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Book Review: Chronicles Of Wasted Time

I.

I was recently recommended Chronicles of Wasted Time, the autobiography of Malcolm Muggeridge. It was a good choice, and not just because its title appropriately described my expectations about reading 500-page books on people’s recommendation. Muggeridge is an obvious reactionary, but one with the personal and historical credentials to pull it off with the utmost class and credibility.

He describes his birth in 1903 to a family of committed British socialists. Their heroes were Karl Marx, George Bernard Shaw, and Fabian leaders Sidney and Beatrice Webb. These last two I had only the slightest familiarity with, but Muggeridge paints a picture of them as the progressive titans of his day, boasting a combination of Chomsky’s intellectual leadership and the Clintons’ network and political acumen. Throughout Muggeridge’s youth, his family would host meetings, sing socialist songs, run for various minor offices on the socialist ticket, and exchange correspondence with intellectual worthies. They even flirt with, though never quite join, an experimental commune being set up in their area, about which Muggeridge has the best stories:

The land was cheap in those days, and they acquired it by purchase; then, to demonstrate their abhorrence of the institution of property, ceremonially burnt the title deeds. It must have been a touching scene – the bonfire, the documents consigned to the flames, their exalted sentiments. Unfortunately, a neighboring farmer heard of their noble gesture and began to encroach on their land. To have resorted to the police, even if it had been practicable, was unthinkable. So after much deliberation, they decided to use physical force to expel the intruder; which they did on the basis of a theory of detached action, whereby it is permissible to infringe a principle for the purpose of a single isolated act without thereby invalidating it. The intruding farmer was, in fact, thrown over the hedge in the presence of the assembled Colonists. There were many such tragi-comic incidents in the years that followed; as well as quarrels, departures, jealousies, betrayals, and domestic upsets. In the end, the Colonists found it necessary to reestablish their title to the land by means of squatters’ rights, and then proceeded to bicker amongst themselves as to who should have which portion.

But he and his family are convinced that all of this is just a momentary hiccup on the road to Glorious Progress. Indeed, his teenage years are marked by a burning excitement at the Russian Revolution:

We called the Metropolitan Mounted Police ‘Cossacks’, rejoiced over early Soviet films like ‘Mother’ and ‘The Battleship Potemkin’, spoke of workers’ control and cadres and agitprop, and I personally decided inwardly that sooner or later I would go to Russia and throw in my lot with the new and better way of life that, I was confident, was coming to pass there.

Against this enthusiasm, he had only a personal tendency which he describes as a deep-set conviction:

…that I was born into a dying, if not already dead, civilization, whose literature was part of the general decomposition; a heap of rubble scavenged by scrawny Eng Lit vultures, and echoing with the hyena cries of Freudians looking for their Marx and Marxists looking for their Freud…a Gaderene descent down which we all must slide, finishing up in the same slough.

By the same token, a strange certainty has possessed me, almost since I can remember, that the Lord Mayor riding in his coach, the Lord Chancellor seated on his Woolsack, Honorable and Right Honorable Members facing one another across the floor of the House of Commons, were somehow the end of a line. That soon there would be no more Lord Mayors, Lord Chancellors, Honorable and Right Honorable Members, the Mother of Parliaments having reached her time of life or menopause, and become incapable of any further procreation…

Doubtless other glories lie ahead. Bigger and better capsules carried to the moon; down in the test tube something stirs; ‘I think, therefore you’re not’ says the computer. We all know, though, in our hearts, that our old homestead is falling down; with death-watch beetles in the rafters, and dry rot in the cellar, and unruly tenants whose only concern is to pull the place to pieces.

This feeling – that everything around him was in a state of permanent decay – was not so far-fetched given that he spent much of his early adulthood in the far-flung territories of the crumbling British Empire. But it soon becomes clear that it’s more than a natural reaction to the political realities of the time. He describes again and again looking on something apparently healthy enough and being overwhelmed with a feeling of impending sickness and decay. He describes T.S. Eliot as “a death-rattle in the throat of a dying civilization”, Shaw as “too encased in his own narcissism, too remote from real life to do more than grimace at it through a long-distance telescope”, and the great reformers and abolitionists of the age as:

…solemn funeral mutes in the long obsequies of western civilization; as they fell by the way, others coming forward to take their places. Now the time has nearly come for the coffin to be actually interred. Then at last their occupation will be gone forever.

I sometimes have patients with very severe depression who tell me that everything they look at is infested by maggots. They won’t eat, because the food is infested with maggots. They won’t hug their children, because their children are infested with maggots. Sleep disgusts them, because the bed is infested with maggots. Et cetera.

And other times, when they have a little more insight, they’ll say something like “Okay, my food isn’t literally infested by maggots, but I get this feeling from it, this overwhelming feeling, such that the feeling would only make sense if the food was infested by maggots. I know deep down it’s not infested by maggots, but it has some metaphysical quality which only things infested by maggots have.”

Poor Malcolm Muggeridge feels this way about everything. One of the most poignant episodes in the book takes place the worst night of the London Blitz, when Muggeridge runs around the burning city, almost euphoric, because finally his inner conviction that everything is on fire and collapsing is reflected in everything really being on fire and collapsing, and nobody can pat his head and patronizingly tell him that it isn’t:

I remember particularly Regent’s Park on a moonlit night, full of the fragrance of the rose gardens; the Nash Terraces, perfectly blacked-out, not a sign of a light anywhere, white stately shapes waiting to be toppled over – as they duly were, crumbling into rubble like melting snow…I felt a terrible joy and exaltation at the sight and smell and taste and sound of all of this destruction; at the lurid sky, the pall of smoke, the faces of bystanders wildly lit in the flames. Goebbels, in one of his broadcasts, accused us of glorying obscenely in London’s demolition. He had a point, but what he failed to understand was that we had destroyed our city already before the Luftwaffe delivered their bombs; what was burning was no more than the dry, residual shell.

The only things that seem to give him any kind of brief reprieve from the maggots are church services, classic literature, quiet domestic life with his wife and 2.4 children, and rural country fields.

And he is convinced, absolutely convinced, that he should be a socialist and go move to the USSR.

This goes approximately as well as you would expect.

After graduating college, which he dislikes because maggots, he gets a couple of jobs at various far-flung British Empire outposts, which he hates. Then, somewhat by coincidence, he ends up in journalism.

His reaction to journalism is an increasing terror that this might be his calling. He is very good at it, takes to it like an old veteran almost immediately, feels in some strange way that he has come home – but the entire enterprise fills him with loathing. He watches in horror how easily the words flow on to the page when his puppet-masters tell him to argue for a particular cause, how fluidly he takes to idioms like “It is surely incumbent upon all of us to…” and “there can be no one here present who does not…”. He writes:

So I began, and the words seemed to come of themselves; like lying as a child, or as a faithless lover; words pouring out of one in a circumstantially false explanation of some suspicious circumstance. The more glib, the greater the guilt…it is painful to me now to reflect the ease with which I got into the way of using this non-language; these drooling non-sentences conveying non-thoughts, propounding non-fears and offering non-hopes. Words are as beautiful as love, and as easily betrayed. I am more penitent for my false words – for the most part, mercifully lost forever in the Media’s great slag-heaps – than for false deeds.

But Malcolm Muggeridge isn’t going to take this lying down! Malcolm Muggeridge has a plan! Malcolm Muggeridge is going to escape this duplicitous charade of lies and petty propaganda. Malcolm Muggeridge is going to move to Stalin’s USSR.

So he does.

He gets a job as The Guardian‘s Russia correspondent and sets off for Moscow with a host of other British intellectuals, heading for what all of them expect is the Promised Land. The mood on their ship is electric; he describes them all singing, sure that they are leaving behind this wretched bourgeois world for the Golden Future:

On their way to the USSR they were in a festive mood; like a cup-tie party on their way to a match, equipped with rattles, coloured scarves and favors. Each of them harboring in his mind some special hope; of meeting Stalin, or alternatively, of falling in with a Komsomolka, sparkling eyed, red scarf and jet black hair, dancing the carmagnole, above all, with very enlightened views on sex, and free and easy ways…oh, to be in Russia, now that Stalin’s there!

His excitement dissipates relatively early; he finds that the Soviet journalistic world fails to live up to his expectations:

Being a correspondent in Moscow, I found, was, in itself, easy enough. The Soviet press was the only source of news; nothing happened or was said until it was reported in the newspapers. So all I had to do was go through the papers, pick out any item that might be interesting to readers of the Guardian, dish it up in a suitable form, get it passed by the censor at the Press Department, and hand it in at the telegraph office for dispatch. One might, if in a conscientious mood, embellish the item a little…sow in a little local colour, blow it up a little, or render it down a little according to the exigencies of the new situation. The original item itself was almost certainly untrue or grotesquely distorted. One’s own deviations, therefore, seemed to matter little, only amounting to further falsifying what was already false.

This bizarre fantasy was very costly and elaborate and earnestly promoted. Something gets published in Pravda; say, that the Soviet Union has a bumper wheat harvest – so many poods per hectare. There is no means of checking; the Press Department men don’t know, and anyone who does is far, far removed from the attentions of foreign journalists. Soviet statistics have always been almost entirely fanciful, though not the less seriously regarded fro that. When the Germans occupied Kiev in the 1939-45 war they got hold of a master Five Year Plan, showing what had really been produced and where. Needless to say, it was quite different from the published figures. This in no way affected credulity about such figures subsequently, as put out in Russia, or even in China.

Hey man, don’t knock China, they’re doing great! Their GDP rose 7% this year! It must be true! The Guardian tells us so!

But getting back to the story…although it is clear to him that the Soviet economy is struggling, every dispatch they are given to send home declares that things are better than ever, that the Workers’ Paradise is even more paradisiacal than previously believed, that the evidence is in and Stalinism is the winner. It doesn’t matter what he makes of this, because anything he writes which deviates from the script is rejected by the censors, who ban him from sending it home. He is reduced to sending secret messages at the bottoms of people’s suitcases, only to find to his horror that even when they successfully reach the Guardian offices back in Britain, his bosses have no interest in publishing them because they offend the prejudices of its progressive readership. Finally, he finds himself a part of the elite fraternity of western journalists on the Soviet beat, who maintain their morale by one-upping each other in how cynical and patronizing they can be towards their Russian hosts and their credulous readers back home:

We used to run a little contest among ourselves to see who could produce the most striking example of credulity among this fine flower of our western intelligentsia. Persuading church dignitaries to feel at home in an anti-God museum was too easy to count. So was taking lawyers into the people´s courts. I got an honourable mention by persuading Lord Marley that the queueing at food shops was permitted by the authorities because it provided a means of inducing the workers to take a rest when otherwise their zeal for completing the five-year plan in record time was such that they would keep at it all the time, but no marks for floating a story that Soviet citizens were being asked to send in human hair – any sort – for making of felt boots. It seemed that this had actually happened.

And he remembers the contempt of these grizzled veterans for the steady stream of Western tourists, intellectuals, and general Stalin fanboys who arrived to gawk over the Glorious New Civilization:

I have never forgotten these visitors, or ceased to marvel at them, at how they have gone on from strength to strength, continuing to lighten our darkness, and to guide, counsel and instruct us. They are unquestionably one of the wonders of the age, and I shall treasure till I die as a blessed memory the spectacle of them travelling with radiant optimism through a famished countryside, wandering in happy bands about squalid, over-crowded towns, listening with unshakeable faith to the fatuous patter of carefully trained and indoctrinated guides, repeating like schoolchildren a multiplication table, the bogus statistics and mindless slogans endlessly intoned on them. There, I would think, an earnest office-holder in some local branch of the League of Nations Union, there a godly Quaker who had once had tea with Gandhi, there an inveigher against the Means Test and the Blasphemy Laws, there a staunch upholder of free speech and human rights, there an indomitable preventer of cruelty to animals, there scarred and worthy veterans of a hundred battles for truth, freedom, and justice – all, all chanting the praises of Stalin and his Dictatorship of the Proletariat. It was as though a vegetarian society had come outwith a passionate plea for cannibalism, or Hitler had been nominated posthumously for the Nobel Peace Prize.

His final break with the rest of the enlightened progressive world comes when he decides to do something that perhaps no other journalist in the entire Soviet Union had dared – to go off the reservation, so to speak, leave Moscow undercover, and see if he can actually get into the regions where rumors say some kind of famine might be happening. The plan goes without a hitch, he passes himself off as a generic middle-class Soviet, and he ends up in Ukraine right in the middle of Stalin’s Great Famine. He describes the scene – famished skeletons begging for crumbs, secret police herding entire towns into railway cars never to be seen again. At great risk to himself, he smuggles notes about the genocide out of the country, only to be met – once again – with total lack of interest. Guardian readers don’t look at the newspapers to hear bad things about the Soviet Union! Guardian readers want to hear about how the Glorious Future is already on its way! He is quickly sidelined in favor of the true stars of Soviet journalism, people like Walter Duranty, the New York Times‘s Russia correspondent, who wrote story after story about how prosperous and happy and well-fed the Soviets were under Stalin, and who later won the Pulitzer Prize for his troubles.

Muggeridge, on the other hand, penurious from lack of interest in his stories, fearing for his safety from the Soviet government, and generally disgusted with everything – even more so than usual for a world infested with maggots – decides to get the hell out of Dodge. He’s had enough of Russia, enough of Communism, enough of that entire part of the world. He’s going somewhere safe, somewhere decent. He’s going somewhere that will renew his crumbling faith in humanity. He’s going to Nazi Germany right as the anti-Jewish pogroms are starting.

Well, to make a long story short, this doesn’t restore his faith in humanity. He hangs out in Berlin for a while, sending his pieces on the Russian famine to all the newspapers he knows, watching more and more rejections come in each day, earning the ire of all of his leftist friends for apparently deserting the cause and turning traitor. Finally, he tells his boss:

“From the way you’ve cut my messages about the Metro-Vickers affair, I realize that you don’t want to know what’s going on in Russia, or let your readers know. If it had been an oppressed minority, or subject people valiantly struggling to be free, that would have been another matter. Then any amount of outspokenness, any amount of honesty.”

I went on to describe the scene in Berlin, and the Nazis beating up Jewish shops, and everyone with his story of murder and folly, and concluded:

“It’s silly to say the Brown Terror is worse than the Red Terror. They’re both horrible. They’re both Terrors. I watched the Nazis march along Unter den Linded and realized – of course, they’re Komsomols, the same people, the same faces. It’s the same show.”

David Ayerst quotes this correspondence in his book on The Guardian, and says it read “like a letter to end all communication”. So it did; I was finished with moderate men of all shades of opinion forever more.

Leaving Nazi Germany for neutral Switzerland, he says he had a pretty good idea even at the time how everything was going to end. And I believe him. By temperament, he expects everything to end in horror and madness and total collapse of civilization, so props to him for choosing the proper time and place for his temperament to be exactly correct. He writes:

All this likewise indubitably belonged to history, and would have to be historically assessed; like the Murder of the Innocents, or the Black Death, or the Battle of Paschendaele. But there was something else; a monumental death-wish, an immense destructive force loosed in the world which was going to sweep over everything and everyone, laying them flat, burning, killing, obliterating, until nothing was left. Those German agronomes in their green uniform suits with feathers in their hats – they had their part to play. So had the paunchy Brown-Shirts, and the matronly blonde maidens painting swastikas on the windows of Jewish shops. So had the credulous armies of the just, listening open-mouthed to Intourist patter, or seeking reassurance from a boozy sandalled Wicksteed. Wise old Shaw, high-minded old Barbusse, the venerable Webbs, Gide the pure in heart and Picasso the impure, down to poor little teachers, crazed clergymen and millionaires, drivelling dons and very special correspondents like Duranty, all resolved, come what might, to believe anything, however preposterous, to overlook anything, however villainous, to approve anything, however obscurantist and brutally authoritarian, in order to be able to preserve intact the confident expectation that one of the most thorough-going, ruthless, and bloody tyrannies ever to exist on Earth could be relied on to champion human freedom, the brotherhood of man, and all the other good liberal causes to which they had dedicated their lives. All resolved, in other words, to abolish themselves and their world, the rest of us with it. Nor have I from that time ever had the faintest expectation that, in earthly terms, anything could be salvaged; that any earthly battle could be won or earthly solution found. It has all just been sleep-walking to the end of the night.

II.

Muggeridge’s description of World War II is actually super hilarious.

I was not expecting this. When you take one of the darkest and most pessimistic writers of the twentieth century and put him in the middle of one of the twentieth century’s greatest horrors, you might expect the result to have at least a touch of grimness about it, or at least not to leave you rolling on the floor laughing. You would be wrong.

Muggeridge, inspired by some force even he did not understand, decided to enlist in the British military when the war broke out. He’s a bit too old by this point to be a front-line infantryman, and his intellect, connections, and experience with foreign countries catch the eye of Military Intelligence. They recruit him as a spy. His first job is counter-intelligence – hanging around in the army, making sure that there aren’t any secret German spies there. Well, there either aren’t any secret German spies, or else they’re at least not saying that they’re secret German spies, so this task turns out to be kind of a combination of boring, useless, and hilarious. He describes a typical day:

I find it difficult to recall what regular duties I had, if any…Our section was supposed to be responsible for securing the Headquarters from the incursions of enemy agents who might pry out its secrets or subvert its personnel. This gave us a free hand to do almost anything and go almost anywhere. If we went drinking in pubs, it was to keep a look-out for suspicious characters; if we pikced up girls, it was to probe their intentions in frequenting the locality.

A fellow-officer told me of how, on a pub-crawl, ostensibly a security reconnaissance, he got drunk, and, as was his way when in such a condition, pretended to be a foreigner, using strange gestures and speaking with an accent. The next day, badly hung over, he was sent a report of the movements of a suspicious foreigner, and told to check up on them. Tracing the suspect’s movements from pub to pub, it slowly dawned on him he was following himself the night before. When he told me of his adventure, to comfort him I said that it was what we were all doing all the time – keeping ourselves under close surveillance. This was what security was all about.

In a similar vein, another FS officer, idly thumbing over the Security List – a top-secret document containing the names of all subjects who were to be at once apprehended if they tried to get into or out of the country – found he was in it.

Graham Greene was a very famous early 20th century author. Like pretty much every other famous early 20th century author, he was a good friend of Malcolm Muggeridge’s. Greene was working in another branch of Intelligence at the time, and they needed someone for a secret mission, and Greene mooted Muggeridge’s name. He found himself plucked out of his cushy job drinking at pubs and tracking himself, and sent to MI6’s secret spy school at Bletchley Park, where he was taught various hilariously impractical skills like how to make invisible ink out of bird poop. He was then sent on a secret mission to Mozambique, so that just in case anything relevant to World War II were to happen in Mozambique, Her Majesty’s Government would have a secret agent in place.

The Mozambique chapters were among the funniest of the entire book. The Germans and Italians, inspired by the same principle, had also sent agents to Mozambique. It was not at all hard to figure out who they were, nor was Muggeridge’s identity particularly hard to figure out. There was only one nice hotel in Mozambique, so Muggeridge, the German spy, and the Italian spy all got rooms there and spent most of the time glaring at each other during communal dinners, or lying on the beach an appropriate distance away from one another, keeping watch.

Sometimes they would engage in hilarious secret plots against each other. Muggeridge, after chancing into a friendship with a member of Mozambique’s small German community, arranged for his friend to tell the German spy that he was only faking friendship with Muggeridge so he could steal his secrets for the good of The Reich. He then proceeded to “rob” Muggeridge’s house (with Muggeridge’s gleeful consent), producing for his German “master” a trove of documents which, when decoded, suggested that the Italian spy was secretly working for the British. This caused a big fight between the German spy and the Italian spy, which given that there wasn’t really much to spy on in Mozambique, was considered a fantastic success for the British cause and raised Muggeridge’s standing as some kind of intelligence prodigy.

Later in the war, Mozambique actually became sort of relevant as troop convoys started sailing by. Muggeridge bribed local officials to keep a watch out, and ended up foiling a very real German plot to do some sort of vague thing involving ships – as a result, when the war started winding down to the point where maintaining a presence in Mozambique was no longer viewed as entirely necessary, he came home and was promoted into the inner circles of intelligence. His new position was under Kim Philby, the head of the Department Of Counter-Intelligence Against The Soviet Union, who turned out to be a really bad choice for this position given that he, LIKE EVERY OTHER PROGRESSIVE INTELLECTUAL IN THE ENTIRE COUNTRY OF BRITAIN, was a secret Soviet spy. But at the time he seemed okay enough, and he sent Muggeridge to France to aid in the Liberation there.

We like to think of the Liberation of France as a nice, happy time, but for Muggeridge it was basically the time when an entire country worth of very angry Frenchmen massacred, pogrommed, lynched, or otherwise descended upon anyone accused of collaborating with the German occupation. Unsurprisingly, everybody turned out to think their personal and political rivals had collaborated with the German occupation, so it was basically the atmosphere of a 17th century Massachusetts witch hunt, only with less restraint.

Muggeridge’s job was, as usual, darkly hilarious – actual spies for the French and British governments usually acted all cooperative toward the German occupation to keep their cover and get a chance of infiltrating enemy ranks; as a result, they were usually First Up Against The Wall When The Liberation Came. Sure, they said “I was just a spy doing it as part of a secret plan,” but of course everybody said that. So Muggeridge had to rush from prison to prison, trying to convince mobs of angry Frenchmen not to execute the people who had just been most instrumental in saving them.

His spy career ended with what seems like maybe the most typical incident in the entire book – somehow P. G. Wodehouse had wandered into Nazi Germany and been stuck in a prison camp there. Then he had wandered out into France, gotten marked as a Collaborator, and was now in serious fear for his life. The British Secret Service picked Muggeridge as their Official Attache For P. G. Wodehouse Related Affairs, showing such exceptional genius in choosing the right man for the job that you would think they would have been able to get AT LEAST ONE ANTI-SOVIET COUNTERINTELLIGENCE AGENT WHO WASN’T A SECRET SOVIET SPY. Anyway, Muggeridge and Wodehouse wander around the cratered, mob-ruled French landscape, having a series of very Wodehousian adventures, until finally the war ends, Wodehouse is deposited safely the United States, and Muggeridge is able to return to Britain.

The book ends with the funeral of Sidney Webb, the early socialist hero his family idolized, who died just after World War II. Muggeridge is invited to the event because his wife is a distant cousin of the Webb family; he has to hold his nose throughout. At the time of his death, Webb is more beloved than ever by a grateful populace. His and his wife’s great works, Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation and The Truth About Soviet Russia, have become Bibles of the Left and part of Stalin’s cult of personality. Their opponents, the sorts who say that maybe Stalin isn’t the reincarnation of Christ, have been summarily dispatched – Muggeridge describes one of his friends from the journalism world, a reporter universally respected for helping expose Nazi atrocities, who made the mistake of trying to do the same with Soviet atrocities:

When Voigt turned the furious indignation with which he had lambasted the Nazi terror on to Stalin’s, his former liberal friends and associates discovered in him a Nazi sympathizer. Another liberal newspaper, the News Chronicle, ran an article about [his publication] headlined HITLER’S FAVORITE READING, with pictures of the Fuhrer and Voigt looking amicably across at one another.

In other words, Webb dies at the height of his career, his lies unexposed. George Bernard Shaw writes a letter to the newspapers suggesting that a man of Webb’s standing deserves a national hero’s funeral, everyone agrees, and he and his wife are interred in Westminster Abbey before a crowd of dignitaries including the Prime Minister (despite their own atheism and specific demands not to be placed in a church).

Muggeridge watches the whole sordid spectacle – the Dean of the Cathedral singing the praises of an unrepentant atheist “whose crowning achievement had been to commend to his fellow-countrymen and the whole world as a new civilization a system of servitude more far-reaching and comprehensive than any hitherto known” and ends his book very abruptly, saying only that “Another way has to be found and explored.”

III.

And then he dies before writing any more volumes of his autobiography, let alone telling us what the other way is.

He quotes very approvingly, as the heart of his philosophy, a passage by his friend Hugh Kingsmill:

What is divine in man is elusive and impalpable, and he is easily tempted to embody it in a concrete form – a church, a country, a social system, a leader – so that he may realize it with less effort and serve it with more profit. Yet the attempt to externalize the kingdom of heaven in a temporal shape must end in disaster. It cannot be created by charters or constitutions nor established by arms. Those who seek for it alone will reach it together, and those who seek it in company will perish by themselves.

And indeed, he writes a lot about how the whole problem started when people started being utopian and getting it into their heads to fix things on earth, rather than seek for “treasure in heaven”.

Some atheists I know write a lot about how religious people think you should hate the world because it’s awful and only some future world, ie Heaven, can be any good. Some religious people I know write a lot about how that’s total poppycock. Certainly G. K. Chesterton would have said something about how the world being sinful and full of flaws is not a reason to hate it, but precisely why we should love it, and Leah Libresco would say something about how hating the world is Gnosticism and Gnosticism is a heresy.

But I think Muggeridge might be pretty close to the atheist straw man on this point, with the key exception that religion isn’t what made him hate the world. He started off hating the world, and religion and mysticism offered him something not to hate, some way to say “Okay, but there’s some divinity buried in all this mess”. He is brilliant, he is compassionate, he is a great writer, it’s impossible to read his autobiography without loving him – but that he hates the world is hard to deny. I write sometimes about how beliefs that we consider abominable can sometimes be therapeutic mental crutches for people with the right cast of mind, and Muggeridge certainly found the idea of the world as a vale of suffering that would soon melt away to be oddly comforting in times of distress.

On the other hand, I’m not sure what to make of his opposition to trying to fix things here on Earth. He clearly hated Stalinism. When he hated Stalinism, he reacted by trying to make there be less Stalinism, which seems like a very reasonable thing to do. But the Communists hated capitalism. They reacted by trying to make there be less capitalism. Other than Muggeridge being right about the object-level issue and the Communists being wrong, it’s hard to see what the difference in principle is between them. The best I can do – and I worry I’m doing great violence to his intellectual uniqueness by rounding him off to my own ways of thinking – is to view him as suggesting some sort of precautionary principle, like that before you make a change you should be sure it’s something that has worked before (like non-Stalinism) and not a totally new idea (like Stalinism). But I am pretty sure if I suggested that to him he would roll his eyes and tell me that I’m such a modern and I don’t get it at all.

The one thing I can be really sure of is that Muggeridge doesn’t want us to get stuck again in the same position we were in during the 30s and 40s where we totally ignored Stalin’s crimes due to our own political biases. Okay. I respect that. It was really eye-opening seeing exactly how brainwashed the entire European, British, and American Left were, and the whole situation gave me a lot more understanding of how overwhelmingly the Question of Communism dominated intellectual and political life in the first half of the century.

I was born in the 80s, at the very tail end of the Cold War, when we’d all had the decency to put all the Communists in one country and all the capitalists in another and make them express their differences like civilized men – ie by pointing thousands of hair-trigger nuclear missiles at one another. In the early days of Communism, we just didn’t know. Would Russia go Communist? Would Germany? Would France? Would everywhere? Muggeridge talks about how one of Britain’s main concerns in post-Liberation France was that the entire country would just move en masse to Communism as soon as the Nazis were out, which somehow or other mysteriously failed to happen EVEN THOUGH EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THE WESTERN AGENTS SENT TO PREVENT THAT WAS SECRETLY WORKING FOR THE SOVIETS.

And then the Cold War started, and this very gradually settled down to an equilibrium where okay, a lot of the Western intelligentsia stayed Communist, but at least they had the decency to realize that it was unpopular and the Revolution probably wasn’t literally going to happen next week.

By coincidence, just last week I read about the sad death of historian Robert Conquest, the man who was able to succeed where Muggeridge failed and drag Britain and America kicking and screaming into admitting Stalin wasn’t such a great guy. Conquest had one great advantage over Muggeridge, which was that he wrote in 1968 when, far from being our allies in a world war, the Soviets were technically our Cold War enemies and we were sort of okay with hearing bad things about them. But even then, he faced an extraordinary uphill battle. The most famous legend about him involved the second edition of his book, which came out right around the time the Soviet Union fell and its indisputable records of Stalin’s famines and purges became public knowledge. He supposedly asked to have the new version titled I TOLD YOU SO, YOU FUCKING FOOLS.

This part of our intellectual history is kind of forgotten. Who hears about Sidney and Beatrice Webb nowadays? Who hears about Walter Duranty? Yet these people during their times were absolute titans, “thought leaders” in the modern terminology – as per Muggeridge, Duranty “came to be accepted as the great Russian expert in America, and played a major part in shaping President Roosevelt’s policies vis-a-vis the USSR”. We hear a lot about our moral failures in terms of not stopping the Holocaust, but our quarter-century complicity with and even adulation of Stalinism seems like one of those facts that just fell by the wayside.

A lot of people think that I’m too easy on crackpots, or too fond of contrarians, or too interested in protecting witches, or whatever. But hearing all of these stories about the universal progressive Western adulation of Stalin is really scary. It’s way too easy for the darkest and most primal parts of my brain to map neatly onto the modern modalities of rejecting and punishing disagreement. “Really? You think this random journalist who isn’t even a trained Kremlinologist knows more than expert consensus?” “Killing millions of people, oh God, you’re one of those conspiracy losers.” “It’s obvious you’re just a privileged white guy who’s already decided to believe anything that reflects negatively on Slavs and foreigners.” “Although we respect free speech, that doesn’t extend to pro-Nazi propaganda and worker’s-paradise denialism.” Part of my respect for contrarians is that contrarianism is this incredibly fragile and precious art which needs to be kept alive for the times it is needed – rare times, times that hopefully won’t come up in our lifetimes, but times that, when they do come, desperately need a core of people willing to stand up to the establishment. Cultivating contrarianism is a lot like owning a gun – you get a heck of a lot of opportunities to shoot yourself in the foot, but also very occasionally one opportunity to save your life.

But then, on the other hand, here’s Muggeridge again:

Solzhenitsyn has provided the perfect parable on this theme with his description of Mrs. Roosevelt’s conducted visit to a labor camp where he was doing time. The estimable lady, who spawned the moral platitudes of the contemporary liberal wisdom as effortlessly and plenteously as the most prolific salmon, was easily persuaded that the camp in question was a humanely conducted institution for curing the criminally inclined. A truly wicked woman would have been ashamed to be so callous and so gullible.

Really? Gullible how? I’m sure the Soviets were moderately competent in making sure Roosevelt didn’t see anything too untoward. So what was she supposed to do?

I think of those people who say the US government is setting up FEMA interment camps as we speak to imprison dissenters against the New World Order. They provide some things that look sort of like evidence – photos (which turn out to be of random prisons or, in one case, an Amtrak station), documents (which turn out to be out of context references to setting up FEMA refugee camps for people displaced by disasters), et cetera. The people talking about this are total loons.

But Type 1 errors trade off against Type 2 errors. Make absolutely sure you’re the sort of person who never misses a Stalinist gulag, and you become the type of person who’s easy prey for the FEMA internment camp theory. Make absolutely sure you don’t believe in FEMA internment camps, and you’re liable to miss a Stalinist gulag as soon as the Soviet government gets Duranty to print “Oh, don’t worry, that’s just an Amtrak station”. Use the heuristic of “just trust expert consensus, experts always know what they’re talking about”, and you are now one of the tens of thousands of grateful readers who helped make Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation into a best-seller.

What I’m saying is – there is no royal road. This is why I think learning rationality and the art of sifting through evidence is so important.

As for Muggeridge? I’m not sure he has much to teach there. Yes, he deserves the thanks of a grateful civilization for being a lone voice in the wilderness warning us about Stalin. But after that, as per his Wikipedia page, he was a lone voice in the wilderness warning us about contraception. After that, he became a lone voice in the wilderness warning us about marijuana. After that, he became a lone voice in the wilderness warning us about blasphemy in The Life Of Brian.

I am glad there are all types of people in the world. I am glad that there are crotchety, contrarian, cynical old reporters who constantly feel like everything is hurling off the precipice into Hell, because when things are actually hurling off the precipice into Hell, these people are the first to notice. In the same way, I am glad that there are dedicated survivalists who stockpile canned food in underground shelters in case of the nuclear apocalypse, because if there is ever an actual nuclear apocalypse, these people will survive and rebuild the human race.

But I am not digging a bomb shelter myself, and I am pretty sure I cannot bring myself to be quite as cynical as Malcolm Muggeridge.

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893 Responses to Book Review: Chronicles Of Wasted Time

  1. njnnja says:

    Espionage in Africa was actually pretty serious business during WWII. There was a mildly important battle across the channel in Madagascar, and more ominously, there was a Nazi plan to eliminate Jews before the death camps by sending them to Madagascar.

  2. James Kabala says:

    An interesting twist: Eleanor Roosevelt visited the Soviet Union for the first time in 1957 (and a second time in 1958). Any claim that she visited a Soviet gulag during the Stalin regime cannot be true. Solzhenitsyn was released from his labor camp in 1953, the same year that Stalin died. (The source for the story is apparently a novel, not a nonfiction account, and Roosevelt is only called “Mrs. R.,” but it still seems quite a liberty to take with a real person and her good name.)

  3. RiverC says:

    Muggeridge’s contrarianism however, was for naught – but why might that be? Were the millions of Christians starved and slain by the Soviets spared by his insistence on resisting the ‘mainstream narrative’? But wait, Muggeridge did not consent to resist the mainstream narrative. He appears to have had but one object – fact.

    The truth will out, as the bard said once, but it generally will out when the bodies are exterred and not before. Cassandra is not heard – this is not circumstantial to permitting her to speak or forbidding it.

  4. Steve Sailer says:

    As I mentioned, back in March 1979 I was in a group of about 7 people from Rice U. who had dinner with Malcolm Muggeridge when he came to give a lecture. Muggeridge (along with Anthony Powell) had more or less introduced Waugh and Orwell when Orwell was in his final sickness in the later 1940s, so I was pretty thrilled to meet somebody who could hang at the Orwell-Waugh level. I’d read a lot of Muggeridge’s memoirs for a paper I’d written for a history class on the 1930s, so I was recruited by William Martin, Rice’s brilliant sociology of religion professor, to kind of tee up Muggeridge’s best anecdotes for him for the amusement of the professors and Rice donors in the dinner party.

    Whether or not Muggeridge was as depressive as his memoirs make him sound is something I can’t judge. He certainly charmed all of us provincials in Houston.

    How seriously to take Muggeridge’s ideological stance? I dunno. It was an insanely talented generation of writers — the 1930s, in my view, were the peak of prose style in the English language, as Hemingway’s example in the 1920s reduced verbosity — in an ideological age. Everybody needed a shtick to stand out from the crowd. Waugh, for example, had Catholicism as well as, first, youth and, then rather quickly, old age.

    Here’s a brief article I wrote on his speech for the Rice Thresher:

    http://www.unz.com/isteve/me-and-malcolm-muggeridge-1979/

  5. JDG1980 says:

    I think it’s important to distinguish between the European left (which Muggeridge was most familiar with) and the American left.

    European leftists in the 20th century (and I know I’m oversimplifying things here) largely came out of the Marxist tradition. This made many of them vulnerable to Stalinism, which claimed to be the vanguard of Marxism and was very effective at using propaganda (including Potemkin-village-style stunts) to whitewash its actions. Even then, many socialists in western Europe always rejected authoritarian communism (Orwell being an obvious example of this), and in the post-WWII era the mainstream left in Europe largely settled on social democracy instead. The German Social Democratic Party (SDP) started out full Marxist, but had already gone moderate around the beginning of the 20th century.

    The mainstream American left in the 20th century, in contrast, had little ideological contact with Marxism, which was always a fringe ideology in the United States. American 20th century liberalism grew out of the Progressive tradition, which was always pragmatist; Progressives were focused on fixing specific social and economic problems, not on smashing capitalism or immanentizing the eschaton. In the post-WWII era, the standard bearers of the left were men like Truman, JFK, and LBJ, all of whom were staunch anti-Communists. Likewise, the AFL-CIO was anti-Communist (and this caused serious political friction in the Democratic Party when the New Left started to rise up in the late 1960s and early 1970s).

    Maybe Muggeridge’s condemnation of gullible Stalinist intellectuals has some weight for the English/European readers that were presumably his intended audience, but as an American, I don’t really see them as speaking much to our situation here.

  6. BBA says:

    It seems to me that a lot of the support the communists got in the intellectual left came more from what they fought against than what they fought for. The Czars really were unspeakably godawful, I mean, maybe I’m biased because I’m Jewish and my ancestors got the worst of it, but come on. Serfdom in the 1800s! So you can see why ordinary decent people supported the revolution and were pulling for the Soviets in the ’30s, because it felt like anything would be an improvement.

    Maybe the lesson is just that Russia will always be a repressive kleptocracy no matter what the nominal system of government is.

    • Samuel Skinner says:

      “The Czars really were unspeakably godawful,”

      The last Czar was pretty bad, but as a rule they weren’t unspeakably awful.

      “Serfdom in the 1800s! ”

      The Czar abolished serfdom before the US abolished slavery.

      “Maybe the lesson is just that Russia will always be a repressive kleptocracy no matter what the nominal system of government is.”

      There were two revolutions in Russia. The first established a democracy (which ended up being lead by the Socialist Revolutionary party). It was the Bolsheviks who decided to overthrow that government. So no, it wasn’t inevitable.

      • Protagoras says:

        Historical counterfactuals are so tricky. I understand that there was a lot of luck involved in the Bolsheviks taking over when and how they did (and while I’m not an expert on that period in particular, in my experience this is far more true of most historical events than many people seem to realize). But if the Bolsheviks had been unlucky, would the provisional government have survived and evolved into a stable democracy, or would it have fallen to something else (or just the Bolsheviks slightly later)? Admittedly, had the provisional government lasted just one more year, victory in WWI would have substantially improved its prestige and no doubt its popularity, but it surely would have been a long year.

        • Samuel Skinner says:

          Given what happened in the rest of Eastern Europe, it probably would have fallen to a military strong man or other authoritarian mildly right wing leader before (judging from Spain) return to democratic government some time in the 1970s.

  7. frozen peach says:

    Fantastic post, as usual. One question: is it fair to refer to Muggeridge as a “reactionary”? Wikipedia says he became a Catholic anti-communist after his disillusionment with the left, but it’s not clear if he was just not merely a conservative.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      In fact, he claimed to be left-wing.

    • SFG says:

      He’s most like the old National Review Catholic cons, I think. These things don’t always translate, because while monarchy is a crazy idea in the USA, it’s got a long pedigree in Europe.

  8. Durthain says:

    Speaking as someone with a Muggeridgian temperament (perhaps best expressed by Chesterton: “It is true that I am of an older fashion; much that I love has been destroyed or sent into exile”), let me take a shot at explaining Muggeridge’s seeming anti-utopianism:

    [N.B.: I’ve read hardly any Muggeridge, so I might be off-track]

    I’m not sure that the point Muggeridge is trying to make by quoting Kingsmill is the one you think he’s making. I don’t think that Muggeridge is opposed to fixing things on earth; indeed, his opposition to Stalin, marijuana, and contraception can all be seen as attempts (misguided or not) to fix things on earth. What Muggeridge takes issue with is *shortcuts* to fixing things on earth which might actually make things *worse* on earth.

    If you’re like Muggeridge (or me), you think that the fundamental problem facing humanity isn’t our institutions (churches, countries, social systems, leaders) but ourselves. (Reminds me of this quotation from another critic of Stalinism: http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/22079-gradually-it-was-disclosed-to-me-that-the-line-separating). And if you think that, then you probably think that any attempt to hold up a particular social system (like Stalinism, to pick a totally random example) as the Answer to All of Our Problems will not only fail but also distract us from the true Answer to All of Our Problems, whatever exactly it may be. So Muggeridge’s precautionary principle seems to be “Don’t forget the fundamental problem: human nature.” Which sounds simple, but in practice can actually be really important advice, especially for political systems which fundamentally misunderstand human nature…like Stalinism/Marxism (cf. https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/09/13/book-review-singer-on-marx/). I don’t think it’s all that different from rationalists’ plea to remember that humans are prone to cognitive biases. And just as Robin Hanson isn’t holding his breath for human beings to stop being hypocrites, Malcolm Muggeridge isn’t holding his breath that the next Grand Utopian Vision is (finally!) going to do the trick for mankind.

    Now, does that mean that Muggeridge, at the end of the day, is just a cynic who hates the world? You’ve read the book and I haven’t, so it’s tricky for me to question your assessment…and yet:

    1. The quotation from Kingsmill begins by alluding to “[w]hat is divine in man.” Muggeridge sees the good; he just thinks that it’s “elusive and impalpable” — that is, fragile.
    2. Muggeridge’s idea of storing up treasure in Heaven (like Jesus’) doesn’t seem to be letting the world go to Hell, but trying to fix it. You or I might disagree with his methods (harrumphing about pills and pot)…but he doesn’t seem to be advocating apathy.
    3. Suppose that the things you truly loved were church services, classic literature, quiet domestic life with your wife and 2.4 children, and rural country fields. You live in a world in which many of the things you love are under threat (as Chesterton observes) — a fact which many other people are celebrating while vilifying you in the process. Your friend Voigt is slandered and forgotten, while Sidney Webb is buried in Westminster Abbey. Again, speaking as someone who shares Muggeridge’s temperament, it takes consistent concerted effort to avoid cynicism in that position. (I’m not sure I’ve succeeded, nor am I sure that Muggeridge did, either.) But this kind of cynicism doesn’t mark you as someone who hates the world necessarily; it marks you as someone who has a picture of what the world could/should be, *loves* that picture, sees how different that picture is from how the world actually is, sees that most other people have a very different idealized picture than yours…and so you feel lonely, abandoned, hopeless, etc. Those things might manifest as apparent hatred from time to time, or even morph into hatred in certain cases. But I’m still sympathetic to Muggeridge.

    At the end of the day, what’s the case against Muggeridge? Is it totally out of line for him and Solzhenitsyn to criticize Eleanor Roosevelt’s gullibility? I don’t think so. Sure, the Soviets probably didn’t give her the most forthright tour of the camp, but shouldn’t someone in her position anticipated that their tour might not necessarily be “fair and balanced”? Yes, most folks nowadays don’t see any problems with contraception and pot and Life of Brian…but if you’re a Catholic like Muggeridge, you very well may see problems with those things. That doesn’t mean that you’re a conspiracy theorist like the anti-FEMA camp crowd, *or* that you think that pot is as significant a problem as Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. It just means that you have a conservative Catholic set of values. Of course, that set of values may be wrong. But that’s a separate conversation.

    Just some thoughts.

    • The original Mr. X says:

      Posts like this make me with that SSC had an upvote button.

      • Durthain says:

        Thanks!

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        OT: I propose (and it’s easy for me to propose it because I’m not the one coding it) that we have an upvote button, but that each upvote takes significantly more work than the prior upvote.

        So the first upvote requires typing in “I like this post” in a text field.

        The second upvote requires typing 3 sentences of given text.

        The third upvote requires typing a paragrph of given text.

        Etc.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Yes, human nature is a thing, but surely certain institutions – like Nazi Germany’s or Stalinist Russia’s – very consistently bring out the worst in it, whereas other institutions – like Singapore’s or Sweden’s or the Mormons’ or whatever – bring out the better aspects? Surely “we should go from being Nazi Germany to being Sweden” is a reasonable desire?

      • Durthain says:

        It most certainly is! I think Muggeridge’s point isn’t (or at least *shouldn’t be* — remember, haven’t read the book) “Institutions aren’t the Answer to All Our Problems, so it doesn’t matter which Institutions you have” but rather “Institutions aren’t the Answer to All Our Problems…so keep that in mind when you’re choosing institutions.” So if the Stalinist/Marxist motto is “We just need workers to control the means of production, and then everything will be great!” or (in the case of the Nazis) “We just need to purify the Aryan race, and then everything will be great!” — the Muggeridgian motto is (I think) something like “Human nature will still be a problem even with ideal institutions, so let’s adopt institutions that (somehow) take that into account.”

        (And it comes with a hugely important corollary: “Be honest about the shortcomings of your institutions of choice!” Which again sounds simple, but in practice is a huge issue, as rationalists know. Maybe we should distinguish between “contrarians who are the lone voice in the wilderness crying out *against their in-groups*” and “contrarians who are the lone voice in the wilderness crying out against their out-groups.” The FEMA conspiracy theorists all hate FEMA; Muggeridge went to Russia because he thought it was the Promised Land. That, to me, sets Muggeridge apart from many contrarians, because many/most? contrarians are embittered members of out-groups.)

        What’s interesting is that the Muggeridgian motto sounds very Mormon (“Make sure people don’t have sex before marriage! Also no alcohol!”) or Singaporean (“No chewing gum! Anywhere! EVER!”), but not very Swedish (Does Sweden even ban anything?). My guess is that there’s a Hansonian divide here along forager/farmer lines, with Muggeridge, Mormons, and Singaporeans on the farmer side and Swedes and most other Western progressives on the forager side. My guess is that unprecedented global gains in wealth have allowed forager-value societies to flourish in a way that just would not be possible before. Muggeridge, of course, along with many other conservatives, might say that those societies’ experiments with forager values are ultimately doomed to failure, or perhaps have already failed (if you’re Muggeridge, you might think that the modern West’s wealth is predicated on the continual mass extermination of unborn humans). I myself would say that our unprecedented wealth means that which values and institutions we adopt just doesn’t matter as much anymore, because most everyone in the West (along with more and more people elsewhere) has food, water, shelter, clothing, Netflix, and other necessities *regardless* of whether Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump is president.

      • Steve Johnson says:

        Sweden’s system brings out better aspects of human nature?

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rape_in_Sweden

        In 2014, there were 6,700 rapes reported to the Swedish police — or 69 cases per 100,000 population — according to the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brå), which is an 11 percent increase from the previous year.[5] The number of convictions have remained relatively unchanged since 2005, with approximately 190 convictions on average each year.

        • Protagoras says:

          Well, they’ve got their experiment with a new method to suppress prostitution going on. Government attempts to suppress prostitution seem to increase rape rates (and STD rates and various other bad things, for that matter), so it’s not surprising that that’s happening in Sweden these days. How were they doing before their bold new experiment?

          • Steve Johnson says:

            It has nothing to do with suppressing prostitution and everything to do with importing explicit invaders.

            Raping the conquered women is evolutionarily old enough to be shared with chimps.

          • Protagoras says:

            @Steve Johnson, I’m reluctant to ask for an explanation, for fear that you might try to provide one and so leave me reading another of your comments, but I don’t see any connection between the current situation in Sweden and your comment.

          • Ever An Anon says:

            He’s saying that the rape rate is being driven by Muslim immigrants raping non-Muslim women as Jizya. This wouldn’t be surprising given what we’ve seen in the UK and Continental Europe but I haven’t seen any particular evidence for or against it in Sweden.

          • Andrew G. says:

            Much more likely is that they have a broader definition of rape and a higher reporting rate – note that the figure quoted is rapes reported to the police rather than victimization survey data – than other countries. Comparing crime data is always subject to this kind of problem, and it’s worst for rape since the reporting rates are so variable.

          • Steve Johnson says:

            Andrew G. says:
            August 14, 2015 at 9:50 pm

            Much more likely is that they have a broader definition of rape and a higher reporting rate – note that the figure quoted is rapes reported to the police rather than victimization survey data – than other countries.

