nothing is mere

Anglish, as it never was but totally should have been

Stay warm, little flappers, and find lots of plant eggs!

By Randall Munroe of xkcd.

Kate Donovan said of the above comic “This is the Robbiest xkcd I’ve seen.”, which is one of my favorite compliments of all time. I love discombobulating words; and recombobulating them; really, bobulating them in all sorts of ways. Though especially in ways that make new poetries possible, or lead to new insights about the world and its value.

I’m very fond of the approach of restricting myself to common words (Up-Goer Five), and of other systematic approaches. But I think my favorite of all is the artificial language Anglish: English using only native roots.

Although English is a Germanic language, only 1/4 of modern English words (that you’ll find in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary) have Germanic roots. The rest mostly come from Latin, either directly or via French. This borrowing hasn’t just expanded our vocabulary; it’s led to the loss of countless native English words which were replaced by synonyms perceived as more formal or precise. Since a lot of these native words are just a joy to say, since their use sheds light on many of English’s vestigial features, and since derivations from English words are often far easier to break down and parse than lengthy classical coinings (e.g., needlefear rather than aichmophobia), Anglo-Saxon linguistic purists are compiling a dictionary to translate non-native words into Germanic equivalents. Some of the more entertaining entries follow.


Bizarre and vulgar illustrations from illuminated medieval manuscripts

A and B

  • abduct = neednim
  • abet = frofer
  • abhor = mislike
  • abominable = wargly
  • abortion = scrapping
  • accelerate = swiften
  • accessible = to-goly
  • accident = mishappening
  • accordion = bellowharp
  • active = deedy
  • adherent = clinger, liefard
  • adolescent = halfling, younker, frumbeardling
  • adrenaline = bykidney workstuff
  • adulation = flaundering, glavering
  • adversity = thwartsomeness, hardhap
  • Afghan = Horsemanlandish
  • afraid = afeared
  • Africa = Sunnygreatland
  • aged = oldened
  • agglomerate = clodden
  • aggressive = fighty
  • agitation = fret of mind
  • AIDS = Earned Bodyweir Scantness Sickness
  • airplane = loftcraft
  • albino = whiteling
  • alcoholic = boozen
  • altercation = brangling
  • America = Markland, Amerigoland, Wineland
  • anathema = accursed thing
  • angel = errand-ghost
  • anglicization = englishing
  • anime = dawnlandish livedrawing
  • annihilate = benothingen
  • antecedence = beforemath
  • anthropology = folklore
  • anti- = nomore-
  • antimatter = unstuff
  • antiquity = oldendom
  • antisemitism = jewhate
  • aorta = lofty heartpipe
  • apostle = sendling
  • arithmetic = talecraft
  • arm (v.) = beweapon
  • armadillo = girdledeer
  • arrest = avast
  • artificial = craftly
  • asparagus = sparrowgrass
  • assassinated = deathcrafted
  • assembly = forsamening
  • audacious = daresome, ballsy
  • augment = bemore, eken
  • August = Weedmonth
  • autopsy = open bodychecking
  • avalanche = fellfall
  • avant garde = forhead
  • avert = forfend, forethwart
  • ballet = fairtumb
  • ballistics = shootlore
  • balloon = loftball
  • banana = moonapple, finger-berry
  • banquet = benchsnack
  • barracks = warbarn
  • basketball = cawlball
  • bastard = mingleling, lovechild
  • battlefield = hurlyburlyfield, badewang
  • beau = ladfriend, fop
  • beautiful = eyesome, goodfaced
  • behavioral economics = husbandry of the how
  • Belgium = Belgy
  • bestiality = deerlust
  • betrayer = unfriend, foe-friend, mouth friend
  • bicameral = twifackly
  • bisexuality = twilust
  • blame = forscold
  • blasphemy = godsmear
  • bong = waterpipe
  • bourgeois  = highburger
  • boutique = dressshop
  • braggart = mucklemouth
  • braille = the Blind’s rune
  • brassiere = underbodice
  • bray = heehaw
  • breakable = brittle, brickle, breaksome, bracklesome
  • breeze = windlick
  • buggery = arseswiving
  • burlesque = funnish
  • butter = cowsmear


Bizarre and vulgar illustrations from illuminated medieval manuscripts

C and D

  • calculus = flowreckoning
  • campus =  lorefield
  • cancerous = cankersome
  • capacity = holdth
  • capsize = wemmel
  • carbon dioxide = twiathemloft chark, onecoal-twosour-stuff, fizzloft
  • carnal attraction = fleshbesmittenness
  • cartouche = stretched foreverness-rope
  • catechism = godlore handbook
  • caterpillar = Devil’s cat, hairy cat, butterfly worm
  • catheter = bodypipe
  • cattle = kine
  • cause (n.) = bring-about, onlet, wherefrom
  • cell = hole, room, frume, lifebrick
  • cell division = frumecleaving
  • cell membrane = frumenfilmen
  • cement = brickstick
  • cerebellum = brainling
  • certainly = forsooth, soothly, in sooth
  • cerulean = woadish
  • chaos = mayhem, dwolm, topsy-turvydom, unfrith
  • character = selfsuchness
  • charity = givefulness
  • chocolate =  sweetslime
  • circumcise = umcut
  • circumstance = boutstanding, happenstanding
  • civilization = couthdom, settledhood
  • civilize = tame, couthen
  • clamor = greeding
  • clarify = clearen
  • classification = bekinding
  • clavicle = sluttlebone
  • cliche = unthought-up saying, oftquote, hackney
  • clinic = sickbay
  • clockwise = sunwise
  • coffer = hoardvat
  • coitus = swiving, bysleep
  • color = huecast, light wavelength
  • combine = gatherbind
  • comedian = funspeller, lustspeller, laughtersmith
  • comedy = funplay, lustplay
  • comestible = eatsome, a food thing
  • comfort = frover, weem, soothfulness
  • comfortable = weemly, froverly
  • comment = umspeech
  • CD-ROM = WR-ROB (withfasted-ring-read-only bemindings)
  • companion = helpmate
  • comparative anatomy = overlikening bodylore
  • compare = aliken, gainsame liken, game off against
  • complexion = blee, skin-look
  • compliant = followsome
  • composition = nibcraft
  • concentrated = squished together
  • concentration camp = cramming-laystead
  • concentric = middlesharing
  • condition = fettle
  • condom = scumbag
  • conscience = inwit, heart’s eye
  • convergence = togethering
  • convert = bewhirve
  • copious = beteeming
  • corner = nook, winkle
  • correction fluid = white-out
  • corridor = hallway
  • corrugated = wrizzled
  • Costa Rican = Rich Shorelander
  • Cote d’Ivoire = Elfbone Shoreland
  • cotton = treewool
  • coward = dastard, arg
  • creme de la crem = bee’s knees
  • criterion = deemmean
  • cytoskeleton = frumenframework
  • dairy = deyhouse, milkenstuff
  • danger = freech, deathen
  • data = put, rawput, meteworths
  • database = putbank
  • deceive = swike, beswike, fop, wimple
  • defame = shend, befile
  • defeat = netherthrow
  • defenestrate = outwindowse
  • deify = begod
  • delusion = misbelief
  • demeanour = jib
  • demilitarized = unlandmighted
  • dependence = onhanginess
  • descendent = afterbear, afterling
  • despair = wanhope
  • dinosaur = forebird
  • disarrange = rumple
  • disaster = harrow-hap, ill-hap, banefall, baneburst, grimming
  • disinfect = unsmittle
  • disprove = belie
  • disturbance = dreefing, dreep-hap
  • divination = weedgle
  • division = tweeming


Bizarre and vulgar illustrations from illuminated medieval manuscripts

Um, all the other ones

  • ease (n.) = eath, frith of mind
  • egalitarianism = evendom
  • electricity = sparkflow, ghostfire
  • electron = amberling
  • elevate = aloofen
  • embryo = womb-berry
  • enable = canen, mayen
  • enact = umdo, emdo
  • encryption = forkeying
  • energy = dodrive, inwork, spring
  • ensnare = swarl
  • enthusiasm = faith-heat
  • environment = lifescape, setting, umwhirft
  • enzyme = yeaster, yeastuff
  • ephemeral = dwimmerly
  • equation = likening, besaming
  • ethnic minority = outlandish fellowship
  • evaluate = bedeem, bereckon, beworthen
  • example = bisen, byspell, lodestar, forbus
  • exaptation = kludging
  • existent = wesand, forelying, issome
  • face = nebb, andlit, leer, hue, blee, mug
  • fair (n.) = hoppings
  • female = she-kind
  • fetid = flyblown, smellful, stenchy
  • figment = farfetchery
  • fornication = whorery, awhoring
  • fray = frazzle
  • fugitive = lamster, flightling
  • gas-powered = waftle-driven
  • gland = threeze
  • history = yorelore, olds, eretide
  • Homo sapiens = Foppish man
  • horror = grir
  • ignorance = unskill, unwittleness
  • impossible = unmightly
  • incorrect = unyearight
  • increase = formore, bemoren
  • independence = unoffhangingness
  • indiscriminately = shilly-shally, allwardly
  • infancy = babytime
  • intoxication = bedrunkenhood
  • invasion = inslaught
  • jolly = full of beans
  • juggernaut = blindblooter
  • kamikaze = selfkilling loftstrike
  • kangaroo = hopdeer
  • laser = lesyr (light eking by spurred yondputting of rodding)
  • limerence = crush
  • lumpenproletariat = underrabble
  • lysosome = selfkillbag
  • malicious = argh, evilful
  • maltreat = misnutt
  • mammal = suckdeer, suckledeer
  • March = Winmonth
  • marsupial = pungsucker
  • martyr = bloot
  • megalopolis = mickleborough
  • mercy = milds
  • mitochondrion = mightcorn
  • mock = geck, betwit
  • nanotechnology = motish witcraft, smartdust
  • natural selection = unmanmade sieving
  • nostalgia = yesterlove
  • nursery = childergarden
  • ocean = the great sea, the blue moor, sailroad, the brine
  • old-fashioned = old-fangled
  • orchid = wombbloom
  • palindrome = drowword
  • pervert = lewdster
  • pianoforte = softhard keyboard
  • pregnancy = childladenhood
  • prehistory = aforeyorelore, yesteryore
  • quid pro quo = tit for tat
  • revolution = whirft, umbewrithing
  • romanticism = lovecraft, storm-and-throng-troth
  • sagacious = hyesnotter, sarrowthankle, wisehidey, yarewittle
  • satire = scoldcraft
  • scarab = turd-weevil
  • science = learncraft, the knowledges
  • second = twoth
  • somnolent = sloomy
  • spirit = poost
  • sublingual salivary glands = undertungish spittlethreezen
  • sugar = beeless honey
  • tabernacle = worship booth
  • underpants = netherbritches
  • undulating = wimpling
  • unintelligent = unthinkle
  • usurer = wastomhatster, wookerer
  • velociraptor = dashsnatcher
  • volcano = fireberg, welkinoozer
  • vowel = stevening
  • voyage = farfare
  • walrus = horsewhale


You have been gifted a new Dadaist superpower. I release you unto the world with it.


Union names: Objections and replies

Last month I proposed a new solution to the problem of choosing family names: When you’re starting a family, you and your partners construct and adopt an entirely new middle name, a ‘union name‘ symbolizing your shared life and shared values. If you have children, this union name then becomes their surname.

Many people voiced enthusiasm about the idea, but many also raised interesting concerns and criticisms. I’ve collected them here, with my responses.

Objection 1: It’s better for women to be subordinate, and patrilineal family names help reinforce that. Patriarchal families and societies are happier, stabler, and more successful.

Response: Most women seem to want more autonomy, not less (Pew 2010). That’s very surprising, if autonomy makes them worse off. In fact, that bit of evidence on its own mostly settles the question, until we get strong evidence that women are systematically wrong in this highly specific way about their own interests. We find ourselves in a position similar to an abolitionist trying mightily to refute the claim that Africans love being slaves. Five minutes of talking to people, in a setting where they can talk freely, does the job, and we can move on to more interesting matters.

If there’s compelling evidence to the contrary, I’ll need to see it before I can say much more. On the political claim, too — I need some reason to doubt the surface-level appearance ‘gender equity makes societies more prosperous (Dollar & Gatti 1991; Brummett 2008), healthy (Kawachi et al. 1999), and just (Melander 2005)’.

Objection 2: Union names are too convenient. We should retain an annoying, difficult system, because then it will be more diagnostic of future relationship woes. If people have to fight over whose name gets passed on to the kids, that will ruin relationships that wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, have lasted.

Response: In general, it’s bad policy to make people’s lives worse as a test or trial, unless you are in desperate need for the data that such a test is likely to provide. (And have no other way to acquire such data.) There may be two false assumptions going into the above objection:

(i) Small inconveniences don’t matter. Lots and lots of small inconveniences distributed over a population will add up to have a big impact. And if by chance a lot of them happen in your life at once, they can certainly feel big! People are often under an unusual amount of pressure when they’re deciding whether to have kids or begin a serious long-term relationship. If there’s anything we can do to make their challenges at that stage in life more fun, inspiring, and pleasant, we should jump on the chance.

