With the ascendence of Generation Z, we have witnessed the rise of Terminally-Online Personalities (TOPs for short). TOPs are often Internet addicts. They either have no life outside of the Internet or else they pretend not to. They stream hours of their lives on Twitch and YouTube, and the algorithms of these websites promote them. They occupy all the forums and threads and fill them with drivel. Personality-wise, they are largely shallow, narcissistic slobs. Their intellectual content reflects their odious behavior. Their “arguments” consist mainly of incoherent rants, insults, and sophistry. These TOPs are rightfully denigrated by right-minded people as “bugmen,” yet, in many ways, we are all bugmen. Everyone who uses the Internet daily faces the same temptations as the TOP, including the temptation to use the TOPs’ debate tactics. One particular tactic of the TOP is using technical knowledge to intimidate rather than educate. This particular habit is what this essay aims at.
Intellectual terrorism is a useful term for it. Intellectual violence is, in essence, “when someone who understands a theory, technology, or buzzword uses this knowledge to intimidate others in a meeting situation.” Terrorism is violence in the service of some political cause. Taken together, intellectual terrorism is using the knowledge of some theory, technology, or buzzword to intimidate people into following one’s political cause. For example, when a YouTuber overwhelms his audience with a glut of studies he’s read, he is arguably guilty of intellectual violence – browbeating people who aren’t as knowledgeable as he is into submitting to him.
On the topic of intellectual terrorism generally, there is much I can say. But in this essay, I want to highlight a specific kind of intellectual terrorism that occurs in online forums – arguments that undermine rationality and common sense to the degree that it becomes difficult to argue against them. Edward Feser describes these arguments as such:
Suppose a bizarre skeptic seriously proposed -- not as a joke, not as dorm room bull session fodder, but seriously -- that you, he, and everyone else were part of a computer-generated virtual reality like the one featured in the science-fiction movie The Matrix. Suppose he easily shot down the arguments you initially thought sufficient to refute him. He might point out, for instance, that your appeals to what we know from common sense and science have no force, since they are (he insists) just part of the Matrix-generated illusion. Suppose many of your friends were so impressed by this skeptic’s ability to defend his strange views -- and so unimpressed by your increasingly flustered responses -- that they came around to his side. Suppose they got annoyed with you for not doing the same, and started to question your rationality and even your decency. Your adherence to commonsense realism in the face of the skeptic’s arguments is, they say, just irrational prejudice.
No doubt you would think the world had gone mad, and you’d be right. But you would still find it difficult to come up with arguments that would convince the skeptic and his followers. The reason is not that their arguments are rationally and evidentially superior to yours, but on the contrary because they are so subversive of all rationality and evidence -- indeed, far more subversive than the skeptic and his followers themselves realize -- that you’d have trouble getting your bearings, and getting the skeptics to see that they had lost theirs. If the skeptic were correct, not even his own arguments would be any good -- their apparent soundness could be just another illusion generated by the Matrix, making the whole position self-undermining. Nor could he justifiably complain about your refusing to agree with him, nor take any delight in your friends’ agreement, since for all he knew both you and they might be Matrix-generated fictions anyway.
So, the skeptic’s position is ultimately incoherent. But rhetorically he has an advantage. With every move you try to make, he can simply refuse to concede the assumptions you need in order to make it, leaving you constantly scrambling to find new footing. He will in the process be undermining his own position too, because his skepticism is so radical it takes down everything, including what he needs in order to make his position intelligible. But it will be harder to see this at first, because he is playing offense and you are playing defense. It falsely seems that you are the one making all the controversial assumptions whereas he is assuming nothing. Hence, while your position is in fact rationally superior, it is the skeptic’s position that will, perversely, appear to be rationally superior. People bizarrely give him the benefit of the doubt and put the burden of proof on you.
The skeptical arguments in Feser’s hypothetical are certainly guilty of a kind of intellectual violence. Feser’s skeptic has a superficially intimidating pet theory – that’s the “intellectual” part – and he uses that theory and the fact that it’s difficult to argue against it to win rhetorical arguments against you – that’s the “violence” part. Feser goes on to elaborate on the scenario, asking us to imagine the advocates of this “Matrix-generated illusion” theory successfully intimidating political actors into institutionalizing their theory and scorning anyone who rejects it as “bigoted.” In such a context, the skeptic would be guilty of not just intellectual violence but intellectual terrorism (albeit for a silly political cause).
