Category: critical thinking

Induction – Part 1: The Problem

The so-called problem of induction, plainly stated, comes down to this: inductive reasoning appears to have no rational justification. Unlike deductive reasoning, which offers apparent justification in its formal structure, the form of an inductive argument can at best only offer probabilistic confidence, and at worst, no justification at all, if we examine it’s application in the context of, say, a causal explanation. To see why this is the case, let’s examine some formal examples.

First, let’s have a look at a deductive argument to see why it appears to be rational:

P1: Thomas is a Catholic Monk
P2: Catholic monks believe in a triune God
C: Therefore, Thomas believes in a triune God

In this classic example of a deductive syllogism, the premises are propositional assertions that are independent of each other. That is to say, they are assertions about individual objects, to which a predicate coherently applies, that could be uttered individually, without reliance upon the other.

Yet, together, they share a common feature that links them in an important way. The shared feature is the property of “Catholic monkness”. In the first premise, that property is a predicate applied to Thomas. In the second premise, it is the object to which a belief in a triune God is applied. Understood this way, you could abstract the assertions into a kind of formula:

T(homas) = M(onk) = G(od belief). Or, mathematically: a = b; b = c.

This is what is known as the “transitive law” of logic (which has an analogue in math as well). This property is what gives our conclusion it’s deductive weight. If Thomas is a monk, and monks believe in God, then obviously, Thomas believes in God. To put it in formal logical terms: If aRb and bRc, then aRc.

There are indeed linguistic and ontological questions in philosophy that call into question the nature of the transitive property and logical necessitation, and by extension, the rational basis for accepting this law as read, but that is beyond the scope of this essay, and beyond the scope of everyday usage. Suffice it to say, the only point here is that relative to a valid deduction like this, we have even less reason to claim rationality for our inductive conclusions, if folks like David Hume are correct. Let’s now juxtapose an inductive syllogism against this, to see the problem in a more clear light:

P1: On Monday, Thomas made his morning offering in the chapel.
P2: On Tuesday, Thomas made his morning offering in the chapel.
C: Therefore, on Wednesday, Thomas will make his morning offering in the chapel.

This is what is known as a simple “enumerative induction”, because it simply enumerates instances, and infers a prediction from them. This form of argument suffers from two problems: first, despite the fact that the enumerative premises are independent of each other (like in the deduction), they do not share a transitive property between them. Nothing “logically links” the enumerations. They are like random pebbles on the beach.

Next, If you look at the conclusion, it too appears to be nothing more than another enumeration, with one difference: it is a prediction. Our premises are statements about the past, and our conclusion is a statement about the future. What, in the two premises, compels the conclusion? What makes it true, that Thomas will be in the chapel on Wednesday morning? Hume offered a tentative theory to explain this. He would have said that the “constant conjunction” of experiences of Thomas in the Chapel each morning, impresses upon us a psychological disposition to expect Thomas in the chapel on subsequent mornings. Perhaps this is so. But, if it is, it renders inductive inference a wholly irrational phenomenon, because rather than from our reasoning, we derive the expectation from phenomenal “impressions” that give rise organically to an idea of Thomas in the chapel on future mornings.

To be a bit more charitable, let’s restate this induction in a way that appears as deductive as possible:

P1: During his career as a monk, Thomas has always made his morning offering in the chapel.
P2: Presently, it is morning.
C: Therefore, Thomas will soon be making his morning offering in the chapel.

At first glance, this appears to contain a transitive relation between premise one and two, in the circumstance of the morning. But this is illusory. To see why, it will help to formalize this a bit more:

Let’s call “has made his morning offering”, “was-A”;

Next, let’s call “it is morning”, “is-B”

Finally, let’s call “will soon be making his morning offering”, “will-be-C”

Before I even formulate this, the problem should begin to whisper itself in how I labeled the terms. But, here is the formula: was-A = is-B = will-be-C. Surely, it’s obvious by now: deduction deals with what is, and only with what is. It cannot cope with movement through time, because it is not possible to formalize epistemic certainty about the future. This syllogism is attempting to masquerade as a deduction, in order to give deductive weight to modal ways of thinking. In other words, inductive inferences draw conclusions about what is possible, while deductive inferences draw conclusions about what is necessarily so. But the conclusion in our present argument is no more necessitated than in the first induction. There are extensions that have been made to classical logic, in an attempt to deal with this problem, with varying degrees of success, but none of them is definitive. This is again beyond the scope of this essay. So, the problem of induction remains for us.

There is a second problem with our second induction. In the case of the deduction, part of what facilitates the transitive property, and imposes necessity upon our conclusion, is the definitional nature of our propositional assertions, and thus, the syllogism as a whole. Thomas must believe in the triune God, because by definition, Catholic monks believe in the triune God. But, there is nothing in the definition of a Catholic monk, that necessitates morning offerings in the chapel; nothing in the definition of morning, that necessitates that Catholic monks will be in chapels; and so forth. Thomas could just as easily make his offerings in his billet, or in the garden, or if he is ill, not at all, and he would still be a Catholic monk, and mornings would still occur (presumably).

So, the question becomes, is it only rational to believe things that can be derived from valid deductive arguments, or definitional tautologies? Or, contra Hume, is a man reasonable for belief in things that could only be, at best, probabilistically true? Intuitively, it seems insane to suggest that believing that the sun will rise tomorrow is irrational. Scientists, for example, often take the “regularity of nature” as an ontological given, or axiom. They do this, because they assume the truth of the optimistic meta-induction: inductive inferences have yielded many successful results in the past, so they will in the future. But this is circular reasoning. And yet, induction does seem to “work”. Even in the small things. Each time a breath in, my expectations are satisfied. Each time I put one foot in front of the other, on my way to the coffee shop, my foot lands on the pavement, and I move forward. Surely, this is a rational expectation?

But perhaps we are confusing the nature of the term “rational”, with something like “sane” or “acceptable” or “appropriate”. These are value-laden, normative terms. You’re a “right-thinking” or “sane” person, we might say, to expect that your pencil will not suddenly turn into an inflatable raft, or your girlfriend to suddenly turn into a cucumber. This is clearly an appeal to a psychological state, rather than a reasoned worldview. So, perhaps there is something to what Hume was suggesting. In which case, our task is to figure out what sort of irrational beliefs are also acceptable or appropriate to have, and on what sort of standard we would base this distinction between acceptable and unacceptable irrational beliefs. The alternative, is that we need to rationally account for expectation, which is to say, justify induction, in order to count inductive inferences among the rational set of beliefs, and escape the pit of irrationality we seem to be sliding into.

That justification will be the subject of my next post.

