness to follow through that is the concern, and that which I am characterising as religious.

A better Cambodia exists, for the survivors, and it is just on the other side of eradicating intellectuals and those who refuse to farm; a better race exists, and can be realised and purified, and it will inherit a utopia once there are no Jews, black people or disabled people in Germany; the world is a purer and more faithful place without heretics, and so there’s just one little thing we need to do to create a utopia; 72 virgins and bliss await the martyr…

The religious claims of certainty in a utopia do not exclude more traditionally religious beliefs; if anything, they foster each other. Only theists can claim to have such special access to knowledge. There is nothing about Hitler’s belief in a superior race that excludes him from being a Christian; if anything, the idea that God has a chosen people is supported by the Bible.

Short of immediate self-protection, we should be immediately sceptical of anyone who says they are willing to kill for a greater good. That person is not selling atheism, that person is selling religion.


*If you think that’s simply the ‘I could have won but I wasn’t trying’ dodge, then you’ve missed the point. That is only a dodge if you then never offer to demonstrate what you can do when you try.

xPrae: How I defeated you so soundly (Part 6: the whining hyper-scepticism of facts you don’t like)

This post is going to catharticly address the hypocrisy of the blogger, xPrae, on the topic of facts evidence, as well as give a short introduction into when sources and evidence are useful. I don’t know why I do this, xPrae has so few followers as to be irrelevant. However, his pseudo-conversation was fun at first and then became a worryingly explicit performance of some of the faulty thinking that surrounds quite literally every subject he cares to pronounce on. His idea of evidence is ‘I just know’ or to claim he is actually familiar with the person you’re talking about, and so literally has secret access to knowledge you can’t have.

You may recall my previous posts on xPrae, the strange interlocutor who eschews sources in favour of things he feels knows are correct. He’s one of the people arguing that all the genocide of the Western world in the 20th Century was down to atheism. He pointed to the assertion that Hitler, Mao, Stalin, the Kims and some others have committed genocide, and are atheists. That’s a painfully obvious case of selection bias, making a false correlation. (For starters, if the Kims and Mao are part of the “West”, surely the Ottomans, Pinochet, Batista, and Théodore Sindikubwabo who ordered the Rwandan genocide are also all the “West”).

He then explained the carefully selected correlation by claiming that atheism offers no prohibition to heinous deeds. I responded by claiming atheists at large are not bad people, that this is reflected in prison population breakdowns or by looking at other atheists in politics. More importantly, I argued that understanding what these people really did believe is what really mattered: as Hitchens would (probably) have argued, the problem with the named tyrants is that what they believed acted so much like a religion.

Now that you’re up to speed, I want to explore xPrae’s response to John Zande’s argument that Hitler was not an atheist, but a Christian. This would be a significant change to xPrae’s argument, because xPrae had been arguing that the genocide of the West in the 20th century was exclusively atheism-driven (and, when you say it that way, it’s absurdity jumps off the page at you). Up to this point, I had not challenged xPrae on whether these individuals actually were atheists, because he admitted to hating facts sources. But actually confronting xPrae with facts revealed the overwhelming hypocrisy of how he was establishing his content.

Zande offered so many quotes from Hitler talking about reverence for God and scorning atheists, and of Church leaders endorsing Hitler that it’s barely worth sharing them all. You can trawl through the comments in your own time if you want to see some of what was said. xPrae’s response, for quite some time, was ‘nu uh! me no likey!’ to simply deny they’re relevant. He was pressed for sources. He presented none. He was pressed again, and he complained about sources and talked about sources being atheism’s Holy Writ. I found this ironic, as at least Zande and I were outsourcing our Holy Writ; xPrae’s Holy Writ was his own unfounded opinion.

Eventually xPrae changed tact and implored us to do his research for him. (A typical deflection used by homoeopaths, naturopaths and anti-vaxxers the world over.) Having believed only a few days earlier that Hitler was, in fact, an atheist (and having my mind changed rather rapidly in the comments section here), I took the bait and did the research. I came up pretty empty handed in terms of sources I actually trusted, but I shared a Wikipedia page on the issue and moved on. The page I shared was sympathetic to xPrae’s view, but admitted the topic was “a matter of interest and debate”. xPrae took one quote from one person, without evidence, from the page and ran with it. And that is the context for the conversation that followed.

xPrae showed a hyper-scepticism of the quotes Zande shared. It apparently did not matter to xPrae what Hitler said, so far as xPrae was concerned, Hitler could not be a Christian because Hitler was so heinous. xPrae had taken his own interpretation of Christianity and decided that he could mandate not only the beliefs that define Christianity, but the actions too. Regardless of beliefs, one’s actions could exclude someone from being a Christian. I took issue with that, because Christianity is a belief system, under which there are thousands of denominations, some of which are horrid. The definition is not about behaviour at all.

Not only that, but Hitler’s behaviour didn’t convince the Church leaders at the time that Hitler was not a Christian. Zande had also shared quotes to show Church leaders were not changing their mind based on the actions of Hitler. xPrae was claiming to be more knowledgeable of Christianity than Church leaders. This is very possible, but he didn’t evidence it. He just asserted it, over and over.