If you’ve had as many online political arguments as I have had, you’ll find that many of them rely on intellectual terrorism of this sort. TOPs tend to rely on theories like this as a sort of trump card in political or theological debates. You may be arguing for the existence of God when your interlocutor begins questioning whether the human mind can know objective truth. Or you may be in the middle of a forum discussion on gender identity when someone begins arguing that all biological categories are socially constructed. Skepticism crops up more often than you’d think in contentious political discussions, and it has the effect of grinding the discussion to a mind-numbing halt.
I submit that these kinds of arguments most often appear online, although not exclusively so. There are two reasons for this. First, online discourse is “disembodied,” as it were. The average person does not seriously entertain the proposition that we could all be living in the Matrix precisely because he cannot live like this proposition is true. Now, these arguments cannot be taken seriously by anyone, even by the TOPs that expound them, because they are incoherent. Nobody can consistently live as though these positions are true because inconsistency is baked into the positions. But the online world can encompass someone’s entire life without being real, making the idea of something like the Matrix seem plausible or even intuitive. This way, TOPs can better fool themselves into thinking that these positions are consistent, or else use the rush of dopamine hits the Internet provides them with to dull their intellects so they don’t care.
Second, the vast majority of terminally online personalities are (in my experience) midwits – people of middling intelligence that try to claim the status that a higher intellect would bring. These midwits feel the need to put down those who cannot keep up with whatever trendy jargon they come up with. The midwit is more likely to be a perpetrator of intellectual violence precisely because such tactics play into his superiority complex. Having read a bit of René Descartes or George Berkeley as interpreted by pop science authors or fiction writers, the midwit believes he has unlocked the secrets of the universe. Although the midwit phenomenon is most often associated with the progressive left, I have in my time come across many midwits on the mainstream right and even the dissident right. They are about as insufferable as their left-wing counterparts, and their arguments are no better.
The intellectual terrorism of the TOPs is, more often than not, a byproduct of them trying to obscure their real reason for rejecting some position. To give an example, an online atheist might not want to believe in God because, if he did, he’d have to accept the possibility that he was living a sinful life. At the same time, this atheist knows that to say this outright is a poor argument, so he instead claims that he doesn’t believe in God because science cannot prove God’s existence. Though to be clear, people of all races, creeds, and political affiliations use this tactic. Everyone – man or woman, right or left, radical or moderate – contends with vices like pride, sloth, or envy. This is not an attack on a particular political persuasion, but an attack on excuse-making itself. Also, I’m personally peeved that these arguments keep cropping up whenever I try to have productive philosophical conversations, and I want to have something to reference whenever I encounter them. Now, without further ado, here are the forms of intellectual terrorism used by TOPs.
Global relativism: “There are no absolute truths.”
The problem with global relativism is easy to see. Take the proposition that there are no truths. This proposition is either true or false. If this proposition is true, then that means there is at least one truth (that there are no truths). In other words, if there are no truths is true, then it is false. And of course, if it is false, then it is false. Either way, the proposition there are no truths is false. One might reply “There are no truths is neither true nor false. I don’t speak in terms of truth or falsity.” But if there are no truths is neither true nor false, then it cannot be an intelligible proposition. It is merely a string of sounds lacking meaning, like a series of grunts and moans. It has no philosophical importance whatsoever.
Now, the global relativist might say: “But I don’t deny that truth exists! I just believe that truth is relative and not absolute.” But this version of relativism falls into the same problems as the previous version. Suppose we take the statement there are no absolute truths and ask whether it is itself absolutely true or not. If it is absolutely true, then it follows that there is at least one absolute truth (that there are no absolute truths). Therefore, if there are no absolute truths is absolutely true, then it is false. If the relativist responds that the proposition that there are no absolute truths is not absolutely true, but only relatively true, then this runs into serious issues too. In that case, relativism can only be true because of something internal to the relativist’s beliefs, opinions, statements, etc. For if it were something external to the beliefs, opinions, statements, etc. of relativists, then the statement there are no absolute truths would be absolutely true and thus be false. But if the statement there are no absolute truths is only something that corresponds to internal beliefs, then the relativist is merely saying “I don’t believe in absolute truth, but other people do.”
Now the statement “I don’t believe in absolute truth, but other people do” is, by itself, trivially true. It tells us nothing we didn’t already know, and it certainly doesn’t prove global relativism. Thus, to make it interesting, it must be combined with another premise, namely that there is nothing more to a belief’s being true than its being among the beliefs one has floating around in one’s mind. But this is a restatement of the proposition there are no truths all over again! The propositions there are no truths and there are no absolute truths are ultimately the same.