            So in a post about a memoir that described the willful blindness of the left when faced with the horror of their pet project you’ve decided to go with “probably just an artifact of reporting”. Oh, and to refresh your memory this was fairly recent:

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rotherham_child_sexual_exploitation_scandal

            The inquiry’s initial report, published on 26 August 2014, condemned the failure of the authorities in Rotherham to act effectively against the abuse and even, in some cases, to acknowledge that it was taking place.[2][4][5] It conservatively estimated that 1,400 children had been sexually abused in the town between 1997 and 2013, predominantly by gangs of British-Pakistani men.[6] Abuses described by the report included abduction, rape, torture and sex trafficking of children.

            http://www.forbes.com/sites/rogerscruton/2014/08/30/why-did-british-police-ignore-pakistani-gangs-raping-rotherham-children-political-correctness/

            The girl, who is lonely and uncared for, meets a man outside the home, who promises a trip to the cinema and a party with children of her age. She falls into the trap. After she has been raped by a group of five men she is told that, if she says a word to anyone, she will be taken from the home and beaten. When, after the episode is repeated, she threatens to go to the police, she is taken into the countryside, doused in petrol, and told that she is going to be set alight, unless she promises to tell no one of the ordeal.

            Meanwhile she must accept weekly abuse, in return for drugs and alcohol. Soon she finds herself being taken to other towns in the area, and hired out for sexual purposes to other men. She is distraught and depressed, and at the point when she can stand it no longer, she goes to the police. She can only stutter a few words, and cannot bring herself to accuse anyone in particular. Her complaint is dismissed on the grounds that any sex involved must have been consensual. The social worker in charge of her case listens to her complaint, but tells her that she cannot act unless the girl identifies her abusers. But when the girl describes them the social worker switches off with a shrug and says that she can do nothing. Her father, his drug habit notwithstanding, has tried to keep contact with his daughter and suspects what is happening. But when he goes to the police, he is arrested for obstruction and charged with wasting police time.

            Meanwhile the rape rate in Sweden spikes just when lots of Muslims from Africa are being imported – a completely toxic mix – the highest rape culture combined with the race most genetically predisposed to rape as a reproductive strategy – and your explanation is “meh, probably something screwy about the way Sweden counts rapes”.

            Muggeridge’s Guardian would be proud.

          • @Steve Johnson

            “But when the girl describes them the social worker switches off with a shrug and says that she can do nothing.”

            I know a few social workers, and while they’re not always the most mathematically minded or logical people, they’d go freaking ballistic if they thought a young girl was being raped. This explanation seems to be a characature based on a political opinion. It’s not an accurate view of reality.

            And the UK police… left wing? I’m not from the UK, but that’s a bit of a … surprise…

            I really really wish the left and the right would refrain from blaming eachother when it comes to issues like *the gang rape of children*, and just focus on getting the *utter utter scumbags that actually did it*. Why can’t the left and the right stop using eachother as an excuse for their joint failure, and try to put forward something practical to solve the problems we’re all facing?

          • John Schilling says:

            I know a few social workers, and while they’re not always the most mathematically minded or logical people, they’d go freaking ballistic if they thought a young girl was being raped.

            The general problem is that social workers also tend to “go freaking ballistic” when they think a disadvantaged minority is being substantially discriminated against.

            The specific problem in Rotherham was, from the fairly extensive reporting I have seen, that accusations of rape against a disadvantaged minority group, by low-status white girls who had initially quasi-consented to the sex, pattern-matched for racial discrimination via false accusation at least as well as they did for actual rape. And that the UK government had a track record of punishing civil servants who engaged in racial discrimination but not those who failed to prevent rape.

          • Talked to someone I knew about this, and apparently UK social workers are a lot more politically motivated than they are in my country, and if that’s contributed that’s appalling. I think to be fair they we should note that the reports appear to emphasise the police being the ones failing to act, not social workers, who I think Scruton might be elevating to prove his political point. But I totally agree that political correctness has played an appalling role in this horrific set of events, and I think its very reasonable to be pointing that out.

      • SFG says:

        Every society’s different. But Germany really did go from being Nazi Germany to peaceful, democratic postwar Germany. So how did they do it?

        They didn’t. We imposed it on them at gunpoint. And kept enough troops in to keep them from backsliding.

        I suspect a lot of Germans were sick of Hitler and war, but as others have said here, historical counterfactuals are so tricky.

  9. Darek says:

    Your final paragraphs remind me of this comic: XKCD 556 – Alternative Energy Revolution.

  10. Steve Sailer says:

    By the way, the Mao Craze among respectable opinion-mongers in the U.S. in 1971 until the publication in translation of “Chinese Shadows” by Simon Leys in 1977 was memorably peculiar, in particular because Mao’s Cultural Revolution kicking off in 1965 had been an obvious disaster.

    The Mao boomlet in American intellectual life was tied in to the post-1960s anti-rationalism fad, specifically into acupuncture and other forms of Chinese traditional medicine. Following the hippie years, Americans were crazy for all sorts of quasi-science like bending spoons with your minds, ancient astronauts, talking to plants, the wisdom of peyote-taking Mexican shamans, assassination conspiracy theories, and so forth and so on. Due to a famous columnist’s appendicitis, Chairman Mao became sort of identified in the American mind as the modern Confucius of ancient Chinese wisdom.

    American reporters had been banned from Red China for a couple of decades until the Nixon Administration’s famous opening in 1971. James Reston of the NYT accompanied Henry Kissinger to Beijing in 1971, where he suffered appendicitis. Reston’s appendix was removed under acupuncture rather than anesthesia, and his column about acupuncture, which was not at all well-known in America at the time (I was 12 and had never heard of it) electrified America. For a number of years afterward, practically every American celebrity who visited China (e.g., Shirley Maclaine) then wrote a book about how spiritually advanced Mao’s China was.

    Eventually, Ley’s book about how dismal Red China was after the Cultural Revolution was translated and published in America in 1977, and skeptics had something in depth to rally around. Then Deng defeated Mrs. Mao and dumped economic Maoism in late 1978, so the whole weird episode of American establishmentarians rhapsodizing over Maoist China disappeared down the memory hole.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_Shadows_(Ombres_Chinoises)

  11. Steve Sailer says:

    I wrote a paper in college comparing the Western intellectuals’ enthusiasm for Stalin in 1930-1939 to the recent frenzy for Mao among Western celebrities in 1972-1976.

    It’s worth keeping track of those who didn’t fall for Stalin. Bertrand Russell visited Lenin in the early 1920s, but his initial enthusiasm was wrecked by what he could see with his own eyes.

    But in general there wasn’t all that much interest in the Soviet Union during the relatively prosperous 1920s in the West (a period when Soviet internal policy was more moderate, too). It was the stock market crash of 1929 that boosted all things leftist among the art & letters classes.

  12. Scott Alexander says:

    Banned for a month

  13. Anonymous says:

    Hey, I think comments like this probably just make people angry and make good discussions less likely.

  14. Jeremiah says:

    Curious what Scott or any other readers here think about Nassim Taleb’s current crusade against GMOs. I’m still reading up on it, but I’m starting to wonder if Taleb has moved from being the lone voice in the wilderness warning us about Stalin (black swans and the financial crisis) to the guy warning us about FEMA internment camps. I’m just hoping he doesn’t find this comment and add me to his Monsanto shill list.

    • Urstoff says:

      I think he crossed that line a while ago. You can only get so much attention publishing the same book over and over again.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      My understanding is that Taleb’s anti-GMO argument is that we have no particular reason to think they’re bad, and the chance is low, but that if somehow they do poison something or create superweeds or whatever, it would be a gigantic disaster – eg sort of a Pascal’s Mugging type of problem. Pascal’s Mugging arguments usually do check out and are formally correct, but you’ve got to decide which ones you want to take seriously. I’m not sure about Taleb’s, but I don’t respect him less for making it.

      • Jeremiah says:

        Yeah I think that’s a good summary, I’m just having a hard time evaluating where that point is of taking things seriously. I suppose I have less of a problem with the idea per se and more Taleb making the next leap into calling most people who disagree with him shills for Monsanto and acting like there is no possible counter-argument. Kind of plays into the contrarian/crackpot topic too!

        • Jiro says:

          This is a case where “motte and bailey” becomes useful. It’s something that a lot of pseudoscientists do–they make some kind of a weak claim, like “shouldn’t you keep an open mind” or “can’t you admit it’s at least *possible*” (the latter being what is going on here). But they then act as though they believe a much stronger claim. (Someone who thinks that the chance of danger of GMO is low, but the magnitude of danger is high, probably won’t go around calling people shills.)

      • Carl Shulman says:

        “Pascal’s Mugging arguments usually do check out and are formally correct”

        I really don’t think this is true. There are a lot of them, and aside from typically overstating expected value of the phenomenon asserted, they often miss an opposite sign effect with a larger expected value?

  15. Jane says:

    Cool story bro, thanks for sharing! It really made my day.

  16. Nornagest says:

    Sure is getting ranty in these comments.

    • Sylocat says:

      Well, the OP not only extensively quotes Muggeridge but also repeats with a straight face his claim that the entire western progressive-left not only monolithically supported Stalin until the 1990s but also held such totalitarian control over the publishing and marketing industries that the lone heroic NRXs speaking up against communism couldn’t make their voices heard until the general public bravely defied the Ivory Tower thought-police by turning against communism in the late 1960s.

      If you don’t want the comments section to contain turmoil, that’s not exactly the best way to start things off, y’know?

      • Nornagest says:

        the OP not only extensively quotes Muggeridge but also repeats with a straight face his claim that the entire western progressive-left [..] supported Stalin until the 1990s

        That’s a neat trick, given that Malcolm Muggeridge died in 1990 and the book we’re talking about was published in 1972. (A posthumous update including an incomplete third volume was released in 2006, but the Amazon link is to the two-volume version, and it sounds like that’s what Scott was reading too.)

        I think you can be a little more charitable, yeah?

        • HeelBearCub says:

          @Nornagest:
          Well, Scott did write:
          “By coincidence, just last week I read about the sad death of historian Robert Conquest, the man who was able to succeed where Muggeridge failed and drag Britain and America kicking and screaming into admitting Stalin wasn’t such a great guy. Conquest had one great advantage over Muggeridge, which was that he wrote in 1968”

          And:

          “But hearing all of these stories about the universal progressive Western adulation of Stalin is really scary. It’s way too easy for the darkest and most primal parts of my brain to map neatly onto the modern modalities of rejecting and punishing disagreement. ”

          And:

          “And then the Cold War started, and this very gradually settled down to an equilibrium where okay, a lot of the Western intelligentsia stayed Communist, but at least they had the decency to realize that it was unpopular and the Revolution probably wasn’t literally going to happen next week.”

          ——–

          Plenty of people in the comments are saying that the left of today “are the exact same people who willing condoned the mass murder of millions” and the like.

          So, from a charity perspective, I think nitpicking the year 1990 is not (charitable that is.)

          • Nornagest says:

            I’m not gonna try to defend anyone in the comments other than myself, but when Scott talks about Conquest writing in 1968, he’s comparing that to Muggeridge’s journalism in the 1930s, not to his autobiography in 1972 — never mind 2006! Now, ’68 is the early Brezhnev era, when Stalin was still publicly honored but the Soviet leadership was trying to gently distance itself from his excesses, and particularly from that genocide stuff; Secret Speech and all that. Talking about e.g. the Great Purge was embarrassing and they tried to avoid it, but there was no longer an attitude, even in the Kremlin party line, that Stalin was creating a workers’ paradise and could do no wrong.

            The Thirties, on the other hand, were about when Stalin’s cult of personality was reaching its heights, and the rest of your quotes take place in that context. This is not a nitpick; Scott’s whole line of argument makes no sense if you think nothing changed between 1930 and 1990. The stuff about modern modalities is an analogy; he’s not literally saying that modern leftists heart Stalin.

            (I have met a few modern leftists that heart Stalin. But they’re obviously not the norm.)

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Nornagest:

            All valid points

            But, isn’t Scott just a tad too credulous of Muggeridge’s contention that he was so wrongly treated? Clearly Muggeridge feels wrongly treated no matter the events. This then calls in to question the anology.

            And why does Scott only seem to be assigning blame for falling victim to confirmation bias to some peculiar tendency in left wing thought?

          • Steve Sailer says:

            My timeline would be:

            1917-1929: not much interest among Western intellectuals in the Soviet Union, in part because lots of Russian artist refugees like Stravinsky in the West, in part because the economy is good in America and okay in Western Europe. Money talks. Western artists not very interested in economics, more interested in fighting Mrs. Grundy in name of bohemianism.

            1930-1939: Wall Street crash of October 1929 demoralizes old order. With patrons of arts and letters going broke, Western artists and writers become enthusiastic about Soviet Union right at its craziest point of collectivizing agriculture.

            1939-1941: Stalin’s pact with Hitler drives wedge between obedient Communist Party members in West and the more general left.

            1941-1945: Breach in left healed up due to war.

            1946-1950: Non-communist left on ascendant in English-speaking countries. Communist attack on South Korea in 1950 is last straw.

            1950-1953: Anti-Communists have upper hand while Korean War is ongoing.

            1954-1966: Anti-Communists liberals solidly in charge, until Vietnam and black crime/riots shakes self-confidence.

            And you can probably fill in the story from there.

            My main unorthodox point would be my emphasis on the stock market crash of 1929 as the dividing line.

          • Nita says:

            Very plausible analysis by Mr Sailer. The materialist angle should please rationalists, communists and bitter cynics alike.

          • Sylocat says:

            My main unorthodox point would be my emphasis on the stock market crash of 1929 as the dividing line.

            It may be unorthodox, but it certainly makes sense, IMO.

        • Sylocat says:

          Huh. I got Muggeridge’s and Conquest’s timelines mixed up there. Mea culpa.

          Regardless, as HeelBearCub points out, the post makes some pretty darned strong claims no matter who (if anyone) it’s quoting from.

  17. John Hamilton says:

    In other words, one should always try to make things marginally better?

    Tyler Cowen’s (and Tarrabok’s) blog contains a wisdom of sorts then–in the title even!

  18. Great post, cheers Scott.

  19. Doug Muir says:

    A thing that doesn’t get much discussed: the extreme gullibility of British left-wing intellectuals in the 1920s and ’30s was a fairly predictable outcome of the godawful media climate of Britain during that period. There were liberal and socialist outlets, but discourse was dominated by a handful of powerful newspaper, radio and publishing powerhouses. These were owned by a few very rich men, whose views ran from conservative to very very conservative to whoa, whoa whoa whoa. In contemporary American terms, the closest approximation might be five or six Fox News-level media apparatuses going full blast and occasionally competing with each other to see who could be most extreme.

    Here’s a data point: the very first Labour government in Britain? Lasted nine months. It was brought down by (1) a concerted right-wing media campaign around the government’s decision not to prosecute an editor for sedition under an 18th century law (because he had published an editorial saying that troops should not fire on strikers); and (2) a spike of popular hysteria whipped up the right-wing media about a telegram from the Soviet Union expressing support for Labour. The telegram was a complete forgery, and the Soviets even said so, but who believed them? The Labour government fell and the Conservatives won in a landslide. In contemporary terms, it’s as if the US Congress had impeached Obama in 2009 based on (1) him releasing some prisoners from Guantanamo, and (2) a forged birth certificate showing he was really born in Nairobi.

    For some of the remarkable details, google “First MacDonald Ministry”, “Campbell Case”, or “Zinoviev Telegram”. You can also look up the insane career of Lord Northcliffe — the dominant media figure of Britain for 25 years, he was like Rupert Murdoch, Robert Maxwell, and William Randolph Hearst piled on top of each other. For an idea of how powerful right-wing media could be during this period, google “the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages” — that was from a speech where the British Conservative Prime Minister tried to call out the country’s winger press.

    People just love pointing out how gullible those foolish prewar Socialists were! But if you lived for a couple of decades in a country where this sort of thing was SOP, your epistemics might get a little warped too.

    Doug M.

    • Salem says:

      No, no, hang on a second. This is at best a tendentious misrepresentation of what happened.

      Firstly, Ramsay MacDonald’s first government was a minority – and Labour weren’t even the largest party. It was only ever going to last a short time, because their political opponents could force an election at any time, for any reason. They chose to do so over the Campbell case, but it could have been anything. This is nothing like a US President being impeached.

      Second, the issue in the Campbell case was not the justice (or otherwise) of the law, but that the government politicised the decision to prosecute. The Attorney General advised prosecution in his capacity as the government’s senior law officer. A political decision was taken to override that. This would be a major scandal today – in a modern context, just the rumours that Goldsmith was pressured to change the wording of his Iraq war advice was a scandal. But this was worse by far – Hastings changed his entire position not just the wording, he did so publically so there could be no denial, and there was no doubt that the change was down to political pressure. And it wasn’t just evil, it was dumb too – if you’re in office only on the sufferance of your enemies, it’s not a good time to try and use that office to subvert the rule of law.

      • Doug Muir says:

        I’ll admit to some exaggeration to make a point! But misrepresentation? Come, come.

        — The Labour government was minority, but it had the great advantage that the Opposition was split between two parties that hated each other. And one of those two parties — the Liberals — were quite reluctant to trigger a General Election, since they knew they were in danger of losing many seats if they did. Which is exactly what happened.

        A Labour supporter is supposed to have asked a Liberal after the election, “Why in God’s name did you destroy your own party just to put the Tories in power instead of us?” Which was a totally reasonable question! (And, come to think of it, one that a Labour supporter could ask a Liberal Democrat today…)

        — WRT the Campbell case… sorry? Attorney General Hastings started the prosecution of Campbell himself, then belatedly realized it was a terrible idea and changed his mind. The law was archaic, Campbell’s editorial probable didn’t come under it anyway, and his prosecution would have been a horrible political can of worms. The decision to drop the prosecution was Hastings’ idea, not MacDonald’s. Hastings stood up in front of Parliament and said so!

        The problem was, nobody believed him — or, more precisely, it was much more politically convenient to pretend not to believe him. The British system relies deeply on the interesting idea that Attorney Generals, though political appointees, should never be subjected to political influence. So the idea that MacDonald had forced Hastings to back off was just too good to let go of, even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. And the right-wing press — with Lord Northcliffe leading the charge! — turned this rather silly incident into a government-wrecking scandal.

        Incidentally, Hastings was an interesting character in his own right. He was originally a Liberal, but he seems to have joined Labour basically out of pure ambition: Labour had no high-powered lawyers, so he was guaranteed to be a front-bencher in Opposition and to get a Cabinet post if they won. But while he was a very competent trial lawyer, he had no political instincts whatsoever. His tenure as Attorney General was brief and disastrous, and he left politics soon thereafter to make an excellent living doing high-end corporate, criminal defense and libel cases. He was like the Johnny Cochran of interwar Britain. His memoirs, written after WWII, are full of the craziest stuff — The Case of the Hooded Man, diamond cartels, open-air sex in Regent’s Park, Oswald Mosley.

        Anyway. The point was, 1920s and 1930s Britain was a truly horrible media environment, dominated by what today might be called a right-wing noise machine. The newspapers, dominated by a few conservative-to-reactionary press and publishing magnates, were strong enough to shake governments and occasionally bring them down. So the gullibility of Britain’s left-wing intellectuals — while still a fair target for the derision of posterity! — does look a little less ridiculous when put in that context.

        Doug M.

  20. Deiseach says:

    I don’t know if I’m inviting banning for this comment, but here goes anyway. I will show why I think this ties in with what Muggeridge was saying about the lure of great sweeping progressive movements (whether of the left or the right) to blind their adherents, but first I need to do some moaning.

    Reading bits and pieces various places online about the Great Vegan Catering Failure Controversy at the Ethical Altruist conference, I have to say this is all part of what makes me feel something is off about Ethical Altruism, or rather the movement as presently taking shape.

    I thought EA was about doing the most good the most efficiently according to a measurable scale that permitted you to compare charitable work and have an objective, demonstrable, reproducible method of doing so that would enable people to agree “yes, charity A does better and more necessary work than charity B in a better fashion so it is more effective to donate as much as I can of my allocation for charitable giving to charity A”.

    What it seems to have turned out (at least with this section of the community and their grievances about the menu) is to be “Effective Altruism is about anti-animal cruelty. No, more, it’s about being pro-vegan”.

    If EA is going to promote veganism as an ethical etc. etc. etc. way of living that needs to be adopted wholesale globally, then they’re perfectly entitled to do so. But they should then make it clear that is what they are about.

    Otherwise, this passive-aggressive grousing over “How dare the conference organisers use my money to support factory-farming?” sounds awfully like White People Problems. We turned up ostensibly to discuss how to make the lives of people all over the world, people struggling with poverty, disease and lack of opportunity, better in a sustainable way, but I’m much more interested in being butthurt about the guy next to me in the banqueting hall wanted lasagne made with steak mince not tofu.

    I know that’s probably unfair, but it’s how this whole storm in a teacup comes across, and it reinforces my deep suspicion about the very philosophy of EA as I’m seeing it expressed. There’s a horrible phrase: “cold as charity”. EA wants to do away with charitable giving based on whim and sentiment? (I pause here to note the irony of whim and sentiment when it comes to eating choices at a catered event*). EA wants to slot it all into a neat, mechanical system whereby you give to the most-rated effective movement without letting any subjective feelings interfere with efficiency, but worse than that, it encourages if not inculcates guilt about wanting to make any other choices, or preferring another, lesser-rated charity because it’s nearer to your heart or the likes.

    If there is no personal feeling, if you’re not seeing the recipients of the good works as people and persons in their own right but as units of increased utility or however you mention it, then it is indeed a cold charity and a monstrosity. Yes, that’s strong language. But look at what has happened here: the sufferings to be ameliorated have all been forgotten in the indignation and cries over deceit, deliberate fraud, cheating, and using our money to support factory-farming – as though the organisers were planning to do this all along, instead of running face-first into the reason why most events are catered the way they are: it’s damn hard if not impossible to do mass, individually tailored, dishes for large numbers of attendees so you do a selection of meat/vegetarian/vegan dishes to cover the majority and come in at a reasonable price.

    The sick and dying in the developing world can continue to sicken and die, but I must make my displeasure at letting some horrible carnivore eat factory-farmed meat (would they be any happier had it been organically reared, ethically sourced meat?) known far and wide! Because if I go by this, that is what is most important – not improving the lot of humans dying from malaria, but worrying about battery chickens.

    Now, worry about battery chickens indeed, but make up your minds: if you can’t even compromise to the extent that like-minded people can’t share a dining room because group C are vegans and group P are meat-eaters, and there is resentment and hair-pulling on both sides about imposed values, how do you expect to achieve anything? How do you expect to convince me and my like, ordinary idiots who don’t see why we should take on a whole new way of giving rather than the causes we already give to?

    And this is how Devotion To The Cause sets up circular firing-squads where the Ethical Altruists are accusing conference organisers of bad faith and deliberate deception, and demonstrating their purity and superior virtue via veganism, and the New Shining World of Tomorrow requires not that we break a few eggs (animal cruelty! factory farming!) but that the cause of relieving human suffering take a back seat to the Party Line (which, apparently, is that EAs must be vegans or else they’re not really EAs).

    Did the conference organisers handle this badly and make a hash of the whole thing from the start? Yes. Was it deliberate fraud? No, it was inexperienced organisers finding out the hard way how Murphy’s Law works. Is having to endure the horrors of a not-completely-vegan menu the most important thing in the world? No, you were supposed to be there to discuss how to make Ethical Altruism known to the public at large, amongst other things. What it sounds like is intending to talk about helping people but when push comes to shove, your own personal inconvenience and beliefs trump foreign people out there far away.

    I’m sure people were genuinely hurt and disappointed, but once again, it seems (to an outside observer) that a small group is more concerned about internal ritual purity and purging the unworthy, rather than realising that when you start scaling up, compromises have to be made, and that maybe this shows you why charities are not as “efficient” as you think they should be – because reality interferes with perfect plans.

    *Yes, yes, I know: deep philosophical and ethical convictions about animal suffering, I have a vegan brother, remember? But it’s coming across in practice as holier-than-thou pharisaism: meat eaters are lesser, inferior, types whose sordid and disgusting habit should not be countenanced in public whereas my shining virtue trumps all civility and compromise.

    And here’s where Muggeridge’s disillusionment with the True Believers comes in; to quote from that post I linked:

    And I don’t think EA conferences have any business funding, enabling and officially sanctioning factory farming, bednet cutting, patient-harassing, or other things in that vein.

    For the love of God, Montresor! Someone could not relish their bean sprout salad because they had to be in the same room as someone eating a ham sandwich. Because eating a ham sandwich is on the same moral plane as deliberately sabotaging mosquito bednets before sending them out to African nations. Are you listening to yourselves? Do you hear what you sound like to outsiders?

    • Nita says:

      Eh, it seems to me like things had been going in a perfectly acceptable, effective direction until some meat-eaters decided that a sensible menu would “impose on their values”.

      it’s damn hard if not impossible to do mass, individually tailored, dishes for large numbers of attendees

      Exactly! But luckily, the attendees understand the virtues of sacrifice and efficiency, so ordering N portions of the cheapest, least health-threatening food should be fine — right? Apparently not.

      I’m not aware of any health conditions that make one unable to live without meat, dairy or eggs for a few days, so all I can do is conclude that some of my fellow omnivores are selfish jerks, although they like to call themselves something else.

      • Murphy says:

        Huh, I wonder if future such events could avoid the drama by ring-fencing the funding for meals with a pre-comittment that any excess money will be donated to a specific highly effective charity, then challenge any whingers to do the math and explain how many chickens a human life has to be worth to justify insisting on the expense of making sure that all meals be converted to tofu at that event.

      • Deiseach says:

        Nina, why is a completely vegan menu the sensible one? Maybe the hotel wasn’t set up to cater for that. Vegan only, purely vegan, not a speck of animal byproduct anywhere near it, is often difficult to find and costly to source. The attendees who are now murmuring about how everyone should be forced to eat vegan regardless of their preferences, and how it was all some terrible betrayal when the organisers make a mess of handling notifications and promising more than they could deliver, are certainly not showing willingness to sacrifice and be efficient.

        I think continent chastity outside of marriage is sensible. I’m sure you won’t mind, if you attend a conference I organise, letting me check your luggage so any birth control devices or pills can be winnowed out. After all, you can live without recreational sex for a couple of days, right? I’m not aware of any health conditions that make one unable to live without sex for a couple of days.

        Though I am aware of medical conditions that do need to be treated using the hormonal contraceptive pill. And there may possibly be reasons people choose to be ovo-vegetarians, ovo-lacto vegetarians, eat butter or prefer to use raw honey as a sweetener rather than agave nectar, etc. Even health reasons.

        But no – as long as we know there is only quinoa in the dish and not a sliver of meat or dairy anywhere, we can pat ourselves on the back for our sensible menu and ignore the problematic elements of our insistence on dietary purity signalling that makes kashrut look like going soft.

        • Nita says:

          Deiseach, rice and vegetables is cheaper than rice and meat, and easy to source.

          Believe it or not, I have been to conferences where the sponsored accommodation involved sharing a room with an assigned roommate, which (at least for me) makes not only having sex, but even masturbating, impossible. As you can see, I’ve lived to tell the tale, and I didn’t ever feel that my pro-sex values were being imposed upon by the organizing committee.

          So, my outsider’s view is that this was a purely tribal conflict, a fight which some EAs felt they had to pick to preserve the balance of power between the “humans only” and “animals too” factions, efficiency be damned.

          • John Schilling says:

            Broadly vegetarian is cheap and easy, and a common enough dietary preference that it shouldn’t be an imposition on any caterer. Purist vegan, guaranteed to be without a e.g. drop of animal fat in any of the flavoring agents applied to the rice and vegetables, is a bit trickier to deal with. And, were I a caterer, I think I would presume the people demanding “vegan” are more likely to raise a fuss or file a lawsuit if the meal doesn’t meet their standards.

            From an Ethical Altruist perspective, I think specifying the default menu as vegetarian and applying the time and money you’d have spent pushing that issue further to instead buy more mosquito nets, would probably be the optimally ethical course of action. But then, everybody hedges their EA with a bit of “some of my resources are going to Me Having Fun, not mosquito nets for Africa”, and if the people involved here decided that A: they want to have fun by hanging around with people like them, and B: using a vegan diet to filter out people too unlike them to make for a fun event, then that’s not an unreasonable thing to do.

            Works better if you’re clear about it up front, of course.

          • Deiseach says:

            Nina, I agree that it was a tribal squabble, which makes it all the more depressing.

            What do you use in the sauce or dressing for the rice or vegetables? Because really pure vegans won’t countenance honey, for instance, or cream, butter, egg – even particular kinds of oil are a bit of a problem if they’re not 100% organic cold-pressed non-GMO etc.

            And while I’d be sympathetic to the non-GMO crowd, you can bet your bippy that the same people who were tutting and sighing about the lack of a completely vegan menu would also have been vetting “Is this ethically sourced? Fair trade? Oh Cosmic Spirit of Sagan, the hotel used a caterer which cooked with ingredients that were made in a factory that also handles milk! I cannot eat this! I will not countenance anything that involves animal cruelty!”

          • Nita says:

            @ John Schilling

            I agree that vegetarian options would be a reasonable compromise of price, taste and convenience.

            Would a vegan menu really be an effective filter, though? I would have never thought EAs are so easily deterred.

            @ Deiseach

            Uh, oil and salt tends to work fine? Perhaps some optional soy sauce or vinegar.

            And now we’ve gone from factory farmed meat to 100% organic non-GMO cold-pressed vegetable oil! With all due respect, I think the wave of outrage at improper oil would not have reached our ears 🙂

      • Tarrou says:

        Yes, everyone who doesn’t share your peculiar religious diet devotion is a selfish jerk, and they should allow you to dictate how their money is spent on all matters food.

        • Nita says:

          I wasn’t aware that being an omnivore was considered a “religious diet devotion”. Perhaps I should start a church and get some sweet tax exemptions to go with my sweet (and savory) unrestricted meals.

      • Ever An Anon says:

        I was hoping my comment came in sooner, so as to not pile on, but yeah it warrants repeating: forcing everyone to eat vegan for “a few days” is much more selfish than requesting a compromise menu.

        Beyond that, your premises are fairly far off. Veganism, in theory, is cheaper than meat eating and slightly healthier. In practice however it is a quite expensive habit and requires a fair bit of care to make sure you aren’t deprived of some essential nutrient or other (re: dead kids raised by average intelligence vegans ).

        If you want to eat vegan then good for you. If you want to impose a diet on other conference-goers, particularly a rather onerous one, then people are well within their rights to tell you to go to hell.

        • Nita says:

          Dear Anon, if someone had managed to raise a child in however many days that conference lasted, I would personally award them Nita’s Special Prize For Most Effective Humans.

          And I eat whatever I want, but I don’t call myself either effective or an altruist.

          • Ever An Anon says:

            Firstly, you have missed the point of my example and in a way which suggests that you did so deliberately. Being healthy while following a vegan diet is possible but difficult, to the point that people occasionally die in the attempt. I don’t think any conference attendees were put at risk, but the point is it’s hardly a simple or easy proposition to dump on someone.

            As for effectiveness and altruism, one of the big draws of EA is cutting through the holier-than-thou bullshit and focusing on actually helping people. So pushing veganism, which is to holier-than-thou bullshit what heroin is to opiates, into the spotlight past the actual charities being evaluated is very nearly the antithesis of what EA is supposed to represent.

          • Jiro says:

            I would disagree somewhat. EA plus a belief that animals have significant utility even when compared to humans leads to veganism. If you believe in those things, you *should* push it to the spotlight, in preference to malaria nets. (Of course, this applies to all EA activity, not just to conferences–EA should give all of its funding to stopping meat eating as well.)

          • Nita says:

            @ Anon

            Unfortunately, your example is irrelevant to the debate. A long-term diet lacking in vitamin C is dangerous and potentially fatal. Do all conference organizers have a duty to ensure that the meals they provide contain vitamin C?

            Whether eating meat is ethical or not, the fact is that meat tends to make meals more expensive. Sure, if the EA movement wants to spend money on publicly distancing itself from animal rights activists, they’re free to do so. But claiming that we omnivores have some mysterious values, which would be violated by not eating meat, is ludicrous.

          • “EA plus a belief that animals have significant utility even when compared to humans leads to veganism. ”

            Only if you believe that the total utility of an animal raised to be eaten is negative, hence that it is better for that animal not to exist.

          • Patrick Medley says:

            “Only if you believe that the total utility of an animal raised to be eaten is negative, hence that it is better for that animal not to exist.”

            Actually, the utility optimizing choice would be to determine what animal (or set of animals) is cheapest to keep alive (per utile) and then maximize the number of them. If veganism is a cheaper way of keeping alive the humans necessary to carry out this plan, then veganism is the optimal choice.

            In reality, however, the most efficient way of keeping people alive to care for the animals, given that you have a large number of animals being kept alive by them, is to eat the meat of those animals when they die, since otherwise, their meat goes to waste, and that means keeping alive fewer animals. Humans would thus eat the meat of the animals they kept alive, plus whatever additional sources of nutrition were necessary (at minimum cost).

            Unsettlingly, this seems to imply that anyone who truly cared about the welfare of animals (and measured their utility solely based on number) would propose that humans eat those animals (almost) exclusively. Even more unsettlingly, this argument holds when the “utility maximizing animal” is human beings.

      • Anthony says:

        If one is diabetic, vegan meals for a few days are actually quite an imposition.

        • Nita says:

          Now that’s a reasonable objection, thanks. As I understand it, the best diet for diabetics is still a matter of debate, but interfering with someone’s already working method of managing their metabolism would indeed be disruptive.

        • Acheman says:

          Well, it could be difficult if you are eating very low-carb for your diabetes, but otherwise there’s no inherent problem. If your glucose control requires you to eat the same food as you eat at home, that’s going to be a problem in any mass catering environment, as what people eat at home varies widely. I don’t believe anyone would have complained if the conference had been vegan-only apart from a few people with allergies or health conditions who received a more tailored offering.

      • HlynkaCG says:

        >Exactly! But luckily, the attendees understand the virtues of sacrifice and efficiency, so ordering N portions of the cheapest, least health-threatening food should be fine — right? Apparently not.

        The irony in this comment is almost magnetic.

      • ThirteenthLetter says:

        If someone else being an omnivore is a trivial whim that they can easily suppress for a few days, then surely you being a vegan is also a trivial whim that you can easily suppress for a few days, right?

        What’s that? Your philosophy of life just happens to have the consequence that everyone else has to trash their preferences to make you happy? Wow, I would not have expected that. What are the odds?

        • Nita says:

          The lack of reading comprehension in this subthread has been quite astounding. How do you guys get through Scott’s or Moldbug’s stuff if even a 100-word comment is such a challenge?

          Once again, being a perfectly normal omnivore, I know that skipping meat for a few days is neither terribly oppressive nor morally repugnant.

          Maybe the vegans are right about the animal rights stuff. Maybe they’re wrong. But if humoring them also happens to be cheaper, there’s no reason to object apart from tribalism (and diabetes).

          • ThirteenthLetter says:

            Yeah, you know what, fair point, I apologize for that remark. I should pay more attention.

    • Anon says:

      Otherwise, this passive-aggressive grousing over “How dare the conference organisers use my money to support factory-farming?” sounds awfully like White People Problems. We turned up ostensibly to discuss how to make the lives of people all over the world, people struggling with poverty, disease and lack of opportunity, better in a sustainable way, but I’m much more interested in being butthurt about the guy next to me in the banqueting hall wanted lasagne made with steak mince not tofu.

      I can’t help but think that being, as you say, ‘butthurt’ about the guy next to you being angry about something that viscerally offends and angers them qualifies as “White People Problems” if anything does.

      It kind of seems like you’re rounding this off to “well this thing that really bothers them doesn’t bother me, so they must be the crazy ones”.

      • Deiseach says:

        Anon, these are the Ethical Altruists. These are the trained rationalists. These are the people who know better than long-established charities what to do and how to do it. These are the people who are going to change the world to be a kinder, happier, more efficient place by using objective, impartial standards of judging what does and what does not work.

        And they whip up a catering snafu into a deliberate attempt to fleece them out of their money in order to fund, enable and officially sanction factory-farming. They can’t even muster up enough compromise or tolerance to say “I personally disagree with eating meat but I’m not going to impose my views on you because we are all people of goodwill trying to work for the betterment of humanity and this is not a vegan charity”.

        Except apparently it is, and the Most Biggest Importantest Thing in Ethical Altruism is that it convert everyone to veganism. Well, great, thanks for letting me know that so I won’t waste my money donating to your groups or recommended causes because I’m not interested in promoting veganism.

        If these are the people who are going to revolutionise how charity works, I’m sticking with the guys on the streets with the collection tins and stickers.

        the guy next to you being angry about something that viscerally offends and angers them

        Anon, do you really think that in a group of contrarians, telling them that “This event will be catered vegan-only, nope, not even if you’re an ovo-vegetarian who only eats unfertilised eggs from small flocks of free-range organically reared special breed hens”, that nobody would go I INSIST ON MY RIGHTS TO EAT MEAT NOBODY HAS THE RGHT TO TELL ME WHAT I CAN OR CANNOT PUT INTO MY MOUTH, WHETHER THAT IS IN REGARD TO WHAT I’LL HAVE FOR MY LUNCH OR FELLATIO? 🙂

        From what I’ve read, this conference was being run by first-time organisers who plainly ran into problems because they’ve never planned and run an event of this size before. And part of that is finding out oh crap, the catering company pulled out at the last minute, or the hotel isn’t able to deliver on that for you, or you can’t do it for the money people are willing to pay, or half your attendees said they’d walk unless they got a choice on the menu.

        This is what happens when running conferences, training days, social events or meet-ups. Take it from me, I’ve seen it in my work experience. Crap happens.

        Blowing this mess of inexperience and crossed wires up into some deliberate conspiracy and/or fraud, and making pronouncements about how serving meat on the menu is like harassing people outside a Planned Parenthood clinic or cutting holes in mosquito nets, is really showing where your priorities lie.

        And it’s not “helping the developing world” or “making charity more efficient”.

        So tell me this: is the Official Philosophy of EA veganism? Not just “We think veganism is the most ethical and sustainable way of life yadda yadda yadda” but ONLY VEGANS NEED APPLY NON-VEGANS, EVEN VEGETARIANS WHO ARE NOT VEGANS, CAN GO TO HELL WE’RE ALL ABOUT THE VEGANISM HERE GO HARASS PRO-CHOICERS YOU DIRTY MEAT-EATERS?

        I mean, if you really have to commit to veganism to be an EA, then fine, that’s the movement’s prerogative to set conditions, but at least make it clear right up front and not be part of the ‘unwritten laws’ people are supposed to know by the light of nature. You’ll avoid future nasty surprises like this.

        Because I can certainly see (a) why people who thought they were signing up to Ethical Altrusim and not pro-veganism campaigning, who are not themselves vegans, and who don’t care tuppence one way or the other what the hell you eat for your dinner but who won’t be dictated to in tones of holier-than-thou superior moral virtue would stick on “We want our dietary preferences treated with equal consideration to the herbivores” (b) you will have a split, between the EAs who think veganism is the hill to die on and the EAs who don’t care one way or the other but are not interested in being evangelical about veganism.

        And splintering your movement just when it’s getting off the ground is not the way to go.

        • Nornagest says:

          Anon, these are the Ethical Altruists. These are the trained rationalists.

          There’s a lot of overlap, but EA and rationalism are not the same scene.

        • Acheman says:

          I’m not sure why this has to concern permanent veganism or with purity. As I understand it, as a very distant bystander, the issue isn’t that purity vegans were upset that they had to be in the same building as a cheese. The issue is that many attendees agreed that, all other things being equal, a vegan menu would produce less suffering than a non-vegan menu. Many of those people weren’t vegans in their everyday lives, for various reasons. But for a couple of meals anyone can eat vegan food. It’s not going to do you any damage.

          Now, I’m guessing you don’t think that animal suffering is morally significant. It’s a bit hard to tell amidst all the talk about freedom (which, I don’t understand why it’s so blisteringly important to choose what you eat but not choose, say, the chairs). But you can surely understand and respect that some people do think that animal suffering is important, including people who are not vegans but try to reduce the animal suffering they cause by eating less meat, choosing the organically-reared free-range eggs you allude to, et cetera. And given that many people think that morally, no animal suffering > animal suffering, but nobody thinks that animal suffering > no animal suffering (I think), it makes sense to choose an option that minimises the total amount of morally relevant suffering the attendees as a whole believe to be caused by the event.

          Now, you could try arguing that your suffering at having to eat houmous outweighs the suffering of the animals, and more seriously some people have allergies etc that make veganism more difficult although often not impossible to accommodate. But I would suggest that the solution in those cases is to bring (hypoallergenic) sandwiches.

          • John Schilling says:

            Case A: A thousand people show up, two hundred of whom order the steak instead of the tofu at the main banquet. All are sufficiently energized by their attendance at the conference to donate an extra $100 to EA causes over the next year, which we will simplify to poverty reduction at a rate of $5000/life. Cost/Benefit: twenty children don’t die of malaria, one free-range cow is sacrificed.

            Case B: Fifty of the carnivores take the vegan-only diet as a sign that their kind isn’t welcome here and stay home. Half privately eat steak dinners, half chicken. Fifty more show up but are vaguely dissatisfied during the after-dinner speech and don’t go away enthused about EA. The rest behave as before. Cost/Benefit: eighteen children don’t die of malaria, a dozen chickens and a quarter of a cow subject to factory farming and slaughter.

            Explain to me again how case B results in less suffering? Effective Altruists must really like cows, or hate children and chickens. Or they really are so upset at being in the same building as meat and cheese that more than a hundred of them would have stayed away rather than share a table with a damn, dirty carnivore.

            Or, they expect people to shut up and do as they are told in the name of EA. Which I suspect is the point, and the problem. How “effective” is it really to conspicuously signal that you expect volunteers who are paying for the privilege of attending your shindig, to shut up and do as they are told? And if EA’s leaders weren’t aware that food plays an important social signaling role, I wouldn’t be inclined to trust them in more important matters.

          • Acheman says:

            Case C: a hundred carnivores either do not attend or do not donate. However, among the remaining nine hundred are a hundred carnivores who realise that they can massively increase the good they do in the world by stopping eating animal products. The delicious free food helps them to realise that this wouldn’t be completely unbearable. They go home and try it out. 30 find it’s not for them long-term, although they still make vegan recipes from time to time. 30 keep it up for a while, but decide lacto-ovo works better for their body and lifestyle. 30 become vegan for life. They tell their friends about it. Many animal lives are saved.

            Case D: fifty people who are really into veganism and compassion hear about a conference dedicated to doing good in the world and decide to go along. They start donating to AMF instead of a donkey sanctuary. Fifty existing vegans who are struggling to remain so attend the conference. They are into veganism because of utilitarianism, and are thrilled to meet other vegans with the same outlook. They share valuable tips about supplementation and recipes and return home energised.

            Case E: for every meat eater who thinks ‘this vegan conference is not for me’ there are 1.5 vegans who read uncharitable comments on SSC and think ‘this movement is not for me’.

          • John Schilling says:

            And you were expecting me to consider case E as anything but a win-win situation?

            Less snarkily, this is a decision every group has to make. Do we welcome carnivores, or are they not welcome here? Same for vegans. And Moslems, Jews, Christians, Atheists, and gays and straights and men and women and all the rest. Decide, damn it.

            If the decision is that they are welcome, then make it clear to everyone else in the group that they will be engaging in e.many.g. their characteristic dietary preferences while they are with the group, and that they are not to be hassled about this. Even the ones everyone else thinks are both frivolous and repugnant. Why are you inviting frivolously repugnant people to join your group anyway?

            If the decision is that they are not welcome, then make that clear – both to the unwelcome outgroup and to ingroup members who might naively try to accommodate the unwanted outgroup at the expense of the ingroup.

          • Acheman says:

            I guess what I’m trying to say is, either it’s important that the movement is as welcoming and unjudgemental as possible – in which case I don’t see how making jokes about wanting to drive vegans away is good policy – or it’s important that the movement is as morally right as possible – in which case I don’t see why people wanting to have no factory-farmed meat purchased with collective funds is unreasonable. Your comment seemed to be suggesting the first scenario, in that its argument is that having meat makes the conference more welcoming to people who usually eat meat.

            On the question of being welcoming, I do think that there’s a difference between believing that animal suffering is important and, all other things being equal, veganism is a good idea because it reduces animal suffering, and believing that meat-eating is frivolous and repugnant. For example, many people believe that veganism is a good choice that is not possible for everyone.

            I also think there’s a big difference between serving people vegan food and hassling them for being non-vegan. At a con, the two could be completely independent – I can imagine a situation where non-vegan food was served but omnis felt hassled because people gave them leaflets or there were talks on the utilitarian benefits of avoiding animal products.

            At the same time, while most of the time it is somewhat rude to state that someone’s life choices are morally wrong, I think this has to be relaxed somewhat at a conference dedicated to discussing how to make morally good life choices, or else the discourse would be paralysed beyond belief. Compare to, say, giving less than the Schelling point of 10%. There are a bunch of reasons why someone might not be able to commit to this figure, and it’s not nice to be unpleasant to someone who doesn’t give this amount, even at an EA conference. However, those people are probably going to feel more indirectly criticised at an EA con than elsewhere. And if people flat-out don’t think being vegan is better than being non-vegan, that’s all the more reason not to get too upset. I think everyone should accept that some people do not believe farming to be a moral evil, but conversely it’s reasonable not to expect them to be defensive about this belief in such a setting.

            It’s possible, by the way, to believe that animal suffering has no moral weight and still to be convinced that veganism is the best diet. For example, many people are worried about the impact of large-scale animal husbandry on climate change. Others are worried about slaughterhouses; there is a lot of evidence that working in a slaughterhouse is chronically traumatic and has a variety of knock-on effects on the community in which the slaughterhouse is located. This is one reason not to be overly defensive of ones moral positions; it can lead to aspects one has not considered being overlooked.

    • Murphy says:

      Why would you be banned for this post? It sounds like an utterly reasonable critique.

      It actually sounds disappointing, I’d have hoped that EA’s would be the kind to make a quick spreadsheet, confirm that the “dollars per units of suffering” or similar to re-arrange the event to match everyone’s preferences wasn’t sufficient rather than getting bogged down in purity rituals, sniping and pointless social signalling.

      • Deiseach says:

        I don’t think it’s everyone, or even a large minority, but what I’ve been seeing about the conference in my online reading is not “Wow, the wonderful talks” or “The inspiring speakers” or “We have a strategy for growing the movement and moving forward” but rather “Disgusting meat eaters got to indulge their filthy habit in public and I had to witness this when I went to get my quinoa and kumquat tabbouleh”.

        The only possible reaction to that is

        BLOODMOUTH CARNIST

        MY STOMACH IS A GRAVEYARD!

        🙂

      • Deiseach says:

        Well, I thought the comment might be bannable because I’m being snippy about Ethical Altruists on the basis of one storm-in-a-teacup incident from a congress, and that’s probably not fair.

        But it’s that I read so much crap going on in the world, in the news, and then I go to my Tumblr and other places and find the EA movement, or a section thereof anyway, which is supposed to be trying to shovel some of that crap out of the way is instead too busy squabbling over a goddamned lunch menu.

        • Acheman says:

          …I went into this upthread, but you know, veganism and EA are not completely different issues. Many people are vegan because they want to effectively reduce suffering. People aren’t complaining because they don’t like seeing people eat meat, they are complaining because a conference supposedly aimed at reducing suffering used a whole load of money to pay people to cause animals pain and misery. You may not think this is morally relevant, but surely you can recognise why some people might.

          • Jiro says:

            Saying “If the conference is about X, and I think that Y is contrary to X, we should ban Y from the conference” is equivalent to saying that there is no room for differences of opinion.

    • Earthly Knight says:

      For instant empathy, imagine instead that one clique of conference-goers insist that the menu include their favorite delicacy, second-trimester human fetus, which the others object strenuously to participating in what they see as a culture of destruction of life. Would you still blame them?

