Monday, September 18, 2017

A rant about bullshit on the internet

Life is hard and it's made all the worse when you come into conflict with other people. Especially those who seem to enjoy conflict. Which you find a lot of on the great thing called the internet.

What really gets me, though, are the self-righteous assholes. These are the people who think they have the Truth, or that their morality is the Morality, that their god is the God. What is funny but also infuriating is how often these people claim they aren't ideological dogmatists. They go through the motions and the courtesies, saying they're open for debate, re-evaluation of beliefs, or whatever - but they really aren't. Or, they paint the picture of them not necessarily having knowledge, but of belonging to the club that has this knowledge.

Yes, truly, when you have links on your page to a great big fancy list of logical fallacies (because that's how philosophical discussion works - nuh-uh that's a fallacy...got'eem!), then you must be part of the super-duper intelligent crowd. You must really know things, things "other people" don't!

This insincere ego-inflating behavior is irritating to me, if only because I know other people are going to fall for it (like I did when I was younger - the cringe, man, the cringe!). They're gonna see that because a website has a domain name of, say, "RationalWiki", and because it's neat and orderly and has a lot of super-duper articles about how to be rational, oftentimes with that charming, amusing mocking tone, then it must actually be a rational place where rational people talk about rational things! (I'm using RW as a random example only because it's a popular website that commonly displays this behavior - another perfect example is LessWrong, which is a misnomer since they get a lot of things wrong).

Okay kids, here's a quick lesson for y'all: don't trust anyone who explicitly calls themselves rational. Ditto for those who say they "care about the Truth" or "are open for clear discussion" - no shit, Sherlock, that's a given assumption when we discuss things like philosophy. You don't need to "assure me" that you are one of the few who actually care about "getting to the heart of things". Don't bullshit me. Stop lying and poisoning the well to protect yourself with a veil of self-righteousness.

Another piece of advice: don't take the word of people who confidently talk about things they aren't authorities of. For instance, when a pop-scientist with triumphist, phallic energy harks on and on about the imminent revolution of science that will answer ethical questions, disprove the existence of God, foreclose the humanities and/or finally lead us to a utopian society, maybe don't just take his (it's almost always a man, isn't it??) word for it. Trust me (actually, don't trust me - do your own goddamn research), this guy is probably a talking head with nothing but an ax to grind, an agenda to push. Just because he's a scientist doesn't mean he's qualified to talk about anything and everything.

Ooo, here's another juicy lesson: don't listen to someone who doesn't differentiate between right action and moral goodness. When an ideologue asserts, for example, that such-and-such action is morally forbidden, a transcendental Thou Shalt Not, and sees disagreement as evidence of moral corruption and nothing more, you know this person is full of shit. Doing the Right Thing™ is not at all equivalent to being a good person. A good person does what they think is right because they think it is the right thing to do, and because they desire to do the right thing. If you do the right thing for ulterior, selfish reasons, or because you begrudgingly acknowledge the obligation, you're not a good person. You're just a scumbag who managed to mimic the behavior of good people.

Blaming people for moral disobedience without giving them a fair chance at changing their behavior or even hearing what you have to say is some Grade A USDA-Certified Organic Bullshit. It's a common method of separating the me from the everyone else:

"I'm moral - it's everyone else who is bad, evil, wicked people!" 
-some dumb keyboard crusader on the internet 


There's hardly anything more satisfying than believing, or at least portraying, oneself as part of a minority that believe something most people take for granted is wrong, atrocious even (re: Nietzschean ressentiment). It's the pride of a person with little else to support their self-esteem. Granted, the minority might actually be right - I for one consider myself an antinatalist, and that's hardly a popular opinion, let alone an opinion that is even known to exist. But I don't go around acting like a fucking asshole to everyone who disagrees, even fellow antinatalists who have slightly different views on things. (I'm still a little touchy about a few "discussions" I had with some not-so-nice antinatalists 😒).

Maybe, just maybe, if you spend more time arguing and shouting and bullying and being a general reprobate, you might just want to re-evaluate your aspirations in life. Maybe you're doing more harm than good. (Or maybe you don't actually care about whatever it is you're arguing for, so long as it gives you something to do with your life and makes you feel important or something. Just from my half-assed estimate I'd say a majority of v/bloggers are this way). Do you honestly think this is how real, progressive discussion gets done - with yelling and swearing and general douchebaggery? And don't give me that bullshit "I have to take out the trash on the internet" righteous excuse, because no, you don't have to. You don't have to assume those who disagree with you are human waste, incapable of thinking or unworthy of basic respect. Get your head out of your ass and start acting like a mature human being.

One last piece of advice for the youngins: be skeptical of people who are overly-dependent on singular contemporary "authorities". Seriously, if I have to read one more dumb piece that worships public figures like Harris, Peterson, Chomsky or deGrasse Tyson I'm gonna blow a fucking gasket. Chomsky at least knows what he's talking about, but his acolytes are pathetic. Stop making him seem like the second-coming of Christ. The meaning behind contemporary is that which exists at the present - meaning, that it's at the very edge of time and hasn't been around long enough to accumulate criticism or acknowledgement. It's hilariously sad that people actually think someone like Jordan Peterson is some next-level philosopher that will go down in history as one of the greatest minds who ever lived. Wait ten years. I bet you he'll be forgotten, or remembered only by some stupid controversy that got him kicked out of public opinion.

But most importantly:


Thanks to the internet, we now have even more effective means of spreading bullshit. Cheers everyone, even the haters. Stop taking yourself so seriously, think for yourself and don't be a dick to those who are just trying to get by.