Given the self-defeating nature of global relativism, it’s unsurprising that the arguments given for it are equally bad. Relativists often assert that individuals and cultures differ in their beliefs and opinions and that, therefore, there is no fact of the matter on what is true or not. This does not follow, as it neglects the possibility that some individuals or cultures may be mistaken in their beliefs and opinions. Some might make a postmodernist appeal to the influence of cultural assumptions, those in positions of power, etc. have on the beliefs that people hold. But reasoning from this premise to relativism is also a non-sequitur. The fact that one’s beliefs may be the result of brainwashing or manipulation by self-centered actors does not show that there is no fact of the matter about what is true or not. Moreover, the relativist conclusion of these arguments undermines their premises. Given global relativism, the premises individuals and cultures differ in their beliefs and opinions and what people regard as true is radically influenced by their cultural surroundings and those in positions of power can only be relatively true. Relativism makes sure that the relativist’s arguments never get off the ground.
Finally, another popular argument is that the belief in absolute truth is intolerant and dogmatic and that we must be relativists to promote inclusivity. But there are two issues here. First, even if belief in relativism made one more inclusive, it wouldn’t follow that relativism was true, just as the psychological benefits of believing in Santa Claus do not prove that Santa Claus exists. Second, the premise is in any case false. Why couldn’t there be an intolerant and dogmatic relativist who tells the tolerant and inclusive one that intolerance and dogmatism are good for him? Under relativism, the proposition that intolerance and dogmatism are bad can only be relatively true, so it cannot be proven to be absolutely true. At the end of the day, there are no good arguments for global relativism.
Moral relativism: “There are no absolute moral truths.”
Unlike global relativism, which claims that all truths are relative, local relativism claims that only certain types of truths are relative while others, like those of science, can be absolute. There are as many variations of local relativism as there are fields of knowledge, but perhaps the most popular kind of local relativism is moral relativism – the view that moral truths are relative.
At first, this sort of view may not seem self-defeating. But moral relativism has problems that parallel the problems with global relativism. For instance, the proposition that there are no absolute moral truths collapses into the proposition that there are no moral truths for the same reason that the proposition that there are no absolute truths collapses into the proposition that there are no truths. But then, moral relativism is just a disguised version of moral nihilism, and all purported morality is illusory.
Moral nihilism undermines any moral argument, including any moral argument for moral relativism. Supposed moral truths such as tolerance and inclusivity are good or one ought only to judge another culture by that culture’s moral standards cannot be true assuming moral nihilism. According to moral nihilism, there is nothing wrong with being dogmatic and intolerant or with judging another person’s culture however one likes. As with global relativism, moral relativism undermines the premises used to argue for it.
The common arguments for moral relativism also parallel the arguments for global relativism and suffer from the same problems. For instance, moral relativists often appeal to the variation in moral beliefs among individuals and cultures or the radical dependence of our moral beliefs on society and people in positions of power to prove moral relativism. These arguments fail for the same reason they fail as arguments for global relativism – namely, they are non-sequiturs. You may as well argue that since cultures have disagreed about geography, it follows that there are no absolute geographical truths.
But moral nihilism is self-defeating on an even more fundamental level – namely, it destroys the validity of reason itself. Rational agents use reason to perceive which actions are best for them and act accordingly. That said, people do not always act as rational agents. They may not know what is best for them or how to achieve it, or they may knowingly act against reason because of bad habits or peer pressure, causing them to act irrationally. But both rational and irrational actions require acting for some reason. This in turn requires thinking that the reasons for supporting an action are better than the reasons for doing something else or nothing at all. If there is not a consideration of better and worse in reasoning, then such an action is neither rational nor irrational. It is instead a-rational, done for no reason at all. But moral nihilism posits that there can be no such thing as better or worse in reason because it rejects the idea that there can be a better or worse in anything. Moral nihilism leads to the conclusion that human activity is a-rational. Thus, the moral nihilist cannot judge anything to be rational or irrational, including the reasons for being a moral nihilist.
Much more can be said of other forms of local relativism, such as aesthetic relativism or scientific relativism, but suffice to say, they all suffer from the same problems as moral relativism: they are unjustified prejudices at best and incoherent at worst.
Scientism: “Science alone gives us knowledge of reality.”
Unlike the other beliefs on this list, scientism is a very popular belief offline. It has supporters both in popular culture and even among academics. Because of secularist education and science popularizers like Neil deGrasse Tyson, people nowadays think that reason is synonymous with science and that truth is only what is scientifically verifiable. However, few stop to argue for this view, and when they do, they rarely follow through with its implications. One of the few exceptions to this is Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions. Despite its title, it is less about atheism than it is about scientism. This section will reference both this book and Edward Feser’s response to it in Scholastic Metaphysics: An Introduction.