This is where the hypocrisy and hyper-scepticism became apparent. To reject the idea that Hitler was a Christian, xPrae had to doubt whether we could ever know someone’s mind. He started talking of “proof”, and me requesting a demonstration of what it is someone thought made me the “King of the Absurd”. He took the hardline that Hitler’s Christianity was a pragmatic theatre for the German people, but provided no evidence. (I’m not saying no evidence exists, I’m saying he wouldn’t present it.) I pointed out that you could do the same things to me: claim that I am actually a Christian and my entire blog is a ruse because I’m concerned about Christian persecutions. You can throw in baseless claims like that. You can always offer an unreasonable objection.

But, hang on, what about the atheists? How did we actually know Stalin was an atheist. Well, he said it, didn’t he? As did Mao and Pot. Case closed? That’s the very evidence Zande had for Hitler’s Christianity, and that wasn’t good enough. When xPrae called me the King of the Absurd, it was in response to me asking him to demonstrate that Stalin was an atheist. And yes, xPrae believes Stalin is an atheist. But, getting evidence of such a thing is absurd?

Essentially, xPrae had decided the facts he likes, and was simply believing them. And he likes facts not based on evidence, but the extent to which they support his narrative. He’s hyper-sceptical of evidence of Hitler’s Christianity, fully in support of one source claiming Hitler was a materialist, and fully in support of evidence of Stalin’s atheism, although the presented evidence accounts for only a fraction of the evidence in favour of Hitler’s Christianity. xPrae is sceptical of facts he doesn’t like (and you can always offer an unreasonable objection). And that’s simply not a conversation.

There was a lesson to be learned about sources, though. xPrae didn’t like sources, and his reason turned out to be because he didn’t know how to use them. So, here’s some lessons on how to use them: sources are best used when they present an argument or data. Simply quoting someone’s concluding remarks is entirely irrelevant, no matter how clever or renowned they are. You may rely on their subject expertise to guide validated ways of interpreting evidence, although that introduces a bit of uncertainty. The reason you can’t just quote someone’s concluding remarks is because you don’t know the person saying that: are they biased? Do they have an agenda? Do they use all the facts? Are they citing their own incredulity or awe as evidence? Are there concluding remarks about an anecdote informing an hypothesis, or meant as conclusive remarks about how something is? What assumptions have they made? Is this their area of expertise? Is it an exercise it Socratic Seminar?

Sourced concluding remarks are useless. What you want is the data and the methodology. Again, someone else may help you interpret that, that’s not an awful thing. But you don’t want just the conclusion

So, when xPrae was citing one person to say Hitler was a materialist with no belief in God or conscience, he was abusing the idea of sources. xPrae was right about sources, used the way he used them: that really is a pointless exercise in pitting one lot of opinions against another, with a disregard for the evidence. And that is a strange position to take for someone who, on their own blog, offers: “Unusually Insightful and Literate Commentary on the World Around Us”.

Zande used sources properly. The question was what Hitler believes. And Zande took long, explanatory quotes from Hitler’s writing and speeches. Admittedly, translated (and there’s a source of doubt). But still, that’s the actual data on what someone believes. Sure, a polygraph test would have been great, and the guest list in Heaven would be even better. But in terms of what evidence we can expect for what a person believes, Zande did just fine.

If xPrae wanted to defend his source of doubt―the idea that Hitler was an opportunistic pragmatist, and that’s all his pronouncements of Christianity were―we would expect to find such claims in Hitler’s personal writing, or for Hitler’s closest confidants to have quoted such things. I’m still open to such things, but a cursory look at the evidence has Hitler’s confidants simply expressing doubts, speculations and personalised definitions of Christianity―concluding remarks without the supporting evidence. (Not that xPrae presented any of this.)

Questions for Theists.

What follows is 10 questions aimed at theists, along with an explanation as to why the questions are meaningful. The questions are sincere, as they have been the stumbling blocks to many a conversation about religion. What is contained in the explanations that follow the questions is not meant to limit a theist’s response, and anywhere you think I may be offering a limited number of options for your answer, that is not my point; these are not meant to be produced as multiple choice questions. They are open and you are free to answer anything. Nothing is intended as a ‘gotcha’ question.

1. What do you do if you feel the morality of your religion conflicts strongly with your own morality?

We are all aware of things in religious texts to which the evaluation ‘unpalatable’ is an understatement. God requested some awful things of people in the Bible, for example, including the absolute destruction of societies and sacrifice of children. But even peaceful religions may teach peace when you feel strongly that the use of force would be for the greater good: one can imagine there were Tibetan monks who felt that way when their territory was being occupied.

How do you weigh this up: the feeling you have that is borne of a moral conscience (which you may well believe a God gave to you) conflicts with direct teachings? Do you do the thing you think heinous and have faith? Or do you do the thing you think is good?