Friday, August 11, 2017

What value theory should we accept? (except from my book)

The writing of my book Value and Being is coming along. Truth be told - it is a book, but I still find it obnoxiously pretentious to say "I'm writing a book", which to me is equivalent to saying "Ooooo, the world better get ready!, I'm about to lay waste to the intellectual landscape!" I can hardly imagine universities, let alone individual scholars, put this book on their shelves, which makes me wonder for what purpose exactly am I writing it in the first place. I don't expect the audience to be professionals, although I am planning on sending digital copies to a few that I have contact with. I would say my audience is meant to be the "thoughtful" public, as well as the antinatalist community at large. Generally speaking, I have found the internet antinatalist community to not be very impressive or intelligent, and I aim to try to fix some of that.

Somewhere in the deep corners of my psyche there's a naysayer quietly whispering "you're a fucking dumbass...". I suppose when I eventually release my book we'll see if this little voice was right.

Anyway here's an except from one of the chapters in which I defend hedonism as the proper general theory of human welfare. Comments and critiques are welcome. I should also point out that throughout my book I use the terms "ethics" and "morality" interchangeably, as most professional moral philosophers do as well.
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§3.7 - What value theory should we accept?

Well-being, or welfare, are terms used by philosophers to designate that which is ultimately good for a person, and is what a rational and well-informed individual would pursue. Whatever makes a person’s life go better or worse is what is seen as intrinsically valuable to this person’s well-being. Generally speaking there are three camps in (welfare) value theory: objective list theories, hedonism, and desire satisfaction theories. Objective list theories tell us that there are some essential features that are required for a life to go “well”, such as knowledge, faith, friendship, money, etc. Hedonism holds that there is in fact only one objective good for a person: this person’s happiness or pleasure, which charitably is defined as any form of enjoyment (happiness is an attitudinal pleasure rather than a physical pleasure). Desire satisfaction theories are self-explanatory: what makes a person’s life go well depends on the satisfaction of desires. It may be tempting to see both hedonism and desire satisfaction theories as objective list theories, as both see one single objective thing to be valuable (pleasure and desire-satisfaction). But one single thing is hardly a “list”. So we’re better off keeping them separate.

To cut to the chase, I believe the most reliable representation of a person’s welfare is the theory of hedonism. The strongest point in favor of hedonism, I believe, is that attitudinal mental states intuitively act as the reason behind seeing many other things as instrumentally valuable. The reason we value friendship is because friends make us happy. The reason we value money is because money allows us to satisfy our desires which causes us pleasure.

Objective list theories struggle with justifying why particular features are important rather than other features - yet hedonism easily deals with this issue by seeing these features as instrumentally good. Whatever feature helps a person be happy is instrumentally valuable, and that is how we choose what to put on the list of objective features. People share common characteristics, so it is not surprising when their lists are similar to those of others - but hedonism also provides a strong foundation for alternate lists by people who are atypical in what makes them happy. Hedonism also explains why it is nonsensical to see objective features as good for a person if they make a person miserable - because the attitudinal experiences of a person are what ultimately constitute their well-being. Objective features may be sufficient but not necessary for well-being. Hedonism also explains why we hate seeing bad people enjoy being immoral; hedonism tells us happiness is good for a person, but not necessarily that it is good that a person is happy. It is a value theory, not an ethics.

Desire satisfaction theories struggle with the obvious problem that desires (or preferences, a term commonly used in economics) by themselves do not elevate a person’s well-being. If two people are equally comfortable, but differ in amount of preferences, the person with more preferences is not “better off” than the other person. Unless desires provided something, there would be no reason to satisfy them. Satisfying desires gives a person pleasure, and this pleasure is what makes the satisfaction of desires valuable to this person. So we can see the satisfaction of desires as generally necessary but not sufficient for well-being. The attraction of desire satisfaction theories - the liberty it gives each individual - is also one of its weaknesses. Its reluctance to criticize the desires of some people leads to it see self-harming desires as good for those who have them. A brainwashed person may strongly desire to stay in an abusive power structure, despite outsiders obviously understanding it to be bad for her well-being. A depressive may consider physically hurting themselves, but any level-headed individual would see this as alarming. An emotionally-abusive husband may manipulate his wife to stay in the relationship, but doing so would not be in the woman’s best-interests regardless of her desires otherwise. Yet desire satisfaction theories cannot see any of these situations as bad for these people. One route desire theorists have gone is to qualify desires as informed and self-regarding - yet this puts it quite close to hedonism, for an informed and self-regarding desire would seem to be just any desire the satisfaction of which makes a person happy. The bottom line is that enjoyment provides the incentive to satisfy desires, and that just is hedonism.

Hedonism has it’s own problems, but I do not think they are fatal to the theory. A classic argument against hedonism is Nozick’s experience machine, which tells us that we would find a life of hardship in the real world to be better for a person than a life of bliss in an experience machine. One problem with this thought experiment is that it seems to fail once we consider a really, really bad life in reality - in this case, our favor of the real world gives in to suffering. Perhaps living in the real world is important, but surely not as important as proliferate suffering. Indeed this is why many people turn to drugs, because the real world is too hard to experience.

Another issue with the thought experiment is that it assumes we already live in the real world. If it were the case that we actually did not live in the real world but failed to realize it, how big of a difference would it really make? It would seem as though what is important is not really the fact of living in the real world but rather the belief that one is living in the real world.

And finally, we can question whether people really would prefer to stay in the real world if they were well-informed, in the sense that they understood what the experience machine felt like and were not simply told it would be blissful. Once you know what the experience machine feels like, would you want to go back? There are, of course, extraneous reasons that prevent a person from plugging in, such as ethical or religious reasons. But these are not directly relevant to the question as hand, which is whether or not hedonism is an accurate portrayal of human welfare. In fact, if hedonism is correct, than people who prefer to stay in the real world are irrational and/or ill-informed. To maintain that people prefer to stay in the real world, and therefore reality is a non-hedonic good, is to assume the preferences of people dictate what is good for them. There may be other reasons for refusing to enter the experience machine, but taken as an isolated case with no strings attached, it would seem to be the case that a person with greater enjoyment is better off than a person with less enjoyment. That just is hedonism.

