Making It Happen

The only thing I disagree with my Quaker friends on is the slogan speaking truth to power.  First of all, power already knows the truth; they don’t have to hear it from us; it’s a waste of time and the wrong audience. (ii)

The Huffington Post says that we can no longer afford to practice a “nonchalant type of acceptance” (i).  But if tolerance is not good enough, then what else can we do?  I thought I’d share what the sociologist Aldon Morris says from a recent article in Scientific American.  His message is quite different from what we hear from conservatives in which they often ridicule protest and subversion.

There are three ways of conceptualizing the tactics and strategies employed by social activists attempting to make a change in the culture.  Aldon Morris is endorsing the third theory of social change.  If there is evidence that his theory works, then why do conservatives protest about protesting?  I can come up with several hypotheses, but it is best framed as a struggle for power.

Whichever tactics are employed, the ultimate goal is to disrupt the society sufficiently that power holders capitulate to the movement’s demands in exchange for restoration of social order. [1]

Verbatim from “From Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter” found in Scientific American

  1. influential resource mobilization theory: It argued that the mobilization of money, organization, and leadership was more important than the existence of grievances in launching and sustaining movements—and marginalized peoples depended on the largesse of more affluent groups to provide these resources.
  2. political process theory: It argues that social movements are struggles for power—the power to change oppressive social conditions. Because marginalized groups cannot effectively access normal political processes such as elections, lobbying or courts, they must employ “unruly” tactics to realize their interests. As such, movements are insurgencies that engage in conflict with the authorities to pursue social change; effective organization and innovative strategy to outmaneuver repression are key to success.
  3. indigenous perspective theory: It argues that the agency of movements emanates from
    1. within oppressed communities—from their institutions, culture, and creativity. Outside factors such as court rulings are important, but they are usually set in motion and implemented by the community’s actions.
    2. Movements are generated by grassroots organizers and leaders—the CRM had thousands of them in multiple centers dispersed across the South—and are products of meticulous planning and strategizing.
    3. This also frames social movements as struggles for power, which movements gain by preventing power holders from conducting economic, political, and social business as usual.
      1. Tactics of disruption may range from nonviolent measures such as strikes, boycotts, sit-ins, marches and courting mass arrest to more destructive ones, including looting, urban rebellions, and violence.

In order for movements to develop, a people must first see themselves as being oppressed. This awareness is far from automatic: many of those subjected to perpetual subordination come to believe their situation is natural and inevitable. This mindset precludes protest.


[1] Morris, Aldon.  “From Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter”.  Scientific American


(I). “Americans who are poor, female, of color, queer, disabled, or not Christian cannot afford to practice the nonchalant type of acceptance-of-any-and-all-opinions when the opinion of many hardline social conservatives is that it would be preferable to exclude these people from the conversation altogether.”  Huffington Post

ii). This quote is from Noam Chomsky.  This quote is applicable to anyone that has power or control over you as it’s the perception that they give off.  I’m not a radical that is endorsing overthrowing the government, so please don’t misinterpret this.

The Anger Trap

Who here is sensitive to criticism?  It’s human nature to be, so this is rhetorical.  Here I will review Dr. Les Carter’s book titled “The Anger Trap” which is about how we have a need to preserve our self-worth by defending ourselves when we feel criticized or disrespected.  He says the obvious that it is not wrong to feel hurt or angry, but it’s how we respond to the criticism that matters.

Those that may have a sensitive disposition, such as HSP (highly sensitive person), have unstable self-esteem, or have a history of being criticized or picked on will be at high risk for overreacting towards a perceived slight, especially those done with impunity.  The problem here is that Carter is ignoring one huge factor at play that makes us susceptible to anger in social situations.

Dr. Carter is mostly correct below, but his solution to prevent us from going on the offense is completely asinine for a subset of people.  Putting aside the plain fact that we vary based on genetics to how hurt and angry we may feel once criticized, we must not forget that our past experiences on how others have treated us affects our neurochemistry in uncanny and permanent ways.

I have counseled with hundreds of people trying to make sense of their anger, and there is always something more that feeds the anger than what is observed on the surface. Angry people may appear strong, willful, or certain, but be assured that beneath the veneer are fear and loneliness and insecurity and pain. Especially, there is pain. [1]

Why Do We Have Anger?

At the heart of most anger is a cry for respect:  The very real threat of not being heard, though, caused you to go overboard in defending your dignity, and the pattern seems to have remained the same throughout your lifetime.

The purpose of anger in social contexts is to preserve our self-worth.  It no doubt has other purposes depending on the situation, and it of course is rooted in a more fundamental emotion namely fear.  The fear in interpersonal interactions includes the following concerns [1].  Anger is critical to our survival and, socially, it is a response to a “perceived threat or invalidation.” [1]

You need to understand that I matter.

Who do you think you are?

I’m not going to let you get away with ill treatment toward me.

Write down what comes to mind next time you get angry at someone treating you unfairly or when someone snubs you at a party as it will boil down to something above.  We want to believe that we have something to offer and that we matter.  When we are thwarted from getting the due respect we think we deserve, then we can either get hurt feelings or anger that results in resentment.

Why do we need to think that we matter?  If we didn’t matter and became insignificant to others, our chances of cooperating and advancing in life would be diminished.  Without cooperating and competing, then our chances of reproduction and survival would be nil.  So anger, as stated above, is a way to preserve our own worth which is determined by how well we are received in our milieu.

What Is Our Social Goal?

Is perfect interaction your goal,” I asked, “or is your goal to be emotionally healthy? I’m encouraging you to consider how to manage your anger best, knowing that you can’t expect life to play out in a completely wonderful fashion.