(ii) If you break up for dumb reasons, you would have broken up eventually anyway. That’s not how relationships work. First, relationships don’t remain at the exact same strength at all times; they can grow in strength. (Or shrink, or oscillate.) Second, failing to overcome a low-level challenge isn’t proof that you would also have failed at all high-level challenges. Bad break-ups can occur just because the wrong thing happened at the wrong time. Life is chaotic, and love’s dynamics are not constrained by what should have happened.

The take-away from this is that we should have compassion and try to make people’s lives better, in small ways and large ones. People don’t deserve solitude or angst just because we find the reason behind their relationship troubles silly.

Also: Union names are challenging. They do help test the strength of people’s commitment. But they do so in a way that tests a relevant skill for romantic and familial relationships. The ability to collaborate, make mutual compromises, come up with imaginative solutions, and find common ground — that’s what union names are training and testing. The ability to be dominant or subordinate, to demand unequal sacrifices, to adhere to out-of-date social norms — that’s what more traditional naming systems are training and testing. I think the former skills are more important for more people.

Objection 3: Naming your children from scratch is hard. Our naming conventions should streamline the process, not add more complexity.

Response: I’d expect social conventions to arise that give people obvious standard choices for surnames — name X after loved one Y, give X common popular name Y, … — so that most people don’t end up inventing names from scratch. That’s how given names currently work, so it’s probably how union names will work too.

As for why we should add even a small amount of work to the process: Human names actually matter. They can have a much bigger and more direct impact on our self-image and social relations than inanimate object names can. If union names encourage people to think and talk more carefully and cooperatively about what identity they want for themselves and their children, great!

Objection 4: Parents can’t be trusted to make up entirely new names for their children. Look how terrible they are just at coming up with decent first names!

Response: It’s certainly a shortcoming of union names that they allow parents to screw up their kids’ lives in more drastic ways. However, if we have mechanisms in place for keeping parents from choosing seriously socially harmful first names for kids, then those mechanisms should generalize to socially harmful surnames.

(In fact, giving parents more leeway might force bureaucrats to take this problem more seriously and put more laws on the books. So the end result could well be fewer irresponsible name choices.)

Objection 5: Giving people so much control makes it likely they’ll later be less happy with it. If you give them less freedom, they’ll grow attached to their choice and rationalize it more readily.

Response: Entirely true! In general, giving people more freedom lets them select more personalized options, but also makes them more indecisive, anxious, and likely to regret their decision. See Dan Gilbert’s excellent talk on synthetic happiness:

I accept this as a cost, but I think it’s worth it for all the advantages union names confer.

Ultimately, we’ll just have to try them and see how they work. If binding families together in a more free, egalitarian, imaginative, and collaborative way doesn’t end up having as many (foreseen or unforeseen) benefits as one might suspect, then a much simpler, more automated system may turn out to be superior.

If people really just don’t care that much about surnames, then you could, for example, flip a coin to decide whose name gets taken on by everyone else. But my suspicion is that trivializing family bonds in that way isn’t the best solution available. (For instance, the parent who randomly has to change eir name may not be the one in the better position to bear the associated social costs.)

Objection 6: So why not just use a coin flip to decide which surname the children get, but let the parents have completely different names? Or leave the parents’ names intact, but use some arbitrary system to assign surnames to the children? For example, you could give the first child the alphabetically earliest surname of its parents, the second child the second-earliest surname, then keep cycling through.

Response: Coin flips and arbitrary conventions are admirably fair. But they still bear the cost of making the whole process seem meaningless and impersonal. Why not humanize and personalize our naming conventions, if we’ve found a relatively easy and simple way to do so?

I’m also wary of systems that give different surnames to the children, even randomly. First, I don’t want to encourage parents, even a little bit, to choose how many children they have based on an implicit desire to pass on their name, or on an implicit desire to equalize the distribution of names, or what-have-you. People’s decision-making is capricious and destructive enough without society going out of its way to distract them with shiny gold Name coins.

Second, I don’t want to factionalize families. These proposals all have the disadvantage of frequently leaving one family member excluded from an important symbolic tie that binds the rest of the family together. Compared to other systems, unity names are just what they sound like. They encourage familial unity more than any alternative does. They create a symbol that ties everyone in the group together, with no one left out in the cold, favored over the rest, or cut off into separate tribes; and they do so without any reliance on pointless infighting or dominance hierarchies.

My own parents went with: ‘The kids take on the father’s surname, but the mother’s name stays unchanged.’ In some ways that’s progress, but it’s still sexist and awkward. It means my mother’s forever cut off from the rest of the family. It means we can’t all rally together under one banner, lest we incur dissonance. It’s a small thing, but some small things matter.

Objection 7: Your system requires partners to come to an agreement on challenging, highly personal issues with many degrees of freedom. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Response: It’s true that union names demand some maturity and willingness to compromise in order to work. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The alternative is to make our naming conventions unequal (so one person gets final say) or arbitrary (so nobody gets final say).

That said, if two partners are completely unable to agree on a single name, they can still fall back on creating a union name that’s a hyphenated version of their two top choices. This may not be ideal, but it’s one of a variety of compromises the system allows. And since it gets replaced by the next generation’s union name (rather than merged with it), it doesn’t run into the problem of accumulating more and more names over time, and doesn’t become unmanageably large.

Objection 8: What about single parents?

Response: For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume a parent who has never been in any unions. (Though if ey has, that doesn’t solve this problem; you probably don’t want to falsely suggest that your child is in the same family as an unrelated ex of yours.) So the parent’s name is A B.

The simplest answer would be to just name the child C B, like most English speakers do today. But that will introduce confusion, because — assuming siblings are more common than single parents in this union-name-using community — people will initially think that A B and C B are siblings, rather than parent and child.

So I recommend sticking with the union system, and having the parent make up a new name D, change eir name to A D B, and name the child C D.

This has the advantage of allowing you to later ‘adopt’ a spouse Y Z into the same union — say, if you marry someone when the kid is still very young who ends up acting as the child’s caregiver. That new spouse will then take on the middle name D, becoming Y D Z.

If you tried to ‘adopt’ someone into you and your child’s family name without constructing a new union name, then you’d end up having to either: (a) look silly by doubling your own name and becoming A B B to match your spouse Y B Z; (b) look like your spouse’s child by remaining A B and having your spouse become Y B Z; or (c) have your spouse completely change surnames to Y B or Y Z B, which abandons the union name system and all its special advantages.

Just sticking to the union system in all cases seems easier, once it’s well-established. A family with one parent is just as real a family as any other, and deserves just as much to be commemorated with whatever rituals a society uses to honor familial ties.

Objection 9: Your system doesn’t allow traditionalists to pass on the torch of their name with any staying power. All trace of our names will be erased within two generations. That means that legacy names like ‘John Jones VII’ aren’t just discouraged; they’re impossible.

Response: This is true, but I’m not sure it matters very much. Names should be first and foremost about the individuals named. If those names refer to some historical event or lineage, that should be because the lineage is of unusual personal significance to the individual, not because the individual has been pressured into conforming to an arbitrary tradition. It’s a good thing if union names encourage people to construct their own identities as they build their deepest personal bonds and carry out the project of their lives, rather than encouraging people to base their identities primarily on the echoes and expectations of distant ancestors.

File:Arms of Great Britain in Scotland (1714-1801).svg

That said, union names don’t forbid ancestral naming traditions. If you really want to preserve your name across two or more generations, you can use an alternating system: Sam Boutros Ghali can beget Uma Ghali Boutros, who begets Shashi Boutros Ghali…. You’d just need to start families with people willing to take on one of your traditional names.

As for the impossibility of giving your child your exact name under this system… that’s definitely a feature, not a bug. Union names are a relatively poor choice if domineering creepiness or ambiguity are the things you want from your naming system.

Objection 10: But doesn’t that just reintroduce the problem of one partner getting to impose eir will on the other?

Response: Yes. This will be possible on any nonrandom system. Selfishness and inequality happen in relationships. Union names don’t make it impossible for partners to pressure each other into things they don’t want to do. Union names just make inegalitarian solutions unnecessary, and make the products of name negotiations more interesting and meaningful.

Objection 11: How do we tell ordinary middle names apart from union names?

Response: Well, we could stop giving children middle names so much. If we unambiguously use them only for unions, then we have a very convenient way of knowing people’s relationship history at a glance. Perhaps most people will be satisfied expressing their naming ideas through union names themselves, shrinking the desire for other bonus names.

Then again, maybe some ambiguity is good. Middle names add noise that creates a bit more privacy for people.

Another solution is to have an optional convention for marking the transition from personal names to union / sur-names in one’s full name. For instance, although this wouldn’t be required, you could inject the word ‘of’ before the first union name, if you really want to be clear about your name’s meaning. If personal middle names ever die out, though, this convention should die with it.

Objection 12: Union names make people think of their identities as tied to their partners’ and children’s identities. That’s unhealthy and/or unrealistic.

Response: I disagree. Our identities are tied to our loved ones. They shape our experiences, and draw out of us a specific persona. Both of those factors affect our personality on a deep level. It’s healthy to have some space from one’s family, but it’s also healthy to recognize how indebted we are to our friends, family, and community for who we are.

Hiding from your environment is not rediscovering what’s Authentically You; it’s refusing to acknowledge the part of the Authentic You that’s ineradicably bound up in the outside world.

Objection 13: Union names give parents total control over their children’s names, and very little control over their own names. The reverse makes far more sense. Children should pick their names as a rite of passage, reinforcing their autonomy and self-determination and discouraging parents from thinking of their children as possessions or works of art.

Response: This is a good objection! I do worry about all naming systems that simply impose the parents’ will on the next generation. Children should have a say in their identity — by default, not just if they go out of their way to buck social pressure. But they also need to be called something before they’re old enough to self-name. Some sort of compromise is needed.

My personal suggestion is to encourage children to legally change their first name when they reach a certain age. If this coming-of-age ritual generally leaves the surname intact, then it will remain consistent with the union name system.

I’ll keep expanding the above list as people keep having new ideas!

In defense of actually doing stuff

Most good people are kind in an ordinary way, when the intensity of human suffering in the world today calls for heroic kindness. I’ve seen ordinary kindness criticized as “pretending to try”. We go through the motions of humanism, but without significantly inconveniencing ourselves, without straying from our established habits, without violating societal expectations. It’s not that we’re being deliberately deceitful; it’s just that our stated values are in conflict with the lack of urgency revealed in our behaviors. If we want to see real results, we need to put more effort than that into helping others.

The Effective Altruism movement claims to have made some large strides in the direction of “actually trying”, approaching our humanitarian problems with fresh eyes and exerting a serious effort to solve them. But Ben Kuhn has criticized EA for spending more time “pretending to actually try” than “actually trying”. Have we become more heroic in our compassion, or have we just become better at faking moral urgency?

I agree with his criticism, though I’m not sure how large and entrenched the problem is. I bring it up in order to address a reply by Katja Grace. Katja wrote ‘In praise of pretending to really try‘, granting Ben’s criticism but arguing that the phenomenon he’s pointing to is a good thing.

“Effective Altruism should not shy away from pretending to try. It should strive to pretend to really try more convincingly, rather than striving to really try.

“Why is this? Because Effective Altruism is a community, and the thing communities do well is modulating individual behavior through interactions with others in the community. Most actions a person takes as a result of being part of a community are pretty much going to be ‘pretending to try’ by construction. And such actions are worth having.”

If I’m understanding Katja’s argument right, it’s: ‘People who pretend to try are motivated by a desire for esteem. And what binds a community together is in large part this desire for esteem. So we can’t get rid of pretending to try, or we’ll get rid of what makes Effective Altruism a functional community in the first place.’

The main problem here is in the leap from ‘if you pretend to try, then you’re motivated by a desire for esteem’ to ‘if you’re motivated by a desire for esteem, then you’re pretending to try’. Lo:

“A community of people not motivated by others seeing and appreciating their behavior, not concerned for whether they look like a real community member, and not modeling their behavior on the visible aspects of others’ behavior in the community would generally not be much of a community, and I think would do less well at pursuing their shared goals. […]

“If people heed your call to ‘really try’ and do the ‘really trying’ things you suggest, this will have been motivated by your criticisms, so seems more like a better quality of pretending to really try, than really trying itself. Unless your social pressure somehow pressured them to stop being motivated by social pressure.”

The idea of ‘really trying’ isn’t ‘don’t be influenced by social pressure’. It’s closer to ‘whatever, be influenced by social pressure however you want — whatever it takes! — as long as you end up actually working on the tasks that matter’. Signaling (especially honest signaling) and conformity (especially productive conformism) are not the enemy. The enemy is waste, destruction, human misery.

