Letter to Common Sense Atheism V

Dear Luke,

I fear you have misunderstood the pleasure I take in demonstrating the waywardness of paths that do not lead to the truth for my purpose in seeking the correct one. A path believed to be correct is either so or it is not so. Observing the falsity of your claims to superlative theological knowledge was more than a work of my peculiar art, it was necessary for us to even begin getting at the truth of the matter because what we do not know usually impairs our ability to reason less than our belief in the truth of that which is false. Given that you are contemplating the pursuit of a philosophy PhD, I can safely assume you have read Plato’s Apology. If you have, then you will surely recall the way in which Socrates paraphrased the Oracle’s reference to him. “He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.” I see no need to dispute your claim to have spent hundreds of hours reading the Bible and various theological texts, because it is irrelevant.

Apes do read theology, Luke, they just don’t understand it. Christianity no more concerns a Panglossian world actively managed by a magical omnibenevolent puppet-master where all things work out for the good of everyone than Aristotle was Belgian or the central message of Buddhism is every man for himself.

Before I get to the substance of this discussion, I find myself interested in learning how your belief in desirism is off-topic, given that: a) you up brought the subject and went into a fair amount of detail in describing it, b) this discussion does not only concern my beliefs, but yours as well, and, c) desirism is directly relevant to your definition of evil. You must know that the references to your FAQ don’t even begin to answer the very serious philosophical and material problems with desirism that were articulated in my last letter. In addition to the fact that you “answered” by referring to two points that remain unwritten, it is not accurate to say that the references to the answers to {3.20}, {3.21}, {3.22} addressed the problems raised, much less successfully addressed them. Lest I find myself charged with more obscurantism or hand-waving, I will now explain why those three answers are insufficient. I trust the nonexistence of answers {3.23} and {5.31} will serve to demonstrate the inadequacy of your present response to my points about the totalitarian aspects of desirism as well as the way in which desirism resembles a collectivist variant of Maoist ethics.

In {3.20} you answer the desirist calculation problem by asserting that “we can estimate” desires, that “neuroscience will eventually tell us” what desires look like and how to measure them, and that “we may be able to understand” the relationship between desires. This is not an answer, this is just hope and hand-waving. {3.21} is nothing more than another failure to apply the correct definition of the word “objective” to desirism in order to claim that an intrinsically subjective concept is actually objective. This is not only absurd, but it has absolutely nothing to do with my criticism of desirism. Furthermore, I explained the specious nature of this definitional dancing in my previous letter: “While it is true that there are many different definitions of objective and subjective, the philosophers’ concept of mind-independence is no more relevant to the subject at hand than the grammatical concept pertaining to the use of a form as the object of a transitive verb.” {3.22} is merely a repetition of the very Knob Metaphor I had shown to be not only flawed, but downright backwards since it led you to an incorrect conclusion. As I wrote, under the desirist moral code, the Nazi extermination program is confirmed to be good and and opposition to it, or even mitigation of it, is a definite evil.

You didn’t even make the slightest attempt to address that massive flaw in your reasoning, either in your FAQ or in your letter. Now, I see no need to continue beating a deceased equine, so if at this point you wish to leave off discussing desirism, that’s certainly fine with me. My recommendation would be that you abandon it altogether as an insignificant and untenable variant of utilitarianism, but that is your concern, not mine. Still, I don’t regret the diversion as I find it fascinating how decent and civilized Western atheists have nevertheless managed to conceive what appears to be a more consequentially disastrous moral ethic than the one that produced the horrors of the Great Leap Forward.

Now Luke, there is a pattern of evasion that is becoming increasingly apparent in your letters, and I fail to see how it is either compatible with your personal search for the truth or can be of any utility to you in this discussion. I am perfectly willing to continue refining our terms in as pedantic a manner as you require until you eventually run out of room to dance around the most relevant dictionary definition and have no choice but to directly confront the matter at hand. I did not declare “that the truth value of a proposition does not depend on the meaning of its terms”, I merely stated that given the context of the question, which your belief in any form of evil. I already knew you didn’t believe in my definition of evil because you made it very clear that you did not in your second letter, so it was simply absurd to assert that you needed to be informed a second time of what I meant by “evil” before you could answer the question of whether you believe in it or not. Of course, I could have avoided this by pinning you down more specifically regarding your belief or unbelief in any form of evil and now that I know you require a greater degree of precision on my part in order to respond in a relevant manner, I will be quite happy to provide it. Meta-ethical philosopher Stephen Finlay’s belief in evil is of zero relevance here, it is only your belief that is relevant to this discussion. Please note your declaration that “the definition of evil that we are using” cannot be contained by “any form of evil” is illogical; surely you did not mean to assert that the set does not contain the subset!

You finally admitted that you believe in a subjective form of evil in your fourth letter, although your constant wrestling with the objective/subjective issue somewhat muddied the admission. This mildly complicates the discussion, but not severely since it does not affect your ability to discern which of the competing objective standards are most in line with your observations of the material world even though you happen to subscribe to none of them. Speaking of definitions, while I agree that pain, anguish and privation of joy can all be reasonably described as suffering and that suffering is a prominent feature of this fallen world, I cannot accept your suggestion of it as a substitute for evil. This is because for the Christian and the non-Christian alike, suffering can be quite reasonably deemed a distinctly positive good. For example, a Christian is told to rejoice when he suffers for the faith, because he will be rewarded in Heaven for his travails and the testimony his suffering provides will cause others to believe in the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ. While we cannot confirm the former consequence, there can be no doubting the truth of the latter as it is known to have occurred in persecutions of Christians ranging from ancient Rome to modern North Korea.

