Why Socialists Should be Libertarians

Four years ago I considered myself a socialist. I voted for Bernie Sanders and supported policies that would raise the minimum wage, make college and healthcare free, and more. Today I am convinced that these well-intentioned policies have a variety of negative unintended consequences (see Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics) and that capitalism is generally better able to address the problems these policies are meant to address, as I’ve argued here. Capitalist solutions also have the benefit of being non-coercive, the value of which I’ve elaborated on here. In addition to these other factors, libertarianism is also superior to socialism in that it is pluralistic: socialists are free to construct socialist institutions within a libertarian society, while the reverse is not true.

Socialism is not inherently immoral in the sense of being a system in which people share means of production. Roommates and families share cooking appliances, furniture, plumbing and other means of production, and it is possible for this to be of benefit to all involved. Socialist systems are only immoral to the extent that they are enforced through violence, as is the case under socialist political systems which manage or redistribute the means of production according to democratic or dictatorial decree. A socialist political system would entail something akin to the expropriation of property deemed to be means of production, a policy necessarily containing ambiguities and immoral consequences. Whether or not personal computers used by writers to produce books or articles, or a personal food garden are means of production to be expropriated is unclear. Whoever the authority making these decisions would be would subject many others to the consequences of their fallible judgments. Even if many offered their possessions up willingly, there would undoubtedly be some who would prefer to keep them, and these cases would require violence or the threat of it.

So, the only moral forms of socialism are those in which people can voluntarily participate. Businesses that are employee-owned and -run are of course fair game and nothing in a capitalist system prevents their creation. Any group of people are free to create a business, create or purchase means of production, and operate cooperatively. What does contradict libertarianism is the idea that the means of production should only be managed democratically or centrally, as would be true in the case where a coercive government plays a part in managing them.

In a capitalist society there would still be constraints on all businesses, including those operated according to socialist principles. Most businesses fail, and this would no doubt be the case even when all employees own the means of production, or when income is redistributed equally throughout the organization. It is possible that these sorts of companies would have a distinct advantage over those operated more traditionally, in which case a libertarian society could also be a socialist one, in which most or all organizations would be what we call socialist. People would still be free to join or create organizations that were not socialist, of course, but under this theoretical future no one would want to because the relative disadvantages would be clear.

While it is of course impossible to predict the future, I would guess that significant proliferation of most forms of socialist organization would not occur in a libertarian society for economic reasons. The case of Jamestown illustrates the problems with voluntary socialism of a redistributive kind. According to Michael Huemer in The Problem of Political Authority (p. 193):

[Jamestown’s] founding charter stipulated that each colonist would be entitled to an equal share of the colony’s product, regardless of how much that individual personally produced. The result: the colonists did little work, and little food was produced. Of the 104 founding colonists, two-thirds died in the first year – partly due to unclean water but mostly due to starvation. More colonists arrived from England, so that in 1609 there were 500 colonists. Of those, only 60 survived the winter of 1609-10. In 1611, England sent a new governor, Sir Thomas Dale, who found the skeletal colonists bowling in the streets instead of working. Their main source of food was wild plants and animals, which they gathered secretly at night so as to evade the obligation to share with their neighbors. Dale later converted the colony to a system based on private property, granting every colonist a three-acre plot to tend for his own individual benefit. The result was a dramatic increase in production.

Hundreds of lives in this local case and undoubtedly millions on a larger scale throughout history might have been saved by a better understanding of economics. Individuals tend to work harder and smarter when they can benefit from that work (by having more food to eat or more food to trade) than when their work benefits them only through the positive feelings of having worked and contributed to the stockpile (if that!) and the fractional increase to be received in distribution. As evidenced in the example above, provided there are no other incentives for working, one may prefer to go bowling knowing that the fruits of one’s labor will be redistributed, and that one will still receive one’s “fair share” of others’ labor from the common store.

The Jamestown example is of course an example only of a specific type of socialism in which food is included among the resources redistributed, and there are many examples of employee-owned and -run businesses around the world which may serve as examples of ways in which socialist (in at least some sense of the word) cooperatives may develop and succeed. The example only serves to illustrate that the popular variety of socialist utopian vision involving complete redistribution of resources is unlikely to be feasible and could lead to disastrous consequences.

Capitalism, as I use the term, is the voluntary interaction of individuals for purposes of trade or cooperation. To the extent that someone opposes it, they are advocating for violent aggression. There are a variety of arguments for violent aggression, but the ones I am aware of have been refuted. There is a contradiction between socialism and capitalism only to the extent whatever system of socialism under discussion advocates the theft and forceful redistribution of property. Unfortunately, most popular forms of socialism advocated today are of this coercive sort.

Confidence Without Certainty

A prevalent mistake made by critical rationalists and their critics is that a lack of certainty implies a lack of confidence. These critics sometimes denounce the way critical rationalists express their ideas, as if they should be couching everything they are saying in cautious or even probabilistic language. Confidence and certainty are conceptually distinct and it’s worth criticizing the equation of lack of certainty with lack of confidence.

Certainty is a feeling that is entirely disconnected from the truth of its object. Any knowledge may be false and certainty can do nothing to change this fact. It does not follow from this fact that certainty has no pragmatic value, as evidenced by the success of religions and other dogmatic institutions. Certainty is valuable in that it ensures that a person is at least taking the theory that is its object seriously. Certainty can also strengthen the will of a person in the same way other anti-rational ideas and feelings can; by preventing criticism, a feeling of certainty can help maintain a particular trajectory and prevent doubts from entering the mind. Again, certainty is no indicator of proximity to the truth, so avoiding criticism also serves to prevent finding a better theory rejecting the possibility that one exists.