The above is in response to a patient of Carter’s that claimed that he can’t tolerate being disrespected and must show his muscle when it occurs.  Carter responds by saying that we can’t control the reactions of others and it is but an illusion to think that we can.  My response to this is that Carter is partially correct because we can influence people although not control unless we are bullies.




Angry people, however, tend to do themselves no favors because the legitimate message of self-preservation can be communicated so distastefully that the receiver of the message hears nothing good.






Therapists Can’t Get It

When you feel angry, there is a strong probability of something legitimate driving the emotion. Even anger that is managed poorly can have a reasonable message at its base. Those who remain trapped by their own anger are unable to articulate the message in a manner that allows them to maintain positive relations.

I say therapists “can’t” get it and not “don’t” get it because a certain subset of the population will always be susceptible to being criticized.  Therapists can’t tell us this because they would lose their client base.  Let’s call a subset of the population the “undesirables” that seem angry and discontent most of their life.  This category of people has undesirable characteristics.

Dr. Les Carter does not even mention this because it would come across as judgemental and arrogant.  He instead puts personal responsibility on those that get angry and defend themselves in “unproductive” ways.  He believes that everything is just a matter of self-control and learning the proper techniques to respond to criticism gracefully such that we can become competent adults.

I agree that we can learn techniques that can allow us to assert our anger instead of becoming aggressive and sabotaging the relationship.  But ignoring the biological aspects of what happens to someone that gets criticized, used and abused most of their life, which most chronically angry people have been, is inexplicable.  The problem is mainly neurochemical and not learned. (i)

Don’t Ignore The Situation

They become more sensitive to criticism or rejection, which generates a spiraling cycle characterized by an increasing intensity of anger or resentment that makes them feel unfairly treated or victimized. This is described as rejection sensitivity. [2]

This doesn’t just apply to undesirables because anger is complex.  There is, however, evidence from humans and other primates that some will get picked on more than others.  When this happens, we know what occurs in the mind as a result.  This phenomenon is known as subordination.  The mind actually goes through neurophysiological changes when we are criticized or berated.

The mind downregulates 5-HT1A serotonin receptor sites and increases cortisol circulation.  By contrast, dominant individuals will have high densities of 5-HT1A sites and a high density of D2 sites.  When we get criticized, our body goes through a stress reaction that is incomparable to most stressors [3].  If this happens repeatedly, then we become subordinated and susceptible to depression.

In other words, the more we are criticized and chastised then the more we enter a state of hyper-vigalence, which is social anxiety,


i). I am not debating whether or not the behavior is an innate competency or something that we learned, although I favor the former.  I am mainly trying to point out that changes happen in the mind that illustrates the destructiveness of hostility and   and bullying.




[1] Carter, Les. “The Anger Trap: Free Yourself from the Frustrations that Sabotage Your Life.”

[2] Gilbert, Paul. Subordination and Defeat: An Evolutionary Approach To Mood Disorders and Their Therapy.

[3] Tracy, Jessica.  The Self-Conscious Emotions. Guilford Publication.

Narcissism As Normal

The narcissist may be intimidating, mesmerizing, even larger-than-life, but beneath the bombast or the charm is an emotional cripple with the moral development of a toddler. (i) [1]

Narcissism is a cluster of sub-traits or tendencies that we all show but if it becomes a neverending quest to feel special and better than, then life is about maintaining our image and striving for status.  Being fixated on self leaves little room for empathy, and others become means to our ends.  Narcissism, as many argue, is a normal trait to have but some are just better at it than others.

What Is a Personality Trait?

A trait is a quality that we describe to a person.  This quality is an adjective, so to make it a noun we add “ness”.  If someone comes across as agreeable, then we may call the trait agreeableness.  Personality traits are heritable and are shaped by our genes and environment.  If we make the assumption that a trait over time becomes stable, then we have to figure out how to separate it from the interaction of any given situation.  The only way to do this is to take multiple observations and measurements across many different situations and come up with a global or average figure that we hope is independent of the situation that we observe.

But we can’t ever truly separate the situation from the individual because then the trait wouldn’t exist since it is an interaction based on inputs from our environment.  The field of psychology, moreover, can’t observe people over long periods of time and in different situations.  The field relies on self-assessments which must be reliable—make consistent measurements—and valid—measure what it says it does.  There are statistical methods that help determine how sound the measurements are by uncovering the most fundamental sub-traits of the assessment.  For narcissism, the fundamental sub-traits have been established from a factor analysis.

Self-Evaluations Don’t Work?

In looking at the statements from the narcissistic personality inventory or NPI from figure 1 below, these apply to everyone since we are born narcissistic and have a pervasive need to feel special, unique, and valued (ii).  There is a scale that grades the degree of narcissism if we were to take the NPI, but I don’t take it seriously for the pathological cases since narcissists protect their image.  I reject the test because narcissists are self-conscious and know that the test is evaluating how special we think they think they are.

  1. Authority, e.g. ‘‘I have a natural talent for influencing people’’;
  2. Exhibitionism, e.g. ‘‘I will usually show off if I get the chance’’;
  3. Superiority, e.g. ‘‘I am an extraordinary person’’;
  4. Entitlement, e.g. ‘‘I will never be satisfied until I get all that I deserve’’;
  5. Exploitativeness, e.g. ‘‘I find it easy to manipulate people’’;
  6. Self-Sufficiency, e.g. ‘‘My achievements are of my own making’’;
  7. Vanity, e.g. ‘‘I like to show off my body’’

Figure 1: Factor Analysis Reveals Fundamental Sub-Traits

Inflated or Genuine Self-Esteem?

