Correlation is not causation.

Yes it is. In fact that’s all it is. Isn’t that exactly what Hume showed us? You can’t see a cause, you can only infer it. And you can only infer it from a correlation. Sheesh!

If all and only smokers get lung cancer, then, dammit, smoking causes lung cancer. If there’s only a high correlation – most smokers and very few non-smokers – then it has to be smoking plus something else. If the higher correlation is with the something else then it’s that something else plus maybe the smoking. And so on. But for sure there’s no causation without any correlation. So where did this correlation is not causation nonsense come from?

That’s just one of many stupid things people say notwithstanding its stupidity should be staring them right in the face. Here’s another:

Rape isn’t about sex, it’s about violence.

Let’s check this out. Send an undercover policewoman out to where she’s likely to be raped. Tell her that, as her would-be rapist approaches, she’s to come on to him. If that stops him in his tracks, you might be on to something. But whatever you’re on to it’s the same thing you’d be on to if you observed how a lot of couples like to play. So no, Virginia, rape really is about what it seems to be about. It’s about sex.

If someone tells you she’s been sexually assaulted, tell her you believe her.

So, if he then tells you she’s lying, then he must, right? If he gets to you first and tells you she’s going to say she was sexually assaulted but she’s lying, you can’t tell him you believe him, because then you’ll have to tell her you don’t. Believe her, that is. So it’s not who gets to you first. It’s her word over his whenever she gets to you.

But now suppose he’s your son, your brother, your husband, or your best friend. You can’t tell him you believe him because you’ve already told her you believe her. So maybe you ought not to have told her you believe her, just in case your son or brother or husband or best friend comes along later and tells you she’s lying. Or worse yet, suppose she comes along second. Now you have to tell her you don’t believe her. So now it seems it’s her word unless he’s your son or brother or husband or best friend. But hang on. Even if he’s not your son or brother or husband or best friend, isn’t he someone’s son or brother or husband or best friend? And so shouldn’t that someone believe him rather than her?

So now you have to say it depends not on whether it’s a she or a he, but rather your particular relationship to each of them. That seems fair enough. But then shouldn’t you be telling her not that you believe her categorically, but only until someone else comes along you have reason to believe more? But that’s equivalent to saying you’re suspending judgment, which is precisely what “I believe you!” advocates want saying you believe her to replace.

94% of sexual assaults go unreported.

No, because it had to be reported that they went unreported, in which case they were reported. Presumably, then, what’s meant is that a random sampling of people were interviewed and of those who said they’d been sexually assaulted 94% of them reported they did not reported it in a timely manner and to the appropriate authorities. But even that can’t be right, because a goodly number of those reports, both the reported ones and the unreported ones, will turn out to be false, whereas to count them as sexual assaults they have to be sexual assaults. So the most that can be said is that 94% of accusations of sexual assault go unreported in a timely manner and to the appropriate authorities.

But hang on. That, even if true, tells us nothing about how serious the problem of sexual assault might be unless we’re also told the cardinals involved. For example, if there were only 47 such accusations in the entire country over the last decade, as a woman I’d be more concerned about the prevalence of boa constrictor attacks when walking through the park at night. She needs the numbers, and they’d better be high enough to make her think twice about her route home.

But even that’s not the worst of it. If only 6% of women are willing to file an information that they’ve been sexually assaulted by a man, what percentage of men do you suppose are willing to file a report that they’ve been sexually assaulted by another man? And what percentage of men do you suppose would be willing to file a report that they’ve been sexually assaulted by a woman? I have no idea. Do you? So what does “94% of sexual assaults go unreported!” tell us about anything we might want to know? Not a whole lot. But it certainly sounds like something drastic has to be done, don’t you think?

1% of the American population hold 40% of the nation’s wealth.

What exactly does this say about inequality in America? That there are vast discrepancies in wealth in America. Got it. But what does that say? That America is a long way from being an egalitarian society. Seems pretty obvious. Obvious, but manifestly false. In fact America is one of the most egalitarian societies on the planet.

By wealth is meant assets. And by assets is meant chicken scratches on a computer screen. The only asset one can eat is what’s in the refrigerator. The only asset one can live in is the roof over one’s head. The only asset one can drive is the car in the driveway. And so on. So let’s take a look at a graph representing the distribution in America of the only assets one could give a shit about.

Let’s start with longevity. What would a graph of assets on the x axis and longevity on the y look like? Near as dammit to flat. Let’s look at the nutritional value of what’s on an American dinner table. Flat. Let’s look at the reliability of the family car, as measured by breakdowns per trip to the office or grocery store or hockey practice. Flat. Hours of work per week. Flat. Days of paid vacation. Flat. Access to health care. Not as flat as it is in Canada, the Antipodes, and most European countries, but a helluva flatter than most other polities in the world. Internet access. Flat. Number of colored TVs per household. Flat. Incidence of spousal or child abuse. Flat. Number of laughs per fiscal quarter that make your sides hurt. Flat. Number of puppy paws scrabbling up onto the bed. Flat.

Need I go on? Probably not. But I will anyhow.

Anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is the most urgent problem facing the world today.

No it’s not. Worlds just aren’t the kind of things that can have problems facing them. Only people can. And there’s not a single person on the planet – nor a married one for that matter – for whom AGW is in any wise urgent. Far more urgent for me right now is I have to pee. After that I need lunch. Then I have papers to mark. Give me your to-do list. I’m curious as to how far down I’d have to look to find “Do something about global warming.” I’m guessing it’s not there. If it’s not there for the people who claim to be so deeply concerned about AGW, why are they surprised it’s not there for people who should be but aren’t?

We don’t negotiate with terrorists.

Yes we do. A terrorist is someone who targets a civilian population with a view to their pressuring their government to accede to the terrorist’s demands. So if we don’t negotiate with terrorists, and they know that, then they can’t be terrorists. The most they can be are vandals. We don’t negotiate with vandals, but that’s because all they want is to, well, vandalize. But here’s the proof that terrorists aren’t vandals. Give them what they want and they stop doing what they’re doing. Funny that.

Okay, I think that’s enough. But what’s my point? People say stupid things, but that doesn’t mean they believe them. People know rape is about sex. Rape victims who are told we believe them know perfectly well it’s just what we’re supposed to say, like “my condolences” when someone’s partner dies, even though we might think she’s well rid of the bastard. People know that the moment one converts an asset to something useful it’s no longer an asset, because he no longer has it in reserve. People know AGW isn’t urgent, which is why no one’s doing anything about it. And they know we negotiate with terrorists all the time, since otherwise we wouldn’t be paying welfare to those who’d otherwise have no choice but to steal.

So what’s the harm in people saying these stupid things? There is none, provided they do know enough not to believe what, with such heartfelt conviction, they say. My job is to just keep reminding them. It’s a dirty job, and it hasn’t made me many friends. But someone has to do it. Maybe that’s what should be put on my tombstone. “It was a dirty job, but someone had to do it.”