Exiting The Cave, The Podcast Edition

Introduction

Welcome to the first episode of “Exiting The Cave”. My name is Greg. I am an amateur philosopher, studying philosophy part-time at the University of London, in their International Program. My “day job” is in tech, but my passion is philosophy. In case you’re not familiar with it, I have been writing a philosophy blog for about 5 years, now. You can find it at https://exitingthecave.com

This podcast is an attempt to extend that work, to challenge myself to do more, and to give readers of my blog more philosophy content. The blog has been, more or less, a running record of my attempt at a properly formal philosophy education. I’m hoping to take the podcast a bit further. Here, I want to explore ideas more freely, and delve a bit into subject areas I’ve studiously avoided on the blog. I’ll be venturing into the philosophy of aesthetics and music (as one of my keen hobby interests), and cracking open the Pandora’s Box of political philosophy and practical ethics. This way, I can sharpen the focus of the blog even further, creating a self-made resource for evidence, arguments, and other artifacts supporting the podcast.

To get things started, I want to use this podcast to benchmark the inspiration for the blog – Plato’s allegory of the cave – and talk a bit about why I have found myself sticking to the allegory, in spite of its cliché reputation these days. I’ll begin by telling the story, as portrayed in The Republic itself, and afterward, I’ll offer a few remarks about the many layers of meaning built into it, and why it resonates with me.


The Allegory of the Cave

Let’s get started. We’ll be entering Plato’s Republic, at Stephanos number 514a1, for those who want to follow along. Socrates’ dialectic partner throughout, is Glaucon, but the dialog is entirely in Socrates’ voice. I’ll be speaking in the first-person from this point on, as Socrates, then.


I said [to Glaucon], “make an image [in your mind] of our nature in its education and want of education, likening it to a condition of the following kind. See human beings as though they were in an underground cavelike dwelling with its entrance, a long one, open to the light across the whole width of the cave. They are in it from childhood with their legs and necks in bonds so that they are fixed, seeing only in front of them, unable because of the bond to turn their heads all the way around. Their light is from a fire burning far above and behind them. Between the fire and the prisoners there is a road above, along which see a wall, built like the partitions puppet-handlers set in front of the human beings and over which they show the puppets.” 514ab

“I see,” he said.

“Then also see along this wall human beings carrying all sorts of artifacts, which project above the wall, and statues of men and other animals wrought from stone, wood, and every kind of material; as is to be expected, some of the carriers utter sounds while others are silent.” c515a

“It’s a strange image,” he said, “and strange prisoners you’re telling of.”

“They’re like us,” I said. “For in the first place, do you suppose such men would have seen anything of themselves and one another other than the shadows cast by the fire on the side of the cave facing them?”

“How could they,” he said, “if they had been compelled to keep their heads motionless throughout life?”b

“And what about the things that are carried by? Isn’t it the same with them?”

“Of course.”

“If they were able to discuss things with one another, don’t you believe they would hold that these things that they see, are the actual beings, to which they give names?

“Necessarily.”

“And what if the prison also had an echo from the side facing them? Whenever one of the men passing by happens to utter a sound, do you suppose they would believe that anything other than the passing shadow was uttering the sound?”

“No, by Zeus,” he said. “I don’t.”

“Then most certainly,” I said, “such men would hold that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of artificial things.”c

“Most necessarily,” he said.

“Now consider,” I said, “what their release and healing from bonds and folly would be like if something of this sort were by nature to happen to them. Take a man who is released and suddenly compelled to stand up, to turn his neck around, to walk and look up toward the light; and who, moreover, in doing all this is in pain and, because he is dazzled, is unable to make out those things whose shadows he saw before. What do you suppose he’d say if someone were to tell him that before he saw silly nothings, while now, because he is somewhat nearer to what is and more turned toward being, he sees more correctly; and, in particular, showing him each of the things that pass by, were to compel the man to answer his questions about what they are? Don’t you suppose he’d be at a loss and believe that what was seen before is truer than what is now shown?”d

“Yes,” he said, “by far.”

“And, if he compelled him to look at the light itself, would his eyes hurt and would he flee, turning away to those things that he is able to make out and hold them to be really clearer than what is being shown?”e

“So he would,” he said.

“And if,” I said, “someone dragged him away from there by force along the rough, steep, upward way and didn’t let him go before he had dragged him out into the light of the sun, wouldn’t he be distressed and annoyed at being so dragged? And when he came to the light, wouldn’t he have his eyes full of its beam and be unable to see even one of the things now said to be true?”516a

“No, he wouldn’t,” he said, “at least not right away.”

“Then I suppose he’d have to get accustomed, if he were going to see what’s up above. At first he’d most easily make out the shadows; and after that the reflections of the human beings and the other things in water; and, later, the things themselves. And from there he could turn to beholding the things in heaven and heaven itself, more easily at night—looking at the light of the stars and the moon—than by day—looking at the sun and sunlight.”516b

“Of course.”

Then, finally, he would be able to make out the sun—not its mere appearances in water or some alien place, but the sun itself by itself in its own proper place — and contemplate it as it truly is.

“Necessarily,” Glaucon said.

“And after that he would already be in a position to conclude about it that this is the source of the seasons and the years, and is the steward of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause of all those things he and his companions had been seeing all along.”516c

“It’s plain,” he said, “that this would be his next step.”

“What then? When he recalled his first home and the wisdom there, and his fellow prisoners in that time, don’t you suppose he would consider himself happy for the change and have pity for the others?”

“Quite so.”

“And if in that time there were among them any honors, praises, and prizes for the man who is sharpest at making out the things that go by, and most remembers which of them are accustomed to pass before, which after, and which at the same time as others, and who is thereby most able to divine what is going to come, in your opinion would he be desirous of them and envy those who are honored and hold power among these men? Or, rather, would he be affected as Homer says and want very much ‘to be on the soil, a serf to another man, to a portionless man,’ and to undergo anything whatsoever rather than to opine those things and live that way?”d

“Yes,” Glaucon said, “I suppose he would prefer to undergo everything rather than live in that way.”e

“Now reflect on this too,” I said. “If such a man were to come down again and sit in the same seat, on coming suddenly from the sun wouldn’t his eyes get infected with darkness?”

“Very much so,” he said.

“And if he once more had to compete with those perpetual prisoners in forming judgments about those shadows while his vision was still dim, before his eyes had recovered, and if the time needed for getting accustomed were not at all short, wouldn’t he be the source of laughter, and wouldn’t it be said of him that he went up and came back with his eyes corrupted, and that it’s not even worth trying to go up? And if they were somehow able to get their hands on and kill the man who attempts to release them and lead up, wouldn’t they kill him?” 517a

“No doubt about it,” he said.