The ‘Altruism’ in ‘Effective Altruism’ is first and foremost a behavior, not a motivation. You can be a perfectly selfish Effective Altruist, as long as you’ve decided that your own interests are tied to others’ welfare. So in questioning whether self-described Effective Altruists are living up to their ideals, we’re primarily questioning whether they’re acting the part. Whether their motives are pure doesn’t really matter, except as a device for explaining why they are or aren’t actively making the world a better place.

“I don’t mean to say that ‘really trying’ is bad, or not a good goal for an individual person. But it is a hard goal for a community to usefully and truthfully have for many of its members, when so much of its power relies on people watching their neighbors and working to fit in.”

To my ear, this sounds like: ‘Being a good fireman is much, much harder than looking like a good fireman. And firemen are important, and their group cohesion and influence depends to a significant extent on their being seen as good firemen. So we shouldn’t chastise firemen who sacrifice being any good at their job for the sake of looking as though they’re good at their job. We should esteem them alongside good firemen, albeit with less enthusiasm.’

I don’t get it. If there are urgent Effective Altruism projects, then surely we should be primarily worried about how much real-world progress is being made on those projects. Building a strong, thriving EA community isn’t particularly valuable if the only major outcome is that we perpetuate EA, thereby allowing us to further perpetuate EA…

I suppose this strategy makes sense if it’s easier to just focus on building the EA movement and waiting for a new agenty altruist to wander in by chance, than it is to increase the agentiness of people currently in EA. But that seems unlikely to me. It’s harder to find ‘natural’ agents than it is to create or enhance them. And if we allow EA to rot from within and become an overt status competition with few aspirations to anything higher, then I’d expect us to end up driving away the real agents and true altruists. The most sustainable way to attract effective humanists is to be genuinely effective and genuinely humanistic, in a visible way.

At some point, the buck has to stop. At some point, someone has to actually do the work of EA. Why not now?

A last point: I think an essential element of ‘pretending to (actually) try’ is being neglected here. If I’m understanding how people think, pretending to try is at least as much about self-deception as it is about signaling to others. It’s a way of persuading yourself that you’re a good person, of building a internal narrative you can be happy with. The alternative is that the pretenders are knowingly deceiving others, which sounds a bit too Machiavellian to me to fit my model of realistic psychology.

But if pretending to try requires self-deception, then what are Katja and Ben doing? They’re both making self-deception a lot harder. They’re both writing posts that will make their EA readers more self-aware and self-critical. On my model, that means that they’re both making it tougher to pretend to try. (As am I.)

But if that’s so, then Ben’s strategy is wiser. Reading Ben’s critique, a pretender is encouraged to switch to actually trying. Reading Katja’s, pretenders are still beset with dissonance, but now without any inspiring call to self-improvement. The clearest way out will then be to give up on pretending to try, and give up on trying.

I’m all for faking it till you make it. But I think that faking it transitions into making it, and avoids becoming a lost purpose, in part because we continue to pressure people to live lives more consonant with their ideals. We should keep criticizing hypocrisy and sloth. But the criticism should look like ‘we can do so much better!’, not ‘let us hunt down all the Fakers and drive them from our midst!’.

It’s exciting to realize that so much of what we presently do is thoughtless posturing. Not because any of us should be content with ‘pretending to actually try’, but because it means that a small shift in how we do things might have a big impact on how effective we are.

Imagine waking up tomorrow, getting out of bed, and proceeding to do exactly the sorts of things you think are needed to bring about a better world.What would that be like?

Solve surnames with union names

Proposal: When you start a family, make up a new name, a union name. This name goes right before you and your partner’s/s’ different surnames, which are left unchanged. If you have children, this union name is then their surname.

… And we’re done. That’s the entire idea. You can probably just stop reading now.

OK, maybe I should say a little more about why this system is such an improvement on the status quo. What are the problems with other surname-swapping paradigms? What specific advantages do union names offer?


Problems with existing systems

These are legion, so I’ll break them up into several categories. First, problems with meeting in the middle:

  • Combining names via hyphens isn’t sustainable. Mr. Gramolini-Bronkhorst marries Ms. Bennett-Moore and becomes Mr. Gramolini-Bronkhorst-Bennett-Moore. Next generation, it grows to 5 or more names. TERRIFYING.
  • Combining names frequently looks and sounds ugly. Surname phonology is not generally people’s main criterion in selecting mates.
  • Smushing surnames together is cute (Nilsen + Pattel = Paltsen) but often unpronounceable, and makes reconstructing the original names very difficult.
  • There’s still some lingering asymmetry and uncertainty in deciding whose name goes first. This isn’t trivial, because if you get to keep your name in roughly the same alphabetical position, you take on less of the social and professional cost of switching surnames.

Problems with having one partner switch to the other’s surname:

  • Making the woman always switch surnames is sexist and dehumanizing.
  • … Why even force people to have the discussion? Squeezing relationships into this asymmetric mold introduces pointless tension and conflict.

Problems with surname-changing in general:

  • Making either person switch surnames can harm careers and hinder social networking.
  • Making either person switch surnames can scramble bureaucracies — making medical records hard to find, for instance.
  • Surname-switching is extra confusing if you go through multiple partnerships/marriages.
  • Surname-switching is extra confusing if you find a new partner while you already have kids. Do your kids switch too?

Problems with leaving names completely unchanged:

  • If neither you nor your partner switch surnames, it’s hard to figure out what your child should be named.
  • If you just make up an arbitrary last name for your child, it won’t have a name in common with you, which makes identifying relatives (e.g., for legal guardian purposes) needlessly difficult.

Besides, all the existing systems are just boring. Why not have surnames actually bear some direct relevance to the individuals who have them?


Advantages of union names

An invented example of how union names work: The Fairburn/Alexandros family tree.

Symbolism. Union names retain the ritual advantages of conventional marital name-changing. Unions do involve a name alteration, so the significance of the event is branded into your identity in a stable, concrete, visible way. At the same time, people who don’t want to change their names at all are free to skip that step and just use union names for their kids’ surnames. This sacrifices some of the system’s advantages, but a flexible system is a good system.

Moreover, it says something worth saying about consent, mutualism, and moral equality if the same name change is undergone by all partners, rather than the change being asymmetrically imposed on one partner by the other.

A name also has more personal significance if it’s lovingly crafted by partners, rather than being an arbitrary historical relic.

Creativity. You have more freedom to make mellifluous (and super badass) names for your kids — and for yourself — since you aren’t stuck with an inherited surname you have to work around.

Flexibility. Unions names are accessible to lesbian, gay, and queer couples; to polyamorous unions; and to serial unions.

Informativeness. Children and their parents always share at least one name, and in a systematic fashion that makes it easy to trace family trees if you aren’t missing any generations.

If you’ve had multiple independent unions, and don’t want to re-use the same union name for each, it’s easy to tell what order the unions came in (left-to-right yields chronological order), and also easy to tell which children are associated with which partnerships.

If you’re looking at a bunch of names in a family reunion roster, a Facebook thread, or an address book, it’s also easy to discern their familial relationships at a glance, assuming no incestuous unions. People sharing last names are siblings. People sharing middle names are spouses. And if Qiáng’s middle name is the same as George’s surname, then George is Qiáng’s child. (It’s a deliberate feature that sibling and spousal relationships are symmetric, while parental ones are asymmetric.)

As I conceive them, surnames will be more public and professional and official — hence you have them from birth to death, unless you go out of your way to change ’em — while union names would be more private and personal. A small family unit where the parents have union name Argestes (and therefore the children have Argestes as surname) might refer to itself as ‘clan Argestes’ or ‘the Argestes family’ in Christmas cards, whereas on census forms or medical documents it will just stick to individual surnames. It’s unfortunate that this system is very different from our current one, so it isn’t the easiest to transition into. But I think it’s the simplest option available, and the most sustainable.

(Edit: See Union Names: Objections and Replies for a follow-up.)

Listen and judge: An interview with Marwa Berro

I recently participated in a meeting of ex-Muslims in Washington, D.C., attended by Richard Dawkins, Ron Lindsay, and a number of other leaders of the secular movement. One of the most eloquent and passionate speakers there — rivaling Dawkins — was Marwa Berro, a writer, activist, and philosopher who blogs at Between A Veil And A Dark Place. At the prompting of event organizer Alishba Zarmeen, I asked Marwa about her views on Islam, cultural pluralism, and the future of secularism.

Bensinger: Marwa, you’ve written some really eye-opening critiques of Islamic culture. But you’ve also been quite critical of other critics of Islam. Do you see yourself as a Muslim? In dialogues about Islam, do you find yourself identifying more with Muslim voices, or with non-Muslim ones?

Berro: This question is to me not one of what I write about, the content and subject-matter of my work, but of what spurs that sort of work, a question of personal identity. I identify strongly as both ex-Muslim and Muslimish (the specific brand of Muslimish being atheist Muslim). One is a negative identity (ie, a descriptor of what I am not) and the other is a positive identity (a descriptor of something I am).  I think there are some potentially confusing things going on with that, so let me explain.

First, the identity of ex-Muslim: I refer to Islam, something I’ve rejected, to personally describe myself. While it might be confusing, I find this incredibly meaningful.

Because in shedding Islamic doctrine I have not freed myself of its influence on me. I can remove the hijab as clothing but I can’t so easily remove its decade-and-a-half influence on my body and mind. Its residual effects live within me in the form of memories, concepts, questions and challenges related to body image, bodily autonomy, self-worth, gender identity, sexuality and objectification. They live with me as active, probing, burning matters. They are internal struggles I bear myself through and external battles I commit my voice and pen and heart to.

They are the smallest and most everyday of things: My neck exploding in freckles this summer for the first time in my life: how strange it is to see your 24-year-old body do a thing it has never done, how alarming that so simple a capacity in your very skin could be released with a catalyst as common as the sun, how appalling that it has never had the chance to do so, and how the questions and emotions bubble up  from this. Every experience of mine that is new, joyous, painful, meaningful in some way or another resonates in a deep and compelling way with the life I’ve lived, the doctrine and culture that socialized me.

I am not just non-religious. I have shed the skin of a certain religion, and it was a clutching, shaping, smothering, burning, heavy skin, and my being non-religious is defined by pushing myself out of it, and it always will be.

I also identify as an atheist Muslim because I strongly claim my cultural belonging, and much of my culture is intertwined with, inextricable from, Islamic practices and beliefs. I am an atheist, a humanist, a secularist, yes, but much of what informs my thought and my work, and especially much of what moves me and gives me joy, comes from the heart of the Arab Mediterranean. It is a lens, if you will, for the way in which I experience the world.

Bensinger: So you see yourself as culturally Muslim or Muslimish, but not as religiously Muslim. I have vastly less experience with Islam’s culture than with its doctrines; how has that background shaped your perspective?

Berro: I’m an artist. In my day-to-day life, I write and teach fiction, and I am working on a book of interconnected short stories about my hometown Beirut, and the characters that live in my head and whose lives I spend time and words on have rich, complex, dynamic religious identities.  I watch news reports in Arabic on YouTube and yearn for the tongue. My head snaps around almost unbidden and my heart skips a beat if ever I hear somebody speak Arabic on the street here in the American Midwest. I’ve retained some traditionally Islamic practices, particularly hygienic ones, that I find to be valuable. I still celebrate Eid when Eid comes around too, in much the same way atheists from Christian families still celebrate Christmas—it has marked for me, twice every year, a time of food and family and love and friendship and commitment. I cook Levantine food, halal food, alongside my primary partner’s mother’s amazing pork chops. My sensory comforts are all from home: the sound and smell of the sea, warm weather. I still wear the same multicolored scarves with intricate designs that I used as hijabs for many years. I have a way of speech, a warmness and candor about me that is specifically Arab, because we are spontaneous, welcoming, open people. Strangely, even though I am a particularly amusical person, the poetry of the Husseini dirges during Ashouraa, their hypnotic chest-tapping grief, moves me to this day. I consider the story of Hussein to be an epic tale that, rendered in poetry in the Iraqi dialect, gives me a stronger feeling than reading epic tales like Beowulf or the Iliad ever did and ever could. I consider the stories of the prophets, and the tales of death and redemption and aid from angels tied to Hezbollah resistance culture in the South of Lebanon too, to be the equivalent of folktales that can inspire and inform new art, new fiction.

I love all of these things about my culture. I know my culture. I claim my culture, and speak of it from a position of belonging, not from the position of being a defector. It is true that I am not a Muslim—I am, however, Muslimish. Leaving Islam does not entail a separation from the cultural, societal, and political issues that have always shaped my very existence, whose intricacies I have delved in intellectually in order to find out who and what I am.

And when I go to sleep at night, it is always with the hope that I will dream of Beirut.