All of the sub-traits above with the exception of exploitativeness are positively correlated with self-esteem and happiness.  Arguably, exploitativeness, however, is what gives it its pathological designation in its extreme forms.  Extreme narcissists have high but unstable self-esteem, and it is argued that they maintain it in a maladaptive way because they are sensitive to feelings of shame (iii).

Narcissists are much more driven to get ahead than to get along.  Narcissism is associated with the need to dominate others and the need to achieve superior resources.  In contrast, authentic self-esteem is much more associated with the desire to establish deep, intimate relationships with others.

The issue is if this type of self-esteem is authentic or inflated.  It is a fact that we have to navigate our social hierarchy, so it is possible that narcissists are just more sensitive to the hierarchy and engage in ego-defense strategies that are helpful to them at the cost of others.  That is what I’d like to explore in the next post because the causes of pathological narcissism are fascinating.


i) I think it is important to look at the causes of having a morality that is not well developed.  Is it because they have callous traits, they do what the situation allows them to get away with, or is it a complex combination of both?

ii) As far as classifying narcissism in its extreme forms as pathological, I believe it is a case of morality in action.  But this trait is normally distributed within populations—it has a bell-shaped or Gaussian distribution, which shouldn’t be surprising as it is a natural phenomenon.  Any skepticism I have had on its existence has been quelled by identical twin studies.

iii) Feelings of being “less than” or “not enough” come from shame.  Shame comes from our self-esteem system.  Our self-esteem system was designed to maximize our social inclusion with others, and we are rewarded (feelings of pride) when we are accepted and approved of and punished (feelings of shame) when we fall short of standards.


[1] Hotchkiss, Sandy. “Why Is It Always About You?: The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism.”

[2] Malkin, Dr. Craig. “Rethinking Narcissism.”

[3] Mischel, Walter. Introduction to Personality: Toward an Integrative Science of the Person, 8th Edition. Wiley Higher Ed.

List’s Free Argument

We are constructing the concept as we try to answer; and since it is bound to so many different features, we construct answers that fit those that the question makes most salient. [1]

This is a schematic on Christian List’s argument that free will is real.  This philosopher’s attempt was brought to my attention by Scientific American.  This will be helpful to anyone interested in following the posts on free will.  It is probably the most thorough and well-argued case on free will although I haven’t sampled everything.  For me, List reinforced the importance of objective relativism.

Free Will in the everyday sense means we can:

  • choose certain courses of action (free will),
  • maintain the choices over time (will) and
  • in the face of contrary desires (willpower),
  • and then act upon them.” [1].

Free Will in the everyday sense is equivalent to intentional agency:

  • is an agent’s capacity to choose. [alternative possibilities]
  • and control his or her own actions. [causal control] [2]

How to Show that Free Will Is Real: List claims that any believable Free Will argument has to include all three

  1. Intentional Agency – the capacity to act in an intentional way
    1. problem: whether or not intentional agency is a real phenomenon
    2. List tries to demonstrate that it is real by showing the following:
      1. indispensable to the fields of social and behavioral psychology
      2. it is an emergent property of the physical level not reducible to it
      3. it is a real phenomenon according to the philosophy of realism
  2. Alternative Possibilities – I could have chosen otherwise
    1. we have to show that there are at least two options open to us
  3. Causal Control – actions are caused by intentional mental states
    1. show that intentions cause actions and are indispensable to science

*Note that Christian List assumes that intentional agency is an appropriate model for free action.  So then he just has to show that intentional agency is indispensable to psychology and independent of the physical level.

The Problems Encountered Are Real

  1. Reductionism – science is reductionistic and prefers mechanisms over intentions
    1. Problem:  science claims that the intentional level can be reduced to the physical level 
    2. Solution: show that we cannot reduce the intentional level to the physical level 
      1. prove not equivalent by imposing tests and conditions to be met
        1. the concept in the physical must also occur in the intentional level
        2. this concept must substitute as having scientific explanatory power
        3. note: equivalence is not one of semantic equivalence
        4. e.g., temperature and kinetic energy mean different things but equivalent
      2. fails since intentional understood in terms of semantic and logical senses and physical in causal.
      3. prove that it’s not just a conceptual difference but that they both are logically independent
  2. Physical Determinism – physical events are determined by prior causes that make a chain-of-events
    1. Problem: we can’t say free will exists because our choices would be predetermined
    2. Solution: show that there can be physical determinism without intentional determinism 
      1. show that the physical level is conceptually not compatible with the intentional level
      2. claim that intentional level is indeterministic which is random and not predetermined
      3. provide a buffer claim that indeterminism is neither necessary nor sufficient to free will
      4. prove the independence of levels with the concept of “supervenience with multiple realizability”
      5. use the philosophy of realism to argue that intentional level is a real phenomenon
  3. Epiphenomenalism – all intentions are really just physical phenomena needing to be explained
    1. Problem:  which causal hypothesis best explains the regularities and patterns of human agency?
      1. intentional states (beliefs, desires, preferences) or physical states (various mechanisms)?
    2. Solution: show that intentions are caused by intentional mental states not physical ones
      1. show that it is a mistake to think that cause and effect is exclusive to the physical level
      2. show that cause and effect really isn’t the cause and effect that we know it is
      3. show that mental states are emergent phenomena and supervene physical states
      4. show that the intentionality level is indispensable to social and behavioral science
      5. use the philosophy of realism to show that higher-order causation exists

* Note that science means neuroscience.  Also note that not all social and behavioral scientists would agree that we can’t or shouldn’t explain agent-like behavior by more fundamental mechanisms, like at the level of neurotransmitters and so forth.


i) Objective relativism is just another category like anything else, but it reminds us that what may be true within one framework, paradigm, frame, or reference point, may not be true in another.


