Monthly Archives: January 2017

Donald Trump: Evil, or Just Stupid?

It’s been quite interesting to see two competing narratives emerge in the liberal media in the past few weeks. The seeds of this split have been present since the Republican primary last year, but Trump’s first few weeks in office have thrown it into sharp relief. His first acts and executive orders might have been expected to “pick a winner” and prove out one of the two theories, but instead we are left with still more questions.

What is the million dollar question then? It’s simple: is Trump (or Steve Bannon, or whoever is whispering in his ear most of the time) evil, or just stupid?

Jake Fuentes makes a reasonable argument for “evil”, and the same sentiment can be found less clearly expressed in a number of places advocating for violent resistance and protest. Others, such as author John Scalzi, view the last week of chaos as the product of stupidity, not “11-dimensional super-chess political moves”. Scott Alexander spends a lot of time dumping on Trump and then concludes that despite his other short-comings, “he does not… take marching orders from the KKK”.

I find a lot of the arguments on both sides unconvincing. Hanlon’s razor (“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”, probably since there is a lot more stupidity than malice in the world) suggests that stupid should be our default assumption. From that perspective it is hard to see the Trump administration’s actions as anything more than bumbling incompetence. However the argument baked into this position is that because Trump is incompetent, he can’t also be evil. He’s greedy and lazy, sure, and a garden-variety racist, but not actually a true-believer Nazi.

This isn’t really convincing to me because it doesn’t appear to adequately explain the sequence of events surrounding e.g. the DHS’s organized defiance of a federal injunction. When layed out one after the next, it seems like an awfully extreme coincidence for bumbling incompetency to have sent the United States so cleanly down the path to a fascist coup d’état. On the other hand, pretty much everything else Trump and his administration have tried has seemed like one gross mis-step after the next, and it would be weird for them to be so methodical with their fascism and so sloppy with everything else.

So which is it? It could, I suppose be both. Trump (or more likely Bannon) is a legitimate fascist planning a coup and kind of a moron, one who just happens to have gotten lucky on all the things that really matter. But this still seems unlikely; a better explanation would be that luck is running the other way: Trump is a garden-variety idiot whose incompetence and rhetoric has led the US to a potential civil war by accident. Because we are imagining a final destination, the steps taken down the path look intentional even when they’re not.

In the end, it may not matter. Contrary to popular aphorism, this is a case where the destination matters a lot more than the journey we took to get there. Even on the still-decent odds that the US remains a liberal and democratic republic, the rule of law will continue to be sorely tried, and from those stress fractures will bleed human rights.

Take heart from the most likely explanation: if Trump is just a lucky moron, then at least nobody in power is actively trying to dismantle the United States. Who knows, there’s a tiny chance somebody in the inner circle might actually realize the effect their policies are having and put a stop to the madness.

And even if they don’t, nobody’s luck lasts forever.

Edit: I wrote a follow-up post here.

Advertisements

The Many Faces of God

From free will, we now tackle another popular problem: religion. This is a topic I’ve thought a lot about, even before I started writing this blog, and there are a lot of existing arguments on both sides already, so this will probably be a long post several long posts.

The biggest problem with discussing “religion” from a philosophical angle is that there are so many different religions to choose from, and even given a fairly narrow subset (self-identified Protestant Christians, for example) there is a wide range of actual beliefs. None-the-less, there is enough overlap that we can distinguish a few broad categories of claims that religions tend to make:

  • claims about the existence of god (or gods)
  • claims about ethics and meta-ethics
  • claims about the meaning of life

Let’s start with the existence of god. The core claim is trivially easy to state (“god exists”) but of course a lot depends on how you unpack “god” in that sentence. What it means for god to exist can vary a lot from person to person, from the fairly traditional Christian anthropomorphic deity, to the whole pantheons found in many versions of Hinduism, to the more pantheistic view favoured by Spinoza and Einstein.

I reject all of these. There is no god in any form.

(From here on I’m going to continue using “god” singular to simplify the grammar, but everything should still apply to gods which are polytheistic, pantheistic, etc.)