And suffering can be a positive good for the non-Christian as well. The pagan mother will embrace the pain of childbirth as gladly as the strong Christian embraces martyrdom; no pain can considered evil when it is an inescapable necessity for such a powerfully desired result. Even the language of the weight room testifies to the non-intrinsically evil nature of suffering: “no pain, no gain”. The suffering is voluntarily chosen and becomes the price of the good. While suffering can certainly be the result of evil, I don’t think it can serve as a reasonable substitution for it. We deem it evil for a man to kill 10 people because it amused him, but we do not consider a lethal storm that killed just as many to be evil even if an equivalent amount of suffering is created by the two incidents. Furthermore, suffering lacks the intentional aspect that is usually required to deem an act or an intention evil. So, taking that aspect into account, I suggest that we define ”taking pleasure in the involuntary and unjust suffering of another” to be evil.

I entirely agree with your statement that our arguments will not meet each other if we do not agree upon a definition of evil. This is precisely why I am trying to get you to commit to one. And I also agree that I could quite easily construct a completely circular argument on the basis of my Christian definition of evil; this is precisely why I am trying to get you to commit to an objective and observable one. So, with that in mind, would you be willing to agree to a definition of evil as “”taking pleasure in the involuntary and unjust suffering of another” as a useful metric by which we can compare the competing religious and philosophical accounts of evil? While this is merely one of the broad panoply of theoretical evils from which we could plausibly select, it would at least serve as a reasonable starting point for the proposed comparison of various religious and philosophical accounts of evil.

This was written in response to the 5th Letter to Vox Day

It’s over, go home

If your troops are being murdered by your allies, that’s a good sign that you should give up the hearts and minds strategy:

Five soldiers have been shot dead by a “rogue” Afghan policeman in an attack at a police checkpoint. Three Grenadier Guards and two Royal Military Police were attacked as they rested inside a compound. The soldiers, who had removed their body armour and helmets, were shot by an Afghan national policeman who then fled. It is not known whether he was a member of the Taliban or being coerced by the insurgents.

The Afghan and Iraqi occupations are of zero national interest to the United States. They are of even less interest to Great Britain. And one wonders how long it will be before similar attacks happen to British troops and policemen in the UK itself. If you haven’t managed to win over a populace after eight years of occupation, give up and go home. It’s not going to happen.

Perhaps not the best idea

It appears that a few of the less intelligent atheist ankle-biters have decided that it’s a good idea to attack my writing on economics because they find my opinions on atheism and evolution to be so distasteful. Amusingly, they have decided that my criticism of Paul Krugman proves that I don’t know anything. Because, you know, he has a Nobel Prize and all. As it happens, last night I was re-reading Krugman’s book The Accidental Theorist, published in 1999 with absolutely no perception of the tech bubble that was about to burst. Instead, he was still worried about currency crises. I rather like the book because Krugman isn’t a complete idiot, he’s just willfully ignorant and inclined to cling to his defunct Keynesian models. I intend to go through the chapters and highlight various points of interest good and bad, of which this snide slam on the supply-siders, written in the summer of 1997, is a good example of the latter.

Suppose that you had managed your personal finances based on what you heard four years ago from Newt Gingrich, read in Forbes, or for that matter saw on this very page [The Wall Street Journal]. You would have sold all your stocks and probably put your money into gold. If the supply-siders were fund managers, not only would you have fired them, you would have sued them for the lack of due diligence.

This inspired me to take a look at the prices of stocks vs gold since August 1997. Needless to say, there is a very good reason that Paul Krugman admits that he is not a successful investment forecaster.

Gold: +336% From $324.10 to $1,087.45
S&P 500: +9.5% From 954.29 to 1,045.41

And this is not even taking into account the fact that the S&P 500 of today is not the S&P 500 of 12 years ago, as mergers, bankruptcies, and shrinking market caps have caused numerous stocks to vanish. 43 changes were made in 2007 alone! Suppose that you had managed your personal finances based on what you heard 12 years ago from Paul Krugman… unfortunately, a lot of Americans basically did and went heavily into stocks and real estate instead of gold and commodities. You would have done rather better to listen to a non-laureate’s advice. And even for the five years from 1997 to 2002, you were better off with flat gold than with your stocks down 15 percent.

I somehow doubt this has caused Paul Krugman to revisit supply-side theory. Not that I subscribe to it either, but if the performance of the stock markets vs gold is your metric of comparison, well, it would appear a serious rethink is in order.

But it must be said that Krugman reaches some very worthwhile conclusions on occasion. Such as when, in the same book, he wrote what are arguably the most relevant words he has ever written: “I am always grateful when influential pundits make such statements, especially in prominent places, for in doing so they protect us from the ever-present temptation to take people seriously simply because they are influential, to imagine that widely-held views must actually make at least some sense.”