[1] Richard Holton. “Willing, Wanting, Waiting.”

[2] List, Christian.  “Why Is Free Will Real.”

Intentionally Rational

The intentional agency concept, which means humans act in accordance with their goals and is a restatement of rational choice theory, is typically thought of as an acceptable way of showing, in both a philosophical and scientific sense, that we have free will, and is also a way of predicting behavior using means-end rationality.  There can’t be any dispute that we act in goal-oriented ways, but the exact nature of how we reason when making choices and how much control we think we have affects how fair free-will is.

The utilitarian person, for whom rationality is economic rationality—the maximization of utility—does not exist.  Real human beings are not, for the most part, in conscious control of-or even consciously aware of-their reasoning.   People seldom engage in a form of economic reason that could maximize utility. [1] (i)

What I have learned is that when we are using intentional agency to reason with we can’t reduce down to the physical-level and talk about causes that involve neuroscience or biochemistry.  Trust me I have tried.  The physical and intentional are fundamentally incompatible.  This is because the concept intentional is understood relative to other concepts by logical and semantic relationships not causal.  So this is a way that philosophers maintain that intentional agency will never be reduced to the physical level.

A system of propositional attitudes must inevitably fail to capture what is going on here, though it may reflect just enough superficial structure to sustain an alchemylike tradition among folk who lack any better theory. [2]

Materialists and reductionists, which are scientists, would love to do away with intentional agency.  I am giving intentional agency a chance since Christian List claims that it’s “indispensable to the social and behavioral sciences”, and I explain it below and test with inputs.  But if it is wrong in a fundamental way on human nature, then perhaps it doesn’t capture the essence of free will.

Intentional Agency 

Despite claiming that rational choice theory—a sophisticated version of intentional agency—falls short of describing how we think and behave, intentional agency is not to be dismissed because it has practical value.  It, however, has its limits in what it can explain.  “Intentional agency” constitutes a form of free will, and thus shows its existence.  But that is not good enough since we would have to show that we have “alternative possibilities” and that we are the cause of our acts or “causal control” [2].

Free will is a lot of things, but one popular way of conceptualizing is with intentional agency, which is the capacity to act free and purposeful.  To be an intentional agent, we must have beliefs (representational states) on how things are, desires (motivational) on how we want these things to be, and have the capacity to interact with our surroundings to attain these things [2].  Beliefs are propositions that are assumed true that we act on by means of our desires.  These beliefs are about something and have meaning.

We just defined a simple model.  For the model to meet the condition of instrumentally rational, then the system’s beliefs must be consistent, the beliefs respond coherently with the information received, and its actions are effectively guided by its desires, given its beliefs [2].  This requirement of being instrumentally rational of course does not always happen as we often harbor inconsistent beliefs, and we don’t always respond effectively to our desires.  The point here is that we have the intention to do something.

Intentionality Works

We can test if an agent is an intentional agent if we can hypothesize what its intentional states (beliefs, desires, and preferences) are but assume that they will be instrumentally rational.  If they act in a rational way, then we made a correct prediction.  We must use caution because a thermostat would qualify for an intentional agent (it’s actually best modeled as a negative feedback system).  If we want to be exclusive, then we impose conditions to meet like it having to be indispensable for explanatory purposes [2].

To illustrate, suppose we believe that we can get our car washed.  We believe that we can get our car washed is an attitude reflected in reality.  Since we believe that it is true that we can get our car washed, then we are probably also motivated to do it.  So we can explain the car washing act, which is what psychology does—explains actions in terms of beliefs, desires, and preferences—by saying that the agent believed that they were capable of getting the car washed, wanted to do it, and therefore act to meet a need.

For a test on robustness, I will give a more complicated but real example.  Let us say we believe that all people are self-interested and have a desire to not share gossip.  What if we are in a situation where we spill the beans and gossip come pouring out?  This happens to people a lot, and they claim that they have no control over it.  Some social and evolutionary psychologists theorize that it has survival value to our species when we share the status of others, which may create a conflicting desire to share gossip (ii).

We can’t have two conflicting motivational states though because it wouldn’t be consistent and the model wouldn’t work — that is, the real inputs that I gave would not work with instrumental rationality.  I need to put some more thought into this because philosophers claim that it is off-limits because we can’t import neuroscience into it.  They then use it to prove free will.


i) Intentionality, which is what people do when they maximize their benefits in life, seems to imply that we have conscious control over our beliefs, desires, and preferences.  We don’t have the perceived control that we think we do.  This is not a threat to intentional agency as it is only saying that we don’t reason, which results in action, in a kind of way that is portrayed by economists.

It is not suggesting that we aren’t self-interested, but it is saying that there is more to human nature than self-interest.  We certainly are rational in the sense that we respond to consequences, tradeoffs, incentives, and can act in a purposeful way, but intentional agency does not seem to do justice to the nuances and complexity found with real human reason and behavior.

It is no surprise that the cause of a subject’s action in a psychological experiment, such as his or her hand movement, is not a conscious intention but some underlying physical, neural state. Libet’s experiments, it appears, merely confirm what theoretical considerations imply already—namely, that we do not have the intentional control over our actions that we conventionally think we have. [2]

ii) I said not to gossip is the desire because we have the belief of being self-interested.  If people are self-interested, then they will use the gossip in a way that serves their interests.  But social science says we may have a conflicting belief to share gossip because it has survival value.  So we have competing desires which the system doesn’t like.