2. Why doesn’t immorality carry natural consequences?

Inspired by this post, it is worth pointing out that ‘sin’ does not carry any natural consequences. If we look at the universe with the intention of investigating whether it makes sense to claim it was designed by a moral creator, we encounter an issue: there are such things as natural consequences, but they don’t line up with sin. I can trip, fall, touch a flame or eat something poisonous and there will be natural and inevitable consequences defined by natural laws of physics and biology. And yet, at no point in life does nature modulate our behaviour with regard to immorality. Unlike sticking your hand in a fire, the consequences of adultery are not inevitable, the consequences of extramarital sex don’t exist at all and you can blaspheme on your way to work without so much as missing a beat.

To defend the claim of a moral creator, one would expect to see the designer to have implemented as many natural and inevitable consequences to sin as have been created for safety concerns and biological function.

3. How do you define your religion?

It seems obvious that you could reduce a religion to a few key tenets and make accepting them as true the criteria for belonging to that religion, however that leads to a complex issue of understanding which tenets are key and which are not. Such a decision making process relies on some sort of externally defined method, constructed by humans. At which point, are you not just implementing Humanism?

Alternatively, you could make the whole collection of text the point. Every line of the Bible must be believed to be a Christian. Every line of the Quran and Hadith must be accepted to be a Muslim. However, that also leads to problems, not least the bigotry and science denial that literal fundamentalism leads to. There are ways of claiming to be fundamentalist, while being very selective, and this is often done by picking a favourable passage and demanding―without religious justification―that passage supersedes all unfavourable passages. How do you know Jesus’ implicit commands regarding compassion supersede the explicit commands in the Old Testament to stone people?

There is another method people often implement, which is to define a religion by behaviour. Some people define all of Christianity through living by one line from the sermon on the mount: love thy neighbour. That’s almost indistinguishable from the Muslims who define Islam by the idea that Islam is a religion of peace; in terms of behaviour, these two ideas lead to the same thing. Christians and Muslims would be the same. The actual beliefs don’t weigh into it. And this ‘good behaviour’ makes a person Muslim in the eyes of a Muslim and a Christian in the eyes of a Christian. The fact that good behaviour is evidence of you bringing compassion and humanity to the text, instead of taking it literally, makes you Humanist in the eyes of Humanists.

Given this complexity, how do you define your religion?

4. How should I know when to implement faith, and when to implement reason?

I assume, for the most part, reason and critical thinking guides you when you take yourself or your children to a practitioner to be healed of an ailment. In general, you are sceptical of homeopathy and people who claim marijuana, echinacea and white wine vinegar are the cures to all conditions. In general, you visit a doctor who you trust will implement a scientific system. The trust is not unfounded, either. You are aware of a system that keeps doctors to a standard, else you will have an opportunity for recourse. And it is good that you do this: getting this wrong could have very immediate and negative consequences.

And yet, when it comes to questions of religion and defences for God’s existence, one ends up resting heavily on faith at a critical point in the argument. How do you know it is reasonable to implement faith at this point, instead of enquiring further?

5. What is your view on religious liberty?

A lot of religions are ‘non-rational memes’, to borrow a phrase from David Deutsch. This means they don’t compete fairly on an intellectual marketplace of ideas, but instead they quash contrarian and antagonistic claims to stop them from needing to compete on an intellectual marketplace. This is what claims of ‘heresy’ and ‘apostasy’ are: the denial of criticism, scrutiny and other currency on an intellectual marketplace. This is what Galileo suffered; unfair suppression of ideas antagonistic to the non-rational meme. The Bible has an explicit example of this is Isaiah 41; it outlines how one tests another God, but God himself is not to be tested. However, this narrative is apparent in many religions.

This isn’t a cultural phenomenon, but something that is actively taught in Christianity and Islam and appears in a lot of other religions (as well as other pseudo-scientific nonsense, which is why you see ‘Big Pharma’ being treated like a monster instead of treating their ideas honestly).

Given that your religion probably does present itself as a non-rational meme that actively excludes other religions, what are your views on religious freedoms? Does your religion actually teach religious tolerance? Should you convert other people? Should you tolerate other faiths?

6. How do you define a God?

This is something that stagnates a lot of conversations. The Cosmological Argument for the existence of God operates on the implicit assumption that God is the creator. But, if we could show that the universe was created by physical processes, then, by this definition, God just becomes a synonym for physics. But that seems to fall short of what religious people mean when they say God.

This is one of only a few definitions of God that actually pin what a God might be down. Other definitions are meaningless―‘God is the great I am’―and that stagnates the conversation. What does ‘the great I am’ mean? What content is there is just swapping the word “God” with “Lord” or “goodness” and assuming that has offered some sort of explanation.

Perhaps you may argue that the definition of a ‘God’ is an intelligent being with agency and a personality, who created this universe. Okay, but if we were to discover that we are in an artificially created universe, either physical or simulated, that some other species in some other universe invented, would that species be a God? I’m not saying that’s a likely discovery, I’m saying you need to engage properly with that question to see if that definition of a ‘God’ is really what you mean. What if humanity creates a simulation, like SimCity, where the characters have high-performing AI. Is humanity God, in this scenario?