“Well, then, my dear Glaucon,” I said, “this image as a whole must be connected with what was said before. Liken the domain revealed through sight to the prison home, and the light of the fire in it to the sun’s power; and, in applying the going up and the seeing of what’s above to the soul’s journey up to the intelligible place, you’ll not mistake my expectation, since you desire to hear it. A god doubtless knows if it happens to be true. In any event, this is the way the phenomena look to me: in the knowable the last thing to be seen, and that with considerable effort, is the idea of the good; but once seen, it must be concluded that this is in fact the cause of all that is right and fair in everything—in the visible it gave birth to light and its sovereign; in the intelligible, itself sovereign, it provided truth and intelligence—and that the man who is going to act prudently in private or in public must see it.”bc


My Analysis of The Allegory

The Republic is itself a dialogue so layered and so subtle that one could spend an entire philosophical career on it (indeed, several have). The allegory of the cave embedded within the dialogue is one of several gems dotting the whole narrative, and is arguably the most brilliant of them. It is not hard to see why this dialogue has inspired so many philosophers throughout history. Notice, for example, the use of physical direction, and motion. At the opening of the the Republic, for example, Socrates’ first words are, “I went down to the Pireaus…”. In the allegory of the cave, we are following him down into the cave. By the time we get to the end of the allegory of the cave, we have risen not only out of the cave, but up to a plane of existence beyond mortal imagining — only to descend down into the cave again. In other words, the allegory becomes a meta-narrative describing the reader’s journey through the dialogue of the Republic, itself.

Many other examples of this sort of symbolism and allusion are present (such as, for example, the fact that Adiemantus, Glaucon, and Socrates are themselves representatives at times, of the three kinds of citizen populating in the ideal republic; or, for example that the cave and its escapee are a metaphor for childbirth, in the transition from womb to independent organism). But, for the purposes of this podcast, I want to focus on three insights of my own.

The Problem of the Forms

First, there is the role of Plato’s Forms in the allegory of the cave. It’s not clear whether and how much of Plato’s dialogues are Plato talking, or Socrates. But many agree that the Theory of Forms was entirely a creation of Plato, and his use of Socrates to elucidate it was purely dramatic. One problem with this, is how it confounds the Allegory of the Cave (which may have originally been Socrates’).

To briefly summarize the theory here, Plato’s Forms are transcendental universals out of which all particulars in the material changing universe derive their genuine, or ultimate, reality. They are not simply conceptual generalizations in the mind, encapsulating, say, the “idea of chair” or the “idea of justice”. They are permanent, unchanging casting dies, from which the demiurge presses the material instances of chairs, or acts of justice, or even particular properties like size, color, shape, and nature. This is what Plato is referring to, when he puts into Socrates’ mouth, the words “… the idea of the good …” 2

But, this raises a serious problem with the allegory. For, as Parmenides3 pointed out in his dialogue with Socrates, there is no method by which men could obtain knowledge of the Forms, while remaining in the mortal realm. The implication for the Allegory, is simply this, then: nobody ever, really, leaves the cave. But Socrates (or perhaps Plato?) seems to think we can. The allegory is explicit about this. The philosopher king dwells in the realm of the Forms, and then faces the choice of whether or not to return to the cave to rescue his comrades. If it were a one-way trip, no such choice would confront him. But, it could only be a one-way trip, if the Forms are as Plato insists they are. So, either the Forms are not eternal, or we cannot return to the cave.

Epistemology and Motivation

Second, there is a problem with why any particular person in the cave would actually undergo such an ordeal as being extricated from his shackles. This is not just a practical question. I’m not simply saying that because nobody sane would bother, then neither should we as philosophers. Rather, I’m saying that the allegory skirts the question of motivation by putting us already in the “deus ex machina” position of having extracted the captive — and, that motive is key, because it calls into question the whole project. What, exactly, are we seeking? How did it come about that we knew to seek it? How will we know when we’ve found it?

So, in addition to the ontological problem that the Forms present us with, we’re now saddled with an epistemological one as well. Not having access to the Forms (assuming they do exist), and having no awareness of anything but the cave shackles into which we’ve been born, how could we possibly have any awareness to even ask the question of what is “beyond the cave”, or any motivation to question our experience of the cave itself? Socrates admits as much in the retelling of the allegory itself. We are cave dwellers ourselves, and would have no means of unshackling ourselves or the object of the allegory. Were we to tell him we could unshackle ourselves and him, he would surely tell us that we were lunatics for suggesting such a project — and he would be justified in doing so, without some rational standard for believing that such a thing is not only possible, but likely to yield what we claim, if attempted.

The Forced Rescue

There is an addendum to the traditional allegory story, that is often not included in its retelling. Recall that the largest part of The Republic, is Plato’s argument for what a just polis would look like, and by analogy, what a just soul would be. Socrates imagines three classes of men in The Republic: the men of everyday appetitive concerns (the craftsmen), the men of honour (the warriors), and the men of wisdom (the “Guardians”). For Plato, the “Guardian” is the man who has ascended from the cave, and dwelt in the realm of the Forms. Having both the capacity for, and the acheivement of, this enlightenment, he is the class of man who is best equipped to rule the rest of us, because he can see things that we cannot. But there is a problem with this part of the theory. Plato hinted at it already, in the reading above4, but later gets more explicit about the implications of this. Let’s have a look at that, here, beginning at 517d:

“Come, then,” I said, “and join me in supposing this, too, and don’t be surprised that the men who get to that point aren’t willing to mind the business of human beings, but rather that their souls are always eager to spend their time above. Surely that’s likely, if indeed this, too, follows the image of which I told before.”

“Of course it’s likely,” he said.

“And what about this? Do you suppose it is anything surprising,” I said, “if a man, come from acts of divine contemplation to the human evils, is graceless and looks quite ridiculous when—with his sight still dim and before he has gotten sufficiently accustomed to the surrounding darkness—he is compelled in courts or elsewhere to contest about the shadows of the just or the representations of which they are the shadows, and to dispute about the way these things are understood by men who have never seen justice itself?”

“It’s not at all surprising,” he said.

And, further on, at 519c, Plato explains what would happen to such men:

…Isn’t it likely,” I said, “and necessary, as a consequence of what was said before, that those who are without education and experience of truth would never be adequate stewards of a city, nor would those who have been allowed to spend their time in education continuously to the end—the former because they don’t have any single goal in life at which they must aim in doing everything they do in private or in public, the latter because they won’t be willing to act, believing they have emigrated to a colony on the Isles of the Blessed while they are still alive?”