[1] Lakoff, George. Philosophy in the Flesh.

[2] List, Christian.  Why Free Will Is Real.

Catholics on Relativism

The key point here is that the relativism that the religious right accuses us of is a strawman.  Most of us don’t believe in a “hard” relativism which means, at the very least, that everything is relative and that no one point of view should take priority over another.  If we think we meet these criteria of “hard” relativism, we need only ask ourselves where Christianity ranks in our mind.

A Catholic Insider

The topic of relativism is usually not relevant until we hear from the religious right on absolute morality.  I recall going through a Catholic interview to get married, and their attempt to bring me back to the faith came in the form of a pamphlet.  This pamphlet was a pathetic two pages in length.  The first thing in the pamphlet was an attack on relativism, which, for them, is a very bad word.

All things are relative.

If all things are relative, then this isn’t true. (i)

I was presented with a self-refuting statement.  This of course was not a reason to accept Jesus but to accept their worldview.  But to me, this seemed to be a quirk within our language and logic not a stake through soft relativism.  What bothered me more was when the priest mistook me as an insider and said, “those atheists don’t believe in anything greater than themselves like we do”.

Catholics’ Contempt

The contradiction “all things are relative” doesn’t diminish the value that relativism holds.  The claim says that “all things” are relative, which means that we can’t rule it out as being absolute.  But if it is an absolute claim, then it itself can’t be true since all things are relative.  The reasoning we just went through is what apologists expect us to do.  They don’t, however, tell us that this is a trap.

This contradiction is disingenuous and non-existent (i).  First, by all things do we mean the statement itself, or do we mean what the statement is referring to?  Things themselves just are and can’t be true or false.   Second, in order to communicate that all things are relative, we must assert the claim that all things are relative.  So by virtue of how language works, this will contradict itself.  

This is an artifact of language, not a refutation!  The fact that the Catholic church would use this strawman to put down a worldview that they perceive as evil, “those liberals”, speaks more to their contempt towards liberalism than it does as an earnest and valid criticism.  I suppose showing contempt towards our enemies always and everywhere is absolutely relevant.


i)  The insight of a “quirk of language” has been verified by Dr. Richard Carrier, who has formal training in philosophy and in the historical sciences.  “What theologians are doing is “taking a colloquial phrase, “all things are relative”, that was never meant to be “self-referential”” to be as if it were in order to make it self-contradictory.  This is known as the equivocation fallacy.

True For You, But Not For Me

I hate relativism.  I hate relativism more than I hate anything else.  I think that relativism is very probably false.          Steven Pinker

The title is a book from the Christian apologist Paul Copan on relativism.  It is a well-written book which will make some take it at face value.  But it is a piece of Christian apologetics and uses the brute force of Western logic to pull the wool over our eyes.

Steven Pinker presents relativism as irresponsible as Copan does though.  Pinker’s popular books exist primarily to combat relativism within the social sciences but that doesn’t excuse it.  Because someone then has to clean up the mess that is left behind.

Relativism is important because the religious right claims that we are immoral.  We are immoral because we believe in relativism.  They use a caricature of relativism—”true for you, but not for me”—in order to poke fun and have us dismiss it.

Relativism As Threat

In the case of Copan, who has written much on the subject, relativism is a threat to his beliefs.  When things are a threat to our beliefs, then we feel hate and if we feel it is inferior to us, then we feel contempt.  His obsession with relativism reveals it is both.

It makes talking about your faith wrong.

  • Claim: You can’t tell me about your faith as “it’s cramming your religion down my throat”.
  • Response: This is a good thing in the case of Christianity as well as other belief systems that make claims that have no basis in reality.  To make the sharing of misbeliefs wrong is a moral act.

It makes being exclusive to be arrogant.

  • Claim: Being a part of “the club” and to know things that others don’t is arrogant.
  • Response: To be exclusivistic does come across as rejecting and being proud when we claim we know something that others don’t is arrogant.  That is a function of humans being social creatures and not of relativism.

It makes tolerance the cardinal virtue.

  • Claim: Telling someone they are wrong is intolerant since only tolerance is tolerated.
  • Response: Tolerance should be a virtue as long as what we are tolerating doesn’t affect the well-being of others.

Christianity and Tolerance

Though relativism claims ownership of “tolerance,” it is incoherent and self-contradictory (i).  Ironically, it’s more dogmatic than the Christian faith it criticizes—a faith that actually serves as the basis for tolerance, respect, and compassion. [1]

The first claim can be dismissed (i).  The second claim has some truth to it but is framed in a way that makes Christians the owners of the fair treatment of others.  Christianity is what you want to make of it.  The teachings from the Bible were most certainly not always cherry-picked for compassion.  Although the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew are the epitome of compassion, there are an equal amount of teachings that are not.  I have not seen any formalized doctrine on compassion as the focus is on worship.

Copan defines tolerance as being the amount of “error” we are willing to “put up with”.  He is correct that to tolerate does not mean to accept an individual or their beliefs.  To accept a person means that they are “adequate” for our needs.  But we vary in our preferences and abilities to want and obtain the acceptance of others.  We don’t or can’t accept everyone.  The same thing goes for beliefs as we may tolerate them but find them inadequate.  But I don’t think this is what liberals mean when they speak of tolerance.