While confidence and certainty both have the advantage of encouraging taking an idea seriously, confidence remains open to alternatives which may show the original idea to be false. Confidence encourages both more readily subjecting ideas to criticism and less readily accepting inadequate criticisms. The important truth that you should be willing to subject any of your ideas to thorough criticism does not mean that you should reject a theory simply because you have encountered a criticism of it. Not taking a theory seriously can cause you to give it up too readily, before it has been successfully criticized.

Another common mistake due to misconceptions about what it means to lack certainty is adopting a position of ambivalence. This position is related to relativism in that it rejects evaluating theories in terms of better, worse, true or false, but is a weaker claim in that it only refers to one’s own ability or right to judge theories and not objective reality. Upon exposure to the idea that any of our knowledge may be false, many conclude that the correct position to take towards theories is one of ambivalence, that one should not adopt any position at all. But this is an overreaction to the nonexistence of justification. Although final justification is impossible, it is possible to make progress by looking for and creating solutions to problems.

Among other motivations for maintaining ambivalence in regard to theories may be: fear in taking a stand that would lead to social discomfort or awkwardness, a desire to avoid the embarrassment of confidently holding a position that turns out to be false, or a fear that taking a firm position will lead to becoming “biased.” I won’t attempt to refute the first two motivations here except to say that fear of embarrassment is useless when it can be applied universally (it is always possible to discover error in idea or action). As to the third motivation, taking a firm position is more likely to lead you into positions that will refute the theory, so long as you do not avoid means of correcting yourself if you’ve made an error, while remaining ambivalent is more likely to lead to a position of never understanding any side deeply enough to come to a clear conclusion. Biases are just a category of error and are equally unavoidable, but piecemeal corrections of them are possible. Remaining ambivalent towards all theories or an arbitrary subset of them is one such bias ripe for correction.

The acknowledgment that it is always possible some action has been taken or some idea held in error may weaken confidence if applied solipsistically, as in that oneself is prone to error and others are not. But the fact that everyone is prone to error can also strengthen confidence in the way of denying the supposed “authority” of “authorities.” Confidence is also valuable for correcting errors in that it can encourage formulating theories so as to allow others to subject them to criticism, offer better alternatives, or find ways to improve them.

Confidence is also optimistic in the sense of acknowledging that while problems are inevitable, they are also soluble. Certainty that events will go a certain way may be irrational, but confidence that there is some way in which whatever problems will arise can be solved is not. Confidence is more likely to put you in situations in which you are solving problems faster than you would have otherwise, and, while it’s important to avoid overreaching, increasing the rate of problem-solving can help increase well-being.

Advice, Thoughts on Responsibility

Confidence is something that is not precluded by a lack of certainty, and it can improve one’s ability to act and think rationally. Techniques for gaining confidence is another matter I am not particularly well-equipped to discuss, but in addition to the rational understanding argued for above I have found the following strategies and arguments useful.

It is important to first clearly recognize that confidence is not something to be avoided. Many people avoid being confident because they think that it contradicts being nice or conscientious, or that confident people are arrogant. It’s important to clear up these confusions in order to avoid sabotaging one’s own efforts. Lacking confidence can even self-reinforce by putting a negative value on all forms of confidence through labeling as arrogant in order to avoid confronting the problem.

It can be helpful simply to recognize and appreciate good (non-arrogant, kind, etc.) people because developing and maintaining confidence is something that requires a good deal of implicit knowledge that may be learned by watching or spending time with people who have had success in this area. It can even be helpful just to spend time with people who value confidence in others with which you can recognize confidence in a non-depracating way, as viewing confidence as a positive trait helps prevent one from sabotaging one’s own efforts towards confidence.

In terms of social fears, confidence may be strengthened by the recognition that most people usually are too busy paying attention to themselves to notice your mistakes, and that even when they do notice, you are not responsible for the way that you have made them feel. People may object to what you have to say or the way you behave, but it is their responsibility to offer reasoning to change your mind, and yours to remain open to sources of error correction.

Whether how one behaves or speaks is moral or immoral is independent of how a listener responds emotionally. It is still wrong to intentionally insult people, or to yell fire in a crowded theater, and a variety of other things. These acts are wrong even if no one is hurt by them. A person operating a vehicle may not be responsible for hitting a person who jumped out in front of them without any time for the vehicle to stop, but the vehicle’s operator is at least partially responsible if they are driving at an unsafe speed or in a reckless manner. But just as it would be preposterous to severely restrict the behavior of the driver to avoid the possibility of ever hitting a passenger who intentionally leaps into traffic, it is ill-advised to take responsibility for the feelings of listeners who have freedom to choose how they respond to your words. Doing so puts them in the position of tyrant by making you responsible for things in their control and outside of yours. It is also impossible to maintain this position consistently, as according to it an obligation to not hurt one person’s feelings may violate an obligation to not hurt another’s.

Libertarianism and the Solubility of Problems

My previous post Critical Rationalism and Libertarianism may provide helpful background knowledge for the present one. 

One of the most common criticisms of libertarianism is that it is not “practical”. The implication whenever people ask the question “then who will build the roads?” is that the lack of coercion under libertarianism might be nice in some theoretical sense, but that there are a variety of situations in which the use of force is necessary in order to solve specific issues. Another oft-cited problem is failures of markets, such as when the medical industry fails to develop new antibiotics because financial incentives do not align with encouraging their development. While there are a plethora of good responses to these individual criticisms, critical rationalism provides a general response that covers them all.

In David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity, two truths are said to be worth carving in stone: the first is that problems are inevitable and second is that problems are soluble. Here, a problem is a conflict between two ideas. This sense of problem covers a wider variety of cases than the conventional sense of the word, which implies a subjectively negative situation. The fact that the infinite implications of any idea cannot be instantiated in any individual mind means that the vast majority of problems have not been consciously attended to.