“True,” he said.

“Then our job as founders,” I said, “is to compel the best natures to go to the study which we were saying before is the greatest, to see the good and to go up that ascent; and, when they have gone up and seen sufficiently, not to permit them what is now permitted.”

“What’s that?”, Glaucon asked.

“To remain there,” I said, “and not be willing to go down again among those prisoners or share their labors and honors, whether they be slighter or more serious.”

“What?” he said. “Are we to do them an injustice, and make them live a worse life when a better is possible for them?”

“My friend, you have again forgotten,” I said, “that it’s not the concern of law that any one class in the city fare exceptionally well, but it contrives to bring this about in the city as a whole, harmonizing the citizens by persuasion and compulsion, making them share with one another the benefit that each is able to bring to the commonwealth. And it produces such men in the city not in order to let them turn whichever way each wants, but in order that it may use them in binding the city together.”

“That’s true,” he said. “I did forget.”

So, Plato’s philosophers would not naturally wish to return to the cave on a voluntary basis. They would, rather, wish to “remain and not be willing to go down again“. Glaucon rightly supposes forcing them to go down would be an injustice against them as individuals, since this sort of compulsion would be imposing a form of evil on the enlightened man. But, Plato reminds us, the goal here is not to maximize the individual’s own happiness. It is to harmonization the polis as a whole. To put it in modern parlance, they would be forced to return for the greater good. They would not return because they had any sort of love for their former cave mates. Plato understood the difference between love and pity, and the difference between love and duty.

But, the point here, is not to take issue with Plato’s totalitarianism, or to argue the efficacy of an idea like a tripartite polis (I will do this, in a later podcast). Rather, it is to say that the allegory of the cave is clear evidence of a problem with Plato’s theory. As a thought experiment, it has exposed an irrationality in his design. The moment one must resort to compulsion, and to apologetics for the use of force, one has abandoned reason. But Plato cannot see this, because he has so fallen in love with his own idea, that its flaws are invisible to him. Two of those flaws have been outlined here already. But there are dozens of other problems as well; not only within the confines of Plato’s own logical structure, but also across the span of three thousand years of hind-sight. Analysis of those additional mistakes will have to wait for another discussion.

Conclusion

Given my criticisms of the allegory of the cave, why would I adopt it as a defining feature of my philosophical “brand”, as it were? Clearly, I recognize how deeply flawed it is, in spite of how inspiring it is. So, why venerate it with a permanent reference built into the podcast? Good question.

One feature of Plato’s dialogues that I find compelling, and in many ways preferable, to the writings of, say, Aristotle, is precisely the fact that they are dialogues. Aristotle goes to great lengths in the Nicomachean Ethics to explain and to argue the necessity of practice in the formation of a virtuous character. He is right, of course. But, ironically, by engaging in didactics, rather than dialectics, Aristotle does not practice what he preaches. Plato, again ironically, is doing precisely this. Rather than explaining to us how and why we ought to prefer reason to appetite, Plato shows us the art of reason in the form of a drama, expecting us to take that example and employ it ourselves, in our own dialectics in the present. He is encouraging us to think and introspect by way of example, not simply enjoining us to do so.

Reasoning well is not something that can be imparted as a complete package, and by explanation alone. It must be done, repeatedly, and with expert guidance, in order for mastery of the art to be achieved. Aristotle provides us with a useful toolset in the form of the syllogism, and the model of generalizations from particulars. But he does not give us sufficient examples of these tools actually in use. Plato’s dialogues are the kinds of examples that are needed. We can see this here, in both the example of the Republic, and the Parmenides. Learning to reason is like learning to swim, or learning to sing. You must feel what it’s like to have a moment of rational clarity, must remember the state you are in when that happens, and must learn how to repeat that state. The dialogues are the meditations needed to facilitate that work.

When you take your first steps in philosophy, at least traditionally, you are confronted with dialogues like the Euthyphro or the Meno. Dialogues that are not simple or superficial, by any stretch. But dialogues that are narrowly focused on one particular idea. The apprentice philosopher learns to examine one idea, and explore all of its facets, before he is tasked with looking at two or three in relation to each other. The Republic (and arguably, The Parmenides), represent the culmination of that effort. These works demand that the thinker examine numerous inter-related ideas, all in relation to each other, and on several levels of analysis. The allegory of the cave embedded in The Republic, then, is as I have said before, the metaphor for the intellectual and emotional journey of the philosopher.

As I have shown in this critique, Plato must have understood that the attainment of full communion with the Form of The Good is not something that is possible for finite, incomplete beings such as ourselves. And yet, he did think that glimpses were possible. The allegory of the cave, then, represents not the attainment of enlightenment, but the striving for it. The pursuit of truth is a sort of “Zeno’s Paradox” for the problem of enlightenment. Through study, introspection, and the practice of dialectic, we slowly learn that we are shackled, we gradually gain the knowledge to unshackle ourselves, and we slowly stumble our way in the dark cave, toward the dim light high above, coming from the cave mouth. Yet, we can never quite achieve the threshold, as it always seems just that much further away. We are always exiting the cave, and this is why my blog and my podcast are so named.


  1. Republic, 514a 
  2. “Idea” is often a substitute for the word “Form” in translations of the dialogues. I generally prefer not to use it, because of the confusion it causes as a result of our modern notion of “idea”. But this translation used it. So, I’m sticking with it in this quote. 
  3. Parmenides, beginning at 133c, “…when ideas are what they are in relation to one another, their essence is determined by a relation among themselves, and has nothing to do with the resemblances, or whatever they are to betermed, which are in our sphere, and from which we receive this or that name when we partake of them. And the things which are within our sphere and have the same names with them, are likewise only relative to one another, and not to the ideas which have the same names with them, but belong to themselves and not to them… if God has this perfect authority, and perfect knowledge, his authority cannot rule us, nor his knowledge know us, or any human thing; just as our authority does not extend to the gods, nor our knowledge know anythingwhich is divine, so by parity of reason they, being gods, are not our masters, neither do they know the things of men. Yet, surely, said Socrates, to deprive God of knowledge is monstrous.…” 
  4. Republic, 516d-e 

Book Review: The Art of The Argument, Stefan Molyneux

This weekend I had a little extra time on my hands, because of the bank holiday. It’s been quite a while since I’ve looked at any work by the growing cadre of freelance internet philosophers. So, I decided to have a look at the latest offering by Stefan Molyneux. Not a man to shy away from dramatic overstatement, the book is titled, “The Art of The Argument: Civilization’s Last Stand“.