Let’s just hope I’m not buried next to one of the SS officers who worked at Auschwitz.


What’s doing the work in justifying some political arrangement we’ve made is not whatever the official justification might be – as, for example, in the preamble to the Second Amendment to the American Constitution – but rather that in virtue of which it perdures. And the Second Amendment does not perdure because, not unlike Switzerland or Israel, the American people have to be ready at a moment’s notice to come to the defense of the homeland from foreign invasion. It perdures because the American people want to be ready to resist their own government if, in their judgment, it has become tyrannical. Is there a cost to this readiness? Yes, by leaps and bounds the highest rate of criminal and domestic gun violence in the developed world. Is it worth it? Their call, not mine. I’m just calling a spade a spade, not whether a spade should necessarily trump.

We have juries. Why? Because a man [sic] has a right to be judged not by the sovereign but by his peers? That’s certainly the official story. But what’s also doing some of the work here is the jury’s capacity for nullification. That is, a jury is neither required nor permitted to accompany its verdict with a dicta. So it can with impunity nullify a law – or in the case of OJ Simpson the behavior of the police – it considers unjust. Juries are never told that. They’re told that they’re only to pass judgment on the facts, and that they’ll be instructed as to the law by the judge. They might even be told they’re not to pass judgment on the law. But what’s to stop them from doing so? And it’s precisely for that reason that an accused, like Henry Morgentaler, who was perfectly content to admit to the act, wanted a jury to pass judgment on whether the act was an actus reus. As it happens no jury thought it was. If the Supreme Court hadn’t ruled the criminalization of abortion unconstitutional, the government would have had to decriminalize it on its own.

The question of whether judges too should allow themselves the power to nullify is slightly more complicated, but not very. The Supreme Court aside, judges aren’t required to accompany their verdicts with a dicta either, so they too, and occasionally do, nullify as well, much to the disapproval of many jurisprudes, who worry about maintaining the distinction between the legislature and the judiciary. There is nothing arguably unconstitutional about the criminalization of marijuana, but some judges – probably because they enjoy the odd joint themselves – will find some pretext to acquit.

Is this as it should be? Certainly in the case of marijuana. But what about rape? What would we think of a judge who finds a pretext to acquit a rapist because, suppose, he privately thinks her past sexual history can be taken by the accused as evidence of consent? The law says no, but he thinks the law is an ass. If he shouldn’t be allowed to think that in the case of rape, why should he be allowed to think it in the case of marijuana?

Of course ‘allowed’ is the wrong concept here. All is permitted save what is prohibited, and nothing is prohibited unless that prohibition can be enforced. But enforcement is precisely what nullification is designed to thwart. Or if not designed, then at least not designed not to thwart.

Needless to say what’s hanging over these deliberations is what happened to the judiciary in Nazi Germany, and routinely happens under totalitarian regimes today. Judges in Nazi Germany would have dared to nullify only on pain of death. And resigning from the bench would have incurred a similar if not identical penalty. So we’re inclined to think that judges not compromised in this way should do what the Nazi judges couldn’t. If a law is unjust they should simply decline to enforce it. And that seems like the right solution were it not for that bugaboo of rape and similar contestable offenses.

As with so many issues in ethics and political philosophy, the solution lies not in any of the constituent concepts. They’ve just been laid out, and they seem not to give us any definitive guidance. So it becomes a matter of picking and choosing our path through the minefield. We’ll turn a blind eye to nullification in the case of marijuana, but scream bloody murder if it’s done with rape. Any appeal to principle will be ad hoc. It’s casuistry through and through. And it can’t really be any other way.

We might have to pretend to appeal to principles we ad hoc for the occasion, and then ad hoc a meta-principle to explain why that first-order principle doesn’t apply in the case for which we want a different answer. But most of us know what we’re doing. It’s performance. But performance may be all that stands between the appearance of order in the law and the unmitigated disappearance of it. And that’s nothing to sneeze at.




Res judicata is Latin for a matter that’s already been decided. Here’s one: It’s a res judicata that no conversation, including this one, can get off the ground unless some things are taken to be a res judicata. Like what? Well, like that these chicken scratches represent words, which strung together constitutes sentences, which strung together are intended to convey meaning. If that’s not a res judicata, then for goodness sake stop reading.

A res judicata is not the same as something that’s self-evident. I tell my students that Philosophy is that discipline in which nothing is taken to be self-evident. But self-evident is a term in epistemology. It’s self-evident, thought Descartes, that thought entails a thinker. But Hume challenged that claim. By contrast, that something is a res judicata is simply an agreed upon constraint on a conversation we’re about to have. It’s our “On the assumption that x, which we’re assuming only for the sake and duration of this conversation …” We may backtrack and question that assumption at another time and place, but not here and now. For the here and now what’s our res judicata defines what’s within our problem space and what’s outside of it. But as I say, only for the here and now.

We’re not always – in fact we’re seldom – consciously aware of what we’re both taking as a res judicata, but if in doubt a moment’s reflection will reveal it to us. For example, in the apprehension, trial, and imprisonment of a criminal, we’re assuming – and we’re assuming he’s assuming – that we’re in a state of civil society, not war. That’s not something people automatically think about when they think about criminality. But the Bobby Sands case forced the British people to think about it. Sands’ demand to be treated as a POW rendered what had been a res judicata a res judicata no longer. So the British occupier and the Irish resistance had to settle on something they both could take as a res judicata that would make possible a conversation about Sands’ status. They never did find that something, and so the issue remains open to this day.

So sometimes, to help us understand what’s going on in the world, it pays to think about what we haven’t been thinking about because we’ve been assuming everyone’s been assuming the same thing. For example, North Korea doesn’t consider itself subject to UN resolutions any more than Bobby Sands considered himself subject to British law. So if the Americans and North Koreans are ever going to enter into a conversation about that country’s nuclear weapons program, any assumption about the UN’s jurisdiction in the matter is going to have to either become shared or else dropped.

Sometimes people boldfacedly lie about what they’re taking to be a res judicata. AGW asserters are notorious, not to mention just a tad risible, for first declaring there’s no debate about AGW and then proceeding to vigorously debate it. This needn’t surprise us. Rhetoricians for this or for that are almost invariably loath to open their argument with, “On the assumption that …”, because they think that takes the wind out of their sails by giving their interlocutors an opening to question that argument-enabling assumption.

And they’re right. Imagine a priest opening his homily with, “Assuming that there really is a God …” or, “On the assumption that the tomb really was empty …”. I’m guessing his bishop will be sending him back to seminary for a refresher course on how not to preach the Gospel.