So, restated using this definition of problem: conflicts of ideas are inevitable and conflicts between ideas are soluble. It’s important to recognize that the way in which problems will be solved in the future is usually impossible to know ahead of time, as most problems require growth of knowledge, which is inherently unpredictable. It is not a valid criticism of the possibility of something to say that it can’t be imagined how it would be accomplished, nor that no one has yet offered a solution for how it could be accomplished. The only valid criticism that can be made of something’s plausibility is that it is forbidden by the laws of physics. Everything else is, by definition, possible.

Unless one offers an explanation as to why it is physically impossible to solve the climate crisis, develop antibiotics, or build roads without coercion, they have not successfully criticized the possibility of doing any of these things. The same goes of course for doing any of those things well. What is often imagined to suffice as a criticism of libertarianism is the non-existence of a practical solution in the past or an intellectual solution in the present to some problem expected due to the lack of a government. Neither of these actually indicate impossibility, just as the possibility of landing on the moon was not impossible in a time when it had neither happened nor been comprehensively worked out theoretically.

It is one thing to say that it is possible to do anything that is currently done using coercion (paying for a variety of things through the levying of taxes) without coercion, but it is another to say that anything done through coercion could be done better without coercion. Popperian epistemology explains why the latter is true. There is no infallible authority to which to defer on any matter, so the best thing to do is to ensure that the means to detect and correct errors are protected and improved.

The current democratic system in place in the freest countries today is the best yet instantiated because it is far better at correcting errors than authoritarian systems such as dictatorships. Dictatorships prevent the correction of errors by placing one person (often one family) in the position of dictator without offering a means for removing them peacefully. Most dictatorships end in violence for exactly this reason. Democratic systems are an improvement because they allow for the removal of government officials without violence.

Democratic systems still leave room for improvement in the removal of organizations and this is exactly where capitalism excels. Capitalism is an evolutionist system in which entire systems (businesses, corporations, non-profit organizations, etc.) can be dissolved and created based on the demand or lack of demand from customers. Organizations only exist through their ability to offer some desired service or product to people through voluntary exchange, whereas a democratic government can maintain a monopoly on a variety of services through the use of theft (often referred to as “taxation”) and force generally.

It is important to note that capitalism is a system of evolution applied to organizations, not people. While people are certainly not exempt from genetic selection, capitalism offers a far better, fairer, and compassionate form of selection than the natural sort. Organizations can dissolve without having significant impacts on the well-being of individuals, as opposed to the inherently violent system of natural selection. Today the loss of a job can have a significant negative impact on individuals’ lives, but this is not a problem inherent in capitalism anymore than the inability to create cell phones was a problem inherent in capitalism before their development and spread. Non-profit organizations, charities, or unemployment insurance agencies are free to develop which may offer benefits to those without work and generally take over for a variety of government functions. But again, while specific solutions to various problems may be comforting or pragmatically relevant in the context of instantiating them physically, they are unnecessary when arguing for the possibility of solutions. What is important is that capitalism offers the freedom for individuals or organizations to offer up solutions and strenuously test them against competitors.

The sense in which organizations must adapt or die under capitalism, therefore, is only metaphorically violent. They must adapt to the needs and demands of consumers or be outcompeted by rival organizations, but this need not inflict suffering on the individuals that make up the organization. Businesses very often grow and then go out of business only after making all involved (customers, employees, etc.) better off than they would have been before. Voluntary organizations are required to meet important criteria in order to exist: they must be the best known option available for employees, customers, and/or members. Without meeting these criteria, they cannot continue to exist.

Governments and other coercive institutions are not required to meet these criteria because they receive revenue by force. Someone might have a better idea for how to provide protection to individuals from criminals, but under a government which holds a monopoly on force, individuals are not free to offer these services to customers. So government can force an inferior service on individuals at whatever price.

Critical Rationalism and Libertarianism

One of the biggest revolutions in my thinking due to critical rationalism (CR) has been in the realm of political philosophy. What political philosophy is implied by CR is somewhat controversial. Popper himself appeared to think that some form of socialism was compatible with CR, while also criticizing utopian conceptions of socialism such as Marx proposed. Many critical rationalists today are proponents of libertarianism, and I count myself among them. I contend that libertarian ideals are an implication of the CR worldview.

Libertarianism can be drawn as a conclusion of the Non-Agression Principle (NAP). The NAP may be stated simply: it is never moral to take aggressive violent action towards other people. Violence is only moral when it is in retaliation or defense.

The idea that ‘taxation is theft,’ a common libertarian catchphrase, can be drawn from the NAP. The NAP implies that taking someone’s property under threat of violence (arrest and imprisonment) without their consent is an agressive action that is neither retaliation nor defense. The NAP also implies that the only crime should be violent crime; enforcing a non-violent crime would itself be violating the NAP by taking aggressive action against the criminal. Crime without a victim does not violate the NAP.

If libertarianism can be derived from the NAP, the only task left is to derive the NAP from CR principles. CR’s claim is that all of our knowledge consists of unjustifiable guesses. Since our knowledge can never be perfect or justified, the only way to further the growth of knowledge is to criticize our current knowledge and attempt to make better guesses.

The most fundamental moral truth is that the means of error correction, criticism, must be protected. This is the most fundamental principle both because moral progress relies on criticism and because the only way we can know that the moral principles we hold are the best that we have access to is by subjecting them to criticism and seeing that they do not fail.

Since none of our guesses can ever be justified, and all of our proposed plans of action are themselves guesses, we can never justify our actions. This is a refutation of utilitarianism as a comprehensive moral system capable of justifying our acts. No moral calculation can justify any particular action, although it may serve as criticism for one. Utilitarians are not wrong to point out that an action that is expected to provide net negative utils (units of pain subtracted from units of pleasure) provides strong incentive not to take that action, but an expected net positive cannot justify an action. For instance, if two actions are both expected to result in the same util value, but one of them violates the NAP, the one that does not violate the NAP should be taken.