The major problem with scientism is that it is either self-defeating or trivial. If we narrowly construe what counts as “science,” then we cannot justify scientism since it is a metaphysical and epistemological theory and not a view found in physics, chemistry, or any particular science. Also, science cannot prove what it presupposes. For science to work, several philosophical suppositions, such as the existence of an objective world outside the minds of scientists, the governance of that world by causal regularities, and the human mind’s ability to uncover these regularities, must be true. Science also presupposes entire fields of study like mathematics and logic.
On the other hand, if we construe “science” broadly enough that mathematics, logic, epistemology, and metaphysics all count as “sciences” no less than physics, chemistry, and the like, then “science” just becomes a synonym for a body of knowledge. In that case, all kinds of things count as “science,” including the natural theology of someone like St. Thomas Aquinas. This would undercut the project of those like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Alex Rosenberg, who wish to exclude subjects like theology from rational discourse altogether.
Naturally, the arguments for scientism are hilariously inept. Take Rosenberg’s gem of an argument: that the “technological success” of physics and the “phenomenal accuracy of its predictions” require us to believe that its methods “are the right ones for acquiring all knowledge” (Rosenberg, p. 23-25) As Edward Feser once put it, this would be like reasoning from the “success” of metal detectors at finding coins to the conclusion that what metal detectors reveal to us is all that is real. In other words, it’s a complete non-sequitur. One cannot conclude from the success of physics that it can give us a complete picture of reality any more than one can conclude from the success of metal detectors that metal detectors can give us a complete picture of reality. There are clearly defined limits to what physics and metal detectors can do. Moreover, the success of physics comes from its limitations. Physics models the mathematical structure of the world, leaving out those qualitative aspects that cannot be quantified. This allows for greater control over the environment, but it leaves out several aspects of reality.
That said, I do recommend reading Rosenberg’s book. He draws out the consequences of scientism with brilliant clarity. According to him, scientism leads one to the conclusion that the mind is the brain, that ‘you’ don’t exist as the thinking subject you think you are, that you have no free will, that moral nihilism is true, and other bizarre conclusions. Perhaps the oddest conclusion he comes to is the denial of any form of original intentionality. Common sense would tell us that the word “dog” has meaning derived from our thoughts about dogs and that “/*^” is just a bunch of meaningless squiggles. But scientism, according to Rosenberg, shows us that neither the word “dog” nor our thoughts are “about” anything, so they are no more meaningful than “/*^.” By this logic, this essay isn’t “about” anything because science doesn’t show that intentionality or “aboutness” can exist. But then, nothing, no writing, no speech, and no thought is “about” anything, so neither are arguments for scientism. In the end, scientism is but a mere prejudice with no foundation – the exact opposite of how science should be.
Logical Nihilism: “The laws of logic are mere laws of grammar. They say nothing about the real world.”
The laws of logic, also known as the laws of thought, are the ones that Aristotle first introduced –the law of contradiction, the law of identity, and the law of the excluded middle. The law of contradiction states that “contradictory judgments cannot both be true.” The law of identity is “everything is what it is.” And the law of the excluded middle is “of two contradictory judgments the one must be true, the other false” (Joyce, p. 67-68). These three laws are thought by most to be prescriptive. While men are unable to consciously judge a pair of contradictory propositions as true, they can become confused and thus unable to recognize the contradiction. Yet most people recognize that logic is itself objective because it is presupposed by all rational judgments of reality.
Because of this, logical nihilism, which denies the efficacy of the laws of logic, necessarily leads to philosophical skepticism. Philosophical skepticism either denies that any form of knowledge is possible or holds that one must suspend all judgment on account of inadequate evidence. Our knowledge depends on logical reasoning, so if logic itself said nothing about the real world and were instead mere laws of grammar, then all our knowledge would be thrown into question – including the knowledge that logical nihilism was true. The proposition the laws of logic are mere laws of grammar require knowing the nature of reality and then knowing that the laws of logic do not describe it. But given philosophical skepticism, it’d be impossible to know the nature of reality, so logical nihilism refutes itself.
But there is a more direct way logical nihilism refutes itself. Any argument made to prove that the laws of logic do not describe reality would have to presuppose the laws of logic in so doing. One cannot appeal to the laws of logic as being laws of reality in the middle of proving that they are mere laws of grammar. As such, there cannot be a logical argument against the laws of logic. And if that’s the case, why believe in logical nihilism?
Cartesian Skepticism: “We can’t have direct knowledge of reality.”