In my opinion, a bigger threat to hedonism is that unhappiness seems to be commonly a reaction to a loss of some other feature which constitutes a harm. I may become sad because I lost a friend - I am not simply sad because I no longer feel pleasure from their companionship but also believe that it just was good to have this person as a friend. But this perhaps is not as threatening as it initially seemed, for in this case it is seen as good that I have a friend and not necessarily that it was good for me that I have a friend. It may be the surrounding social environment that made me believe that it was good that I have a friend, and not my intrinsic enjoyment of having a friend.

However, there is something to be said about certain objective list features that may be relevant. Certainly J.S. Mill thought the "higher pleasures" made people better off than the "lower" ones, which his predecessor Jeremy Bentham denied. Here we have a sort of elitism - if we have two people with identical levels of enjoyment but with differing kinds of content, the one which a higher pleasure might be seen to be better off than the other. For example, enjoyment due to consuming alcohol may seem to be less good than enjoyment caused by reading Shakespeare, even if they are of the same level of enjoyment. Perhaps living in the "real" world is better than living in a simulated reality if both levels of enjoyment are equivalent. My intuition here is that this may be crossing over into the realm of ethics - that it's not good for a person to be in the real world or read Shakespeare but that it is good that a person gets the same level of enjoyment through these elite activities as they would through lesser ones.

What is especially important to point out is how not just the overall balance but the trajectory of a person’s life affects how this person’s life goes. Trajectory is, however, not entirely hedonistic: for it establishes that the shape of a person’s life is an important variable independent of how much pleasure and pain are in the life. A downhill-shaped life is not very good compared to an uphill-shaped life, even if they both have the same “amount” of enjoyment. It seems as though at least some basic consideration of the shape of a life that makes it better or worse - that ending a life on a positive note is better than ending a life on a negative note. Perhaps pure hedonism can still be saved by questioning whether it is actually possible for a downhill-shaped life to have the same amount of pleasure and pain as an uphill-shaped life - for perhaps pain after the fact is intrinsically worse felt simply from the knowledge of it being the after instead of before pleasure. If this route is persuasive, then what can be said is that downhill-shaped lives are worse than uphill-shaped lives because their structure prevents a person from enjoying the pleasures an uphill-shaped life might contain.

In summary, hedonism as a theory of human welfare straddles the line between respecting human differences and understanding fallibility. It is able to recognize that what a person prefers may not be what is best for them, but also that something that makes a person miserable cannot possibly be good for them. Therefore it is somewhat removed from a person's own awareness - how well-off a person is stands somewhat independently of their own mental states (this is ethically relevant). We may be tempted to believe certain objective features make a life better, but in many cases this seems to be confusing welfare with ethics. However, the trajectory of a person's life may make it the case that at least some objective features are important for welfare, as we would typically see a downwards-sloping life as worse than an upwards-sloping life, all things considered and irrespective of the persons' opinions. As it stands, it seems as though that objective features might act as a tie-breaker of well-being: enjoyment based on some specific feature may be better than enjoyment based on something else, even if they are equivalent levels of enjoyment.

Within the context of the negative perspective, trajectory-hedonism is a powerful model for well-being. The negative perspective sees basically all human lives to be downward-shaped. Most of the genuinely positive experiences happen in the beginning of life, when one is youthful and lithe. As we age, we lose our capacity to do things we used to like, we contract diseases, and we all eventually die. The inclusion of a life’s trajectory as essential to the value of a person’s life fits perfectly into the temporally-holistic model of the human condition established by the negative perspective. It may not be a complete model of human welfare, but it certainly seems to serve most situations well.

One quick note: the position of welfarism claims that the the ultimate justification for moral reasoning is rooted in the welfare of people. For a long while I was keenly attracted to welfarism, especially since I found hedonism to be the most reliable theory of welfare. What could be more important than the experiences of conscious agents? Trouble began to arise when I started to formulate the negative perspective. Some of the issues that arose will be explored in the next two chapters, but suffice to say I found hedonistic ethics to be problematic, even if I found a hedonistic value theory to be coherent. For that reason I cannot say I am am welfarist - I find a preference-based ethics to be the best candidate for a second-order ethics, but I am not willing to see preferentism as a theory of welfare itself. Since I do not accept preferentism as the best theory of welfare, I cannot call myself a welfarist, for my approval of preference-based ethics is not based on my conception of welfare. What this means is that the greatest good for a person is not necessarily what is ethically important. There are some qualifications, of course, and these will be explored in due course.
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Anyway that's it, folks.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Future projects and stuff

"A book is a suicide postponed."
- Emil Cioran, The Trouble with Being Born 
It has been a while since I last made a blog post. I am in the middle of a hellish university program in computer engineering that requires me to take at least sixteen credits per semester, as well as summer classes and balancing an internship to boot. It is frustrating and time-consuming but for some reason or another I find it to be fulfilling, or at least more satisfactory than sitting on my ass all day doing nothing (i.e. being an internet blogger!).

For the last year I have been formulating an array of ideas, initially disorganized, that is focused primarily on the crossroads between phenomenology and ethics. Around six months ago I began drafting some of the ideas on paper. What started as an essay or short article quickly turned into a book of sorts; the current page count is over sixty, and I do not see myself finishing relatively soon.