Bensinger: Given your background, Marwa, I can understand why your writing focuses on issues in Muslim communities. Still, looking at the hostility Western media often directs at Islam, don’t you think it’s unfair to single out this one religion for special criticism? Why not treat Islam the same as any other religion?

Berro: I do not believe Islam is singled out for criticism. If anything, there is less of a willingness to approach Islam with the same force and confidence that other religions are criticized with. The existence of a specific term demonizing the critique of Islam but no other term demonizing the critique of any other ideology or religion is very telling.

Bensinger: I assume you mean “Islamophobia“.

Berro: Yes. If the question is why I criticize Islam to the exclusion of other religions in my blogging, then the answer is simple.

I know more about it and can speak to it, and it is personally important to me. I can only speak about that which I am informed of. Likewise, I can speak best and most compellingly about that which touches me most.

The second part of the answer is that there is something unique about Islam. Islam does differ from other religions in crucial ways that do influence how it is to be dealt with. I have a blog post about that here.

Bensinger: In your view, what can moderate Muslims do to better combat extremism?

Berro: Value diversity. You interpret Islam in one way, and others interpret it in another, and others will interpret it in yet another, seventy times seven times. Thus concentrate less on defending the ‘true’ Islam because very, very few people are going to be talking about the same thing you are when you say ‘Islam’, and more on defending the right to believe and practice freely without imposing your view on others or infringing on their similar rights.

Emphasize that freedom of religion is a right, no matter how it is practiced or interpreted. That freedom is one that you yourself, as a Muslim, should value above all else.

I understand that you believe your faith to be a common good, a truth, a meaningful and enlightening thing, and that you hate seeing it denigrated either through misuse or misunderstanding. Perhaps consider that the best way to prevent this is to help create a world where nobody will have reason to denigrate your faith, because nobody will, in the name of your faith, commit the human rights violations that you consider to be misuse or misunderstanding of your faith. Recognize that those who kill or maim or hurt to defend the name of your faith do so because they don’t believe it is a human right for others to choose not to follow it or to flout its rules or beliefs.

Emphasize that human right.

Value diversity. Value choice.

Bensinger: What can we do to empower ex-Muslim and liberal Muslim critics of traditional Islam?

Berro: Listen to us. Enable our voices by hosting them on mainstream media platforms. Help make the ex-Muslim voice and the liberal Muslim voice normalized, because it is unfortunately the case that these voices are considered inauthentic and thus discounted because we are not viewed as Muslims or ‘true’ Muslims. This happens in the West sometimes because of a fear, I think, of cultural appropriation, of being racist.

But here’s the thing. There is so much talk of what we are not. We are not meant for your consumption, we are not your orientalist dream. Clamorous are the voices that say this. But tenuous is the discourse that is willing to discuss what is ours, what we can have, what can be fought for on our behalf if we do not have the means to fight for it ourselves, if it is not already granted to us by our cultural norms.

The discourse surrounding cultural appropriation powerfully rests upon the simple concept, acknowledged by many and addressed to the white West, that when you view what is ours through the lens of your own privileged understanding, you bar us from agency and choice and self-determination.

But when does the fear of cultural appropriation blend into the dangers of cultural relativism?

When it starts to enable our belonging to a cultural tradition above our individual identities. Except that we are human subjects, and our cultures belong to us more than we belong to them.

It becomes dangerous when talk of what we are not enables the delegitimization of our voices when we try to speak of what we are, what we can have. When suddenly we become defectors, apostates, and our discourse is discounted as imperialist Western brainwashing.

The irony is that we are not given that power, of the agential voice. We are not considered to be appropriating Western values when we endorse and adopt them, because to suggest that a brown woman can take Western ideas and turn them into her own brand of feminism and agency is unthinkable. Instead our discourse is thought of being a flimsy vapid imitation of the West. It comes as a surprise to some Westerners if and when we end up educated enough to teach white children their own languages, if our English is impeccable, our diction refined, our knowledge of Western identity and gender politics well-formulated.

And once accepted, this somehow discredits us as brown women, as people from Muslim cultures. We are discounted as inauthentic commentators on what was always-and-every issue governing our socialization, our actualization, our politicization because we break out of the bounds of our cultural dictates in doing so.

And when we are discounted by our cultural leaders and spaces, a fear of cultural appropriation bars us from having a platform from which to speak elsewhere.

This stems from a fear of judging. Is it then possible that in order to not judge, people tend not to listen?

So listen to us. Listen to us, understand us, ask us questions, let us teach you about our religious backgrounds so that you too can become informed commentators and help us dispel the erroneous and focus on effective solutions.

Help make it a normal thing, a universally acknowledged and accepted thing for an ex-Muslim to speak about Islam and be considered a valuable and informed commentator.

We need your help in being heard.

Bensinger: Why is help needed? Why do I hear so few people talking like this?

Berro: We are black sheep. We are rejected by many of the people and organizations that socialized us. Those of us who are public are accused of being imperialist tools of the West, of getting paychecks from Zionist organizations, of being part of a larger agenda of globalization and other such ludicrous nonsense.

Also, and this is sickening, horrifying, the women among us are often subjected to the crudest forms of misogynistic threats of rape and violence for daring to advocate for human rights. Our causes are routinely reduced to a desire to legalize sin and fornication and lewdness (all imagined evils) and any humanistic values we endorse are brushed aside as a mere front.

Many of us are also in hiding, and bear significant social and material costs for being what we are. Apostasy bears a great social burden in Muslim societies. At the very least, we are shunned, outcast, disowned if we were to go public. Others of us simply cannot. We live in places with such inescapable codes of living that we are not free to choose a nonreligious life and must continue to practice rituals of faith as though we believed, and are thus forced to suppress ourselves, and live a lie.

Others who are less lucky suffer violence in brutal ways as the recompense for sin. In many areas of the Muslim world, death is called for as the just punishment for apostasy. In other places, death or brutalization as punishment for apostasy is not technically legal but is overlooked when it does happen. The acceptance of it is surprisingly (or not) mainstream, as this Pew Poll shows.

I will quickly here note that both I and some close friends have suffered unjustifiable violence at the hands of our own families in response to perceived ‘sin’ we committed.

And for those of us who are capable of speaking—our voices aren’t loud enough on their own to cast light onto the invisible, in-the-closet apostate from Islam that has no recourse and is trapped in a way of life they cannot adhere to with good conscience and find too dangerous or costly to leave.

Bensinger: What about voices from outside the Muslim world? What can people from more secularized cultures do to effectively criticize religion?

Berro: I view the issue of secularism to be one of practical political philosophy, and when it comes to practical political philosophy, I am a moral consequentialist who emphasizes procedure. Based on that, these are my suggestions:

  • Ask yourself why you are criticizing religion. What is your purpose, goal? What valuable thing are you trying to achieve in criticizing a religion? And then line up the manner in which you critique religion with those goals. Look at what you’re doing already and ask yourself if it serves those goals and how. For instance, questions to be posed could be: How would using racializing, generalizing, stereotyping, alienating, or aggressive language achieve any of those goals? Conversely, how would being too afraid of being accused of xenophobia or bigotry to make an honest, compelling, no-nonsense critique serve those goals?
  • Stop making the mistake of separating the practices and beliefs of followers of a religion from the religion itself. That’s a cop-out that detracts from honest criticism of the ways in which religious doctrine informs, influences, and contributes to violence and human rights violations committed by religious people.
  • Be less concerned with the image of a religion, and what the ‘real’ or ‘true’ version of a religion is, and more about dealing with the real-world consequences of the actions of its followers. People are more valuable than ideas. People’s lives and wellbeing and freedom and safety are more valuable than defending or condemning an abstract concept. Here’s a hint: Nobody agrees on what the ‘true’ version of a religion is. It does not exist.
  • Don’t treat religions as monoliths. They are not monoliths. They are the incredibly varying beliefs and practices of their followers, and in order to effectively discuss them, you must discuss them according to their semantic content and their material effects. You must not equate them with each other or reduce them to either their most positive aspects or their most negative aspects. You must not lump them all together and treat them the same. Islam is different from other religions in many ways, and those differences need to be addressed when we think about how to discuss Islam. You will not fix a problem by ignoring its particular identifying characteristics.

Here are some concrete suggestions I’ve given for discussing Islam in particular.

Bensinger: Why does the issue of secularism matter? What does it mean for a society to be secular, or for an individual to be a secularist?

Berro: As commonly understood, a secular society is one in which religious institutions and the state are separate, neither interfering with the functioning of the other. It relates directly to freedom, the freedom to conduct yourself and believe what you will, insofar as that does not infringe upon the freedom of others.

It matters because societies are pluralistic. Because there is a large variety of personally fulfilling ways of living decent human lives, and no single one of these can be mandated at the level of the state. It matters because the followers of certain belief systems do want to be allowed to bring their own codes of living into public spaces where other people live.

Many religions tend to want to dictate an objective, universal code of living and belief system for humanity in general, and if they are allowed to pass legislature at the state level that enforce their particular system of belief upon others, then they will be infringing upon the the fundamental human right of self-determination.

It can range from less dangerous to more dangerous things: A comparatively benign example is holding prayer in public or state schools even if the children do not belong to that religion or do not desire to be brought into it and do not wish to pray to a god they don’t believe in or in a manner that they don’t subscribe to. More extreme is sentencing a woman who has had sex to 100 lashes because in a particular religion it is considered immoral to have sex outside of marriage.

A particular problem I’ve noticed when considering personal autonomy and freedom of religion is the tendency to discount religious influence on legislature because it is not explicitly presented as such. For instance, my home country Lebanon, which endorses no state religion and considers itself secular, has a slew of laws that are not justified in explicitly religious terms but that only exist because of religious influences on the culture. For instance, a law condemning ‘unnatural’ sex acts and thus used to arrest LGBTQ individuals. Or the repeated vetoing of a law criminalizing domestic violence based on the justification that it threatens the closeness of familial bonds.

Thus the various influences and justifications for legislature must be examined, along with whether they are based in a particular worldview that infringes upon the rights of others and is inconsistent with the existence of others. That should be the standard for whether or not legislature is secular: is it consistent with the existence of various worldviews given that no human rights are being violated?

Bensinger: The Washington, D.C. event was the first large-scale Muslimish meet-up of its kind. What did you think of it?

Berro: It was a life-changing experience for me.

Firstly, because of community:

One thing that apostates can often be heard voicing is ‘I thought I was alone.’

The concept of apostasy is so demonized and unthinkable that it sometimes is difficult for those bearing its social costs to consider that there might be others like them, a community, that they can reach out to, talk to, support and feel supported by.

I’ve been collaborating and sharing experience and insight and dreams and hopes with an online network of apostates in North America for the past few months, but the meetup in DC at the end of this past September was a thing of joy and splendor for me. I felt a sense of community, belonging, solidarity, of encompassing and welcoming that I have not felt in a long time. These were people with similar struggles, similar experiences of adversity, similar intellectual journeys and interests. I could speak my language again. I could refer to specific cultural things, have inside jokes, that other people understood and we could discuss them in open, versatile ways, without fear of being quieted or punished or being accused of an imagined crime called ‘blasphemy’.

Because our pains were similar, we could understand and comfort each other in unique ways. Because our joys, too, were things we had in common, as well as the experiences of leaving Islamic rituals behind and experiencing new things like intimate relationships, the sun on our hair, swimming in public, eating bacon for the first time as adults. That it was forbidden to us for so long made it sacred to us in a way that we probably would be at loss to explain to others.

I was also struck, and really am almost ashamed of how surprising this was for me, by how respectful and nonjudgmental everyone around me was. I have never been utterly surrounded by people from strong Muslim cultures without feeling controlled or judged or manipulated in some way, especially by men. But I was there with my primary partner and we were at a raging afterparty with booze and cuddles and romance all around and I did not feel a shred of shaming or misogyny directed at my immodest dress and conduct. It was heartwarming and nearly brought me to tears.

Secondly, because of the amazing amount of goodwill and human kindness we were given.

We met with prominent leaders of secular organizations nationally and worldwide. Present were Richard Dawkins, Edwina Rogers (Secular Coalition for America and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Ronald A Lindsay (Center for Inquiry), Richard Haynes (Atheist Nexus), and Jennifer Beahan (also CFI, in collaboration with Muslimish, which is now an official chapter of CFI).

Leaders from these organizations came to meet us in DC specifically to discuss the ways in which they could help us. How they could support us, what they could offer us. How the larger secular community as a whole could support the Muslim apostate cause.

It was made very clear that we belonged, that they considered our plight crucial, and that we were to be welcomed as an integral part of the secular community.

Also, and I say this because of the stigma attached to apostasy and its inherent voicelessness, it is incredible how we were listened to.

We were not spoken at. We were not given terms or conditions. We were offered several avenues of help, and given suggestions for ways in which we could be supported, and then we were asked.

We were asked what we thought could be done for us. We were asked what aspects of the apostate condition we thought were most crucial, and what ideas we had for addressing us.