Many TOPs base their worldview on some variation of Cartesian Skepticism, but few know the nature of René Descartes’ original thought experiment. In part II of his Discourse on Method, he assumes, for the sake of argument, that everything that we can summon the least amount of doubt against is false. He first doubts the wisdom of the past because there is disagreement among even the smartest philosophers. He then doubts tradition for similar reasons, for there are numerous traditions that all disagree with one another. Our senses sometimes err, so he doubts them too. He doubts even reason, as we can make errors in reasoning, even in mathematics. Finally, he doubts the objective world and pretends that everything that has ever entered his mind is an illusion of his dream. At last, he reaches his famous conclusion – that he cannot doubt the fact he is thinking. Cogito, ergo sum (or I think, therefore I am) becomes an irrefutable first principle.
From this first principle, Descartes argues for the immortality of the soul, the existence of God, and the existence of the world external to our senses. But therein lies the problem: didn’t Descartes just tell us to assume that reason could be wrong about something as basic as 2+2=4? How do we know that Descartes’ complex arguments for the immortality of the soul and for God’s existence work given that something as simple as 2+2=4 is doubtful? After all, we make mistakes in our logical reasoning as often as in our mathematical reasoning. As I’ve mentioned before, casting any doubt on logic itself is self-defeating.
Besides that, the idea that we can doubt mathematical reasoning is questionable at best. To see what I mean, compare how Descartes doubts his senses to how he doubts his mathematical reasoning. We can make sense of a scenario in which a physical object is not present. From there, we can contrast a dream or hallucination in which the object seems to be present with the fact that it is not present. But it is impossible to conceive a scenario in which 2+2=13. But then, we have found something about the world external to our minds that cannot be doubted. This undoubtedly has ramifications for Descartes’ project, for even if we could not trust our senses, we would still have direct knowledge of reality through logic and mathematics.
Finally, it’s not as though doubting one’s senses is coherent either. O. K. Bouwsma from the University of Nebraska highlighted this in his essay “Descartes’ Evil Genius” with two scenarios. In the first, the Cartesian evil genius replaces everything in the world but Tom with a facsimile made of paper. Here, Tom could recognize that what he’s experiencing is an illusion because he knows what paper is and how it differs from non-paper things like flowers. Tom can then understand that everything around him is paper intended by some evil genius to deceive.
Not so in the second scenario. In that one, the evil genius destroys everything in the world but Tom but fools Tom’s five senses so that he believes everything is normal. Unlike the first scenario, Tom has no way of figuring out that he is inside an illusion. The evil genius himself, who sees, hears, smells, touches, and tastes everything that Tom does, only knows what he has created is an illusion because he has some sixth sense that allows him to know the difference between the illusion of a flower and the flower-in-itself. Bouwsma points out that this means that what the evil genius means by these words and what the average person means by these words are different enough to be utterly separate.
Referring back to the Matrix-believing intellectual terrorist from the beginning of this essay, the man trapped inside the Matrix his whole life could not make a sound argument for being in the Matrix. This is not because such a thing is logically impossible, but because the evidence he would need to prove the soundness of his argument would be, by his reasoning, Matrix-derived illusions, invalidating his argument. One would have to know what it means to be outside of the Matrix for the argument to work. But the Matrix successfully fools all five senses, rendering us unable to use the physical world as evidence. Given this, there is no way for someone in the Matrix to coherently tell the difference between the Matrix and reality.
It’s no good to make recourse to dreams and hallucinations either. We can only tell a dream or hallucination is what it is if we have an idea of what it is to know reality, and then recognize that the dream or hallucination is not reality. In other words, any argument that presupposes the existence of dreams or hallucinations presupposes that we have direct knowledge of reality through our senses.
Overall, such skepticism is bunk. Skepticism is the philosophy of the comfortable. Nobody who has to survive can afford to doubt his senses to the extent that philosophical skeptics do. Given this, René Descartes is truly worthy of his place as the father of modern philosophy, for he is a philosopher fit for our decadent age. One has to wonder though: will this navel-gazing cease once the hard times return, or will modern Cartesians dismiss the predators stalking them as illusions before being eaten?
Teleological eliminativism: “There are no purposes in the real world.”
Talk about “teleology” is pretty contentious in modern times, as it is often conflated with things like intelligent design. I will give a disclaimer here that I do not believe in “intelligent design” except in the very loosest sense possible (i.e., that I believe God created the world) nor do I think that teleology necessitates one to believe everything that comes out of the “intelligent design.” Rather, what teleology presupposes is, as St. Thomas elucidates, “Every agent acts for an end: otherwise one thing would not follow more than another from the action of the agent, unless it were by chance.” The telos that teleology refers to is a goal or end that something points toward, and this could be anything at all. It has nothing to do with irreducible complexity or the idea that some inorganic objects are analogous to machines or biological organs, or that they are best explained in terms of an “Intelligent Designer.”