The tentative title of the book is "Questioning the Primacy of Being", the précis being that phenomenal existence is ultimately negative in value, and that biological persistence continues by an irrational and unethical vital "pulse" that systematically obscures this fundamental disvalue. I follow the scheme set up by the philosopher Julio Cabrera between the affirmative and negative perspective, before proceeding to criticize the affirmative perspective and subsequently attempting to construct a basic ethical system based on the negative perspective.

I am under no delusions (of grandeur) that this book will become some great philosophical achievement; in fact I predict practically nobody will read it. Furthermore, I doubt that everything I say in it is right, but I suppose that is just as well. What I fear is that it will be interpreted as the work of an impressionable young adult, a manifesto of sorts, and only that. I fear it will be passed over in favor of the more "sophisticated" philosophical works, simply because it is not published by a major company or because I have no official formal degree in philosophy (despite spending the equivalent amount of time studying philosophy on my own, away from the narrow-minded dogmatism of academic philosophy).

One major, encompassing theme of the book is the importance of maintaining a certain degree of "elegance" in the various ways we live, through our actions, decisions, character and appearance. I make the case that unrestrained, noisy and impulsive snaps of emotion are degenerative and shameful, and I try to construct the image of an "ideal negative survivor", one who is careful not to over-indulge in excess, including hyperbolic evaluations. They are, ideally, "calm, cool, and collected," and I try to present the book in the same way: free of any unnecessary angst or gratuitous pretension.

Like I said before, the book is nowhere near being "finished". I just thought I would make a post in case people thought I had killed myself or something. The haters will be saddened to hear that I have no intention of committing suicide any time soon, although I continue to ruminate upon its possibility every day. Why commit suicide once when you can hypothetically commit suicide a thousand times? heh

Anyway, if you're interested in reading what I have written so far, tell me and I'll consider sharing it with you. I'm not quite ready to open access up to everyone, but there are a few people whom I wouldn't mind hearing constructive criticism from. Keep in mind, it's still in production and some of the ideas are not fully fleshed-out yet.

Monday, January 9, 2017

"Comfortable Pessimism"

Arthur Schopenhauer

This is something that I have thought about for a very long time now. It is my belief that the classic pessimists (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Cioran, etc) espoused what I would label “comfortable pessimism”, or perhaps “convenient pessimism”.

What do I mean by “comfortable pessimism”? I mean a descriptive belief that establishes the world and its contents as negative in function and quality, but which there is an absent adequate prescription for its residents. In particular, an ethical prescription.


I will now provide some examples to justify my claim.


The first example is of Arthur Schopenhauer, one of the greatest German philosophers of all time. Truly, an undeniable genius and the number-one icon for philosophical pessimism. Here we have him asking us to compare the suffering experienced by the prey with the pleasure experienced by the predator, or pointing out the tedium and pointlessness of life in general. His prescription to those who read him? Detachment from the material world, isolation, contemplation, asceticism.

This is aesthetically pleasing. Rejecting the world of conflict and strife for a bubble of security. A simple life.
Yet Schopenhauer betrays his own foundations when he became famous later in life. He went out partying and auctioning and traveling. Not exactly the life of an ascetic.


But we have to make sure we separate the actions of the man with the theoretical prescriptions he provided. So I’ll attack his prescriptions, or, rather, the lack thereof.


When Schopenhauer was in Berlin (I think?), there was a massive cholera outbreak. Schopenhauer said he was a “cholera-phobe” and promptly packed up and left, saving himself from a disease. This quotation shows his deep aversion towards the world in general, especially on the aesthetic level.


He later travelled all across Europe, thinking himself to be the bringer of truth to humanity. In his opinion, he thought he shouldn’t interact with the common rabble in the same way Chinese missionaries shouldn’t interact with the Chinese. Thus we have a clear example of separation: a sense of entitlement and superiority.


It’s true that Schopenhauer was very intelligent. But it’s also striking how a man as perceptive to global suffering as he was, he simultaneously seemed to care very little for it. He focused instead of pursuing Truth, and once asked himself what the world would think about himself in the year 2100. He contemplated getting a wife later in his years. After he died, he left all his money to charity - a noble gesture, yet neither did Schopenhauer have any close friends or family in which this would go to.


Despite his acknowledgement of suffering, Schopenhauer continued to see a hierarchy in the world, one in which he no doubt thought himself as residing in the upper echelons.


Additionally, he seemed to have thought that the world was still in some sense aesthetically redeeming. He was fascinated with nature, fascinated with finding out the ultimate reality of the universe. It is exactly this fascination that I use as justification for the view that Schopenhauer was decadent. Schopenhauer was able to enjoy himself in a surrounding world of suffering. Considering Schopenhauer saw married couples as the ultimate conspirators to the continuation of human suffering, I believe I am justified in criticizing Schopenhauer himself as an inactive bystander (passive accomplice) to a world he otherwise saw as horrible.


If it could be summarized, then, Schopenhauers’ ethics would seem to largely consist in “not my fucking problem”. It’s simply enough to recognize that suffering exists.


The same can be seen in the philosophies of Cioran or Leopardi. Leopardi, for example, thought the only thing that could really “save” a person was complete isolation from the material world. And Cioran curiously seemed to have embraced suffering in some sense as a livelihood - he once envied Beckett for his despair. Once again, we have the aestheticization of suffering, or the mere abstraction of a negative feeling. The romanticization of something that really is not romantic at all, but dirty, painful, narrowing, and bad.


Buddhist ethics is a bit different in that it talks about the existence of bodhisattvas, or beings who achieve nirvana yet stick around anyway to help everyone else out. True altruists. Many Buddhist philosophers of the past could be seen as consequentialists. For Buddhists, it is not simply enough to point out the suffering in the world, but to actively promote the destruction of it, as suffering is something that should not exist.