      I suspect that your criticism reduces to “I do not share their moral beliefs, therefore they are making a mountain out of a molehill and deserve to be mocked.” But if we accept as a premise that the consumption of animal products is wrong, it seems to me that the vegans are acting precisely as they ought to.

      • Urstoff says:

        The analogy doesn’t make much sense. The point (I think) is that this one segment of the EA population is really putting purity signals above ethical principles. Even if you have moral principles that lead to veganism, it’s not worth having a spat that makes the EA movement look petty and silly presuming that you think EA really can save a lot of lives.

        Now, you can make a simple calculus of 100 chickens (say) vs. probability X of saving Y lives via the conference and conclude that the 100 chickens is more valuable (because conferences don’t do anything, or whatever), but it sure doesn’t seem like that was the decision process here.

        • Earthly Knight says:

          Let’s see if I can make this clearer. There are two claims we need to distinguish here:

          1. The vegans are behaving irrationally even given that their views on animal life and welfare are correct.
          2. The vegans are behaving irrationally in virtue of being vegans.

          If all Deiseach is saying is (2), that’s just a meat-eater making fun of those dopey and sanctimonious vegans again, which isn’t novel or liable to convince anyone not already persuaded of her views. If the claim is (1), though, that would be a more serious charge. Is (1) true? The point of the fetus analogy is to show that it is not. To a vegan, a buffet of meat products is morally equivalent to a buffet of dismembered second-trimester fetuses. If we think the latter would be a good reason to write letters of protest to the conference organizers (and presumably most of us would, especially the papist Deiseach), we must, by parity of reasoning, say the same of the former as well. So the vegans cannot be convicted of any error in reasoning which does not presuppose the falsity of their belief system.

          “The point (I think) is that this one segment of the EA population is really putting purity signals above ethical principles.”

          The way unitofcaring tells it, it sounds like the conference was originally slated to offer only vegan entrees before several omnivores complained and the conference organizers caved, which in turn led to blowback from the vegan contingent. This strikes me as a routine internecine conflict, with both sides equally at fault provided we withhold judgment about the content of their disagreement. The way to break the symmetry is to start looking for a compromise rather than to assign blame.

          “Even if you have moral principles that lead to veganism, it’s not worth having a spat that makes the EA movement look petty and silly”

          If it’s not worth looking petty or risking a schism to save animal lives, a fortiori it’s not worth looking petty or risking a schism to ensure that you never have to go a meal without eating animal products!

        • Linch says:

          I think some people have let their emotions/keyboard get away from them, some EAs not being calculating utility-bots. However, I think the case can be made that alarmism is sometimes necessary if your views are so outside the Overton window that getting the message across is more important than making the message appear respectable.

          I don’t think “sending money to Africa” is that far outside the window in some liberal circles (but quite possibly so in more than 50% of the US), but worrying about factory farming *is* in many parts of the US.

          Deisach, I think you assume that EAs are a homogeneous group, or one to a first approximation from the outside. I think this is a wrong assumption. The movement is more united about the question “How can I do the most good” rather than an attempt to uniformly gravitate on an exact means. That’s why it’s possible to have an organization where some people think animals have moral worth and some do not.

          (As an aside, I don’t understand why so many people use tumblr. Seems pretty unhealthy :P)

      • Winfried says:

        I don’t understand how vegans can be pro-choice.

        If bees deserve moral consideration to the point where you can’t exploit their labor in exchange for protecting them without their consent, how can fetuses have no moral weight (or so little moral weight)?

        • Saal says:

          I imagine the response to this from a vegan pro-choicer (not me) would be something along the lines of the fetus violating the woman’s bodily autonomy, whereas the bees do their own thing in their little beehives and as such we have no “casus belli” to go screw with them.

          This appears to me to be entirely self-consistent (although personally displeasing for emotive reasons). I don’t see any vegans claiming it’s indefensible to swat a bee that’s stinging you, or kill a cow or other large animal which is trampling you (ie violating bodily autonomy).

        • Linch says:

          Winfried, I can’t speak for the modal vegan, but the vegans I know approach it from a consequentialist perspective rather than a rights-based perspective.

          The argument is that (eg, chickens) suffer immensely in return for relatively minor pleasure on your plate. On the other hand, the cost of carrying a full fetus to term is high and disproportionately borne. The general case being that you should avoid causing immense suffering to sentient beings if it only comes at a small cost to yourself. (Abortions, while potentially painful for the fetus, is very temporary compared to a lifetime of suffering in a factory farm).

          I think part of the problem/seeming inconsistency comes from a poor understanding of consciousness/poor models of sentience on all sides. I truly hope that as we get more data that gives us glimpses to answers about the problems of consciousness, people will update to coming closer to the correct/consistent responses.

          For selfish reasons, I hope that neither chickens nor fetuses are capable of meaningful experiences (so I could continue to eat meat and feel less guilty). But if I’m wrong, I WANT TO UPDATE. If I’m doing something that causes immense suffering to a sentient being of moral worth, I want to know I’m wrong ASAP, and I hope that enough others can see things that way too.

          • Earthly Knight says:

            It is plausible that chickens are less sentient or less capable of “meaningful experiences” than infant humans, whose lives and welfare you presumably judge to be worth protecting. But it is not at all plausible that this is true of pigs, and we do not need any advances in neuroscience to know this. If you’re sincere, the time to update is now: stop eating pigs.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            I’m not vegan but in general I agree with their valuation of animals.

            The sort of line that most people draw between humans and animals, or animals and plants, etc — I draw between born animals active in the world, and foetuses (of any species). We can see what animals are, but what a foetus ‘is’, is speculation.

            The difference between a chicken and a foetus is that the chicken is a live, active animal with zis own preferences and reactions and affections and social life. (I’ve raised a small flock.) A foetus is not.

            You-generic could argue that a very later-term foetus may have some of those characteristics, but certainly an early term foetus does not. Looking at what the two creatures actually are at the moments in question, the chicken is a living, loving, experiencing creature, and the foetus is not.

            I don’t like judging an objective question by the behavior of its proponents, but it does seem relevant that many pro-foetus people’s regard begins at conception, when there is no question of conciousness, volition, etc. And they have the same regard for a brain-dead foetus. So their regard is not an indication of actual activity in its object at this stage.

          • Linch says:

            Earthly, I do not eat pigs for exactly those reasons. I’ve stopped eating other forms of meat and most dairy recently but this is more due to profound moral uncertainty than out of a principled stance of “yes, of course I know that this is right.”

            I have traditionally taken the Singer stance on infant humans. I have not updated in this regard (though I’m increasingly open to the possibility). Part of this is tactical (infant humans don’t seem to need more people speaking out for them).

          • Deiseach says:

            I was going to comment here but I’ve changed my mind. Please ignore.

    • Urstoff says:

      I just try to stay away from True Believers of any sort, even if I agree with some of their arguments.

  21. JK says:

    I’ve never read Muggeridge, but judging by these excerpts, he should be dug up and tried for his crimes against the semicolon.

  22. Nita says:

    Excellent post! Some quibbles:

    Duranty didn’t say, (paraphrased) “Communism is the best, let’s do it everywhere!” He said, (paraphrased) “sure, Stalin is ruling Russians with an iron fist, but they’re Asiatic-minded people who are suited to this sort of thing.” A very clever move — it reassures his readers that they don’t have to feel bad for poor Russians or fear the advent of communism in the West. No wonder they loved it! Compared to this guy, Muggeridge was a naive idealist.

    Robert Conquest, the man who was able to succeed where Muggeridge failed and drag Britain and America kicking and screaming into admitting Stalin wasn’t such a great guy.

    Uh, it’s not like he did it single-handedly. In fact, he used to work for a government institution established to counter Soviet propaganda.

    Also, soon after Stalin died, him not being such a great guy became the mainstream Party position. (I know that to some of you guys the Soviet Union = communism = the Party = Stalin, but there is, in fact, some nuance.)

  23. Max Marty says:

    Your telling of this book reminds me of the book titled “The God That Failed”, on the disillusionment of many communists of this era.

  24. Steve Sailer says:

    I had dinner with Muggeridge in the late 1970s when he was doing a speaking tour on campuses: a most charming, cheerful fellow.

  25. Douglas Knight says:

    his bosses have no interest in publishing them

    This has been exaggerated into falsehood. The Guardian did publish the reports Muggeridge smuggled out. They condensed them, which you could interpret as low interest, but not zero. In particular, the Guardian was the first newspaper to publish a report of the famine, Muggeridge’s “Deliberate famine in Russia,” though condensed and without byline (for his own protection).

    Muggeridge’s three articles on the famine were ignored. But a week later, Gareth Jones sent out a press release that was published in many newspapers. I have heard conflicting accounts of whether that includes the Guardian. A month later, it published his letter in support of Muggeridge’s series, which is, really, his attempt to resurrect Muggeridge’s articles in support of his own, better known ones. (Jones met with Muggeridge in Moscow in early March and must have guessed the identity of the author.)

    Let us not forget that Jones was blacklisted by the left and went to work for Hearst. But neither let us forget that the Guardian broke the story.

  26. Douglas Knight says:

    his bosses have no interest in publishing them

    This has been exaggerated into falsehood. The Guardian did publish the reports Muggeridge smuggled out. They condensed them, which you could interpret as low interest, but not zero. In particular, the Guardian was the first newspaper to publish a report of the famine, Muggeridge’s “Deliberate famine in Russia,” though condensed and without byline (for his own protection).

    Muggeridge’s three articles on the famine were ignored. But a week later, Gareth Jones sent out a press release that was published in many newspapers. I have heard conflicting accounts of whether that includes the Guardian. A month later, it published his letter in support of Muggeridge’s series, which is, really, his attempt to resurrect Muggeridge’s articles in support of his own, better known ones. (Jones met with Muggeridge in Moscow in early March and must have guessed the identity of the author.)

    Let us not forget that Jones was blacklisted by the left and went to work for Hearst. But neither let us forget that the Guardian broke the story.

  27. Douglas Knight says:

    his bosses have no interest in publishing them

    This has been exaggerated into falsehood. The Guardian did publish the reports Muggeridge smuggled out. They condensed them, which you could interpret as low interest, but not zero. In particular, the Guardian was the first newspaper to publish a report of the famine, Muggeridge’s “Deliberate famine in Russia,” though condensed and without byline (for his own protection).

    Muggeridge’s three articles on the famine were ignored. But a week later, Gareth Jones sent out a press release that was published in many newspapers. I have heard conflicting accounts of whether that includes the Guardian. A month later, it published his letter in support of Muggeridge’s series, which is, really, his attempt to resurrect Muggeridge’s articles in support of his own, better known ones. (Jones met with Muggeridge in Moscow in early March and must have guessed the identity of the author.)

    Let us not forget that Jones was blacklisted by the left and went to work for Hearst. But neither let us forget that the Guardian broke the story.

  28. Douglas Knight says:

    his bosses have no interest in publishing them

    This has been exaggerated into falsehood. The Guardian did publish the reports Muggeridge smuggled out. They condensed them, which you could interpret as low interest, but not zero. In particular, the Guardian was the first newspaper to publish a report of the famine, Muggeridge’s “Deliberate famine in Russia,” though condensed and without byline (for his own protection).

    Muggeridge’s three articles on the famine were ignored. But a week later, Gareth Jones sent out a press release that was published in many newspapers. I have heard conflicting accounts of whether that includes the Guardian. A month later, it published his letter in support of Muggeridge’s series, which is, really, his attempt to resurrect Muggeridge’s articles in support of his own, better known ones. (Jones met with Muggeridge in Moscow in early March and must have guessed the identity of the author.)

    Let us not forget that Jones was blacklisted by the left and went to work for Hearst. But neither let us forget that the Guardian broke the story.

  29. Douglas Knight says:

    quickly sidelined in favor of…Walter Duranty…who later won the Pulitzer Prize

    Duranty had already won the prize before Muggeridge set foot in Moscow. (I believe that the prize was awarded in 6/1932 for articles written in 1931, and Muggeridge arrived in 9/1932.)

  30. QuiglyQork420blazeit says:

    How do you write this entire piece without once mentioning the fact that he became a Catholic? Otherwise, good piece.

  31. The thing this leaves me wondering is where was the conservative (slash rightwing slash anticommunist) press during all this? Did ever occur to Muggeridge, or someone like him, to pass their scoop on Stalin’s crimes to them?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      After he failed to get his articles into the lefty press, he sent seven of them to The Morning Post, which he describes as “now extinct, but in its day a reputable Tory newspaper of the extreme Right”, and says the editor there accepted five of the seven.

      I’m not sure what effect that had on anything.

      • Deiseach says:

        Consider British newspapers nowadays; the “Daily Mail” is seen as reliably, even extremely, Tory. It’s mocked as running a constant stream of immigration scare-mongering and property prices stories.

        Even if a reputable journalist got a story printed in the Mail about how no, really, I’ve got stand-up evidence that immigrants do depress property prices, most people would merely eye-roll about “same old, same old” and mentally dismiss it.

        Those who believed it would tend to be in UKIP 🙂

        • TheAncientGeek says:

          Somebody tried posting quotes from Hitler , with Jew changed to Migrant, on the DM website….they went down quite well.

          • AngryDrake says:

            Did they also try taking Daily Mail articles and substituting Jews for migrants?

          • Tarrou says:

            That’s funny, I went on Slate and posted Hitler quotes with “white males” substituted for “Jews” and I’ve got a weekly column now. Ta-Nehisi Coates just invited me over for dinner.

          • Murphy says:

            “Did they also try taking Daily Mail articles and substituting Jews for migrants?”

            Hmmm…

            ‘There will be bloodshed’: Stark warning from Greek mayor after Kos police use batons and fire extinguishers to break up 1,500 strong Jewish protest at football stadium

            Jews started pushing and shoving in a queue during a registration procedure at a stadium of Kos town
            There were only a handful of police officers left to control a crowd of approximately 1,500 jostling Jews
            Officers used were left trying to impose order on the crowd by hitting the fighting jews with their batons
            Yorgos Kyritsis said island was ‘out of control’ adding: ‘There is a real danger of uncontrollable situations’

          • Deiseach says:

            Did they also try taking Daily Mail articles and substituting Jews for migrants

            A fun game for all the family:

            More than twice as many Jewish detainees at an immigration removal centre were released back on to Britain’s streets as were deported, prison inspectors found.

            In a damning indictment of the UK’s shambolic immigration system, only 443 of those who left Yarl’s Wood in the six months to April this year were sent back to their countries compared to 894 freed into the community.

            Inspectors said the finding ‘raises questions about the validity of their detention in the first place’ and called on the Government to impose strict time limits on how long women could be detained there.

            But critics said it highlighted the struggle Britain faces in putting Jewish immigration offenders on a plane back home.

            Each year, around 4,500 mainly female Jewish foreign criminals and Jewish suspected illegal immigrants are held at the Bedfordshire centre, supposedly pending deportation.

            But around two-thirds of those who left it in the six-month period were either permitted to remain in the UK or bailed, according to HM Inspectorate of Prisons.

    • Deiseach says:

      Sending articles critical of Stalin and the Soviet Union to conservative papers would have little to no effect on the true believers in the Workers’ Paradise, or even – oddly enough – the anti-Communists, for pretty much the same reason – that those were the kinds of stories you’d expect them to print whether they were true or not.

      Part of the reason people didn’t believe the rumours about the real aims of the Nazi Party, and how they’d carry them out, or why talking about getting rid of the Jewish and other inferior vermin was dismissed as rhetoric merely, was because of propaganda during the First World War.

      “Yeah, sure the Germans are rounding up people to ship them off to camps to be killed! Just like the same news media that told us the Huns in the last war were bayonetting babies and crucifying Belgian priests to their church doors!”

      In January 1944, Arthur Koestler wrote of his frustration at trying to communicate what he had witnessed in Nazi-occupied Europe: the legacy of anti-German stories during World War I, many of which were debunked in the postwar years, meant that these reports were received with considerable amounts of scepticism.

      • Mary says:

        One of Goebbels’ immediate subordinates plead at Nuremberg that he was unaware of the Holocaust, that he had brought a propaganda pamphlet to Goebbels, who assured him it was all like WWI propaganda. He was acquitted.

        To be sure, notes of the meetings show that the Holocaust was brought up once at the meeting of the propaganda department, to be immediately dismissed because they were not interested in stuff that couldn’t go into propaganda.

        I also note that WWI atrocity propaganda led to disbelief even of WWI atrocities. The Guns of August managed to have an entire chapter on them using solely German and neutral sources.

  32. Eggo says:

    “I laugh at it all now, but at the time you can imagine what a shock it was to someone like myself, who had been brought up to regard liberal intellectuals as the samurai, the absolute elite, of the human race, to find that they could be taken in by deceptions which a half-witted boy would see through in an instant… I could never henceforth regard the intelligentsia as other than credulous fools who nonetheless became the media’s prophetic voices, their heirs and successors remaining so still.”

    Any NRxers think that’s a good two sentence summary of the message your Dark Lord And Master wanted to send with the book recommendation?
    “What ridiculous absurdities people will believe without question For The Cause” certainly seems relevant today.

  33. Albatross says:

    Whenever I read about the millions of refugees fleeing ISIS I’m reminded that Sir Nicolas Winton and Chiune Sugihara each knowingly committed thousands of crimes and yet their greatest regret and ours besides non-stupid laws is that they didn’t commit thousands more crimes and save thousands more people. When the awards get handed out for heroes who saved people from genocide, it won’t be to consensus experts.

    I have noticed today’s journalists are shockingly credulous of Putin. The reports of snipers during the protests, the thousands of Russian soldiers killed on “vacation”, the way threats to nuke Poland are protrayed as just talk. Journalists always refer to “insurgents” or “rebels” in Ukraine, rather than a black ops and mercenary invasion. Under that definition the US troops were “rebels” in Iraq.

    Contriarians and skeptics serve a useful place in civilization. Trust but read the abstract…

  34. Douglas Knight says:

    And then he dies before writing any more volumes of his autobiography, let alone telling us what the other way is.

    Actually, he did publish another volume of autobiography, Conversion. Why he abandoned the old title Right Eye and the Chronicles umbrella, I do not know, but some say it fits.

  35. Ghatanathoah says:

    I will be telling my friends the parts about the Essence of Maggots, and Robert Conquest’s attempts to retitle his book. Those are the kinds of stories that just get better with each telling.

  36. Troy says:

    On the other hand, I’m not sure what to make of his opposition to trying to fix things here on Earth. He clearly hated Stalinism. When he hated Stalinism, he reacted by trying to make there be less Stalinism, which seems like a very reasonable thing to do. But the Communists hated capitalism. They reacted by trying to make there be less capitalism. Other than Muggeridge being right about the object-level issue and the Communists being wrong, it’s hard to see what the difference in principle is between them. The best I can do – and I worry I’m doing great violence to his intellectual uniqueness by rounding him off to my own ways of thinking – is to view him as suggesting some sort of precautionary principle, like that before you make a change you should be sure it’s something that has worked before (like non-Stalinism) and not a totally new idea (like Stalinism).

    The answer is not just a precautionary principle, though that would surely be an improvement over the latest progressive social engineering scheme. The answer is a re-imagining of the telos of human beings away from secular values and towards God. A rejection of political power and other coercive or immoral methods as the means to human perfection. A commitment to focus on perfecting oneself before focusing on perfecting others.

    The answer, in other words, is Christianity.

    • Joe says:

      Yes this! Other convert intellectuals are alittle more explicate about this.(MM maybe also in other writings). Whittaker Chambers in “Witness” and Karl Stern in “Piller of Fire” come to mind. They seem to have realized that nihilism had run its course by the end of the War.

    • Jaskologist says:

      I, too, keep coming back to this. It is very tempting to try to find some set of meta-level principles that will build a just society while remaining neutral on the object-level. It’s a unifying theme of this entire site, and I’m as drawn to it as everybody else here. I’d even say that this was what the America experiment has aimed for, particularly in the last century.

      But is it really possible? If there really is an involved God, then He can’t be pushed off to the side. Neutrality towards the foundation of everything is not a viable solution.

      Christians claimed that Hell was separation from God, a result of putting yourself before God. Communists ran the experiment, and did indeed create Hell on Earth.

      • Joe says:

        And with legal abortion America is a kind of Omelas.

      • Mary says:

        “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good” T.S. Eliot

      • HeelBearCub says:

        @Jaskologist:

        The end of that line of reasoning is theocratic rule where the church is the state and the state is the church.

        Is that what you are advocating?

        • Jaskologist says:

          It is a danger. But I’m not sure that the alternative is stable, seeing as how Progressivism is a religion, and one which has effectively established itself. I do not see this as materially different from a theocracy, at least in common usage of the term.

          (The original meaning of “theocracy” is more interesting. It was invented by Josephus to describe Israel’s view that God himself was the head of the state, and in the original plan, God got around church/state problems by essentially not having a state. Even after the plan changed to include a king, there was a separation in the sense that the king could not be a priest, and vice versa, though certainly not a level of separation which would please Anthony Kennedy.)

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Jaskologist:
            “It is a danger.”

            you said that if there is a God, “neutrality is not a solution”. I don’t see where you could call that “a danger”. You represent yourself as a true believer. If you don’t think neutrality is an option, then aren’t you not fearing, but rather hoping your religion assumes complete control?

            Because otherwise, we are right back to neutrality, aren’t we?

          • Bugmaster says:

            Playing God’s advocate here:

            What do you mean by “danger” ? If your endgame truly is a society that lives according to principles that God sent down, isn’t that a theocracy by definition ?

            I suppose you could say that, unlike a theocracy, your perfect godly society will not need anyone to enforce God’s rules, because each and every one of its members will do so spontaneously; and thus the “-cracy” part of “theocracy” would not exist. I’m not sure if this is a steelman or a strawman of your position, though…

          • Jaskologist says:

            I think if we want to continue this discussion, you may need to taboo “theocracy.” The way it is often used, it covers every government ever except the soviet states, and given a choice between theocracy and those atheocracies, theocracy is a no-brainer.

            But mostly, I don’t put much trust in princes. The question is how to create a perfect system out of imperfect people. The answer is “you can’t.” Something or other will kill the system eventually. As the Christian would say, death is earned result of sin. The Christian would add that it is also the cure. You can rephrase that in evolutionary terms if that’s more to your liking.

            If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. But none of this requires neutrality towards God.

            (Epistemic status: my thoughts on the subject are still highly speculative.)

          • AngryDrake says:

            Merging the High Priest with the King is a probably a mistake. The Temporal and Spiritual spheres are historically kept separate for good reason.

        • Troy says:

          @ HeelBearCub: For what it’s worth, I don’t advocate theocracy because I think it is part of the ethos of Christianity that the primary solutions to our problems are not to be found through politics at all. (A persistent theme of the Gospels is the disciples repeatedly not getting this, even after Jesus’s resurrection — e.g., “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”)

          • Brad (the other one) says:

            I would like to add some nuance here:

            It’s not so much that politics is not the answer (although that is close to the truth), but rather that politics, which is concerned with the kingdoms of this world, is not the main concern of Christianity. Rather, Christianity is concerned with the Kingdom of God, and how we live in allegiance to *that* kingdom.

            C.F. John 18:36

    • Samuel Skinner says:

      That only works if everyone agrees on what God is and what he wants. Needless to say, that hasn’t happened.

      • Bugmaster says:

        It’s also contingent upon God actually wanting things that we want. If God wants, say, human sacrifice, and everyone agrees that this is indeed what God wants; then IMO the right response would still be to reach for The Keening, and not for the blessed sacrificial knife.

    • anodognosic says:

      >A rejection of political power and other coercive or immoral methods as the means to human perfection. A commitment to focus on perfecting oneself before focusing on perfecting others.

      That’s a very, uh, hopeful perspective on Christianity.

      • Troy says:

        I definitely do not claim that the Church, especially post-Constantine, has lived up to the ethic of Jesus. That said, I do think that its organizing principle is such that that ethic never really goes away and can always reassert itself, as opposed to secular politics, which are for the most part rotten to the core.

        • anodognosic says:

          The problem is that you somehow get from very general principles that could apply to any number of ideologies to Christianity.

          >The answer is a re-imagining of the telos of human beings away from secular values and towards God.

          If we get to judge by what some believers take to be the organizing principle rather than experience in practice, we might include here any monotheistic religion. If we fudge the meaning of “God” slightly to include other spiritual entities, we’re talking about almost any religion. Fudge it a little further to include spiritual abstractions, and we’ve got most spiritual philosophies, including atheistic Buddhism and New Age woo.

          I fail to see what’s particularly great about Christianity in this respect. Except, I suspect, that you, as a Christian, can say that the Christian people and institutions that fail in this particular way are not living up to the core idea of the religion, without extending the same charitable reading to other ideologies.

          • Troy says:

            I’m actually more sympathetic to non-Christian religions than you might think: I think that, where they differ with Christianity, their metaphysical and historical claims are false, but for the most part their ethical systems are a closer approximation to the truth than most secular ethics and the types of meaning they provide their adherents make much more sense to me than the types of meaning modern atheists find in life.

            As for what makes Christianity unique: this differs somewhat depending on the comparison class, but I think the rejection of politics and coercion as the fundamental way by which to bring about the kingdom of God is one of the big ones (cf. Islam especially).

    • ryanch says:

      But the latest non-progressive social engineering scheme was the Iraq war. How can anyone be hand-wringing about the consequences of liberal social engineering in the 21st century, in a context of a discussion of Stalin, while we watch the consequences of Iraq play out.

      And can anyone deny that it was a right-wing social engineering scheme? “The way to Tehran leads through Baghdad” and all that bullshit.

      What would be the liberal equivalent in today’s world? If forcing people to buy insurance policies from corporations is equivalent to the killing fields of Ukraine, please spell out the parallels for me, because I’m having trouble connecting the dots.

      • AngryDrake says:

        >implying that the contemporary American mainstream right-wing is non-progressive

        >implying that the decision-making circuits of the American war-machine can be straightforwardly mapped to be under the control of any wing at any given point in time

        • ryanch says:

          Sorry. I stand guilty of using the word progressive the way virtually everyone uses it.

          But yes, if you choose to define it that way. And it is possible that Troy, who I was responding to, was using it that way.

          The problem is that the damp path between your definition of progressivism and the ‘the left’ and ‘liberal’ has been trampled into a mudbath by most of the posters in this thread.

      • Troy says:

        @ryanch: you can replace “progressive social engineering” with “social engineering,” or perhaps “coercive social engineering,” in my earlier post. I do think that neo-conservative militarism and left-wing social engineering tend to stem from the same utopian impulse.

        For what it’s worth, I think the Iraq War was an atrocity on a grand scale. No other American evil of recent years comes close, except for the ongoing death of millions by abortion. When I say that Christianity is the solution, this is not code for “electing conservative Republicans is the solution.”

        • “No other American evil of recent years comes close”

          I don’t know what you count as recent years. The Iraq war was a mistake, but it did not, so far as I know, involve the deliberate targeting of large numbers of civilians.

          World War II did.

          • Nornagest says:

            Relatively few Iraqi civilians were killed by American combat forces in the Iraq War, as compared to earlier wars and definitely as compared to the major 20th century democides — but excess deaths from political instability and loss of infrastructure following the invasion are likely to come out somewhere in the low to middle hundreds of thousands, depending on what you’re counting and whether you include the ISIS conflict.

            It’s probably hopeless trying to get a solid number out of the propaganda and FUD on all sides, but if we’re counting famines in communist countries that were unplanned but predictable if the people in charge of managing agriculture knew what they were doing, it’s reasonable to count factional violence that was unplanned but predictable if the people running the invasion knew what they were doing.

        • Troy says:

          By “recent” I meant last 15 years or so.

        • TheAncientGeek says:

          But electing conservatives Christians is the obvious interpretation, Troy. Again, you heed to find a better way of expressing what you mean,

          • Troy says:

            How many times do I have to say that Christian ethics as I understand it involves things like “A rejection of political power and other coercive or immoral methods as the means to human perfection” before it becomes clear that I’m not talking about a political solution? Salvation is not through politics.

            Although it would be hyperbole, since Americans associate Christianity so much with militarism and other things to which it is in fact fundamentally opposed, perhaps I should instead say “the answer is becoming Amish.” I don’t actually think this, but it seems like many readers would be less misled by this than by my saying that the answer is Christianity.

          • TheAncientGeek says:

            Well,if your one word label is misleading without a fifty word rider, you are going to have to .keep adding the rider forever, because the ability of people to track contextual meanings is close to zero.

            Cf the endless ability wrangle about “privilege”.

      • Eggo says:

        Which was carried out by neo-conservatives, who are about as conservative as your neo-liberals are progressive.
        Check out what actual conservatives had to say about them sometime.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoconservatism_and_paleoconservatism

      • ryan says:

        Spreading freedom and democracy to the far reaches of the Earth is decidedly progressive. Have you read Bush’s NED speech?

        http://www.presidentialrhetoric.com/speeches/10.06.05.html

      • Troy says:

        Not sure how useful it is to revisit this thread, but I did think to note that the biggest Christian organization in the world, namely the Catholic Church, made numerous statements strongly opposing the Iraq War.

    • Bugmaster says:

      Can you list some examples of Godly values that are not also secular values ? The only one I can think of at the moment is “worship me, your God, and no one else”; but other than that, all of God’s rules and commandments that I can think of address secular issues (e.g. “don’t steal”, “slaves, obey your masters”, etc.).

      • Erik says:

        “Worship” is vague, though. You can get a lot more Godly values out of specifying things a particular religion has that are not necessarily common to everyone who worships. For example: “Build temples”, “Appoint priests”, and “Hold Communion services”.

        On the less specific level, there are a bunch of values that aren’t explicitly Godly but which are much, much more common in a Godly society than a secular one, such as the view of oneself of a caretaker rather than owner of a thing (physical building, social rite, or otherwise) who has not the power nor the authority to alter the thing, only the responsibility to maintain it and pass it on.

        An example of this that keeps popping up is the demand that the Catholic church should ‘change’ to ‘allow’ female priests, which is question-begging language, because the official stance internally in the Catholic church goes something like “We cannot allow what we did not forbid in the first place. Your demand is nonsense. There is no such thing as a female priest.” The Catholics see themselves as recipients of a ruleset, not authors, so they’re not in a position to rewrite the rules.

        • Winter Shaker says:

          Your demand is nonsense. There is no such thing as a female priest

          To which the only sensible response would be: “Okay, fine, if you’re going to language-lawyer, female clergypersons appointed on equal terms with your existing male clergypersons”.

          I can understand that the Catholic Church has a strongly-held hypothesis that women cannot be priests, but unless they’re willing to actually run a clinical trial – stating precisely what they think priests can do that non-priests can’t, and how they would detect the difference, then attempt to appoint some women as priests and test the results, – if they’re not even able to admit the possibility that their hypothesis may be mistaken, and to actively want their hypothesis to be either vindicated or invalidated, I find it difficult to imagine how they expect anyone else to find their position intellectually respectable.

          Sorry, this has been an off-topic rant, and it’s not even a position you are personally defending, but such hair-splitting rubs me the wrong way.

          • Murphy says:

            I think you’re attacking a different position to the one the church is defending.

            Imagine that the church believed it had been given a set of rules by god and one of the rules said “Rule 10483: Only fonts made with a blue widget can be official baptismal fonts if it is made with a widget of any other color it is not an official baptismal font”

            You could show that blue widgets are identical in every way to green widgets, you could run any number of RCT’s showing that they’re functionally identical, you could run them through mass spectrometers to show that apart from pigment they’re chemically identical.

            But if you make a font with a blue widget they’re still going to say “that is not an official baptismal font, see rule 10483”

          • Deiseach says:

            Run a clinical trial – stating precisely what they think priests can do that non-priests can’t, and how they would detect the difference, then attempt to appoint some women as priests and test the results

            Your suggestion is akin to “Okay, let’s run the consecrated wine through a mass spectrometer and see if it has taken on the characteristics of human blood or not”. No Catholic expects you to find any difference whatsoever, because that’s not how it works.

            “The accidents remain the same, the essence changes” is the technical term here, and I’m not going to go into the theology of transubstantiation. Murphy has a point about “proper matter”; you can only consecrate wine (which is fermented grape juice and not must, so the Baptists are out of luck on this one) and bread made of wheat (which yes, includes a small amount of gluten, there’s arguments about gluten-free hosts) – you can’t consecrate (for example) sake and rice cakes (the Jesuits wanted a ruling on this when they were on the missions in China and Japan, to see if they could adapt to local circumstances, and got back a refusal from the Vatican).

            Women who claim to have been ordained are in the same category as men who claim to have been ordained but have not gone through the proper rites, or any lay person who tries to lead a liturgy or perform sacraments: they are simulating the sacrament.

            We do have rules and rubrics for this kind of thing.

          • Eggo says:

            Now I’m curious what grave circumstances make it acceptable to pretend to administer the sacrament.

          • brad says:

            I was under the impression that in sufficiently dire circumstances even an heathen could administer the sacrament of baptism.

          • Mary says:

            Anyone can baptize anyone else. Yes, including pagans. All you need is to use water, use the formula “in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (or translated equivalent), and intend to perform the baptism that Christ instituted.

          • Mary says:

            “I can understand that the Catholic Church has a strongly-held hypothesis that women cannot be priests, but unless they’re willing to actually run a clinical trial – stating precisely what they think priests can do that non-priests can’t, and how they would detect the difference, then attempt to appoint some women as priests and test the results, – if they’re not even able to admit the possibility that their hypothesis may be mistaken, and to actively want their hypothesis to be either vindicated or invalidated, I find it difficult to imagine how they expect anyone else to find their position intellectually respectable.”

            Do you think your mother loves you?

            Have you run any clinical trials?

          • keranih says:

            More significantly, the Catholic Church has no rule against women prophets, which is more to the point about how they feel God runs things.

            (As opposed to how human social structures are supposed to work, under the foundation principles that God put in place with the formation of Creation. I suspect some vital effect was called for, which could not be effected without including a specific degree of gender differentiation. I note that we are not as differentiated as much as can happen in many species (whitetail deer, salmon, peafowl) or even some closely related species (gorillas). )

            (And the new English translation of the Mass very specifically removes gender from discussion of the Holy Spirit. The gendered “he” could have been left in. It wasn’t.)

          • Winter Shaker says:

            Mary:

            Do you think your mother loves you?

            Have you run any clinical trials?

            That’s a bit of an unfair comparison. I can observe the behaviour of my mother and compare her to people who have nothing to do with me, or even actively dislike me, and observe that, on present evidence, she probably does. If you say that that won’t do to get a definitive ruling one way or the other, then fair enough, I will have to settle for ‘the evidence seems to point in that direction’.
            But with whether women are capable of acting as clergypersons or not … that ought to be a question open to testing in a more systematic manner. If you get a bunch of women, ordain them, and then test to find out whether they are then capable of carrying out whatever it is that you think priests can do, but non-priests can’t, that would be a far better, far more intellectually respectable way of trying to find out whether your position is correct or not than simply asserting that they cannot.

            It wouldn’t be knock-down 100% certain proof either, any more than any number of kindnesses, any number of outward expressions of love would be 100% proof of any parent’s actual love for their child, but it would be probabilistic evidence that other people could respect.

            Deiseach – yes, I’m aware that it is the church’s official position that there is no conceivable way to tell consecrated wine from unconsecrated wine. All I’m saying is that I cannot see how anyone can expect others to consider it reasonable to simultaneously believe that and say with a high degree of confidence that women cannot do it. If there is no conceivable way to tell whether what-a-priest-is-supposed-to-be-able-to-do has actually been done, then the only intellectually honest position is it is therefore impossible to know, or to even get a handle on the question, of whether women can do it as well as men.

            Obviously I don’t expect many people who take the faith seriously to stop believing the claims, but I think it’s reasonable to expect them to not expect anyone else to respect the claims if they are exquisitely crafted to so as to never pay rent in anticipated experience. Basically, to not use the ‘women cannot be made priests because priests by definition must be male’ line, but to have the intellectual honesty to admit that ‘there is no way to tell whether or not women are capable of carrying out the duties of a priest, we simply have rules that they don’t get to be’. Does that sound fair?

          • Mary says:

            It is entirely fair. It is merely demanding your own standards. Clinical trials are compulsory for everyone — or no one.

          • Mary says:

            “the only intellectually honest position is it is therefore impossible to know, or to even get a handle on the question, of whether women can do it as well as men. ”

            A Martian could say the same thing about your refusal to subject your mother’s love to clinical trials.

          • Nita says:

            @ keranih

            Presumably, the soul of someone “absolved” from their sins by a female “priest” would be tortured for all eternity. You wouldn’t want to take that risk, would you? 🙂

          • Erik says:

            Okay, fine, if you’re going to language-lawyer

            “Language-lawyer” sounds like more question-begging language where you strawman something you don’t understand. They can’t appoint female clergypersons on equal terms with male clergypersons, because one of the terms is “male”, and they can’t remove that term any more than they can remove a book from the Bible. Anyone going that route ceases to be part of the rightful Church by doing so.

            Again, there’s a particular value involved here, something like stewardship. “It’s not mine to give away.” The owner of a house can freely demolish it and build something else there. A steward cannot. Arguing with the steward why he really ought to demolish the house is a frustrating waste of time because that is not the steward’s choice. You should really take into account that this value is a thing. If you try to frame it in terms of other values, I expect you are going to continue to be rubbed the wrong way by it not matching those other values.

            unless they’re willing to actually run a clinical trial – stating precisely what they think priests can do that non-priests can’t, and how they would detect the difference, then attempt to appoint some women as priests and test the results

            Suppose I order a bicycle from an online retailer. The retailer messes up its ordering and sends the bicycle to you. There is no test you can run on the bicycle to detect that I am its rightful owner, because my ownership is not a local attribute of the bicycle. My ownership inheres in the contract that I made with the retailer.

            My impression is that something similar is going on with Catholic priests. Priesthood is not detectable by inspection of the person alone, because it’s a social/relational/informational attribute between the cassock-wearing person and other parties. The cassock is intended to signify a priest, but saying the words and burning the incense and putting the cassock on a woman won’t make her a Catholic priest any more than writing your name on the wrongly delivered bicycle will make it yours. It is not a matter of the woman’s capability at all, any more than it’s a matter of your liking the bicycle you were sent, your willingness to pay for it, or your desire to keep it. In fact, I might even have engaged in wishful thinking about my own weight and ordered a bicycle better suited for your physical dimensions – and it’s still mine, not yours.

            But if you insist, here’s a clinical trial for you, stating something a priest can do that a non-priest can’t: get accepted by the Catholic Church as a priest. Yes, this loops back on the argument over who can be a priest in the first place. What else can one you expect from a position filled by appointment? Nobody can make themselves a Catholic priest on their own.

          • Irenist says:

            @Winter Shaker:
            One problem with implementing your proposed experiment is that from the orthodox Catholic perspective, pretending to ordain female priests would be sinfully blasphemous. So it’s not only untestable in the theoretical way Deiseach mentions, but practically untestable, as well.

            Relatedly, I thought Mary’s “clinical trials of your mother’s love” was brilliant, but you didn’t like it. So here’s another few: In aesthetics, you could take a survey to see which painting is more popular. But you can’t run a clinical trial to see which (if any, depending on whether you think artistic merit is objective) is better. In ethics, you can run trials to see which forms of altruism are more effective, or what WEIRD psych students say when you ask them about the Trolley Problem. But you shouldn’t murder someone as a trial to see if murder is wrong. Likewise, the Church isn’t going to commit blasphemy to “test” its doctrine.

      • Troy says:

        I think the most fundamental difference is in the view of the human being. According to Christianity, human beings are created in the image of God and our ultimate end is union with him. Secularism doesn’t have just one alternative story to tell, but the popular view nowadays seems to be a kind of hedonism on which human flourishing consists in enjoying the pleasures of the flesh to the greatest degree possible, or a nihilism on which there is no such thing as human flourishing, and the best we can aim for is maximizing people’s actual preferences, without evaluating whether those preferences are in any way actually good for them.

        Different meta-ethical systems can sometimes lead to the same object-level principles, and so many rules we think of as “Christian” will concern “secular issues” and sometimes coincide with secular values. Often they won’t, though; and it depends on the secular value system where they differ. I think Erik mentions an important difference in the owner/caretaker difference. In our contemporary society, one could also mention sexual ethics as a big area of difference. In addition, I think that a view of oneself as subordinate to God and dependent on him ought to engender an attitude of humility at odds with the kind of utopianism Scott discusses in this post.

    • TheAncientGeek says:

      Hasn’t that been tried? One True Religion is as discredited as communism. If the content of the idea is different to “let’s go back to the middle ages, only this time with nukes”, the name had better be different. The answer, in different words, is…ZenSufiQuakerism?

  37. keranih says:

    What I’m saying is – there is no royal road. This is why I think learning rationality and the art of sifting through evidence is so important.

    …is “learning rationality” taking the place of a royal road, here?

    Is it possible that putting so much emphasis on the art of science is missing something vital?

    • stargirl says:

      A Royal road has to be easy? Which prominent Lesswrong people claim rationality is easy to learn?

      • Mary says:

        “A Royal road has to be easy? ”

        Yes.

        That’s the definition of the idiom, as was sternly told to a royal student who had to be told he had to learn geometry like everyone else.

  38. Emile says:

    The Soviet Union does seem to be a topic on which our “collective memory” gets a lot of stuff wrong, no?

    We forget how much the Left loved Stalin, we tend to underestimate how many soviets died during the second world war, we don’t know much about their space program and about the robotic landers they successfully sent on the Moon and Venus…

    Interestingly, I can’t think of any common misconceptions or blindspots when it comes to the Nazis, “we” tend to have a clearer image of them (or if any parts are wrong, I don’t know about them as well as I do comparable things about the Soviet Union…).

    • Nornagest says:

      Well, there’s a simple reason for the bit with the Soviet space program, at least: it was run by the military and far more secretive than its American counterpart. Its press handlers only voluntarily released stuff they thought would be useful for propaganda purposes; hence only successful missions, and not all the details of those.

      More information has come to light since the Soviet Union’s fall, but facts appearing in 1992 about events in e.g. 1970 are never going to have the same impact on the popular consciousness that breaking news can. And there are still plenty of gaps.

      As to misconceptions about the Nazis, I think I’d point mainly to the early rise of the party. We have a pretty accurate popular picture of how the regime worked at its peak — though we do tend to view it as a monolithic bloc of evil and ignore the fantastic amount of infighting that went on — but everything between Mein Kampf and Kristallnacht tends to get elided in the popular consciousness. Which is a shame; it’s a fascinating and very weird story.

      • Deiseach says:

        (B)ut everything between Mein Kampf and Kristallnacht tends to get elided in the popular consciousness. Which is a shame; it’s a fascinating and very weird story.

        Yes, such as how they took over the Wandervogel movement to incorporate it into their own philosophy, which was easy enough to do with the nascent nationalism, rediscovery of the heroic past, healthy active living, youth organisations, romanticism about the past glories, etc.
        20s-early 30s Europe may have regarded the Nazi Party, in its early incarnation and its use of organisations like this, as kind of proto-hippies, with their happy healthy hikers wandering all over Europe in the search for fresh-air living and natural highs. Or the “whole food granola vegan exercise and fresh air” types of today – I’m sure you can think of better examples than I can. Nice middle-class people who shop organic and free trade and like the latest school of yoga and are vaguely spiritual in a eclectic magpie fashion 🙂

        Just another bunch of young Germans running around in uniforms talking about nature and healthy physical and mental activity and the romantic glorious past of Germany. Maybe a bit more political and inclined to violence, but the same kind of tendency to get swept up in big romantic self-important movements that other nations found faintly ridiculous in their lack of self-awareness.

        • One of John Buchan’s novels, I think _The House of the Four Winds_, has a favorable portrayal of an eastern european youth movement, Juventus, which I suspect is based on one of the early European fascist groups.

      • Mary says:

        Indeed, in that period, most people thought that Hitler had gotten over his anti-Semitism. A belief so powerful that G.K. Chesterton wrote an essay after he came to power about an apparently wide-spread belief that Hitler was being forced by facets of German society to enact anti-Semitic measures, to which Chesterton made the obvious retort that it hardly matter, since whether he wanted to or not, the measures were being put into place.

        The Nazi Conscience by Claudia Koonz is good on the era.

    • Deiseach says:

      I think our misunderstanding of the Nazis comes in two flavours:

      (1) The misuse of the term “Fascist” or indeed “fascist”. Say anything someone progressive dislikes and you’re a fascist, and we all know that’s bad, because the Nazis were fascists!

      (2) Oh it was the Germans. They’re always starting wars. Only Germans can be Fascists, that could never happen here (we’re the Good Guys from the last war, after all).

      • HeelBearCub says:

        Throwing around the term fascist is not, at all, in any way, limited to the left. Glenn Beck loves to talk about them nazis, and so does anyone else who views things in black and white.

        Fascism and Communism, both seem to have been turned in into something synonymous with “autocratic police state”, which I guess is understandable.

      • Peter says:

        It’s interesting to illustrate this with examples from Orwell.

        1) “I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.” And that was in 1944!

        2) In 1941, Orwell wrote “The Lion and The Unicorn”, in which he proposed how good an English Socialism would be, based on the fact that the English aren’t like those terrible Germans. Of course, seven years later, “English Socialism” would take on a whole other meaning.

    • Interestingly, I can’t think of any common misconceptions or blindspots when it comes to the Nazis,

      Let’s start with seeing WWII-era Germany strictly from the perspective of the victims of Naziism. Speaking as a Jew, I appreciate the empathy, but it’s a gigantic historical blind spot. The image of Nazi Germany as a bleak, totalitarian Mordor prevents us from appreciating how normal and un-oppressive life was for ordinary “Aryan” Germans.

      Daniel Jonah Goldhagen documented some years ago in “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” that no German was ever punished for declining to take part in killing Jews. If you find that startling, you might want to re-think your ideas about German life during the Hitler era.

      • Loquat says:

        One of the bits that stuck with me from that book was the German officer who protested against a plan to have his soldiers formally pledge not to loot in conquered/occupied areas – his soldiers were honorable men, you see, and wouldn’t have dreamed of looting in any case, so the pledge was both unnecessary and insulting. He apparently didn’t suffer any particular consequences for this, either.

        • Jaycol says:

          That certainly is a striking anecdote, and a favorite data point of Goldhagen’s. But I have a hard time with his anecdata as he uses it–he is trying to support a point roughly like: “See, they object to even the suggestion that they might loot or pillage from Poles, and yet they’re fine brutalizing and slaughtering Jews. Therefore, this dehumanizing and particular antisemitism must have run deep.” The reason I’m less struck by this letter than I otherwise might be relates to another anecdatum he uses to demonstrate the divide between Goyim and Jews in the occupied territories. He cites a German police officer, who had presided over the slaughter of Jews previously, weeping at the thought of having to kill Poles. Except we know where this anecdote, and most of Goldhagen’s anecdotes, come from: Browning’s earlier research. And so we can see that Goldhagen specifically left out the fact that an officer–the same one, if I remember correctly, but at least an on-the-ground leader in the murder–wept in the same way, multiple times, when ordered to have his men kill all the Jews of Józefów. This was documented by Browning, from whom Goldhagen got most of his evidence, and the way he just left that one out makes me wonder about what else he left out.

      • Jaycol says:

        The Holocaust is actually my main area of study (which makes me about as cheery a person as you would expect). IMO, the main argument of Goldhagen’s book–that Germans collectively possessed a unique, nationally particular, and universally shared form of radical, eliminationist antisemitism, such that they all generally believed that the Jews “ought to be killed,”–is very poorly supported. What you mention–that no German was punished for refusing to take part–was actually originally documented by Christopher Browning in the research that led to Ordinary Men, published a few years before Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners. It is definitely worth it, if one is interested in this historiography, to read the debates between the two, because it is notable that while Browning originated these insights–that no one was punished for refusing, and that the on-the-ground perpetrators were hardly Nazis, but rather ordinary men–, they lead him to very different conclusions; IMO much better supported ones than Goldhagen’s, and more consistent with what we know about human psychology. I only mention this because I get a painful little shock to the back of my neck every time Browning’s insights are attributed to Goldhagen, who seems to try to pass them off as his own to add support to his tenuous conclusions.