For theists talking to theists, the existence of God is a res judicata, as is the Empty Tomb for Christians, the Abrahamic Covenant for Jews, and so on. Which, as I’ve said, is not to say that a theist can’t question the existence of God, or a Christian the historicity of the Empty Tomb, or a Jew the historicity of the Abrahamic Covenant, at some other time and place. “To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” But his funeral is not the time to recount what a bastard the deceased was.

Most of us would have thought that’s a res judicata. But apparently not the Westboro Baptist Church, who are infamous for, among other things, picketing the funerals of homosexuals with signs reading “GOD HATES FAGS”.

Because Jurgen Habermas was a Continental philosopher, I’m not allowed to have read him. So I’ll just say that I hear tell that it was in response to problems like the Westboro Baptist Church that Habermas set himself to task on (something he called) a dialogical ethics, by which he meant the rules that have to be mutually agreed upon and adhered to if anything approaching a useful dialogue is to take place. To what he said – sorry, to what I’m told he said – would have to be added such obvious constraints as the rules of logic, without which we get (what logicians call) inferential detonation, the stability of the meaning of words, without which we get equivocation, and so on. So civility, syntax, semantics, and so on, are all res judicata.

Which, to repeat, does not mean we couldn’t at another time and place decide we should forego that dialogue-enabling civility. Maybe bigots just aren’t worth talking to. For that matter we might decide to eschew the rues of inference. Maybe our own hoi polloi – not unlike the hoi polloi being ‘radicalized’ by the evil Islamicists – are stupid enough to buy an argument ad populum or ad hominem, and all we really care about is getting them on side.

This is the tactic some of my colleagues have adopted vis a vis AGW assertion. I have no problem with either so-called radical Islamic terrorists or AGW asserter never-called zombies. I’m not sure about love, but certainly all’s fair in war, and for sure Palestine and AGW are both war zones. But let’s set the ethics of war aside for the time being and confine ourselves to issues which are, at least for now, touch wood, still under the constraints of civility.

Much of many debates – no, make that the entirety of many debates – is rightly described as two ships passing in the night. The two sides are just not making explicit what each is taking to be the res judicata prerequisite to a meaningful exchange of ideas on the subject. Even assuming George Bush was right – that we’re either with the terrorists or against them – you can’t assume I’m against them and then expect me to join in on a conversation about how to discourage radicalization. Even assuming we’re either outraged by pedophiles or sympathetic to them, you can’t assume I’m outraged by them and then expect me to join in on your deliberations about whether they should be killed or just castrated.

More often than not making explicit what we take to be a res judicata among our interlocutors just seems silly. Does a waiter really have to check to see if you want something to eat before asking what he can get for you? So how do we avoid such silliness but at the same time ensure that we haven’t spent an hour discussing financing options when you just came into the dealership to use the washroom?

In most cases the gestalt should be a dead giveaway. If you’re seated at the table and looking at the menu, chances are you’d like something from the kitchen. But if you’re sitting next to me on a plane from Rome to Paris, you’re wearing your Hassidic hat and your tefillin and you’re dovening, and you notice the Mogen David around my neck, you might, you just might, want to stop and find a way to check before leaning over and whispering, in a conspiratorial tone and twinkle in your eye, assuring me that – and I quote – “You know, when we finish building the wall, the killing starts in earnest.”

That one made my skin crawl. Your dumb-fuck talk of terrorists just gets my back up. And your assumption that pedophiles must be sick I just chalk up to your never having thought much about how sexuality actually works. The problem is it’s hard to find a diplomatic way to alert you to the fact that our res judicata may not be in sync.

What I should have said – and isn’t it always what I should have said?! – was something like, “Oh, I see. You must have thought I’m Jewish. Actually I’m Palestinian. I just wear this star thing as a trophy. I took it off the body of some young Jew girl I raped last week. I took pictures. Wanna see?”

Why do we always think of what we should have said when it’s too late?!




Here’s the history of the world in seven words: Walls go up and walls come done.

The demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam remained militarized for 21 years. The Berlin wall stood for just over 30. The Korean peninsula has been divided for just over twice that. People are impatient. History isn’t.

The walling off of the Warsaw Ghetto took eleven days to complete and lasted 3 years. The erection of concentration camps for Palestinians is an ongoing work in progress.. The wall between the U.S. and Mexico is still on the drafting table. To stop the flow of refugees, from Turkey all the way up the Balkans to Austria, walls are being erected one day and torn down the next, only to go up again the day after that. ‘Twas always thus, and always will be. History is patient and repetitive.

My neighbor and I just split the cost of a fence, but we had the foresight to include a gate, just in case. Ultimately it’ll be the smell of the other’s barbeque that’ll get that gate unlatched, if only tentatively at first, but then pretty much thereafter. No one likes to beg, and a care package is equally humiliating. It’s the invitation issued in the hope of a return one that does the work.

There is no wall on the planet, nor in the history of our species on it, that has withstood the smell of what’s cooking on the other side. For all our xenophobia and demonizing and genocides, that’s humanity’s saving grace.

But there are exceptions. Their haggis will not save the Scots from genocide.




I’m not a neurologist but … I’m told that when the doctor tests your reflexes with that rubber hammer and your lower leg springs forward, the message isn’t going all the way up to the brain. I guess that’s because evolution decided it didn’t need to. And so we get the metaphor of a kneejerk reaction.

Assuming I have the neurology right, the metaphor’s a good one, because a kneejerk reaction – whether it be to a snake or to an insult – is treated in this perfunctory way because further reflection on whatever’s happening would be a burden without compensatory payoff. By the time you’ve deliberated about it the snake would have already struck, or enough time would have passed since the insult that any counter-insult would just be lame. So we don’t deliberate. We just strike out at the snake, or strike back at the insult.

But as with any shortcut algorithm, kneejerk reactions can sometimes get things wrong. And as it turns out there are patterns to these errors. Psychologists – foremost among them Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky – have done us yeoman service analyzing these patterns. As it turns out, some are domain-specific, others infect our thinking right across the board. But to our credit, we philosophers scooped these psychologists by several centuries. For example:

If today is Tuesday I have to teach Logic today. I do have to teach Logic today, therefore today is Tuesday. We call this affirming the consequent. We all do it. But the point of taking a critical thinking course is to learn not to do it, though of course the most we can hope for is to do it less often.

There’s a perfectly good reason why we affirm the consequent. More often than not a conditional is just half of a bi-conditional. So notwithstanding affirming the consequent is an invalid inference, more often than not the conclusion turns out to be true anyhow. So the speed with which we get the right answer has a higher payoff than the avoidance of the harm we incur by occasionally getting the wrong answer.

Yet another error in reasoning is denying the antecedent. If there’s steam coming from under the hood the radiator is out of water. There’s no steam coming from under the hood, so the water in the rad must be fine. This, by the way, is how I blew my last engine. But more often then not the water in the rad is fine, which is why we just keep driving.