This must be understood to grasp the position I’m trying to refute in this section – that is, teleological eliminativism, the position that there is no genuine teleology in the natural world. The term was first coined by Christopher Shields in his book Aristotle to describe the views of ancient atomists like Democritus and Leucippus. A similar view is teleological reductionism, the belief that teleology exists in nature but is reducible to non-teleological phenomena. This is the sort of view held by modern philosophers of biology, who believe that biological function can be cashed out in terms of natural selection, which is itself non-teleological. These views stand opposed to teleological realism, the belief that there is genuine teleology in nature. Teleological realism assumes as its first principle the principle of finality – that “every agent acts for an end.”
Having gotten that out of the way, the first point I’ll make is that the distinction between teleological reductionism and teleological eliminativism is one without a difference. By analogy, imagine if we were to posit the belief that God is “reducible” to some natural phenomena that aren’t God (such as the laws of physics). Such a “theological reductionist” position would not be explaining God so much as eliminating him. The “God” of the “theological reductionist” would be an illusion created by natural phenomena. By that token, teleological reductionism makes the same move. It’s difficult to see in this case how a teleological reductionist avoids teleological eliminativism.
Having understood this, we are left with either teleological eliminativism or some form of teleological realism. Which is true? Aristotle demonstrates in his discussion of the phenomena of chance and fortune in the second book of his Physics that, in many ways, teleology is visible everywhere in the world. When we look at nature, we see that certain inorganic objects act in predictable ways. Planets tend to go around the sun, rocks tend to fall to the ground, ice tends to melt when heated above a certain temperature, and so on. It seems counterintuitive to suggest that these regularities are the result of chance. Chance occasions are, by definition, rare.
But more to the point, accidental causation presupposes the principle of finality. Take the case of a man who digs a grave and accidentally finds a treasure. Only through the man’s intention to dig the grave, his power to fulfill those intentions, and the intentions of whoever put the treasure in the ground – all of these deriving ultimately from the natural tendencies of the things in question – did the grave-digger accidentally find the treasure. Trying to explain everything as being a result of chance is therefore like trying to prove that being can come from non-being.
Now, a mechanist like Descartes would try to argue that recourse to some mechanistic interplay of the laws of physics allows us to explain such regularities without invoking the principle of finality. But this misses the point altogether. The same amount quantity of kinetic energy might be necessary for water in a pot to boil and for an eagle to fly, but the differences between the pot and the eagle cannot be understated. The pot has a lid and sits by the fire, while the eagle has wings and soars through the air. A mechanist might say “this is because of the given agent’s material disposition.” But then, we may ask: “why this disposition as opposed to some other one?” That the pot must have this disposition or the eagle must have that disposition is not self-explanatory, unlike a triangle which, by definition, must have three angles whose sum equals the sum of two right angles.
Furthermore, any denial of the principle of finality is ultimately incoherent. As Father Reginald Garrigou-Legrange once pointed out, all human action, conscious or unconscious, tends toward some goal. If this were not the case, then actions would have neither direction nor meaning. An action without a goal would be no more a push than a pull, no more assimilation than a dissimilation, no more vision than hearing, etc. This is a violation of the law of contradiction, which we showed must be true earlier. Since nothing that violates the law of contradiction can exist, neither can an action without a goal. So, the principle of finality cannot be false.
Conventionalism: “All essences are products of human convention.”
Conventionalism is the belief that the essence of a thing – what makes a thing what it is – is a product of our ways of thinking, our linguistic habits, and so forth. It is a favorite of the TOPs because of the rise of postmodernism and the “social constructivist” schools of thought in the academy. Though it’s most often associated with the left, I have also seen neoreactionaries employ such arguments in their reasoning. This is another philosophical position that you see coming out of the academy, but it is no less subversive to reason than the other positions on this list.
A common question in the field of metaphysics is the existence of essences. We can say that particular entities are each separate from one another, yet we can see that some of them share similarities. Classical philosophers like Plato and Aristotle believed that these similarities between individual creatures are explained by reference to their shared essence or nature. For example, Fido, Max, and Biscuit might be different individuals, but they have similar properties that derive from their shared essence of “dogness.” Philosophers in the tradition of Plato and Aristotle, like the Scholastics, were essentialists. By contrast, anti-essentialists rejected the belief in real essences for a variety of reasons, most often due to the perceived conflict between essentialism and science. Since they denied that essences were a result of nature, the only option for them was that they were either creations of the human mind or artifacts of human language. Thus, the only alternative to essentialism was conventionalism.