Then we come to Nietzsche, who wanted to say “yes” to everything, including suffering. Suffering, for Nietzsche, is also aestheticized as a necessary prerequisite for power. For Nietzsche, a single joyous experience justifies all existence. This is inspiring but ultimately implausible and actually insulting to those who are suffering greatly.


So, to wrap up, this is what I see to be characteristic features of “comfortable/convenient pessimism”:



  • Excessive individuality and self-centeredness, manifesting as isolation and a sense of entitlement/superiority
  • Aestheticization of suffering, manifesting as a romantic narrative more than a feeling
  • Acknowledgement of others’ suffering, but a general indifference to it, sometimes manifesting as amusement or disgust and a focus on one’s own priorities (“not my fucking problem” or “I’ve done ‘enough’ ”, aka not having the stomach for active participation)
  • The theoretical rejection of the world (negativity) paired with distinctly affirmative procedures, manifesting as a sort of “redemption” or “habit”, i.e. art, calligraphy, fine cuisine, philosophy, etc.
  • General melancholy, and an aversion to horror (Cioran as an exception), and a tendency to focus on maximizing one’s own comfort and security (i.e. Schopenhauer’s plush pillows and poodle)

Thus I believe that the “comfortable pessimist” betrays their own descriptive foundations by failing to follow-through and pursue their pessimism to a prescriptive end. For the comfortable pessimist, it is enough to merely recognize that suffering is everywhere, but there is no responsibility to clean it up. Instead, the comfortable pessimist focuses on making their own life as comfortable and easy as possible. Thus this sort of pessimism is often accompanied by misanthropy, which oftentimes entails other people as being unworthy of attention.

Unfortunately, this makes comfortable pessimism an inactive and thus self-fulfilling prophecy. One should not be surprised when the world continues be to quite bad when one does nothing about it.


Active, purpose-driven pessimism eschews aesthetic comfort and decadence for a prescription to end the problem once and for all. This entails participating in and supporting public institutions focused on maximizing welfare and making the world a better place, and actively advocating pessimistic philosophies, within the constraints of self-preservation.


Active pessimism recognize how inappropriate it is to find pure enjoyment in the midst of irredeemable suffering. It recognizes that if you enjoy being a pessimist as an identity, you're doing it wrong.

Response to AntiBullshitMan's "Petty Minds Discuss Messengers: Sam Harris vs. Status Vultures"

Recently, AntiBullshitMan and I got into a discussion over a few things over at his blog Extensive Arguments. I made a few comments that were admittedly long-winded, and he decided to make a video in response to some of the points I made:


(If you have not read anything by him on his blog, or watched any of his videos on YouTube, I recommend you take some time and do so. I appreciate the link he provided to my essay on wild animal suffering interventionist policies and the praise he gave it (thanks!) and I think it only fair to link to a video of his that I found to be quite compelling, in which he questions the compatibility between negative utilitarianism and deprivationalism.)

From my gauging, there are roughly three major topics brought up:

  1. The status of The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris
  2. Sam Harris as an individual and as a force for good in the world
  3. Theism

The first and third point are relatively short, it is the second that ABM spends the most time on. What follows are my responses. I have tried to be as unbiased and objective as possible, as well as keep things cool, although there are a few places that my annoyance is clear.

Topic 1: The Moral Landscape by neuroscientist-cum-philosopher Sam Harris:


TML as a book on axiology


ABM makes the argument that welfarism is an axiological position, whereas utilitarianism is an ethical position (a form of consequentialism). 

Yes, I will agree that there is a difference between axiology and ethics; ethical theories utilize axiological theories. I will also admit that I was too belligerent in my approach when I called it a rehash of utilitarianism 101. 

But I will point out how utilitarianism is implicitly welfarist. From its very origin it has been focused on maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. To take away welfare from utilitarianism would make it, well, not utilitarianism. 

At any rate, TML is not exclusively axiological. I do not have the book with me, unfortunately, but if my memory is correct, Harris accepts notions like a Utility Monster, a direct consequence of classical utilitarianism. He already has developing ideas of ethics within his book. 

Later, ABM asks me to give a good reason why non-human animals warrant non-welfarist axiologies (in particular, non-hedonic axiology). I'm not a non-welfarist so I don't know how someone would formulate something like this, but it doesn't really matter, because to demand something like this seems to beg the question - it assumes what is good is what is good for something, when this is exactly what non-welfarists would deny. I will also point out that non-welfarists, or even non-consequentialists, don't have to completely eschew welfare or consequences from their theories, they simply don't see them as constituting their theories entirely.

ABM points out in the video how he would be willing to see TML as a rehashed welfarist axiology. Okay, cool. But we have to make sure we remember that TML's overarching goal was to show how "science" can definitely prove welfarist axiology as the correct axiology. 

Again, unfortunately I don't have the book with me, but I don't recall Harris ever mentioning Hume's is-ought gap at any point in the book, something that would be one of the very first things someone learns in an intro to moral philosophy course. Something that would spell ruin for Harris' theory.

From the video, it can be seen that ABM and I already agree that science cannot answer moral or even axiological questions, but can only inform us of important information. This means that the main thrust of Harris' book, which is pasted on the front cover, is wrong. And it's also misleading, as, according to ABM, the book is actually focused on axiology and not ethics. We already have two major strikes against the book.

(EDIT: But there's another strike against it, in regards to meta-ethics. Sam Harris sets up this false dichotomy between realism and anti-realism, where he asserts that moral realism has always been associated with religion, and that his book in a one-of-a-kind attempt to argue realism from a secular perspective. This is just wrong.)