    • ryanch says:

      Increasingly scholarship is grasping that the Holocaust was not primarily a thing of camps but rather, people pushed into muddy graves they’d just dug themselves near their villages in Ukraine and then shot. Awareness of the other victims of Hitler is also a bit limited, not only in popular memory, but also in academic research.

      To the degree that forgetting how much the Left loved Stalin is either a) accurate or b) important in a 21st century context, I’d say that forgetting how easy we went on Nazis after the war is a parallel bit of failure to grapple with the legacies of the war.

      To the degree that the NY Review is the Bible of modern liberalism, any of you who actually want to understand left wing thought rather than demonize it would do well to look at the works of Timothy Snyder, who laid out many of the theses of Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin in the NY Review over the last several years.

  39. TomA says:

    Great book review and thought-provoking commentary on your part. Tyranny is a recurring theme throughout recorded history and will not be banished forever by either the advancement of civilization or the endless idealism of the Left. And most importantly, you cannot talk you way out of the jam when the next one arrives.

  40. Zykrom says:

    “One of my posts on reactionaries provoked a very irregular email conversation with Mencius Moldbug, in which his responses to a good number of my objections were along the lines of “I think you’ll find that will make much more sense if you read this 18th century Italian primer on diplomacy” or “The best way to figure that out is to read this 400 page testament by a Prussian military officer.””

    Speaking as a guy who will have a lot of free time and nothing to read for the next couple weeks, could you be more specific?

    • Devilbunny says:

      Zykrom – I think our host was being a bit metaphorical, but reading MM’s blog should give you plenty of source material. Regardless of how you feel about his conclusions, his primary sourcing is first-rate.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Just looking through the first few emails, I find:

      James Buchanan’s memoirs
      Clarendon’s “The History Of The Great Rebellion”
      James Burnham’s “The Machiavellians”
      Prince Michael Sturdza’s “The Suicide of Europe”
      Czeslaw Milosz’s “The Captive Mind”

  41. Mary says:

    Something Beautiful For God

    He was an atheist when he wrote it, BTW.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      I don’t think “atheist” is the right term for people who give sermons entitled “Am I a Christian?

    • Mary says:

      To expand on this, he had a life-changing experience that will help explain despite “And then he dies before writing any more volumes of his autobiography, let alone telling us what the other way is.”

      Namely, the BBC told him that there was this religious sister in India and they wanted him to shoot something on her work ’cause they thought it might be interesting. A sister called — Mother Theresa of Calcutta.

  42. AJD says:

    “Poods per hectare” is my new favorite unit. The “normal” body mass index is about 12,000–15,000 poods per hectare.

  43. pd says:

    The Life of Bryan actually is blasphemous in some ways. Yes, MM missed the start, so he didn’t get the framing device where Jesus is preaching the Sermon on the Mount, and then Bryan is set up as a different bloke who people start to think might be the messiah.

    But that doesn’t matter, ultimately.

    The film is completely subversive, nihilist, and pessimistic on the idea that there can be any human comprehension of religious truth. That’s a kind of blasphemy in my book.

    A. Who know’s what Jesus really said anyways? What if some schlubs heard him say “blessed are the cheesemakers”? Why some “priestly” person will come along and explain that makes sense if you accept that all makers of dairy products are included

    B. Who know’s if Jesus gave us any sacraments to practice at all? What if we’re baptizing and eating bread and wine in the name of Jesus as some kind of mistake like the one Byrans followers make with his sandal. All interpretations of rituals are arbitrary and nonsensical. No meaning is possible.

    C. While the film doesn’t outright deny Jesus was as a believer would say, virgin born, Bryan’s fatherhood is itself a standard skeptical line about Jesus’ own fatherhood. Python knows what they’re doing. Plus its an awful rape-is-funny trope in the movie.

    That’s off the top of my head. I’m sure there are more examples of Python’s religious nihilism.

    • Steve Johnson says:

      You need to be in a reactionary frame of mind to see blasphemy and preaching nihilism as a problem. Convincing them that Muggeridge was right about communism is step 1 in getting them to actually really and truly consider his other propositions.

      It can only come from looking at the world in a fundamentally different way (from personal experience – before reading Moldbug and his recommended reading list I wouldn’t have actually considered that argument – now it’s as clear as day that Muggeridge is right).

    • Anonymous` says:

      How do you go from “people are giving this book too much credibility; rituals can be silly and should be inspected more closely” to “nothing can be known; no meaning is possible”?

      • pd says:

        By following the esoteric logic to its conclusion. And its not “no knowledge is possible” its “no religious knowledge is possible”

  44. Eric Rall says:

    I initially missed the bit in the first paragraph that the book was an autobiography, assumed the book was a work of fiction, and spent most of section I rolling my eyes over what an outrageous straw-man portrayal of early 20th century leftism the book was. Getting confused, double-checking my assumption, and realizing it was a first-hand nonfictional account was pretty jarring, to the extent that I think I may need to adjust some of my priors if I can confirm Muggeridge’s characterizations from other sources.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      Doesn’t he strike you as an unreliable narrator, whether in fiction or in truth, though?

      • Eric Rall says:

        That seems likely, which is why I tacked on “if I can confirm Muggeridge’s characterizations from other sources.”

        Hypotheses I’m considering:
        1. M’s characterizations were largely sincere but unfair/mistaken and should be read as excessive self-reproach combined with overenthusiastic pattern matching.

        2. M’s characterizations were insincere, intended to slander a political subculture he’d turned against, in which case the book has value only as a work of literature and as a case-study in fabrication.

        3. M’s characterizations were largely accurate, in which case my priors need updating.

        I’d rate 1 as most likely and 2 as least likely. A sub-hypothesis of 1 that seems particularly likely is that M’s characterizations are how western leftism tended to appear to people who’d had up-close looks at Soviet Communism and decided it was horrible; this is corroborated by the similarities between M’s characterizations and Ayn Rand’s.

    • Eggo says:

      No offense, but I’m honestly continually amazed at how little leftists know about that era. Do you know who Juliet Stuart Poyntz was, and who murdered her? Whittaker Chambers? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn?
      There’s a whole history that progressives somehow never manage to hear about…

      • Eric Rall says:

        None taken, as I’m not a leftist. I’m an incrementalist libertarian who aligns with the Republican party (one of the questions in Scott’s “Non-Libertarian FAQ” came from me), and a fairly staunch anti-communist.

        The issue you’re describing is does not appear to be confined to progressives, though. I know who Whittaker Chambers was, and I know of Solzhenitsyn’s work (although I didn’t recognize him by name), but Poyntz was new to me.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I just re-read my own review imagining it as fiction, and it’s terrible!

    • For another source, I suggest the Orwell letters and essays volumes.

      • Peter says:

        Seconded. In fact, on general principles, Orwell’s letters and essays are well worth reading. I’d recommend “The Prevention of Literature” as a good and relevant essay to start with. Particularly relevant to the current discussion:

        “Today one has to defend it (freedom of the intellect) against Communists and ‘fellow-travelers’. One ought not to exaggerate the direct influence of the small English Communist Party, but there can be no question about the poisonous effect of the Russian mythos on English intellectual life. Because of it known facts are suppressed and distorted to such an extent as to make it doubtful whether a true history of our times can ever be written.”

      • Eric Rall says:

        I’ll take a look. Of his work, I think I’ve just read Animal Farm, 1984, and “Politics and the English Language”.

        • Noah Siegel says:

          IMHO “Homage to Catalonia” is essential to understanding the era and ideolgoies discussed here

  45. alexp says:

    It’s kind of hard for me to square my mind around. Maybe it’s just the circles he moved in, but my impression was that, at least in the US, the mainstream was firmly anti communist in the 30s and 40s, not to mention the 50s.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      Yes, who exactly are the contrarians in this scenario?

      • Nornagest says:

        I get the sense that admiration for the Soviets was more contrarian in the America of the Thirties and early Forties than in Britain of the same period, though in both places it was less contrarian (at least among leftist intellectuals, or labor activists) than we’d expect through the lens of the later Cold War.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          Sure. But I don’t think it was the case that there was only one lone, cranky, contrarian sounding the call against the menace of Communism.

          My knowledge of the rise of Communism is highly incomplete, so this is something of an argument by wikipedia. I’ll note that the Communist Party of Great Britain seems to have had very little electoral success in in GB during the 20s and 30s. In the US, the “red scare” seems to have started in the 20s almost immediately after the revolution in Russia.

          I find this idea that Muggeridge could find no outlet for his anti-communist writings to be somewhat suspicious. And then to claim that he could not find any outlet for his anti-Nazi writings either seems to suggest the problem is not the subject matter, but, like most every other “could have been the greatest American writer of the 20th century”, the man himself.

          • Nornagest says:

            One guy in all of politics? Nah. But I’m willing to believe that there were only a few outspoken anti-Communists among the progressive intelligentsia of the time, and that they felt pretty marginalized.

            When Scott talks about Muggeridge being unable to find a publisher, I feel like there’s an unspoken “politically acceptable” in there. There were right-wing populist organs in the Thirties, lots of them, but I expect that a guy like Muggeridge going to them at the time would have been kinda like Bob Woodward — not a perfect example, but investigative journalism is almost dead — going to Fox News with a piece on corruption in Occupy. They’d run it, sure, but it’d be career suicide unless he was willing to spend the rest of his life writing anti-left hit pieces.

          • Deiseach says:

            I find this idea that Muggeridge could find no outlet for his anti-communist writings to be somewhat suspicious.

            I’ve run up against this idea before; there seems to be (or at least to have been) the American “reportage” model of the press versus the European “advocacy” model; I’ll borrow terms from the GetReligion website to describe what they see as the differences:

            old school “American model of the press” approach that, especially on controversial debates, calls for the balanced, accurate coverage of voices on both sides, with believers on both sides being shown respect

            the standards of classical Anglo-American journalism to the story, as well as offering American readers a window into the British and European press world.

            Critics often charge The New York Times and other American newspapers with spinning the news to advance the interests of a particular party or interest group. Advocacy journalism, as it is called, violates the tenets of classical liberal journalism which rejects overt politicking. The reporter’s role is to establish the facts and let them dictate how the story is written.

            European advocacy style reporting draws upon a different intellectual tradition. “All history is contemporary history,” idealist philosopher Benedetto Croce said — history exists but only in the present tense.

            In this school the past has reality only in the mind of the author.

            British newspapers had and have very definite party-political and other cultural/social divides. The Northcliffe stable of papers, for instance, was very right-wing and both small-c and capital-C conservative, even going so far as to be pro-Fascist. This reflected the interests and instructions of their proprietor (it is alleged that the current Lady Rothermere meddles with getting her favourites promoted to editorships in her husband’s newspapers).

            So it is and was quite possible that, based on your own politics or beliefs, you would work for one paper rather than another, and if you produced stories that ran counter to the editorial line, these would be spiked. This happens on both right and left.

            Rupert Murdoch’s entry into the British newspaper industry made a huge change, and he engages in political meddling with the best of them; when he judged it favourable to his interests to do so, he threw the support of his tabloids behind the Conservative Party, later, in the days of New Labour, he switched horses.

            British politicians considered it worth their while to curry favour with him because of the popular influence his news empire has, Irish politicians did likewise with one of our own home-grown media barons, because their paper’s coverage really can deliver or lose votes.

          • Seth says:

            Think of the situation of the “old-school” liberal who is supportive of feminism, anti-racism, etc. but doesn’t like the “tumblr” and Gawker style of identity politics with net-mobbing and mass-shaming. Is it the case that there are no liberals writing against net-mobbing and mass-shaming, as destructive and counter-productive? Not at all. But such a liberal writing along those lines is very likely to get some extremely nasty attacks from that faction. On the other hand, there’s an enormous amount criticism which comes from the right-wing rant machine. But it’s not the same thing.

            That is – maybe “Communism” can be thought of as something like the “SJW” of decades past.

            Two or three generations on, people might be writing material about how supposedly nobody (but a few brave conservatives) could defy the dreaded wrong-headed liberal leftist “SJW” orthodoxy which gripped the Internet in the early part of the 21st century. Heck, people do that now. But in the future, the context will be lost.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Deiseach:

            What you are describing seems to be an outcome of the media model prevalent in Britain at the time, and would have applied to conservative apostates as well, then?

            In other words, this has nothing to do with some particular failing of liberals or progressives, and everything to do with the the fact that a party paper only prints the party line.

            Why do I have a sense few here will agree with that?

          • gattsuru says:

            There were a large number of anti-communist pieces written in the United States, and you can actually follow that back to the mid-1890s where they first were really distinguished from anarchists in the discussion. Real tirades against communism tended more to sound more like we think of Birchers or the (second) Red Scare, talking about what needed to be done to Stop Communism Now rather than the precise evils the Russian state actually did. Actual socialists weren’t very popular — although less unpopular than many expect, with 1920s Eugene Debs managed a >3% popular vote run for President with a Socialist ticket and a prison cell — but mainstream press criticisms looked nothing like those presented in Chronicles of Wasted Time.

            What’s interesting about Muggeridge — and a few other contrarians like Gareth Jones and — was not that they disliked communism, but that they said it wasn’t working. This was a decade and often multiple decades before Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, and it’s one of the things that Mr. Alexander noticed about reading Red Plenty backwards, and the author noticed it was present even into the mid-1950s. Lots of people would say that communism was Wrong in some deep moral sense: Muggeridge and his compatriots were the ones to point out its people were starving.

          • multiheaded says:

            Lord Kenyes (yes, that one) really really disliked the idea of Socialism (not economic planning, actual Socialism as in working class rule) – and he hardly brought actually existing Leninism/Stalinism into the discussion, instead stressing how awful and brutish and detrimental to culture it would be, to have dirty uneducated proles running things for themselves and trampling over everything refined and uncommon.

            (That was… in the late 1920s, AFAIR?)

        • Wrong Species says:

          I know that Hayek talks about this in Road to Serfdom. If you read his book, it’s not actually about anything controversial these days. He’s just pointing out that government owned factories probably aren’t a great idea. But the way he talks about it makes it seem like a minority opinion.

          • You don’t think Hayek’s claim that fascism and socialism came from the same intellectual roots would be considered controversial nowadays? His argument that socialism was inconsistent with both freedom and democracy because a government that produced everything and employed everyone would decide what books were printed and who was or was not employed (not a direct summary, but a central argument)?

            His views are more widely accepted now than they were then, but I think still controversial, especially in the academic world.

            At a slight tangent, one problem with these discussions is that “socialism” means different things to different people. I am using it, as I think Hayek did, in the economist’s sense of government ownership and control of the means of production.

          • Wrong Species says:

            I don’t think a typical modern day progressive would dispute the idea that total government ownership is inconsistent with freedom. Most people still associate total government ownership of property with the Soviet Union and no one thinks of the Soviet Union as being a particularly free place. Of course, I’m not a progressive so I’m not sure what they think. Would any progressives here like to chime in?

          • Protagoras says:

            In the Soviet Union, the government that owned everything was not remotely democratic. I suspect most progressives would say that obviously ownership of everything by an undemocratic government isn’t consistent with freedom. There’s likely to be diversity of opinion about whether having the government be democratic changes that. Of course, we don’t really have an example of a democratic state which owned most of the means of production to examine, which may indicate that such states can’t work, or it may just indicate that they are difficult to bring about.

    • Eggo says:

      People in the flyover states were, yes. But not real people–the kind who have a voice in government, hollywood, and the universities.

    • Sylocat says:

      I confess, few NRX beliefs are as hilarious to me as their belief that anyone with political power or influence actually cares what Academia thinks about anything.

      • Eggo says:

        Yes, because lefty politics professors are never given influential positions in the federal bureaucracy or the white house.
        And it’s laughable to imagine one of them becoming president.

        • Nornagest says:

          There’s only been one President with a PhD (in political science, yes): Woodrow Wilson. Lots with law degrees, though.

          • LCL says:

            And law schools, ideologically, are disproportionately libertarian. It would be difficult to pass through one without strong exposure to libertarian ideas.

          • Saal says:

            @LCL ….citation? Law schools being libertarian is not what I would’ve expected at all, granted that I’ve never been to law school.

          • The Anonymouse says:

            And law schools, ideologically, are disproportionately libertarian.

            That was not, at all, my experience.

          • LCL says:

            I looked for but couldn’t find any kind of survey of political affiliation among law students – seriously, nobody ever did a survey? So I guess just anecdote for now. I attended a (public) law school with a lot of exposure to libertarian ideas, despite not having any kind of reputation for it that I’m aware of.

            This was the most influential student organization aside from the law review. The link reads conservative/libertarian but in practice they skewed heavily libertarian. Influential on many law campuses.

            Friends who have attended other law schools both tend to skew libertarian themselves and to report presence of libertarian classmates, organizations, and speakers.

            I’d estimate 90% confidence for:
            percentage of law students identifying as libertarian > percentage of population identifying as libertarian (which is somewhere from 3% to 11%)

            Though I’m less sure about the professors, who either kept political affiliation close to the vest (most), or signaled strong left-wing (solid minority).

          • brad says:

            I don’t know what the denominator in disproportionately libertarian is supposed to be, but I’d say law school professors have a higher proportion of libertarians than the university professors as a whole. Though still a rather small minority.

            It is true that it’d be tough to graduate law school without being exposed to the ideas of Richard Posner, the most prominent jurist of our era, founder of the Law and Economics movement, and sort-of, kind-of libertarian.

          • Posner isn’t so much libertarian as independent, hence not orthodox leftist (or orthodox anything else). Richard Epstein would be a better example.

            Speaking as a libertarian law professor, I think greater than 3% is pretty safe—there are at least two self-identified libertarians on my faculty. But it is still very much a minority position among both law professors and, despite the efforts of the Federalist Society, students.

          • brad says:

            But you can easily get through law school without reading any Epstein. Are there any law schools that have jurisprudence as a required course?

          • aDifferentAnonymous says:

            “Disproportionately libertarian” is a very low bar, and is completely consistent with “overwhelmingly liberal”.

          • Lesser Bull says:

            In law school, the conservatives claim to be libertarian because its more respectable there than being a conservative, and they usually update their beliefs somewhat to match.

      • AngryDrake says:

        Where do those with political power get their educations?

      • Shenpen says:

        No, of course not: he cares about what he thinks. Except – what he thinks was installed in his brain by academia, intellectuals, journalists… the whole environment he grew up in.

        • Sylocat says:

          Given the massive swathes of people (such as myself) who hated school and spent much of our education actively looking for nitpicks and bias in everything every teacher ever said to us for no other reason than because it was a teacher who said it, forgive me if I don’t find the “Liberal teachers brainwash our kids!” theory to be particularly plausible.

          • Jiro says:

            Sylocat: Your social circle is not typical. Neither is SSC. And nobody claims that the teachers brainwash every student.

            If the teachers only managed to brainwash 80% of the students and that that portion was skewed towards the lower IQ end of the scale, you and your friends could easily not be influenced much by teachers, while enough people are to have a massive effect on society.

          • Sylocat says:

            Funny you should mention that SSC is “not typical,” since in that “Dark Matter Universe” post, Scott pointed out that 42% of the US population believes that the Earth is under 10,000 years old.

            Another 31% believe that God “guided” evolution. That leaves 36%, just over a third, who believe the ostensible “party line” of the left, and that’s still more than the percentage who believe that climate change is a problem.

            Maybe there are different causes from the one I brought up. Maybe all those studies Scott has linked to showing that your parents have more influence on your political beliefs than any other factor are right after all. But it seems to me that the liberal media and liberal educational system aren’t doing a terribly sterling job at indoctrinating the young folks out there.

  46. Walter says:

    One of the things I love about this blog is that you are writing about how neo reactionaries are wrong, and you strike up a conversation with the main one, and he recommends a book to you…and you read it and do a book report.

    Just, out of a cloudless sky, here’s a smart progressive’s take on an old school conservative’s take on the issues of his day. Happy Tuesday!

    Never stop.

    • Eggo says:

      Scott’s writing about how NRXers are wrong? He’s the entire reason I started taking them seriously in the first place.

      • Zykrom says:

        Same, but he is still technically calling them wrong.

        slatestarcodex.com/2015/01/25/a-philosopher-walks-into-a-coffee-shop/#comment-176821

        • Sylocat says:

          Scott himself pointed out this very phenomenon in Social Psych Is A Flamethrower. It’s not just that he steelmans their beliefs (though he does it better than NRXers do, but that’s JMO), it’s also just that he spends such exhaustive word counts responding to them amicably, that the pattern-matching instincts of the audience tend to go, “Uh, I didn’t see anyone asking Scott whether he was a neoreactionary, so why did he devote a whole epic-length FAQ to explaining that he isn’t one? Is he Protesting Too Much?”

          Of course, it doesn’t help that Scott bends over backwards to paint NRXers as intellectually-honest people who Just Have Different Beliefs From You and are totally sincere in those beliefs, while continually accusing social justice types of not really believing a word they say and just latching onto buzzwords they don’t understand or care about solely to justify bullying innocent people.

          • stargirl says:

            I have read all of Scott’s anti-SJ claims. I do not recall him spending much (if any) ink saying SJ types were mostly just making things up. Scott seems to think SJ contains ideas that are harmful. But I do not get why you think Scott supposes SJ types are insincere.

          • LCL says:

            I’ll admit that dichotomy struck a really weird note for me as well.

            My current theory is that SJ is actually really powerful in his context. Like if you’re a blogger covering social issues, are on tumblr, and active on social media, it’s a really big presence for you. With the social power to punish you for crossing it.

            From the real world, that looks strange. Because it’s like he’s going on at length harping about the excesses and hypocrisies of, basically, college kids on the internet. It just seems totally out of proportion to any influence they actually have. They’re not even particularly influential on their own campuses, contra culture-war media stories.

            But it makes more sense if I think of the SJ movement as perhaps the most powerful voice in his context. Then its excesses and hypocrisies would matter a lot.

            And the Reactionaries, who would be even more obnoxious/dangerous if they had the power to punish you for offending them or defying their conventions? They don’t, so they get a pass. Plus some bonus bravery points, then a few more for fellow-feeling among SJ targets.

          • Eggo says:

            LCL, “college kids on the internet” can’t get people fired for disagreeing with them, whereas SJ types revel in “punching up” at whoever they can get away with hurting.

            So who should be treated with more respect: a group that talks politely on the internet, or a raging mob that turns on anyone who questions it?

          • Sylocat says:

            But I do not get why you think Scott supposes SJ types are insincere.

            I really don’t want to turn this into a going-through-Scott’s-archive-looking-for-gotcha-quotes thing (especially since the most egregious example I can think of, he deleted and sort-of apologized for). And thankfully it’s been a while since I’ve last seen motte-and-bailey mentioned around here. Truth be told, I’m kind of wishing I’d stopped at the first paragraph of that comment.

            My current theory is that SJ is actually really powerful in his context. Like if you’re a blogger covering social issues, are on tumblr, and active on social media, it’s a really big presence for you. With the social power to punish you for crossing it.

            From the real world, that looks strange. Because it’s like he’s going on at length harping about the excesses and hypocrisies of, basically, college kids on the internet. It just seems totally out of proportion to any influence they actually have. They’re not even particularly influential on their own campuses, contra culture-war media stories.

            But it makes more sense if I think of the SJ movement as perhaps the most powerful voice in his context. Then its excesses and hypocrisies would matter a lot.

            Hmm. There’s interesting parallels here with Muggeridge’s complaints about not being able to find a publisher once he turned against communism.

          • Shenpen says:

            I think Scott is a liberal of an older version – not 100% what you would call a classical liberal, but still an older version. JS Mill?

            And the simple truth is that SJWs went so far off the edge that for them a liberal of an older persuasion is almost like a nazi. I mean just try telling them e.g. that ideally politics should be colorblind, while giving some special help to people who are truly disadvantaged: poor blacks yes, poor whites too, but if Condie Rice had kids, they would not need it much just because of their color. I think this is a more or less honest representation of Scotts politics. Try offering to SJWs and look how long it takes to be called a racist asshole.

            Of course, on the NRx side Moldbug said the first Whig was the devil, but still somehow he is less angry and less rude at the devils, and Scott seems to reciprocate this.

          • TrivialGravitas says:

            I found Scott while looking into what NRX was all about, they really like to link him. So some protest isn’t unwarranted looking at it from that angle.

          • ThirteenthLetter says:

            > while continually accusing social justice types of not really believing a word they say and just latching onto buzzwords they don’t understand or care about solely to justify bullying innocent people.

            I for one am sure they believe every word they say. That makes them even more scary. If social justice was a scam, they’d eventually be satisfied with their take, at least for a little while. Because they think they are doing God’s work, though, they will never, ever stop.

          • Mary says:

            Remember that if they ever stopped, they would have to get a life. And they would have get their moral egoboo from quotidian goodness, which takes time, effort, and money, and isn’t as fun, and doesn’t reach the dizzying heights of virtue from bullying people about their linguistic choices.

      • Doctor Mist says:

        Yup. I found his steelmanning of NRX way more convincing than his attempt to debunk it. (Sorry, Scott.)

    • Anonymous` says:

      For “why our kind can’t cooperate” reasons, I’d also like to express admiration and pleasure at the OP for the same things. This is way more like the sweet ideal vision of the internet in Ender’s Game with Locke and Demosthenes than the real world!

    • Lesser Bull says:

      Hear, hear.

  47. Deiseach says:

    Never heard of the Webbs? Tch! What are they teaching them in schools nowadays? 🙂

    I think a healthy dose of this kind of realism (superstar progressives in their day, Sidney and Beatrice who? nowadays) should be applied when throwing about names like Elon Musk (I never heard of the man, had to Google him, and am still very shaky on what exactly it is that is so wonderful that he does) as the calibre of person who is going to lead us into the Promised Land of the bright and shining future.

    RE: the problems of the British intelligence services being riddled with pro-Soviet double agents, possibly a lot of that was down to the fact that they often recruited Oxbridge graduates. Where is the one place you can reliably expect to find progressive and very left-leaning convinced true believers? Amongst the undergrads on a university campus!

    But I’m very glad you did this reading, Scott, and I hope it works as evidence why reading Old Books is sometimes useful. I really don’t think you Modern Young People have a firm grasp on just how wide and deep was the belief that Socialism and Communism would bring forth a better tomorrow, that it really was seen as the chance to build the hopeful new world based on science and the best of serious thinking, casting aside all the dross of the old ways which had clogged and retarded and enslaved humanity – of how great a psychological hammer blow to Western civilisation (or at least, the European part of it) the First World War had been, where modern warfare first collided with the romantic imperial view of war and smashed it into the mud – the USA really took over as the leader of the West in the aftermath of the war, when the old empires had finally received their death-wounds even if it took them a long time to finally give up the ghost.

    Certainty in everything was smashed to pieces. Anyone could die in a brutal, all-consuming war. Religion, politics, monarchies, class structure – nothing was a bulwark against the existential void that opened up. The only choice was between a nihilist cynicism covered over with a mask of febrile excitement (the Roaring Twenties, the Lost Generation, Weimar Germany) or devotion to some cause which would rise above the old, tired ways that had led to such a devastation – and since Communism was breaking ties with the past, it was the natural channel for all that millenarianist spirit.

    • Shenpen says:

      When I read about these ages I wonder how they even had so many kids that they could wage world wars and survive. We have one child. And part of the reason is pessimism about the future. They had 5 kids on the avg while thinking the world is going to get really revolutionized any time soon? How?

      • Deiseach says:

        Because the modern idea (post Sexual Revolution) of recreational sex, no childbearing, or only having one at most two children because it is so hideously expensive to have kids and they stop you doing fun things is very recent.

        A combination of lack of access to widespread contraception, what contraception there was being less reliable, and the mental attitudes about pre-marital sex, promiscuous sex, and part of marriage being to have children, meant that people regarded four children as an average sized family. Of course, as child mortality decreased, the idea of what was a “big” family shrunk accordingly (your grandmother might have thought having fifteen kids was a big family, you might think ten was big, your child might think six was big etc.), and of course the better-off/better-educated always had fewer children, but the notion that “Married and childless? Oh poor thing, you must be infertile – what, you can have children but you choose not to?” was not the usual idea.

        It was just normal. It was how things were.

        • Mary says:

          To quote from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland a line implicit said by one woman to anothr in a bar:

          “What you get married for if you don’t want children?”

        • Shenpen says:

          What I hear is “hideously expensive” this seems like the important factor.

          In 1910 if we have two kids and I am a man and I think I cannot afford more or why make more if the world is going to burn, I can just stop having sex. That is not hard. That is not hard even today, assuming I married late, 30+ which was for women rare but for men not – they had to get some status first, serving as a soldier or something, retiring at 30 and marrying was OK for a man.

          So I am 36 in 1910 and say 2 kids are enough. I stop having sex. That is not that hard at 36 when you are not as hormonal. I would be probably just as alcoholic as now or more, and have not that much in the way of erections anyway.

          Or I could go to the million bordellos that flourished then (in Central Europe).

          So this does not sound too hard to not have a large family… if I have a reason to not have. If they are expensive. Or if I think the world is going to shit…

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            Freud quoted — as an example of a popular joke I think, not as his own opinion:

            “A wife is like an umbrella. Sooner or later, one takes a taxi.”

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          > the notion that “Married and childless? Oh poor thing, you must be infertile – what, you can have children but you choose not to?” was not the usual idea.

          That depended on class, I think. I’m sure you’ll have the dates at hand. Bertrand Russell and his first wife discussing whether to have marital relations or not, as they did not plan to have children: “Well, we might try it once, just to see what it’s like.” (QFM)

          Peter Wimsey was surprised when Harriet spoke favorably of the idea of having a child “Not one of my own, but one of yours.” (QFM)

          Her friend faintly hinted at the question, with “What are you going to use those front two rooms for?”
          H: “We are thinking of raising rabbits.” (QFM)

      • aerdeap says:

        >hey had 5 kids on the avg while thinking the world is going to get really revolutionized any time soon?

        demographic warfare is a thing.

    • Nornagest says:

      What are they teaching them in schools nowadays?

      Can’t speak for Scott, but my school spent a lot of time on Eugene Debs.

    • PDV says:

      Why we think Elon Musk will do impossible things: Because he already has, two or three times (conceiving of Paypal *might* count as the third). SpaceX’s progress to date is extraordinary, and Tesla isn’t far behind, and he not only started them both but pulled both of them (simultaneously) from the brink of collapse to where they are, at great personal risk. To think that someone who’s done that will also be able to do the further three or four impossible things he has concrete plans for (Mars colonies, Hyperloop, actually make the consumer gas-powered automobile obsolete, probably something else) is not a big leap.

      • CatCube says:

        My introduction to Elon Musk was when I heard about the hyperloop proposal, which is stupid in so many directions at once I hardly know where to begin. Probably due to this as my first impression, I’m very willing to grant he’s a good businessman, but grand visionary seems like a real stretch.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          @CatCube:
          “which is stupid in so many directions at once”
          Which is what people said about Tesla, yes?

          I’m not saying hyper-loop will work out, but if you are thinking about it as “just” another mass transit scheme, I think that is wrong. I think hyper-loop is more about rich people getting a cool awesome thing (like tesla) that might then become the next rapid transit.

          And even if that is a completely wrong take, I think one should update priors on Musk based on his previous successes.

          • bluto says:

            Tesla has a lifetime net loss, and losses have increased in the last few years even with rising sales (they’re on pace to lose more in 2015 than in any prior year) and whose finished goods inventories continue to grow. While it’s a popular investor momentum stock, there’s little evidence of a successful underlying business.

          • Deiseach says:

            That’s the problem there; all this sounds like “rich people’s toys”. Silicon Valley tech-heads with too much spare cash buying the latest shiny. Looking at the Hyperloop presentation, it mentions supersonic aircraft:

            Around that inflection point, I suspect that supersonic air travel ends up being faster and cheaper. With a high enough altitude and the right geometry, the sonic boom noise on the ground would be no louder than current airliners, so that isn’t a showstopper. Also, a quiet supersonic plane immediately solves every long distance city pair without the need for a vast new worldwide infrastructure.

            Apparently your pet genius has never heard of Concorde and how, after 27 years in operation, it still couldn’t make a go of things and is no longer in either operation or production? That’s the kind of blue-sky thinking that ignores how visionary projects really came to grief, so showing no means of recognising what potential flaws might be present in his own visionary project, and so being unable to foresee, tackle, and overcome them.

            Look at the Segway; how much of a change in “personal transportation” has it really made? I think it may be very slowly coming into wider use, but it is still at present confined to urban areas, places that reliably have good weather (imagine riding a Segway in the rains and winds of an Irish winter) and seem not to be used for the demographic I would have expected to most benefit from them – people with mobility problems or disabilities.

            Progress is slow. And things that seem like rich people’s toys take a long time to trickle down into general use. Maybe in twenty years’ time everyone will be riding a Segway and driving a Tesla for longer range use – or maybe not.

          • CatCube says:

            I guess my original comment makes it sound like the Hyperloop is impossible. I can’t really say that it can’t be built, because I think if you threw enough money at it you could probably get there. But it will be much more expensive than advertised, and the design assumptions read like whoever put the detailed plan together never talked to civil engineers. It just doesn’t pencil out. Like I said, I hardly know where to start, so just picking points at random:

            1. The Hyperloop economizes on the cheap parts of civil works, and spends lavishly on the expensive ones. Bridges are very expensive and you spend a lot of time routing roads, railroads, and highways to avoid building them and minimize the cost when you can’t avoid them. This is a project that’s all bridge to save on land acquisition costs in the middle of nowhere. I think he was laboring under the delusion that he could design one bridge to the gnats ass and build it a thousand times and take advantage of the economy of scale that implies (like with electronics, cars, and other manufactured goods), but he’s actually proposing to build one bridge hundreds of miles long with the economy of scale that implies. Site conditions rarely are forgiving enough that you can plop a bridge down without further design.

            2. The assumption was to build down the median of the Interstate, again to save on land acquisition. There’s a couple of things to unpack here:
            a) Different modes of transport require different routes to move efficiently. Rail is very grade-sensitive, cars are less so, and pipeline least of all. This seems like it would require low grades to avoid large vertical curves and consequent forces on passengers, and also because larger curves will require larger pipe for the capsule to clear. The 6% standard used by the Interstate is probably an inefficient route, and will require a lot of design and construction effort in his bridges to make it work.
            b) The median of an Interstate is there for reasons, reasons which will be defeated by plopping a huge structure in the middle. They use wider medians to avoid construction, maintenance, and safety costs for traffic separation barriers, which will now have to be retrofitted into the highway.

            3. Even granting the above aren’t problems, the costs used for estimating are bonkers, off by something like a factor of 10. The plan also seems to assume away the EIS process.

            I have to catch a train, but I could go on for a while in this vein. Like I said, since this was my intro to the man it took a lot of the shine off his “genius” for me.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Deiseach:
            “Apparently your pet genius”

            Can I ask you gently to curb your tendency to post things like this? Every time I read something so laden with derision it makes my life a little less good. I have never mentioned Musk at any time in the past, and I am not gushing over him here. He is not “my pet genuis” and I am not his fanboy.

            So, neither true, nor kind.

      • John Schilling says:

        I do not believe that Musk has concrete plans for the Hyperloop. The initial presentation was obviously and IIRC explicitly “This is a neat idea that I think solves a lot of problems; I throw it out there because I don’t have the time or resources to deal with it and I hope someone else does”. The degree of technical detail was far below anything we’ve seen in the ideas he is serious about. And I’ve seen nothing since to suggest he has changed his mind or upped his commitment.

        Also, it’s not a very good idea. It doesn’t address any of the actual problems with high-speed rail in California, and making it work in the face of those problems would require a very different temperament and skillset than Musk has shown in his other endeavors. The rollout of hyperloop was IMO a low point in his public image, and if as CatCube suggests that was the first time many people had heard of him, that was a non-trivial misstep on his part.

        • Wulfrickson says:

          Tangentially, but since it was brought up, here’s a good technical criticism of the Hyperloop; it’s a bit personally unfair in parts, but in a way separable from the main critique.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            What seems to me to be the key criticism is that it was explicitly put forward as an alternative to high-speed rail, but many of the components are the same. If he could build things that cheaply, he could build HSR even more cheaply. Moreover, a rail link would be the least of the applications of cheaper building.

      • Deiseach says:

        And on this side of the Atlantic, it’s “Elon who?” What you say about Space-X makes me think of Richard Branson and his space travel plans.

        Given the vast amount of enterprises Branson has had on the go, and how some have succeeded and some have failed, I’m not that impressed by the idea of a zillionaire go-getter entrepreneur businessman revolutionising technology and science and life as we know it.

        Of course, Musk may be hugely more intelligent, better informed, more concentrated on specific ends in specific areas, and more successful than Branson. But, speaking as the average idiot in the street, names like his only crop up when the media covers “Oh, private space shot!” and are as quickly forgotten when the flight is over, unless someone has a particular interest in the subject and is following it keenly.

        For instance, I use PayPal. I had no idea he was involved with it. I bet that’s not uncommon, either.

        While I’d love to see a colony on Mars, I am also snorting gently because a colony on Mars within any time that can be called soon? You lot can’t even manage a colony in California without running out of water 🙂 Wait until we crack making inhospitable parts of our own planet habitable, and then I’ll think our chances of getting a extra-planetary colony up and running as anything more than a curiosity that can never be self-supporting are good.

        • The Anonymouse says:

          a colony on Mars within any time that can be called soon? You lot can’t even manage a colony in California without running out of water

          Deisach: You made my morning. Your comments are always a bracing refreshment in the otherwise abstract and obscurantist halls of SSC.

          Love,
          Anonymouse (the happy Cali expat)

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          > Wait until we crack making inhospitable parts of our own planet habitable [….]

          A third approach is, orbital colonies taking (much) further the things we are now doing with the Space Station. Once out of the gravity wells of earth and the moon, construction and transport become easier, and mining the asteroids. Plenty of energy, plenty of room to throw trash out, no rain or sleet or (unscheduled) gloom of night….

          • Irenist says:

            Once out of the gravity wells of earth and the moon,

            And there goes the economic feasibility. Getting enough equipment out of our gravity well to do anything interesting up there is prohibitively costly. Maybe with some sort of nanotech fabs on the Moon you could beat that. But with present tech? I’m with Charles Stross: it’s a pipe dream.

          • John Schilling says:

            While I enjoy much of his work, Stross has shown no great understanding of “present tech” beyond the field of electronics and software. Indeed, it is a pet peeve of mine that “tech” has become almost synonymous with “consumer electronics”.

            The big-name SF writer you want to be following for a broader appreciation of “tech”, including space transportation technology, is probably Neal Stephenson.

  48. gwern says:

    Poor Malcolm Muggeridge feels this way about everything. One of the most poignant episodes in the book takes place the worst night of the London Blitz, when Muggeridge runs around the burning city, almost euphoric, because finally his inner conviction that everything is on fire and collapsing is reflected in everything really being on fire and collapsing, and nobody can pat his head and patronizingly tell him that it isn’t

    I am suddenly reminded of the glee gold bugs like Nick Szabo or Zero Hedge take in reporting the latest bad news from second/third world countries like Venezuela or Zimbabwe or Greece.

  49. Selerax says:

    “… Gide the pure in heart …”

    That is very weird. André Gide famously denounced Soviet Communism after witnessing it first hand. AFAIK he was the first prominent French left-wing intellectual to do so.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andr%C3%A9_Gide

  50. CatCube says:

    Stuff like Muggeridge talking about how snowed many people were about Communism is also important to properly understanding the history of McCarthyim. A lot of people like to sneer about how he was conducting a witch hunt. The central problem with a witch hunt is that you’re looking for something that doesn’t exist. McCarthy was looking for real malefactors, but his problem (and it is a big one) was that he threw reason and rules of evidence over the side in his self-aggrandizing zeal. This was God’s gift to people looking to excuse Communist crimes, as they paint any attempt at consequences for holding these ideas with the McCarthy brush.

    We should be treating people who espouse Communism roughly like we treat people who espouse Naziism–as nutjobs in thrall to a murderous ideology, and posting a hammer and sickle as an avatar on a forum should be as shocking as posting a swastika. It’s a sad commentary on political bias that this isn’t true.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      McCarthy was looking for real malefactors [….] This was God’s gift to people looking to excuse Communist crimes, as they paint any attempt at consequences for holding these ideas with the McCarthy brush.

      I feel that a qualifier or two is missing from that phrase, and that real malefactors should be distinguished from [people] holding these ideas. Otherwise we’re back to hunting witches=non-practicizing Satanists/witch-sympathizers=heretics=closeted heretics.

      That’s thought-crime, and making loss of 1950’s livelihood a consequence of it, is into “Bad argument does not get bullet” territory. Terms like ‘pinko … fellow traveler … soft on Communism’ are available, after all.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Senator McCarthy complained about people in government, not civilians. He made very serious errors, like taking a list of people the State Department had fired and calling it a list of people that State refused to fire. But such examples show that his scale was in line with the beliefs of State.

        HUAC attacked civilians. But membership in the Communist Party included an obligation to write only propaganda. Albert Maltz got into a fight with the Party over this and acquiesced to the obligation immediately before HUAC. I don’t know if he really meant it, but he certainly claimed to be exactly what HUAC said.

      • Muga Sofer says:

        To be fair – and I think this is rather CatCube’s point – there is a real and obvious difference between hunting for witches and hunting for heretics.

        Heretics are real, and they can do real damage. They might not, and restricting heretics too much can lock you into a false ideology. But they can.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          In current parlance, the central features of a ‘witch-hunt’ are

          1. massive invasive investigation of individuals, including distorting their long-ago writing or speech, pressuring their associates, accepting secret information from unidentified sources, spying on them, etc …

          2. … while looking for evidence of a thought-crime for which a respectable person can be pronounced guilty for an opinion that is only a crime in the imagination of the investigator, and which he can be punished for without good evidence that he did in fact hold it.

    • Steve Johnson says:

      McCarthy was looking for real malefactors, but his problem (and it is a big one) was that he threw reason and rules of evidence over the side in his self-aggrandizing zeal.

      The problem with McCarthy was that he was looking for foreign agents when the actual communist problem was home grown.

      The NY Times reported what Stalin told them to report on the famine not because they were dupes for Stalin but because Soviet communism was their ideological project.

      http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.com/2013/09/technology-communism-and-brown-scare.html

  51. Bettega says:

    I don’t think people like Duranty or the Webbs were ever fooled about what was going on in the Soviet Union. They just thought it necessary. As late as the 1990s Eric Hobsbawm responded in the affirmative to the question of whether 20 million deaths may have been justified had the proposed communist future been created.

    The state of spirit in which an individual or a group believes itself capable of remodeling the whole society through political action leads them, as agents or bearers of a better future, to consider themselves above all judgement by present or past humanity, being accountable only to the “court of History”. But the court of History is, by definition, the very future society that this individual or group claims to represent in the present. So, as future society is only able to bear witness or to judge through these same representatives, it is clear that they thus becomes not only the sole sovereigns judges of their own acts, but the judges of all past, present and future humanity. Able to accuse and to condemn all laws, institutions, beliefs, values, traditions, actions and works of all epochs without being subject, in his turn, to the judgment of any of them, they lie above historical humanity, refusing themselves to be accountable to anything except a hypothetical future of their own invention, and firmly disposed to destroy by cunning or by force every obstacle to the remodeling of the world to their own image and likeness. If that takes lying about the Soviet famine in the pages of the New York Times, so be it!

    So, I believe “Don’t immanentize the eschaton!” is less of a warning about stopping the dumping of raw sewage into rivers, which is just a local answer to a momentary situation, and more about the spiritual and psychological effects of certain groups imbuing themselves with the authority to remake the world according to the mold of a hypothetical future perfection.

    • multiheaded says:

      Even Sartre – no coward, to engage even in passive resistance under the occupation – was pretty much blatantly arguing for suppressing any dirt on Stalinism for ze greater good, IIRC.

      (I might be confusing Sartre and Camus here??? One of them certainly did.)

  52. Muga Sofer says:

    Couple of typos in the excerpts, need to either be corrected or have [sic] added:

    >we pikced up girls

    There was at least one more, but I have now lost it, so instead I’m going to vaguely imply that you should painstakingly reread all your quotes looking for typos again.

    Type 1 errors trade off against Type 2 errors. Make absolutely sure you’re the sort of person who never misses a Stalinist gulag, and you become the type of person who’s easy prey for the FEMA internment camp theory. Make absolutely sure you don’t believe in FEMA internment camps, and you’re liable to miss a Stalinist gulag as soon as the Soviet government gets Duranty to print “Oh, don’t worry, that’s just an Amtrak station”.

    I’m not entirely sure this is true.

    Yes, cynicism and optimism about government trade off against each other. If you have a higher prior for concentration camps, you’re more likely to fall for false evidence of concentration camps than someone with a lower prior. And vice versa.

    But if you’re the kind of person who always investigates claims – if you have a low prior for evidence being real – then you’re more likely to find out the truth about both of these. More likely to spend lots of time investigating claims, to little gain, of course. But still.

    If you identify as a skeptic, then you’re more likely to dismiss the FEMA camps as “conspiracy theories” – and more likely to dismiss [thing you believe in that “skeptics” tend to dismiss]. But if you’re actually a skeptical person, you will too.

    This might be what you mean when you talk about “the royal road” or “rationality”, here, but in context the analogy of Orwell comes to mind as a person who ended up in the same correct place as the people who got epistemically lucky, without falling into the same “inevitable” traps of overcorrection.

    • Patrolling for typos? I find: “humanely conudcted institution”

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Painstakingly reread? Bah! use a spell-checker.

      augmention instutition Goebels (bb) delibered cicrumstantially duplicitious equippled coulored fatous Massachussetts nwespaper compreehnsive concerete exeprt conudcted ashmed paradaiscal

  53. I’m pretty sure this is the first place I’ve seen a reference to death-watch beetles since grad school.

    I wondered if this was the picturesque British term for some common bug, but no. It is actually a pest peculiar to England.

    • Loquat says:

      I am 99% positive there’s a reference to death-watch beetles in a James Thurber story somewhere – he was recounting the succession of maids his family had, and at one point one of them decided she’d heard a death watch in the house, which was a Bad Omen. Both the maid and Thurber’s family were American, as far as I know.

    • anon1 says:

      Death watch beetles are also mentioned in Tom Sawyer.

  54. Someone says:

    I also think you’re not fair in characterizing Middleridge as being opposed to solutions/utopianism. His ending phrase, which he surely put there for a reason, is “there has to be another way”. To me, that sounds like something a broken utopian would say, who has lost hope in any specific proposal, but holds out hope for someone else to come around and find that other way. (And/or find a solution to the strange psychosocial phenomenon that let good men continue to believe and do horrible things against all evidence – which Middleridge is terrified about, which makes him hesitant to embrace any solution that plausibly might be falling out of that phenomenon)

  55. Someone says:

    I feel like there is something more to learn here, beyond precautionary principle and trading type 1/2 errors. It’s something about the strange psychosocial forces that develop in social settings to make errors and bias much more likely, and much more sinister. (Especially as contrast with individual beliefs about non-political, non-social status-y things)

    Like, it seems obvious to me that Stalinist people were much more severely/sinisterly wrong than Middleridge was about contraception, weed, and Life of Brian, which you seem to take as unambiguous not-necessary-to-be-argued evidence that Middleridge was just a type I guy (the first two of those beliefs being plausibly correct if one thought there was any reasonable expectation of returning to pseudo-victorian norms in those specific areas [keeping everything else modern that we like], and the first/last being related to his Christianity, which itself seems excusable as the crutch of a weary old man who can find no solution/hope in the real world or in his social life). It wasn’t just that they were wrong, it was that they actively avoided any information to the contrary, and dismissed it not with argument but with quiet derision, deafness, and/or status games (high status consensus is here, moreover we as high status people ignoring you makes you lower status, preventing anyone from believing you [for fear of losing their own status] no matter how correct you may be).