Admittedly, the above is a simple case and in the real world things are often more complex. The point is only that moral theories can serve as criticisms, but since an action can never be fully justified, irreversible harms should be avoided. Coercive actions are inherently anti-rational; they prevent error correction by not resolving a disagreement (problem) rationally.

Knowledge grows through conflict within already existing knowledge. When we have an argument with someone, our opponent may find a way to cause us to abandon some theory we previously thought was true. This may occur with all of our practical or scientific theories. It is possible that either or both parties of a conversation are wrong and the only way of discovering this is for both parties to engage in conversation with one another. In order to convince someone else of your position you must be creative; you must find new ways of communicating the idea you have to them so that they will understand what you are saying. It also requires creativity on the part of the person being convinced, otherwise they would not have been able to move to a new position.

Coercion prevents the resolution of a conflict in ideas by arbitrarily favoring one over another. The coercer’s position survives, but because a rational discussion was prevented between the coerced and coercer, it remains unclear whether that position is true or false, or whether the position of the coerced is true or false. Rational discussion and creativity applied to the problem might also have revealed that both positions are flawed and that some other position should be held.

People act on the knowledge they have. One might argue that people often act on intuition or emotion. This is true, but intuition and emotion are themselves forms of knowledge, sometimes knowledge that has developed over millions of years of evolution. Even if we concede for a moment the idea that emotions or intuitions are irrational, they are still affected by relatively intellectual thinking. If you come upon a snake in a field, you may feel intense fear, but this fear will dissipate when you recognize that it is actually just a rope. Your feelings change based on a change in understanding about the facts.

Knowledge often exists independent of any individual person. One type of this kind of knowledge is institutional knowledge. For example, no one person knows how to build a NASA space rocket, but the institution of NASA knows how to build space rockets. Any top-down prohibition or commandment that NASA leadership makes will be at least somewhat coercive in that it will override pre-existing knowledge that has been adapted for making rockets. Unless the institution has a healthy tradition of criticism that allows for pushback against misinformed commands, significant damage can be done in this way. Orders may actually destroy the knowledge needed in order to build rockets.

The economy is essentially an incredibly large computation and store of institutional knowledge that helps individuals know how to allocate resources. No one person knows everything about how the economy works. In a completely free market, no action is coerced. No one can be forced to do a job that they don’t want to and no one is forced to purchase something they don’t want. Knowledge grows or is sustained by these voluntary exchanges by providing information about supply and demand to consumers and business owners. If wages get too low, or prices for goods or services get too high, people will abstain or go elsewhere.

Libertarianism is not itself a solution to all of our problems, or a positive vision of utopia. But it is the best way we know of for organizing a society that is able to solve problems as quickly as possible. It is a system that helps prevent the destruction of the means of error correction by minimizing coercion and maximizing individual freedom to create revolutionary ideas.

See Libertarianism and the Solubility of Problems for more on critical rationalism and libertarianism. 

The Anthill

A man woke to find himself in a room, slumped against the middle of the wall. He knew that he should have some memory about how he got there, that he should have memories at all, but he couldn’t seem to bring any to mind. When he tried to recall, he only felt a sense of sending queries into the empty depths of his mind, with not a trace of response, residue, or reflection. It was as if he had been hollowed out. 

With his slow recognition that he wouldn’t be able to recall anything about his history, his distress was replaced by an interest in the room in his surroundings. On a table in the center of the room there sat a rotary phone. Although unaware of the current year or era from whence the phone came, he had the sense that it originated from a bygone era. Where he expected to find concrete information about the world around him were vague feelings, intuitions. 

Behind the phone there was a window with the shades drawn down, sunlight peaking between the blinds. The man felt a sense of panic rise within him when he thought of what he might find if he opened the blinds. He put this thought out of his mind and continued to explore the room with his eyes.

In a corner across from him he saw a small pile of dirt. 

The man had not yet dared to move anything but his eyes. He felt some need to collect his thoughts before he made any movement. But what was there to collect? Without his past, all he had was some small understanding about the objects in the room with him, the barest facts about them. The phone could be used to call people, and people could call him. He shuddered at the thought. 

The man sat for what felt like hours, thinking the same thoughts until they began to drive him mad. That’s it, he thought, I can’t just keep sitting here, or I’ll lose what precious little mind I have. So he stood up, half expecting the world to come crashing down around him as he raised himself up. He was surprised how good it felt to be on his feet, his body sighing of relief after his period of immobility. 

Now what? he thought. What else was there to do but take a closer look at the anthill? His thoughts of the phone produced an anxiousness within him–would someone be calling him? Was someone impatiently waiting for his call? There was no way he would dare approach the window.

As he knelt down next to the anthill, he was surprised to notice that it really was an anthill. How did these ants find their way into such an empty, sterile room? With nothing else in the room with which to busy himself, he decided to lay on his stomach and observe them as they went about their work. 

The first thing the man noticed was that the ants don’t stray far from the hill. They only moved around near the entrance to the structure, entering and exiting but never leaving the mound of sand that makes up their small palace. Wow! They seem to have such a strong sense of themselves, as if they had been assigned their tasks by some divine being, some ant in the sky. The contrast between the man’s and ant’s position felt to the man quite stark. The recognition of this fact caused the man’s feelings of solitude and emptiness to swell. The ants have no awareness, no care about the man hovering above them. He sensed they had no regard for his internal state, nor the admiration he had for them. The man imagined that even if they had, it wouldn’t have made any difference to them. They’d have laughed it off as some inane observation of an obvious fact; Yes, we have a clear sense of our task and purpose, but this is no great wisdom. Now, let’s get back to work.