The basic thesis of the book is that “sophists” – described as those who manipulate language and appeal to emotion to gain power for themselves – are undermining the basic capacity for good people to negotiate terms amongst themselves in good faith, and that without this capacity to engage in rational debate, civilization itself will descend into a chaos of brute force misery and destruction. He has taken it to be his task, then, to recruit and educate the new generation of soldiers in the war of the rational against the “relativist” and the “sophist”, and to train them up in the art of ‘The Argument’.

Some have confused the purpose of this book, because of it’s title. Several reviewers on Amazon took it to be an attempt at a layman-accessible textbook or tutorial, and have heavily critiqued the book in ways that, though largely correct, are far too stringent for a polemical tract of this kind, and fall directly into the trap Stefan sets for them, in his preface (hilariously titled “Trigger Warning”):

’The Art of the Argument’ is an outright battle manual, not a prissy abstract academic paper… As we approach Western Civilization’s last stand for survival, loftily lecturing people on arcane terms is a mere confession of pitiful impotence…

That ought to give some context as to what to actually expect from this book. Stefan thinks he’s distributing a basic survival manual in a state of impending cultural apocalypse (cue the picture of Patton standing in front of the flag). What of those who actually care to be precise, methodical, and try to practice a little epistemic humility? Well, Stefan just thinks they’re “whining”, and “turning logic into wingdings”.

I Am Absolutely Certain

Still, precision and clarity is precisely what one would want if one were arming people for an ‘intellectual battle’, and it is true that his explanations of deduction and induction are rushed straw-men that, at times, are incoherent or just plain wrong. He is telling readers that he is equipping them with broad-swords, but handing them broom handles instead. We’ll get to examples of all this shortly, but first, a note about Stefan’s main object of un-ironic attention in the first part of the book: absolute certainty. Unlike most of us, who’ve come to understand that such a thing probably doesn’t exist, and that believing one has obtained such a thing is dangerous to the point of precipitating wars and genocides, Stefan on the other hand, has come to see absolute certainty as a special place one can go, to escape the “relativists”:

if you surrender to the peace of absolutism – if the premises are correct, and the reasoning is correct, the conclusion is absolute and inescapable – you will quickly find it a beautiful place to be, and that relativists are trying to deny you the peace, Zen, and beauty of the paradise called certainty.

Rather than understanding, or self-knowledge (something he used to talk a lot about), or curiosity, or mindfulness, it is the absolute certainty of deductive rigor that will get his readers to the truth, and it is absolute certainty that will make his readers the winners of The Argument.

It is this fixation that sets the tone for the opening explication of deductive and inductive reasoning. He rightly describes inductive reasoning as the method of reasoning to probabilities, and deductive reasoning as the method of reasoning to certainties. But because certainty is king, inductive reasoning plays only a secondary submissive role in Stefan’s jungle story known as the The Argument, and he equates probabilistic thinking simply with ‘rank relativism’:

A predator must be absolute in its reasoning. The lion must correctly identify and stalk the zebra, must calculate speed and interception without error, must attack and bite accurately, and must persist until the prey is down. All this must serve the conclusion: the meal. However, prey has a different set of calculations because a predator can see the prey, but the prey usually cannot see the predator – at least until it is too late… Dominant life forms revel in absolutes and fight hard against any encroaching fumes of rank relativism. A tiger cannot hunt if it doubts the evidence of its senses. The life of a zebra is a life of doubt, of fear. [emphasis added]

This zeal for absolute certainty traps him in something of a bind later. When describing the scientific method, he has to characterize it as fundamentally deductive:

The Scientific Method is absolute – deductive – but individual hypotheses are usually conditional… inductive reasoning must be subject to the absolutes of deductive reasoning…

While it’s true that deductive reasoning plays a significant role in evaluating hypotheses and the research products of scientific disciplines, it is wrong to assert that deduction is a primary in all cases. Deduction and induction play complementary roles in the methods of science, and which has primacy depends on the method and the context (though, for Stefan, The Scientific Method is just one thing).

Stefan says, “All valid hypotheses must conform with – and predict – empirical observations“. Embedded implicitly in this assertion, is an idea never explicitly referenced, but clearly implied by his rhetoric about the scientific method. He wants to use Popperian falsificationism as a proxy for deductive certainty. While its true that Popper sought a way to give scientific conclusions a certainty akin to those of deductive arguments, he would never have pretended that falsification was equivalent to deductive certainty. The point was not to inject the absolutism of Augustinian faith declarations into scientific conclusions. Rather, it was to reduce the potential for catastrophic error – a brick wall into which Molyneux seems determined to drive himself.  All of this effort comes on the heals of labeling deductive reasoning “alpha”, and inductive reasoning “beta”. He needed a way to rescue sissy science from the beta-cuck basement; and the way he does it, is by making it the twee Robin beside the manly Batman of deduction.

But why is absolute certainty so important to Stefan? Because, for him, no rational action is possible without it:

The lion stalking the zebra is engaged in proactive behavior, and thus, by initiating the encounter, is in far greater control of the variables… Initiating action requires the certainty of deductive reasoning, and control over variables increases that certainty… The pursuit of the lion is the initiating action, the flight of the zebra is the reaction.

Deductive lions are proactive, and inductive zebras are reactive. Neither act at all, without having achieved the absolute certainty of empirical verification. But is this actually how we act? I would argue that it is not. There are many things we do, day to day, without the absolute certainty of a deductive conclusion. In fact, most things we do are this way. He offers the example of deciding to bring an umbrella. But one could easily imagine deciding which arguments to deploy in a debate as well. The fascination with certainty also seems to run counter to Stefan’s commitment to free will, as well. The kind of certainty he describes could easily be imagined as the kind of certainty that results in perfect prediction (something akin to what he says above about hypotheses). Does this not imply some sort of threshold determinism? Given this, why, if I were an adherent of some common-sense conception of the free will, would I want to believe this was the only way I could act? Buried in this fixation, is the need to be morally justified, in order to act. For Stefan, acting without certainty is acting without the necessary moral authority. To act instead, as most of us do, on varying degrees of confidence in beliefs, is moral corruption. He needs to be certain, because he needs to be good. If I am absolutely certain, then your condemnations of me are like arrows bouncing off a tank.

What’s The Argument?