Rather than try and knock down every (or any) specific version of god, I am going to develop a general argument for atheism in three points. This should, when complete, act as a sort of template that can be applied to any common conception of god. Perhaps when I’m done I’ll make it into a flowchart that atheists can print and hand out instead of getting into the same argument over and over. To those atheists who are already complaining that I’m wasting my time given the burden of proof – patience please!

My three arguments approach the problem from three fairly different angles, and as such may be more or less applicable depending on which specific definition of god you choose. The hope is that between the three arguments I’ll have covered effectively the entire spectrum of god-like beliefs, that they will re-enforce each other, and that taken together they will support a position of strong atheism.

This post is long enough already, so in closing I will leave you with a summary of the three arguments:

  • via epistemology: I will argue that there is no room for god in any common epistemology, whether you consider god’s existence to be axiomatic in itself, or derivable from other axioms.
  • via metaphysics: I will argue that there is no room for a meaningfully defined god in any common metaphysics, and that any “god” which you may manage to squeeze in does not deserve the term.
  • via explanation: I will argue that modern science does not just adequately explain humanity’s tendency to falsely belief in god, but actually demands some kind of atheism in light of such an explanation.

Freedom, the Self, and Free Will

After last week’s talk about speculation and metaphysics, this week we’re going to tackle the subject of free will. Free will is a weird problem, with a hundred subtle variations of the initial problem statement and equally many solutions depending on how you define various words. The fact that so much depends on precise word definitions is usually a hint.

First, lets start with some positions we can easily reject: although my posts on systems theory may lead you to believe otherwise, I am not a determinist; I made a point of permitting the definition of a system to include non-determinism. As such I find the whole question of whether or not free will is compatible with determinism to be irrelevant at best.

But let’s go back to that thing about definitions I mentioned in the first paragraph: if we want to talk about free will (and whether it’s possible, or whether we have it) we should pin down what it is exactly we’re talking about. A layman’s definition of free will tends to be something like “the ability of a person to freely make a decision” which does very little to actually clarify the issue. What does it mean to make a decision? What does it mean to do so freely?

There are a number of ways to unpack these questions further, but I find most of those unconvincing. At the root, to seriously ask the question of free will in the first place, I find that you have to include a dualist assumption in your worldview. The concept of free will only makes sense in a universe where the actual self and the physical self are different entities and so the observable self could conceivably behave differently than the actual self ends up willing. In a physicalist view (or in other weird unified-self views), those are in effect a single thing, and it is incoherent to talk of that thing behaving differently than it behaves or willing differently than it wills.

Since I am, in short, a physicalist, I follow this path to its natural conclusion and end up rejecting the question: free will has a hidden dualist premise which I reject.

Speculation and Metaphysics

OK then, back to the roadmap which I posted (oh goodness) 3 years ago now.

Over the last rather… “spread out” batch of “planned” posts we’ve used the handy tools of abstraction and social negotiation to answer some standard philosophical questions. Today we’re going to add another useful concept to our toolkit, and use it to take on metaphysics (no not all of it, but a lot of it).

The concept we’re going to deal with today, as suggested by the title, is speculation. Speculation is a fairly ordinary word, and I’m using it in the ordinary sense, so there’s really not a lot going on here. It’s can be a useful thing to speculate, and it’s a critical component of the second step in the scientific method. However, this means that testable speculation is science, not philosophy. Perhaps poorly-performed science, but still science.

Conversely, untestable speculation wanders dangerously close to meaninglessness (just as I am now wandering dangerously close to logical positivism). It can by definition have no influence on reality whatsoever, and so nothing speculated in this way can matter or exist in any useful sense.

Note: it is of course important to distinguish pragmatically-untestable speculation (e.g. quarks in the mid-twentieth-century) from actually-untestable speculation (more along the lines of Russel’s Teapot).

Classic metaphysics (especially of the Greek variety) tends to fall mostly in the was-actually-bad-science camp, for example Thales of Miletus who believed the underlying principle of nature was that everything was made of water. Other metaphysics (e.g. free will) will have to wait for a later post.