Eventually, the man decided that maybe he could satisfy himself with the work of the ants, the lack of viable alternatives leaving him little choice. Putting himself to work would help him put the phone, the window, and his general sense of hollowness out of mind. So he began to pick up the tiny stones as soon as the ants left the entrance of the hill and place them in whatever position he thought best, inspired by the work he had been watching them do over his hours of observation. The ants were perpetually confused by this theft of their burden, but with nothing to carry, they quickly returned to their dwelling to find a new one to move. 

The man noticed that the speed of construction was much increased thanks to his help, as the ants had less distance to travel, and the time that he saved them added up across hundreds of trips. He would sit in the corner of the room whenever the room got dark, as bereft of sleep as the ants. He often wished he could continue working, but there was not enough light to see what he was doing and he was afraid he might crush one of the ants by mistake.

But after days of this routine, he became tired. He realized that as much as he wished he could, he could never operate with the single-minded focus that the ants exhibited. As much as he would try to remind himself to focus on his task, his fellow workers serving as his ideal, his mind would inevitably find itself drifting to other things. And with no memories of his past, there was very little for his mind to drift to but the phone, the window, and the man’s place in all of this. He started to worry that maybe he had some purpose just like the ants, but that, unlike them, he failed to recognize and follow through with it. 

What else could he be meant to do? He was worried it had something to do with the phone, that there was someone on the other end of the line disappointed that he had not yet called. He began to imagine the phone as a conscious entity all itself, sitting in silent judgment while the man moved pebble after pebble. Time compounded his fear, and he eventually avoided even glancing at the phone. He knew that it had no eyes, but he came to believe its power made this fact irrelevant. 

Thinking of the window was an even worse alternative. He felt no assurance that there weren’t eyes beyond the blinds. What would someone think if they saw him? Would they look in the window, see him moving small pebbles around and laugh? Would they bring their friends to show them this strange exhibit? Maybe whoever was out there would be even worse than this. Maybe they would try to hurt him, or destroy his anthill. 

Thoughts of this kind gave the man a second wind in his work. He found new ways to build up the anthill, adding towers around its periphery. He experimented with making small mazes that he would watch the ants explore while he took breaks from his work. The satisfaction this provided was limited by the fact that the ants would almost always find their way back to the entrance of the hill by climbing over the obstacles that he tried to place, but he was at least able to enjoy imagining what it might be like to be in the maze himself, attempting to find his way out through its twists and turns. He loved being able to create these patterns in the sand, something to look at besides the blank walls of the room. 

Although the various ways of making his day-to-day routine more interesting contributed greatly to his ability to continue with his work, they could only ever delay his sense of boredom. As days and nights passed, creating the designs became less and less interesting. As his boredom increased, so did his inability to keep his thoughts off the phone and window. He frantically tried everything he could to make things more interesting, but there was only so much he could do with the tiny pebbles the ants brought up from under the crack in the  floor. 

One morning he awoke from his slumber and recognized that he could not bring himself to go back to making patterns in the sand. He knew there was no way he could force himself to do what he had done for weeks on end. He paced back and forth in the room for what felt like hours, thinking of what to do next. Could it be called thinking when so few options existed in his mind? It might better be described as an anxious reshuffling of the same few thoughts.

Finally, he stopped pacing to sit by the anthill. Perhaps sitting there and watching them calmly go about their work would bring some relief. Maybe they’ll even help me, give some advice about what to do. When the man thought this, he felt a flicker of anger flash across his mind. What used to appear to him as tranquility, a dutiful and peaceful march of the ants, now seemed a smug and careless activity. Were the ants grateful for all the work he had done for them? Of course they weren’t. What had he been thinking, to imagine that he was providing any meaningful value to the ants? He felt their lack of appreciation, and his resentment for them grew in proportion to his feeling of embarrassment. 

At last, the man felt something like a snap in his mind. He knelt near the hill, reached down, and instead of picking up one of the ant’s pebbles like he had thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of times before, he squeezed an ant between his fingers and held it to his face, the pebble it carried falling to the hill as it squirmed for its freedom. The man felt great satisfaction in seeing the ant frantically writhe between his fingers. No longer did the ant appear poised and purposeful. 

The man watched for some time, until he realized that the ant’s squirming was just as automatic and purposeful as its activity of transporting pebbles. This realization enraged him. He had hoped that somehow the ant would have registered that it was being held at his mercy, that it was being punished. He somehow imagined that it would beg him for forgiveness. Instead it behaved as if it did not care what he did, and didn’t care what it had done. 

The man cooled at the recognition that what he was doing was for himself alone. Resigned to the selfishness of his act, he reached for one of the ants legs. He would pull it off, and the rest of its legs, and all the legs of all the ants in the colony. If they could not appreciate his help, then they would at least fail to accomplish what he had spent so long to try to help them achieve. He would destroy what no longer provided any fulfillment.

He grasped one of the tiny legs between his thumb and forefinger and prepared to pull. But just as he grimaced in preparation for this mutilation, he heard a high, harsh sound. The man thought maybe the ant was finally admitting its wrongs and begging for mercy. But he realized it was coming from behind him. He immediately dropped the ant and spun his head around, eyes wide with fear. 

The phone continued to ring as he stared, his body still frozen with terror below his turned head. Imagining someone must have known what he was doing, he felt a surge of embarrassment. All of his ideas about the phone must have been true after all, it must have been listening and aware, judging his every action, ready to announce his condemnation or absolution. 

He knew now that he had failed, and wondered how he might have done better. What could he have done to gain the approval of the phone? He did not yet know what would become of him, but he was ready to face his punishment. It was difficult to imagine it being much worse than what he had suffered so far. He even felt a certain sense of relief, that things were about to finally change, that he’d no longer be stuck in this room with nothing to do. 