As with affirming the consequent, we can train our students not to deny the antecedent. But as just noted, our predilection to these errors is domain-specific. And there’s at least one domain in which no amount of training seems to make the slightest difference. That’s the domain of advocacy.

Do I have an opinion about this or that? Of course I do. I’m pro-Choice. I’m in favor of same-sex marriage and the decriminalization of marijuana. Notwithstanding I’m a Jew I have grave misgivings about Zionism. Notwithstanding I have gave misgivings about Zionism I suspect the Spielberg version of how six million of my co-religionists disappeared is probably pretty close to the way it was. I suspect 9/11 really was the work of nineteen incredibly brave young men and not an Israeli false flag operation. And so on. And if we were sitting in a bar, I’d be more than happy to bend your ear with any or all of these opinions.

But the promotion of none of them is my job as a philosopher. As a philosopher my job is to evaluate the validity of arguments about these and other matters, not pronounce on the truth-value of any end-of-pipe conclusions arising out of them.

I have a colleague down the hall for whom anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is his Precious. Among his argument for AGW is that those who deny it are shills for Big Oil. I point out that this is an invalid argument. (It’s called an ad hominem circumstantial.) He concludes that I too must be an AGW denier. This is just a straightforward case of denying the antecedent. If I deny that shilling against AGW in any way suggests the truth of AGW, then I must be denying the truth of AGW.

This is the kind of mistake I’ve learned to expect from my Intro to Phil of Religion students. I show them how each of the proofs for the existence of God fails, from which they conclude I’m trying to convince them of atheism. I do what I can to disabuse them of this. No, I tell them, absence of proof is not proof of absence. For that proof of absence I direct them to the problem of evil. Only if that can’t be solved, I tell them, do we then have a proof for the non-existence of God, or at least of the God of the Omnis.

But these are our students, many of them straight out of high school, where learning critical thinking skills is judged incompatible with inclusive socialization, or some such nonsense. But my colleague isn’t straight out of high school. He’s paid to have long since mastered these critical thinking skills. So what’s going on?

What’s going on is that True Believing is a critical-thinking-skills paralytic, including paralysis of the skill to recognize that one’s become a True Believer. It’s not that my colleague has so left the building that he can no longer see that he’s using an invalid argument form. It’s that he can no longer see that it matters. What matters, and all that matters, is his crusade.

Fair enough, say I. But what he doesn’t see is that those he thinks he’s trying to proselytize, though they may not know the names of these fallacies, nonetheless have a sixth sense for picking up on these cons. As soon as you stoop to this kind of argumentation, I tell him, you’ve joined your opponents in the gutter. And so all you’ve done is added to the cross-screeching. And when all they hear is cross-screeching, people just stop listening.

Put another way, as soon as you’re not listening to each other, no one else is listening to either of you. You think you’re saving the world from the deceits of the devil, but all you’re really doing is making yourself irrelevant to anything that could count as the conversation. In short, you’ve succumbed to Someone is Wrong on the Internet Syndrome (or SWIS).

SWIS was brilliantly captured in an episode of the West Wing. The Josh Lyman character – in spite of his assistant’s persistent warnings that these people are crazy! – can’t stop himself from correcting what was initially just someone’s innocently critical comment. But then, of course, the thing escalates. This is what you’re buying yourself into once you engage with one of these sites. You think you’re safe, because is just preaching to its own choir. But trolls are no more interested in ‘just the facts Jack’ than you are. They’re just looking for some fun, and like Josh Lyman you’re naive enough to provide it to them.

But maybe it’s fun for you too. Maybe you like showing off your command of what you take to be the ‘facts’, about which no one really gives a fuck. Maybe trolling and counter-trolling is your hobby. Maybe you’re like the gamer who’s forgotten it’s just a game. Maybe you’re becoming just a tad unhinged. Maybe you’ll pull your head out of your ass. Maybe it’s stuck there, and all we can do for you is just leave you alone.

What we can’t do, however, is leave you alone with our students. If they don’t know you’ve left the building they’re going to assume you’re still in it, and then, whether in class or in your office, they might say something philosophical, and then you might yell at them. Then we have to do something about you.

None of this would be necessary if we’d developed and sustained in our Department the ethos of combative camaraderie that characterizes a healthy intellectual community, a community in which we don’t resent being corrected but rather delight in it, because we’re interested in getting it right and not at all in being right. And this requires the instrumental supposition that we’re more likely than not wrong.

From which it follows that more likely than not I’m wrong about this. That’s why I’d desperately like to be corrected.




I’m guessing that there was a time in Europe – say the late 16th Century Sixteenth – when 97% of the population believed in the truth of the Gospels. The dissenting 3% were Jews or Moslems. Should a Jew or Moslem have followed the 97% and converted to Christianity? No, that would have been to have fallen for the ad populum fallacy. A responsible epistemic agent would have passed judgment only after having investigated the claims of the Gospels.

But since none of the claims made by the Gospels can be investigated, the epistemic issue as such is pretty much stillborn. At that time, belief in either Christianity or Judaism or Islam was permitted but not belief in none of the above. So epistemic responsibility got replaced with doxastic responsibility, which, under these coercive circumstances, amounted to asking which of the three communities on balance offered the more lucrative benefits. Jews and Moslems were on average slightly richer, but considerably more vulnerable. Conversion from Jew or Moslem to Christian was quite frequent, especially in Spain under the Inquisition. Conversion from Christian to Moslem was almost unheard of because they were in the process of being driven across the Straits anyhow, and conversion for Christian to Jew was almost unheard of,  mostly because Jews were and are reluctant to accept converts.

Replace the Gospels with AGW and for most of us the situation today is identical. Few of us are in a position to investigate the claims of AGW. We have no idea what percentage of our fellow citizens are on each side of the issue. According to one science communication researcher, Dan Kahan, most people give it 4 or 5 seconds thought and move on to what’s for lunch. But we know perfectly well what side our peeps are on, our peeps being those with whom we share our workplaces and dinner invitations.

In some peepdoms AGW assertion runs closer to 100% than 97%, in others closer to 0% than 3.%. This is because over the past couple of decades AGW denial has joined Holocaust denial as a disqualifier for membership in polite society. People turfed from this polite society have no choice but to seek or create their own, which in turn becomes equally intolerant of AGW assertion. And once ensconced in one’s peepdom, apostasy becomes almost impossible.

All of this, I trust, will be granted. But what’s not yet a res judicata is how effective if any is the deployment of arguments ad populum, not in encouraging apostasy, but in proselytizing the as-yet unaligned. Your arguments ad populum won’t work on the already otherwise committed because either she’ll deny your numbers or else take pride in her minority status. You can’t win. But with the as-yet unaligned, the ad populum is widely thought to be the argument of choice.