On science


Later, ABM counters my statement that Sam Harris is using an "overly broad and weird" conception of science to make his argument work by reversing this and saying that it could be said that it is I who am using an overly narrow and weird conception of science. This has several problems.

First, it moves the goalposts. It doesn't defend anything, but rather forces me to explain why I have such a narrow conception of science to begin with. 

To reinforce my claim, then, I only have to point out that what most people see as science is not what Harris sees as science. ABM claims this is simply a semantic debate, as if we were debating whether or not golf was a real sport. This is rather a substantial debate concerning what we see as science, as science has its advantages and limitations. To allow Harris to call what he does "science" is to lose any meaning science conveys. 

The claim that this is just a semantic debate runs counter to one of the most important debates in the philosophy of science - what is science? Certainly some things can't be seriously seen as science. This is not the place and time to settle the debate, though.

ABM wants me to believe that any general inquiry is science - yet this runs counter to the history of science, which was originally called natural philosophy and later split off entirely from philosophy "proper". Furthermore, this definition is too liberal as to make it unimportant. If every sort of inquiry is scientific, then scientific becomes an empty word. Perhaps we ought to limit science to what can be falsified, a la Popper. But this means that there are some things outside the scope of science but nevertheless seem like meaningful inquiry. It's equivocation. There's nothing "stopping" you from calling everything science, but really there's no good reason to call everything science either.

Furthermore, a conception of science as broad as this actually harms science as it makes it too easy for things that are not science to be seen as science. There have to be limitations.

But the biggest issue is that it really is Sam Harris who is playing word games. You ask the average person "what is science" and they're not going to say it's just any general inquiry of any sort. ABM claims that Harris is writing for the public audience, but then later he claims that we should be able to call science something that is not what is usually accepted as science by the general public. This is entirely misleading.

It's not too hard to see how Harris has basically tricked people into buying his book, then, by putting catchy words like "science" on the front cover. People trust scientists as authorities (most of the time, at least), and I am arguing that Harris knows this and intentionally advertised his book this way. It's the exact same thing that is happening when ads say "Science has PROVEN this drug works!" or "According to scientists, X is better than Y!" And people fall for it.

ABM later asks me why someone like Harris should be dismissed for stretching the meaning of a word. I simply have to ask why he feels the need to stretch the word to begin with. Harris' books are not so much redundant as they are unnecessary and misguided.

Topic 2: Sam Harris as an individual


The majority of ABM's video was focused on my accusations against Sam Harris.

Truth vs Effectiveness


First, ABM argues that Harris rose to popularity because he's a better writer and speaker than professional philosophers. This is a major point that is brought up multiple times through the video. Basically, ABM argues that Harris may be incorrect on a great many things, but the fact is that he is a very popular and influential public figure who has connections to consequentialist-related practical programs, like Effective Altruism, and that we ought to see him as a fulcrum for welfarism and not criticize a person who might otherwise be motivating many people to do good.

ABM then hypothesizes that I am an idealist at heart, and not practical-oriented. That I value truth over welfare, or, more specifically, my "politically biased" professional, academic philosophy (who makes more money - a professor or a public intellectual?).

Now, this is partly true. In fact I'm reading a book right now on this, which I plan on making a post on sometime in the future, called Moral Demands in Non-Ideal Theory by Liam Murphy. It's a book on consequentialist ethics (which is actually aimed more at the public, as are all the books in the series), and it defends the theory that consequentialism is actually not an overly-demanding moral theory. Rather, it only seems overly-demanding when not everyone is a consequentialist - non-ideal theory. Thus those who are consequentialists are given an unequal and unfair burden.

Apply this same reasoning to ABM's claim that I am actually not being a welfarist consequentialist by hating on Sam Harris. At first glance, it does seem that I am being counter-productive. This might to true, but this doesn't change a single thing regarding Sam Harris' intellectual virtues, or lack thereof. In ideal theory, I shouldn't have to suck up to this guy, just like I shouldn't have to give away more money because other people are being selfish. But this is non-ideal theory we're talking about.

Luckily I am not super public about my general dislike of Sam Harris. I doubt it would really do anything. From my perspective, the world is non-ideal not just because Sam Harris exists as a public celebrity but because there exists a public that has made Sam Harris a celebrity. Philosophy isn't easy, and it's hard for philosophers to communicate philosophical ideas to the public without butchering them. (Actual philosophers would care about giving people the whole story - but Sam Harris, on the other hand, seems to not care at all.)

However, it's also not the case that all philosophers are like this. Right off the top of my head I think of Peter Singer, who writes opinionated philosophical articles all the time for magazines and newspapers. Or Peter Unger, or Liam Murphy, the late Derek Parfit (RIP), or Jamie Mayerfield. Or Zizek, of whom there is much controversy but who has a lot of interesting things to say. Or the MacAskills. Or even David Benatar, who has written some pretty funny shit. These are public figures who are also professional, and I think it's worth pointing out that for as popular Sam Harris is, the amount of followers who contribute to EA and other projects like that are probably not as large as ABM might think.

Furthermore, we need to remember that one can dispense with Sam Harris without severing ties to Effective Altruism. EA is still in its infancy. Hopefully in the future we won't have to depend on people like Harris to get publicity. For the time being, perhaps it is a necessary "evil" to keep Harris popular. Later on, hopefully not.

"Unfair" criticism of Sam Harris


ABM criticizes people like me for attacking Sam Harris without any restraint. This is problematic in three ways: 

First, professional philosophers had initially attempted to explain to Harris why he was wrong. Harris, in reply, decided to set up a competition for people to test their theories against his own from TML, as if he were the arbiter of truth. He ignored these initial criticisms, of which one was from his own friend Daniel Dennett. He still hasn't admitted that TML is flawed. 