Liberals most likely mean to tolerate others in a way that is free of bigotry.  Bigotry is to have prejudice towards a class of people (typically race and sex), and prejudice means to have hate and hostility.  So we don’t want others to show bigotry to others or to us.  If we broaden the meaning of bigotry to all classes, then liberals are inconsistent on this since we show bigotry towards Christians and conservatives.  I have brought this up many times, but it may be important to sacrifice principles in favor of pragmatism.

I have offered an alternative to tolerance because I believe it is superficial and can be disingenuous.  True acceptance of others is identifying with their humanity, which requires empathy.  Empathy requires us to feel as others do or to experience as others do.  I didn’t “get” this until I experienced the plight of others myself.  Copan offers the idea of coercion and says that Christians “must show respect for the image-of-God-bearing persons who happen to hold those perspectives”, which is nonsense and doesn’t work.

The most beautiful people I have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss and have found their way out of the depths.  These people have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness and a deep loving concern.  Elizabeth Kugler-Ross

Atheism and Tolerance 

And what about secular ideologies that pose an incalculable threat to tolerance? Atheistic communism alone resulted in the estimated killings of sixty million under Mao Zedong in China, twenty five million under Bolshevist and Stalinist Russia, two million under Pol Pot in Cambodia, and millions more throughout the rest of the world. [1]

This is not easy to explain away and is shameful.  I don’t know if it would be honest of me if I resorted to the correlation fallacy.  For those that haven’t heard of this fallacy, it basically says that just because a relationship has been established—that is, as atheism goes up, then genocide does too—it doesn’t mean that atheism was the cause.  Finding causes in the social sciences isn’t easy.

I believe, however, that fear of eternal damnation may serve as a deterrent.  It may be the case that with the right personality and situational factors—those that score high for the traits of narcissism and psychopathy and combined with no fear of eternal damnation—that narcissistic, atheistic bullies may be at higher risk to commit genocide.  But there has to be a culture that allows it.

I don’t know enough about the circumstances within these countries during those time periods, but obviously, it was “ripe” enough to allow for authoritarian rogues to come into power.  But I can’t imagine this happening in the United States or within other stable democratic countries.  But we can’t rule it out as a possibility since the consequences of it happening just once are grave.

That said, this isn’t a fair criticism and is a salient exemplar because it takes a few memorable cases and generalizes it to be what is typical of any atheist.  It isn’t typical though.  Since most atheists devote a lot of time and effort to educate themselves in politics and science, they, therefore, have a heightened awareness of the possibility and are likely to become politically active as a result. 

Case in point, Donald Trump meets the criteria for the trait of narcissism and behaved in ways that were characteristic of authoritarian rulers [3].  But conservatives didn’t seem to mind.  Did conservatives look the other way because he was to “make-do” or because they too have authoritarian-like traits?  Liberals were keen to point this out and took action in many different forms.


i) Relativism isn’t self-contradictory but even if it were that wouldn’t diminish its value.  Theologians use logic as the end all be all of settling disputes.  If they can claim incoherence, then they win the game.  There is no universal logic though.  But we can still play their game and see that it is fallacious by their rules.  They claim that we say “all things are relative”, which is a contradiction if we assume the statement itself needs to be relative to be true.  But the statement was never meant to be used as a reference to itself.


[1] Copan, Paul. That’s Just Your Interpretation. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] Copan, Paul. True For You, But Not For Me.  Kindle Edition.

[3] Wathey, John C. Trump’s Narcissism Is a Feature, Not a Bug. HuffPost

A Philosophy Primer

After a survey of Western philosophy, my hypothesis was confirmed: philosophy can only provide us clarity of our, human-made, knowledge within the confines of our language.  It does not give us absolute, objective truths unless we want it to.  

This started as something small but morphed into a survey on Western philosophy.  It is not a critique but may be helpful when I present an empirical philosophy that dismisses most of Western philosophy.  In a nutshell, it says that objective truth doesn’t exist.  

This essentially was my opportunity to learn about philosophy all over again, in breadth but not in-depth.  This is not original to me and is more or less me testing myself after I read, where some portions were copied verbatim from the source I provided below.   

Western Philosophy:  The Traditional Approach

The word philosophy, from Greek, literally means “the love of wisdom”.  I understand why scientists may view philosophy with contempt because they associate it with deductive logic and the weapon of the religious right.  But it is a useful way of organizing knowledge and can assist science in understanding its assumptions, theoretical foundations and enlighten us on its moral implications.  This is meant to be a concise reference for anyone that is interested in the breadth of philosophy that is not in-depth.

Metaphysics: The Study of Existence and Reality

When concerned with the nature of existence, reality, and being, then we are talking about metaphysics.  Metaphysics is similar to ontology.  Whereas metaphysics is on the nature of reality and what sorts of things are real, ontology concerns itself with what exists and what does it mean to exist.  We may hear the word ontology used in science—as an entity’s “ontological status”—which deals with figuring out “how entities are grouped into basic categories and which of these entities exist on the most fundamental level.”

The word objective means that we have agreed-upon standards that allow us to assess the truth of something.  If something is subjective, then we lack such criteria.  For example, if we say that dogs are the best kind of pets, then it is subjective because the word “best” is not defined.  If by “best” we mean any kind of pet that is loyal and affectionate, then we would be closer to objectivity.  Otherwise, we would never settle the issue or argument on what the best pet is.  Truth then depends on something.

Objectivism (i) is the idea that there is a reality, or realm of objects and facts, which exists wholly independent of the mind [1].  And objective (i) truths or facts remain true always and everywhere independent of the mind [1].  Math is an example of objective truths as 1 + 1 is always and everywhere 2.  We will also see it phrased as objective reality which means a reality that exists independent of us perceiving it.  Things can be objectively true within a framework but not be universally true, which is objective relativism.