As already noted, insofar as most of us are in no position to pronounce with anything even approaching knowing whereof we speak, we have no choice but to rely on those who are in such a position. If these people-in-a-position-to-know were of one mind, we’d have no problem. But they’re not. If the people in a position to know who are the people-in-a-position-to-know were of one mind, we’d have no problem. But they’re not. Bring it as far back as you like, and the problem persists.

So instead of using the “Everyone believes that …” version of the ad populum, the AGW rhetorician has to settle for the “The scientific consensus is that …” version of it. The stronger version is vulnerable to falsification by a single dissenter. But the weaker version is invulnerable to virtually any number of dissenters. Every dissenter is by definition just another outlier.

Outliers become the new inliers if but only if they outnumber the erstwhile inliers. Well no, not quite. A 60/40 split does not betoken a consensus. Neither does 80/20. This is why the 97/3 figure is so important to the AGW rhetorician. Anything more would lack credibility; anything less would give the outliers too much cred. If one didn’t know better one might even suspect the number was focus-grouped. It was certainly crowd-ratified. That is, if the number hadn’t done the work assigned to it, it would have been massaged until it did.

The 97/3 ad populum would have done yeoman service were it not for suspicions that there might be some sleight of hand going on here. 97% counted by whom? Of what sample size? Of what population defined and then identified by whom? What exactly is each asserter actually asserting? Being less than forthcoming on any one these scores was bound to lead to grave doubts, not surprisingly among the deniers, but also among those to whom the argument was addressed.

Foremost among these worries is that expressed by Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams in his I quote him here in full:


One of the most famous statistics in the world of politics is the claim that 97% of climate scientists agree with the idea that humans activity is boosting CO2 to dangerous levels.

Critics say the 97% is misleading, because the critics like to include in their own list the scientists that are working for energy companies. The industry-paid scientists and engineers have less credibility, say the critics of the climate science critics.

Recently I retweeted a link to a climate science whistleblower. I don’t have any way to evaluate his claims. But his story did a good job of illustrating the flow of data from the measuring devices all the way to the published papers and then to your brain. And what I got out of that was that very few people have direct access to the measuring devices and the original data. Let’s say 1% of climate scientists are actually involved in generating the temperature data and deciding what to include, what to smooth, what to replace, and so on. Apparently you can measure Earth’s temperature a number of ways, from ice core samples, to satellites, to ocean buoys, to land thermometers. I might be missing a few. Oh, and each of those methods probably change a bit over time, so you have some apples-to-oranges comparisons if you look at history.

In other words, even the 1% involved in direct measurements might not be involved in all the different forms of it.

What follows next is pure speculation, based on my years of experience in corporate America and my understanding of human nature. But it seems to me that 99% of the 97% are relying on the accuracy and honesty of the 1% who actually produce the temperature measurements. Sure, the other scientists read the papers, and see whatever “adjustments” were made by the authors. But that seems like opening the hood of the car, looking at the outside of the engine, and determining that it’s all good on the inside.

Speaking of my corporate experience, this reminds me of a situation when I worked for the phone company. 100% of the employees believed that one of the Executive Directors in our group was a PhD in some sort of technology field. After all, he said he was, and the Human Resources group does background checks before hiring. So he had to be a PhD, right?

But it turns out he was a con man. He had no PHd. The Human Resources group was two years behind in their background checks. When they caught up with him, he was fired immediately.

I’m open to correction on my assumption that the 97% of climate scientists depend on the accuracy and honesty of the handful of people with direct access to the data. Let me know if I got that wrong. If I’m wrong, that supports my point that non-scientists such as myself can’t be expected to have useful opinions on science topics.

You just witnessed a little trick I learned from President Trump. I gave myself two ways to win and no way to lose. You should try it. It works every time.


So, in short, the ad populum hasn’t worked, because there’s grounds to believe both that a) outlier voices have been dismissed or repressed, and that b) the ‘populum’ to which the argument appeals may be no better qualified to pronounce on AGW than any of the rest of us.

What’s interesting about all these arguments – ad populum, ad hominem circumstantial, and so on – is that they go not to the credibility of the science but to the credibility of the scientist. This need neither surprise nor disappoint us. Almost everything we believe or don’t believe hangs on what we judge to be the trustworthiness of the source.

In most cases we believe what we’re told because we can’t think of a reason why anyone would lie to us about it. AGW asserters can think of a reason why deniers would lie to us. But then the deniers level the same charge against the asserters. The one are shills for Big Oil, the other are in the service of the international socialist conspiracy.

All I can do is go by my own experience as an intimate of both the Point-Zero-Zero-One-Percent – with whom, not for whom, I worked side by side for thirty-six years – and the two dozen or so having-put-their-lives-on-the-line political activists from Chile, with whom I worked for sixteen years. From that experience I judge that both of these charges misfire, and those who level them should be ashamed. David Koch cares as much about his three young children as does Elizabeth May about hers. And Tommy Douglas was no greater enemy to individual liberty than was Ayn Rand.

As to wherein the consensus lies, be it on AGW or the Holocaust or who’s the latest celebrity heartthrob, I neither know nor care. If there were only one AGW asserter, and she happened to be right, she’s going to need David Koch to help her help us save the world. One way not to elicit someone’s help is calling him the devil.

Again, based on nothing more than my experience as an observer of the passing scene – two thirds of a century of it – I suspect this AGW thing is approaching its best-before date. Sound bites and 140 character Tweets don’t allow for the sustainability of any issue, much less the issue of sustainability. God knows I’m bored with it. Aren’t you?

What’s keeping me fascinated is not the substantive issue – I’m not even sure what that is – but rather one side resenting the other for plagiarizing its rhetorical techniques. It’s like watching Goebbels studying Stalin studying Goebbels studying Stalin.

To be honest, I think even this fascination is approaching its best-before date for me. The interests that have proven sustainable for me have been Philosophy of Religion and Philosophy of War. So what I’d like to see is either the Second Coming or else a (preferably limited) nuclear war. In either scenario I’d don’t think would be getting too much ad revenue.





Once you believe, as most of us do, that 9/11 was the work of nineteen perhaps guileless young men, sent on that mission by a few older and wiser men, you need to have a hold on their motivation, either from their own lips, or if not then from what you know about what would motivate people to do this kind of thing. And no, that they’re just crazy, or they hate freedom, or any of that nonsense, won’t do. What would do is that they wanted to raise the cost of(what they perceived to be the West’s insufferable military and economic imperialism in the Middle East, in order ultimately to free their people from that imperialism.

Likewise, then, in order to believe, as most Truthers do, that 9/11 was not the work of these nineteen young men but rather an Israeli false flag operation, we need to know what the real perpetrators hoped to achieve by it. The standard answer is that they hoped to provoke the Americans into going to war against Islam, which would save the Israelis some of the expense of continuing to fight that war on their own. This makes some sense, I suppose, but it does seem to fall slightly to the side of overkill. Surely something less destructive to an ally, and less vulnerable to being found out, would have achieved the same end, which, come to think of it, it had been doing ever since 1948 without the need to dissimulate. So sorry, guys, I just ain’t buyin’ it.