In addition to the poor analogy to lions and zebras, and the failure to provide a stable definition of truth (or ‘virtue’, or ‘happiness’, or a half-dozen other things) Stefan never takes the time to explain what propositions are, or what makes them a proper part of an argument. This, to me, seems like it would not be too big a leap of effort, even for his readers. Clearly, he knows what they are, because he provides lots of them in this book. But he is terribly inconsistent about it. At one point, late in the book, he even seems to confuse validity and truth, and incorrectly marks out a single proposition as an argument:

‘Ice cream contains dairy’ is an argument, since it claims to describe a property objectively measurable and testable…

Being “objectively measurable and testable” does not meet the definition of an argument by even the most rudimentary general definition, as a ‘collection of reasons supporting a conclusion’. What’s worse, it doesn’t even meet Stefan’s own initial definition, as being:

an attempt to convince another person of the truth or value of your position using only reason and evidence.

All we have here, is an asserted conclusion in the form of a subject-predicate proposition. There are no reasons supporting it, and no evidence offered to ‘verify’ it’s ‘objective reality’. Even if we take the colloquial presumptions, and accept that the subject ‘ice cream’ does refer to something in reality, and that the predicate ‘contains dairy’ accurately modifies this subject with – as he puts it – “a property objectively measurable and testable”, it still remains that a measurement must be made, and the result of that added to this proposition, in order to make it an argument. So, perhaps something like:

  1. Ice cream is made with milk
  2. Milk is a dairy product
  3. Therefore, ice cream contains dairy

Note that this is a standard example of the transitive property applied to the propositions of a logical argument. If Stefan were trying to outfit his army with a sharp argumentative blade, then this was definitely a missed opportunity.

A bit later, he wants to say that ’inequality is bad’ is not an argument, and he tries to sustain this claim by way of this newly minted definition of an argument (its needing to be “objectively measurable and testable”). But rather than argue that “bad” is not “objectively measurable”, which would be the obvious thing to do given the new definition, he says this is because “bad” is a false-substitute for a preference claim, e.g., “I don’t like inequality”. But this only makes his explanation inscrutable. Surely, I can objectively measure a man’s preferences. Even if we reject self-reporting as acceptable, one could still measure pleasure responses neurologically, to obtain the truth of his statement, and in doing so, show that “bad” is an acceptable substitute for “dislike”.

But it turns out that’s not why Molyneux makes this turn in the story. Instead, he wants to lodge an entirely new complaint about how personal preference isn’t a reasonable standard for moral judgment. On this point, I might be in agreement (were I to see an argument), but the problem is that it’s not germane to the explanation of what is and is not an argument. He’s lost visibility of the form of his argument, because he’s utterly distracted by the content. Perhaps those “wingdings” would come in handy about now?

Getting An Ought From An Ought…

Now, we move beyond the logic lessons, and on to some specific content problems with this book. There are dozens of inaccuracies, exaggerations, and hyperbolic misreadings to be found littered across the pages of this book. I am going to focus on just three instances. First on the list (the most challenging to untangle) is his ham-fisted attempt at a refutation of Hume’s Is-Ought dichotomy. He states Hume’s case this way:

David Hume, the famous Scottish philosopher… introduc[ed] the concept of Humean scepticism, or the idea that you cannot get an “ought” from an “is.” While it is true that cutting off a man’s head will kill him, there is nothing in the basic biology that tells us we ought not to do it: in other words, there is no morality in physics.

This is a common simplification of the is-ought dichotomy, and it suffers from the common problem of misunderstanding Hume’s logic problem as a reification problem (that “moral” properties are “real”). His rebuttal to this formulation amounts to two objections. First, predictably, that the is-ought problem is a non-problem (“irrelevant”, in his words):

There is no such thing as logic in material physics either, but we do not think that logic is unnecessary or irrelevant or subjective.

This argument fails, because it doesn’t actually prove the case of irrelevance. Rather, he beats down the straw-man of reification. There is no “logic in material physics” (by which, he means ‘physical reality’), because logic (loosely speaking) is a set of rules defining a means of describing certain features of physical matter (as in, Aristotle’s three laws). Likewise, there is no “morality in material physics”, because morality (loosely speaking) is a set of rules defining a means of evaluating certain features of human character and behavior. The problem is to be found not in where any properties lie, but in the two words I highlighted: “describing” and “evaluating”, and their usage in arguments. Molyneux is aware of this difference. It is a key component of his opening claims about arguments. We’ll recall, that there are two kinds, according to him:

Truth arguments aim to unite fragmented and subjective humanity under the challenging banner of actual reality… Value arguments aim at improvements in aesthetic or moral standards… A truth argument can tell us who killed someone. A value argument tells us that murder is wrong.

So, it’s clear that we have two different categories of argumentation, and that they need to be accounted for independently (indeed, justified independently), and reconciled. Which gets us to Stefan’s second objection:

…considering Hume’s argument that you cannot get an “ought” from an “is,” we can easily see that the mirror of The Argument destroys The Argument. If we cannot get an “ought” from an “is,” then anyone who tries to argue that we can is wrong. In other words, we “ought not” get an “ought” from an “is.” Arguing that we cannot derive universally preferable behavior from mere matter and energy argues that it is universally preferable behavior to not derive an “ought” from an “is.” If we cannot derive an “ought” from an “is,” this means that we can derive an “ought” from an “is,” which is that we ought not try it: a self detonating argument.

There are two major problems with this argument. First, contrary to popular misconception, Hume never actually asserted that one cannot not derive an ought from an is. Second, Molyneux is exemplifying in his prose, precisely the problem that Hume was actually describing in his Treatise. Let’s take a look at Hume’s actual words:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprized to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. (Treatise 3.1.1)

This may seem too subtle for a general overview, but Hume is not saying you “cannot derive an ought from an is”. He’s saying exactly what I said above: there appears to be two categorically different kinds of reasoning, and authors are mixing them in their writings, without explaining how the relations work. The relation is simply assumed, without justification. That is a problem that is hardly irrelevant to philosophy. Here is a rudimentary example:

  1. Some humans go hungry in winter
  2. Those with food ought to feed the hungry in winter

Just like Stefan’s example of murder above, we have one proposition that is in the ‘descriptive’ category, and one that is in the ‘evaluative’ category (or, in this case, injunctive which – loosely speaking – implies normative evaluation). By what laws of logic can the second proposition be transformed into a conclusion from the first? Or, at lease, how can we show logical linkage between proposition 1 and proposition 2? That is what Hume was asking his reader to consider. In order for Hume to sustain the broader positive assertion that “one cannot derive an ought from an is”, he would’ve had to construct a theory of deduction that categorically (and absolutely, ironically) excluded evaluation statements or injunctions as meaningful propositions (in the true/false sense of meaning). He didn’t do that.

But what of Stefan’s clever turn? If we take the colloquial assertion as read (regardless of what Hume was saying), does Molyneux successfully refute it? I still don’t think so. First, note his usage of the word “wrong” in that passage:

If we cannot get an “ought” from an “is,” then anyone who tries to argue that we can is wrong.