7. How do you recognise design?

There is a common argument for God that relates to the complexity of biology and the “fine-tunedness” of the universe. The problem with these arguments is there are clear flaws in biology and in the ‘fine-tuning’ of the universe. Sean Carroll argues this point in attempting to explain why God is not explanatory in terms of the universe: there are all sorts of conditions of the universe we would change, if we were making a universe for the abundance of life.

And that last bit is the out for theologians, as then they can claim that Sean Carroll cannot pretend to know what the universe was being created for. That these perceived ‘imperfections’ are imperfections according to the goal and subsequent criteria established by Sean Carroll. But, as the theologian will say, God’s mind, plan and goals are unknowable.

But that is the exact problem that then faces the theologian. How can we possibly know the universe is finely tuned, if we don’t know the goal? Yes, there are all sorts of parameters of the universe that surprise physicists and the nature of the surprise seems to make the universe more habitable for us in this unremarkable neighbourhood of the solar system. But, so what? How can a theologian who claims God’s plan is unknowable then claim to know that God’s plan is to make this universe more habitable for us? John Zande’s book, The Owner of All Infernal Names: An Introductory Treatise on the Existence, Nature & Government of our Omnimalevolent Creator, argues that the universe was created by a God for the specific purpose of increasing complexity in order to, by natural processes that do not need intervention, create a world that will perpetually increase in misery and suffering. How would a theologian dismiss that view, while still claiming to know why the universe was created, and therefore that it is done perfectly by a God?

So, how can you identify design in nature without setting up criteria against which God falls short?

8. When your religion was written down, did it contain novel or revolutionary knowledge or ethics that had been previously inaccessible to the society?

If a religious text really were written down by a person who have special access to knowledge, it would have been a great opportunity to write down revolutionary ethics or life-saving knowledge. The knowledge of invisibly tiny parasites that exist everywhere, but which can be washed off by clean water and friction, would have been a clear and meaningful message that saved lives. It would have done away with ideas about disease being related to smell and increased hygiene to all people who received the knowledge.

Thou shalt not own other people or thou shalt make all reasonable attempts to resolve disagreements by reason and diplomacy would both have been pretty great.

However, I do not know of a religious text where, even the best bits of it, contain revolutionary knowledge that the society didn’t already figure out for themselves. This does raise the question of why a God didn’t take this opportunity to make such revelations.

9. Why does God remain invisible to the methods of knowledge that are known to work?

You may have come to know God through some sort of a revelation in times of trouble, or simply believe in God for cultural or familial reasons. It may even be that you were struck with awe at something about nature that compelled you to offer it reverence. Whatever your method of having come to know God is, I hope you are able to recognise that it doesn’t line up with scientific methods, even using science in its broadest sense. Science expels attempts at  ‘It couldn’t be anything else, therefore it must be this’ reasoning. It’s more commonly known as an ‘argument from ignorance’ or ‘God of the gaps’ reasoning, but more formally known as loose abductive reasoning. Science operates in finding evidence in favour of a claim, not just tearing down other options and seeing what parts of a wishful fantasy or unbounded imagination are left standing.

That method, of wanting evidence in favour of a claim, not just a negation of alternatives, is the most reliable way to knowledge that we have. And God is entirely invisible to it (save for the select few It reveals Itself to). And yet it is supposed that God wants us to know of It. How is this supposed to work?

You could argue that it’s a matter of preserving our freewill. But I’m not convinced that makes sense. People are free to discard evidence. That’s why we have Flat-Earthers, homeopaths and anti-vaxxers. But we do not have, as far as I know, gravity-deniers. So, which is it? Is evidence a violation of our freewill and thus has already been trespassed upon by gravity, or is evidence not a violation of freewill, thus giving God no excuse?

You may argue that God has provided evidence, but that wasn’t the question. The question was why that evidence doesn’t fit into known reliable methods of knowledge.

10. If there is an apparent contradiction in your religious text, how do you resolve it?

This has the potential to be a very different question depending on what religion you actually are. There are non-religious ways of doing it, of course. These might include picking the passage and interpretation that helps you do the thing that you want to do, or it might mean making certain theological assumptions about God making you with humanity and compassion and so you can trust your own instincts to resolve the problem in your context. But the problem then is, if you trust your own instincts, why do you need the religion at all?

The Quran is quite explicit about this: if you see a contradiction, the bit that arises later in the Quran succeeds the former passage. But this enters into problems as the Quran, like a Quentin Tarantino movie, becomes more violent as it progresses, to the point that most of the peaceful passages early in the Quran are overruled.

Doing this Biblically is even harder, still. Many people assume that Jesus overthrew the Old Testament, so any contradiction between the Old and New Testament is simply a case of taking from the New Testament. But this has the complete opposite problem of the Quran: there is nothing explicit in the Bible that says the Old Testament has been superseded, and there are passages that explicitly claim the old laws stand.