    Moreover, seeing maggots on everything seems less like a bias and more like something anybody reasonable should do. Rationalists often say , correctly imo, that “everything is broken” or variants. Middleridge says the same thing, just he doesn’t see a specific way to fix it, and is modest enough to not claim a solution (partly because he seems to be deeply alone in his situation [not in terms of not having good friends, but in terms of not having anyone with a shared set of opinions/outlooks and experiences with which to think about this stuff – i.e. a broken once-upon-a-time-utopian]… hard to search for and claim a solution in that environment)

  56. Corwin says:

    Reversed Stupidity Is Not intelligence…

    Muggeridge was blindingly obviously one of those who think the world is going to hell, without better cause than the people who naturally believe the world is Just Fine, or even On The Cusp Of Immanentizing The Eschaton. Approximately no member of either group ever notices, or when they notice, never comprehend, or when they comprehend, never update their viewpoints, on any size of mountain of evidence piled up against those; this is the Confirmation Bias.

    Of course someone who thinks the world is going to hell will naturally be drawn to the Survive cluster of the Moral Foundations…

    Our brains are too tiny to comprehend enough of the world to really assess which viewpoint is more correct: our eyes are too tiny to get a global view of the world all at once, and even if we could, we don’t have enough brainspace to evaluate the situation even in terms of orders of magnitude, to not be scope-insensitive. A funny thing is that nobody is really correct, everyone just chooses to feed their confirmation bias with opposite situations, or opposite parses of the same situations (e.g. “Divorce rate is nonzero” : 1. “Morality is going to shit” 2. “People can at least close malfunctioning relationships” 3. “that just means that people are surviving longer than love lasts” 4. [insert favorite explanation] ). Those who are correct, are so in the same way that among 720 broken clocks all showing different times, there is always one that’s displaying the correct one, and it will be wrong again after one minute.

    Fortunately for those of us who STILL want to Immanentize The Eschaton, we do have more positive knowledge now. We have Schelling’s research FFS! We DO know MORE things, more CORRECT things, we know more bits of the program that Reality implements, than a century ago.

    Not QUITE enough yet to design a system that will Really Instantiate Eutopia, No, For Real This Time, Honest, Seriously. I’m not that arrogant. But … we know MORE.

    Knowing Newtonian mechanics means knowing MORE bits than believing in geocentrism. Knowing Relativity means knowing MORE bits yet again. Those are *positive* knowledge advances. That clock is not turning back.

    Knowing about models of agents mean knowing MORE bits about how agents behave in a system. This is, also, bits of positive knowledge. That knowledge isn’t used in country-management because Moloch makes the direction of those completely fucktarded. (But maybe that’s a good thing, because Moloch also makes those completely evil.)

    … forgot where i was going with that … will stop here and see what if any responses this gets.

    • Shenpen says:

      >Fortunately for those of us who STILL want to Immanentize The Eschaton

      Why? How? I mean the original version was the stupid idea that people are good, but society is badly structured, hence people suffer.

      It was stupid even on that level: society cannot be badly structured if people are good, if society is badly structured, people must be bad.

      We have science now and now why people are bad: tribalism, status-seeking… evolution.

      We cannot possibly believe now the leftie ideas like all we have to do is to organize society in egalitarian ways and giving complete freedom to people and then we have immanentized the eschathon.

      We know now that when that happens, we have just pushed a reset button and history starts all over: the strong and ruthless emerge as illegal gang leaders, and it solidifies into monarchies. After a while they become legal and then you can start democrtizing them again.

      The progressive mistake now is glaringly obvious, from science: humans are not cut out for equality or freedom, but to small-scale, local tribal hierarchy. Not a totalitarian state, but perhaps a totalitarian great-uncle.

      The glaring mistake of progressives is assuming progress by ignoring illegality. They never consider illegal forms or rules may overpower legal ones. For example SJWs talk as if nobody ever could reply to their words with a punch. They lack the politeness of the physically dangerous (Heinlein). For example, they see crime as individual behavior, not as subcultures where simply the rule is not law but local lords.

      Correct for the potential power of illegality, and see how it is not a progress but a cycle.

      • Ruben says:

        “we know why people are bad” – no we don’t, we know some things, but not very much. We definitely don’t have good knowledge about what humans are cut out for, it’s an experiment in progress.
        And that their evolution-shaped mental architecture makes humans bad is very much contingent on incentives and possibilities: if the animal welfare law prevents you from flaunting your wealth via owning big cats, maybe you’ll donate lots to big cat conservation instead.

        I think everybody who thinks about these things has at some point thought:
        Communists had an incorrect picture of humans as too noble, which led to the system being systematically exploited by non-noble individuals.

        Capitalism has an incorrect picture of humans as too egoist, so that capitalist societies get exploited by cooperating corporations (cartels) and need “hotfixes” such as antitrust laws (even though that is not its real etymology this word is really on the money, true ideal egoists never really trust one another, but cartels manage, so we need antitrust laws to hotfix capitalism). If you think about it, a lot of the stuff that people criticise about capitalism is down to the system not being set up well to deal with people simply being friends or family.

        Going back to tribes has the benefit that the entire tribe can fit into our monkeysphere and then we’re truly going to care about every single one of our neighbours (hahahahahaha), but it also deprives us of the benefits that international cooperation and communication bring. We may be well adapted to warfare, rape and pillage, but that does not mean a return to those times would be pleasant for many or any. It’s quite hard to understand how anyone can say that these institutions have are tried and tested when they clearly have not stood the test of time.

        It seems clear that with a better understanding of human nature and incentives we could at some point shape a system that makes us do good.

        Sidenote: Talking about people being unaware that all their pretty talk would lose to a good punch sounds like somebody is a sore loser in a fight in which the permitted weapons were snark and wit (and having good PR, lobbyism and journalist friends). Maybe you’re also wont to say: I may have lost this boxing match, but your legs were wide open to a kick the entire time.
        Let me know how your coup goes..

        • Tracy W says:

          so we need antitrust laws to hotfix capitalism

          This kind of logic ignores that people in government can also cooperate and be friends. If a corporation can get its industry regulators on its side, it can use anti-trust laws to fix its competition.
          More generally I think you’ve highlighted a common problem with many advocates of regulation: they ignore that the government is made up of ordinary human beings, who are not noble-superhumans nor total egoists, but instead have friends and families and may act in ways that the reformers did not expect or call for.

          • DavidS says:

            Government can do that, but the incentives are different. And (depending on the govt) there are usually mutliple layers, with laws being very publicly made, then applied by a different bunch of people etc. etc.

            Obviously any system is open to out-and-out bribery and corruption, and most systems will also show more subtle bias. But in the case of businesses, the incentive is very strongly towards cartel/monopoly, whereas with government it’s more complex

          • John Schilling says:

            Regulatory capture is not a particularly complex process, it just isn’t very widely known. And it rarely involves out-and-out bribery or corruption. The results are nonetheless as inevitable as, e.g., banning a popular vice leading to an organized criminal black market in that vice.

            If your regulatory process requires specialist regulators, assume they will be effectively working for the richest corporations in the industry to be regulated. Claims to the contrary should be subject to extreme skepticism.

          • Ruben says:

            It was not meant to ignore government at all. I just chose an example in business, because antitrust is well-known and easy to understand.
            The word “hotfix” was meant to imply that we have not yet solved all problems relating to trust being more frequent than the simplified model of humans as perfect egoists can account for.

            Of course, government does not deal ideally with aspects of the human condition (like friendship and rivalries) either and if you look, you will find hotfixes for this in many places too.

            But you’ll also get the impression that a major version upgrade would be in order.
            I think this should entail making tribalism, nepotism and the like less adaptive in politics, but apparently it’s also possible to see the same stuff and come out in favour of tribalism.
            Not to disparage anyone, but I find the logic behind this so weak that I have real doubts whether many of the ostensibly smart advocates of NRx sincerely hold their beliefs or whether it’s just a competition of “I have the more brooding, negative view of humanity” as you often see them among philosophy students.

            Regulatory capture is, I think, a well-known phenomenon in these parts. But maybe people who also know about transparency initiatives (which now mostly document financial stuff, but we accumulate enough social network data to document less obvious links too) do not respond with total despair.
            People arguing for better whistleblower protection in e.g. the NHS do so because the not completely non-human impulses to a) do good & save lives b) be famous c) stick it to your mean employers are pretty good insurance policies against overly evil corporations and agencies as long as you remove d) don’t want to get sued to hell. I think that is also a pretty good example of understanding human impulses better and getting better institutions in return.

            Inevitability is a strong concept. I may not be entirely up to date here, but last I checked the combination of high taxation, restrictions on public use and mere public education was driving tobacco usage down quite effectively with only a minor black market and smuggling. But yes, that’s not a ban, some people apparently learned.

          • John Schilling says:

            Whistleblowing is not a terribly effective defense against regulatory capture because there’s usually nothing to blow the whistle on. Very rarely does regulatory capture involve bribery or other outright corruption.

            Mostly, it’s the bureaucrats in charge of coming up with plumbing safety regulations being understaffed and short on research budget, so when they need information they have to ask around. A million home handymen have no clue this is going on, a disinterested nonprofit organization with real expertise will manage to put together an accurate but bland white paper like one of the ones MetaMed used to deliver on their way to bankruptcy court, and the Plumber’s Guild has a multimedia presentation backed with slick brochures and a team of professional social engineers with a six-figure entertainment budget. And lawyers to advise them on exactly how much they can get away with.

            Ten years later you’ll find that several of the regulators have cushy jobs at the Plumber’s Guild, and that will look kind of fishy but it will be too late to do anything about it at that point. It’s now illegal for home handymen to do their own plumbing, because the best available information says that would be too dangerous.

          • Ruben says:

            My point exactly!
            There’s is not much outright bribery (in the West) because that would be illegal. However, regulators _trust_ those they regulate to reward them with cushy jobs. Failing to account for trust and only outlawing the mechanisms that perfect egoists would find acceptable (no leap of faith, just a direct bribe) is a flaw in the agent model of capitalism.

            Hotfixes to increase accountability rely on a better agent model, where the agent can exhibit such qualities as enumerated above (wanting to be famous, not wanting needless harm, a certain professional honour).

            Examples are transparency, whisteblower protection, funding a media where people are rewarded for investigative scoops, funding an agency such as AllTrials that can get their way instead with a lot less funding than the pharmaceutical companies.

            It’s of course easy to find things like your plumbing lobbyists, but the more people actually care about the subject matter (think taxes, medicines, energy, water, smoking), the more such backroom activities are brought to light.
            But yes of course, in many cases it’s not working, especially in those cases that people can hardly bring themselves to care about.
            My point: what I describe above are hotfixes. I think you can put this down to nepotism, friendships, alliances, trust etc. not being explicitly modelled and systematically built into the system.

          • John Schilling says:

            You still haven’t explained what the whistleblower is supposed to blow the whistle on.

            I grant you the disgruntled employee. He writes a letter exposing everything that is going on. None of it is illegal. Everybody who cares, already knows what is going on. Most people don’t really care. The few people who do care, mostly benefit from the status quo. What difference does the letter make?

          • Tracy W says:

            Nothing is explicitly built into capitalism. Capitalism just grew. And it seems to work better than the designed systems.

            If you are talking about theorists of capitalism on the other hand, Adam Smith recognised both the tendencies to cartels and the tendencies to regulatory capture back in the 18th century.
            BTW, I don’t think this is particularly a matter of corruption. If you only hear arguments on one side of a position and the argurer is reasonably skilled, you tend to be convinced by those arguments. And the guild of plumbers is going to be putting arguments that just happen to favour the guild of
            plumbers, while no one is putting the other side as all the hobbyists are disorganised. Add in that the regulators, if they are technical experts, probably trained with people in the industry and bonded over terrible assignments and long drinking sessions, and you have a situation not resolvable by whistle blowers.

      • ” if society is badly structured, people must be bad.”

        Why? Are you assuming that “structured” means “designed?”

        • Shenpen says:

          I mean the standard Left model: that there is a structure consisting of an oppressor-exploiter group and an oppressed-exploited group.

          This is not exactly a design as such. As an example, the relationship between a feudal lord and serf, IF we truly believe the Left’s idea that it is an entirely one-sided explotation and repression, cannot be simply a clumsy design, but something only a “bad” species does. “Bad” as in “not fitting our philosophical ideas of ethics”.

          If we don’t believe the Left’s story, if we think it was actually a reciprocal and for more or less a fair purpose (feudal knight being a soldier, soldiers are paid from taxes, there was no central government to collect taxes so basically they just assigned taxpayers to soldiers), then we can ask whether it was a good design or not.

          To ask the design question, you need to drop the Left’s one-sided exploiter-exploitee, opppressor-oppressee structure, as that is not merely a design.

          To ask the question of what is a good design, we should assume there is at least some very basic level of reciprocity in it, and not just a huge crime basically.

          • TheAncientGeek says:

            You need to split the question of whether it was a good design into the question of whether it was a good design given their resources, given our resources, given any resources, for generating resources, and so on.

            Whilst the left can criticise feudalism for being unjusti, the center can criticise it for being inefficient.

        • Deiseach says:

          if the animal welfare law prevents you from flaunting your wealth via owning big cats, maybe you’ll donate lots to big cat conservation instead

          No, more likely you’ll buy a licence to go big game hunting in Africa and bring home your trophy lion’s head (though I have to say, the deification of Cecil the Lion and demonization of the dentist is a bit much).

          • Mary says:

            One notes those licenses are doing more to save the big cats than every environmentalist in America.

            They are making them assets to the poverty-stricken locals.

      • Eli says:

        We cannot possibly believe now the leftie ideas like all we have to do is to organize society in egalitarian ways and giving complete freedom to people and then we have immanentized the eschathon.

        I’m a leftist, a far-leftist even, and this simply isn’t what the Left believes.

        Like the Right, the Left is a set of interrelated values, goals, and beliefs. Do us the basic charity of acknowledging that a reflectively-coherent Left can be had, or at least attack things we really say and do.

        The strawmanning of the Left on this site is ridiculous.

        • Jaskologist says:

          It may not be now, but this was an actual leftist view, especially in the days of Communism. See also “tabula rasa” and Rousseau.

          • ddreytes says:

            It may have been one in the past, but it hasn’t been the only one since at least Marx. And it is, I think, much more useful to engage with the actual stronger arguments, instead of the ones that are obviously wrong. Less convenient maybe but more useful.

            (Also, I would argue re: Rousseau that, while he did believe that human beings are inherently good in a state of nature, it’s also quite clear that he doesn’t think this is especially relevant to the organization of society and politics, so I’m not sure how good an example that is)

          • Jaskologist says:

            I would place Marx firmly in that camp, what with historical materialism and all.

          • ddreytes says:

            That’s fair even though I don’t think I totally agree. I think I misread one of the earlier posts in this thread and slightly misinterpreted the conversation. So, yes, there is a sense in which that’s true of Marx.

            That said, I would still argue that it’s somewhat misleading – I think it overlooks the fact that Marx has a more nuanced, and not necessarily optimistic, understanding of human nature, and I think glossing Marxist ideas about reorganizing society as “just make everything more egalitarian and everyone will be fine” is not very accurate.

            But fair enough.

        • Shenpen says:

          Sorry, but the goal of the left is liberté, egalité, fraternité. This never changed. Whatever you do may also be called left, but apparently not in its main stream if egalitarianism and personal freedom are not absolutely central.

          • wysinwyg says:

            But, rather obviously:

            We cannot possibly believe now the leftie ideas like all we have to do is to organize society in egalitarian ways and giving complete freedom to people and then we have immanentized the eschathon.

            =/=

            liberté, egalité, fraternité

          • ddreytes says:

            I don’t see why valuing egalitarianism and personal freedom also requires one to also believe that increasing egalitarianism will lead immediately and uncomplicatedly to paradise.

          • HlynkaCG says:

            >Sorry, but the goal of the left is liberté, egalité, fraternité. This never changed.

            On the flip side history has shown that these are words to run away from really fast.

      • Dahlen says:

        This is Scott’s turf, so I’ll say this politely: don’t you have a more useful frame for thinking about such matters beyond “good/bad human nature”?

        • Shenpen says:

          This is not my model, this is the standard historical model. People always knew people hurt each other, people always accepted this is because humans are bad. There were various theories, like Augustine saying original sin leads to libido dominandi and that is why we do it, which is very similar to saying evolution leads to status-seeking and dominance-seeking. Plato said the problem is the part of the soul that is called appetite. Buddhists talked about samsara. They all just meant people suck.

          And thus the standard, old, pre-Enlightenment view was because humans suck, you can deal with this only in a limited way. Of course you punish people who hurt each other too much. I.e. the standard theory of crime: just punish criminals. And morality is something personal: everybody’s responsibility to to keep their conscience clean.

          This was the prior. This was the universal model.

          Then the Left came with Rousseau, Marx and others and said human nature does not suck, humans are born good and only “civilization” makes us bad, so we only need to reorganize society. Specifically, we only need to end hierarchy: oppression, repression, wealth inequality, authoritarian rule and so on. The great masses of people behave bad only because they are repressed. Make them free and equal and they will be good.

          Seriously, this is what the whole liberté, egalité, fraternité is about. It is not my model. This the silly shit progressives push for centuries now.

          • Nita says:

            What makes you think that Marx “and others” agreed with Rousseau? And communists of the Soviet Union clearly had a sort of working-class-Aristotelian view of human nature: they believed that a good character must be cultivated with good choices and labor (hence “labor camps”).

          • TheAncientGeek says:

            Then there is the other right wing objection, the equal and opposite one , that progressive society changes people too much, turning men into wimps, reducing fertility etc,

            Of course, we don’t know that human nature is 100% fixed, epeople are only happy in tribes, end of. What we know is … complex. See Pinkers Blank Slate…see the page count, particularly.

            What you are coming out with is to current science what Social Darwinism was to the science of its day.

          • DavidS says:

            One of your examples of wise pre-Enlightenment types who accepted that we could only address humna nature in a limited way is Plato. Have you read the Republic? It’s pretty much a blueprint for an absolutist state – castes, art entirely subordinated to creating ‘correct emotion’, eugenics, systemised formal deception by the elite etc.

            Also not sure that Augustine specifically or the Church in general was always so laissez-faire about morality being purely personal.

            Dunno about Buddhists. Ashoka was a bit of a modern progressive type, judging by his edicts. I mean, hospitals for animals?

            PS: as others have said, Rosseau at least at surface has a very naive optimism about human nature, but I don’t think you can apply it to the left so bluntly. If anything the ‘get out of the way of humanity and everything will be fine’ has been passed on to libertarians, and it’s not really even fair to apply it to them. Left-wing people tend to believe in, y’know, having a state and institutions and stuff.

          • Shenpen says:

            @Nita

            Just read Marx, especially that part about social being and consciousness.

            Soviets were a special case. China too. These states show a strange mixture of actually leftie ideas and their rightie (theocratic or authoritarian) traditions. When the Western New Left came up with drugs, sexual liberation etc. they said firmly no. They were an weird combination of left and right ideas.

            @TheAncientGeek

            That is the standard “decadence” line already offered by Roman poets. Also look up Ibn Khaldun on Asabiya.

            @DavidS

            You confuse leftism with utopianism or totaliarianism. They are not the same. Utopianism or totalitarianism can be, for example, religious. Leftism is specifically the case when due to optimism about human nature, they focus on egalitarianism and removing restraints. Also it is not necessarily totalitarian, it can also be anarchist.

            Also, Plato offered that as a thought experiment, then realized there are not enough true philosophers to rule as kings and thus went on to invent classical liberalism: “justice is when everyone minds his own business, and refrains from meddling in others’ affairs” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suum_cuique

            So this is fairly irrelevant.

            The precursors of the Left are not Plato but various Gnostic-heretic communities, like Cathars, who said they are perfected, pure people and can live in egalitarian communities without property.

          • wysinwyg says:

            Seriously, this is what the whole liberté, egalité, fraternité is about. It is not my model. This the silly shit progressives push for centuries now.

            Also possible: the view that “good” and “bad/evil” are reified abstractions that point to only the loosest of clusters in concept space, and that human beings are capable of extraordinary cruelty but also extraordinary kindness and bravery.

            Also, the view that the vast majority of human beings don’t seem to be irredeemably shitty to each other in most circumstances.

            Try steelmanning; or at the very least, talk to liberals instead of trying to tell them what they believe.

          • ddreytes says:

            At the risk of looking like a pedant or a monomaniac, this is simply not an accurate characterization of Rousseau’s thought. Yes, it is basically true that Rousseau thought that humans are born good and that civilization makes us bad. However, he does not think that getting rid of hierarchy will allow us to return to getting back to a state of nature. He is quite explicit that it is not possible to return to a state of nature. And while he is interested in reorganizing society, he by no means thinks that’s easy – he spends most of ‘On The Social Contract’ thinking about all the things that make it difficult to create and maintain a just society, and trying to figure out how you can solve those problems. He absolutely does not think that you can just make everyone free and equal and everything else will sort itself out. That is simply wrong.

            I also think you are, if not absolutely wrong, at least grossly oversimplifying a lot of intellectual history here, but I think others have gone to more length in pointing that out already, so.

          • Eli says:

            The whole point is that you shouldn’t anchor-and-adjust from historical models that perform badly. You should throw them out and just get new models that perform well.

          • Dahlen says:

            @Shenpen:

            Who cares who held it in the past? It’s thoroughly flawed on its own merits. It makes no sense to construct a general moral profile of human beings, since our humanity guides our notion of morality, which would get used in turn to judge our humanity. (Besides, the complexity of value makes it difficult to put certain traits and attitudes firmly in the good/bad camp, after you’ve exhausted the obvious. I know because I’m in the midst of making extensionally explicit analyses of values.) And if any such attempt is made, if the result doesn’t turn out to be that the human being is morally average, I’d say something is wrong with your methodology. It’s an error of the same type as “90% are above/below average”. Good and bad are defined as better than average and respectively worse than average. A picture of human nature as either mostly good or mostly bad is more indicative of the speaker’s cynicism/optimism, or emotional bias towards or away from fellowship with the human species at large.

            If anything, our tendency to band together in communities rather than avoid each other should make us err on the side of human beings generally passing human standards of a decent person.

            On a final note: your model seems to contain more of an impression of dastardly leftist meddling than is warranted. Normally I’d try to encourage you to entertain a more complex and nuanced picture of the world in which good and bad are not two political parties, but in the light of the recent discussion, I think I’ll wait to see a hint of an admission of the possibility that stuff is complicated beforehand.

      • TheAncientGeek says:

        “We cannot possibly believe now the leftie ideas like all we have to do is to organize society in egalitarian ways and giving complete freedom to people and then we have immanentized the eschathon.”

        That suffers from black and whitism. Societies based on certain kinds and levels of equality and freedom actuallly do pretty well.

  57. Protagoras says:

    The discussion of intelligence services brings up one of the main reasons for my view that spies are useless. In the cold war, the Soviets had spies everywhere, against enemies who were in no way comparable (as you note, their enemies’ spies were very often actually working for them), and it didn’t seem to help them much at all.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      What would “helping them” look like? The Commies managed to hold out against a country with like ten times their GDP for an impressively long time.

      Muggeridge’s view of British intel during WWII was that Turing’s group at Bletchley Park was absolutely vital, and everything else was kind of show business to obfuscate their existence.

      • Protagoras says:

        Well, confining ourselves to the cold war, their enemies were unwilling to resort to all out war (and would have faced considerable geographical problems anyway, at least in conventional war), so I’d have to say that’s not all that impressive. Lots of countries have survived hostile relations with much wealthier powers, when there was any reason the wealthier power was unwilling to resort to warfare and spend that money on military force.

        • Chris H says:

          They were unwilling to engage in all out war at first because of war weariness post-WW2 (and maybe some propaganda spread by Soviet spies), but then because the Soviets stole the secrets to atomic weaponry through…wait for…spies.

          Maybe late game spies were irrelevant but getting nukes seems like a real game changer.

      • Daniel Keys says:

        A slight exaggeration. Maybe don’t trust the reactionary who was also a spy.

      • Nornagest says:

        I get the impression that no one on any side of WWII really knew what they were doing with human intelligence. A lot of James Bond tropes come out of that era (reasonably enough — Ian Fleming worked with British intelligence then, though he didn’t do field work), and they were actually halfway accurate, if dramatized, at the time. It grew far more mature during the Cold War.

        Signals intelligence, on the other hand, was already a mature discipline. The advances in it during the war were great, but they were mostly technological.

      • PDV says:

        > Muggeridge’s view of British intel during WWII was that Turing’s group at Bletchley Park was absolutely vital, and everything else was kind of show business to obfuscate their existence.

        It’s a little weird that he thought that, considering that the counterintelligence wing was the other part with significant documented effects. Unless he thought that active-deception counterintelligence like Operation Bodyguard were ineffective?

        • tcd says:

          Like Daniel Keys says above, always remember when you read works written by outed spies like Muggeridge, that they were in fact spies.

          There is a common (and strategically obvious) trope in intelligence history/literature in which methods are often downplayed as ineffective and agents are often portrayed as incompetent/lucky individuals. The abused meme “you never stop working for the CIA/KGB/[insert agency]” does have precedent.

          For readers who enjoyed “American Hippopotamus”, the same web-magazine published a fantastic essay chronicling the life of Mossad agent Yehuda Gil titled “Operation Red Falcon”. To ruin part of the fun, sometimes even agencies like Mossad cannot tell when their own spies are being genuine.

          https://magazine.atavist.com/stories/operation-red-falcon/

    • CatCube says:

      Some of their spies did stuff that we still deal with today. I’m working my way through a book on the Kennedy assassination, and one of the things brought up is that many of the conspiracy theories that grip people to this day may have been introduced by the KGB to spread hate and discontent.

    • alexp says:

      It helped a ton in WWII. The Soviets knew exactly where the Germans were going to attack at Kursk and managed to fool them multiple times as the the direction and location of counteroffensives.

      Look at where their intelligence failed: At the beginning of Barbarossa, although that can be blamed on Stalin not listening to the intelligence, and the beginning of Case Blue. The latter wasn’t a complete failure for the Soviets. Neither side knew what the other was going to do, but the Germans got lucky.

    • bluto says:

      How would the USSR have done in the cold war without atomic weapons?

      They shaved years of their time to acquire the bomb due to the efforts of a massive intelligence effort.

      • Protagoras says:

        The U.S. had decisive nuclear superiority over the Soviets in the late 40s and early 50s. Though some hawks advocated exploiting this advantage, it was obviously not actually acted upon. I see no reason to think a few more years of the same situation would have made any difference.

        • bluto says:

          Compare the allied division of Germany and similar planned division of Japan among the allies (when no one had the bomb) to the exclusive US occupation of Japan and division only of outlying territory as to the diplomatic advantage exclusive possession offered.

          • Protagoras says:

            Are you sure the lack of division of Japan didn’t have more to do with the Soviet Union’s late entry into the Pacific war, and the absence of Soviet armies already occupying significant parts of Japan as they had occupied significant parts of Germany when Germany was divided?

        • TrivialGravitas says:

          Into the early 60s really. Smaller bombs meant ICBMs were deployed ahead of the soviet ones. (why the Cuban missile crisis was so dangerous, it was plausible the US wouldn’t get hit at all in a first strike).

    • TheAncientGeek says:

      It has been mentioned in this very blog that WWII British domestic intelligence was basically 100% effective at detecting and neutralising German infiltrators.

      https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double-Cross_System

      • wysinwyg says:

        …and then it turned out that most of the guys responsible for that were Soviet spies.

        The CIA practically self-destructed looking for high-level Soviet mole, in part because of the director of CI’s experiences with Kim Philby.

  58. Professor Frink says:

    “What I’m saying is – there is no royal road. This is why I think learning rationality and the art of sifting through evidence is so important.”

    But doesn’t this then implying that ‘rationality’ broadly defined is the royal road? What if there just isn’t a royal road at all?

    I like Muggeridge’s book and he was an interesting man but I also wonder how much he truly was an iconoclast and how much he just liked to paint himself that way. I’m mostly familiar with British writers, but even there you can point to authors like Orwell who clearly understood the danger of Stalin. There certainly was a large pro-communist movement in the western academy, but there was also a fairly large pro-Nazi movement, and the pro-communist section of the academy wasn’t so powerful that western countries ended up going communist. There was a definite counterbalance that feared soviet expansion, and the counterbalance was what carried most of the west’s foreign policy.

    When I write my autobiography, I’ll obviously make sure I come off looking like the lone voice in the wilderness of idiots.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I differentiate between “royal road to X” and “complicated set of heuristics that, if you put a lot of effort into working on them, gets you incrementally closer to X”

      • LHN says:

        Which fits the original context of “no royal road to geometry”. It’s not that kings can’t learn geometry, just that there aren’t any express routes for them (or anyone else) to use in learning it. “No royal road” at least implies that there is some path available.

      • Raph L says:

        I was just thinking about Brooks’ “No Silver Bullet” argument, and how it’s similar to “no royal road” and also very relevant to the quest for a general technique that smart people can use to beat the odds on being right. Sure enough, that essay references the original “royal road” quote.

    • “There certainly was a large pro-communist movement in the western academy, but there was also a fairly large pro-Nazi movement”

      Was there? My impression was that academic defenders of the Nazis, at least in the U.S. and Britain, were relatively rare.

      • Nornagest says:

        There was a pro-Nazi movement in the United States — see for example the German-American Bund — but it didn’t have much academic traction that I’m aware of. Probably smaller than its Communist counterparts, too.

        Britain, before 1940, had a homegrown fascist party in the British Union of Fascists; the American equivalent was the Silver Legion. Both were fairly small.

        • BBA says:

          There was certainly a major fascist movement in America between the wars – the KKK. At its peak it controlled the state government of Indiana and numerous localities elsewhere. There wasn’t much of an academic presence to it, though. In general the far right tends to be anti-intellectual and the feeling is mutual.

          • Nornagest says:

            I don’t think I’d call the KKK fascist in this sense. It might look look similar from this remove — a violent, insular group into far-right ethno-nationalist movement politics, strongly anti-communist and with a focus on spectacle — but there were important differences, too. It didn’t seek formal positions (though individual Klansmen sometimes did), didn’t have a totalizing political philosophy, and was not a political party (though it was linked with the Democratic Party in some regions). It didn’t promote the corporatist economics typical of European fascism, or have any kind of economic policy at all beyond anti-labor sentiment. And it didn’t develop the cult-of-personality angle: Nathan Bedford Forest, the closest thing it had to a rallying figure, was dead long before the Twenties.

            There is a tendency these days to link any far-right group with fascism, especially if it’s really racist, but I don’t think that’s a good model: the core of fascism seems to me to be this idea of nationalism as messianic religion, exalting the (sometimes ethnic) polity as embodied in a supreme leader, and the Klan wasn’t into that. I’m not even sure Franco was.

          • BBA says:

            Well it depends on how you define fascism, which post-Mussolini is more of an epithet than an actively practiced political philosophy. Certainly the ’20s KKK would object to being called “fascist”, since Mussolini was a Catholic and they despised Catholics almost as much as they despised blacks. In Indiana, the anti-Catholicism was dominant over the racist aspects of the Klan, which led to an alignment with the Republican party (Catholics being predominantly Democratic at the time) and a major center of anti-Klan activity being Notre Dame University of all places.

            The disappearance of anti-Catholicism is one of the less commented upon shifts in American politics. As late as the 1970s evangelical Protestants were pro-abortion because opposition to abortion was seen as Popery.

          • Nornagest says:

            Well, sure, you can call the Klan fascist if you’re using it as an epithet, but you can call Barack Obama fascist if you’re using it as an epithet. It just doesn’t carry much information in that sense, you know?

          • Mary says:

            ” And it didn’t develop the cult-of-personality angle: Nathan Bedford Forest, the closest thing it had to a rallying figure, was dead long before the Twenties.”

            And more to the point, quit as soon as the KKK resorted to violence, and took out a full-page newspaper ad telling that he had done so, and urging all members to do the same.

          • BBA says:

            I seem to have rambled off my original point. Maybe the KKK was dissimilar enough from Mussolini to not be technically “fascist” by narrow definitions. But the parallels are there, and I feel like there should be a broader term for organized mass-membership organizations engaging in ultra-nationalist violence with support of at least part of the state apparatus. (Other than “police”, I mean. Har de har har.)

    • Leonard says:

      There certainly was a large pro-communist movement in the western academy, but there was also a fairly large pro-Nazi movement, and the pro-communist section of the academy wasn’t so powerful that western countries ended up going communist. There was a definite counterbalance that feared soviet expansion, and the counterbalance was what carried most of the west’s foreign policy.

      Oh, the Western countries did go communist. Small-c, not big-C. The point here is that communism is and was a broad political movement. In the West, we did have some revolutionary communist sects, who lost. Or at least failed to win. (Billy Ayers did not exactly lose.) But our main communism called and calls itself “progressivism”. It won. We are all now flamingly progressive compared to anyone of 100 years ago. Why, the men’s decathlon champ was a woman all that time! Of course, part of the accommodation of the progressives with the West was in retaining a limited and highly managed capitalism, at least for the proles. So you might argue that our communism is not true communism. Why, in true communism X holds, and we don’t do X! But my point here is that the progressives/communists won; their movement won: the set of people in the movement got into power in 1932 and have not lost it.

      This is something that intellectuals find very hard to understand. Intellectuals think that what animates people is ideas, so the ideas are primary and the movement is their vehicle. If there are different ideas, it’s a completely different beast. But that’s backwards. What animates people politically is powerlust, and helping their in-group; in the game of democratic thrones, ideas are means, not ends. Groups will discard and forget an formerly believed idea with little or no effect on the group itself. I.e., eugenics, or “overpopulation”, or caring about prole workers. Or, of recent, “born that way”.

      There were of course many Americans who feared the Soviets, but not until after WWII. Through WWII the FDR regime thought of the Soviet Union as a friendly client state, and handed over a substantial swath of the world to Stalin. That’s also why USG was riddled with Soviet spies: the spies were progressives who felt that working with our friends the Soviets just made sense, much as people today wouldn’t feel that spying for Australia is seriously wrong.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        > But my point here is that the progressives/communists won; their movement won: the set of people in the movement got into power in 1932 and have not lost it.
        > This is something that intellectuals find very hard to understand. Intellectuals think that what animates people is ideas, so the ideas are primary and the movement is their vehicle. If there are different ideas, it’s a completely different beast. But that’s backwards. What animates people politically is powerlust, and helping their in-group; in the game of democratic thrones, ideas are means, not ends.

        To get into power in 1932, they must have been born at least around 1880-1900. This is beginning to remind me of Grandfather’s Axe. It’s had three new blades and five new handles, but it’s still the same axe.

        Sort of like a Buddhist idea of reincarnation; there’s no one soul that does the reincarnating, just a bundle of karmas with a slow turnover. Or like some card game whose name I’ve forgotten, where you keep drawing and discarding and soon all the original cards have been replaced, but it’s still the Same Hand.

        • Jaskologist says:

          It’s not that crazy to tie modern members of a movement to past members. In the case of Progressives, that’s a self-appellation, so they’re the one tying themselves to past Progressives. Anthony’s claim that they are the “exact same” people is of course an exaggeration, and will get more so as time goes on (Hitchens the Trotskyite is no longer with us, for example), but sometimes they really are the same people, too. Bill Ayers was a genuine communist terrorist, now a university professor. How many of those at Harvard who supported the Khmer Rouge are now in positions of power?

        • Ever An Anon says:

          Or, for instance, a human being. In a few years virtually all of your cells will have been replaced yet you are (quite obviously) the same organism.

          There’s nothing mystical about treating a corporate body, a movement in this case, as a single agent. Or if there is, then no more so than saying a swarm of ants calculates the shortest route to a food source or that a market sets prices or that a volume of gas molecules exert pressure on their container. Simple (relatively speaking) behavior of individuals often results in complex emergent behavior on a systemic level.

          TL:DR; Don’t be obtuse.

  59. coffeespoons says:

    Have you read Orwell’s essays? He’s an example of a pre-war left wing public intellectual who wasn’t fooled by Stalin. Given that Orwell was highly regarded it feels like the extent to which Muggeridge was isolated has been exaggerated. He’s also an example of someone who noticed the flaws of stalinism while being generally optimistic about humanity.

    Orwell’s essays are a great read and he writes a lot about the events discussed here. Does Muggeridge not mention him?

    • BD Sixsmith says:

      Muggeridge was reporting on Stalinism in 1933. Orwell took an interest in the subject after the Spanish Civil War, several years later. But, yes, they were friends.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Orwell and Muggeridge were RL buddies for pretty much exactly the reasons you mention.

      • AR says:

        I thought of a comparison with Orwell too, but a different, less important one: if you read Homage to Catalonia, Orwell notes that The Guardian was the only reliable source of straight news reporting on Spain during the civil war, with Pravda and the capitalist British papers all spouting garbage propaganda for their own sides. So it was very striking to learn from this blog post that The Guardian was so feckless on Stalin’s regime. I guess it’s as you say: no Royal Road.

        • It is possible that the difference was that the Guardian was reporting on conflicts between left wing movements, communists vs anarchists, so was itself relatively neutral. I don’t remember if Orwell says anything about how balanced their reporting was as between left and right in that war.

    • roi says:

      This is one of several comments here bringing up Orwell as a supposed counterexample to the prevailing pro-communism of 1930’s intellectuals.

      Orwell became anticommunist only in 1937, after the communist suppression of the POUM in Catalonia, which he was lucky to escape alive.

      His subsequent book “Homage to Catalonia” was rejected because of its anticommunism by Gollancz, the main left-wing publisher at the time, who published all his previous books. His articles were similarly rejected by “The New Statesman”. “Homage to Catalonia” was finally published by a struggling publisher, and only sold 900 copies until the outbreak of the war, as compared to the 50,000 audience of Gollancz’s “left Book Club”.

      Orwell remained marginalized and obscure, and continued to publish mostly in fringe publications until the end of WWII. His later fame, starting with the (delayed by communist sympathizers) publication of “Animal Farm” and “1984”, when he was already dying of tuberculosis, is already part of the history of the cold war.

      This is all in Wikipedia, and should be well-known by anyone familiar with Orwell, so I’m not sure to what extent feigned ignorance of it is genuine.

      • wysinwyg says:

        This is all in Wikipedia, and should be well-known by anyone familiar with Orwell, so I’m not sure to what extent feigned ignorance of it is genuine.

        I don’t think you even need to invoke the principle of charity to assume that people mostly know of Orwell by reading his work rather than reading about him.

        Orwell didn’t spend a lot of time whining about how unappreciated he was, so anyone who’s getting their Orwell from the horse’s mouth might very well not be aware that he was marginalized during WWII.

        This is an unjustified assertion:

        should be well-known by anyone familiar with Orwell

        This is begging the question:

        I’m not sure to what extent feigned ignorance of it is genuine.

        (Emphasis added.)

        • roi says:

          I agree that somebody who only knows Orwell from watching the animated version of “Animal Farm” in school would not be aware of his true position in intellectual circles in the 30’s and early 40’s. But then that someone isn’t likely to bring him triumphantly as an example of the acceptance of anticommunism in the 30’s that demolishes Muggeridge’s claims.

          For someone to do that (and by my last count there were three separate nicks doing exactly that here) he or she must believe that they do truly posses a full understanding of Orwell’s position in the 30’s. To believe that, while never having read any of Orwell’s pertinent articles and letters from that period (which have been widely available since the 60’s) or at least a biography of his, or at the very least the Wikipedia entry about him, seems to me very strange, even delusional. For that belief to arise independently in the mind of three unrelated readers of this blog to such an extent that they feel compelled to comment, seems stranger still.

          After all, it is true that Orwell didn’t spend his time “whining”, as you put it. But the denunciation of the submission to communism and the silencing of debate in the left was his main theme from 1937 onward. To invoke his name as a proof that what he fought against wasn’t there seems to me perverse.

          • wysinwyg says:

            For someone to do that (and by my last count there were three separate nicks doing exactly that here) he or she must believe that they do truly posses a full understanding of Orwell’s position in the 30’s.

            I’m not sure that’s true at all. If I thought I had to “possess a full understanding” of anything to have an opinion on it, then I would have a lot fewer opinions. I suspect the same is true of you and pretty much everyone else on planet earth.

            I read Animal Farm, 1984, a bunch of collected essays, and a bunch of “As I Please” columns. He may have mentioned some problems with intellectual closure on the left, but he nonetheless pulled for democratic socialism throughout “As I Please”.

            It’s pretty much always possible to nitpick in some way or other, but if you’re looking for an example of a prominent anti-Stalin socialist before/during WWII, Orwell seems like a pretty good one.

            It really seems to me like the “Orwell wasn’t socialist but was too politically ignorant to realize it” and “you’re not allowed to talk about Orwell unless you’ve exhaustively read all his works and studied his historical milieu to understand his relationship to it” are kinda bullshit objections to naming Orwell as an example of what he avowed himself to be.

        • “I don’t think you even need to invoke the principle of charity to assume that people mostly know of Orwell by reading his work rather than reading about him.”

          Fair enough. But in this context, the most relevant work would be the four volume _Letters and Essays_, which gives the same picture of the British left as Scott’s description of Muggeridge’s book.

      • Eggo says:

        Another note, I believe Animal Farm was only published due to the influence of the conservative government, before the post-war election. The Left did not like that book.

    • DavidS says:

      ‘Optimistic about humanity’? I don’t know if I’d characterise Orwell that way. Maybe compared to Muggeridge, but there’s a reason 1984 is one of the most depressing books ever, and it’s not a few bad apples

  60. Ever An Anon says:

    The maggot analogy made me wonder something, given some of what you’ve already said about depression. Obviously feeling as though everything is full of maggots is delusional, but thinking your civilization is dying (or, rather, recalling that you thought that in hindsight some decades later) right around when the British Empire fell sounds more like the suicidal drug addict who thinks he’s a burden on society: potentially an accurate belief, even if it is an extremely unhealthy one. Is there any prima facie reason to think he was deluded here?

    As to the “moral of the story” I think you missed it, because it’s unsuited to your temperment. The point is about humility: when people set out to solve their own problems or those of their neighbors one-at-a-time we have an advantage and can do real good, but setting out in a big band to save the world predictably ends in disaster. If you want to improve the cause of human welfare on a national or global scale, iodine salt or fluoridate water or develop wheat that grows in salt water or something else where your ambitions are in line with your abilities. Social movements have, at best, one or two genuine achievements alongside (literal) mountains of skulls.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      But you realize that people were against fluoridating water precisely because it was an evil communist social engineering utopian plot, right? These things are way easier in hindsight!

    • LCL says:

      So is the lesson to have good ideas at a practical level, but try to actively resist combining ideas (or letting your ideas get combined) into some kind of overarching philosophy or movement? Because movements are dangerous, even when based on (or at least incorporating) good practical ideas?

      If that’s it, it strikes me as a potentially useful and extremely neglected lesson. Sort of like pulling sideways – go out of your way to avoid entangling your cause with any broad social narrative.

      But I didn’t get that at all out of the review, and not remotely from the community popularizing the book either.

      • Eli says:

        So is the lesson to have good ideas at a practical level, but try to actively resist combining ideas (or letting your ideas get combined) into some kind of overarching philosophy or movement? Because movements are dangerous, even when based on (or at least incorporating) good practical ideas?

        So you’re saying that once I manage to study the stats material, I should go write a Sequence or several articles on the proper operation of hierarchical Bayesian inference?

        Because the lesson is, correct philosophies/movements are formed by generalizing over multiple good ideas at the practical level. Once you’ve got a good philosophy, you can use it as a guide to find more good ideas at the practical level, but you can’t start from nothing, come up with a philosophy that seems plausible, and then expect to get good object-level results. A philosophy is only as good as the object-level knowledge it compresses and generalizes.

        • LCL says:

          But presumably the British left wing, read charitably, was generalizing from practical and useful reactions/corrections to early capitalist excesses and, following up on that, became sympathetic to communism as a movement. Which consequently led it to support Stalin.

          Your view if I am understanding it correctly is essentially the same as Scott’s – the important thing is to be right when forming a movement, basically.

          The grandparent post by Ever an Anon argues that this is a mis-framing and misses the point. That the actual lesson of the book was something else entirely, possibly about the danger inherent in any kind of social movement at all. Or at least the danger of the impulse to subsume otherwise sensible ideas into mass social movements.

          I share your perception that this seems a potential criticism of Rationality The Internet Movement, which is partly why I was interested to find it posted here.

          It would also, though, seem to be equally a criticism of Reactionism The Internet Movement, which is confusing to me since Ever An Anon sources it to a book recommended by a Reactionary partly as an explanation of Reactionary ideas.

          ETA: in response to reply, I defer to your historical knowledge. They can’t count as evidence for a “don’t let your sensible ideas get swept up into a social movement” principle if they never had any sensible ideas in the first place.

          • “But presumably the British left wing, read charitably, was generalizing from practical and useful reactions/corrections to early capitalist excesses”

            Very charitably.

            For some evidence against that interpretation, see Hayek’s _Capitalism and the Historians_ or Ashton’s _The Industrial Revolution_ or read Engels’ polyannish account of what he imagined was the life of pre-industrial English peasants (I quote it in _Machinery_, which is webbed on my site).

            By the time the Webbs et. al. formed the Fabian Society, the excesses of early capitalism had produced something over forty years of a rising trend in the standard of living of the British masses.

            To put the point from a different angle, given what we know about the disconnect between reality and the beliefs of the founding Fabians wrt Soviet Russia, why assume that the beliefs of the same people a few decades earlier were based on reality?

          • Ever An Anon says:

            I think you’re pretty much on point in your interpretation of me, and part of why I don’t do politics more involved than being a smartass in comment sections anymore.

            To be 100% clear, I haven’t read the book and had never heard of it until today, although I certainly plan to now. My understanding of the moral is from the details in the review here and general conservative / reactionary principles. Utopianism is dangerous because it is hubristic, and social movements ( i.e. mobs) are particularly prone to utopianism.

            That factor, hubris, is the difference between “doing your duty” and building a worker’s paradise that Scott wasn’t seeing. If you see yourself as responsible for saving the world (that is, you see yourself as a god) then there is no difference, but if you take a more realistic view then your duty is constrained by reality.

          • Eli says:

            But presumably the British left wing, read charitably, was generalizing from practical and useful reactions/corrections to early capitalist excesses and, following up on that, became sympathetic to communism as a movement. Which consequently led it to support Stalin.

            Reversed stupidity is not intelligence.

            Your view if I am understanding it correctly is essentially the same as Scott’s – the important thing is to be right when forming a movement, basically.

            No, I’m saying that the important thing is not to be Correct in some eternal, post-historical sense. The important thing is to be Correct Enough in the normal, workaday sense: use the information you have as best you can, and update when you get more information.

            Since we’re dealing with information as a vital commodity, this means things like taking measures to ensure that you don’t just believe any propaganda that comes out of some foreign government while having no independent way to check.

            But of course, numerous facets of the statistics, probability theory, and information theory we today use to formalize these concepts hadn’t been formalized then, so we didn’t have a write it down in a textbook and teach it to everyone knowledge of proper evidence, just a vaguer intuition that tampering with information sources was a Bad Thing.