Does he mean “incorrect”, or does he mean “bad”? Fortunately, Molyneux provides a clarification:

In other words, we “ought not” get an “ought” from an “is.”

Is saying that we cannot derive an ought from an is, the same as saying we ought not derive an ought from an is (i.e., that it would be ‘bad’ for us to do this)? On broad broad reading, Molyneux may have a point. The rules of logic are often described as normative as well as descriptive (see Guttenplan, for example). In other words, the rules ‘guide good behavior’ in argumentation, in some sense, in addition to simply describing the methods of thinking. But that’s not what’s going on here. As I pointed out above, nobody is saying that it is morally wrong to derive an ought from an is, merely that it doesn’t seem possible, given the present theories of logic available to us. The task would be to build a logical system that incorporated normative evaluation and injunction into the system (in other words, to somehow provide a truth-bearing meaning for those sorts of statements). Not an easy task, but also not necessarily an impossibility.

In any case, to make this objection stick, and condemn the dichotomy, Stefan has to appeal to his own moral theory (known as “Universally Preferred Behavior”):

Arguing that we cannot derive universally preferable behavior from mere matter and energy argues that it is universally preferable behavior to not derive an “ought” from an “is.” If we cannot derive an “ought” from an “is,” this means that we can derive an “ought” from an “is,” which is that we ought not try it: a self detonating argument.

This should raise a red flag. Because, again, Hume isn’t making a moral condemnation of the traversal from descriptive to normative. He’s asking how it’s possible to do so in moral theories, given the normal rules of logic. What’s more, even if we granted the normative complaint, it’s still a stretch to say that all normative evaluations are moral evaluations, and therefore, must be held to the same definitional standard – and in doing so, ruling out moral complaints about evaluative language in logic. In other words, to make the objection from UPB work, Stefan has to commit exactly the same sleight of hand that Hume was complaining about: “ instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not”.

Democracy Is For Dummies

The second example is a straw man the size of the Wicker Man. For a man with both a BA and an MA in history, I am continually in awe of Stefan’s utter disregard and contempt for it. Often, he actually seems proud of the contempt he sprinkles liberally throughout this book. One breathtaking example of these random turds can be found here:

Less intelligent people invented democracy (more intelligent people invented Republics), because, being less intelligent, they could not influence society through the brilliance of their writing and oratory. But naturally they wish to have such influence, and therefore invented the concept of “one adult, one vote.” This makes their political perspectives equally valuable to the greatest genius in the land. In other words, they get the effects of genius, without the genetics or hard work of becoming a genius. From an amoral, biological standpoint, who can blame them?

Setting aside the comparative confusion (“less intelligent” than whom? “more intelligent” than what?), I have to wonder why this was even included in the book. It’s one of the most cartoonishly ignorant and cynical descriptions of the invention of democracy I’ve ever read (and I’ve read some bad ones). But, let’s entertain the possibility, for the moment. Is it reasonable to suppose that Solon, Cleisthenes, and Ephialtes were indeed low-IQ, genetically inferior parasites who, unable to “influence society through the brilliance of their writing and oratory”, still somehow managed to convince the population of Athens over a generation, to divide themselves into classes, and organize themselves around a complex system of representative bodies like the Ecclesia, the Boule, and the Areopagus? In a book touting the power of The Argument, dare I ask for An Argument for this claim? What would such an argument look like? What sort of society would have replaced early Greek democracy, had these intellectual inferiors not succeeded to transform their society? Stefan doesn’t bother to elaborate. Rather, he wants this assertion to stand on its own, as a stepping-stone in a chain of shallow reasons he thinks cinches the case for the moral superiority of high intelligence.

But it’s not even a good reason to think that. For a man who is constantly pounding his chest in honor of “empirical evidence”, he never seems to leave any room for that evidence when making claims such as this one. For anyone who has read any serious history on ancient greek society and politics, it should be obvious: there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the founders of Greek democracy were “less intelligent” than their social peers. What’s more, far from being incompetent writers and orators, the Athenians were some of the most accomplished writers and orators in the Hellenistic world. It’s precisely because of how accomplished they were, that we can talk about them at all, now. In other words, the evidence stands in direct opposition to this claim. And he doesn’t seem to notice.

This is a problem throughout this book. There really is no good reason for the inclusion of the brief line of “reasoning” within which this claim is couched. It’s arbitrary and random. It neither sustains his primary claim – that reasoned debate is essential to stable civilizations – nor offers a challenge to it that he can respond to. In fact, it’s such an outlandish and distracting empty assertion, that it damages his main case. It’s not an argument. There are other places where similar interruptions are not nearly as damaging (such as the parenthetical mention of “abduction” at the end of his explication of induction and deduction). Which leads me to believe this book probably would have really benefited from a good editor.

Consequences And Principles

The last example may seem too subtle for some. But I raise the objection here, because I think it’s important to point out that Stefan claims the mantle of a “public intellectual”, and has been, ostensibly, hard at work as an “internet philosopher” for at least 10 years. Why is this important? Because lay-people who read this book will take the misreadings as more-or-less correct, and find themselves with their pants down, when faced with someone who knows better. In particular, I’m referring to his mischaracterization of Consequentialism, as a ‘pragmatic’ (meaning ‘unprincipled’) doctrine:

Atheists also tend to prefer consequentialism, or outcome-based moral standards. That which produces direct and immediate benefits in society is considered the good: the greatest good for the greatest number, and so on. These are not principled arguments, but pragmatic arguments. The principled argument against the welfare state is that it violates property rights (thou shalt not steal). The consequentialist argument for the welfare state is that it immediately reduces the amount of poverty in society. If your goal is consequentialist, principled arguments often stand in your way.

I am certainly no fan of consequentialist ethics, as readers of this blog will know. But to simply dismiss the theory out of hand as “unprincipled” or “pragmatic” is a weak approach at best. Mainly, because consequentialism is not unprincipled. Since Stefan has made indirect reference to Mill’s Greatest Happiness principle, I will then let Bentham and Mill speak for themselves:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it. In words a man may pretend to abjure their empire: but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while. The principle of utility recognizes this subjection, and assumes it for the foundation of that system, the object of which is to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and of law. Systems which attempt to question it, deal in sounds instead of sense, in caprice instead of reason… By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words to promote or to oppose that happiness. (Jeremy Bentham, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation)

And:

The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure. To give a clear view of the moral standard set up by the theory, much more requires to be said; in particular what things it includes in the ideas of pain and pleasure; and to what extent this is left an open question. But these supplementary explanations do not affect the theory of life on which this theory of morality is grounded— namely, that pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain. (JS Mill, Utilitarianism)

Now, it is certainly reasonable to question the correctness of this principle. For example, why is happiness directly equated with pleasure? Or, how do you address the objections in the Protagoras? Or any number of other complaints I, and other more skilled philosophers have raised in this blog and elsewhere. The Utility Principle is notorious for its myriad problems. But, not being a principle is not one of them. Perhaps Stefan should have taken the time to give us a definition of “principle” before proceeding with a condemnation of consequentialism as “unprincipled”.