But there’s a certain Alfred Schaefer who’s taken the motivation problem several rungs up the credibility ladder. According to Schaefer, not only did we Jews false flag 9/11, we also faked the entire historicity of the Holocaust. But we didn’t do it just to secure the State of Israel. Rather it’s all part of our master plan to take over the world.

Now not surprisingly I have a number of problems with this plan, not the least of which being that I was never let in on it. And I resent that. In the wake of what was to me a revelation, I’ve made some inquiries, and it turns out I wasn’t told because the Elders – as in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion – needed a few Jews, like Noam Chomsky and me, to be openly and genuinely anti-Zionist to render the real truth implausible to the always suspicious Gentile mind. But now I feel used. Now I feel like Judas must have felt when he found out his role had been scripted from the beginning of time, rather than an expression of his own authentic self.

But my personal high dudgeon aside, I can’t for the life of me figure out what we Jews would do with the world once we have it. God knows we don’t want to wipe everyone else out. We’re entrepreneurs and professionals and intellectuals and artists and comedians. The last thing we want is to have to work the land and man the assembly lines ourselves. Are we going to reintroduce slavery? What, and have to work up a sweat brandishing whips under the noonday sun? As Marx himself observed, wage slaves are far more productive. But hang on. That’s who we have working for us now.

It’s true that our own womenfolk leave something to be desired. But we’ve never had a problem attracting gentile chicks. Hell, I’ve had four wives, every one of them a shiksa. And look at what Woody Allen manages to get. So, in short, what exactly would we do with the world that we’re not doing with it now?

I feel like I’m in a Little Theatre play and the director won’t tell me my motivation. But if I’m going to have to come up with my own motivation, it may not dovetail with those of the other actors. And then I worry that the plot won’t make any sense to the audience.

So please, Alfred, I understand why my rabbi won’t tell me. But could you? What’s my motivation? I need to know my motivation!

Okay, confession time. This blog entry isn’t about 9/11-Truthers or Holocaust denial or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It’s all been just a setup. What it’s really about is David Koch, and a colleague of mine who thinks that David Koch knows that AGW is true, but he’s promoting its denial so he can delay any action on it as long as possible. Why? So he can have a few more years to pad his already multi-billion bank account with a few more billions.

Since my colleague knows so much about David Koch, he must know he has three young children. But apparently my colleague thinks this particular father doesn’t care whether his own children have a future.

And my problem with this? Just that I don’t find this motivational matrix credible. But more to the point, I think there’s something deeply wrong with someone who does.


There are as many Islams as there are Moslems. There are as many Christianities as there are Christians. And there are twice as many Judaisms as there are Jews. This is because for any one of us it’s invariably “On ze vun hand … but on ze ozer …” So in offering my colour commentary on all three Religions of the Book, I’m going to be painting with a very wide brush. I make no apology for that because, well, what good would it do me?

The first thing I want to say is that orthogonal to the distinction between Jews, Christians, and Moslems, is the distinction between a set of metaphysical claims and a set of instructions on how to live. Historically, the latter always precedes the former, though in the telling of our foundation myths the order is invariably reversed. That is, first God created the heavens and the earth. Then, a bit later, He flooded it. Then, later still, came His encounter with Abraham. And only then did He hand down His Law to Moses, and/or to Jesus, and/or to Mohammed.

But in fact that’s not how it actually happened. How do I know? Because He told me. First there were people in need of law. Only then came the metaphysical stories. Why? What work did those stories do? Did these stories in some way justify the law? It’s hard to see how. First, beyond what the law does for us, it doesn’t need justification. And second, there’s nothing in these stories that does seem to be justifying the law. So the metaphysics must be doing something else. What else? The same thing secular metaphysics is doing. It’s explaining why the world’s this way rather than some other.

Does every civilization need an explanation for why the world’s this way rather than some other? Probably not. But it does provide a base upon which the regularities we identify in the world can supervene. For example, if you ask what caused this, and then what caused that, and so on, eventually you’re going to want to know what caused the whole thing. And since even a cave man knows better than to be satisfied with an infinite regress, what you get is the Uncaused Cause, or the Grounding of all Being, or, as it came be called, God.

Anthropologists of religion tell us that originally God – or more commonly the gods – bore only natural properties like sunshine or rain or wind, but no moral properties. Or if they did they were conceived of as either a) good, b) evil, or c) complicated. Which, not surprisingly, is pretty much how we think of ourselves or each other.

These anthropologists have advanced various theories about how these traits got combined into one Being, though of course they haven’t really. None of our three religions has transcended the need to personify the forces of both light and darkness. And not just “the better [and worse] angels of our nature” but also the myriad other facets of being human. Hence the mother of God, the pantheon of saints, and so on. The amalgam of theism and Greek metaphysics drives us ‘upwards’ to theoretical monotheism, but we’re forever pulled back down. Our inherent polytheism will not be denied.

As plausible a story as any as to how polytheism devolved into monotheism, or at least monolatry, is that in the wake of conquest it’s almost invariably less costly to absorb the gods of the vanquished than try to kill them off. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Yahweh, God, and Allah are names for the same god. What’s at issue between us, then, is not so much who God is, but rather a) what He’s been up to, and b) what He wants from us.

When going to war we need our God on our side, and this means we need our respective histories with Him to reflect this partiality. Thus we get the switch between Isaac and Ishmael in the two competing accounts of the Abrahamic Covenant. We get the Book of Exodus, notwithstanding scholars are now saying none of it ever really happened. And we get Jesus’ infamous “Lo, I turn to the Gentiles!”, from which we get the supersessionism that poisoned Jewish-Christian relations right from the get-go and culminated in the Shoah, which in turn gave rise to the Naqba, which has since given rise to coming up now to seventy years of internecine warfare that will come to an end when hell freezes over.

That God’s moral judgments are projections of our own is shown conclusively by Plato’s Euthyphro. So apart from the Problem of Evil, a.k.a. theodicy, there’s nothing philosophically perplexing about what God wants from us that’s any different from what we want from ourselves. But it’s the metaphysics of God that is, for me at least, utterly fascinating.

That a coherent metaphysics for post-apologetic theism is impossible goes without saying. Or if it needs to be said, it can be shown, and then said, pretty quickly. But that is not a proof for the nonexistence of God. It’s only a proof for the nonexistence of the kind of God of whom the requisite metaphysics is incoherent. So yes, the God of (what’s sometimes called) high theology is one whose existence is a piece of cake to refute. But the God of low theology is not such an easy target.

It’s not an easy target, complains the atheist, only because it’s a moving one.