The phone still rang as he processed all of this. Finally, he stood and walked over to the phone, placing his hand on the receiver as he had placed his fingers on the ants leg moments before. He yanked it up to his ear and stuttered:

“Hel… Hello?”

“Hi there, is this Mr. Sanford?”


Surprised that the phone hadn’t immediately pronounced some judgment, or known exactly who he was and what his crimes were, he nonetheless concluded that he must be who they asked about. Who else might they have been meaning to reach at this phone?

“Yes, that’s me.”

“Wonderful. I’m Sarah Cranstead calling on behalf of Crawford and Sons tire service. I just wanted to let you know that we’re offering a 20% discount for you this month since we saw that your wife had her tires rotated around six months ago with us. We usually recommend that people rotate them every six months, so we like to offer a discount to help bring people back in.”

The man stood motionless with the phone up to his ear, unsure about how to respond to this bewildering onslaught of words.

“You’re telling me… So, this isn’t about the ant?”

“Sorry, what’s that? No, this is Sarah Cranstead calling on behalf of Crawford and Sons…”

The man heard her voice drifting up from the phone that he was already moving towards the receiver. He felt as if the ants had finally dug out the floor from under him and he was falling through it. 

He turned to look at the window behind him, squinting at the light shining in between the blinds. It was the first time that he had been able to look at it without immediately averting his gaze.   

He knew that he would no longer be able to withstand the tedium of the room, and the feeling of anticlimax and relief he felt at discovering that the phone did not contain or represent some omniscient or judgmental being led him to consider the fact that maybe what was outside the window wasn’t as fearsome as he had always imagined. 

He walked to the window and took hold of the cord that he somehow knew would lift the blinds. Pausing for a moment to consider what he was about to do, he recognized that there was not much to ponder beyond the fact that there was nothing left in this little room to occupy him, and that the only potential for something new must lie beyond that window. He wasn’t willing to wait around for another pointless phone call, and he knew he could no longer be satisfied with his work for the ants. 

He became aware that he now felt what he always imagined the ants felt when he watched them go about their work. He recognized that whatever he was meant to do could not be done in this room. The ants could be completely fulfilled by moving pebbles here and there, but the man could not. To face the unknown, to open the blinds and discover what lie beyond them, was what he had to do. 

He pulled the cord and the blinds lifted. 

After blinking away the overwhelming light, his eyes landed on various objects outside like predators on prey. He saw that he was in a valley, filled with trees and surrounded by tall mountains, as if he had been shrunk and placed within one of the structures that he had made for the ants. He suddenly felt a peculiar feeling in his face before recognizing it was a wide smile. 

He opened the window, threw his legs over the windowsill, and made for the nearest mountain peak.

Exploring Criticism: Self-Communication

On my run today I realized that for a long time I had been somewhat duped by the hype around hard work. That is not to say that there is no benefit to working hard in pursuit of your passion. The problematic conception of hard work is that it is difficult to motivate yourself to do it in the first place. I was convinced that joining the military and going to college were important pursuits because they would teach me how to get myself to do the things I should do but don’t want to do. As I was running, an activity that I originally largely pursued for the same reason, I recognized this and began to take a whole different approach to the run. It wasn’t about some end goal of fitness or disciplining myself, so I began to enjoy it more. I explored the motion of my body as well as the world around me, taking interesting paths requiring more complicated footwork and stopping when I felt like it in order to enjoy a view or the sound of the creek I was running alongside. This playful attitude contributed to my quick and playful response to a woman asking me what I was running from: “I don’t know! Life, I guess.”

The benefits this attitude has contributed to my happiness and openness alone have been worth the change, but there are also other important reasons why this view is important. One of the biggest contributors to my taking this attitude seriously was modeling my mind in a new, more community-like way. I recognize that there is probably only one mind in my brain, but there are a variety of different inputs that can, I think, be usefully modeled as individual personalities. As social animals it makes sense that our minds would contain models of a variety of personalities. We must create working models of others in order to interact and cooperate with them. While the models are largely shaped by interaction with books, movies, music, and direct interaction with people, they don’t disappear when we are alone. To the contrary, one could think of thinking itself as the attempt of these various models to resolve their disagreements and explore new possibilities.

While the sub-personalities in our minds do begin as models of others, the word “model” implies something too inanimate to describe the resulting phenomenon. This is why I, for now, choose the somewhat awkward “sub-personalities.” They aren’t themselves a personality, but as part of a community of sub-personalities constitute one. However, just as the artist’s pallet shares colors with her painting, so do sub-personalities share qualities with the whole. They are not models in the usual sense, as they have desires and complex traits. Whether or not these sub-personalities exist as described, I’m interested in exploring the model of a community of sub-personalities and feel it may be useful to do so, even if it is just an analogy.

Why was it wrong for the Catholic Church to censor and imprison Galileo in his house? From our perspective, there are a variety of reasons, including that they were imprisoning him for saying something closer to the truth than Church doctrine. But I think that there are more fundamental reasons, ones that don’t rely on Galileo’s being right or wrong (in fact, he was wrong in the end). The reason it is wrong to censor speech is because it cuts knowledge creation off from sources of criticism and knowledge creation can’t happen without sources of criticism. Criticism in its various forms is what creates the problems that motivate the creation of new ideas that are intended to solve them. Let’s say that the church was actually more correct than Galileo. There are, of course, a variety of moral arguments that would bring one to the conclusion that it was wrong for the Church to do what it did. But there is also an argument for why it was bad *for the Church* to do what it did. Admittedly, key members would have to be convinced of some important facts of epistemology, but if they were, it seems the rational thing to do would have been to keep Galileo free. This is because the theory that Galileo created should be addressed and refuted in order to strengthen the doctrine of the church. The strength of a theory is based on its ability to survive where its rivals cannot. If the Church’s ideas are actually strong, it is necessary to use them to refute other ideas. In no other way could their strength possibly be shown.