Later on, he tries to extend the meaning of consequentialism itself, in order to heap more scorn on it:

As the influence of women in society has grown, so has pragmatism, which can also be called consequentialism, which is the idea that an argument can be judged by its effects. If the effects are negative, The Argument is “problematic” or “inappropriate” or “offensive.”

Here, he is attempting to equate the fallacy of appeal to consequences with the moral theory of consequentialism. This is a profound category error. He lays blame for the fallacy of the appeal to consequences almost entirely at the feet of women (which also includes the only research paper he quotes – but doesn’t cite – in the entire book). But, setting that silliness aside (yet another distraction), he fails to provide an explanation for how consequentialism as a moral theory says incorrectly that propositions can be judged true or false as a result of the desirability of their effects. In this small, but incredibly disingenuous two-sentence passage, he’s managed to throw pragmatism, consequentialism, women, and The Argument under the bus.

Summary Conclusion (My Amazon Review)

I yearned for this to be a better book than it was. I sympathize with the sentiment that reason is beleaguered in modern society, and crave a good book on the topic. Alas, this is not the book. For all his railing against sophistry, confirmation bias, and appeals to emotion, Stefan relies heavily on an audience so steeped in its own prejudices, that it won’t notice the factual errors, logical incongruities, or interpretational biases littered throughout its pages. What’s worse, is that Molyneux attacks the disingenuous debater so strenuously in this book, that he often ends up recriminating himself for his own sloppiness.

Molyneux’s book reads like a personal journal that was transcribed directly into print. It is haphazard, overwrought, and at times, stream-of-consciousness. If you’re not already familiar with the lingo of internet Libertarianism, you’ll be completely confused by numerous passages. If you’re not already rehearsed in, and in agreement with, the arguments and positions of right-leaning anarchism (“anarcho-capitalism”), you’ll find the presumption of foregone conclusions scattered throughout the book to be irritating at best.

At bottom, the main problem with this book, is that it doesn’t appear to have an audience. The dismissive and sneering tone taken toward the political left will put them off. The appeals to the political right will (and has) earned him podcast interviews, but they certainly aren’t interested in philosophical inquiry beyond their own prejudices. The academic community has already shunned him as a lightweight at best, crackpot at worst. The book is too polemical and doctrinaire to appeal to the mainstream (many of whom fear him as some sort of cult leader already). So, who is this book for?

He will say, of course, that it is for the ‘true philosophers’. But any true philosopher will find this book terribly disappointing at best, perniciously self-defeating at worst. His explication of logic is amateur and incomplete, and at times just plain wrong. He takes Popperian falsificationism as a given, as if it were just a fact. He makes a sophomoric straw man of consequentialism, misreads Hume, offers only common-sense intuition explanations for complex topics like virtue and happiness, and deftly shifts from normative to descriptive usages of “right” and “wrong”, where it suits him.

In the end, as near as I can tell, the audience for this book was himself, and the handful who share whatever psychology it is that produced this work. The only person who will be most convinced by this work, is his own faltering conscience. He is defending heavily against the anxiety of uncertainty; the vulnerability and insecurity of having more questions than answers – and nowhere to look for them.

For centuries, the medievals also sought the same security in the reified power of deductive logic which Stefan is groping so desperately for in this book. On that count, I surely sympathize with him. The seduction of certainty – its comforting, self-soothing lullaby of finality and the archimedean lever it offers against those who would use doubt and curiosity to hurt, to plunder, and to oppress, is something I have been drawn to at times in my own life.

But for those of us afflicted by the daemon of Socrates, these islands of comfortable absolutism will never make a permanent home. Eventually, the urge to set sail again on the sea of uncertainty – on the path to discovery – will overtake the fear of being unmoored, and away we will voyage, come what may.

Stefan’s book is one such island of comfortable certitude, for some. The philosophers may visit, but they won’t stay long. What concerns me, though, are those who end up shipwrecked on one of these islands, before they’ve even had an opportunity to understand the voyage they set themselves on.

I will close this review with a few quotes from Stefan, that I would like to offer as chastening advice to Stefan himself:

There are only two ways to achieve certainty: dogma and philosophy. Dogma is by far the easiest choice, of course, and while it may give you the illusion of certainty, it does not give you the reality of knowledge. Dogma arises, like most dysfunctions, from a greed for the unearned…

If The Argument begins with the conclusion, it is neither an argument, nor a proof of any kind…

Indeed.

Addendum: Making Stefan’s Case For Him

In researching for this review, I stumbled across this review of the book, by Alexander Douglas, a philosophy lecturer at St. Andrews in Scotland. On reading this review, I couldn’t help but cringe. Dr. Douglas has volunteered to make himself into precisely the boogy-man that Stefan points to as an example of why he’s so right, and everyone else is so wrong. As he says: “When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser”.

If you are a professional philosopher, and you think Stefan Molyneux is not worth wasting a single breath on, then why write a “review” like this? Why acknowledge him at all? He’s not a professional philosopher, and only on the periphery of the political debate online, which itself, is already a periphery. If you do think he’s worth the effort to review honestly, then why this sort of silly screed, that only serves to entrench his fans, and (as they would put it) “virtue signal” to yours? Why fall into this trap at all?

This is one of the reasons I decided to proceed with this review (I considered abandoning it several times). There needs to be somebody reviewing Stefan Molyneux in an honest way, with rigor and discipline, who doesn’t have an axe to grind. People hovering in the orbits around the personalities of the “internet right”, need to be able to find genuine criticism, in order to be able to make rational decisions themselves. It’s the only way out of the morass.

Bernard Williams, Moral Dilemmas, and Utilitarianism

It would be amazing if ethics courses would stop trying to put me into some kind of Antonio Banderas / Heath Ledger fantasy nightmare, and actually start teaching me how to work on real problems in the real world. Everyone talks of trying to do "applied" ethics, and trying to remove all the 'abstractions' and deal 'directly' with our moral intuitions. But these scenarios just seem to me to be driving us further and further away from that goal

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