Subjectivism is the antithesis of objectivism.  It claims that our perception is our reality and that it is dependent entirely on how we experience it.  It is similar to metaphysical relativism and idealism and since it is about how we experience our world, then it is a form of empiricism.  Idealism says that the only things that exist are ideas and thoughts, and we can’t be certain that external reality exists.  This contrasts with realism which is a form of objectivism that emphasizes a reality that is independent of our perception. 

Idealism is a form of Monism (as opposed to Dualism or Pluralism), and stands in direct contrast to other Monist beliefs such as Physicalism and Materialism (which hold that the only thing that can be truly proven to exist is physical matter). It is also contrasted with Realism (which holds that things have an absolute existence prior to, and independent of, our knowledge or perceptions).

Relativism is a philosophical doctrine that at the very least says that all things are dependent upon a point of view or framework and that no one point of view or framework should take precedence over another.  When we use the word relative, we don’t use it in the strict sense, such as the definition suggests, and is thus called soft relativism.  Subjective relativism, a form of cognitivism, is when things can be objectively true relative to you but not universally true which can be put as “what is true for you is not for me.”

Determinism is the philosophical idea that given an initial state of the universe that only one path of events is physically possible, which means every state is predetermined by a prior cause.  Indeterminism is the idea that things are not caused or not caused deterministically.  When science models phenomena, especially in quantum physics, events are determined in probabilistic terms.

Cause and effect are best understood as a difference-maker; that is, we need to know which variables will make a difference to other variables while holding something constant.  Hume points out that we never really observe the cause and effect relations just the fact that some events are reliably followed by others; so we observe the co-occurrence of events.

“Causal relations need not be regarded as mere explanatory relations, let alone as mere practical heuristics.  For all we know, causal relations may well exist out there in the world. They may well be what philosophers call “ontic” and not just “epistemic”: features of the world, not just features of our cognition.”  [2]

Causal determinism is a principle in physics that says all states (objects or events) have prior causes that are part of an “unbroken chain-of-events.”  The physical level is the classical physics kind of cause and effect and is the level at which causal or physical explanations can be used.  The intentional level is where we can reason about mental states being the cause of our actions, but when we reason here properties are in relation to other properties by semantics and logic not by physical causes.

Epistemology: The Study of How and What We Know

Epistemology can be summed up as how and what we know.  It deals “with the nature (what is knowledge) and scope (what can we know) and asks how we justify our beliefs.  Knowledge is explicitly defined as “the awareness and understanding of particular aspects of our reality.”  It concerns itself with propositions which are statements of knowledge or truth-value statements.  Truth-value propositions have the capacity of either being true or false because they are unambiguous, declarative statements.

So knowledge must meet be understandable and is acquired when reason is applied to reality.  What makes knowledge knowledge—”justified true belief“—is that it meets the conditions of being necessary and sufficient.  In other words, the statements must be truebelievable, and justified.  The justification part is a point of disagreement because what justifies something as being true can either be evidential (based on evidence), reliable (a reliable means of attainment), or infallible (“belief necessitates its truth”).

In its extreme form, rationalism is the idea that reasoning alone is the best way to obtain knowledge.  As Rene Descartes has said, “I think therefore I am.”  Empiricism comes from the Greek word “experience” and says reliable knowledge comes from our senses—that is, how we perceive and experience our world.  Empirical refers to the method of empiricism that relies on observation and experiments, which is known as the scientific method.  In the real world, reasoning can be either a posterior and a priori.

Instrumentalism is about

Logic: A Process for Getting Good Reasoning

Logic is what helps us to separate good reasoning from bad reasoning (fallacious).  We can categorize logic as formal, informal, mathematical, or symbolic.  Formal logic has explicit rules that make it work, which is most often applied to statements or claims within a language.  The statements can be true or false and are known as premises when presented as an argument.  Premises can be axioms—self-evident truths—or theorems—conclusions that come from strict rules of inference as well as its axioms.

We can structure our arguments as deductive or inductive to help find the validity or probability of truth.  The rules of the system—e..g, deductive logic—tell us how the conclusion follows from its premises.  In any logical system, logic needs consistency (no contradicting theorems), soundness (no false conclusion from true premises), and completeness (no true statements left to be proved).  Traditional formal logic boils down to the study of inferences and focuses on deductive and inductive means to do so.

Formal logic also includes formalism, which says that formal statements have no intrinsic meaning but serve specific purposes.  Symbolic logic is “the study of symbolic abstractions that capture the formal features of logical inference (ii)”.   It attempts to solve “intractable” problems that traditional formal logic (e.g., Aristoliean) could not solve.  For example, the statements used in traditional logic cannot include more than one determiner, such as “all” or “many”, because they are unsolvable or “intractable”.

First-order logic, or predicate logic, allows for statements to introduce quantifiable variables.  Since this is done with our language, then these variables could include the determiners “all” or “many”.  Propositional logic is known as zeroth-order logic and contains no determiners, i.e., variables expressing quantity.  It is thus more fundamental and makes use of words that connect propositions together or logical operators, e.g., “not”, “or”.  In our English grammar, these of course are known as coordinating conjunctions.

Mathematical logic is when formal logic is allowed to influence mathematics and vice versa.  Computer science was developed in the 1940s based on Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorems which addressed the limitations of all of the formal logic systems discussed above.  Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege were the pioneers in applying formal logic to mathematics, known as logicism, by using set theory, recursion theory, and proof theory.  Finally, intuitionism says that math is not a form of objectivism.