          • Eli says:

            Ever An Anon: if you see yourself as a god, then completely contrary to exempting yourself from proper reasoning about your capabilities and resources, reasoning correctly about your capabilities and resources becomes even more vital. Gods have larger responsibilities than mortals and must take more care.

          • Ever An Anon says:

            @Eli,

            Gods also, as you should know based on your stance on naturalism v theism upthread, are supernatural creatures unbound by natural limits on capabilities or resources.

            So, for instance, planned economies. They can’t work, even in theory, because of the economic calculation problem. This was known all the way back in the twenties. But this limitation was ignored, to the tune of several tens of millions of lives lost, because very intelligent (in some cases quite mathematically gifted, as ‘Red Plenty’ showed) people with God complexes figured they could make the math work anyway.

            In reality, the more you understand something the more humble you become because you realize just how little you really know. Arrogance is almost always the mark of an amateur. Keep the “Humans Are Awesome WAAAGH!” stuff on /tg where it belongs.

          • TheAncientGeek says:

            @David

            “By the time the Webbs et. al. formed the Fabian Society, the excesses of early capitalism had produced something over forty years of a rising trend in the standard of living of the British masse”

            The previous forty years also saw the reform act, the Tolpuddle martyrs, etc…you don’t have any evidence that Pure Capitalism, absent paternalistic employers, union movements, democratic reforms, etc, improves the lot of the working classes…pure capitalism doesn’t exist, that’s why libertarians have no homeland,

          • Eli says:

            In reality, the more you understand something the more humble you become because you realize just how little you really know. Arrogance is almost always the mark of an amateur.

            It seems you’ve never met a university professor.

            Keep the “Humans Are Awesome WAAAGH!” stuff on /tg where it belongs.

            Excuse me? WAAAGH is for Orks. “The Emperor Protects” is for humans. Bother me not with the weaklings of /tg/, because on /m/, we have a saying: WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK I AM!?

    • Kay says:

      “The point is about humility: when people set out to solve their own problems or those of their neighbors one-at-a-time we have an advantage and can do real good, but setting out in a big band to save the world predictably ends in disaster.”

      Isn’t this basically the view of Karl Popper who might be perceived as the grandfather of scientific/rational progressivism?

      • Ever An Anon says:

        To be honest, I only really know about Popper in the context of the philosophy of science. According to wikipedia he was broadly opposed to totalitarianism and historicism (very encouraging given his context) and specifically to “tolerance of intolerance” (discouraging in our context, not sure about his) but I can’t pin down his politics beyond that.

        Do you have any suggestions for reading on that subject?

        • Protagoras says:

          His famous work is The Open Society and its Enemies. Kind of notorious for blaming Plato for everything, based on some very, er, controversial interpretations of Plato’s writings, but if you want Popper on political issues, that’s the main source.

  61. John Sidles says:

    Resolved for purposes of debate  SSL readers attracted to rationality, effective altruism, history, and higher mathematics will gain *far* more insights — and more good-humored enjoyment too — from Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty (2010) and Unapologetic (2013) than from Muggeridge’s now-outdated corpus.

    Example  A recommended example of Spufford’s cogent style is his on-line introduction to the work of Soviet mathematician/ur-effective altruist Leonid Vitalevich Kantorovich

    • Eli says:

      It always strikes me: why do all these “intellectuals” with their Deeply Wise, Meta-Levelly Rational defenses of mainline Christianity never pick Judaism or Islam as the One True Religion? You would think that an unbiased, rational, meta-level-loving, object-level-hating Philosophy Student of Perfect Emptiness would have to place roughly equivalent priors on each of these faiths, or at least, damn near equal priors on Judaism and Islam (being more similar to each-other), and then some roughly similar prior on Christianity (divided among the sects), and then some other prior on Hinduism, Shintoism, Buddhism, etc.

      But instead, what we always see are Deeply Wise, Meta-Level Rational defenses of small-c conservative Christianity in its mainstream American forms.

      Something tells me that we are not dealing here with Perfect Philosophy Students of Perfect Emptiness.

      • John Sidles says:

        Eli, perhaps Spufford’s prose will help to mitigate your rancor:

        Red Plenty in Hindsight

        I want people to laugh (among other things) as they read it [Red Plenty].

        But I don’t want them to laugh comfortably, from a position of comfortable superiority, snickering at the deluded inhabitants of the past.

        I want, I hope for, the nervous laughter of fellow-feeling. We should laugh like what we are: people whom the observers of 2060 will be able to see are naively going about our business beneath our own monstrous overhang of consequences.

        Whatever it is.

        Spufford’s theological essays in Unapologetic similarly are forward-looking … rather in the enlightening tradition of Fred Rogers than the curmudgeonly (even maggot-afflicted?) tradition of Malcom Muggeridge.

      • Muga Sofer says:

        Yeah!

        And why do these “intellectuals” with their Deeply Wise, Meta-Levelly Rational defenses of [well-established true thing] never pick [false thing], either? You would think that an unbiased, rational, meta-level-loving, object-level-hating Philosophy Student of Perfect Emptiness would have to place roughly equivalent priors on everything, right? How come these supposedly “smart”, rational people always end up at this same place?

        You are bad at meta. ಠ_ಠ

        • Eli says:

          Well, the thing is, I am deliberately “bad at meta”, in the sense that the “meta-level reasoning” you’re endorsing is the opposite of proper hierarchical Bayesian reasoning. The very basic principles of hierarchical Bayes (since we’re in Bayesfriendland right now) instruct us that successful meta-level hypotheses are not formed by starting from perfect emptiness, arguing (let alone claiming things to be “self-evident”), and then seeking for ways to fit object-level data and hypotheses into our meta-level ideology, but instead only by accumulating large amounts of object-level observations, noticing a pattern in them, abstracting out that pattern as a generalization, and then seeing how well the generalization performs as an abstract hypothesis (a hypothesis on which our object-level hypotheses are conditioned) when presented with our large amounts of object-level evidence for object-level hypotheses.

          So I can’t help but ask, is this “meta” that’s so popular in SSC comments a kind of intentionally bad philosophy-student reasoning, or just an innocent mistake by people who’ve never heard of hierarchical Bayes?

          And why do these “intellectuals” with their Deeply Wise, Meta-Levelly Rational defenses of [well-established true thing] never pick [false thing], either?

          Except that Christianity of any form is not a well-established true thing. It isn’t even really a false thing. It’s an ostensible “belief” that completely fails to pay rent in anticipated experiences. All the expected experiences generated by Christian belief fall into two categories:

          * Those more easily explicable via some other hypothesis, such as “You feel a kind of Deep Cosmic Serenity when you pray because certain forms of music, atmosphere and intonation generate Deep Cosmic Serenity feelings,” which is actually a verified fact. In fact, it’s why neopagans and “postrationalists” can get anything emotional out of their deliberately made-up rituals: the fact of having a ritual affects people without the content having to map reality at all.

          * Those which are straightforwardly falsified, such as miraculous healings, prayers to saints being fulfilled, etc.

          And then there’s the fact that most of the time, religion and its apologists just sit there making excuses for failing to pay rent in anticipated experiences.

          It’s not just wrong. It’s not even wrong.

          So I genuinely expect that a rational individual, reasoning without bias and understanding their own psychology (eg: that the map is not the territory, etc.), will and should never end up a Christian, or religious in any way.

          The correct answer was strong naturalism and, along with it, atheism with respect to established religions. Sorry.

          • Deiseach says:

            EVERYBODY WILL BE ATHEIST OR ELSE! ANYTHING ELSE IS THOUGHT-ERROR!

            This totally neutral, bias-free, friendly recommendation brought to you by the representatives of independent free thought and making up your own mind on what you choose to accept or reject because you and you alone are the authority to tell you what to do.

            I already have one pope, I’ll stick with him, thanks 🙂

          • Eli says:

            I’m sorry, is this the Cult of Bayes or have I gone into the wrong room?

            I don’t give half a shit if you “confess” your “sins” to a “priest” every Sunday or not. I care that you constrain your anticipated experiences according to evidence, and form generalizations which accord with the evidence and further constrain your anticipated experiences.

            And no, you do not get to make anti-authoritarian meta-arguments for object-level magical thinking, because neither I nor anyone else can exempt you from the laws of reasoning.

          • Troy says:

            So I genuinely expect that a rational individual, reasoning without bias and understanding their own psychology (eg: that the map is not the territory, etc.), will and should never end up a Christian, or religious in any way.

            Do you really believe this, or are you being hyperbolic? (This is a serious question, I can’t tell.) Do you really think that the ~30% of contemporary scientists who are Christians are thereby irrational, to say nothing of the majority of great scientists throughout history who were Christians?

          • Mary says:

            “Those which are straightforwardly falsified, such as miraculous healings, prayers to saints being fulfilled, etc.”

            Prove it.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            “Do you really think that the ~30% of contemporary scientists who are Christians are thereby irrational, to say nothing of the majority of great scientists throughout history who were Christians?”

            Yes. Do you think people holding religions other than your own are rational?

            “Prove it.”

            Burden of proof is on the claim maker. Nothing has stood up. And the existence of miracle claims in all religions makes it quite doubtful.

          • Troy says:

            Do you think people holding religions other than your own are rational?

            Some of them. Scott, for example, is probably in the >99th percentile of rationality, and he’s not a Christian.

            Edit: not sure if you meant to include atheism under “religions other than your own.” Either way, sure, for some threshold of rationality and some religion there is almost certainly some member of that religion that meets that threshold.

          • 27chaos says:

            I’ve never actually seen anyone in real life bite the bullet and say that Christianity is evidence of irrationality. Cool. Now I’m considering biting the bullet myself. I’m probably more inclined towards meta-atheism though: the belief that few people “actually” believe in God, and instead people just claim that they do while acting in a way that implies they probably don’t.

          • Jaskologist says:

            Do you think people holding religions other than your own are rational?

            It is a very great mistake to equate “rational” with “correct.”

          • Mary says:

            “Burden of proof is on the claim maker. ”

            Yup. Therefore the burden of proof on the one who asserted, ““Those which are straightforwardly falsified, such as miraculous healings, prayers to saints being fulfilled,”

            Furthermore if you can’t easily and readily do so, you are refuted because you explicitly said straightforwardly — which requires said proof to be easy and obvious.

          • John Sidles says:

            Eli opines  “You do not get to make anti-authoritarian meta-arguments for object-level magical thinking, because neither I nor anyone else can exempt you from the laws of reasoning.”

            Question  Can any amount of volitional reasoning compensate for an objectively deficient capacity to read the mind in the eyes?

            Informal Observation  The practices associated to unprogrammed worship, pursued conscientiously over months and years, act cumulatively so as to markedly augment this capacity.

          • Wrong Species says:

            @Troy

            Is it really that arrogant to believe that those 30% of scientists(assuming that’s accurate) have a blindspot when it comes to religion? I think everyone has something that they are irrational about, whether it’s politics or religion or whatever. The thing is when I hear someone explain why they became a christian, I have not once heard someone say “Well I looked at all the evidence and then after some deliberation I concluded that the Protestant Christian God exists because of X”. It’s usually more like “I used to be an atheist but then I had this experience with God and became religious”. Who has become a christian without either being raised that way or having a spiritual experience?

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            “Either way, sure, for some threshold of rationality and some religion there is almost certainly some member of that religion that meets that threshold.”

            Than we start talking about rational communists and rational scientologists. Lets bite the bullet- you believe in factual things that are irrational, we get to label you irrational.

            “It is a very great mistake to equate “rational” with “correct.””

            If you agree they are rational, you are essentially admitting you’d hold their religious views in their place. That’s sort of a big deal when it comes to a belief system that justifies itself on faith.

            “Yup. Therefore the burden of proof on the one who asserted, ““Those which are straightforwardly falsified, such as miraculous healings, prayers to saints being fulfilled,”

            Furthermore if you can’t easily and readily do so, you are refuted because you explicitly said straightforwardly — which requires said proof to be easy and obvious.”

            If only I said why in my statement. You know maybe something like

            “Burden of proof is on the claim maker. Nothing has stood up. And the existence of miracle claims in all religions makes it quite doubtful.”

            Its too bad I didn’t say something like that in the post you responded to. It certainly could have saved us the trouble of me repeating myself.

            I’ll highlight the important part, the only part you didn’t respond to.

            “And the existence of miracle claims in all religions makes it quite doubtful”

          • Troy says:

            Is it really that arrogant to believe that those 30% of scientists(assuming that’s accurate) have a blindspot when it comes to religion?

            This is going to turn into Eli-exegesis, which might be unproductive, but I read Eli as saying something stronger than that Christian belief is irrational, even if the Christian believer is on the whole rational. What he said was, “I genuinely expect that a rational individual, reasoning without bias and understanding their own psychology (eg: that the map is not the territory, etc.), will and should never end up a Christian, or religious in any way.” I read this as saying that someone who is generally rational in their belief-forming processes etc. could never become a Christian — that Christianity is so obviously wrong that a reasonably sensible, rational person would immediately see it for the nonsense it is. That’s the claim that struck me as absurdly strong.

            Incidentally, I think it’s probably too strong to even say that every person who believes [thing I do not believe] “has a blindspot” about [that thing]. Some people might have different evidence than I do, and there’s nothing irrational about having different beliefs on the basis of different evidence.

            (And yes, that number is accurate: http://www.unzcloud.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Scientists-and-Belief-2.png)

            The thing is when I hear someone explain why they became a christian, I have not once heard someone say “Well I looked at all the evidence and then after some deliberation I concluded that the Protestant Christian God exists because of X”. It’s usually more like “I used to be an atheist but then I had this experience with God and became religious”. Who has become a christian without either being raised that way or having a spiritual experience?

            Well, first, I would dispute the claim that religious experience cannot be evidence. I would also dispute the claim that the options you’re describing are mutually exclusive — that someone who has a religious experience or was raised Christian can’t look at all the evidence and conclude that Christianity is probably true. I had a professor in undergrad who had a religious experience while an atheist, and then looked into all the major world religions (including spending a year in a Buddhist monastery) and decided that Christianity made the most sense. On a more personal level, although I was raised Christian, I have done my best to examine the evidence for and against Christianity and have become much more firmly convinced in the truth of Christianity as a result. If my study of the historicity of the New Testament had led me to believe that there was no good historical evidence for the miraculous claims of Christianity, I would not be a Christian.

            At any rate, there have been people who converted from atheism to Christianity without a spiritual experience. They may be hard to identify because of the vagueness of “spiritual experience” and because of our corresponding lack of knowledge of their personal lives, but Malcolm Muggeridge, subject of this post, may well be an example. G.E.M. Anscombe and Edward Feser also come to mind; both had intellectual conversions from reading Christian writers. Francis Collins reports becoming a Christian after studying the cosmological evidence and reading C.S. Lewis. Several writers became Christian after studying the historical evidence for Christianity, such as John Warwick Montgomery, Lee Strobel, and David Limbaugh. I also semi-frequently read articles chronicling intellectual converts, usually in college, linked by apologist Facebook friends. The only name I can remember from those articles right now is Laura Keynes (relative of John Maynard Keynes and Charles Darwin), but I have seen several others.

          • J. Quinton says:

            “It is a very great mistake to equate “rational” with “correct.””

            Indeed. I tend to think of religion from a sociological perspective. In that sense, religion is less like science — which is concerned with making accurate predictions about an indifferent world — and more like language or moral intuitions (though in actual human minds it probably falls in some nebulous middle layer), concerned with relationships between people.

            If everyone you know and love spoke English, it would be irrational to start speaking another language. This is an extreme example of what being non-religious in a majority-religious family/town/city/country *can* be like, but then again a lot of former religious people have had their lives upended in similar ways by losing spouses, friends, jobs, etc when they became non-believers.

            Another reason I use the language analogy is that knowing someone’s native language is good Bayesian evidence for what religion they are.

            So yeah, it’s not all that surprising that ~30% of scientists are religious. Humans are social animals, so those scientists probably have people they love who are religious.

          • Troy says:

            Than we start talking about rational communists and rational scientologists. Lets bite the bullet- you believe in factual things that are irrational, we get to label you irrational.

            Okay, then no one is rational, and the label becomes meaningless.

            If you agree they are rational, you are essentially admitting you’d hold their religious views in their place.

            This is too quick. “S’s belief that P is rational” does not imply that I ought also to believe P, because I might have different evidence from S. For example, one could argue that Tycho Brahe’s system was more rational to believe than Copernicus’s given then-available scientific evidence, without committing oneself to the claim that we ought to be Tychonians today.

          • Troy writes: “Do you really think that the ~30% of contemporary scientists who are Christians are thereby irrational”

            Read the essays linked below, then explain to me how any physicist can rationally believe in the notion of life after death — specifically, that human minds have at their core some sort of “spirit” that survives death. Any such “spirit matter” would have to interact with electrons… and it would have been detected by now.

            http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2008/02/18/telekinesis-and-quantum-field-theory/

            http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2010/09/23/the-laws-underlying-the-physics-of-everyday-life-are-completely-understood/

          • Troy says:

            Read the essays linked below, then explain to me how any physicist can rationally believe in the notion of life after death — specifically, that human minds have at their core some sort of “spirit” that survives death. Any such “spirit matter” would have to interact with electrons… and it would have been detected by now.

            I read the second and skimmed the first. I don’t think Carroll is right that “the physics of everyday life” are completely understood, for reasons relevant to this discussion: they can’t explain consciousness, which is something that all of us directly observe in our own experience of the world.

            As to your more specific argument against dualism, it is not at all clear to me why a causally efficacious immaterial mind, if it exists, would have already been detected by scientific observation of the brain. The most that seems plausible is that if the laws governing the universe were deterministic, then if we could examine in every last detail the brain and its environment, we could detect differences between interactionist dualism and causally closed materialism. Perhaps we would even be likely to be able to do the same given stable indeterministic laws, as in some interpretations of quantum mechanics. But clearly we cannot examine the brain and its environment in such detail, and so I don’t see why it’s such a sure thing that we’d have observed whatever difference dualism makes to the workings of the brain.

            At any rate, if you really think dualism is inconsistent with science, there are Christian materialists, like Peter van Inwagen, who think they can square materialism with the general resurrection. I don’t find their theories especially plausible, but that is an option.

          • Irenist says:

            @Kevin S. van Horn:

            I admire Sean Carroll, a lot, as both a physics popularizer and an apologist for naturalism who actually LISTENS to religious arguments rather than just snarking at them (e.g., I thought Carroll easily won his debate with WL Craig), but Carroll loses me right away with the title “the laws of physics are …” because I think the concept of “laws” is either parasitic on a non-naturalist metaphysics, or just a matter of “observed regularities” that are then a “brute fact” rather than an explanation. Here’s Feser’s argument on that:
            http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2014/07/carroll-on-laws-and-causation.html

            ETA: Of course, if the non-naturalistic explanation involves formal and final causality (and the right way IMHO to cash out “laws” is as systematic observations of “dispositions and powers” that are finally caused), then the physicist can believe in an immortal immaterial soul (which is the form of the rational animal body) without facing any interaction problem whatsoever.

            ETA2: Indeed, given that on a naturalist account, physics is brute and logic/math is merely the conceptual apparatus we happen to have evolved, the question IMHO is whether naturalism can be rational. Sure, it can be warranted, given what a given naturalist knows, etc. But what I specifically mean here is that a naturalist account cannot defeat the “Argument from Reason” (google it if you’ve never heard of it), and so either surrenders naturalism, or rationality itself.

            ETA3: @J Quinton:
            Perhaps religious scientists are only religious because they have religious loved ones, just as speaking English makes sense in an Anglophone milieu. But that sociological argument cuts both ways: Perhaps the majority of scientists and philosophers who are atheists has more to do with their being in a milieu where atheism is high status than it does with the quality of the arguments.

          • Urstoff says:

            Indeed, Humeanism, where there are no laws, just particularized facts, is gaining popularity in philosophy of physics.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            “Okay, then no one is rational, and the label becomes meaningless.”

            What makes you say no one is rational? Not believing in magic (except for exceptions for your pet belief) is a very low bar.

            “This is too quick. “S’s belief that P is rational” does not imply that I ought also to believe P, because I might have different evidence from S.”


            Look at what you are quoting
            “If you agree they are rational, you are essentially admitting you’d hold their religious views in their place. ”

            What do you think “in their place” refers to?

            “they can’t explain consciousness, which is something that all of us directly observe in our own experience of the world.”

            Taboo the word and the answer becomes a lot clearer.

            “it is not at all clear to me why a causally efficacious immaterial mind, if it exists, would have already been detected by scientific observation of the brain.”

            Because we have people who have had metal rods shoved into their brain and have changed personality. We can alter your goal system by electrical current into the reward center. Its clear that those systems take place inside the physical brain- what exactly is left for the soul?

            “there are Christian materialists, like Peter van Inwagen, who think they can square materialism with the general resurrection. I don’t find their theories especially plausible, but that is an option.”

            Squaring materialism with general resurrection is easy. God just brings people back to life by punching holes in time between when they ‘died’ and the present.

            ” but Carroll loses me right away with the title “the laws of physics are …” because I think the concept of “laws” is either parasitic on a non-naturalist metaphysics, or just a matter of “observed regularities” that are then a “brute fact” rather than an explanation. ”

            Just plug in “everything we’ve been able to observe about reality and use to make testable predictions”.

          • anodognosic says:

            @Irenist

            I fully reject the argument from reason. I’m not sure how good of a naturalist I am, but I think it fails to refute it anyway.

            According to Lewis, “unless Reason is an absolute–all is in ruins.” But I don’t think Reason is an absolute at all. Reason, in my best estimation, is a mishmash of mental models that have varying degrees of applicability. Naturalism has a plausible enough account of how these came to be – an evolutionary process bringing these models to a point where they’re just good enough. This seems to conform rather well with the evidence.

            (If you point to the apparent order of the universe as some sort of proof, I’d put to you that the universe being ordered may be an extremely surprising fact – but, just like the possibility of existence and nonexistence of alien life, its opposite would be equally surprising.)

            But in the end, there is nothing that guarantees that any is correct – and there is no ultimate response to skepticism. Does that mean that everything is in ruins? I don’t know. But if it is, it was never *not* in ruins, and can never be, even if you find religion.

            Contra Western philosophical tendencies, I think we must – and invariably do – live in a state of suspended disbelief and perpetual uncertainty, a sort of fractal understanding. It seems so clear to me that the idea of absolute Reason seems like a quaint artifact of bygone days – or would, if people didn’t insist on still taking it seriously.

          • Troy says:

            @Samuel Skinner:

            What makes you say no one is rational?

            Because everyone, or almost everyone at any rate, believes in “factual things that are irrational.” For example, let’s suppose that there are 100 empirical, politically charged matters about which everyone has an opinion, and that disagreements about these are not based primarily on different evidence bases. I expect you’ll agree that the party-line progressive or party-line conservative package of views are not going to be the correct ones. This already cuts out a huge swath of the population from being rational. Maybe Scott Alexander or some other saint of rationality has the view most supported by the evidence on all 100 of these issues, but that seems pretty doubtful.

            More simply, it’s really, really hard to always follow the evidence and never let biases influence you. That’s the whole point of the rationality movement. If “rational” means “perfectly rational,” then no one is rational just like no one is moral if that means that they’ve never done something wrong.

            Look at what you are quoting
            “If you agree they are rational, you are essentially admitting you’d hold their religious views in their place. ”

            What do you think “in their place” refers to?

            My apologies; I read too quickly.

            Because we have people who have had metal rods shoved into their brain and have changed personality.

            This is fully consistent with interactionist dualism, which posits an interaction between mind and brain, including from brain to mind.

            @anodognosic

            If you point to the apparent order of the universe as some sort of proof, I’d put to you that the universe being ordered may be an extremely surprising fact – but, just like the possibility of existence and nonexistence of alien life, its opposite would be equally surprising.

            If I recall correctly, Roger Penrose estimates the probability that the entropy at the beginning of the universe would be as low as it was by chance as less than 1 in 10^(10^100).

          • anodognosic says:

            @Troy one does wonder out of which cosmic orifice Penrose pulled the priors for that probability calculation.

            Or is he doing a frequentist analysis on the origin of the universe?

          • Irenist says:

            @Samuel Skinner:

            Just plug in “everything we’ve been able to observe about reality and use to make testable predictions”.

            Nature is (testably) predictable because it exhibits regularity. Either this is because it obeys divine “laws” (as Newton believed), because the orderliness of nature is just an inexplicable brute fact (as the neo-Humeans Urstoff mentioned believe) or because nature is composed of entities with intrinsic dispositions and powers (as us neo-Aristotelians believe). Telling me to replace the Newtonian word “laws” with the entirely Humean formulation “everything we’ve been able to observe about reality and use to make testable predictions” does nothing to save Carroll from Feser’s trilemma (Newtonian occasionalism, Humean obscurantism, or Aristotelian fourfold causality). “Observed regularities,” like “laws of nature,” is just “giving it a name.” Why is nature regular, orderly, law-like?

            @anodognosic:
            The analytical Thomist G.E.M. Anscombe made short work of Lewis’ layman’s formulation of the Argument. A better-worked out version, under the name “the Evolutionary argument against naturalism,” may be found in the books discussed in the Wikipedia article with that title.
            It’s understandable you’d think I meant the Lewis formulation (most people do), but the Plantinga is far more rigorous (as you’d expect), and I commend it to your attention.

            Contra Western philosophical tendencies, I think we must – and invariably do – live in a state of suspended disbelief and perpetual uncertainty, a sort of fractal understanding. It seems so clear to me that the idea of absolute Reason seems like a quaint artifact of bygone days – or would, if people didn’t insist on still taking it seriously.

            That’s a very strong position, and one to which I’m very sympathetic. However, I think it’s ultimately vulnerable to the method of retorsion: if reason is too flawed a tool to give us anything more certain than degrees of probability of the sort LW favors, then your own argument can never be more than probable. Worse, if you think that our “perpetual uncertainty” extends to things like whether the external world exists, or whether the laws of logic work, then the argument is vulnerable to a retortive reductio (i.e., it’s self-refuting), whereas if our uncertainty doesn’t extend to (a) the existence of a changing world and (b) the laws of logic, then you’ve admitted enough certainty to give someone like Aquinas all the premises he needs for his arguments.

          • Troy says:

            one does wonder out of which cosmic orifice Penrose pulled the priors for that probability calculation.

            As I understand it, 10^(10^123) (I just looked up the exact number) is the volume of the phase space of theoretically possible universes with low enough initial entropy for life to be possible. This gives us a probability of our universe being like this given that it was not designed if we assume a flat distribution over the space of possible universes.

            If you want to assign some other distribution (e.g., giving higher probabilities to lower-entropy universes on grounds of simplicity or something like that), unless it has a rather ridiculously large peak over the actual universe, it seems it will still give you an extremely low probability of a universe like ours arising by chance.

          • Troy says:

            @Irenist: What version of Plantinga’s argument do you like? The original one or the more recent one based on philosophy-of-mind-ish considerations? Both seem like pretty poor arguments to me.

          • anodognosic says:

            @Irenist instead of addressing you point by point, I’m going to try to build a coherent picture of what I believe, and hopefully the points of divergence will become clear.

            I depart from the study of metaphor and meaning, through linguistics and cognitive science. The impossibility of precise definition is evident to me – our categorizations are inherently fuzzy. This already puts me at odds with most of Western philosophy, because it casts some serious doubt on the ability of logic to yield ironclad conclusions about the world.

            Our abstract reasoning emerges from our concrete, largely visual imagination, and is largely restricted to a relatively small number of (mostly spatial) relations (image schemas is the technical term). It seems quite plausible that this is the result of evolution – existing sensorimotor capabilities repurposed for abstract thought. This casts some more doubt on logic, this time on a priori reasoning – because a priori reasoning might just be building on these intuitive models, which are only approximations. Western philosophy tends to assume certainty or bust, so there’s another point of diversion. In fact, I tend to consider the whole philosophical concept of knowledge a complete fantasy, some idealized approximation of how a belief really works.

            Anyone who has a dog or cat may easily observe that the animal has some rudimentary capacity to make predictions at test them – a cat that sees an animated fish on an iPad screen, for instance, will try to get at the fish behind it, and then will eventually stop after repeatedly failing to find it. We can infer from this that some sort of learning is going on. Human knowledge builds on that same capacity, bolstered by a much higher capacity for abstraction.

            An evolutionary process of trial and error – not biological evolution, but of holding on to those beliefs that bring positive results and letting go of those that bring negative ones – explains an accumulation of beliefs that lead to behavior that in turn produce positive results. That positive results imply some correspondence to reality is, with some caveats, a reasonable position.

            Technically, Plantinga could be right that positive results have zero correlation with accuracy. That may be true! Accuracy itself is a fuzzy concept in the concept of basic epistemology. But again, we come up against the philosophical yearning for certainty, and attendant tendency to reject what isn’t certain as incoherent. (And I don’t mean here an LW-Bayesian uncertainty, but a turtles-all-the-way down uncertainty, which does, yes, extend to the existence of external reality and even calls into question some of the assumptions (yes, I said assumptions) of the cogito.)

            What you can’t say is that a fuzzy argument is self-refuting. The worst that you can say about it is that it’s fuzzy. Which, you know, fair enough. My point is that all understanding is in fact fuzzy, all certainty is an illusion, and embracing this is the more coherent and salutary position.

            There is one possible exception to this. It’s not logical reasoning, because it is also infected by the fuzziness of definitions, which are necessary for logic to say anything about reality. No, the exception is mathematics. There seems to be something uniquely non-fuzzy about it, when applying to fundamental physics. And our intuitions about mathematics are primitive, but an apparently complex and consistent system can be extrapolated from these simple intuitions. The relationship of mathematics to reality is mysterious to me, and I don’t have a reasonable account of what it means. But it seems at least clear that even mathematics can partake in fuzziness, in, say, Newton’s law of universal gravitation, which yields very close approximations in certain conditions while evidently not actually corresponding to reality. But any and all of my considerations on the philosophy of mathematics are rudimentary at best.

          • nydwracu says:

            epistemic rationality != instrumental rationality, hth hand

          • Rick Hull says:

            > My point is that all understanding is in fact fuzzy, all certainty is an illusion, and embracing this is the more coherent and salutary position.

            My understanding is that 1+1=2, and I can’t imagine being more certain. Is this a mistake?

            I’m only slightly less certain that a person with an apple in each hand is holding two apples, with the fuzziness mainly confined to what a person is, how it relates to hands, and what apples are.

            EDIT: I see now that I have basically restated your final paragraph. I still don’t think your unqualified statement (which I quoted) is warranted.

            I do think that it is much easier to bridge the gap between math and reality than you imagine. Simple counting or comparing magnitudes is done with utmost certainty. For example, I am certain that I can count my hands, or the fingers on my hands, and that I have more fingers than someone with 9.

          • anodognosic says:

            @Rick I actually wonder to what extent even our basic mathematical intuitions are buttressed by practical experience.

            Edit to your edit: under normal circumstances, sure (not to put too fine a point on the meaning of a finger as a separate object beyond our mental representation of one – to what extent are you counting something “out there”, rather than in your mind? Is there something that makes a finger naturally a unit, or is it our cognitive prejudices that make it one?). But there are edge cases that bring out the fuzziness. Vestigial, partly amputated or prosthetic fingers – these strain at our definition of the term, and any strict division will be sort of arbitrary.

            I know I’m splitting hairs. But it’s the sort of hair you have to split in doing foundational epistemology.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            “I expect you’ll agree that the party-line progressive or party-line conservative package of views are not going to be the correct ones. This already cuts out a huge swath of the population from being rational.”

            Wrong and irrational are not the same. Their rule of thumb they are using is “trust my side”. Unless you obsessively study politics this is a rational position for individuals who have zero odds of actually affecting anything. If you believe that your choice determines what happens to you for eternity, it is a significantly worse strategy.

            “More simply, it’s really, really hard to always follow the evidence and never let biases influence you. ”

            You can be biased and be rational. Baysianism works even if two individual set different values for priors.

            “This is fully consistent with interactionist dualism, which posits an interaction between mind and brain, including from brain to mind.”

            The soul doesn’t do anything without the brain? Occum’s razor was specifically formulated to get rid of excess ontological entities- it seems to apply here.

            “Nature is (testably) predictable because it exhibits regularity. Either this is because it obeys divine “laws” (as Newton believed), because the orderliness of nature is just an inexplicable brute fact (as the neo-Humeans Urstoff mentioned believe) or because nature is composed of entities with intrinsic dispositions and powers (as us neo-Aristotelians believe).”

            Or states where the laws of physics can change collapse into states where the laws of physics cannot change (because said laws are changing until they hit that point).

            “Why is nature regular, orderly, law-like? ”

            It isn’t. Quantum mechanics is probabilistic. Its just with a large enough sample size the results trend to certain values.

            “then your own argument can never be more than probable. ”

            And? We can live with sufficiently high levels of probable. People marry despite cheating spouse being a significantly higher probability.

            “Worse, if you think that our “perpetual uncertainty” extends to things like whether the external world exists, or whether the laws of logic work, then the argument is vulnerable to a retortive reduction”

            It does. The former is irrelevant since what we observe exhibits patterns (so being in your own mind doesn’t prevent you from starving to death) and the laws of logic work… except when they don’t (whose both a particle and a wave which are supposed to be mutually exclusive?)

            “My understanding is that 1+1=2, and I can’t imagine being more certain. Is this a mistake?”

            No, its accurate. Math is an internally coherent and explicit system.

          • Troy says:

            Wrong and irrational are not the same. Their rule of thumb they are using is “trust my side”. Unless you obsessively study politics this is a rational position for individuals who have zero odds of actually affecting anything. If you believe that your choice determines what happens to you for eternity, it is a significantly worse strategy.

            I’m only talking about epistemic rationality here, not instrumental rationality. A belief is epistemically rational just in case it is the belief most supported by one’s evidence. I think it’s clear that hardly anyone has only epistemically rational political beliefs.

            At any rate, if you think incorrect political beliefs are instrumentally rational (because they don’t make a practical difference), then you ought to say the same about religious beliefs, given their positive effect on health etc.

            You can be biased and be rational. Baysianism works even if two individual set different values for priors.

            As an objective Bayesian, I disagree, but at any rate, plenty of cognitive biases affect updating and not just priors.

            The soul doesn’t do anything without the brain? Occum’s razor was specifically formulated to get rid of excess ontological entities- it seems to apply here.

            If our only observations were of the brain and we never observed the soul, I would agree that Occam’s Razor applies. But I think that we directly observe the soul when we are aware of our own consciousness, and that philosophical reflection makes it clear (or at least as clear as philosophical reflection makes anything) that the soul could not be a purely material thing.

          • Irenist says:

            @Troy:

            I think Plantinga’s more recent formulation is stronger, although obviously YMMV. I also think that Reppert’s defense of Lewis’ argument (once Lewis took onboard Anscombe’s critiques) is valuable. Now, I don’t especially love Plantinga’s habit of arguing probabilistically, and I’m personally more interested in an argument from intentionality that neurons cannot comprise the mind than in an argument that evolved neurons probably don’t lead to veridical judgments.

            Indeed, suitably amended, I think Lewis’ argument may ultimately be stronger (or at least, more interesting), although I suspect Plantinga’s style would be more far more amenable to the average SSC reader. But Lewis (suitably amended by Anscombe so that he’s talking about truth rather than just warrant) is getting at foundational considerations that are actually more interesting to me than probabilistic ones, sort of like how I prefer the Five Ways to fine-tuning arguments for God. Now, I think either Plantinga’s, amended Lewis’, or Reppert’s Lewis’ arguments are vulnerable to good naturalistic arguments about veridicality being adaptive. E.g., I don’t think that someone akin to anodognosic in this thread, who is willing to accept a kind of Pyrrhonian (or LW-style probabilistic) agnosticism about whether our brains can discern truth, is going to be defeated by any of the formulations of the argument from reason. However, anyone who wants to claim that their conclusions are certain (and it’s pretty hard to do philosophy without saying that, e.g., modus ponens is certain as opposed to just handy so far), will be more vulnerable to it. Not fatally so, perhaps, but vulnerable. I tend to prefer arguments from intentionality against materialism (evolutionary or not) about the intellect, so I haven’t sufficiently thought through whether I think “veridicality is adaptive” is a defeater for Plantinga and/or amended Lewis. Maybe? I don’t think so, but maybe. If you have thought more about it, I’d love to hear it.

            @anodognosic:

            I think once you concede “turtles all the way down” uncertainty, I can only respectfully disagree with you, but not refute you. Indeed, I think that kind of position, reminiscent of both the ancient Skeptics and to a certain extent of Buddhism, is a very, very strong position, supple enough to bend rather than breaking when confronted with the argument from reason. Certainly, plenty of Buddhists are quite fairly skeptical of the cogito (an argument of which I disapprove on unrelated Thomist grounds), and would reformulate it as “thinking occurs” rather than “I think therefore I am” which imports the assumption of the self. But once skepticism extends to logic and math, it’s very difficult to argue FOR anything. I can’t refute you, but you can’t convince me. We can abide in uncertainty amicably together, but that’s about it: discursive argument ends. BTW, the only critique I’d have of your excellent comment is to note that the fuzziness of our ability to apply Newton’s laws wouldn’t make math fuzzy, just our observational or calculative ability. But you already said philosophy of math isn’t your thing, so no worries. Oh, one other thing BTW: given your epistemology, your handle, anodognosic, is just perfect. I think from now on I’m likely to smile every time I see it, just from being tickled by the elegant aptness of it.

          • Irenist says:

            @Samuel Skinner:

            The soul doesn’t do anything without the brain? Occum’s razor was specifically formulated to get rid of excess ontological entities- it seems to apply here.

            Occam’s relationship with the concept of a soul was a lot more complicated than that, actually. He (erroneously, from a Thomist view) rejected both realism about universal forms and the demonstrability by reason of the immateriality of the soul, but also (and also erroneously from a Thomist view) unnecessarily multiplied entities by rejecting the unicity of the human soul and instead, in the Scotist tradition, insisting that it was logically necessary to posit separate corporeal, sensitive, etc. souls.

            As for whether the principle of parsimony applies to the soul, regardless of what Occam thought? No. Neither innate self-perfective activity in organisms generally, qualia in animals generally, nor intentionality in humans in particular is adequately explained without formal causality.

            Or states where the laws of physics can change collapse into states where the laws of physics cannot change (because said laws are changing until they hit that point).

            Upthread, when I pointed out that the concept of “laws” of nature was parasitic on theistic occasionalism of the sort endorsed by Newton, you said to replace Carroll’s usage of “law” with “everything we’ve been able to observe about reality and use to make testable predictions.” Since you neither want to accept occasionalism or essentialism, you’re not entitled to help yourself to the occasionalism-implying word “laws” here. So let’s try your Humean formulation here, instead, and see if it can produce anything coherent, or whether it instead reveals an aporia in your philosophy of science:

            Or states where “everything we’ve been able to observe about reality and use to make testable predictions of physics” can change collapse into states where “everything we’ve been able to observe about reality and use to make testable predictions of physics” cannot change (because said “everything we’ve been able to observe about reality and use to make testable predictions” are changing until “everything we’ve been able to observe about reality and use to make testable predictions” hits that point.

            So let’s see here. I asked WHY nature exhibits law-like order and regularity. (I say “law-like” rather than “lawful” because I’m an Aristotelian essentialist, not a Newtonian nomologist.) Unless you’re adopting the essentialism of (atheist, btw, AFAIK) ) neo-Aristotelian analytic philosophers like Brian Ellis, Nancy Cartwright, and Anand Chakravartty, or the “goddidit” of Newton (which your reversion to the word “laws” would imply), you’re not telling me WHY at all. You’re just saying that sometimes there are states where we observe and (can’t?) predict irregular, non-law-like behavior (“change”), and then these states “collapse” (which sounds like you’re trying to invoke quantum mechanics somehow) into states where we observe and predict regular, law-like behavior, “because” said reality which we are observing and (not?) predicting is “changing until we hit that point.” IOW, you’re saying that we observe an irregular, non-law-like reality, until it “collapses” into being regular and law-like, “because” it is irregular and non-law-like until it “hits that point.” So it’s irregular until it isn’t. For some reason. Which you haven’t mentioned. Oh, and it’s irregular until it “hits the point” where it’s regular. Which is tautological.

            Forgive me for being flabbergasted, but that explains nothing whatsoever. Now, attempting to steelman the tautological mess your LW-style neo-Humeanism yielded above, I suspect you’re thinking of some sort of cosmological scenario where various regions of the universe (or the multiverse, or whatever) have different regimes of observed physical regularities (different “laws of physics,” as the theist Newton might have said) and the phase transitions (or whatever) between these are themselves mathematically regular, in theory capable of yielding testable predictions from observation if an observer could somehow get at them. But whatever the mathematics behind how one or another regime of irregularity transitions into regularity may happen to be, they are completely irrelevant to this meta-physical, rather than physical, question. I am not asking “what is the math behind” this transition, which would be mere physics. I am asking why there is any regularity at all, either in the law-like “states” or in the transitions you’ve posited between irregular and regular states. Why is there any order in nature, at all? The atheist New Essentialists (Ellis, Cartwright, Chakravartty) have an answer to that. So do the “old” essentialists I favor, analytical Thomists like Feser and Oderberg. But your neo-Humeanism amounts to saying that it’s just an inexplicable brute fact. And every time you help yourself to the Newtonian language of “laws,” it’s parasitic on some kind of “goddidit,” either directly (as in Newton) or buried under attempts to claim it can be “cashed out” as neo-Humeanism, which as we have just seen, is just an evasion of the question: saying something is a brute fact is throwing up your hands and ceasing to search for explanation, not cashing out a metaphor. I say again: “observed regularity,” every bit as much as “law,” is just “giving it a name.” It is a mystery, a conversation-stopper. Not an answer.

            “Why is nature regular, orderly, law-like? ” It isn’t. Quantum mechanics is probabilistic. Its just with a large enough sample size the results trend to certain values.

            Statistical regularity is regularity. It’s random how any given photon will behave. It’s not random that if you have a fusion reaction the size of the Sun, it will give off photons. The aggregate behavior of all the photons produced by the Sun is statistically regular. And no, sunspots don’t contradict that. I’m not talking about local perturbations. I’m saying that the Sun shines. And it doesn’t just randomly not shine one day. And it doesn’t just randomly shine in red and green stripes like a tacky Christmas tree ornament one day. It shines the same statistically regular way every day. Because physics, in aggregate, is law-like. That’s WHY our observations can lead to testable predictions! So what I’m saying is, WHY is our cosmos the sort of place where observation can reveal regularities sufficient for testable predictions? The vocabularly of “law” answers “goddidit.” The vocabulary of Humean “observed regularities” doesn’t even TRY to answer the question. Look, I’m not saying “Become a Thomist.” I’m saying the atheist analytical philosophers in the New Essentialist movement are doing better philosophy of science than the neo-Humeans, better philosophy of science that, say, LW tends to do. And you should read them if you want to be rational and more correct. Now, once you accept any kind of essentialism, then, yeah, I have more foundations for all my sneaky theist arguments. But even if you don’t end up wanting to cross THAT bridge from New to old Essentialism, you will be a better, more rationally correct atheist if you adopt New Essentialism than if you stick with unreflective neo-Humeanism.

            the laws of logic work… except when they don’t (whose both a particle and a wave which are supposed to be mutually exclusive?)

            Physics is built on observation followed by hypothesis-testing. You cannot hypothesize if you abandon the logical law of non-contradiction. It is more fundamental than physics, and scientific induction is dependent upon it. AFAICT, the motivation behind the embrace of models like MWI is to get rid of as many of the paradoxa of the Copenhagen Interpretation as possible. I don’t know whether wave/particle duality paradoxa are eliminated in any present interpretations of physics. But whether they are or not, it remains true that logic is prior to science. You cannot argue that your hypothesis is correct if you abandon logic. You cannot do science, at all, if you abandon logic. Natural history (observation without hypothesis) maybe, but not natural science. Heck, probably not natural history, either, since “there are two birds in this nest” is either true or it’s not. As is well known, once you allow for logical contradiction, you can prove any nonsense you like. Logic is prior to science. Science cannot disprove logic, any more than it can disprove math. E.g., if I was a Newtonian who thought light was one thing, but then I learned from quantum physics that it’s actually two things, that just means I was wrong about light. It does not mean that 1 = 2. It means that faulty theory led me to employ 1 instead of 2 when recording my observations about light. Now, maybe you’re just trying to say that a paraconsistent logic, dialetheism, is a better model for wave-particle duality. If that’s all you mean, that’s totally legitimate. But that wouldn’t “disprove” classical logic. Indeed, since under dialetheism a statement can be both true and false simultaneously, if you were to abandon classical logic completely (rather than just argue it’s not the best tool for modeling photons), all you could do is say that it’s both true and false that your positions in this thread are correct. Which ain’t much of an argument.

          • Troy says:

            I tend to prefer arguments from intentionality against materialism (evolutionary or not) about the intellect, so I haven’t sufficiently thought through whether I think “veridicality is adaptive” is a defeater for Plantinga and/or amended Lewis. Maybe? I don’t think so, but maybe. If you have thought more about it, I’d love to hear it.

            I do think that the “veridicality is adaptive” move defeats Plantinga’s earlier argument. That argument is that natural selection would be unlikely to select for true beliefs because it could just as well select for useful false beliefs. I think the problem with it is that belief-producing faculties that generally get things right will be much simpler and involve fewer extraneous resources than faculties that reliably get things wrong in exactly the right way for us to survive and reproduce. It’s basically the same logic behind it being easier to tell the truth than spin a convincing lie.

            Plantinga’s later argument, from what I recall, relied on some very dubious assignments of probabilities to brain states that give rise to contentful mental states giving rise to true mental states. Basically he assumes that the probability that any token belief is true is .5 and then that the probability that a set of n beliefs is true is .5^n. Even accepting the problematic application of the Principle of Indifference, these probabilities are obviously not independent — if several of S’s beliefs are true, the best explanation is that there is a general lawlike correlation between S’s brain states and true mental sates.

            I also object to other aspects of Plantinga’s argument inasmuch as they rely on his externalist epistemology. Basically, even if Plantinga’s right that the prior probability of our faculties being reliable given naturalism is low, this doesn’t imply that their posterior probability of being reliable is low, because I can introspect, see how I reason, and check that it matches up with rules of reasoning that I can see a priori to be legitimate. However, Plantinga could modify his argument to account for this and make the reliability of our faculties evidence in the Bayesian sense for theism — claim that P(our faculties reliable | theism) > P(faculties reliable | naturalism). I suspect that this inequality does hold, but I’m not convinced that the inequality is great enough for this to be especially strong evidence for theism.

            Do these considerations defeat Lewis et al.’s version of the argument as well? I’m less familiar with these versions of the argument, but I suspect that it depends on how exactly they’re cached out. If the claim is that empirically beliefs with nonrational causes would be unlikely to be true or warranted, then I think the above adaptivity objection applies. If the claim is rather that as a matter of metaphysics something can’t be both a rational belief and wholly caused by non-rational factors, I think this is more plausible, but still not obvious if there is a general correlation between material causes and rational causes (so that my belief could be both physically and intellectually caused at the same time). At any rate, I think that the most such arguments get us is a refutation of materialism (or at least reductive materialism), and not full-fledged theism.

            By the way, I think that you were meaning to refer to Anjan [not Anand] Chakravartty above.

          • Irenist says:

            @Troy:

            That was very illuminating. Thank you.