The second problem is that those who react in such an inflammatory manner are often those who have been targeted by Harris supporters (and New Atheism in general) in an inflammatory manner. Here I'm talking about the people who call all Christians "stupid", who say religion "poisons everything", who openly admonish any sort of apparent "irrationality" they see as such, and who generally are just dickish in behavior. A theologian has the right to defend their discipline; to ignore this is an instance of Kafka-trapping. What goes around tends to come around.

The third problem arises from ABM's conviction that Sam Harris makes philosophical mistakes because he does a lot of things. To which I reply that maybe he shouldn't try to do philosophy.

Sam Harris' podcasts


Later on in the video, ABM mentions how Sam Harris has a wide variety of guests on his two-hour long podcasts. He says that all of them are "happy to be on his [Sam Harris'] show." Well, I mean, of course they're going to say this. Sam Harris reserves the right to kick anyone off his show whom isn't appreciative of his show. Of course they're gonna suck his dick.

Then ABM gish-gallops a list of prominent people who have been on his show, including:
  • Dan Carlan
  • Joshua Oppenheimer
  • Joseph Golstein
  • Paul Bloom
  • Max Tedmark
  • Douglas Murray
  • Scott Reits
  • Michael Weiss
  • Jonathan Hadith
  • David Chalmers
  • Juliet Kaeb?
  • NDGT (yes I fucking hate NDGT, he's a Carl Sagan wannabe)
  • Dan Dennett
  • David Crackhower
  • Eric Weinstein
  • William MacAskill
  • Jerry Coyne
  • Peter Singer
  • Andrew Sullivan
  • Stuart Russell
  • The list goes on and on (I missed a few)
ABM asks why people can disagree with Harris and yet walk away with respect. You don't have to attack a person to not have respect for them. Honestly, if we're just going to speculate here, I would argue that these people come on Sam Harris' podcast shows simply because it's an opportunity to communicate their ideas to the world, not because they necessarily agree with Harris. If there's a reason to watch Harris' podcasts, it's to listen to what these people have to say, not what Harris has to.

Truth and Preferentism


There's another point I want to bring up. Earlier in the video, ABM talked about how he thought animals should be treated with hedonic axiology while humans are treated with preferentist axiology. I think this opens a potential flaw in his reasoning, however, in regards to Sam Harris: 

Generally, most people prefer to believe in true things. Even if they are not conscious of this preference, I think it plausible that we can assume that if they were conscious of truth, they would prefer to have it than not. 

If this is valid, then it stands that Sam Harris is profoundly harmful to the preferences of the majority who want to believe in true things. This harm may not be equivalent to the harm of, say, a wild animal being brutally killed by a predator, or the suffering of an Ethiopian child, but it's still a harm that needs to be accounted for.

Overall, then, it seems to me that ABM's defense of Sam Harris is only valid so long as Sam Harris continues to be a productive asset to the welfarist consequentialists' goals. He is conditionally valuable as an instrument of good, despite being a turd in general. Whether or not Harris actually is valuable, or whether or not criticism of him is seriously going to effect the goals of EA and other programs, I'm not sure. 

Then there's the issue regarding the things Sam Harris advocates himself, which I think are definitely harmful:


Why I believe Sam Harris is a turd


ABM asked me whether or not I thought Sam Harris was ignorant or dishonest. I lean towards dishonest while also supposing he's probably very ignorant about a lot of things as well. But why do I think this?

First, ABM claims my dislike of Harris as an individual is "psychological legwork". I must say I dislike being psychoanalyzed. I could easily just say that his liking of Harris is merely "psychological". It's question-begging.

Additionally, I confess that I when I was younger I used to love the man. I used to love all the New Atheists. Now the only one that I take seriously still is Daniel Dennett, and I don't particularly take interest to his writings on religion or God. 

But anyway, here's a working list of why I think Sam Harris is a turd:
"Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy. There are two reasons why I haven’t done this: First, while I have read a fair amount of this literature, I did not arrive at my position on the relationship between human values and the rest of human knowledge by reading the work of moral philosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of our making continued progress in the sciences of mind. Second, I am convinced that every appearance of terms like “metaethics,” “deontology,” “noncognitivism,” “antirealism,” “emotivism,” etc., directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe." 
Well, if that last quote isn't a kick in the privates to all the professional philosophers working on these sorts of things, I don't know what would be. Does Sam Harris actually believe that his lack of interest is a serious argument against what he finds to be uninteresting?

What is ironic is that if Sam Harris had recognized and included meta-ethics in his book, his book probably would never have been published to begin with, because his position has already been discussed in the past.

Continuing ...  


Sam Harris is a public intellectual figure who makes his money largely off of profit from his books. He's not going to change his views unless it somehow benefits him. Least of all positions like antinatalism, which ABM and myself would prefer.

Later, ABM points out how Sam Harris, when asked what books he recommends reading, said that he recommended Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy and Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons. The first book is widely recognized by professional philosophers to be incomplete and more of a historical artifact than anything. The second book is not an easy read and it's ridiculous for Harris to expect the average Joe to read it without any background. The point, thus, is that Sam Harris essentially just gish-galloped philosophical texts to look knowledgeable.

ABM claims that I am being unfair in that I'm criticizing Sam Harris' approach while not criticizing the approach of ABM himself, which he calls "walking the tightrope" and being more informal than an SEP or graduate essay. The reason, though, is because Sam Harris is a major public figure and thus I expect more from him, and also I've already shown how he's a turd and basically deserves this fire. It may be a little insulting when I say this but I see neither my blog nor ABM's blog as serious contenders in the public perception, at least not right now. I see them as places where we practice refining arguments for the sake of argumentation and because we generally just enjoy doing it. It's a hobby more than a livelihood.