But I’m not so sure about that. I think there is a stand-its-ground conception of God the metaphysics for whom, though implausible, need not be incoherent. And it’s this which makes me (what I call) a sympathetic atheist, by which I mean I do not think one has to be crazy to believe in God, provided her conception of Him is of this coherent variety. The reason why theism is such an easy target for atheists is because too many theists want to have their cake and eat it too. The low theology God does all the explanatory work that needs to be done by their belief in God. And yet they’re greedy. They want their God to do additional explanatory work, work, He can’t do and, more to the point, work that doesn’t need to be done.

To see this, imagine two possible worlds, one of which has a grounding to its being, the other of which does not. Beyond the having of this grounding, what property, pray tell, had by the one is not had by the other? None. So, it would seem, it’s not, as some atheists have argued, that being can be its own grounding. It’s that being isn’t the kind of thing that needs a grounding in the first place.

Grounding-talk is patter. As are any of the pseudo-properties one would like to assign to the God of high theology – omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, all-loving, eternal, and so on.

The key to the proof that this kind of talk is mere patter is (what I call) the univocality requirement, which is the insistence that any words predicated of God must be univocal with those same words predicated of anything else, since otherwise we don’t know what’s being said. And if we don’t know what’s being said, neither does the speaker. And if he doesn’t know what he’s saying, then, to paraphrase Rudolf Carnap, he should just shut the fuck up!

This is not to say there couldn’t be something ‘out there’, so to speak, which is ineffable. In fact I’m reasonably confident there is. But if it’s ineffable then we can’t say anything about it. And if we’re not going to say anything about it, then let’s talk about something else.

So here’s the summary of my argumentative strategy. From the univocality requirement we get the unintelligibility of high theology. And from its unintelligibility we get its vacuity.

It’s an unforgiving line of argument. One might even call it brutal. But it’s pretty much the same argument I use in dismissing the lion’s share of what masquerades as philosophy on the Continent. It’s why the first thing I say when I wake up every morning is not, “Thank God I was not born a woman!” – which, as a Jewish male, is what I’m supposed to thank Him for – but rather, “Thank God I was tenured into a proper analytic philosophy department!”

Now if only I could get my foaming-at-the-mouth atheist colleagues, when I’m on my way to teach my Phil of Religion class, to let me pass their open doorways without their mocking me with, “Off to Bible study are we? Well, break a leg. Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to make light of genuflecting.!”


As a philosopher of mind Kant was beyond brilliant. As an ethicist he was an idiot.

Kant asks us to consider two scenarios: I steal your wallet, you steal mine. If I think the one is okay, I have to think the other is too.


“Well, because they’re the same.”

No they’re not. In fact I can’t think of two scenarios more different from each other. In the first case I end up with my money plus yours, and in the second I end up with neither. In what pair of possible worlds are these two the same?

“No no no, you misunderstand. The two cases are morally indistinguishable. They’re morally indistinguishable because morality must be blind to indexicals.”

Okay, so replace the indexicals with proper names and we still have the same problem. In the one case Paul ends up with his own money plus Peter’s, in the other he ends up with neither.

Let it be granted that one of the axiom driving morality – in fact it drives all of our inductive reasoning – is treat like cases alike. But the work to be done here is fixing on the respect in which, for moral purposes, the two cases are alike. Kant doesn’t tell us. Nor, with the sparse resources he allows himself, can he. So his is a pseudo-theory. It purports to say something when it really says nothing at all.

This is not to say there couldn’t be a respect in which two cases are morally indistinguishable. In fact there has to be, since otherwise moral discourse could be nothing more than casuistry. And if it’s just casuistry then we’re all just flapping our gums.

For example, I want to say that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza is morally indistinguishable from the Nazi treatment of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. If we’re just counting properties, the two cases have orders-of-magnitude-more unshared properties than properties in common. And yet I claim they’re morally equivalent. You and I can dispute this, but if so we’re disputing what counts as a moral property, or more likely we’re agreeing about that but disagreeing as to whether that property is in fact present in both cases.

Suppose, for example, the agreed-upon property is the intentional targeting of non-combatants. You argue, appealing perhaps to the Principle of Double Effect, that those non-combatants killed by the Israeli shelling of Gaza are collateral damage. I counter that the intention of an action is not what’s in the mind of the actor but rather that in virtue of which tokens of the action-type self-replicate. Thus the intention of the shelling of an apartment building in Gaza is not the killing of the Hamas leader who may be having his breakfast there – he’ll be replaced within the hour – but rather the terrorizing of the Palestinian population by the slaughter of the fourteen children sitting around the table with him. No one, from the gunner all the way up to the Prime Minister, needs to harbor that intention in his mind, not even subconsciously. But it’s that that’s driving the shelling, and therefore it’s that that’s the intention behind it.

Again, we can disagree about this. Or we can agree but then you’ll find some other unshared property by which to distinguish the two cases. And every time you do I’ll try to collapse the distinction. And so on it’ll go.

If I’m pro-Choice and you’re pro-Life, I’ll make heavy weather of the location of the fetus, to distinguish it morally from a newborn, whereas you’ll challenge the moral relevance of location. If I concede the irrelevance of location I’ll appeal instead to the fetus having no self-concept, and then you’ll point out that neither does a newborn. And so on it’ll go.

But my purpose here is to talk more generally. I want to call the claim that two things are normatively equivalent – if one is justified so is the other, if one isn’t neither is the other – the symmetry thesis. And so by the asymmetry thesis I’ll mean simply the denial of the symmetry thesis. The dead giveaway that someone’s about to deploy the asymmetry thesis is the phrase, “Oh but that’s different!” I use it all the time to defend why I can interrupt my wife when she’s writing but she can’t interrupt me. It’s what we do, because we’re human, and because, well, that’s what humans do.

But it’s not the claims and counterclaims regarding moral equivalences that I want to talk about here. Rather I want to talk about equivalences, or the lack thereof, between claims of doxastic warrant. To explain:

A way of coming to believe some proposition has epistemic warrant – and so beliefs thus arrived at have epistemic warrant – is the degree to which that way is likely to get at the truth. A way of coming to believe some proposition has doxastic warrant – and so beliefs thus arrived at have doxastic warrant – is the degree to which one would be well-advised to believe a proposition thus acquired. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred the two coincide. But there are occasions of not inconsiderable import when they don’t.

Believing in the historicity of the Holocaust on no more grounds than “I’ve heard tell of it” has virtually no epistemic warrant, but it has doxastic warrant in spades. Why? Because were I to announce that I’m as yet unconvinced about the historicity of the Holocaust, I can pretty much forget about ever getting another dinner invitation in this town. And since merely faking belief in the Holocaust is a burden without compensatory payoff, I might just as well simply believe it, which is precisely what I’ve done.