Although we were well over 100 strong in the room, we were all given opportunity to ask questions of the secular leaders before us, and give them comments and feedback.

Bensinger: What were the most important issues and ideas you encountered there?

Berro: Some specific issues we talked about were:

  • The unique situation of women from Muslim cultures, because they are the largest sufferers under Islamism, and enabling the voices of ex-Muslim women, and broadcasting their experiences. Since then, a project called the Ex-Muslim Women’s Network has gone through several planning stages.
  • The situation of apostates in Muslim-majority countries, and strategies for creating places of freethought and skeptical inquiry where they feel welcome that are safe, undetectable, and sustainable.
  • The situation of seekers of asylum and refugees who happen to be atheists or apostates, who often lack sponsors or legal support from secular organizations, and thus have to be sponsored by religious organizations such as the YMCA.
  • The situation of reconciling positive cultural elements with a lack of faith, methods for creating families and communities that retain culture while shedding the religious doctrine and terminology.
  • The situation of apostates in the West, who often are utterly socially constrained, bringing them awareness that they are not alone, and helping them leave suppressive home situations.

Bensinger: I found the meeting moving and inspiring as well. For that matter, this discussion has given me a lot of new hope, new understanding, and a renewed sense of urgency. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself, Marwa. Is there a last word you’d like to share with people reading this? Any new projects, or ways for us to follow your work?

Berro: I’d like to conclude with a shout-out to EXMNA. Since our DC meetup, the Ex-Muslims of North America has launched the Ex-Muslim Blogs, the world’s first single website that acts as a unified platform for ex-Muslim thought in all its rich variety and insight. I think this an incredibly revolutionary and important endeavor, and am proud to have Between A Veil and A Dark Place hosted there; it is the beginning of the normalization of the ex-Muslim voice. And finally, I’d like to mention that I’m collecting stories and experiences from ex-Muslim women or women who have been influenced in one way or another by Muslim societies for a new guest-blog series at my website, the Stories from Ex-Muslim Women. Feel free to query me at

The seed is not the superintelligence

This is the conclusion of a LessWrong post, following The AI Knows, But Doesn’t Care.

If an artificial intelligence is smart enough to be dangerous to people, we’d intuitively expect it to be smart enough to know how to make itself safe for people. But that doesn’t mean all smart AIs are safe. To turn that capacity into actual safety, we have to program the AI at the outset — before it becomes too fast, powerful, or complicated to reliably control — to already care about making its future self care about safety.

That means we have to understand how to code safety. We can’t pass the entire buck to the AI, when only an AI we’ve already safety-proofed will be safe to ask for help on safety issues! Generally: If the AI is weak enough to be safe, it’s too weak to solve this problem. If it’s strong enough to solve this problem, it’s too strong to be safe.

This is an urgent public safety issue, given the five theses and given that we’ll likely figure out how to make a decent artificial programmer before we figure out how to make an excellent artificial ethicist.


The AI’s trajectory of self-modification has to come from somewhere.

“Take an AI in a box that wants to persuade its gatekeeper to set it free. Do you think that such an undertaking would be feasible if the AI was going to interpret everything the gatekeeper says in complete ignorance of the gatekeeper’s values? […] I don’t think so. So how exactly would it care to follow through on an interpretation of a given goal that it knows, given all available information, is not the intended meaning of the goal? If it knows what was meant by ‘minimize human suffering’ then how does it decide to choose a different meaning? And if it doesn’t know what is meant by such a goal, how could it possible [sic] convince anyone to set it free, let alone take over the world?”
               —Alexander Kruel
“If the AI doesn’t know that you really mean ‘make paperclips without killing anyone’, that’s not a realistic scenario for AIs at all–the AI is superintelligent; it has to know. If the AI knows what you really mean, then you can fix this by programming the AI to ‘make paperclips in the way that I mean’.”

The wish-granting genie we’ve conjured — if it bothers to even consider the question — should be able to understand what you mean by ‘I wish for my values to be fulfilled.’ Indeed, it should understand your meaning better than you do. But superintelligence only implies that the genie’s map can compass your true values. Superintelligence doesn’t imply that the genie’s utility function has terminal values pinned to your True Values, or to the True Meaning of your commands.

The critical mistake here is to not distinguish the seed AI we initially program from the superintelligent wish-granter it self-modifies to become. We can’t use the genius of the superintelligence to tell us how to program its own seed to become the sort of superintelligence that tells us how to build the right seed. Time doesn’t work that way.

We can delegate most problems to the FAI. But the one problem we can’t safely delegate is the problem of coding the seed AI to produce the sort of superintelligence to which a task can be safely delegated.

When you write the seed’s utility function, you, the programmer, don’t understand everything about the nature of human value or meaning. That imperfect understanding remains the causal basis of the fully-grown superintelligence’s actions,long after it’s become smart enough to fully understand our values.

Why is the superintelligence, if it’s so clever, stuck with whatever meta-ethically dumb-as-dirt utility function we gave it at the outset? Why can’t we just pass the fully-grown superintelligence the buck by instilling in the seed the instruction: ‘When you’re smart enough to understand Friendliness Theory, ditch the values you started with and just self-modify to become Friendly.’?

Because that sentence has to actually be coded in to the AI, and when we do so, there’s no ghost in the machine to know exactly what we mean by ‘frend-lee-ness thee-ree’. Instead, we have to give it criteria we think are good indicators of Friendliness, so it’ll know what to self-modify toward. And if one of the landmarks on our ‘frend-lee-ness’ road map is a bit off, we lose the world.

Yes, the UFAI will be able to solve Friendliness Theory. But if we haven’t already solved it on our own power, we can’tpinpoint Friendliness in advance, out of the space of utility functions. And if we can’t pinpoint it with enough detail to draw a road map to it and it alone, we can’t program the AI to care about conforming itself with that particular idiosyncratic algorithm.

Yes, the UFAI will be able to self-modify to become Friendly, if it so wishes. But if there is no seed of Friendliness already at the heart of the AI’s decision criteria, no argument or discovery will spontaneously change its heart.

And, yes, the UFAI will be able to simulate humans accurately enough to know that its own programmers would wish, if they knew the UFAI’s misdeeds, that they had programmed the seed differently. But what’s done is done. Unless we ourselves figure out how to program the AI to terminally value its programmers’ True Intentions, the UFAI will just shrug at its creators’ foolishness and carry on converting the Virgo Supercluster’s available energy into paperclips.

And if we do discover the specific lines of code that will get an AI to perfectly care about its programmer’s True Intentions, such that it reliably self-modifies to better fit them — well, then that will just mean that we’ve solved Friendliness Theory. The clever hack that makes further Friendliness research unnecessary is Friendliness.

Not all small targets are alike.

“You write that the worry is that the superintelligence won’t care. My response is that, to work at all, it will have to care about a lot. For example, it will have to care about achieving accurate beliefs about the world. It will have to care to devise plans to overpower humanity and not get caught. If it cares about those activities, then how is it more difficult to make it care to understand and do what humans mean? […]
“If an AI is meant to behave generally intelligent [sic] then it will have to work as intended or otherwise fail to be generally intelligent.”
            Alexander Kruel

It’s easy to get a genie to care about (optimize for) something-or-other; what’s hard is getting one to care about the right something.

‘Working as intended’ is a simple phrase, but behind it lies a monstrously complex referent. It doesn’t clearly distinguish the programmers’ (mostly implicit) true preferences from their stated design objectives; an AI’s actual code can differ from either or both of these. Crucially, what an AI is ‘intended’ for isn’t all-or-nothing. It can fail in some ways without failing in every way, and small errors will tend to kill Friendliness much more easily than intelligence.

It may be hard to build self-modifying AGI. But it’s not the same hardness as the hardness of Friendliness Theory. Being able to hit one small target doesn’t entail that you can or will hit every small target it would be in your best interest to hit. Intelligence on its own does not imply Friendliness. And there are three big reasons to think that AGI may arrive before Friendliness Theory is solved:

(i) Research Inertia. Far more people are working on AGI than on Friendliness. And there may not come a moment when researchers will suddenly realize that they need to take all their resources out of AGI and pour them into Friendliness. If the status quo continues, the default expectation should be UFAI.

(ii) Disjunctive Instrumental Value. Being more intelligent — that is, better able to manipulate diverse environments — is of instrumental value to nearly every goal. Being Friendly is of instrumental value to barely any goals. This makes it more likely by default that short-sighted humans will be interested in building AGI than in developing Friendliness Theory. And it makes it much likelier that an attempt at Friendly AGI that has a slightly defective goal architecture will retain the instrumental value of intelligence than of Friendliness.

(iii) Incremental Approachability. Friendliness is an all-or-nothing target. Value is fragile and complex, and a half-good being editing its morality drive is at least as likely to move toward 40% goodness as 60%. Cross-domain efficiency, in contrast, is not an all-or-nothing target. If you just make the AGI slightly better than a human at improving the efficiency of AGI, then this can snowball into ever-improving efficiency, even if the beginnings were clumsy and imperfect. It’s easy to put a reasoning machine into a feedback loop with reality in which it is differentially rewarded for being smarter; it’s hard to put one into a feedback loop with reality in which it is differentially rewarded for picking increasingly correct answers to ethical dilemmas.

The ability to productively rewrite software and the ability to perfectly extrapolate humanity’s True Preferences are two different skills. (For example, humans have the former capacity, and not the latter. Most humans, given unlimited power, would be unintentionally Unfriendly.)

It’s true that a sufficiently advanced superintelligence should be able to acquire both abilities. But we don’t have them both, and a pre-FOOM self-improving AGI (‘seed’) need not have both. Being able to program good programmers is all that’s required for an intelligence explosion; but being a good programmer doesn’t imply that one is a superlative moral psychologist or moral philosopher.

If the programmers don’t know in mathematical detail what Friendly code would even look like, then the seed won’t be built to want to build toward the right code. And if the seed isn’t built to want to self-modify toward Friendliness, then the superintelligence it sproutsalso won’t have that preference, even though — unlike the seed and its programmers — the superintelligence does have the domain-general ‘hit whatever target I want’ ability that makes Friendliness easy.

And that’s why some people are worried.

The AI knows, but doesn’t care

This is the first half of a LessWrong post. For background material, see A Non-Technical Introduction to AI Risk and Truly Part of You.

I summon a superintelligence, calling out: ‘I wish for my values to be fulfilled!’

The results fall short of pleasant.

Gnashing my teeth in a heap of ashes, I wail:

Is the artificial intelligence too stupid to understand what I meant? Then it is no superintelligence at all!

Is it too weak to reliably fulfill my desires? Then, surely, it is no superintelligence!

Does it hate me? Then it was deliberately crafted to hate me, for chaos predicts indifference. ———But, ah! no wicked god did intervene!

Thus disproved, my hypothetical implodes in a puff of logic. The world is saved. You’re welcome.

On this line of reasoning, safety-proofed artificial superintelligence (Friendly AI) is not difficult. It’s inevitable, provided only that we tell the AI, ‘Be Friendly.’ If the AI doesn’t understand ‘Be Friendly.’, then it’s too dumb to harm us. And if it does understand ‘Be Friendly.’, then designing it to follow such instructions is childishly easy.

The end!

… …

Is the missing option obvious?

What if the AI isn’t sadistic, or weak, or stupid, but just doesn’t care what you Really Meant by ‘I wish for my values to be fulfilled’?

When we see a Be Careful What You Wish For genie in fiction, it’s natural to assume that it’s a malevolent trickster or an incompetent bumbler. But a real Wish Machine wouldn’t be a human in shiny pants. If it paid heed to our verbal commands at all, it would do so in whatever way best fit its own values. Not necessarily the way that best fits ours.

Is indirect indirect normativity easy?

“If the poor machine could not understand the difference between ‘maximize human pleasure’ and ‘put all humans on an intravenous dopamine drip’ then it would also not understand most of the other subtle aspects of the universe, including but not limited to facts/questions like: ‘If I put a million amps of current through my logic circuits, I will fry myself to a crisp’, or ‘Which end of this Kill-O-Zap Definit-Destruct Megablaster is the end that I’m supposed to point at the other guy?’. Dumb AIs, in other words, are not an existential threat. […]

“If the AI is (and always has been, during its development) so confused about the world that it interprets the ‘maximize human pleasure’ motivation in such a twisted, logically inconsistent way, it would never have become powerful in the first place.”

Richard Loosemore

If an AI is sufficiently intelligent, then, yes, it should be able to model us well enough to make precise predictions about our behavior. And, yes, something functionally akin to our own intentional strategy could conceivably turn out to be an efficient way to predict linguistic behavior. The suggestion, then, is that we solve Friendliness by method A —

  • A. Solve the Problem of Meaning-in-General in advance, and program it to follow our instructions’real meaning. Then just instruct it ‘Satisfy my preferences’, and wait for it to become smart enough to figure out my preferences.