How does this tie into the model of the mind as a community of sub-personalities? Often, there are specific sub-personalities that we stereotype as being consistently wrong, lazy, mean, mopey, worried, etc. People commonly believe that the correct response to this is to repress these sub-personalities in the same way that the Church suppressed Galileo. Like the Church, they worry that if they let their lazy sub-personality speak it will infect the rest of its community. To a certain degree I believe they are right in being worried, but only in the same way that the Church was right to be worried about Galileo. Additionally, it is likely that long repressed aspects of ourselves will not be very good members of their community in the same way that an overly-sheltered child will not be well developed in their ability to manage their emotions and engage with others. Continuing to shelter a child or repress parts of oneself is wrong. While it is possible to restrain and confine a sub-personality, this can’t be done away from the public eye. The rest of her community can see her in the stocks, and they will become either hardened and lose their compassion, malevolently rejoice, or feel empathetic and depressed by the sight. None of these possibilities are good for you, for the whole, nor for the actual community of people you are a part of.

While you don’t have to do everything your newly released prisoners tell you to do, you have to be able to explain to them why you won’t. In doing so they will develop into better citizens. They will begin to be able to offer more thoughtful and pertinent criticisms and contributions. For example, having released the lazy prisoner from his stocks, you might hear him tell you to stay in bed all day. Several other members of the community of your mind will likely protest this action, but you can’t let them force him back into the stocks. You have to help resolve the disagreement between all community members by coming up with new, creative solutions. Perhaps everyone will be on board with sleeping for another hour and then getting up for the day, or taking a nap later, or maybe there will be a good reason to get up right now that the lazy one will understand. It’s unlikely that this will go smoothly the first time around, but the process is worth starting sooner than later.

We are often convinced of our ideological framework that preaches the quelling of certain parts of ourselves just as the Catholic church was convinced of the dogma that convinced them to imprison Galileo. As a result, we cut ourselves off from some of the most important sources of criticism we have. While listening to their contributions is the all-important first step, the hard part is *communicating* with the various aspects of your personality. It is in this way that conceptualizing these aspects as agents, as sub-personalities, is helpful. If you were working on a team and someone said “I’m not sure we really have to do this task, why don’t we skip it and head home” it would (usually) be wrong to tell them to shut up and do the task anyway even if what they are saying is incorrect. So it is also (usually) wrong to tell the lazy part of you to shut up when it asks what the point of a task is. Instead of shutting down your sub-personalities unwanted suggestions, communicate in order to get on the same page. You’ll often find “the lazy one” has something important to contribute.

To return to the idea of hard work and what you should do vs. want to do, your ideal should always be to strive to make them identical. You could always be wrong about what you should do, and it is important to listen to the part of yourself that is telling you it doesn’t want to take part in some activity just as you should listen to the team member who doesn’t want to play a game anymore. It seems to me there are few greater goals than creating a world in which each person enjoys taking part. You can start by developing a mind in which each aspect “enjoys” taking part in the whole.

Abstractions and Morality in Religion

The problem of faith based religion is not unique to theist religion. The problem also exists in other philosophies, such as Marxism and Nazism. What is the common thread that ties these different, dangerous ideas together?

One of the important differences between the arguments for and against the existence of God is that the theist attempts to convince the atheist to believe in something they do not currently believe in. The task for the theist is even more difficult when it comes to arguments between different theistic religions because in order to be convinced by another theist, a theist must first renounce a belief and then accept another. A Christian who sets out to convert a Muslim must not only get the Muslim to abandon Allah, he must then convince him to take up a collection of beliefs held about the Christian God. The task of an atheist, on the other hand, is to convince the theist only to abandon a certain set of beliefs. Is this really so? Are not atheists committed to a series of beliefs that the theist must then adopt? I do not think that this is the case.

One interesting aspect of humanism is that it consists of a series of beliefs that a vast majority of people already hold to some extent or other. The Christian who holds God as more important than anything else in life still loves their friends and family. They still experience the sadness empathy conveys when they see a stranger suffer. It is for this reason that humanist arguments can still reach theists without causing them to abandon their religion. It speaks to those aspects of human life that are universal. Religion, on the other hand, attempts to introduce an abstraction on which a variety of truths should be based.

There is an extent to which abstractions can be beneficial. Companies, governments, and other institutions do not actually exist in the sense that they are physical entities. They exist only in our collective imaginations. This does not prevent them from being important. It is thanks to our faith in institutions such as governments and markets that we are able to maintain the level of freedom and peace that exist today. However, it is important to note that the benefits they provide should be measured by the effects they have on individual people (or other conscious beings), not the benefits accrued by the imaginary entities themselves. While money (another abstraction) can confer a variety of benefits on people, a government or company is not benefited by the accrual of money because it is not a physically real or conscious being. Abstractions are tools to be used for the benefit of conscious creatures, they should be used as means to an end and not treated as ends in themselves.

One of the problems that religions and other harmful ideologies share is that they treat abstract entities as ends in themselves. In religion this end is God, in Marxism and Nazism it is the concept of humanity. In both cases, they consider abstractions as morally more fundamental than individuals. This prioritization allows for the destruction or oppression of people in order to please God or benefit “humanity”. The problem with assigning moral value to abstractions like this is that it is very difficult to come to agreement on how to understand these abstract entities.

Because these abstractions are based on a multitude of controversial texts written by fallible human beings, it is nearly impossible to come to a consensus as to what they tell us to do. Communists and Nazis held the benefit of humanity to be the greatest good but disagreed about what that was. Muslims and Christians agree about the importance of God but disagree about which texts are fundamental. There is no basis for criticism that will be accepted by all of these groups.