Which is precisely all you’ve done. Neither of us has put any epistemic labour into the matter because epistemic labour is expensive. Expending resources to acquire what one can have for free would be stupid. And expending resources to run the risk of discovering what one would prefer not to discover is doubly stupid, because it’s double the cost, since now one has to either a) unlearn what she’s just learned, or else b) dissimulate about it, or else c) bear the burden of being a social pariah.

This much, I suspect, will be granted. We don’t investigate the historicity of the Holocaust because that way there be nothing but dragons. But what I want to argue now is that for most of us – by which I mean ordinary doxastic agents like you and me – falling into the same doxastic category as the historicity of the Holocaust are anthropogenic global warming (AGW), vaccination safety, the abject depravity of the Koch brothers, and so on. All and only what hangs on your beliefs or mine about these things is whether we can expect any more dinner invitations.

Not so, you insist. That this is so of your subscription to the historicity of the Holocaust you can’t deny. You’ve read nothing about it – certainly nothing from any Holocaust denier – and you know better than to ever do so in the future. But, you insist, you have done your homework on your Precious, which, let’s suppose, is AGW. You’ve read a whole bookshelf on the subject. It’s true that you haven’t read any of the so-called denialist literature, but only because it’s all been refuted by the books you have read. You’ve attended religiously to the blogosphere, especially In short, you’re not a climatologist, but, dammit, you’re an informed citizen, in much the way that AGW deniers clearly are not.

But why are they clearly not? They’ve certainly read as many books on the subject as you have, in fact probably more, since each step in hiking up an incline demands more effort than walking down it or on the flats. Just like the fundamentalist Christian with her morning Bible reading, and just like you with your, they too start their day reading their favorite blogs, they too …

“Oh but that’s different.”

How so?

“Because they’re being mis-informed.”

By whom?

“By shills hired by the Koch brothers.”

But aren’t the scientists and lay authors you’re dittoing also paid to do what they do and report what they report?

“Oh but that’s different. They’re not being told what their research has to show.”

The Koch brothers actually tell their shills what to find and report?

“Well maybe not, but everyone knows that he who pays the piper calls the tune.”

And the AGW asserter scientists march to their own drummer, do they? How exactly does one apply for yet another NSERC grant for a problem he’s just reported doesn’t exist? And while we’re at it, are you saying the Koch brothers care more for a few more shekels in their already bulging-at-the-seams bank accounts than the survival of their own grandchildren? Can they really be such monsters?

Keep pushing and yes, it’s precisely this difference that all this “Oh but that’s different!” will come down to. We’re the good guys, they’re the baddies.

And therein lies the problem. It’s that the baddies say precisely the same thing about the goodies. And this presents the rest of us – those of us listening in on this cross-screeching – with something of a Euthyphro problem. Each is claiming that it’s the other guy who’s evil, the proof of which being that he’s trying to deceive us. But we can’t know who’s trying to deceive us without knowing what’s true independently of being told what’s true. And we can’t know that without putting our trust in people we’re being told not to put our trust in.

And so what do we do? We do the only thing we can do. We stop asking which claim has the greater epistemic warrant. Instead we simply ask which has the greater doxastic warrant. And the one with the greater doxastic warrant is the one the subscription to which gets us the most dinner invitations.

You say you’ve come by your belief in AGW differently, and you proceed to tell me how. And when I point out to you that that’s precisely how the AGW denier claims she came to her belief, I know exactly what you’re going to say. You’re going to say, “Oh but that’s different.” And when I push that putative difference far enough, and you’re too embarrassed to admit your views are just a matter of your tribal affiliation, you’re going to accuse me of being a skeptic, or a nihilist, or a relativist – whatever that means but you won’t say – or you’ll change the subject, or you’ll just decide I’m no fun to talk to anymore.

I know whereof I speak. I’ve been through this with pro-Lifers and with pro-Choicers, with AGW asserters and with AGW deniers, with 9/11-Truthers and with Holocaust deniers. The invoking of the asymmetry thesis respects no partisan boundaries.

You can argue with the True Believer for only so long, and then you just have to give up. I’m trying to train myself to recognize the signs so I can pull out earlier. But if you’ve been reading this blog you’ve probably noticed this effort isn’t going well.


What things need to be licensed, what can but needn’t be, and what shouldn’t be?

Doctors, engineers, pilots, certainly. But some people have argued, though mostly tongue-in-cheek, that if anyone needs to be pre-qualified it’s parents. Requiring a license to drive doesn’t seem unreasonable, but there are plenty of jurisdictions, especially in the so-called Third World, in which if you’re driving it’s assumed you can. But requiring a license to own or carry a firearm has arguably less to do with safety than with maintaining the state’s monopoly on the means of lethal force.

All of these issues can be and have been put on the table. But none of them are on mine. In an earlier blog I did talk about licensing journalists. My position was, and is, not that they should be licensed. That way there be dragons. Rather it’s that we should feel free to simply decline to honour the press cards of journalists who’ve proven themselves to us as incompetent. That is, I don’t complain to the publisher of our local newspaper about the bimbo he sends who consistently misquotes me. I just don’t do interviews with her. (By the way, she’s not malicious, just stupid.)

In this entry, I want to take a similar position with respect to professional philosophers.


Look, none of us is licensed, as such. All that our doctorates and reference letters certify is that we passed muster with someone. But it’s the institution that hires us, and eventually grants us tenure, that entitles us to do what we do – teach, research, pontificate – within but only within that institution. But when one of us steps outside that institution – say to contribute his two cents worth to the blogosphere – he can do so as either a philosopher, or as just a guy, but not both.

By ‘as just a guy’ I don’t mean he can’t boast that he’s not just any guy. Certainly he can say that his day job is as a philosopher. But he can’t be adding his two cents worth to the blogosphere as a professional philosopher unless he’s prepared to bring his philosophical professionalism with him. If for whatever reason he prefers to leave it behind – perhaps he just wants to pre-reflectively rant the way he hears plaid-shirted guys do in the bar – he needn’t apologize, neither to himself nor to his colleagues back at the office the next morning. God knows we all need to speak our minds sometimes, without having to self-monitor our every word. But what it is to be a professional philosopher just is to monitor every word, every word spoken by others – that’s what the widow’s mite is paying him for – and a fortiori every word he speaks himself.

So it’s not a matter of the hoi polloi pulling your philosophy card when you fail to announce you’ve changed hats. How would they know? The onus falls on you to announce it. And if you won’t – and since they can’t – it falls to one of your colleagues back in the office to say something.

To say something to them? They wouldn’t know what he’s talking about. No, to say something to you. And if you can’t or won’t look in a mirror to see what hat you’re wearing, then neither can you be trusted to know what hat you’re wearing when you’re back in the office and the classroom.

So then what’s your colleague to do? All he can do is keep his own distance and counsel students to do likewise. And that’s not a very collegial position for you to have put a colleague in, now is it?