— as opposed to B or C —

  • B. Solve the Problem of Preference-in-General in advance, and directly program it to figure out what our human preferences are and then satisfy them.
  • C. Solve the Problem of Human Preference, and explicitly program our particular preferences into the AI ourselves, rather than letting the AI discover them for us.

But there are a host of problems with treating the mere revelation that A is an option as a solution to the Friendliness problem.

1. You have to actually code the seed AI to understand what we mean. You can’t just tell it ‘Start understanding the True Meaning of my sentences!’ to get the ball rolling, because it may not yet be sophisticated enough to grok the True Meaning of ‘Start understanding the True Meaning of my sentences!’.

2. The Problem of Meaning-in-General may really be ten thousand heterogeneous problems, especially if ‘semantic value’ isn’t a natural kind. There may not be a single simple algorithm that inputs any old brain-state and outputs what, if anything, it ‘means’; it may instead be that different types of content are encoded very differently.

3. The Problem of Meaning-in-General may subsume the Problem of Preference-in-General. Rather than being able to apply a simple catch-all Translation Machine to any old human concept to output a reliable algorithm for applying that concept in any intelligible situation, we may need to already understand how our beliefs and values work in some detail before we can start generalizing. On the face of it, programming an AI to fully understand ‘Be Friendly!’ seems at least as difficult as just programming Friendliness into it, but with an added layer of indirection.

4. Even if the Problem of Meaning-in-General has a unitary solution and doesn’t subsume Preference-in-General, it may still be harder if semantics is a subtler or more complex phenomenon than ethics. It’s not inconceivable that language could turn out to be more of a kludge than value; or more variable across individuals due to its evolutionary recency; or more complexly bound up with culture.

5. Even if Meaning-in-General is easier than Preference-in-General, it may still be extraordinarily difficult. The meanings of human sentences can’t be fully captured in any simple string of necessary and sufficient conditions. ‘Concepts‘ are just especially context-insensitive bodies of knowledge; we should not expect them to be uniquely reflectively consistent, transtemporally stable, discrete, easily-identified, or introspectively obvious.

6. It’s clear that building stable preferences out of B or C would create a Friendly AI. It’s not clear that the same is true for A. Even if the seed AI understands our commands, the ‘do’ part of ‘do what you’re told’ leaves a lot of dangerous wiggle room. See section 2 of Yudkowsky’s reply to Holden. If the AGI doesn’t already understand and care about human value, then it may misunderstand (or misvalue) the component of responsible request- or question-answering that depends on speakers’ implicit goals and intentions.

7. You can’t appeal to a superintelligence to tell you what code to first build it with.

The point isn’t that the Problem of Preference-in-General is unambiguously the ideal angle of attack. It’s that the linguistic competence of an AGI isn’t unambiguously the right target, and also isn’t easy or solved.

Point 7 seems to be a special source of confusion here, so I’ll focus just on it for my next post.

A non-technical introduction to AI risk

In the summer of 2008, experts attending the Global Catastrophic Risk Conference assigned a 5% probability to the human species’ going extinct due to “superintelligent AI” by the year 2100. New organizations, like the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk and the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, are springing up to face the challenge of an AI apocalypse. But what is artificial intelligence, and why do people think it’s dangerous?

As it turns out, studying AI risk is useful for gaining a deeper understanding of philosophy of mind and ethics, and a lot of the general theses are accessible to non-experts. So I’ve gathered here a list of short, accessible, informal articles, mostly written by Eliezer Yudkowsky, to serve as a philosophical crash course on the topic. The first half will focus on what makes something intelligent, and what an Artificial General Intelligence is. The second half will focus on what makes such an intelligence ‘friendly‘ — that is, safe and useful — and why this matters.


Part I. Building intelligence.

An artificial intelligence is any program or machine that can autonomously and efficiently complete a complex task, like Google Maps, or a xerox machine. One of the largest obstacles to assessing AI risk is overcoming anthropomorphism, the tendency to treat non-humans as though they were quite human-like. Because AIs have complex goals and behaviors, it’s especially difficult not to think of them as people. Having a better understanding of where human intelligence comes from, and how it differs from other complex processes, is an important first step in approaching this challenge with fresh eyes.

1. Power of Intelligence. Why is intelligence important?

2. Ghosts in the Machine. Is building an intelligence from scratch like talking to a person?

3. Artificial Addition. What can we conclude about the nature of intelligence from the fact that we don’t yet understand it?

4. Adaptation-Executers, not Fitness-Maximizers. How do human goals relate to the ‘goals’ of evolution?

5. The Blue-Minimizing Robot. What are the shortcomings of thinking of things as ‘agents’, ‘intelligences’, or ‘optimizers’ with defined values/goals/preferences?

Part II. Intelligence explosion.

Forecasters are worried about Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), an AI that, like a human, can achieve a wide variety of different complex aims. An AGI could think faster than a human, making it better at building new and improved AGI — which would be better still at designing AGI. As this snowballed, AGI would improve itself faster and faster, become increasingly unpredictable and powerful as its design changed. The worry is that we’ll figure out how to make self-improving AGI before we figure out how to safety-proof every link in this chain of AGI-built AGIs.

6. Optimization and the Singularity. What is optimization? As optimization processes, how do evolution, humans, and self-modifying AGI differ?

7. Efficient Cross-Domain Optimization. What is intelligence?

8. The Design Space of Minds-In-General. What else is universally true of intelligences?

9. Plenty of Room Above Us. Why should we expect self-improving AGI to quickly become superintelligent?

Part III. AI risk.

In the Prisoner’s Dilemma, it’s better for both players to cooperate than for both to defect; and we have a natural disdain for human defectors. But an AGI is not a human; it’s just a process that increases its own ability to produce complex, low-probability situations. It doesn’t necessarily experience joy or suffering, doesn’t necessarily possess consciousness or personhood. When we treat it like a human, we not only unduly weight its own artificial ‘preferences’ over real human preferences, but also mistakenly assume that an AGI is motivated by human-like thoughts and emotions. This makes us reliably underestimate the risk involved in engineering an intelligence explosion.

10. The True Prisoner’s Dilemma. What kind of jerk would Defect even knowing the other side Cooperated?

11. Basic AI drives. Why are AGIs dangerous even when they’re indifferent to us?

12. Anthropomorphic Optimism. Why do we think things we hope happen are likelier?

13. The Hidden Complexity of Wishes. How hard is it to directly program an alien intelligence to enact my values?

14. Magical Categories. How hard is it to program an alien intelligence to reconstruct my values from observed patterns?

15. The AI Problem, with Solutions. How hard is it to give AGI predictable values of any sort? More generally, why does AGI risk matter so much?

Part IV. Ends.

A superintelligence has the potential not only to do great harm, but also to greatly benefit humanity. If we want to make sure that whatever AGIs people make respect human values, then we need a better understanding of what those values actually are. Keeping our goals in mind will also make it less likely that we’ll despair of solving the Friendliness problem. The task looks difficult, but we have no way of knowing how hard it will end up being until we’ve invested more resources into safety research. Keeping in mind how much we have to gain, and to lose, advises against both cynicism and complacency.

16. Could Anything Be Right? What do we mean by ‘good’, or ‘valuable’, or ‘moral’?

17. Morality as Fixed Computation. Is it enough to have an AGI improve the fit between my preferences and the world?

18. Serious Stories. What would a true utopia be like?

19. Value is Fragile. If we just sit back and let the universe do its thing, will it still produce value? If we don’t take charge of our future, won’t it still turn out interesting and beautiful on some deeper level?

20. The Gift We Give To Tomorrow. In explaining value, are we explaining it away? Are we making our goals less important?

In conclusion, a summary of the core argument: Five theses, two lemmas, and a couple of strategic implications.


If you’re convinced, MIRI has put together a list of ways you can get involved in promoting AI safety research. You can also share this post and start conversations about it, to put the issue on more people’s radars. If you want to read on, check out the more in-depth articles below.


Further reading

William Lane Craig on facts, tracts, and things abstract

I’m grateful to Alex Rosenberg and William Lane Craig for taking the time to respond to my post, “Fact-checking the Craig-Rosenberg debate“. I edited in a few of Rosenberg’s comments from correspondence, but Craig’s public reply, “Fact-checking the fact-checker“, is more in-depth, and deserves a response in its own right. I’ll single out two points for special attention: historical methodology, and the idea of immaterial causation.


Scripture and scholarship

Craig writes of my

[…] breezy dismissal of N. T. Wright’s scholarly work because Wright is “a Christian apologist and bishop” and of the work of New Testament historians in general because they are allegedly Christians […]

I didn’t dismiss Christian scholarship. What I wrote was:

Craig doesn’t note that most New Testament scholars are Christians. (Are we to take it as evidence for the truth of Christianity that a lot of Christians happen to be Christian?)

Now, of course being a Christian doesn’t make it impossible for you to evaluate Christianity in a fair and skeptical way. I believe very strongly that the Earth is round, but that doesn’t mean that I’d be hopelessly biased in a debate with flat-Earthers. Agnosticism does not imply objectivity, and objectivity does not imply agnosticism. If anything, we’d be worried if most New Testament scholars weren’t Christians, since that would suggest that the historical evidence tended to make people less religious than the general populace.

But it’s also worth noting that Christian orthodoxy is not generally considered by historians the only possible objective interpretation of the evidence of the Gospels. And appealing to scholarly consensus here is misleading inasmuch as it has the guise of an appeal to independent authorities, as opposed to authorities who already came into the field accepting Christianity.

The charge was not that being Christian invalidates one’s scholarly work on Christianity. It was that, in the context of a debate with non-theists, it’s misleading to appeal to the authority of historians qua historians without mentioning that most of them came into the field already accepting the conclusion for which you’re arguing. (From childhood, no less!)

Suppose you’re debating a Muslim theologian who asserts that we can be confident that Muhammad is a prophet because virtually all Qur’anic scholars accept historical claims that provide powerful inductive evidence for Muhammad’s lofty status. If in the process he does not mention that most Qur’anic scholars are (and always have been) committed Muslims, then his argument risks deceiving people into thinking he’s adducing wholly independent grounds for accepting Islam. That’s so whether or not you ‘breezily dismiss’ Qur’anic studies itself.

If Craig’s point had merely been ‘There are a lot of very smart Christians who have carefully studied Christianity and still believe in it,’ I would have had no objection. Likewise, I have no objection to citing the specific historical arguments of Christian scholars, which can then be evaluated in their own right, without any need to consider the personal beliefs of the arguer. But when you’re citing the people themselves as authorities, their religious precommitments do start to become relevant, in the cases of Christian and non-Christian religions alike.

CraigHe thereby displays his unfamiliarity with New Testament studies and with the skepticism with which these scholars — which include among their ranks non-theists like Bart Ehrman and Jewish scholars like Geza Vermes who concur with my three facts — approach their sources.

I never suggested that all New Testament scholars are Christian. But Craig is doing what I wanted him to do in the debate, which is citing non-Christian authorities to strengthen his case — so I thank him for that.

That said, I should note that Craig is mistaken about Ehrman. Ehrman did claim that Jesus’ empty tomb was a historical fact in a 2003 lecture, but in a 2006 debate — a debate with Craigavailable on Craig’s site — Ehrman said that he had changed his mind. Quoth Ehrman:

Paul said he [Jesus] got buried; he may simply have been tossed into a communal grave. I should point out that in some of Bill’s writings, he’s quoted a lot of my writings, and he’s taken them out of context, as I’ll show in a few minutes, because what he’s saying I’ve changed my mind to, I don’t agree with. […]

We don’t know if Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea. What we have are Gospel stories written decades later by people who had heard stories in circulation, and it’s not hard at all to imagine somebody coming up with the story. We don’t know if his tomb was empty three days later. We don’t know if he was physically seen by his followers afterwards.

And Craig recognized this during their debate, saying,

Insofar as Dr. Ehrman now chooses to deny the honorable burial, the empty tomb, the appearances, he is in the decided minority of New Testament scholarship with regard to those facts.

We should keep in mind that Ehrman doesn’t deny “the appearances“, provided that dreams or visions would qualify as “appearances“. But in any case, Ehrman tells me he’ll give more details (and explain why he changed his mind) in his upcoming book, How Jesus Became God.

There are a number of further ambiguities that led to my charge of “misleading”. To keep Craig’s claims in context, I’ll quote much of his argument from the debate, adding numbers where I have questions or comments below.

CraigGod is the best explanation of the historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth.[1] Historians have reached something of a consensus that Jesus came on the scene with an unprecedented sense of divine authority, the authority to stand and speak in God’s place.[2] He claimed that in himself the Kingdom of God had come. And as visible demonstrations of this fact, he carried out a ministry of miracle-working and exorcism. But the supreme confirmation of his claim was his resurrection from the dead.[3] If Jesus did rise from the dead, then it would seem that we have a divine miracle on our hands, and thus evidence for the existence of God.[4] Now, I realize most people think that the resurrection of Jesus is just something you accept — by faith, or not. But there are actually three facts recognized by the majority of historians today which I believe are best explained by the resurrection of Jesus.[5] […] Naturalistic[6] attempts to explain away these three great facts, like “the disciples stole the body” or “Jesus wasn’t really dead,” have been universally[7] rejected[8] by contemporary scholarship.[9]

1. The best possible explanation, or just the best one anyone has yet come up with? And if the latter, is Craig further claiming that this is a good historical explanation, or merely that it’s not as bad as the alternatives?