There are other methods, like understanding to whom the laws were given and what their application was. Perhaps a command only applies to the Israelites, or is only a ceremonial law. What’s the problem here? You need a method of understanding the dominion of these laws and who they are given to. You would need to be able to articulate a reason a law doesn’t apply now, or to you, or in this situation. So far as I have ever read or seen, this has been guesswork coming back to the idea that we can trust ourselves to solve the problems. We are, according to this method, the arbiters of what is right and wrong. And if that’s to be the bottom line, anyway, why not abandon the religion and embrace Humanism?

the complete inferiority of Christian ethics. (xPrae: how I defeated you so soundly (part 5))

In this post, I am going to argue that Christianity is morally inferior to both Islam and atheism. Christianity purports to answer moral questions, but instead offers a loophole that bypasses and excuses all those possible answers to morality. Islam, at least, does have a clear moral message and lacks any obvious subversion of its own system. Atheism also surpasses Christianity in moral systems in that it does not purport to answer moral questions, which at least leaves room for intellectual progress.

There is something obvious but important to point out. Religious moral ideas only work if the God actually exists; there must be a judgemental God who somehow dictatorially defines good and bad. If that isn’t the actual case, then holding to a religious moral standard is just a theatre. Based on the evidence, Christianity and Islam are about equally likely to be right (with a slight advantage to Islam, as Mohammed is better documented than Jesus). But, as all religions have about equal evidence in their favour, it’s more likely that neither Christianity or Islam are the right religion (even if a religion is true).

In this post, I shall subvert entirely the question of whether a dictatorially defined morality is a morality at all. Although, that one has to entirely surrender all their thoughts on what might be moral and instead obey the interpreted (and translated) definition by fiat, doesn’t seem to be a morality.

In a previous post, I argued that Christianity is only socially acceptable because Humanist and Enlightenment ideals have clipped and diluted it. However, the slave-keeping and stoning of unruly children and adulterers is not my point here. If I were a respectable person, acting as a cornerstone of society, who never killed or lied, nor raped or abused a child (holding myself to a higher moral standard than the Bible does), but I don’t believe, where do I go? The Bible is quite clear that I only go to Heaven―i.e. I’ve only been good―if I accept Jesus’ death as my redemption.

There are many apologists who argue that God holds us to an impossible standard, so doing goodness can never be enough in of itself to get into Heaven. So, if we reverse the thought experiment above, what happens then? Imagine I am a murderous, dishonest and abusive person, but I accept Jesus as my Lord and Saviour. Where am I going then? I’ve certainly not seen a Christian argue, with chapter and verse, that such a person is going to Hell. I’ve seen it asserted, but every time I get an answer with chapter and verse, it supports that person going to Heaven.

And that there is precisely the catastrophic failure of Christian morality. The child-abuse and slavery can be justified by saying humans have no intellectual access to what is moral and that what the Bible mandates and condones is, in fact, moral. It’s a poor argument, as human conversation is how we overthrew slavery after having it institutionalised, so clearly humans have some access to moral knowledge. However, it could be argued that an actual moral system could be observed. But, despite all the moral imperatives and implicit commands and the impossible standard, the whole system is undermined by a loophole. The expectation of perfection and unforgiving imperatives to thought crimes are all swept under the rug of human sacrifice.

Islam is superior to this. Despite Islam teaching brutal things and ultimately being more directly eschatological than Christianity, at least its agenda is clear. Jihad is highly unpalatable and there are many other aspects of Islam that are more violent and brutal than Christianity. But, the moral system is consistent. It gives an actual, sensible (although very poor) answer to the moral questions. And all the apparent immoral things it mandates are not really ‘immoral’ through the lens of Islam, just unpalatable to human sensibilities. Christianity not only also offers unpalatable imperatives and laws, but does not give a clear answer to the questions of morality.

Christianity and Islam also have moral contradictions in them. But the Koran includes a rule on how to abrogate (‘tafsir’) in the case of a contradiction: that which is written later in the Koran takes precedent. Presumably, following a logic that Mohammed became more enlightened as he lived on. Christianity offers nothing of the sort, except Jesus offering things that are more palatable. But nothing in the Bible can explain how ‘palatable’ can equate to ‘good’.

It appears, on its surface, Christianity’s abject failure to offer a moral system or even imperatives would make atheism and Christianity level. Christianity’s answer to moral questions is undermined by its own loophole to the point it is as if Christianity offers no answer at all. Atheism, also, offers no answer to moral questions. But, atheism doesn’t purport to answer moral questions. And that difference is profound. Because Christianity purports to offer an answer but doesn’t (or offers an answer so confused as to allow everything) it blocks the conversation to find an answer that actually works. Atheism doesn’t purport to answer moral questions, so it leaves a freedom for other discussions for how we should behave in society, what we will accept, liberties and security.

There have been failings in secular political systems. That seems obvious. If you ever want to argue that, you need to be clear about what the secular failing was. Nazism, for example, was populated by Christians and propagated on Christian rhetoric. You need to articulate exactly what the problem was. But the simple fact that atheism permits a conversation is not a problem, it’s the characteristic that gives it superiority over Christianity.