Before I get into why essentialism is true, I want to clarify that essentialism does not entail that every manmade category reflects reality. For instance, I argue in my video “Three Problems with Secularism” that the categories of “secular” and “religion” do not describe reality as it exists. In this sense, I am a conventionalist with regards to the categories “religious” and “secular.” But showing that this or that essence is not real does not justify a thoroughgoing conventionalist position. In general, essentialists believe that discovering the essence of things is a difficult task. Plato believed that essences could only be discovered through a Socratic dialectic about various proposed definitions while Aristotle held that careful scientific and philosophical investigation of the particular individuals were necessary for such a discovery. Given the fallibility of the human intellect, mistakes about the essence of things can be made. However, if one believes that the human mind can know the truth of things – and there’s no reason that it cannot know the truth of things, given what I’ve argued thus far – it’s safe to say that it’s possible to know the essences of things if those essences exist.
The second book of Aristotle’s Physics points out that essentialism is obvious – so obvious that it would be absurd to try and prove it. The belief that things have real natures or essences is more obviously correct than any argument that can be given for or against it. Looking out at the world, we see that individual things exhibit unity, both on their own and in the way they relate to one another. To see what I mean, take a sample of copper. A given sample of copper will behave in a uniform and predictable manner over time, exhibit characteristic properties and patterns of operation, persist despite changes in superficial features, and have parts that function in an integrated way. Furthermore, this copper sample, that copper sample, and this other copper sample are united in a way they are not united to stones, oak trees, or humans. This group of copper samples manifests common properties that are, again, predictable and recognizable. The examples of this occurring again and again in nature can be multiplied. This is what we would expect to see if essentialism were true and would be mysterious if essences were only a matter of human convention.
For this reason, modern science presupposes such essentialism. Scientific laws and classifications necessarily refer to essences. If essences were mere matters of human convention, then science itself would not be in the business of discovering objective, mind-independent facts. Science would be, in the words of Hilary Putnam, a “miracle.”
Conventionalism is, in any case, incoherent in two separate ways. First, it shares the same problems that logical nihilism did earlier in this essay. Just as any argument against logic will adhere to the laws of logic, any argument against essentialism will reference some essence. If we say that our concepts are determined by the effects on our minds of contingent forces of history, culture, or biology, we have to give some account of how this works. This account will inevitably appeal to concepts like Darwinian selection pressures, class interests, genetic mutations, social trends, and the scientific principles governing these processes. But these too have essences that determine what they are, so they too exist as a matter of convention. We will then have to give an account of how history, culture, or biology shapes these concepts. This creates an infinite regress of explanations that can be terminated only by an appeal to some natural kind.
The conventionalist might try to get around this by following Immanuel Kant. Kant claimed that, although our concepts reflected only the operations of our minds and not objective reality, this is a necessary fact about ourselves, something that could not be changed by either biological or cultural evolution. But insofar as this Kantian conventionalist claims to know the necessary facts about our mind, he claims to know the objective nature of the human mind, contradicting his conventionalism. We might then ask how he came to know the human mind’s essence and why we cannot know other essences in this way.
Conventionalism is also incoherent in a more direct way. To say something is a matter of convention is the same as it being mind-dependent because human convention is, by definition, a product of human minds. This would be true whether we identify the mind with the brain or not. Naturally, something that is a product of the human mind cannot pre-exist the human mind. Now consistent, thoroughgoing conventionalism would entail that the essence of the mind is itself a matter of convention and thus mind-dependent. What it would mean to be a mind would be a product of the mind, entailing that the mind will be partially a product of the mind. Conventionalism about the human mind would entail that it is both prior to itself and posterior to itself, a clear case of incoherency. But the arguments for conventionalism would just as much apply to our minds as anything else. Since they lead to such incoherence, the arguments for conventionalism must be flawed in some way.
And what arguments do exist for conventionalism? Oftentimes, there are appeals to this or that essence being an obvious artifact of human convention. However, essentialism does not require that all essences are real, only that some or most are. Another objection to essentialism depends on the premise that essentialists believe that discovering the essence of a thing is easy. Karl Popper is the source of this objection, but he had to strawman Aristotle and Plato to reach this conclusion. As I stated earlier in this section, while Aristotle held that essentialism was obvious, neither he nor Plato believed that finding the essence of a thing was easy.