A falsificationist approach to this problem provides some interesting results. First, it helps shed some light on what exactly the problem with these dogmas are: none of them are formulated in such a way that they are falsifiable. They are bad explanations in that they are easy to vary and can explain almost any normative or empirical truth. The ways in which a literal interpretation of holy texts can be refuted do not sway the position of the believer. Faith, instead of being seen as an aspect of our intellectual life that should be mitigated to whatever degree possible, becomes an explanatory tool without limits. God is not a bad explanation in that it explains too little, but that it explains everything. The origins of the universe, good luck, and beauty are all often attributed to God because this is a realm where better explanations do not yet exist (or so some believe).

Second, in intending for a belief system to be maximally falsifiable, the impact it has will naturally expand because the best explanations will be those that are accepted by the widest range of conscious beings. For a historical example, as people realized more and more what they had in common with people of other races, they began to expand the degree to which they allowed others to criticize their moral beliefs. Moral systems that allowed for the suffering of people of other races began to appear to be inadequate explanations of what is right and wrong. Currently, the moral sphere is beginning to expand to the non-human realm as we begin to formulate our moral theories in such a way that the suffering of animals is considered a serious criticism of our theories.

In contrast, the dogmatic nature of non-falsifiable ideologies restricts the reach of their explanations. Criticisms from belief systems which hold different fundamental truths from those of religions are not often accepted. Religions seek justification of their beliefs instead of criticism.

The moral progress that has been made since the enlightenment even among religious people is a testament to the power these sorts of criticizable explanations hold. However, while most religious people have been influenced by these arguments, there are still ways in which they are unwilling to abandon certain normative positions laid out in their holy texts. This is due to a difference in what is considered intellectually fundamental. The religious person will not accept that what they believe in is an abstract idea. What motivates this difference?

There are roughly two motivations for becoming religious. The way that is likely the most common is having been raised in a certain tradition. Belief in religion is accepted as the status quo. Because someone in this situation is unlikely to be presented with opinions that shed doubt on their religious beliefs, they do not see any need to second guess what they consider to be fundamental.

The second path is the religious conviction that is found after a deeply meaningful spiritual/religious experience. This may lead one back to a religion that they were raised with or to something new. The steps that one takes in this journey are what I would like to focus on here.

The initial event is obviously the experience itself which has been described in a variety of different ways by people of different belief systems. What some describe as a feeling of oneness with the universe, others might describe as a feeling of invulnerability or communion with God. I must say that I believe that those that hold the latter are imputing ideas onto the event that were not actually aspects of the experience itself. Having experienced moments like this, I was likely to explain them in a way that was in accordance with the spiritual framework with which I was familiar. My first experience, while meditating, I would describe as an experience of dissolving barriers between me and the outside world, a shrugging off of the concepts that I usually attach to external objects. The influence of the Buddhist beliefs that undergirded my practice are evident in this interpretation of events and are, in my opinion, very precise descriptions of the experience. However, I must admit that they are not necessarily fundamental to the experience itself. Any description of such an event is inevitably a rationalization of an experience that cannot be communicated in words. A similar rationalization likely occurs with those whose only spiritual education is based in a theistic religion.

This step, in which one attempts to place the spiritual experience in some context, is the most crucial. It is here that a whole system of beliefs consisting in a variety of fundamental tenets may be adopted. For some, this step is never taken. Instead, one might see the truth that a variety of religions point toward, or explain the experience through more secular means such as science or other cultural beliefs. What is the difference between these two reactions? This question is certainly impossible to answer conclusively here. However, I do believe it is plausible that one of the significant factors is the degree of self-criticism that is practiced by the individual. This makes each step of the process from religious experience to religion less likely to happen. For instance, the science of these sorts of experience indicates that these states are correlated with certain physiological changes. Someone who is critical of the meaning of their experience is more likely to consider the fact that what they experienced (or certain aspects of it) are in effect illusions caused by changes in states of the brain and do not have metaphysical implications.

Another aspect that may be even more important is the degree to which one values being able to find common ground with others. Some may be satisfied with the fact that the explanations they have come up with to understand their experience cannot be understood by others. Others may consider the communication of the experience important, valuing feedback on the ideas communicated. If this is the case, they will structure their thoughts in such a way that a common understanding can be reached by others. The system of beliefs they end up holding should be structured in such a way that they can be falsified.

Humanist values have superseded religious values in the common discourse in a multitude of ways. Even religious people often trust current scientific explanations over religious explanations of the same data. While there remain many ways in which religious people hold their own normative beliefs, many of their beliefs have been influenced by secular morality. However, secularists have yet to come up with an adequate response to the monopoly on spirituality that religion holds. While those who have grown up in religious households may change their minds about religion when exposed to criticisms later on, it seems less likely that those who have religious experiences will be convinced by them. A framework in which these kinds of experiences can be rationalized in such a way that the explanations can be expressed and critically considered by an expanding number of sources is needed.

The connection to God that many theists feel is what grounds their belief that God is not an abstract concept. They may feel his presence so strongly so as to consider him as real as a human being standing before them. The degree to which rational argument may affect such a believer is likely small. However, the degree to which arguments based on a high degree of faith in the wider discourse are accepted could have a large influence on the willingness to take up or continue to hold such beliefs.

Having pointed to some of the flaws in religion and other ideologies, we can now begin to consider what would be desirable in a religion. First, abstractions should only be assigned moral value to the extent that doing so affects conscious beings. For instance, it may be moral to maintain certain institutions because of the positive effect they have on individuals. Institutions should be changed if they do not fulfill this purpose and abandoned if they cause significant harm to individuals. Second, all normative and spiritual beliefs should be formulated in such a way that reasonable conditions may be met to successfully criticize them. Ad hoc hypotheses should be added whenever possible to make theories more and more falsifiable.