More thoughts on this idiot

22056 (catchy name) has a second blog, and it is here. This blog exists solely to host one post, arguing that theism can be thought of as a lack of atheism. He considers this important, because it could change the nature of the burden of proof: atheists would have to do more than question whether arguments for God make sense, but they’d have to come up with arguments in favour of the content of atheism.

Simply trying to explain the impacts of the 22056 thesis, if true, immediately undermines it. What is the content of atheism? If it has no content, what exactly would a lack of it be? There is a further problem: atheism literally means ‘without theism’. So, 22056 is trying to define theism as ‘without without theism’. If that’s the definition of theism, then the definition of atheism becomes ‘without without without theism’. This is a self-referential paradox. I should be able to leave my criticism here and not engage with the actual argument made. But where’s the fun in that.

I want to preface this with a point of clarification about language that equally applies to xPrae, from former posts: the mere use of words is not the same as an explanation. On ‘Enquiries on Atheism’ I posted something that starts to allude to what it actually means to offer an explanation; you can read it here.

So, let’s start to look at the actual argument offered:

The primary goal of this investigation is to determine whether or not the theist can use the same reasoning as the modern atheist in order to separate the term ‘theism’ into a weak/negative […] just as modern atheists have done with the term ‘atheism’; weak theism would thus be defined as a ‘lack of belief concerning God’s (or gods’) non-existence (essentially, a-atheism)’ whereas strong theism would be defined as a ‘disbelief in God’s (or gods’) non-existence (essentially, belief in God).” [My emphasis]

There are three interesting points here. Firstly, the term “a-atheism”. This is the author’s first actual point, and right off the bat the author alludes to the self-referential paradox. Secondly, “lack of belief concerning God’s… non-existence” is a type of atheism. It’s a heavily agnostic atheism, but if you lack a stance on the non-existence of God, as either true or not, then you really shouldn’t believe in that God. That’s atheism.

The third point is that this asinine redefinition of theism doesn’t have any point. “Strong theism”, as 22056 terms it, is “a disbelief in God’s… non-existence… essentially, belief in God”. Atheism doesn’t have the luxury of being defined in both a positive belief and an absence of a belief, in the exact same way. Atheism actually is a lack of theism. Theism is an actual content-holding stance.

I should clarify: if 22056’s point is that he doesn’t believe God doesn’t exist, then I can agree. Neither of us believe a God exists.

“There are numerous, almost fatal, problems with the idea of weak atheism, such as that weak atheism is not really different from agnosticism”

Weak atheism is the stance of not believing in a God. This overlaps heavily with not knowing whether a God exists, which is agnosticism. However, atheism is in the domain of belief and agnosticism is in the domain of knowledge. The distinction is relevant. But, let’s pretend the distinction isn’t relevant. Then this entire argument could be mooted by simply agreeing that ‘weak atheism’ should better be referred to as ‘agnosticism’. If one were to make that admission, which the author seems to be advocating, then their argument crumbles away immediately.

“or if it is, then it actually fits the criteria of being burden-bearing strong atheism rather than weak atheism”

To say “I do not accept the claim of Gods” is not burden-bearing. It is atheism. And it is also agnosticism. The problem here is the author doesn’t understand the words being used. I don’t accept that weak atheism and agnosticism are the same, although clearly the author is advocating that they are. But they are answers in different domains of cognition.

“furthermore, the atheist’s use of weak atheism is arguably disingenuous given that the atheist seeks to gain the burden-avoiding advantages of agnosticism while still being able to label himself as an atheist.”

I don’t see that this is true. I use the label atheist because it’s the honest label. I don’t mean to garner advantages for myself, I am simply unconvinced of by your argument, or anyone else’ arguments, so far, for a God. I am unconvinced, therefore I don’t believe. That’s literally atheism.

Agnosticism has other elements to it that have impacts upon atheism, but are clearly distinct. Agnosticism may extend as far as the claim that we cannot know of a God. Ontological naturalists would fall into this category of agnosticism, but would also be atheist. Ignosticism is a subset of agnosticism, that pertains that the claim of a God is so poorly defined that it is meaningless to say one could know. Some parts of agnosticism are actually burden-bearing. Atheism is not.

But, our author goes on:

the modern atheist: he will define himself regardless of what the dictionary or traditional usage asserts is the case, and the way that he defines himself is as someone who just lacks a belief in God or god; he is, essentially, just a non-theist, not a positive atheist

This is comical for many reasons. Take the traditional usage of the word “atheism”, where the polytheistic Romans used to call Christians and Jews atheists for not having enough gods. The dictionary used to define atheists with adjectives like “sinfulness” and “wickedness” (which the author readily quotes), but everyone seems comfortable admitting that traditional dictionary use doesn’t actually apply. No, the author is arguing for the “traditional” and “dictionary” definitions, only so far as they support his own position. Dissenting and differing views are ‘no true Scotsman’. The term “traditional use” in a language that adjusts to better encapsulate ideas and meanings is also “archaic”.

It gets weirder still. By the definition offered in the post, I am not an atheist. But, I am also not an agnostic. So, what am I? Where’s the burden of proof? This “explanation” has muddled understanding to the point of obscurity.