            [Re: Lewis,] I think that the most such arguments get us is a refutation of materialism (or at least reductive materialism), and not full-fledged theism

            Sure. For me, what’s interesting is intentionality implying immateriality. Where Lewis-like concerns come in for me is a sort of sidekick, Robin to intentionality’s Batman, that allows me to employ the method of retorsion for James Ross, “you can’t do logic without precise denotation, and you can’t have that without immateriality”-type reasons. But yeah, refuting reductionist materialism and refuting atheism are very distinct projects.

            By the way, I think that you were meaning to refer to Anjan [not Anand] Chakravartty above.

            Apparently I’d filed away his name as “some South Asian name that starts with an ‘A.'” Ugh, that’s kinda racist-y of me. Thanks for the correction.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            “A belief is epistemically rational just in case it is the belief most supported by one’s evidence. I think it’s clear that hardly anyone has only epistemically rational political beliefs.”

            What? People who use the metric “supports my side” do have beliefs that are most supported by their evidence. Most people don’t look into politics and that is pretty much the extent of knowledge they have. I’ll accept people who obsess over politics as likely to be irrational, but they aren’t common. Only about 20-30% of registered voters bother to vote in modern mayoral elections in the US.

            Of course since what politics promises is “getting people into power” focusing on “getting people on my side into power” isn’t irrational so not going in depth works as long as there are people validating for the correct side.

            “then you ought to say the same about religious beliefs, given their positive effect on health etc.”

            Incorrect beliefs in politics matter if you are powerful (because you can have an effect on the outcome). Incorrect religious beliefs matter for everyone- the wrong one damns you to hell (exception- polytheistic ones that let you hedge your bets). Incorrect beliefs in religion don’t matter only if you believe they aren’t true.

            “But I think that we directly observe the soul when we are aware of our own consciousness,”

            That isn’t an answer. You are not only assuming physical explanations can’t work, but that nonphysical explanations can, even though you haven’t provided a method for nonphysical methods to do so. How does a soul provide consciousness?

            “and that philosophical reflection makes it clear (or at least as clear as philosophical reflection makes anything) that the soul could not be a purely material thing.”

            The soul is defined as a nonmaterial entity. What does philosophical reflection have to do with accepting that definition?

            @irenist

            If you don’t understand what I’m saying, simply ask. Type “I don’t understand what you are saying here”. Sadly you appear to have taken the “I wish to be a massive asshole” route.

            Also, stop pretending “God causes regularity, no I don’t have to explain why God is regular” is an argument. This is what people are talking about when they say “religion is irrational”. Asserting God by their nature is regular is as justified as asserting that about the universe.

            “Neither innate self-perfective activity in organisms generally, qualia in animals generally, nor intentionality in humans in particular is adequately explained without formal causality.”

            Adding a soul doesn’t add explanatory power. Occum’s razor gets rid of factors that don’t add explanatory power.

            “So let’s see here.”

            I used a specific definition for the current laws of physics based on them not changing. Then I gave an example of laws of physics that can change. That means “physics that can change” have a different definition since “everything we’ve been able to observe about reality and use to make testable predictions of physics” doesn’t hold true for the latter point.

            “Forgive me for being flabbergasted, but that explains nothing whatsoever.”

            Imagine there are a million different rule sets the universe can follow

            1 lasts planck time
            2 lasts planck time
            3 lasts planck time

            999,999 lasts a million years
            1,000,000 lasts 10^20 years

            Exactly what laws of physics do you expect we will see?

            If you have things that can change and you have things that change less often, the majority of the time will be dominated by the things that can change less often even if they are a minority of possible states. If your question is “how does this all work”, that’s the job of physics to discover. There is nothing wrong with saying we currently don’t know an empirical question and if you are going to say it is beyond the possibility of physics uncovering, I’m going to bring up wave-partial duality. There is no way we would have theorized that in the absence of evidence; we should treat these questions the same way.

            “Statistical regularity is regularity. ”

            No it isn’t. Its possible for things to phase transition through solid objects. It is unlikely, but “low probability” is not the same as “regular”. Unless you are arguing that those are the same, in which case see above.

            “You cannot hypothesize if you abandon the logical law of non-contradiction.

            Science cannot disprove logic, any more than it can disprove math.”

            That doesn’t answer what I said. At all. Light is a particle and a wave. Particles and waves are mutually exclusive. Now you can argue that it is a special kind of thing so that it isn’t really a contradiction. Which of course opens up other contradictions to “its a special kind of contradiction”. Unless you are claiming that they weren’t real contradictions… which is functionally the same since we don’t know all the cases of real versus false contradictions.

            I’m not saying logic doesn’t work. I’m saying we can’t treat it as a rule inscribed on the very nature of the cosmos.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Skinner:

            Light is a particle and a wave. Particles and waves are mutually exclusive.

            Clearly not, since one and the same thing can be both a particle and a wave.

            (PS: It’s “Ockham’s” or “Occam’s” Razor, not “Occum’s”.)

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            “Clearly not, since one and the same thing can be both a particle and a wave.”

            Well yes, after we found something that had the property of both it makes it a bit hard to say something can’t have the properties of both. The issue is that we were pretty sure before hand they were mutually contradictory. Logic always works except in cases when it doesn’t seems to put into doubt the “always” part.

            “(PS: It’s “Ockham’s” or “Occam’s” Razor, not “Occum’s”.)”

            I have no idea why I made that type. Er… why does it have two names?

          • Nornagest says:

            Er… why does it have two names?

            It’s named after an English monk, William of Ockham, who lived in the 1200s. Engliish spelling wasn’t standardized then (nor for centuries after), and “Occam’s razor” and “William of Ockham” diverged somewhere along the line. Might be related to William’s Latinized name, too.

            Also, I hate the threading here.

          • Irenist says:

            @Samuel Skinner:

            Sadly you appear to have taken the “I wish to be a massive asshole” route.

            Hmm. Yes, I did. I apologize.

            stop pretending “God causes regularity, no I don’t have to explain why God is regular” is an argument.

            I characterized that position as Newtonian occasionalism, in contrast to the essentialism I favor.

            Adding a soul doesn’t add explanatory power.

            Adding (formal) essences and (final) dispositions and powers does explain, actually. Try reading Ellis and Cartwright.

            there is nothing wrong with saying we don’t know an empirical question, and if you are going to say it is beyond the possibility of physics , I’m going to bring up wave-partial duality. There is no way we would have theorized that in the absence of evidence; we should treat these questions the same way.

            This is the fear that metaphysical certainty leads to refusal to look through Galileo’s telescope. I respect that. But the issue still isn’t empirical.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            “I characterized that position as Newtonian occasionalism, in contrast to the essentialism I favor.”

            Wikipedia gives essentialism that definition (Essentialism is the view that, for any specific entity (such as an animal, a group of people, a physical object, a concept), there is a set of attributes which are necessary to its identity and function).

            “Adding (formal) essences and (final) dispositions and powers does explain, actually. Try reading Ellis and Cartwright.”

            No it doesn’t because you can have material objects that have those properties. There is nothing about the inexplicable that requires it be attached to immaterial things instead of material ones. Hence adding immaterial ones does not add explanatory power.

            “This is the fear that metaphysical certainty leads to refusal to look through Galileo’s telescope. I respect that. But the issue still isn’t empirical.”

            Metaphysical certainty would have fixed the probabilities of light being a particle and a wave at zero because logical contradictions are impossible. I don’t fear it, it simply doesn’t work.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Well yes, after we found something that had the property of both it makes it a bit hard to say something can’t have the properties of both. The issue is that we were pretty sure before hand they were mutually contradictory. Logic always works except in cases when it doesn’t seems to put into doubt the “always” part.

            So why should we conclude that the laws of logic don’t apply here, and not simply that we were wrong about the natures of waves and particles?

          • Irenist says:

            @Samuel Skinner:

            “Adding (formal) essences and (final) dispositions and powers does explain, actually. Try reading Ellis and Cartwright.”

            No it doesn’t because you can have material objects that have those properties. There is nothing about the inexplicable that requires it be attached to immaterial things instead of material ones. Hence adding immaterial ones does not add explanatory power.

            I don’t think what you’re saying there would be too difficult to fit into a New Essentialist framework at all. The immaterial soul, in the old understanding, seems to me to be many inferential steps from that framework. The NE framework is just a more coherent language with which to describe what science actually does than either the language of “laws” or that of “observed regularities.” The direct metaphysical stakes have more to do with NE being a defeater for a certain kind of nominalism than with it directly proposing any theological entities.

            It’s true that, along with some other stuff from philosophy of mind, I think NE supports the older, Aristotelian essentialism, because it provides a way for materialist analytical philosophy types to begin reviving some of the Aristotelian insights that would close some of the inferential distance between Scholastic and materialist positions compared to the present sort of Quine and Lewis stuff (e.g., someone like David Armstrong defends a realist position about universals on NE-type grounds). But here, I’m not asking you to accept any of the possible implications I like.

            I’m just saying that the sort of “scientific realism” that, say, Chakravartty thinks NE can help philosophically ground is vastly preferable to the sort of Rorty-style nominalism and “brute” nature that I think Humeanism leads to. What I really have at the back of my mind here is that both “observed regularities allowing us to make testable predictions” and LW-specific stuff like “cluster structures in thingspace” just seem too nominalist and Humean to me. I think a more NE-informed view, something akin to what Carwright outlines in her work, would better capture how scientific rationality works in practice, and how the world actually is. Now, because it is an anti-nominalist, essentialist view, it does make those inferential leaps to more theological-type positions easier. But you can reject those leaps (really!) and still find NE to be good stuff. I promise: you can be a better atheist scientific realist with an NE framework. It’s worth checking out on its own. Although you and I disagree on lots of foundational stuff, please don’t let that dissuade you from checking out the NE work, which deserves better than to be tainted in your mind by whatever associations you have with me or my religious worldview. It’s not the NE thinkers’ fault that us Thomists like them!

            ETA: A lot of the NE stuff grows out of the earlier “scientific realism” of Kripke and Putnam. That’s worth looking at, too, obviously.

            ETA2: Speaking of Kripke and Putnam, let me try to summarize one of the key issues here. A more Humean, nominalist-type view would say that “water” is just a pragmatically convenient “cluster structure in thingspace.” A scientific realist or new essentialist would say, no, “water” is H2O, and that’s a “natural kind,” not just a social convention like the names of popular music genres. In other words, the nominalist and the Humean end up being reduced to saying that how we “carve up” nature conceptually is just based on the whim of whatever projects we happen to be working on, that “water polo” is just as much of a real entity as “water.” And Kripke says, no, H2O is not a social convention. It behaves in certain ways, and categorizing it as something different than other molecules is a discovery about nature, not something we just made up like the rules of a sport.

            Likewise, Ellis insists that fundamental particles are real, are “not made up” in a way that human social conventions are just made up. Indeed, Ellis is a reductionist: he’s a realist about fundamental particles, but he doesn’t think that, say humans have an essence like “rational animal”; instead, he thinks we’re just an aggregate of fundamental particles that DO have essences. Now, as a Thomist I obviously disagree with him there. But the basic insight that these (secular!) thinkers have, that some things really are real, and that both “law” language and “observed regularity” language were wrong turns in philosophy of nature, is true, is important, and is something a non-religious (or even anti-religious) person need have no scruples about considering as insight worth reading.

            ETA3: I should note that the “cluster structure of thingspace” post on LW, although it seems clearly to me to have dire nominalist implications, does talk about “natural cluster[s]” and say “First came the structure-in-the-world.” Like, I think EY thinks it’s a realist position? But all the business about “not having crystalline boundaries” has to be defended against objections from vagueness if it’s not to dissolve into nominalism. And if it is a realist, or even quasi-essentialist position, then that is obscured by the strawman Aristotelianism that the post defines the cluster structure concept in opposition to. Who knows? Maybe something like NE is already a LW position, and the vocab is just different? The muddledness of the Sequences on these points makes it hard for me to tell. But maybe? That would certainly be lovely. It’s possible that because EY’s background is in things like AI, that the sort of “machine learning” vibe I get from the cluster structure post means that the gist is less dire than I think, but phrased differently than someone would phrase it if they were coming from more of an academic philosophy-type background? One can hope.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            In other words, the nominalist and the Humean end up being reduced to saying that how we “carve up” nature conceptually is just based on the whim of whatever projects we happen to be working on,

            That’s one of the reasons why I don’t think I could ever be a nominalist: unless you smuggle a bit of realism in somewhere, your theory will end up leading to absurdities, like that the only thing separating a human from a pot plant is arbitrary social convention.

            (Admittedly, though, given some of the humans I’ve come across that might explain a lot.)

          • Irenist says:

            @The original Mr. X:
            I agree. In philosophy of science, I think the usual move is to claim to be an instrumentalist rather than a nominalist, but that’s just, IMHO, to be a crypto-nominalist. (At least as sinister as a crypto-kitten?)

            @Samuel Skinner:
            Admission against interest that it would be dishonest to leave out: It occurs to me that I should have mentioned to you that Hilary Putnam, one of the thinkers I cite, actually shared your sense that physics ought to inform logic. In his important paper, “Is logic empirical?” he took up a suggestion of the early Quine’s that something like von Neumann’s “quantum logic” ought to replace classical logic. However, in defense of my position that [classical] logic, and thus metaphysics, is prior to physics or any other empirical science, I’ll note both that the later Quine backed off from the suggestion that had interested Putnam in the idea, and that, AFAICT, it’s pretty widely held that thinkers like Dummett and Maudlin have pretty much demolished the idea. But it still has its partisans. Of particular interest if you want to uphold the LW worldview might be Guido Bacciagaluppi, who thinks that critiques like Dummett’s and Maudlin’s don’t have as much force against Putnam if you frame the underlying quantum stuff as MWI rather than, say, Copenhagen. A further admission would be that Dummett was Catholic, so in your case that might mean you can discount his rationality entirely?

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            “So why should we conclude that the laws of logic don’t apply here, and not simply that we were wrong about the natures of waves and particles?”

            Either approach works fine. My point was you (generalized; I’m not questioning your physics skills) would have declared them contradictory before hand. Thus you can’t claim absolute certainty using logic. The platonic form of logic may be perfect, but since we don’t live in Plato’s world, that is irrelevant.

            @irenist
            “I don’t think what you’re saying there would be too difficult to fit into a New Essentialist framework at all.”

            Er, neither that, nor anything that follows after it had anything to do with what I wrote.

            “here. A more Humean, nominalist-type view would say that “water” is just a pragmatically convenient “cluster structure in thingspace.” A scientific realist or new essentialist would say, no, “water” is H2O, and that’s a “natural kind,” not just a social convention like the names of popular music genres.”

            That doesn’t sound like an argument- it sounds like they are talking past each other. Agua is Spanish for water. The specific word used is a social convention depending on what language you are using. The properties of what you are talking about may be fixed (the Earth doesn’t change even if you call it мир or Welt), but the way we label those properties is determined by how people want to categorize things.

            For example water can be categorized by source (tap water, bottled water, spring water), additions (flavored water, sugar water, polluted water), temperature (hot water, cold water, room temperature water) and so on, but for most usage we simply say water, because the additional information is extraneous.

            “In other words, the nominalist and the Humean end up being reduced to saying that how we “carve up” nature conceptually is just based on the whim of whatever projects we happen to be working on, that “water polo” is just as much of a real entity as “water.” ”

            Real entity? I think you need another word. Water polo exists as much as water exists. What do you need to be more real than that?

            “And Kripke says, no, H2O is not a social convention. It behaves in certain ways, and categorizing it as something different than other molecules is a discovery about nature, not something we just made up like the rules of a sport. ”

            H2O is a chemical description corresponding to the number of protons in individual atoms and their arrangement. Technically if you removed all the electrons and neutrons it would still be H2O, but it would have vastly different properties (namely it would explode because the protons repel each other).

            The use of the term water is a social convention based on the fact we generally deal with its liquid form. Its water vapor, water and ice water compared to gaseous iron, molten iron and iron or oxygen, liquid oxygen and solid oxygen.

            “that some things really are real,”

            Everything that exists in reality is real. Social conventions are real, just like atoms. The difference is they are changeable and don’t have a physical form while the facts atoms exist is not changeable and individual atoms have a physical form.

            “actually shared your sense that physics ought to inform logic. ”

            That isn’t my position. I’m pointing out that we can’t claim logic provides absolute certainty if it declares with absolute certainty something impossible which proceeds to turn out to be true.

          • Eli says:

            Sweet Cthulhu, I am going to enjoy saying this.

            YOU’VE ACTIVATED MY TRAP CARD!

            But no, really: I predicted that you guys have Sophisticated Meta-Level Arguments for object-level nonsense, and voila, here you are with your Sophisticated Meta-Level Arguments for object-level nonsense!

            In privileging the Meta-Level theories designed to compress data over the actual data and in failing to dissolve the debate between nominalism and Platonism, YOU FAIL HIERARCHICAL BAYES FOREVER. I award you no points, and may Cthulhu have mercy on your soul.

            By the way, the correct answer to “Why do we observe regularities?” is “Because we’d have very different sorts of minds and be different sorts of beings if there weren’t actually regularities in the universe.” In fact, our kind of life and our kind of minds could not run in a maximum-entropy universe.

            Now admittedly, this means we’ve explained away the observation without explaining what caused the universe to be that way. But at least we’ve moved from the idiotic Sacred Mystery of “apparent naturalism requires a God of the Gaps” to the genuine scientific unknown of, “Why does the universe work in this stochastic way that gives rise to entropy, thus life, thus evolution, thus minds that reason statistically and build hierarchies of theories to compress their sensory data?”

            Notice how the latter involves a lot more “thuses”, because it actually explains things.

            Also, the correct answer to “Could it be the case that 1+1 != 2?” is no, because once you’re working inside a fixed formal system, you’ve moved your uncertainty out of the model. There’s a countable infinity of (consistent) formal systems, and each of them has no uncertainty “on the inside” (which is what we mean by formal: all the operations of the system are recursively enumerable through raw computation, with no probabilistic choices involved). There is uncertainty in which formal system we use. Foundational systems in real mathematics are chosen for their ability to elegantly represent and derive the object-level structures and theories mathematicians want to study, and those object-level structures and theories have tended to be developed to represent regularities in the physical world.

            IN THIS REALM OF THE A POSTERIORI, OBJECT-LEVEL UNIVERSE, EVEN ALL YOUR META-SOPHISTICATION IS USELESS USELESS USELESS USELESS USELESS USELESS USELESS USELESS USELESS USELESS USELESS!!!

          • Troy says:

            @Eli:

            In privileging the Meta-Level theories designed to compress data over the actual data and in failing to dissolve the debate between nominalism and Platonism, YOU FAIL HIERARCHICAL BAYES FOREVER.

            Could you clarify what you mean here? What in probability theory commits one to any view about nominalism, Platonism, or the substantiveness of the debate between them?

            By the way, the correct answer to “Why do we observe regularities?” is “Because we’d have very different sorts of minds and be different sorts of beings if there weren’t actually regularities in the universe.” In fact, our kind of life and our kind of minds could not run in a maximum-entropy universe.

            This answer only explains why we observe regularities if we take our existence as a given. It explains why we observe regularities rather than non-regularities, but it doesn’t explain why we observe regularities rather than nothing at all. But perhaps that’s what you’re getting at when you say that “we’ve explained away the observation without explaining what caused the universe to be that way.”

            But at least we’ve moved from the idiotic Sacred Mystery of “apparent naturalism requires a God of the Gaps” to the genuine scientific unknown of, “Why does the universe work in this stochastic way that gives rise to entropy, thus life, thus evolution, thus minds that reason statistically and build hierarchies of theories to compress their sensory data?”

            Could you explain how changing the question to “what caused the universe to be that way” undermines God as a potential answer to this question? If the evidence is something like “the universe follows simple regularities” (call that Regular) then if P(Regular | Theism) > P(Regular | Atheism), Regular is evidence for theism over atheism. (Likewise, it is evidence for any sub-version of Atheism which does offer an explanation of Laws, including perhaps some of Irenist’s examples above.)

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            “Could you explain how changing the question to “what caused the universe to be that way” undermines God as a potential answer to this question? ”

            Because adding God doesn’t answer it. You need to explain “what caused God to be that way”. Explanations tend to be “it’s God’s nature” which has zero explanatory power and doesn’t have any advantage of just declaring those properties belong to the universe.

            ” If the evidence is something “the universe follows simple regularities” (call that Regular) then if P(Regular | Theism) > P(Regular | Atheism), Regular is evidence for theism over atheism. ”

            There is a gap in the chain of logic. Why is regularity evidence for God? Why doesn’t God create solely irregular universes? Why doesn’t God create universes that are not mostly empty space?

          • Troy says:

            Because adding God doesn’t answer it. You need to explain “what caused God to be that way”.

            It is not in general true that for X to explain Y, we also need to know what explains X. I can explain a domed structure on Alpha Centauri by intelligent aliens without knowing where the aliens came from.

            Explanations tend to be “it’s God’s nature” which has zero explanatory power and doesn’t have any advantage of just declaring those properties belong to the universe.

            All explanations must end somewhere. It does not follow that any place is as good as any other. God simplifies our picture of the universe by providing an explanation for various properties that we observe the universe to have. That God’s existence is a brute fact is preferable to all of the laws of the universe being brute.

            Similarly, if you infer from the thousand black ravens you’ve observed that ravens have genes that cause them to be black, you could have inferred instead that blackness is just a brute property of those thousand ravens. Although the genes are not brute either, it would be better to end on that level than to just stick with the raven colors as brute.

            There is a gap in the chain of logic. Why is regularity evidence for God? Why doesn’t God create solely irregular universes? Why doesn’t God create universes that are not mostly empty space?

            Life is a good thing. Regularity is (as Eli noted) necessary for stable life. Similarly, Regularity is necessary for life forms to be able to learn about and control their environment, which are also good things. So, the probability that an all-good being would create a Regular universe if he could is not very low — that is, P(Regular | Theism) is not very low.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            “It is not in general true that for X to explain Y, we also need to know what explains X. I can explain a domed structure on Alpha Centauri by intelligent aliens without knowing where the aliens came from.”

            Except you are asserting that X explains why because Y can’t do существовать. For that to work you need to explain why X can do существовать AND have the explanation not apply to Y.

            ” simplifies our picture of the universe by providing an explanation for various properties that we observe the universe to have.”

            And claiming thunder comes from Zeus also does that. We don’t want explanations, we want ones that work.

            “That God’s existence is a brute fact is preferable to all of the laws of the universe being brute.”

            By that chain of logic, the Celestial Bureaucracy is even better because it has even more Gods. If something doesn’t add predictive power, don’t add it to the model.

            “Similarly, if you infer from the thousand black ravens you’ve observed that ravens have genes that cause them to be black, you could have inferred instead that blackness is just a brute property of those thousand ravens.”

            The analogy doesn’t follow. We know genes exist. Prior to that people did infer it was a property of ravens.

            “Life is a good thing. Regularity is (as Eli noted) necessary for stable life. Similarly, Regularity is necessary for life forms to be able to learn about and control their environment, which are also good things. So, the probability that an all-good being would create a Regular universe if he could is not very low — that is, P(Regular | Theism) is not very low.”

            That isn’t an answer. It assumes life and having life learn and control their environments are something God values AND the universe is optimal for producing it. Both of those are unjustified assumptions.

            Also, never use the term “All-Good”. It is nonsensical when applied to the real world. What should you do if someone is being raped or murdered? If your answer was “sit back and watch”, congratulations, you are all good. Exactly what properties does an All-Good individual have that other ethical individuals don’t?

          • Troy says:

            Except you are asserting that X explains why because Y can’t do существовать. For that to work you need to explain why X can do существовать AND have the explanation not apply to Y.

            Suppose the domed structure has technologies we’ve never observed before. Then we can’t explain why the aliens can make them. But it’s still much more likely that aliens made them than a tornado or solar flare.

            And claiming thunder comes from Zeus also does that. We don’t want explanations, we want ones that work.

            Whether theism “works” as an explanation is precisely what is in dispute.

            By that chain of logic, the Celestial Bureaucracy is even better because it has even more Gods.

            My claim was that God’s existence being brute is preferable to the laws of the universe being brute because the former has less “bruteness,” inasmuch as there are many fundamental laws that are (according to our best physics) independent and there is only one God. How does adding more gods make things even better from that point of view?

            If something doesn’t add predictive power, don’t add it to the model.

            My claim that certain facts (such as Regularity) are more probable on theism than atheism just is the claim that theism has predictive power.

            The analogy doesn’t follow. We know genes exist. Prior to that people did infer it was a property of ravens.

            I don’t see how that difference is relevant (there are sets of which God is a member such that we know other members of the set exist), but if you think it makes a difference take an unobserved entity that we infer the existence of, such as electrons. We infer the existence of electrons and other similarly sized particles because they explain larger structures that we are able to observe. Instead of positing electrons, neutrons, etc. we could just say that there are a bunch of fundamentally different types of atoms (or whatever the smallest level we’re able to observe is), and that other facts which electrons etc. could explain are similarly brute. We could, but positing electrons etc. is simpler.

            That isn’t an answer. It assumes life and having life learn and control their environments are something God values AND the universe is optimal for producing it. Both of those are unjustified assumptions.

            When dealing with probabilities, we always have to make assumptions. If you think they are dubious, you can assign a probability to them, ask how likely they make the proposition we’re interested in, and then apply the Theorem of Total Probability to estimate the probability of that latter proposition.

            In the case at hand, we’re trying to estimate P(Regular | Theism). If you like, we can think of this as being a function of Value and Necessary, where Value says that God values life of the kind that exists and Necessary says that a Regular universe is necessary for such life. Then

            P(Regular | Theism) = P(Value|Theism)P(Necessary|Value,Theism)P(Regular|Value,Necessary,Theism) + P(Value|Theism)P(~Necessary|Value,Theism)P(Regular|Value,~Necessary,Theism) +
            P(~Value|Theism)P(Necessary|Value,Theism)P(Regular|~Value,Necessary,Theism) +
            P(~Value|Theism)P(~Necessary|Value,Theism)P(Regular|~Value,~Necessary,Theism)

            Inasmuch as God is all good, P(Value|Theism) is high. P(Necessary|Value,Theism) seems to be high for two reasons: (a) what we know of the physics of life says that the natural laws that exist (and, indeed, the particular values that the various parameters that figure in them) are necessary for life to exist (indeed, are often necessary for anything more complex than hydrogen to exist), and (b) without regularities, induction would not work, and inferences about the empirical world would not work, making it impossible for us to learn. Finally, P(Regular|Value,Necessary,Theism) is high inasmuch as, if God wants to create life, and Regular is necessary for that, he’s likely to make Regular true.

            Let’s set each of those terms at 1/2, which I think is generous to the atheist. Then the product of the first three terms is 1/8. This gives us a lower bound for P(Regular | Theism); it is at least 1/8. If we went through and evaluated the last multiplands of each of the last three summands we might find it was higher.

            Plausibly, P(Regular | Atheism) is less than 1/8. A regular universe seems very surprising if atheism is true, given all the ways that the universe could have been irregular. If this is right, P(Regular | Theism) > P(Regular | Atheism), and Regular is evidence for Theism.

            Do you disagree with these numbers? If so, what would your estimates be?

            Also, never use the term “All-Good”. It is nonsensical when applied to the real world. What should you do if someone is being raped or murdered? If your answer was “sit back and watch”, congratulations, you are all good. Exactly what properties does an All-Good individual have that other ethical individuals don’t?

            Addressing the problem of evil would take this post far afield, so let me just register agreement that it is data that needs to be taken into account, and that it is also evidence against theism. I think it’s outweighed by the evidence for theism, but I won’t try to justify that assertion here.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            Taboo brute.

            “Suppose the domed structure has technologies we’ve never observed before. Then we can’t explain why the aliens can make them. But it’s still much more likely that aliens made them than a tornado or solar flare.”

            That doesn’t answer my objection. At all. Other intelligent life can have the property of “using tools” and “building structures” and we know that because we have seen what intelligent life can do on earth. Tornado’s and solar flares do not have those capabilities. Hence they fail to meet
            “For that to work you need to explain why X can do существовать AND have the explanation not apply to Y.”

            “Whether theism “works” as an explanation is precisely what is in dispute.”

            Works means explanatory power. Any novel predictions?

            “My claim was that God’s existence being brute is preferable to the laws of the universe being brute because the former has less “bruteness,” inasmuch as there are many fundamental laws that are (according to our best physics) independent and there is only one God. How does adding more gods make things even better from that point of view?”

            First, you are wrong. The fundamental forces are believed to have separated out from a single fundamental force close to the big bang.

            Second more gods does not make things worse- the issue is the attributes assigned to God. Having the attributes assigned to separate entities is no more unsupported then having them all assigned to the same entity and has the obvious advantage of matching the world better (namely explaining the problem of evil).

            “My claim that certain facts (such as Regularity) are more probable on theism than atheism just is the claim that theism has predictive power.”

            Predictive power means you do something in advance of the observation. The universe follows cause and effect isn’t exactly an esoteric insight people in the past lacked.

            ” We infer the existence of electrons and other similarly sized particles because they explain larger structures that we are able to observe.”

            Or because electricity exists.

            “Instead of positing electrons, neutrons, etc. we could just say that there are a bunch of fundamentally different types of atoms (or whatever the smallest level we’re able to observe is), and that other facts which electrons etc. could explain are similarly brute”

            That wouldn’t work for atoms because of nuclear decay and fusion.

            If you mean quarks and other stuff at the bottom, they hold their position as fundamental particles in part because we can’t find them on their own. It is possible there is stuff smaller, but if it doesn’t interact with us, we can treat it as nonexistence for the purpose of prediction making and theory crafting.

            ” are necessary for life to exist (indeed, are often necessary for anything more complex than hydrogen to exist), ”

            Yes, life in our universe is adapted to living in our universe. That tells you nothing about all possible universes.

            “Do you disagree with these numbers? If so, what would your estimates be? ”

            Because there isn’t anything stopping the assumptions from being placed on any other possible noun. The assumptions of “values life” and “can create universe” can be applied to anything giving you the probability of Steve Jobs, Hitler, Scott, EY, Harry Potter, the Women’s Temperance league and Ed, the Talking horse all with 1/8 probability.

            “A regular universe seems very surprising if atheism is true, given all the ways that the universe could have been irregular.”

            We don’t know the laws of physics enough to be able to make that statement.

            “Addressing the problem of evil would take this post far afield, so let me just register agreement that it is data that needs to be taken into account, and that it is also evidence against theism. I think it’s outweighed by the evidence for theism, but I won’t try to justify that assertion here.”

            Its logically incompatible. What are the probability of logically incompatible things existing just with that piece of knowledge?

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Skinner:
            Either approach works fine.

            How on earth does destroying the basis for any rational thought work just as well as saying “Oh, yeah, guess we were mistaken about particles are like”?

            “My point was you (generalized; I’m not questioning your physics skills) would have declared them contradictory before hand.

            So people beforehand were mistaken. So what? People have been mistaken about lots of things in the history of science.

            Thus you can’t claim absolute certainty using logic. The platonic form of logic may be perfect, but since we don’t live in Plato’s world, that is irrelevant.

            That doesn’t follow at all. I can be certain that, if all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, Socrates must therefore be mortal, whatever scientists might discover about waves and particles.

          • TheAncientGeek says:

            “Real entity? I think you need another word. Water polo exists as much as water exists. What do you need to be more real than that?”

            What I need is an ability to survive the Destruction of Earth test. If the Earth destroyed by a meteorite, there is no way for an alien species to recover the concept of water polo, but of course they would have the concept of water…H2O is a natural kind, and therefore realler than a mere social construct.

          • Troy says:

            Taboo brute.

            You’re welcome to replace “brute” with “fundamental” or “ultimately unexplained,” although I don’t see what difference it will make.

            “Suppose the domed structure has technologies we’ve never observed before. Then we can’t explain why the aliens can make them. But it’s still much more likely that aliens made them than a tornado or solar flare.”

            That doesn’t answer my objection. At all. Other intelligent life can have the property of “using tools” and “building structures” and we know that because we have seen what intelligent life can do on earth.

            If we use vague enough descriptions of the relevant abilities, then God will also share the abilities with intelligent beings we have observed. For example, other intelligent beings can have the property of “making stuff” or “constructing systems.” There’s a difference in degree here, but not a difference in kind.

            Tornado’s and solar flares do not have those capabilities.

            Sure they do; it’s possible that a tornado assemble a car, just extremely unlikely.

            “My claim was that God’s existence being brute is preferable to the laws of the universe being brute because the former has less “bruteness,” inasmuch as there are many fundamental laws that are (according to our best physics) independent and there is only one God. How does adding more gods make things even better from that point of view?”

            First, you are wrong. The fundamental forces are believed to have separated out from a single fundamental force close to the big bang.

            I’m talking about the laws governing the forces, not the forces themselves. Those laws govern the way in which the universe evolves out of the big bang.

            Second more gods does not make things worse- the issue is the attributes assigned to God. Having the attributes assigned to separate entities is no more unsupported then having them all assigned to the same entity

            It’s less simple. Instead of one entity that has all the omni-attributes you have several entities each of which has one of them, and other attributes besides (e.g., if the all-knowing one is not all-powerful, he has to have some degree of power or other). That gives us both more total fundamental beings and more total fundamental attributes.

            “Whether theism “works” as an explanation is precisely what is in dispute.”

            Works means explanatory power. Any novel predictions?

            Do you believe that Julius Caesar was assassinated? Can you make any novel predictions from that? Sometimes all the evidence we’re likely to get adjudicating between two hypotheses is already in.

            “My claim that certain facts (such as Regularity) are more probable on theism than atheism just is the claim that theism has predictive power.”

            Predictive power means you do something in advance of the observation.

            Suppose that we had read all the historical texts, done all the archaeology, etc., and that only then did someone stop to think — you know, all these people saying that Caesar was murdered, etc., all that stuff is more likely if he was murdered. So probably he was murdered. There is nothing wrong with this reasoning, and yet (as it happens) they didn’t come up with the theory until after the observations, and so made no predictions.

            ” We infer the existence of electrons and other similarly sized particles because they explain larger structures that we are able to observe.”

            Or because electricity exists.

            Right. Which electrons explain. But we could make the observed functioning of electricity in macroscopic environments a fundamental law, unexplained by anything else.

            That wouldn’t work for atoms because of nuclear decay and fusion.

            We can make the functioning of those fundamental laws too.

            I’m not saying we should do this. I’m just saying that our observations do not entail the existence of electrons, etc., and that we infer their existence because that’s a simpler explanation than all these patterns, laws, etc. being fundamental. We do not get certainty in the existence of electrons, only a very high degree of probability.

            Yes, life in our universe is adapted to living in our universe. That tells you nothing about all possible universes.

            Other possible universes are what physicists study when they talk about fine-tuning. For example, if the cosmological constant (the rate at which the universe is expanding) were just a little bit faster, particles would be moving away from each other so fast that complex matter would never form. If it were a little bit slower, the universe would have collapsed in on itself shortly after the Big Bang.

            “Do you disagree with these numbers? If so, what would your estimates be? ”

            Because there isn’t anything stopping the assumptions from being placed on any other possible noun. The assumptions of “values life” and “can create universe” can be applied to anything giving you the probability of Steve Jobs, Hitler, Scott, EY, Harry Potter, the Women’s Temperance league and Ed, the Talking horse all with 1/8 probability.

            Are you arguing that my probability assignments are wrong, or that we can’t assign probabilities at all here?

            “A regular universe seems very surprising if atheism is true, given all the ways that the universe could have been irregular.”

            We don’t know the laws of physics enough to be able to make that statement.

            Part of what needs to be explained is the existence of laws in the first place. We could have had a universe in which one law governs matter one second, another one the next, and so on. This would be an irregular universe, and there are many more such possible universes than the kind we observe.

            Moreover, even given the existence of laws, their functioning in such a way as to give rise to life and to be discoverable by us is astronomically low given that they take on the forms they do by chance. This is widely accepted in the physics community. The simplest example is the various constants that figure into the laws, such as the cosmological constant or the strength of gravity. Theoretically these can take on a wide range of possible values. However, what we find in most cases is that the range of those theoretically possible values which allow for life (in many cases, anything other than hydrogen) is extremely small — e.g., < 10^-50. For example, a 2003 article by Robin Collins estimates the fine-tuning of the cosmological constant as 1 part in 10^53 (I think that more recent estimates put it at lower than that). Roger Penrose estimates the fine-tuning of the low entropy of the initial state of the universe as 1 part in 10^(10^123). Even if a couple of these estimates are wrong, we know the science well enough at this point to say that the probability of a single universe permitting life by chance is really, really low.

            This doesn't preclude non-theistic explanations of the existence of laws and their fine-tuning, of course. But there is something to be explained.

          • Irenist says:

            @Samuel Skinner:

            Real entity? I think you need another word.

            Natural kind.

            Water polo exists as much as water exists. What do you need to be more real than that?

            They both exist. But water is a natural kind. Water polo is not.

            Agua is Spanish for water. The specific word used is a social convention depending on what language you are using. The properties of what you are talking about may be fixed (the Earth doesn’t change even if you call it мир or Welt), but the way we label those properties is determined by how people want to categorize things.

            Here are two sentences about H2O:

            1. Snow is white.
            2. Schnee ist weiß.

            These are two different sentences, but they express the same proposition. I am not making the trivial point that languages, or the jargons of occupational groups within languages, etc., have different words for things. What I am saying is that propositions about, e.g., “quarks” are propositions about a natural kind, whereas propositions about, e.g., “Fortune 500 Companies” are not.

            All of this goes to the very old philosophical debate about whether it is possible to “carve nature at the joints” or not. That debate is about propositions, not sentences. It is about whether there are natural kinds at all, or just instrumentalist categorizations. Between these positions, there is sonmething like Kantian conceptualism in the debate over universals: that we require certain categories due to our cognitive architecture (which is natural to us) but that these categories are not (or at least need not be) inherent to non-human nature.

            When EY talks about “cluster structures” he sounds like an instrumentalist to me. When he talks about “how an algorithm feels from the inside” he sounds like a conceptualist to me. Those are legitimate positions in philosophy of science, although as a scientific realist I disagree with them. Now, maybe that sort of debate interests you. Maybe not. But “Agua is Spanish for water” is not a contribution to that debate, which is about propositions, not sentences.

            H2O is a chemical description corresponding to the number of protons in individual atoms and their arrangement. Technically if you removed all the electrons and neutrons it would still be H2O, but it would have vastly different properties (namely it would explode because the protons repel each other).

            Okay. But is the H2O molecule a natural kind, or a social convention? How about quarks, or superstrings, or whatever level seems “fundamental” to you in a reductionist sense? Are there ANY natural kinds? That’s the question. E.g., I submit that “H+H++O” is a natural kind and “H+H+O+Queen Elizabeth II” is an arbitrary collection. So: are they both equally arbitrary, both equally valid only in relation to their instrumental utility for human projects? Or not?

            The use of the term water is a social convention based on the fact we generally deal with its liquid form. Its water vapor, water and ice water compared to gaseous iron, molten iron and iron or oxygen, liquid oxygen and solid oxygen.

            By water, I have meant H2O. You can plug in H2O for everything I’ve said so far.

            Everything that exists in reality is real. Social conventions are real, just like atoms. The difference is they are changeable and don’t have a physical form while the facts atoms exist is not changeable and individual atoms have a physical form.

            I apologize for saying “real.” It has proven unhelpful. Let’s taboo “real” and focus on “natural kinds.” That “changeability” you talk about sounds like you’re quite close to the core issue. Quarks differ from electrons independent of human projects and preferences, whereas the prince and the pauper primarily differ along socioeconomic axes derived from human conventions. Independent of human conventions, the prince and the pauper are just two closely related organisms. What I’m getting at is that some conceptual distinctions are more artificial than others, more contingent than others.

            “actually shared your sense that physics ought to inform logic. ”

            That isn’t my position. I’m pointing out that we can’t claim logic provides absolute certainty if it declares with absolute certainty something impossible which proceeds to turn out to be true.

            Okay. Let’s say we somehow discovered curved spacetime before non-Euclidean geometry. Then we developed non-Euclidean geometry to model it. That wouldn’t make Euclidean geometry “less true.” Just less universal: for some purposes, other geometries work better. Likewise, quantum weirdness inspired a revival of interest in dialetheism. That’s fine. But however useful dialetheism is for modeling/categorizing research results, it’s not very useful for conducting discursive arguments in. You still pretty much want classical logic, or a modern logic rather close to it, for that. Because any argument that can be derailed by one interlocutor designating a proposition as “both true and false” isn’t going to get anywhere. And maybe I’m insufficiently imaginative (or insufficiently Buddhist?), but I just don’t see how any result in natural science could conceivably change that fact about arguments. They just don’t seem to relate to each other in that way. That’s all I’m saying about logic. I think it’s a rather modest claim, frankly.

          • Irenist says:

            @Eli:

            In privileging the Meta-Level theories designed to compress data over the actual data and in failing to dissolve the debate between nominalism and Platonism,

            Aristotle dissolved the debate between nominalism and Platonism with moderate realism. And the debate between Parmenides and Heraclitus with the theory of act and potency. Dissolving debates was kind of a thing for him.

            YOU FAIL HIERARCHICAL BAYES FOREVER. I award you no points, and may Cthulhu have mercy on your soul.

            Regarding “fail[ing] hierarchical Bayes forever,” you remind me of something Scott once wrote:

            Feser’s argument is that most atheists arguing with Christians are pretty much the equivalent of a Calvinist going up to a Hindu saying “Look! John Calvin’s writings totally oppose abortion! Why can’t you see that?!”.

            I don’t think you’ll find many metaphysicians who are worried about “failing hypothetical Bayes forever,” any more than you will find New Atheists worrying about “burning in hell forever.”

            By the way, the correct answer to “Why do we observe regularities?” is “Because we’d have very different sorts of minds and be different sorts of beings if there weren’t actually regularities in the universe.” In fact, our kind of life and our kind of minds could not run in a maximum-entropy universe.

            Anthropic principle. Sure.

            Now admittedly, this means we’ve explained away the observation without explaining what caused the universe to be that way.

            Yup. Or the multiverse. But whatever. Physics can do that later. Your real problem is failing to explain why there is anything at all rather than nothing at all (and no, don’t quote Krauss at me, he failed miserably by mistaking physics for metaphysics), and explaining how there can be any change, at all.

            But at least we’ve moved from the idiotic Sacred Mystery of “apparent naturalism requires a God of the Gaps” to the genuine scientific unknown of, “Why does the universe work in this stochastic way that gives rise to entropy, thus life, thus evolution, thus minds that reason statistically and build hierarchies of theories to compress their sensory data?”

            Who’s making a God of the gaps argument? I’ll grant you fine-tuning and associated kalam-style arguments arguendo, okay? But IMHO this subthread has mainly been about whether there’s any sufficient reason (in the Principle of Sufficient Reason sense) for anything (physics, evolution, whatever) to function in a law-like way. It’s the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” question, NOT one of those universe vs. multiverse type questions.

            Notice how the latter involves a lot more “thuses”, because it actually explains things.

            Well, if you want to get into a thus-measuring contest with an analytical Thomist, you will lose. Because our worldview contains every single “thus” your worldview derives from the inductions of natural science, but also contains lots of thuses derived from ontological deductions. (And Aquinas says “ergo” (“thus”) plenty, I promise.) Our worldview explains all the same things yours does, but also answers metaphysical questions. Your worldview stops at science questions, and mocks metaphysics, thereby failing to satisfy the principle of sufficient reason at the level of general ontology. You explain less. Now, you can (erroneously, IMHO) reject our deductions with Ockham’s Razor. But the razor is rather inconsistent with having a thus-measuring contest. So let’s not.

            Also, the correct answer to “Could it be the case that 1+1 != 2?” is no, because once you’re working inside a fixed formal system, you’ve moved your uncertainty out of the model. There’s a countable infinity of (consistent) formal systems, and each of them has no uncertainty “on the inside” (which is what we mean by formal: all the operations of the system are recursively enumerable through raw computation, with no probabilistic choices involved). There is uncertainty in which formal system we use. Foundational systems in real mathematics are chosen for their ability to elegantly represent and derive the object-level structures and theories mathematicians want to study, and those object-level structures and theories have tended to be developed to represent regularities in the physical world.

            That’s all very true and very well-written. But all beside the point of whether physics can somehow “disprove” math or logic. It cannot.

            IN THIS REALM OF THE A POSTERIORI, OBJECT-LEVEL UNIVERSE, EVEN ALL YOUR META-SOPHISTICATION IS USELESS USELESS USELESS USELESS USELESS USELESS USELESS USELESS USELESS USELESS USELESS!!!

            I don’t think the Calvinist would’ve been more convincing to the Hindu if he’d used all caps, either. Anyhow, nobody here is rejecting any scientific inductions, okay? The methods of natural science are the best methods for the quantitative prediction and control of nature. You think that, and so do analytical Thomists. So whatever use you get out of those methods, so do we. However we also have deductions that explain how a contingent universe in which change occurs can exist. N.B. that these are a posteriori deductions from the fact of change, not a priori conceptual analysis. We explain more of the things.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            Mr X
            “How on earth does destroying the basis for any rational thought work just as well as saying “Oh, yeah, guess we were mistaken about particles are like”?”

            You are going to need a explanation for how it destroy rational thought. We still use logic just like we use experimentation to get answers. Sure it possible for the experiments to all trend towards the wrong answer, but the odds are good.

            “So people beforehand were mistaken. So what? People have been mistaken about lots of things in the history of science.”

            Because they would have been mistaken even though they did all the logical steps correctly. This is a strike against logic being able to always produce correct answers.

            “That doesn’t follow at all. I can be certain that, if all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, Socrates must therefore be mortal, whatever scientists might discover about waves and particles.”

            That’s great. And if I claimed logic never worked it might even be relevant. I’m not saying logic is internally inconsistent, I’m saying it is not a tool handed down from the heavens that perfectly reflects reality.

            TheAncientGeek
            “What I need is an ability to survive the Destruction of Earth test. If the Earth destroyed by a meteorite, there is no way for an alien species to recover the concept of water polo, but of course they would have the concept of water…H2O is a natural kind, and therefore realler than a mere social construct.”

            Humans aren’t a natural concept?

            Troy
            “You’re welcome to replace “brute” with “fundamental” or “ultimately unexplained,” although I don’t see what difference it will make.”

            Unexplained is best.

            “If we use vague enough descriptions of the relevant abilities, then God will also share the abilities with intelligent beings we have observed.”

            God is postulating new abilities. Intelligent aliens is postulating that “intelligent life is only found on earth” is wrong. That is not a big leap.

            “Sure they do; it’s possible that a tornado assemble a car, just extremely unlikely.”

            Its unlikely in the same manner that phasing through solid matter is unlikely. We can discount it as a relevant explanation for almost all cases.

            “I’m talking about the laws governing the forces, not the forces themselves. Those laws govern the way in which the universe evolves out of the big bang.”

            What makes you say there was more than one? I wouldn’t have predicted “gravity and weak nuclear combine”; what makes you so certain that the laws are different?

            “Instead of one entity that has all the omni-attributes you have several entities each of which has one of them, and other attributes besides (e.g., if the all-knowing one is not all-powerful, he has to have some degree of power or other). That gives us both more total fundamental beings and more total fundamental attributes.”

            No it doesn’t. All knowing and all powerful are infinite. Having highly knowing and highly power are finite. Finite quantities never add up to an infinite value.

            “Do you believe that Julius Caesar was assassinated? Can you make any novel predictions from that? Sometimes all the evidence we’re likely to get adjudicating between two hypotheses is already in.”

            Yes and yes. If we uncover records that talk about the time period we can be confident that they will also report “Caesar was assassinated”.

            If you are questioning “how do we know the official story is true”, the answer is we don’t. We have reason to believe it is true, but the veracity of a lot of historical sources, particularly for the ancient era, are doubtful.