2. It’s very unclear what’s being asserted here. Is Craig saying that no one prior to Jesus had ever claimed to speak in the name of a supreme deity?

3. Craig began by saying that “historians have reached something of a consensus“. But he doesn’t indicate where his summary of that consensus ends and his own views begin. If Craig doesn’t intend to suggest that there is a historical consensus that Jesus worked real miracles and was raised from the dead, then he should draw the line between the two more explicitly. And since there isn’t such a consensus — and if there were, it would make Craig’s subsequent argument superfluous! — drawing that line can only improve the clarity and persuasiveness of Craig’s real point.

4. This claim is too weak for Craig’s purposes. Craig needs the resurrection to not just be evidence for God, but exceedingly strong evidence for God. Framing the question as ‘Is this evidence or not?’ risks trivializing the discussion, since most things that make claims likelier only do so by trifling amounts. Perhaps that sounds nitpicky, but it’s especially important to make the strength of one’s claims clear when discussing probabilistic arguments.

5. In the past, Craig has conceded that among historians “it is controversial whether the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation of those facts“. But he doesn’t mention this in the debate. Nor does he explain why, if historians understand the evidence Craig is citing so well, they are so reluctant to endorse Craig’s conclusion as the most reasonable historical hypothesis.

6. Be wary of false dilemmas. Craig’s hypothesis has to beat rival supernatural explanations, not just natural ones.

7. “Universally“? Is this hyperbole, or is it being claimed that no historian of early Christianity endorses any non-theological explanation of the facts Craig cites?

8. What does “rejection” mean here? Careful historians will assign rough probability estimates to hypotheses before picking some threshold that counts as ‘acceptance’ or ‘rejection’. So Craig might mean that historians assign a very low probability to each one of the “naturalistic” hypotheses to date — they don’t think any one is likely to be true. Or he might mean that historians who have looked at these hypothesis don’t assign a high probability to any of  them.

In the latter case, they may not have even considered whether they’re probably false, if they’ve only examined the evidence enough to determine whether they’re especially likely to be true. A paper ‘rejecting’ some hypothesis might simply be concluding that the evidence is too inconclusive to endorse the hypothesis, relative to general historical standards or relative to the rival hypotheses. If this is the case, then Craig’s argument will fail, since certainly ‘historians have not singled out any one naturalistic hypothesis as unusually plausible’ does not imply ‘each one of the naturalistic hypotheses is likely to be false’.

But there’s a further problem: Even historians who grant ‘each one of these hypotheses is likely to be false’ need not grant ‘it is likely that all of these hypotheses are false’. To make that leap is a probabilistic fallacy.

Consider a detective who thinks, ‘I’m sure that the killer is either the butler, the maid, or the professor; but I have no idea which of them did it!’ The detective might be extremely confident that the culprit is among those three candidates, but not at all confident in the guilt of any particular one. Or suppose I flip a fair coin ten times. The probability of any particular sequence of heads and tails (e.g., TTHHTTTTHH) is less than one in a thousand. But to conclude that it is likely for no sequence to occur, from the fact that it is not likely for any particular sequence to occur, would be absurd. In the same way, it is perfectly open to the naturalist to grant that no specific natural explanation is likely, without granting that a set-theoretic union of all the natural explanations (tomb robbers, or the women got lost, or the whole story came to an overenthusiastic follower in a dream, …, …) is unlikely too.

9. Lastly: Craig presents this as an argument for the existence of God. If we take ‘God’ to signify the Christian God, then one way for him to make his case would be to presuppose that there is some sort of deity, on the basis of his other seven arguments. The form of the historical argument would then be: ‘Given the anomalies surrounding Jesus, plus the fact that we know that some sort of intelligence created our universe, it is reasonable to conclude that this intelligence probably directly intervened in the events described by early Christians.’

On the other hand, if Craig thinks this historical argument could be used to independently conclude that some intelligence crafted the cosmos, then he can’t appeal to the other arguments as premises, and the inferential leap he’s making — from a few ancient manuscripts to the structure and origin of the entire universe — will become quite a bit harder to motivate.


Alexander Vilenkin

Immaterial causes and the Kalam argument

Craig: [O]ur blogger mistakenly thinks the theorem applies only to inflationary models, which is inaccurate, as the paper referenced above shows.

Craig is right. My thanks for pointing this out! And my apologies to any readers who took away from my post that Borde, Guth, and Vilenkin’s conclusion in “Inflationary spacetimes are not past-complete” applies only given inflation. It holds more generally of any model in which the universe expands on average.

In the debate, Craig presents the Kalam cosmological argument as follows:

1. The universe began to exist.

2. If the universe began to exist, then the universe has a transcendent cause.

3. Therefore the universe has a transcendent cause.

By the very nature of the case, that cause must be a transcendent immaterial being.

Rosenberg focused his attack on premise 2, but I would note that premise 1 remains deeply controversial among physicists. In response to the question “Did the universe have a beginning?”, physicist Sean Carroll writes, “Mithani and Vilenkin are […] willing to be honest about our state of ignorance: thus, ‘probably’ yes. I personally think the answer is ‘probably no,’ but none of us actually knows.” Carroll elaborated in correspondence:

[T]he BGV theorem refers to classical spacetimes, and the universe is not classical. That’s all that really needs to be said. Alex Vilenkin takes this classical result as a strong indication that the true quantum description of the universe also must have a beginning, but at best it’s suggestive. It’s absolutely plausible (and much more likely, in the view of many of us) that the actual universe is eternal, and the BGV result tells us that the classical description must break down, not that the universe must have had a beginning.

Carroll also notes, “The definition of ‘singularity in the past’ is not really the same as ‘had a beginning’ — it means that some geodesics must eventually come to an end. (Others might not.)” Craig has strongly disputed this. However, Vilenkin agrees with Carroll, though with the qualifier “most” in place of “some”. In response to Vic Stenger’s question “Does your theorem prove that the universe must have had a beginning?” (in The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning), Vilenkin responded,

No. But it proves that the expansion of the universe must have had a beginning.

More specifically, Vilenkin wrote,

The theorem says that if the universe is everywhere expanding (on average), then the histories of most particles cannot be extended to the infinite past. In other words, if we follow the trajectory of some particle to the past, we inevitably come to a point where the assumption of the theorem breaks down — that is, where the universe is no longer expanding. This is true for all particles, except perhaps a set of measure zero. In other words, there may be some (infinitely rare) particles whose histories are infinitely long.

Still, my main interest is not in disputing Craig’s premises, but in clarifying what accepting his conclusion would really mean. Since Craig bases much of his argument on the work of Vilenkin and his colleagues, it’s important to keep in mind that Vilenkin himself thinks that we can physically explain our universe’s beginning. In “Creation of universes from nothing“, Vilenkin posits that an empty geometry, devoid of time, space, matter, and energy, could give rise to the universe as we know it.

Previously, Craig has objected that this emptiness would not count as “literally nothing“, hence that Vilenkin fails to explain “being’s coming from non-being“. But Vilenkin is free to grant that the physicalist has no such account. In the context of the Kalam discussion, the physicalist’s burden is to explain, not how something could come from nothing, but how a universe with a beginning could come from an unintelligent but beginningless source. Since Vilenkin’s vacuum is atemporal, it has no beginning. Hence the Kalam argument cannot be reapplied to it. Perhaps some other philosophical objection can show theism to be superior to this hypothesis. But it will still be the case that the Kalam argument fails, at least in the sense that it cannot motivate theism on its own.

Two other potential sources of serious misunderstanding are Craig’s appeal to “transcendent” and “immaterial” causes. There is an obvious sense in which all causes ‘transcend’ their effects — because no event is self-causing. But theorists might wish to deny premise 2 if the premise is taken to mean that something past-eternal couldn’t cause our universe by becoming our universe.

Physicists like Vilenkin are also likely to be wary of the imprecision of the term “immaterial“. This term is pivotal in Craig’s argument, particularly since for him the term “universe” is defined in terms of the material, as “the whole of material reality“. When I raised this concern, Craig responded that he was quite clear:

I am using the word in the ordinary language sense to mean “not material” or “non-physical.”

… Well, sure. My problem wasn’t with the ‘im-‘ prefix. It was with what we’re considering ‘material’ or ‘physical’ in the first place. What general criterion can we use to tell material things apart from immaterial ones? I’ll run through a variety of options:

  • (a) By “material” Craig means ‘made of matter‘, in the sense used in physics. So the universe is the totality of things with spatial extent and mass.
    • Objection: This would make most of physics — spacetime, light, and gravitation, for starters — immaterial. Craig clearly doesn’t mean this, because he wants to exclude physicsy things like these as possible causes for our world.
  • (b) By “material” Craig means ‘nonmental‘. So the Kalam argument simply says that all nonmental things have a beginning, and everything with a beginning must have a cause, so the first nonmental things must have a mental cause.
    • Objection 1: This would make Craig’s position on the mind-body debate trivial, since his rejection of physicalists’ claims that mental processes are ultimately physical would then be merely definitional. (If it weren’t definitional, that would mean he allows the possibility that something could be both material and immaterial, which is, to put it mildly, confusing!)
    • Objection 2: This would render incoherent the distinction between two categories of immaterial thing Craig recognizes: Minds, and abstract objects. If ‘immaterial’ just means ‘mental’, then we can’t even meaningfully talk about neither-mental-nor-physical things like numbers. So this can’t be what Craig has in mind.
  • (c) By “material” Craig means ‘part of our spacetime manifold‘. This matches Vilenkin’s own definition of “universe” as the totality of spacetime regions connected to our own.
    • Objection: This allows that other, disconnected spacetimes might be candidate causes for our universe. Craig might simply deny, on grounds of parsimony, that there are any such spacetimes. But it still seems strange to say that such things, if they existed, would be ‘immaterial’.
  • (d) By “material” Craig means ‘spatial and/or temporal‘. So other spacetimes, if such there be, are included in what Craig calls the “universe”.
    • Objection: Human minds are temporal, hence would count as ‘material’ in this sense. This isn’t inappropriate if the Kalam cosmological argument is meant to explain all of Creation (including the mental parts of Creation), but it does contradict Craig’s stated views on the nature of mind.
  • (e) By “material” Craig means ‘spatial‘. This captures well Craig’s intuition that abstract objects and minds (both human and divine) seem immaterial, as well as his claim that branes are “physical“.
    • Objection 1: Vilenkin’s arguments at most show that “material reality” has a beginning if “material reality” is defined in terms of (c). Vilenkin’s argument does generalize to expanding multiverses, but he is silent on the issue of whether all completely disconnected physical structures, if such there be, have beginnings. So if Craig has (d) or (e) in mind when he speaks of “material reality“, he will need new, independent arguments to show that this reality too must have a beginning.
    • Objection 2: What exactly does ‘non-spatial’ mean? If it means ‘lacking spatial extent’, then point particles might count as ‘immaterial’. If it means ‘lacking spatial location’, then human minds might count as ‘material’. (This will be especially problematic if we cash out divine omnipresence in terms of spatial extension or location.)
  • (f) By “material” Craig means ‘describable in the language of physics‘.
    • Objection 1: What gets to count as ‘the language of physics‘? If we define this too strictly, then we risk calling the posits of slightly nonstandard variants of physics ‘immaterial’. On the other hand, if we define it too laxly, we start to lose any principled way to deny materiality of, for example, the mental.
    • Objection 2: What about physical laws? Craig considers such laws abstract (hence immaterial), but it’s not clear in what sense they could be foreign to physical description.

Of these, I think criterion (e) is the best option, despite its problems. It gets a lot of work done and yet is very simple. But Craig explicitly rejects (e) in the “spatially extended” sense, so his view may be closer to (f). In that case, we can restate his Kalam argument:

1. Every existent describable by an adequately physicslike theory began to exist.

2. If all such things began to exist, then they must ultimately have a cause that is not physicslike.

3. Therefore there is something un-physicslike that is the ultimate cause of everything physicslike.

Expressed this way, in terms of (f), Vilenkin himself strongly rejects premise 1. Likewise if we revised this argument to unpack “material reality” through definition (b). In the (a) and (c) variants, Vilenkin would accept premise 1, but conclude that his empty geometry is an ‘immaterial cause’ in the requisite sense. And if we replaced the argument with one appealing to (d) or (e), Vilenkin would probably maintain agnosticism about premise 1, but would again insist that his empty geometry, being non-spatiotemporal, is an adequate ‘immaterial cause’ as defined. So all of these ways of formulating the Kalam argument either make one (or both) of the premises scientifically dubious, or make the conclusion acceptable to non-theists.
The Music of Gounod - a Thought Form from Thought-Forms, by Annie Besant & C.W. Leadbeater
Still, for the sake of argument, suppose we granted something akin to the (f) version of the Kalam argument above, and concluded that something alien to contemporary physics (like a mind, number, or free-floating law) were causally responsible for the physical world. Would this suffice for establishing that a mind is the cause?