Imagine a politician trying to pass a new law, defended by the idea that “it is what God wants”. The politician is opposed by a group who claim they don’t believe in a God and thus don’t accept the defence offered by the politician. The politician then replies with “I don’t believe in not-God”. Does that defend the proposed law? Is there anyone who can’t see right through the politician’s sophistry at this stage?

But don’t worry, it gets weirder still. At a later point the author reveals a profound understanding of the problem with the labels he is using:

“… each of these words are what Wittgenstein called ‘family resemblance’ words. That is, we cannot expect to find a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for their use. Their use is appropriate if a fair number of the conditions are satisfied. Moreover even particular members of the families are often imprecise, and sometimes almost completely obscure. Sometimes a person who is really an atheist may describe herself, even passionately, as an agnostic because of unreasonable generalised philosophical scepticism which would preclude us from saying that we know anything whatever except perhaps the truths of mathematics and formal logic.

(Smart, 2011)

Given this quite nuanced quote, is it just a copy and paste job? Because the author shows a lack of engagement with this idea. The author quotes some other writers and online dictionaries that equally engage in this nuanced discussion about atheism very much including the ‘lack of belief’ ilk, not just the “positive atheism” definition of actively believing God does not exist. So, why does 22056 follow that with:

So it must be clear that there is nothing irrational or unjustified in claiming that atheism is the positive belief that no God or gods exist

It’s not just the word “atheism”, a pivotal word in this faeces thesis. The different between a default position in philosophy and its practical application in the court of law seems to entirely escape our little study.

[T]he burden of proof is intimately linked to the idea of an argumentative presumption; indeed, if a certain position bears the burden of proof then there is a presumption in favor of the opposing position, which means that a person can and should act as if the presumptive position is actually the case until and unless the position which bears the burden of proof is itself demonstrated to be the case.

This is a revealing misunderstanding of the default position. The default position is to accept no claim at all. It is not to presume the contradictory claim is true until the claim is demonstrated. In this context, it is not reasonable to assume that just because the claim “God exists” hasn’t met any reasonable burden of evidence, we should instead accept the claim “God doesn’t exist” is true. I accept neither claim. And that is the default position.

There are practical assumptions. When you are found ‘not guilty’, you may as well have been found ‘innocent’, for you are revealed back into the population. However, it is an important distinction to note that there may not be evidence they are innocent, there is simply insufficient evidence that they are guilty.

It is not prejudicial. That’s the really important point. When you try to make the case for a God’s existence, you are trying to move someone away from the default position. Default positions are not prejudicial. If your failure were then considered evidence God actually doesn’t exist, that would be prejudicial. That’s how it works. In a court case, it is prejudicial. In a court case, the failure to demonstrate someone’s guilt leads to a ruling that is indistinguishable from being innocent. It does not lead to a re-trial until at least one side demonstrates their case; it all rests or falls on the success of the prosecution. But that is a poor parallel to the religion-debate.

Here’s a question to ponder: how do you distinguish between different types of atheism? Positive/Strong/Gnostic atheism is often characterised as the stance that believes there are no Gods. Where are Weak/Negative/Agnostic atheism is the stance of a lack of belief in Gods. But, that latter category is one I share with my laptop and desk; they too lack a belief in a God. There is a meaningful distinction: I doubt the existence of a God, my desk is incapable of thought and doubt. This is probably the only good point 22056 makes. But, before we offer to buy him a round of drinks, simply making a point is something 22056 has elevated to “damningly”.

First, and must damningly, consider that rocks, raccoons, and rhubarbs lack a belief in God or gods, and yet it is obviously absurd to claim that such things are “atheistic” in any meaningful sense; but if atheism just is a lack of belief in the existence of God or gods, then, literally-speaking, the very computer that I am typing this document on is “atheistic”, which is, as stated, an absurd view

I argued that language changes to better encapsulate ideas and meanings. I don’t think it is absurd to lack a belief, like a stick of rhubarb would. However, I do think it is meaningful to draw the distinction. We could, for example, refine the definition of atheism again to the stance of doubting the claim that a God exists. Rhubarb doesn’t doubt, and so a meaningful distinction is made. Also, I think this captures a lot of what people in the atheist community do; they articulate their reasons for doubt. Or, we could create a category of atheism called “naive atheism”, where rhubarb, babies and people who have never heard of a God reside. The problem isn’t exactly damning, and it doesn’t help show that theism is better defined as a-atheism.

Part of the problem here is 22056’s thesis was written before I published this picture, where I explained that just because you have heard a claim, does not mean you accept it.

if someone has contemplated the existence of God or gods, then it is highly doubtful that they lack a belief about the issue, but rather they have very likely either come to see God’s existence as more probable than not, or less probable than not”

Perhaps this is true. But that does not mean either claim has been demonstrated to the level of being believed. I don’t have to accept a claim or its negation just because I have heard the claim. I can consider a claim more likely than its negation, and still not believe it. I can not understand the claim in any meaningful way (which describes a lot of people when it comes to God).