What I find to be curious is that ABM and Sam Harris have similar views. ABM is a determinist (if I remember correctly...?) and so is Sam Harris. ABM is an atheist and so is Sam Harris. ABM disapproves of many things going on the Middle East that Sam Harris also does. If I may speculate, it seems as though ABM happens to have similar views as Sam Harris, either by accident or by influence, and thus it's easier to downplay the problems Sam Harris has. So I have to ask ABM if he got some of his views from Sam Harris or if he just happens to agree with him on some things?

Then, later, ABM compares professional philosophers' disregard of Sam Harris' work with the general disregard of antinatalism, of which we both profess allegiance to. I believe this is a red herring. David Benatar, for example, has already stated that he doesn't expect AN to take off and has articulated many convincing reasons why this is so (biological urges, biases, etc). This is not the same with Sam Harris. There's no reason to believe Sam Harris is being "ignored" by the philosophical community simply due to some political reason or because he represents a threat to their discipline, as many professional philosophers have already shown how he is misguided. Both AN and Sam Harris don't "play by the rules", but the reasons are different. AN is taboo and Sam Harris is just an idiot. There are political reasons why Sarah Perry's book Every Cradle is a Grave is being ignored - then same cannot be said, I think, about Sam Harris' books, since at least his books have been addressed.

ABM later uses prophetic reasoning to assert that our own arguments for AN would be ridiculed by the professional philosophical community. This hasn't happened yet, so I don't see any reason to believe this. If anything they'd probably just get ignored as academia, just like anything else, has priorities.

Free Will



ABM provides a link to a video on Chomsky which is allegedly proof of political biases. This is an example, I think, of someone who has been influenced by people like Sam Harris and believe in a definition of free will that isn't compatible with the ongoing philosophical discussion on it. Chomsky is absolutely correct that the Libet experiment does not undermine free will, and ABM had asked me for an explanation of how this could be so. So I'll just go ahead and quote directly from my book on cognitive science (The Cambridge Handbook of Cognitive Science edited by Frankish and Ramsey, pp. 102-103):
"Several philosophers have criticized Libet's interpretation of the bearing of his experiments on conscious agency and free will. First, it is worth noting that although the conscious urge to move may lag behind the onset of brain activity, it still precedes the actual onset of movement. Libet's interpretation of his finding is premised on the view that only the initial element in a causal chain, i.e., only a cause uncaused is metaphysically dubious and certainly hard to square with a naturalistic stance. A conscious mental state may play a causal role in the production of an action even though it doesn't trigger the whole causal process. If it makes a difference whether or not a causal chain contains conscious mental states as elements, and in particular if there are differences in the kinds of actions that can be the outcome of such chains or in the conditions in which such actions can be successfully performed, then it is fair to say that conscious mental states make a difference and are causally efficacious. One may note that the unconscious processes that precede conscious awareness are not themselves uncaused and that, by parity of reasoning, Libet should also deny that they initiate the action.
 "Second, as Mele (2003) points out, it is unclear whether the readiness potential constitutes the neural substrate of intentions or decisions rather than of desires or urges. If the latter, no one should be surprised to find that desires precede conscious intentions, and finding that we have such desires does not commit us to acting upon them. For all Libet has shown, it may be that another conscious act is necessary before the event associated with the readiness potential leads to action. Third, Libet's analysis focuses on proximal intentions (the proximal causes of overt behavior, whose contents in this case may be expressed as "I flex my wrist thus and thus now."), but it neglects distal intentions (whose content may be expressed as "I will flex my wrist when I feel the urge."). Yet, it is quite implausible that the participants in his studies would have produced hand movements at will unless they had formed the distal intention to do so in compliance with the experimenter's instructions. This suggests that distal intentions are not causally overt."
I'm not going to type up the part about the critiques of Wegner's studies since it's rather long.

Now, I agree that Chomsky was a bit dismissive of determinist and compatibilist positions, but I don't take it that seriously because Chomsky, in this situation, is not being watched by millions of people every day like Sam Harris is. Harris has more influence than Chomsky. We simply have to remember that not all philosophers are good at all philosophy, Sam Harris included (if he could even be called a philosopher). Recall how ABM was willing to pardon Sam Harris for his mistakes because he "does a lot of things" but apparently isn't ready to extend this to people like Chomsky. This is not consistent.

Contrary to what ABM argued, Sam Harris is not "steering" the philosophical discussion in the right direction, as philosophers don't need his help. If he's doing any steering, it's into a ditch on the side of the road.

A few more things ... 


ABM criticizes the subreddits I provided in my earlier exchange with him, calling /r/badphilosophy "cultish" and /r/askphilosophy my "beloved subreddit philosophers". Okay, guess I'll offer a defense.

First, /r/badphilosophy is the place all the professionals from /r/askphilosophy go to vent their frustrations. It's a circlejerk and it's not supposed to be taken too seriously. That is what I meant when I said it was satirical. It's right, but it's distasteful, and that's exactly why it's so funny sometimes.

At any rate, I might be getting on board with being a moderator with a new subreddit, /r/bad_philosophy , which aims to be a bit more civil and reasonable than the original one.

ABM mentions my own mention of Singer's (et al) book The Point of View of the Universe, which analyzes Henry Sidgwick's moral realism. ABM called it insulting. I apologize if this came across this way, it was not intended.

Finally, ABM asks me why I haven't discussed Brian Caplan's defense of natalism, and offers this as an analogy to why the New Atheists haven't discussed classical theism, or what he calls deism (they are not equivalent). The reason is that I think Sarah Perry already did a good enough job dismantling his argument in her book. I see no reason to rehash it.

Topic 3: Theism




...ah, fuck it, it's getting late. I'll do a post on this later.