Craig thinks so. He reasons that we know that numbers and laws are “abstract objects“, and abstract objects have no causal effects. Since no one has been able to think of an immaterial object that is neither mental nor abstract, the only reasonable causal candidate is mental. When I suggested that there might be other immaterial causes to choose between, like the Forms of Plato, Craig responded:

Platonic forms and free-floating laws are abstract objects, so I just have no idea of what other world-transcending causes he’s talking about. If he can give us such a candidate, I’ll add it to the list of candidates to be considered, but I have yet to see such a candidate suggested, much less one that is more plausible than a transcendent mind.

This response surprised me. Craig has written a great deal about what’s nowadays called ‘platonism,’ or realism about abstract objects. But Craig’s assertion here reflects a lack of familiarity with the core doctrine of Plato himself, the doctrine that the sensible world is a product of the eternal Forms. Against Craig 2013, I cite Craig 2009:

By the way, what passes for Platonism today shouldn’t be identified with what Plato himself actually believed. For Plato, the Forms do not seem to be at all causally impotent but shape the world to be as it is. The debate over so-called abstract objects is actually a very recent development of contemporary philosophy which arose only in the late 19th century.

The source of Craig’s latter-day lapse is likely an ambiguity in the terms ‘platonism’ and ‘abstract’. By ‘abstract object’ philosophers (including I and Craig) usually mean ‘something non-spatiotemporal and causally inert’. But some  philosophers use the term more loosely, to refer to anything non-spatiotemporal. Plato’s Forms are abstract in the latter sense, but not in the former sense; and it is only the former sense that is relevant to Craig’s rejection of abstract objects as causes. As Gideon Rosen writes: “Plato’s Forms were supposed to be causes par excellence, whereas abstract objects are generally supposed to be causally inert in every sense.”

A second source of confusion is that even though belief in abstract objects is often called ‘platonism’ or ‘platonic realism’, Plato himself was a nominalist, and not a platonist or realist. (Paul Spade notespp. 56-61, that Plato is probably a nominalist, not just about abstracta, but about universals as well. Plato’s Forms, as usually presented, are potent particulars.)

Most metaphysicians these days consider the actual Forms of Plato so implausible as to be of merely historic interest, in contrast to the vibrant debate surrounding abstract objects. Since these abstracta have a superficial resemblance to the Forms, and are taken more seriously, the name of Plato is appropriated as a colorful way of picking out abstracta. Whence Craig’s conflation of the two.

But why do modern philosophers dismiss the Form of  Duality in favor of the abstractum 2? Simply on the grounds that our universe is causally closed. Plato’s actual views are dismissed with a chuckle, while abstract-object ‘platonism’ is vigorously attacked and defended, because Plato’s Forms purport to ‘spookily’ intrude upon our everyday lives and in the very existence of our cosmos, while abstract objects kindly recuse themselves from the realm of empirical science.

But this is precisely the assumption someone arguing for a universe-begetting intelligence cannot grant. Either Craig is illicitly assuming the causal closure of the physical when it harms rival doctrines and then rejecting it when the focus shifts to his preferred posit, or he simply hasn’t taken the time to seriously assess any hypotheses invoking unintelligent immaterial causes.

My point in all this isn’t to defend Plato’s doctrines, or for that matter Vilenkin’s. It’s merely to suggest that Craig is far too hasty in moving from his conclusion of the Kalam argument to an invocation of transcendent minds, divine or not.


Just the facts

CraigThis blog is not really fact-checking (which would have involved alerting readers to factual mistakes like my ascribing a quotation to Penelope Maddy instead of Mary Leng or my giving the date of Caesar Augustus’ death as AD 17 rather than AD 14) so much as it is entering into the debate itself in assessment of the arguments.

That’s true to an extent. I generally limited myself to evaluating the soundness of Craig and Rosenberg’s arguments, and not to putting forward novel arguments of my own for the broader topics under dispute. For instance, I didn’t weigh in with my own view on the historicity of Jesus, on the right interpretation of quantum mechanics, or for that matter on the existence of a deity. (The main exception: I provided an argument of my own in §10, mainly to give an example of what deductive arguments from evil should look like.)

So whatever I was doing, it wasn’t prototypical ‘fact-checking’, but it was still decidedly from the sidelines. And I think you can tell from the tone that I was mainly using the ‘fact-check’ idiom as a fun way to spice up a relatively long post. (After all, one of my checks was just an excuse to make a Scientology pun.)

For all that, I’d be very interested to see a deeper discussion about where to draw the lines between (neutral? objective?) ‘fact-checking’ and personally entering the fray. Is a fact-checker allowed to evaluate the validity of arguments, or only the truth of premises? Can she only evaluate trivial claims, or can she also question premises that are central to a debater’s whole case? How uncontroversial or obvious does a truth have to be in order to count as a ‘fact’? I don’t have easy answers to these questions myself.

However this discussion started, it’s now moving into increasingly interesting and important philosophical waters. I’d love to hear Craig’s and others’ responses to the new historical, methodological, cosmological, and metaphysical issues raised so far.


Further reading
Craig, William Lane (2008). “Current Work on God and Abstract
Objects” Reasonable Faith.
Guth, Alan (2002). “The Inflationary Universe“. Edge.
Rodriguez-Pereyra, Gonzalo (2011). “Nominalism in Metaphysics“. SEP.
Rosen, Gideon (2012). “Abstract Objects“. SEP.

God is no libertarian

So the world was made by a perfectly benevolent, compassionate, loving God. Yet suffering exists.

Why would a nice guy like God make a world filled with so much nastiness? All these wars, diseases, ichneumon wasps—what possible good purpose could they all serve?

We want God to make our lives meaningful, purpose-driven. Yet we don’t want that purpose to be super depressing. ‘God is a nice guy from his own perspective, but a total asshole by all human standards’ would be a pretty unsatisfying theodicy, and a terrible way to fill the pews. So how do we square a good God with a wicked world?

The standard response is that being truly good requires that one love freedom. God is so good that he won’t interfere with human freedom by preventing suffering. That certainly sounds nice; we don’t want to make autocracy the highest good. But how can this work in practice?

The idea seems to be that we are somehow to blame for our suffering. God, then, is off the hook. We’re free to blame ourselves (rather than God) for whatever evil things befall us. What’s more, we’re free to credit God (rather than ourselves) for whatever good things we accomplish. In this way we can, if we wish, preserve the pure wretchedness of man and the pure excellence of God. We are free to translate the complexity of human experience into a crisp conflict between total sin and total virtue. But there are deep problems with this approach: The shape of our world seems profoundly unlike the shape we’d expect from a libertarian architect.


First Problem: Natural evil limits freedom.

It’s clear that not all suffering stems from human action. If God had protected the 230,000+ victims of the 2004 tsunami, how would this have interfered with human freedom? Would it not, if anything, it have increased our freedom, by giving the tsunami’s victims a chance to live out their lives?

One might respond that the tsunami’s destruction could have been greatly reduced by human actions. Perhaps God gave us just enough power to save ourselves, and we simply did not employ it.

But blaming the victims simply does not work here. No matter what we had done, we could not have saved every life. And if some people were to blame for the level of devastation, surely those people should have been punished, not innocent bystanders. Which brings us to…

Second Problem: Human evil limits freedom.

If God loves freedom, why does he let people obstruct and enslave one another? Why does he allow oppressors more freedoms than the oppressed? Why not give us just enough freedom to control our own lives, so long as it does not infringe upon the freedom of others?

The problem of evil raises special concerns for individual freedom. You might claim, for example, that humans (and not God) are responsible even for natural disasters, because Adam and Eve introduced suffering and death into the world when they disobeyed God. But that is not a crime committed by every human being, such that every human deserves punishment for it. It is a crime committed by two particular humans. How can we justify punishing someone else for a perfect stranger’s crime? Certainly it is not my fault if I was born to a sinful father. We can’t choose our parents.

(To my knowledge, Origen is the only theologian to have ever resolved this problem. Unfortunately, later thinkers generally consider Origen’s views heretical, and even Origen falls victim to religion’s standard “blame the victim” mentality.)

Third Problem: Our freedom is physically limited.

It’s easy to say that God loves freedom by counting the hits (look at all the things he lets us do!) and ignoring the misses (the things we can’t do). But of course we aren’t free to do whatever we want. God created us in a very specific way, strictly limiting what we can will ourselves to do. We can’t fly merely by flapping our arms. We can’t will aches and pains to go away. We can’t even go directly to Heaven merely by willing it.

So what? What’s the problem? Well, we’ve granted that freedom isn’t absolute, that a good God would make beings free in some respects, but not in others. But now we are forced to explain why God limits our freedom in the particular way that he does. Why give us the freedom to make sandwiches and fire guns, but not the freedom to cure all diseases or teleport away from natural disasters?

If we can’t even begin to explain this, then ‘God loves freedom’ ceases to be a viable justification for suffering. The question is now why God loves this particular freedom (the ‘freedom’ to suffer even when we’d prefer not to) more than he loves rival freedoms (the freedom not to suffer!). A generic appeal to ‘freedom’ can’t even begin to address this question.

Fourth Problem: Our freedom is epistemically limited.

This is the problem of ignorance, a far deeper and thornier issue than the standard problem of evil. What can it mean to say that God respects freedom, when he obviously doesn’t respect informed freedom?

Freedom, in fact, seems quite meaningless when it is not informed. Imagine a child told to pick between two closed doors. Behind one door is a fierce tiger, and behind the other door is chocolate. If the child chooses the door that happens to have a tiger, can we blame the child for his messy death? Surely not.

Yet we, too, live in a world we scarcely understand. It is often claimed that God hides himself from us in order to give us the freedom to doubt him, to choose our beliefs for ourselves. But in fact God’s hiddenness has the opposite effect; it takes away from us our freedom—our freedom to make an informed choice. Since we do not know which religion, if any, is the correct one, we can hardly be blamed if we err. Yet theists assert that those who fail to find God will suffer (e.g., in Hell or merely ‘the absence of God’), and that they deserve to suffer.

Being forced to play Russian roulette, and then losing, is not the same as committing suicide. The freedom to guess is not freedom. It’s just a slavery to chance. Only the freedom to choose between options whose consequences we fully comprehend is genuine freedom, because only then do we really know what option we’re choosing. Yet clearly God did not create beings who fully understand their actions’ consequences. Least of all in the realm of religion.


The notion of ‘freedom’ favored by our allegedly well-meaning deity, then, ends up looking extremely peculiar. God evidently only loves freedom when it can infringe upon (and be infringed upon by) others’ freedom, and when it is severely limited in seemingly arbitrary ways, such that we are not free to escape suffering in this life or to make informed choices. After qualifying what God prizes in so many strange ways, what evidence remains for the supposition that these preferences even slightly resemble what we call “morality” or “compassion” in the case of humans?

I can think of four possible responses.

  • To Problem 1: Perhaps God created a perfectly orderly world, and in such a world it was inevitable that some disasters would arise.

This doesn’t explain why God created the particular world he did, or why he created at all. It also doesn’t explain why God prizes abstract “order” more than human welfare. Couldn’t he create a world that naturally has typhoons, yet still intervene to save the people victimized by his natural order? The fact that buildings inevitably fall down sometimes doesn’t make it any less immoral to choose not to save people from falling buildings if you’re able.

  • To Problem 2: It’s not God’s fault that humans hurt one another.

The issue isn’t that God’s to blame for everything humans do. It’s that God chose to limit human freedom in one way, but not in another. He made us free to harm one another, but not free to be safe from others’ harm. What makes the former freedom more important than the latter? Why is the villain’s freedom prized above the victim’s? Even if God doesn’t directly cause every human action, he still chose which possibilities to leave open. That calls for explanation.

  • To Problem 3: If we could do anything, we’d be God.

This relies on a false dilemma. It’s not that case that God needs to either make humans omnipotent, or deny them the ability to escape suffering. He could easily give them that one ability, while continuing to deny them other abilities. This on its own would radically decrease the suffering in the world, and radically increase people’s freedom.

And, as an aside: What’s wrong with being God? God sure seems to like it!

  • To Problem 4: If we knew everything, we’d be God.

Again, we don’t need to be omniscient merely to know the consequences of our actions. God chose to create beings that are ignorant of almost everything. If such beings sin without fully understanding the consequences, they cannot ethically be held more responsible than God for what ensues.