I’m less than halfway through the thesis at this point, and I’m starting to see the power of the Gish Gallop. I can’t be bothered to address the rest. And, on the way to this point I have simply overlooked equally big errors as simply being irrelevant. But, have a read of the thesis, leave a comment. Be nice.

Smart, JJC. (2011) “Atheism and Agnosticism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The Human Ecosystem: knowledge and philosophy

All species exist within their ecology and niche. This is a combination of physical things, both favourable and unfavourable: nutrients and prey, predators and toxins, hot and cold, water and salt. If you imagine a deer in the woods, it exists among the trees, eating grass and bark. Humans are not like this. We live apart from all of our requirements and ailments. We exist independent of our ecosystem. How did this happen?

Firstly, it’s worth clearing up some terminology. The Gause Exclusionary Principle is a way of defining a species, and it is reliant on the ecosystem in which the species exists. Therefore, if humans are a species, we do not live apart from our ecosystem; our ecosystem must simply not be what it appears to be. The Gause Exclusionary Principle―or competitive exclusion principle―states that any two individuals who are able to exist in the same area occupying the same ecological niche are members of the same species; two different species trying to occupy the same niche in the same area will enter into competition, which one species will lose and become locally extinct or excluded. Given sufficient time, one of the species may adapt to a different niche.

If you put cows and sheep in a field, one will be better at eating grass than the other. Populations of both will increase until their is sufficient pressure on the resource that the advantage of one species over the other becomes significant. The disadvantaged species will go hungry. Their competition for grass will be a competition one of the species will lose. (I use a farming example to simplify the ecosystem.)

Over here, Nate asked his readers to entertain the question of whether evolution can select for advanced cognitive abilities, like philosophical ponderance, complex and abstract true beliefs and science. When you think of a species struggling to survive, it may seem the brain of brain-possessing species only needs to find food and select mates, a struggle to which the concept of abstract ‘truth’ may not be important. The Tunicate, for example, is a filter feeder that uses a brain to navigate to a rock, clings to that rock, then eats its own brain and filter feeds from their. Functional brains are not necessarily useful.

But, given a particular niche, functional and intelligent brains are useful. Early hominids created tools, which were very useful for hunting, and fire, which was useful for cooking. This gave hominids an immediate advantage over species in similar niches that didn’t have tools. If individuals gathered an way of understanding, then they could learn to make tools from other individuals who either intentionally or accidentally made, say, a spear.

Spear heads were made by taking flint and striking it with a harder rock, and the way flint breaks makes a sharp edge. But, it’s not enough to watch another individual do that and then replicate it. What would you replicate? Could you also reach for the nearest rock to your right and the nearest to your left and clash them together? Were the rocks important, or could a handful of sand and a stick achieve the same thing? Do you need anything in your hands, or could I simply mimic the motion with my empty hands? No, I would need an understanding of an explanation that explains what was happening, then I could adjust my behaviour to find the right rocks, and alter the way they collide to make sure they fracture correctly to make a sharp edge.

This is a very different behaviour to other species in their niche. Some birds use rocks, unchanged, and drop shells and nuts onto the rocks for the food. Others make inadvertent changes to their ecosystem that have to enter into an equilibrium. Humans (and a couple of other primates) alter their niche on purpose. And the tool they use for that is knowledge and deep cognitive function.

Our intelligence is a primary feature of our niche. Unlike other species, whose niches can be described in terms of water and energy flows, nutrient cycles and prey/predation population dynamics, human ecology is defined in schematics, economics, international trade and technology; all of which are built on intelligence. Once our niche could be capitalised on by intelligence and understanding, the capacity to understand true things became a selective pressure. Explanations and understanding are our niche. Globally.

If you look to a dog, then a sheep and start to ponder whether evolution can really create deep cognitive function and philosophical pondering, you need to ponder that in the context that once a species occupies the niche globally, it can only happen once. Otherwise, there will be competition for resources, like land and space. (Rise of the Planet of the Apes.)

Philosophical pondering is very important and a key part to how understanding and technology progress. Take, again, our early hominids clashing stones together to make a spearhead. Evolution may have been able to select for something more superficial, like knowledge of the types of rocks to reach for. But it’s certainly not clear what the progressive and graduated steps to such binary knowledge might be. Whereas, for levels of cognition, that comes in levels. Labradors think more than mice. Primates more so, again. This clearly is on a continuous spectrum. That is where evolution operates.

Philosophical ponderance allows our hominid to ponder what about its observation is important. It will have to make these sorts of judgements, because it will never find identical rocks; it has to know how to identify selection criteria. Perhaps it will posture that the colour of the things being hit together is important, which it can then test, identify the failure and go through a process until it identifies the rocks are important. It must conjecture an understanding that it tests and refines. It’s philosophical ponderances are key to the progress.

Our ecosystem, our niche, is our intelligence and our ability to create explanations. Our critical though and philosophical ponderances define our nest. And that is why evolution has created no other contemporary species with the same intellect; because then we would be fighting for a niche, and one of us would lose.