Another argument raised against essentialism is to contrast the “vagueness” of real objects to the clarity of essences. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s remarks about games and “family resemblances” and the arguments from evolutionary biology are examples of this. In any given category – game, to take Wittgenstein’s example – there is no one feature or set of features common to all and only games, but merely a set of overlapping similarities like those exhibited by members of a family. These kinds of overlapping similarities are also found in transitional forms in evolutionary biology. Overlapping similarities of this sort are what lead us to attribute essences to things that have no common set of attributes, but a true essence is not found among them. The vagueness causes the lines between supposed “essences” to blur.
Now, in the first place, the examples used are pretty poor. It’s not clear that there is no set of features common to all games, and games are a matter of human convention in any case. As for those transitional species, they have characteristics, causal powers, patterns of activity, and the like that distinguish them from other things, just like any other organism. The vagueness in these cases appears to be epistemic rather than metaphysical, more a problem of our knowledge of the thing rather than a fact about the thing itself. If there is some vagueness, then solving it is a matter of further investigating the matter.
Finally, there are those anti-essentialist arguments brought forward by W. V. O. Quine in two paradoxes. The first is the cyclist mathematician paradox. A mathematician is necessarily good at arithmetic while the cyclist isn’t, and a cyclist is necessarily bipedal while a mathematician isn’t. Thus, the hypothetical cyclist mathematician is both necessarily good at arithmetic and not necessarily good at arithmetic, both necessarily bipedal and not necessarily bipedal. In that case, the cyclist mathematician has inconsistent properties, so essentialism must be false. The problem with this supposed paradox is that Quine insists on giving a de re reading of the propositions. This would be like saying Lois Lane’s belief that Clark Kent is weaker than Superman is untenable because a man cannot be weaker than himself. But under a de dicto reading, Lois’s belief is reasonable because she’s unaware that Clark and Superman are the same person. Thus, it’s not inconsistent to say that a cyclist mathematician is bipedal.
Quine makes a similar mistake when he points to the puzzles posed by arguments like this:
9 is necessarily greater than 7.
the number of planets is 9.
the number of planets is necessarily greater than 7.
Quine claims that puzzles like this cast doubt on notions like necessity. But, if we read (2) as the existential claim that there are nine planets, then (3) does not follow. Alternatively, if we read both (2) and (3) as propositions about the actual number of planets, then (3) would follow (1) and (2) but won’t be false.
Ultimately, conventionalism cannot stand on its own two feet. Though it is easily the most formidable of the various forms of skepticism on this list, it is as self-defeating as the rest of them. Though conventionalism about certain kinds of essences (such as the essences of human artifacts) is possible, thoroughgoing and consistent conventionalism is not.
Epistemic Humility: “It is arrogant to claim we know more.”
Many times, a TOP will buttress his intellectual terrorism with an appeal to humility. When the TOP’s global relativism or Cartesian skepticism is questioned, he will fall back on accusations or insinuations of arrogance. Besides this being an ad hominem attack, it represents a failure to understand what humility is.
St. Thomas describes humility as one of two virtues meant to help us resolve the tension in our minds that comes with our attraction toward difficult goods. We find difficult goods attractive insofar as they are good and repulsive insofar as they are difficult to obtain. This creates two, contradictory appetitive movements in us: one of hope and one of despair. Humility as a virtue “restrains the appetite from aiming at great things against right reason” while its counterpart magnanimity “urges the mind to great things in accord with right reason.” The keyword here is “right reason,” for it is reason that moderates the appetites so that we as mere humans do not bite off more than we can chew, as it were. But the various positions that are listed above positively undermine reason, which humility depends on. Thus, the appeal to humility against reason fails. And this makes sense – nobody in their right mind would consider it “arrogant” to think that his senses are generally accurate or that the human mind can know the truth.
Besides, epistemic humility is meant to open inquiry, not close it. Take Socrates, the model of epistemic humility. While Socrates is best known for defining wisdom as knowing that you know nothing, he also believed in the power of human reason to learn by engaging in Socratic dialectic. In other words, rational inquiry and investigation are what humility demands, not some radical skepticism. By contrast, the terminally-online intellectual terrorist denies the efficacy of human reason, subverts rational argument, and ends intellectual discourse. He is the inversion of Socrates, and his humility is a false one.
This essay, I must emphasize, is not meant to support any particular political or philosophical movement. Whether you are a left-winger, a right-winger, an atheist, or a theist, these arguments can be used by any truth-seeker against terminally online intellectual terrorism. This essay is the result of my righteous vengeance against all the TOPs that wasted my time over the years with pointless Internet debates. Let it be your weapon, and may you never again be afraid of such shallow skepticism.