            ” There is nothing wrong with this reasoning, and yet (as it happens) they didn’t come up with the theory until after the observations, and so made no predictions.”

            It would be less solid than theories developed in advance. Its very easy to fit a line to a trend, hard to predict it. We are able to falsify predicting theories eg; what happened on Easter Island.

            “But we could make the observed functioning of electricity in macroscopic environments a fundamental law, unexplained by anything else.”

            That wouldn’t work. It doesn’t explain why not everything is as conductive or how magnetism is related to it. It has worse predictive power than the electron model.

            “We can make the functioning of those fundamental laws too.”

            If fundamental particles break up into smaller particles they aren’t fundamental.

            “I’m just saying that our observations do not entail the existence of electrons, etc., and that we infer their existence because that’s a simpler explanation than all these patterns, laws, etc. being fundamental. We do not get certainty in the existence of electrons, only a very high degree of probability.”

            http://physics.aps.org/featured-article-pdf/10.1103/PhysRevLett.110.213001

            “Other possible universes are what physicists study when they talk about fine-tuning. For example, if the cosmological constant (the rate at which the universe is expanding) were just a little bit faster, particles would be moving away from each other so fast that complex matter would never form. If it were a little bit slower, the universe would have collapsed in on itself shortly after the Big Bang.”

            And? The fundamental forces were all one at a point. What makes you think the cosmological constant is independent?

            “Are you arguing that my probability assignments are wrong, or that we can’t assign probabilities at all here?”

            I’m saying your probabilities scale up to infinity when we keep adding 1/8 for each entity that could carry out that action. Your assumption do not work because they aren’t exclusive- there isn’t anything preventing those criteria being applied to all nouns in the universe. What you have isn’t the probability for God creating the universe- it the odds of something we don’t know creating the universe. Entities we know that do have a motive to make the universe (Hitler, Steve Jobs, Scott, Mr Ed) are at probability 1/4.

            ” We could have had a universe in which one law governs matter one second, another one the next, and so on. This would be an irregular universe, and there are many more such possible universes than the kind we observe.”

            How do you know we don’t live in that universe? As long as they don’t disrupt macroscopic behavior, we wouldn’t be able to tell.

            ” their functioning in such a way as to give rise to life and to be discoverable by us is astronomically low given that they take on the forms they do by chance.”

            Yeah, and the forms of living things are near zero given chance. The alternatives aren’t chance and design.

            “Theoretically these can take on a wide range of possible values. ”

            Where are you getting that? We have no idea what possible values they could take, how likely possible values are or what the relation possible values have with each other. For all we know they could be quantized.

            “But there is something to be explained.”

            Why? The odds of any of those other universes appearing would be equally low. Only since we are assuming that we are important is it a question that we assume needs answering. Its like looking at the long odds to create the current government and then declaring it is divinely chosen because of that. Or declaring nuclear war was 99.9% likely and so our existence is due to divine intervention.

            Irenist

            “Natural kind.”

            Still not useful. Let me give an example- color. We view it as discrete categories even though it is a continuous spectrum. However so do other animals. If natural means “not picked by humans” than it has one answer, but will provide other answers for other definitions of natural.

            “All of this goes to the very old philosophical debate about whether it is possible to “carve nature at the joints” or not. ”

            Given the quantum in quantum mechanics means discrete values, its pretty clear the answer is yes.

            ” It is about whether there are natural kinds at all, or just instrumentalist categorizations.”

            Why not both? Why is the categories human use considered mutually exclusive with “there exist discrete differences between things in the world”?

            “When EY talks about “cluster structures” he sounds like an instrumentalist to me. When he talks about “how an algorithm feels from the inside” he sounds like a conceptualist to me.”

            This?
            http://lesswrong.com/lw/nl/the_cluster_structure_of_thingspace/

            I’m not sure what else he is supposed to say when it comes to things like “birds are animals that can fly” and “penguins are birds”.

            “which is about propositions, not sentences. ”

            It seems to verge on asking if categorization exists independently of categorizers. Attributes exist independent of people. Categories are chosen by people. What categories people choose does not change the attributes of the objects in question.

            “E.g., I submit that “H+H++O” is a natural kind and “H+H+O+Queen Elizabeth II” is an arbitrary collection.”

            That depends on what you are doing. If its “things that physically exist”, both are equally valid collections. The issue is the lower number of shared attributes in the later collection.

            “But is the H2O molecule a natural kind, or a social convention? ”

            Both. We could as easily write out H2O + H2O + H2O because of its propensity to form weak bonds with neighboring atoms. The molecule exists but the way we choose to describe it is a social convention.

            “That wouldn’t make Euclidean geometry “less true.” Just less universal:”

            That’s sort of what “I’m pointing out that we can’t claim logic provides absolute certainty” means.

            “I don’t think you’ll find many metaphysicians who are worried about “failing hypothetical Bayes forever,” any more than you will find New Atheists worrying about “burning in hell forever.” ”

            They don’t post on blogs dedicated to Bayes. Or are you declaring that reason is a social convention?

            “Your real problem is failing to explain why there is anything at all rather than nothing at all (and no, don’t quote Krauss at me, he failed miserably by mistaking physics for metaphysics), and explaining how there can be any change, at all.”

            Theism can’t do this either. You can always take the attributes affixed to God and attach them to the universe which is always one less assumption since we know the universe exists.

            “But IMHO this subthread has mainly been about whether there’s any sufficient reason (in the Principle of Sufficient Reason sense) for anything (physics, evolution, whatever) to function in a law-like way.”

            That’s smuggling in the assumption “there must be a reason/cause”.

            “but also contains lots of thuses derived from ontological deductions.”

            That requires you to have correct understanding of how things exist to start. Given how massively our understanding of physics changed I doubt that is remotely workable (especially since it appears to intend to keep on adding new insights).

            “Our worldview explains all the same things yours does, but also answers metaphysical questions. ”

            And Judaism answers metametaphysical questions that you fail to answer. Being able to answer more questions completely disconnected from the real world is not an accomplishment.

            “thereby failing to satisfy the principle of sufficient reason at the level of general ontology.”

            Because we don’t assume that all things need causes. We can observe things in the universe that don’t have causes (quantum foam).

          • Troy says:

            God is postulating new abilities. Intelligent aliens is postulating that “intelligent life is only found on earth” is wrong. That is not a big leap.

            The line between “new abilities” and “old abilities in a different form” is vague.

            What makes you say there was more than one? I wouldn’t have predicted “gravity and weak nuclear combine”; what makes you so certain that the laws are different?

            This is the orthodox view in physics. Given what we currently know, there is no reason to think that there couldn’t be a universe with a different value of the cosmological constant and the same value of the gravitational force couldn’t exist, or a universe with no gravitation at all but otherwise obeying the same laws as our own.

            “Instead of one entity that has all the omni-attributes you have several entities each of which has one of them, and other attributes besides (e.g., if the all-knowing one is not all-powerful, he has to have some degree of power or other). That gives us both more total fundamental beings and more total fundamental attributes.”

            No it doesn’t. All knowing and all powerful are infinite. Having highly knowing and highly power are finite. Finite quantities never add up to an infinite value.

            This doesn’t contradict what I said. We have more beings and more attributes, whatever the quantities involved in the attributes. Are you claiming that the latter and not the former are what is important for the complexity of a hypothesis?

            “Do you believe that Julius Caesar was assassinated? Can you make any novel predictions from that? Sometimes all the evidence we’re likely to get adjudicating between two hypotheses is already in.”

            Yes and yes. If we uncover records that talk about the time period we can be confident that they will also report “Caesar was assassinated”.

            That’s a conditional prediction. If you pick a conditional with an improbable antecedent, then it’s easy to make those and not be proven wrong. We could imagine that we have extremely good evidence that we will never uncover any more ancient records. (Suppose a devastating natural disaster completely destroys all sites that could contain such records.) It wouldn’t make your belief that Caesar was assassinated any less rational

            (Incidentally, that prediction is too strong. Plenty of historians discuss that time period who don’t mention Caesar’s assassination, e.g., Josephus. This is an example where it’s important to keep in mind not just P(evidence | H), but the Bayes’ factor P(evidence | H) / P(evidence | ~H). Discovering that an ancient source says that Caesar was assassinated is indeed good evidence that he is, because the denominator of the Bayes’ factor is so low. But the numerator is not especially high, because historians, having only finite space and particular interests, often do not talk about even very notable events.)

            It would be less solid than theories developed in advance. Its very easy to fit a line to a trend, hard to predict it.

            Do you consider yourself a Bayesian? It’s generally agreed among Bayesians that there’s nothing inherently (as opposed to contingently, in certain cases) better about prediction than accommodation. In your line-fitting example, an ad hoc fit will usually take a penalty in its prior.

            “But we could make the observed functioning of electricity in macroscopic environments a fundamental law, unexplained by anything else.”

            That wouldn’t work. It doesn’t explain why not everything is as conductive or how magnetism is related to it.

            My point is that we can make any observations we want fundamental. If the ones we’ve made fundamental so far don’t explain some other stuff, make that stuff fundamental too. Just leave it all unexplained.

            Again, I’m not saying we should do this. We can, but we usually shouldn’t. We should try to explain as much as we can.

            “I’m just saying that our observations do not entail the existence of electrons, etc., and that we infer their existence because that’s a simpler explanation than all these patterns, laws, etc. being fundamental. We do not get certainty in the existence of electrons, only a very high degree of probability.”

            http://physics.aps.org/featured-article-pdf/10.1103/PhysRevLett.110.213001

            Assuming that paper is right, just go back a few years before we were able to observe the structure of any atoms. The point I’m making has to do with what we ought to believe under hypothetical circumstances; if those circumstances recently became non-actual, just imagine going back to when they were actual.

            I’m saying your probabilities scale up to infinity when we keep adding 1/8 for each entity that could carry out that action. Your assumption do not work because they aren’t exclusive- there isn’t anything preventing those criteria being applied to all nouns in the universe. What you have isn’t the probability for God creating the universe- it the odds of something we don’t know creating the universe. Entities we know that do have a motive to make the universe (Hitler, Steve Jobs, Scott, Mr Ed) are at probability 1/4.

            I still don’t understand what you’re saying. The probability that God creates the universe was not one of the terms in my estimation. I was trying to estimate P(Reliable|Theism), and showed that if P(Value|Theism), P(Necessary|Value,Theism), and P(Regular|Value,Necessary,Theism) all have probabilities of at least 1/2, P(Reliable|Theism) > 1/8. This follows mathematically; if you wish to deny the conclusion you have to deny one of the premises. Which one(s) do you deny, and why?

            ” We could have had a universe in which one law governs matter one second, another one the next, and so on. This would be an irregular universe, and there are many more such possible universes than the kind we observe.”

            How do you know we don’t live in that universe? As long as they don’t disrupt macroscopic behavior, we wouldn’t be able to tell.

            The number of universes in which micro-laws constantly change but macro-laws stay constant is much smaller than the number in which micro-laws change and so do macro-laws.

            To see this, imagine a universe the state of which at each moment is described by three binary digits. It has 8 possible states:

            000
            001
            010
            100
            011
            101
            110
            111

            Let each of these states be the micro-state and the number of 0s at a moment be the macro-state. Then there are four possible macro-states: 0, 1, 2, and 3.

            Suppose that at one moment the macro-state is 0 or 3. Then if the macro-state changes the micro-state must change. Suppose it’s 1 or 2. Then if the micro-state changes there’s a 5/7 chance the macro-state changes too. So, if at every moment we have a change, we end up with macro-states changing most moments.

            Similarly, the micro-laws changing in just such a way that the macro-laws always stayed the same would be extraordinary: you’d have to constantly have the laws changing in such a way as to “balance each other out,” just like changing two digits at once in the above example so that their change balances out on the macro-level.

            “Theoretically these can take on a wide range of possible values. ”

            Where are you getting that? We have no idea what possible values they could take, how likely possible values are or what the relation possible values have with each other. For all we know they could be quantized.

            Again, this is the dominant view in physics. It’s possible that there’s some deeper theory that makes the values we observe inevitable, but nothing we know right now suggests that. Hence, other values are “theoretically possible” in the sense that other values are compatible with our best scientific theories.

            “But there is something to be explained.”

            Why? The odds of any of those other universes appearing would be equally low. Only since we are assuming that we are important is it a question that we assume needs answering.

            Ultimately it comes down to Bayes’ Theorem; is there another theory which gives the data a higher likelihood that is not itself prohibitively improbable prior to that data? I think there is, and that’s the claim I’m interested in defending. But I do think that looking at a probability on the order of 10^-(10^123) — a number vastly smaller than the ratio of a proton to the entire universe — and saying “eh, no big deal, improbable things happen” is a little crazy. Thinking otherwise seems to me to betray the kind of scope insensitivity Scott talks about in his more recent post, like thinking the improbability here is just like that involved in winning the lottery a couple of times in a row.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            “The line between “new abilities” and “old abilities in a different form” is vague.”

            Not really. We have no examples of all powerful, all knowing or all good in the world. We have examples of intelligent life and things from other planets (but not a combination). Since they aren’t mutually exclusive it isn’t a massive leap.

            “This is the orthodox view in physics. ”

            Which only extends back so far. You don’t know how things operated prior to what the current models go. Isn’t “physics was one” a higher probability than believing there is an unsolvable problem?

            “This doesn’t contradict what I said. We have more beings and more attributes, whatever the quantities involved in the attributes. Are you claiming that the latter and not the former are what is important for the complexity of a hypothesis?”

            I’m saying infinite attributes are fundamentally different from all other attributes. I’m sorry I put it so poorly. Good is coherent, all good is not. All powerful and all seeing are coherent, but powerful and wide seeing are actually known to exist. Adding a bunch of spirits/gods/powers adds more entities, but it adds less impossible powers. To choose between the theories you’d need to compare observed reality and see what matches better. And you can make a better case for “competing civil servants” than “all powerful God”. “Wait, who forgot to unpack the laws of physics”, “add a universal speed limit- that will keep anyone from doing anything stupid before we can catch it”, “I bet you can’t hit that planet over there with as many rocks as I can” and, of course “you did divine revelation wrong, let me try (attempt number 179)”. Basically the Omni powers don’t mesh with what we see in the world, which boosts non-Omni theism (which meshes much easier since it has more epicycles).

            “If you pick a conditional with an improbable antecedent, then it’s easy to make those and not be proven wrong.”

            Yes, that’s the problem of talking about times where very little data still exists.

            “It wouldn’t make your belief that Caesar was assassinated any less rational”

            It means talking about “I believe Caesar was assassinated” and “I believe it was reported Caesar was assassinated” doesn’t have any difference. Unless something has effects on what you will discover in the real world, what is the point of talking about beliefs?

            “Plenty of historians discuss that time period who don’t mention Caesar’s assassination, e.g., Josephus.”

            He was writing about Jewish history.

            “It’s generally agreed among Bayesians that there’s nothing inherently (as opposed to contingently, in certain cases) better about prediction than accommodation. In your line-fitting example, an ad hoc fit will usually take a penalty in its prior.”

            We are using before versus after to judge what other people have done. Judging beforehand correctly is evidence the person understands the underlying phenomena; judging afterwards isn’t.

            “My point is that we can make any observations we want fundamental. If the ones we’ve made fundamental so far don’t explain some other stuff, make that stuff fundamental too. Just leave it all unexplained.”

            I’m not seeing how this is an answer since this is in fact how we are operating. Atoms were fundamental until we discovered they weren’t, the same with protons and neutrons.

            “Assuming that paper is right, just go back a few years before we were able to observe the structure of any atoms. ”

            The discovery of electrons involved them being found outside of atoms. If you want to ask “do I believe strings exist”, I’m going to answer “I’m waiting to see”.

            “This follows mathematically; if you wish to deny the conclusion you have to deny one of the premises. Which one(s) do you deny, and why?”

            I’m not denying any of them. You left out the most important assumption of them all- God has the power to create universes. This is an important assumption.

            When you add it to your model it destroy it because if you can assume that about God, why not other entities? Since its equally justified individuals who we know have motivation for wanting to create the universe (and we know exist) have higher probabilities than God for creating the Universe.

            “To see this, imagine a universe the state of which at each moment is described by three binary digits. It has 8 possible states:”

            That example doesn’t work. You are assuming the whole universe changes laws simultaneously, that all changes last an appreciable amount of time and that all macro changes are noticeable.

            If the resolution is the smallest possible unit of measure and smallest possible unit of time, random changes of the laws of physics will be swamped out by changes in the opposite direction and/or the sheer amount of normal.

            “Again, this is the dominant view in physics. It’s possible that there’s some deeper theory that makes the values we observe inevitable, but nothing we know right now suggests that. Hence, other values are “theoretically possible” in the sense that other values are compatible with our best scientific theories.”

            That isn’t particularly helpful though since we don’t know how they can vary, if we’ve got all the physical laws or if they are independent. Treat it as a prediction and see what we have when we complete physics.

            “Ultimately it comes down to Bayes’ Theorem; is there another theory which gives the data a higher likelihood that is not itself prohibitively improbable prior to that data? ”

            “Multiverse”
            “Universe resets after given amount of time with new laws of physics”
            “Constants are a given”
            “Consciousness is magic and would appear regardless of life”
            “Existence is an illusion so the numbers we’ve generated are bunk”
            “Universe created by Satan”
            “Universe created by time travel”

            All answer that question. I personally prefer to wait until we actually understand the universe to declare that naturalism (aka our experience with how things work in the universe) is wrong.

            ” But I do think that looking at a probability on the order of 10^-(10^123) ”

            We exist so I’m not seeing where you get the likelihood we exist as so improbable.

          • Irenist says:

            @Samuel Skinner (1):

            “How on earth does destroying the basis for any rational thought work just as well as saying “Oh, yeah, guess we were mistaken about particles are like”?”
            You are going to need a explanation for how it destroy rational thought.

            I think what Mr. X is getting at is that if you adopt dialetheist logic out of deference to wave particle duality, you destroy rational thought. You don’t seem to be arguing we should adopt dialetheism, so I wouldn’t worry about it.

            Because they would have been mistaken even though they did all the logical steps correctly. This is a strike against logic being able to always produce correct answers.

            It’s not a strike for or against logic; it has to do with whether observation and hypothesis were sound, not whether the logic was valid. Consider the following syllogism:
            All the red jars in the lab contain phlogiston.
            This is a red jar in the lab.
            Thus, this jar contains phlogiston.
            It’s a valid syllogism. Logic hasn’t failed. It’s just that the major premise was unsound: phlogiston doesn’t exist. But that’s not somehow the fault of logic. Logic is a GIGO (“garbage in, garbage out”) system.

            if I claimed logic never worked it might even be relevant. I’m not saying logic is internally inconsistent, I’m saying it is not a tool handed down from the heavens that perfectly reflects reality.

            You seem to be saying that we shouldn’t let our worldview be in any way determined by purely logical considerations, which for you might include deductions in metaphysics. Because if that is what you’re saying, then the fact that logic is prior to physics is relevant. If not, never mind.

            Humans aren’t a natural concept?

            I think for the Ancient Geek, as for me, the question is whether human conventions are artificial as opposed to natural. Whether “human” is a natural kind is a separate inquiry. Some of the New Essentialists (e.g., Brian Ellis), think only fundamental particles are natural kinds. For Thomists, biological species are natural kinds. For conventionalists in the philosophy of science, there are no natural kinds at all.

            “You’re welcome to replace “brute” with “fundamental” or “ultimately unexplained,” although I don’t see what difference it will make.”

            Unexplained is best.

            “Unexplained” is a very good synonym for “brute.” However, the literature on “brute facts” is vast, and I think it’s better to just keep the word, which has connotations involving Anscombe’s discussion of how facts can be brute relative to each other that are lost when you taboo “brute.” You can read it as “unexplained” if you like, but if you’re going to engage in discussions about this stuff, you might as well get used to the vocab.

            “Do you believe that Julius Caesar was assassinated? Can you make any novel predictions from that? Sometimes all the evidence we’re likely to get adjudicating between two hypotheses is already in.”

            Yes and yes. If we uncover records that talk about the time period we can be confident that they will also report “Caesar was assassinated”.

            Let’s say you have locked-in syndrome, can’t feel your lower body, and somebody locks you in a sensory deprivation chamber with some silent, unseen equipment that takes care of nutrition and excretion for you. You have no opportunities to confirm predictions about the outside world. Based on your memories of your life before all this, are you still warranted in believing Caesar was assassinated? Or do you now have to give up all your beliefs about the outside world until such time as you can “make them pay rent in anticipated experiences”? Is it EVER rational to have beliefs that don’t “pay rent” in this way? Why or why not?

            “But we could make the observed functioning of electricity in macroscopic environments a fundamental law, unexplained by anything else.”
            That wouldn’t work. It doesn’t explain why not everything is as conductive or how magnetism is related to it. It has worse predictive power than the electron model.
            “We can make the functioning of those fundamental laws too.”
            If fundamental particles break up into smaller particles they aren’t fundamental.

            Troy appears to be trying to get you to confront the idea of “confirmation holism” developed in Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” The point is that knowledge claims in the natural sciences are always underdetermined, such that observations confirm or disconfirm not individual propositions, but entire webs of belief. Consider Kripke’s “quus” operator or Goodman’s color “grue.” Assuming a calculator capable of handling only a finite number of digits, and a definition of “quus” where the differentiation between “quus” and “plus” happens at a number larger than any expressible by the calculator, no set of observations in which you punch in keys to get answers to math problems is going to confirm for you that your calculator is doing addition rather than “quaddition.” Likewise, if your alleged sample of grue material isn’t due to change over from green to blue until 3015 AD, then no amount of staring at in your lab this year is going to tell you if it’s green or grue. What Troy is (correctly) saying is that all of nature is like this. You can always keep adding epicycles to any theory you like to get it to conform to just as many observations as the other guy’s theory. Eventually you get into “invisible garage dragon” territory, so it’s inelegant compared to employing Ockham’s razor. But in principle you can always, always make adjustments elsewhere in your belief web to accommodate any observation. Quine rightly argues that anything at all, with sufficient dedication and willingness to disregard Ockham’s razor, can be retconned.

            (cont.)

          • Irenist says:

            @Samuel Skinner (2)

            “Natural kind.”
            Still not useful. Let me give an example- color. We view it as discrete categories even though it is a continuous spectrum. However so do other animals. If natural means “not picked by humans” than it has one answer, but will provide other answers for other definitions of natural.

            Natural has a very specific meaning here—not so much “non-human” as “non-arbitrary.” Not being a human social convention is part of that, but not all of it. Here’s an explanation of what “natural kind” means:
            http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/natural-kinds/

            “All of this goes to the very old philosophical debate about whether it is possible to “carve nature at the joints” or not. ”
            Given the quantum in quantum mechanics means discrete values, its pretty clear the answer is yes.

            Quantum stuff is very far from the point here. When Plato’s Socrates said in the Phaedrus that philosophy has to carve nature at its joints, he wasn’t talking about Planck length, Planck time, or any other discrete as opposed to continuous stuff. The metaphor involves a butcher. When carving meat, it’s easier to carve at the joints than through a big bone. The idea is that some places are objectively, non-arbitrary division-points. In other words, the idea is that ANY objective observers would reach agreement about which objects in nature are distinct kinds of things. The conventionalist position in philosophy of science is that there are no “joints,” that any way of carving up nature is as good as another, so long as we find it amenable. The realist position is that nature has an intrinsic structure and order independent of our purposes and projects.

            ” It is about whether there are natural kinds at all, or just instrumentalist categorizations.”

            Why not both? Why is the categories human use considered mutually exclusive with “there exist discrete differences between things in the world”?

            The question is whether (a) such differences exist, and (b) whether our categories reflect them, or are just arbitrary preferences we H. sapiens happen to have. It can’t be both conventionalist/instrumentalist and realist, because either the categories are arbitrary or not. Are quarks something we just “made up” like the rules of baseball? Or are they really “out there” independent of our projects and agendas? It’s a yes or no question. Scientific realists like me say quarks are really natural kinds, really “out there” as distinct objects. Strong conventionalists will say that the concept of quarks is just something we happen to find handy, but doesn’t reflect any objective human-independent reality. (Weak conventionalists might grant that there are “joints” in nature, but have epistemological qualms. I think that’s a side issue. I’m interested in the ontological question of whether there are any joints, can be any joints. So for my purposes here, when I say “conventionalist,” I mean “strong conventionalist.) A strong conventionalist like Woolgar will claim with a straight face that the existence of quarks is a social construction of the scientific community, not a fact about nature independent from human discourse. It’s kind of reminiscent of the Sokal Hoax, the strong conventionalists postion—except much better argued. So, now that I’ve explained the stakes, I would expect you to adopt a scientific realist position about natural kinds.

            When EY talks about “cluster structures” he sounds like an instrumentalist to me. When he talks about “how an algorithm feels from the inside” he sounds like a conceptualist to me.”
            This?
            http://lesswrong.com/lw/nl/the_cluster_structure_of_thingspace/
            I’m not sure what else he is supposed to say when it comes to things like “birds are animals that can fly” and “penguins are birds”.

            That’s the page I meant on cluster structures, yes. Look, maybe EY is advocating “cluster realism” about natural kinds, there. I hope so. I hope you’re a realist of one kind or another as well. First, because it’s true. Second, because the conventionalist position is awful in the ways nominalist-type positions tend to be. Third, because work by Kripke, Putnam, Fine, and Ellis, among others, is widely held to have demonstrated that realism about natural kinds implies some kind of essentialism, even if it’s just essentialism about quarks and other fundamental particles (or quantum fields, or whatever). And this modern revival in analytic philosophy of essentialism, we Thomists hold, quite naturally opens the door to a revival of concepts involving formal causality of essence and final causality of dispositions and powers inextricably tied to essence.

            So here’s where I think you have a dilemma. If you adopt conventionalism about natural kinds, you end up thinking the concept “quark” is merely socially constructed; good luck with that. But if you adopt a realist stance (as you should), then you open the door for essentialism, for powers and dispositions. So you can either be wrong about nature, or you can let Aristotle get his foot back in the door. Your choice.

            “which is about propositions, not sentences. ”
            It seems to verge on asking if categorization exists independently of categorizers.

            Yes! Exactly. If I had a prize, I would happily award it to you. That’s what the question of natural kinds is about.

            Attributes exist independent of people. Categories are chosen by people. What categories people choose does not change the attributes of the objects in question.
            “E.g., I submit that “H+H++O” is a natural kind and “H+H+O+Queen Elizabeth II” is an arbitrary collection.”
            That depends on what you are doing. If its “things that physically exist”, both are equally valid collections. The issue is the lower number of shared attributes in the later collection.
            “But is the H2O molecule a natural kind, or a social convention? ”
            Both. We could as easily write out H2O + H2O + H2O because of its propensity to form weak bonds with neighboring atoms. The molecule exists but the way we choose to describe it is a social convention.

            It can’t be both. I’m asking if ANY of our categories are rooted in attributes that are really out there, or if they are ALL mere social convention. Even if all but a few of them were social convention, that would be a realist position. To deny realism is to say that none of our categories are mind independent. It is to say that the universe has no discourse-independent order and structure. That it’s all in our heads.

            “I don’t think you’ll find many metaphysicians who are worried about “failing hypothetical Bayes forever,” any more than you will find New Atheists worrying about “burning in hell forever.” ”
            They don’t post on blogs dedicated to Bayes. Or are you declaring that reason is a social convention?

            I’m declaring that reason is the opposite of an arbitrary social convention, so much so that metaphysics can tell us about being qua being, not just contingent truths about our own universe. And yes, I’m posting on a Bayesian’s blogs. But I’m far from the only commenter here who disagrees with the standard LW suite of positions, even on a 101 level. AFAIK, that’s okay with our gracious host. If not, I’ll respectfully shut up and lurk. His house, his rules.

            “Your real problem is failing to explain why there is anything at all rather than nothing at all (and no, don’t quote Krauss at me, he failed miserably by mistaking physics for metaphysics), and explaining how there can be any change, at all.”
            Theism can’t do this either. You can always take the attributes affixed to God and attach them to the universe which is always one less assumption since we know the universe exists.

            Nope. Complex entities are contingent. Only an absolutely simple being, like God, can be a necessary being adequate to terminate an explanatory chain satisfying the principle of sufficient reason. The selection of God as the final explanation of the cosmos is not an arbitrary one. God cannot be replaced by any complex entity like a celestial bureacracy, the Greek pantheon, the universe, or the multiverse. You can have classical theism, or you can have existence and change as brute facts. There isn’t a third choice. No amount of new physics will ever provide you with a third choice.

            “But IMHO this subthread has mainly been about whether there’s any sufficient reason (in the Principle of Sufficient Reason sense) for anything (physics, evolution, whatever) to function in a law-like way.”
            That’s smuggling in the assumption “there must be a reason/cause”.

            Nope. It’s just a dilemma I’m posing. You either accept our cosmos as a brute fact, or you accept classical theism as its ultimate “reason/cause.” If you choose to end an argument with “because that’s just the way it is; there is no explanation” I can’t stop you from declaring intellectual bankruptcy. That’s up to you. I can only point out to you that classical theism is the only alternative to intellectual bankruptcy.

            (cont.)

          • Irenist says:

            @Samuel Skinner (3):

            “but also contains lots of thuses derived from ontological deductions.” That requires you to have correct understanding of how things exist to start. Given how massively our understanding of physics changed I doubt that is remotely workable (especially since it appears to intend to keep on adding new insights).

            Physics is about, as you say, “how things exist.” Metaphysics is about “why things exist,” i.e., about explaining not “how things exist” but *that* they exist—that anything exists.

            Judaism answers metametaphysical questions that you fail to answer.

            I don’t know what you’re referring to.

            Being able to answer more questions completely disconnected from the real world is not an accomplishment.

            Well, Eli was claiming that the atheist scientific worldview had more “thuses” than the theist worldview. I was simply pointing out that since sophisticated theist worldviews also include science, that is obviously false. I disagree with you that Thomist posits like the immateriality of the soul and the existence of God lack explanatory power: the first accounts for intentionality, the second for the existence of anything and everything. But even if the Thomist posits are baloney, Eli’s contention about “thuses” would still be incorrect.

            “thereby failing to satisfy the principle of sufficient reason at the level of general ontology.”
            Because we don’t assume that all things need causes.

            So the cosmos (universe, multiverse, whatever it turns out to be) is just a brute fact? Are you admitting that’s your position?

            We can observe things in the universe that don’t have causes (quantum foam).

            Modern understandings of causality descend from mechanistic conceptions of classical physics. So on that perspective, it makes sense when modern physicists speak of various quantum processes as “acausal.” I readily concede that.

            But on a Thomist understanding of causality, quantum phenomena cannot properly be described as acausal. If nothing else, this is because quantum foam, e.g., exhibits law-like behavior considered in aggregate. It is thus at the very least formally and finally caused.

            Frankly, on a proper understanding of what material and efficient causality amount to, I think the better argument is that it is caused in these ways as well. Here’s why: As David Albert said in a different context, since quantum fields are the elementary stuff of the universe, “The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t.”

            Regarding quantum indeterminacy generally, Thomist Ed Feser quotes Werner Heisenberg as follows: The probability wave of Bohr, Kramers, Slater… was a quantitative version of the old concept of “potentia” in Aristotelian philosophy. It introduced something standing in the middle between the idea of an event and the actual event, a strange kind of physical reality just in the middle between possibility and reality.”

            Now, prime matter in Aristotelian hylomorphism just is pure potency, pure potentia. Thus, quantum foam, indeterminate as it is, is just what “matter” on a hylomorphic conception ought to be like. Not “pure” potency, not prime matter, since it’s still informed by the “laws” of physics, not entirely bereft of formal cause. But still “matter” in the Aristotelian (if not the modern physics) sense, and thus certainly not something which, properly understood, oughtn’t to be considered materially (and thus efficiently) caused as well.

          • Troy says:

            Not really. We have no examples of all powerful, all knowing or all good in the world.

            But we have examples of powerful, knowing, and good; taking these quantities to their maximum is an extrapolation from this. No one’s observed an infinitely spatially extended thing, but that doesn’t mean physicists can’t sensibly talk about an infinitely large universe.

            Which only extends back so far. You don’t know how things operated prior to what the current models go. Isn’t “physics was one” a higher probability than believing there is an unsolvable problem?

            I don’t think I follow you here, but if your suggestion is that there’s some probability that there’s a (physical) theory of everything that entails the laws and parameters that we actually find, sure, I’m happy to agree that this is a possibility. I don’t think it’s very likely given the number of apparently independent laws and parameters we know about. But it’s another hypothesis worth considering in light of the fine-tuning evidence.

            I’m saying infinite attributes are fundamentally different from all other attributes. I’m sorry I put it so poorly. Good is coherent, all good is not. All powerful and all seeing are coherent, but powerful and wide seeing are actually known to exist. Adding a bunch of spirits/gods/powers adds more entities, but it adds less impossible powers.

            I naturally don’t agree that all-good etc. are not coherent, but your hypothesis, inasmuch as I understood it, involved making one being all-good, another all-knowing, etc. So you have the same number of “impossible powers,” unless I’m just misunderstanding you.

            To choose between the theories you’d need to compare observed reality and see what matches better. And you can make a better case for “competing civil servants” than “all powerful God”. “Wait, who forgot to unpack the laws of physics”, “add a universal speed limit- that will keep anyone from doing anything stupid before we can catch it”, “I bet you can’t hit that planet over there with as many rocks as I can” and, of course “you did divine revelation wrong, let me try (attempt number 179)”. Basically the Omni powers don’t mesh with what we see in the world, which boosts non-Omni theism (which meshes much easier since it has more epicycles).

            I think we’re talking past each other then. I’m talking only about intrinsic probabilities here, i.e., the probabilities of these theories prior to anything they might explain. And then I’m arguing that fundamental facts about our universe are more likely on theism than naturalism, and so confirm theism. (They might confirm other theories too; multiple incompatible hypotheses can both have their probabilities raised by the same evidence.) Taking into account all the rest of our evidence, i.e., the rest of what we see in the world, is necessary to determine, e.g., the total probability of theism on our evidence. But I wasn’t trying to attempt that large task here. All I was claiming was that the intrinsic probability of classical theism is higher than the intrinsic probability of your committee theism.

            It means talking about “I believe Caesar was assassinated” and “I believe it was reported Caesar was assassinated” doesn’t have any difference. Unless something has effects on what you will discover in the real world, what is the point of talking about beliefs?

            If someone you love died and the manner in which she died will make no difference to what you discover in the real world in the future, wouldn’t you care about whether she was murdered or not? Sometimes the facts matter to us independent of their enabling us to make new discoveries.

            Moreover, most religions, Christianity included, make value claims which, if true, ought to make a difference to how we live. Perhaps a purely deistic God wouldn’t make a difference to how we should live (although I’d personally still want to know if that God exists), but the God of most theistic religions does.

            “Plenty of historians discuss that time period who don’t mention Caesar’s assassination, e.g., Josephus.”

            He was writing about Jewish history.

            Yes, I know that. You didn’t specify the interests of the author in your conditional prediction.

            “It’s generally agreed among Bayesians that there’s nothing inherently (as opposed to contingently, in certain cases) better about prediction than accommodation. In your line-fitting example, an ad hoc fit will usually take a penalty in its prior.”

            We are using before versus after to judge what other people have done. Judging beforehand correctly is evidence the person understands the underlying phenomena; judging afterwards isn’t.

            If you don’t know their reasoning process, I agree. But it’s perfectly possible and reasonable to make an inference to the best explanation after the fact. This is what Darwin did, for example, in the Origin: he listed a bunch of facts and argued that his theory explained them.

            “My point is that we can make any observations we want fundamental. If the ones we’ve made fundamental so far don’t explain some other stuff, make that stuff fundamental too. Just leave it all unexplained.”

            I’m not seeing how this is an answer since this is in fact how we are operating. Atoms were fundamental until we discovered they weren’t, the same with protons and neutrons.

            I’m disputing the “discovered they weren’t” bit. Usually what this means in practice is that we got evidence that we can explain by postulating unobserved entities. Even if we can observe electrons now, almost all scientists believed in them when we couldn’t because they were the best explanation of the data. They preferred postulating unobserved entities to making observed entities fundamental.

            The discovery of electrons involved them being found outside of atoms.

            Experiments which led scientists to believe that electrons existed did not involve the direct observation of electrons themselves. They involved the observation of phenomena that electrons could explain.

            I’m not denying any of them. You left out the most important assumption of them all- God has the power to create universes. This is an important assumption.

            If that’s your sticking point then you probably do mean to deny one of my premises, namely that P(Regular|Value,Necessary,Theism) > 1/2. You’re claiming that this might not be high because even if God exists, values life, and needs to create a regular universe to get life, God might not have the power to do this.

            At any rate, I’m understanding God to be by definition all-powerful. In philosophy of religion and natural theology, classical theism is usually understood as something like the hypothesis that an all-good, all-powerful, all-good being exists and created the universe.

            Perhaps you think that the prior probability of this hypothesis is low, but that’s not relevant to the claim you were responding to, which was that P(Regular | Theism) > P(Regular | Atheism), and that (consequently) Regular is evidence for Theism.

            When you add it to your model it destroy it because if you can assume that about God, why not other entities?

            Other observed entities have been observed to be limited in power. We have very good evidence that Steve Jobs is not all-powerful, and could not create a universe.

            That example doesn’t work. You are assuming the whole universe changes laws simultaneously, that all changes last an appreciable amount of time and that all macro changes are noticeable.

            The example was just that, an example. It was explicitly contrived to be as simple as possible. Make the system more complex and the probability of micro-changes exactly cancelling out becomes even smaller.

            The example also doesn’t assume the whole universe (i.e., each digit) changes simultaneously; it assumes that each part of the universe has some chance of changing at a given moment.

            If the resolution is the smallest possible unit of measure and smallest possible unit of time, random changes of the laws of physics will be swamped out by changes in the opposite direction and/or the sheer amount of normal.

            I do not understand this sentence.

            “Ultimately it comes down to Bayes’ Theorem; is there another theory which gives the data a higher likelihood that is not itself prohibitively improbable prior to that data? ”

            “Multiverse”
            “Universe resets after given amount of time with new laws of physics”
            “Constants are a given”
            “Consciousness is magic and would appear regardless of life”
            “Existence is an illusion so the numbers we’ve generated are bunk”
            “Universe created by Satan”
            “Universe created by time travel”

            All answer that question.

            (1) and (3) are genuine possibilities which deserve to be considered (assuming that by “constants are a given” you mean something like “the laws of nature and the values of their parameters are necessary”). (2) is basically a kind of multiverse hypothesis. The others either don’t explain the data, are impossible, or are also inconsistent with naturalism.

            At any rate, I’ve agreed that there are other theories which regularity, fine-tuning, etc. also support and which should be considered. Ultimately I think they have other problems or don’t explain other data which theism does, but they ought to be considered and not dismissed out of hand.

            I personally prefer to wait until we actually understand the universe to declare that naturalism (aka our experience with how things work in the universe) is wrong.

            That naturalism is our experience of how things work is, of course, question-begging.

            I prefer to conform my beliefs to the probability calculus by assigning priors to fundamental theories and then making my best estimate of how confirmed or disconfirmed they are by the data.

            ” But I do think that looking at a probability on the order of 10^-(10^123) ”

            We exist so I’m not seeing where you get the likelihood we exist as so improbable.

            P(we exist | we exist) =/= P(we exist).

          • Troy says:

            Troy appears to be trying to get you to confront the idea of “confirmation holism” developed in Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.”

            Yes, that’s right, my point is very similar. More generally, it’s more or less universally acknowledged among philosophers of science that “theory is underdetermined by data” — the data almost never entail that we ought to hold a particular theory, so in choosing between theories we have to look at how well different theories explain the data as well as how initially plausible they are. (This is what Bayes’ Theorem does.)

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            “For Thomists, biological species are natural kinds. ”

            They aren’t. The category falls apart for asexual reproduction and ring species.

            ““Unexplained” is a very good synonym for “brute.” However, the literature on “brute facts” is vast, and I think it’s better to just keep the word, which has connotations involving Anscombe’s discussion of how facts can be brute relative to each other that are lost when you taboo “brute.” You can read it as “unexplained” if you like, but if you’re going to engage in discussions about this stuff, you might as well get used to the vocab.”

            Why? How does using brute add more information that highlighting “we don’t know”?

            “Let’s say you have locked-in syndrome, can’t feel your lower body, and somebody locks you in a sensory deprivation chamber with some silent, unseen equipment that takes care of nutrition and excretion for you. You have no opportunities to confirm predictions about the outside world. Based on your memories of your life before all this, are you still warranted in believing Caesar was assassinated? Or do you now have to give up all your beliefs about the outside world until such time as you can “make them pay rent in anticipated experiences”? Is it EVER rational to have beliefs that don’t “pay rent” in this way? Why or why not?”

            I’m not seeing why I’d stop believing the external world existed. People go into comas.

            “Natural has a very specific meaning here—not so much “non-human” as “non-arbitrary.” Not being a human social convention is part of that, but not all of it. Here’s an explanation of what “natural kind” means:”

            That doesn’t help.

            “To say that a kind is natural is to say that it corresponds to a grouping that reflects the structure of the natural world rather than the interests and actions of human beings.”

            So is color a natural category or not? It reflects the natural world, but it is arbitrary. I’m not seeing why those categories have be contradictory.

            “In other words, the idea is that ANY objective observers would reach agreement about which objects in nature are distinct kinds of things.”

            Astrophysicists use the categories hydrogen, helium and metal (everything else) while chemists break down to the specific element. Which one do you consider more objective and why?

            “The realist position is that nature has an intrinsic structure and order independent of our purposes and projects.”

            I’m not seeing how “categories are arbitrary” and “nature has intrinsic structure and order” are contradictory. If definitions could change, that might be true, but the way things are seen in relation to each other does not affect their relations to each other.

            ” Are quarks something we just “made up” like the rules of baseball? Or are they really “out there” independent of our projects and agendas?”

            The subatomic particles exist. However they are one of the 4 categories for subatomic particles (excluding antiparticles there is a total of 17). There are 6 quarks, but if the definition was subatomic particles with positive charge (3-4) or subatomic particles with spin (16) or subatomic particles with mass (15) the category would be different.

            Which category do you believe is the real one and why would you pick that over the other?

            “I’m asking if ANY of our categories are rooted in attributes that are really out there, or if they are ALL mere social convention”

            Both. How can categories not be rooted in attributes? They are defined by the common attributes of the individual items that make up the category.

            ” It is to say that the universe has no discourse-independent order and structure.”

            Sure there would be. It just requires everything in the category to be exact copies of each other member. This means fundamental particles and things made of the exact same arrangement of fundamental particles.

            ” Complex entities are contingent. Only an absolutely simple being, like God, can be a necessary being adequate to terminate an explanatory chain satisfying the principle of sufficient reason.”

            Assumption 1- God is simple.
            Assumption 2- Complex entities are contingent
            Assumption 3- The universe is a complex entity

            “You either accept our cosmos as a brute fact, or you accept classical theism as its ultimate “reason/cause.””

            See this is why I taboo brute.

            “You can accept that you don’t know the answer or…”

            “Metaphysics is about “why things exist,” i.e., about explaining not “how things exist” but *that* they exist—that anything exists.”

            Why things exist is the origin of the universe. Can you give an example of them making successful novel predictions regarding that? What are their testable predictions?

            “I don’t know what you’re referring to.”

            Judaism answers not only why the universe exists, but why God wants each and every activity proscribed by the Torah to be enacted. Christianity fails to do that.

            “I disagree with you that Thomist posits like the immateriality of the soul and the existence of God lack explanatory power: the first accounts for intentionality, the second for the existence of anything and everything. ”

            Nope. The first fails to do so- why do souls have to be immaterial? Why can’t the brain have the same magical properties as the soul? Since we know the brain exists.

            The second quite obvious does not explain anything and everything- God is the exception.

            “So the cosmos (universe, multiverse, whatever it turns out to be) is just a brute fact? Are you admitting that’s your position?”

            I’m saying you have to justify assumptions. You need to show that “everything has causes” and that this applies to the universe as well. Oh and you need to do it in such a way that you don’t replicate “waves and particles are mutually exclusive”.

            ” If nothing else, this is because quantum foam, e.g., exhibits law-like behavior considered in aggregate.”

            Randomness exhibits law like behavior in aggregate as it cancels itself out. I’m not sure how you could have anything random that doesn’t feature that trait.

            Troy
            “But we have examples of powerful, knowing, and good; taking these quantities to their maximum is an extrapolation from this.”

            For the first two there is no mechanism to “take them to the Max”. How can you enter a singularity and not die? How can you exceed light speed? These things do not appear possible at all.

            All good doesn’t work because good isn’t exactly a scalar value. Once you are Mr. Rogers, what exactly if left?

            “So you have the same number of “impossible powers,” unless I’m just misunderstanding you.”

            Its polytheism where none of the being are Omni.

            “If someone you love died and the manner in which she died will make no difference to what you discover in the real world in the future, wouldn’t you care about whether she was murdered or not? ”

            Yes because traditionally knowing someone was murdered is an important step in being able to catching/stopping said murderer. Even if all the reason that drives the rationale were gone, the emotion that is tied to them remains.

            Its no more a surprise then the fact people eat food, even though they don’t need the additional calories.

            “Moreover, most religions, Christianity included, make value claims which, if true, ought to make a difference to how we live.”

            That isn’t a value claim as much as “do this or suffer punishment” (in a place you can’t check). It should be taken as seriously as all other such claims.

            “This is what Darwin did, for example, in the Origin: he listed a bunch of facts and argued that his theory explained them.”

            And if we had other theories that explained those facts we wouldn’t be able to choose between Darwin’s and the alternate. Darwin was writing at a time when the facts couldn’t be explained by alternate theories- divine creation didn’t seem to work and neither Lamarkianism or other varieties of evolution managed to fit what was observed.

            “Experiments which led scientists to believe that electrons existed did not involve the direct observation of electrons themselves. They involved the observation of phenomena that electrons could explain.”

            They could see them inside vacuum tubes and could measure them and see that they weren’t atoms. I’m not sure what else they could have done.

            “If that’s your sticking point then you probably do mean to deny one of my premises, namely that P(Regular|Value,Necessary,Theism) > 1/2. You’re claiming that this might not be high because even if God exists, values life, and needs to create a regular universe to get life, God might not have the power to do this.”

            I’m not denying it. I’m saying the assumption “can create the universe” can be applied to anything.

            “Other observed entities have been observed to be limited in power. We have very good evidence that Steve Jobs is not all-powerful, and could not create a universe.”

            Assumption 1- must be all powerful to create the universe
            Assumption 2- we would recognize an all powerful entity that wasn’t God

            “The example was just that, an example. It was explicitly contrived to be as simple as possible. Make the system more complex and the probability of micro-changes exactly cancelling out becomes even smaller.”

            It becomes larger. Law of large numbers means the more granular you go, the less randomness has an effect.

            “I do not understand this sentence.”

            Assumption 1- Planck length is the smallest you go (35)
            Assumption 2- Planck time is the smallest you go (44)
            Assumption 3- 1 second cubic meter

            For a single change in the area to have an effect it would need to be 10^42875 times stronger than the default to be double. So if changes aren’t detectable below a billionth difference we’d have 10^42866 before it registers… and then it need to do that 10^44 times in a row for it to be noticeable for the length of time for a second.

            “The others either don’t explain the data, are impossible, or are also inconsistent with naturalism.”

            Yes, but they are alternatives to your theory. What probabilities do you give them?

            “That naturalism is our experience of how things work is, of course, question-begging. ”

            It pointing out the assumptions for God contradict what we’ve seen for everything else we’ve previously encountered.

          • Troy says:

            “But we have exampl