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.

When dialogues become duels

Why did the recent blow-up between Sam Harris and Glenn Greenwald happen? Why was my subsequent discussion with Murtaza Hussain so unproductive? More, why are squanderous squabbles like this so common? Even among intelligent, educated people with similar moral sensibilities?

To a first approximation, the answer is simple: Hussain wrote a sloppy, under-researched hit piece. More worried about Harris’ perceived support for U.S. foreign policy than about Hussain’s journalistic misconduct, Greenwald happily lent Hussain a megaphone. Egos flared and paralyzed discussion, and only a few third parties called Hussain or Greenwald out on their errors. So there the story ended.

But if all we take away from this debacle is ‘well, Those People are crazy and dumb and shouldn’t be listened to’, we’ll have missed an opportunity to hone our own craft. Habitually thinking in such terms is how they fell into error. They thought, ‘Those guys are the Enemy. So they can’t be reasoned with. They don’t deserve to have their views presented with charity and precision! They are simply to be defeated.’

And, of course, recognizing that this way of thinking is harmful still isn’t enough. They think that we are the ones in the throes of us-vs.-them thinking. The parallelism is rather comical.

And the thing is, they’re right. … And so are we.

Both sides are at the mercy of enemythink, even if only one side happens to be right on the points of fact. Even my way of framing this conversation in pugilistic terms, as a ‘conflict’ with ‘sides’, reveals a deep vulnerability to partisan animosity. To make progress, we have to actually internalize these lessons, and not just use them as more excuses to score points against the Other Side.

There are four fundamental lessons I’ve taken away from the Hussain/Greenwald libel scandal. And they really all boil down to: Getting everything wrong is easy, and treating discussions like battles or status competitions makes it worse. Put like that, our task could hardly be more simple — or more demanding.

1. There but for the grace of Rigor go I.

Rationality is hard. It isn’t a matter of getting a couple of simple metaphysical and political questions right and then coasting on your brilliance. It takes constant vigilance, effort, self-awareness. We shouldn’t be surprised to see mostly reasonable people slipping up in big ways. Rather, we should be surprised to observe that a jabbering bipedal ape is capable of being at all reasonable in the first place!

Since we’re all really, really bad at this, we need to work together and form social circles that reinforce good epistemic hygiene. We need to exchange and test ideas for combating our biases. I couldn’t put it better than Julia Galef, who lists seven superb tips for becoming a more careful reasoner and discussant.

We can’t spend all our time just clobbering everyone slightly more unreasonable than we are. We must also look inward, seeking out the deep roots of madness that make humans susceptible to dogmatism in the first place.

2. Reality is nonpartisan.

By this I don’t mean that two sides in a dispute must be equally right. Rather, I mean that falling into reflexive partisanship is dangerous, because the world doesn’t care that you’re a Skeptic, or a Libertarian, or a Consequentialist, or a Christian. You and your ideological allies might have gotten lots of questions right in the past, yet still completely flunk your next empirical test. Reality rewards you for getting particular facts right, not for declaring your allegiance to the right abstract philosophy. And it can punish without mercy those whose operative beliefs exhibit even the smallest error, however noble their intentions.

Beware of associating the truth with a ‘side’. Beware of focusing your discussion on groups of people — ‘neoconservatives’, ‘atheists’… — rather than specific ideas and arguments. In particular, treating someone you’re talking to merely as an avatar of a monolithic Ideology will inevitably lead you to oversimplify both the individual and the ideology. That is perhaps Hussain’s most transparent error. He was convinced that he knew what genus Harris belonged to, hence felt little need to expend effort on research or on parsing new arguments. Too much theory, not enough data. Too much hedgehog, not enough fox.

I think Harris worries about this too. He doesn’t like identifying as an ‘atheist’, because he strongly opposes any tendency to see simply being reasonable as an ideology in its own right.

We should not call ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” We should not call ourselves “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.” We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.

[… R]ather than declare ourselves “atheists” in opposition to all religion, I think we should do nothing more than advocate reason and intellectual honesty—and where this advocacy causes us to collide with religion, as it inevitably will, we should observe that the points of impact are always with specific religious beliefs—not with religion in general. There is no religion in general.

I’m not sure this is the best strategy for banding together to save the world. Labels can be useful tools for pooling our efforts. But it’s absolutely a good strategy when it comes to improving our intellectual clarity on an individual level, any time we see ourselves starting to use tribal allegiances as a replacement for analytic vigilance.


Partisan divides lead to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to you committing inferential fallacies. Therefore, don’t just get mad, and don’t just get even; get it right. You have far more to fear from your own errors than from your adversary’s.

3. When you have a criticism, talk it over first.

It sounds banal, but you’d be surprised how much mileage this one gets you. Starting a direct conversation, ideally someplace private, makes it easy for people to change their minds without immediately worrying about their public image. It lets them explain their position, if you’ve misunderstood something. And it establishes a more human connection, encouraging learning and collaboration rather than a clash of egos.

Neither Hussain nor Greenwald extended that basic courtesy to Harris; they went for the throat first. Harris did extend that courtesy to Greenwald; but Greenwald wasn’t interested in talking things out in any detail, preferring to go public immediately.

Like Harris, I tried actually talking to Greenwald and Hussain. The result was revealing, and relatively civil. I still came away disappointed, but it was at least several steps up from the quality of Hussain’s dialogue with Harris. Had we begun with such a conversation, rather than waiting until the disputants were already entrenched in their positions, I suspect that much more progress would have been possible.

If you intensely oppose a view, that makes it all the more important to bracket egos and get clear on the facts right at the outset. All of this is consistent with subsequently bringing the discussion to the public, if the other party doesn’t respond, if you’re left dissatisfied, or if you are satisfied and want to show off how awesome your conversation was.

4. To err is human. To admit it, tremendously healthy.

Everyone screws up sometimes. The trick to really being a competent conversationalist is to notice when you screw up — to attend to it, really ponder it and let it sink in—

— and then to swiftly and mercilessly squish the mistake. Act as though you yourself were pointing out an enemy’s error. Critique it fully, openly, and aggressively.

Making concessions when you’ve screwed up, or when you and your opponent share common ground, makes your other positions stronger and more credible. Because you’ve proven that you can change your mind and notice conflicts between your theory and your data, you’ve also demonstrated that your other views are likely to track the evidence.

Don’t think, ‘Well, I’m right in spirit.’ Don’t think, ‘My mistake isn’t important. This is a distraction. I should keep a laser focus on where I’m right.’ If you ignore too many small errors, they’ll add up to a big error. If you don’t fully recognize when you’ve misjudged the evidence, but just shrug it off and return to the battlefront, then, slowly but surely, you and the facts will drift further and further apart. And you’ll never notice — for what evidence could convince you that you aren’t listening to the evidence?

Constant vigilance! That’s the lesson I take from this. Be uncompromisingly methodical. Be consistently reasonable. Never allow your past intellectual triumphs or your allegiance to the Good Guys to make you sloppy. Always seek the truth — even when the truth is a painful thing.

Realities to which you have anesthetized yourself can damage your person and your mind all the same. You just won’t notice in time to change them.