According to Intuitionism, the truth of a statement is equivalent to the mathematician being able to intuit the statement, and not necessarily to its provability. It requires the application of intuitionistic logic (or constructivist logic), which preserves justification, rather than truth, for derived propositions. [1]

Intuitionism essentially says that math does not exist independent of the mind.  Math is not analytic—that is, to deny its truth wouldn’t be a contradiction— but instead is a mental activity of humans.  Mathematical truths don’t reveal “deep properties of existence but rather they are the application of internally consistent methods to realize more complex mental constructs”.    

Any mathematical object is considered to be the product of a construction of a mind, so that if it can be constructed then it exists.  Intuitionism is therefore a variety of Mathematical Constructivism in that it asserts that it is necessary to find (or “construct”) a mathematical object to prove that it exists. [1]

Analytic philosophy was an actual movement and a catch-all phrase for anything within logic that excluded logicism, logical positivism, and ordinary language philosophy.  It says the following which is what I have concluded that philosophy can provide us—that is, clarity within the framework of our limited language. 

philosophy should apply logical techniques in order to attain conceptual clarity, and that philosophy should be consistent with the success of modern science. For many Analytic Philosophers, language is the principal (perhaps the only) tool, and philosophy consists in clarifying how language can be used. [1]

Ethics The Study of How We Should Act

  • consequentialism, utilitarianism, egoism, altruism
  • hedonism, humanism, individualism, deontology
  • moral realism, moral absolutism, moral relativism


i) There are nuances within each of these terms worth discussing.  When we speak of absolute and objective, these concepts can be relative to other things just as relativism is.  The difference is that once a relationship with another thing is established, it is the “essence” of that thing that matters.  On the other hand, when terms like relative and subjective are addressed, then it’s the “representations” of the thing that is used by something else.  Relative and subjective are reserved for things that have agency.

ii) Inference comes from “infer” which means “to carry forward”.  It is something we do when we think we know something from something we think we know.  Once presented as a formal argument, then the statement that we inferred becomes a conclusion.


[1] Mastin, L. (2009, January). Existence and Consciousness.

When to Keep the Snark

Here, I briefly talk about myself as a gateway to the idea that perhaps we should be more tactful in our use of contempt in our own lives.  As for the Blog (i), sarcasm is too integral to its appeal; people know what to expect and that is fair enough.

If it wasn’t for my experiences with work and tough relationships, there would be no need to “reverse engineer”.  In short, I have found that when I take the “war out of my words” that the message is more likely to be heard by those that don’t share my beliefs.

Reverse Engineering

At work, which was a gun-toting, god-fearing, military-loving, and, liberal-hating kind of a place, is where I decided to take a turn from engineering to psychology.  I wanted to understand why we were so different because I certainly did not fit in.  I drove a Prius, hated God, loathed the military, and disliked my lunch being served to me as a “hit” of dopamine.  Thank you shooting-range.

This was a company that did some “important” work like aiding and abetting the Predator (ii) for our “freedom”.  Now to my point.  I asked a coworker who used harsh punishment on his kids if he was aware of the psychological costs?  He told me to not “reverse engineer” his technique.  He analyzes electronic circuits, so why can’t he analyze himself?  Because he perceived criticism.

The Four Horsemen (iii)

In my household, most everything was an argument.  I wanted to understand what was in my words and style of relating that triggered others.  Therapists didn’t help but the research did.  I found Gottman’s empirical work on relationships to be of most value.  There are four styles of relating to one another that turn arguing into fighting: contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

These styles of relating to one another should be minimized in personal relationships.  In fact, being on the receiving end of contempt increases stress hormones and inflammation in the body, which makes us more susceptible to physical and mental illnesses.  Contempt and hostility are early warning signs that relationships are heading south.

  • Contempt is when we feel that someone (or their idea) is inferior because we view them (or their idea) to have a negative characteristic, which makes them unworthy of our consideration.  We show this by using body-language—mockery, eye-rolling, sneering, dismissiveness—and with how we use our words—sarcasm, patronizing, snarking, name-calling.
  • Criticism is to find fault in something.  Unlike contempt, it doesn’t take on a position of superiority.  Even if indirect, criticisms are usually taken in a “global” way and personalized.  I suppose what we do, what we have, and who we know are about us.
  • Defensiveness is the result of criticism.  When criticized, we don’t like the person and the message will be lost, unless they are our superiors.  Instead, we make excuses for the fault and fight back, anything to feel the sting and keep our reputations.
  • Stonewalling is either a deliberate or unintentional refusal to communicate and get on better terms with someone.

The War Out of Words

There is no way to take the war out of contempt as it is meant to hurt.  It’s up to us to be mindful when we start feeling contemptuous towards someone and find ways to prevent it from escalating, see an example.  Not surprisingly, this is what causes a bad marriage.

You’re ‘tired?’ Cry me a river. I’ve been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this house going and all you do is sit and expect me to do everything. I don’t have time to deal with another kid. Your are pathetic?”

As far as criticism, there is a way to make it less direct.  If you are already at the stage of resentment and indignation, then contempt may be a few steps away and this won’t work.  Otherwise, just reformat it to be in terms of a complaint instead.

  • Criticism: Why do you always do it like that?  I hate when you do that?
  • Complaint: “I feel” hurt when you don’t wash your dishes because it creates extra work for me.


i) I am impressed with the writing at freethought blogs.  We get our points across in a very colorful and pointed way.  Depending on our goals, it may be too “sharp” though for some.  On the other hand, studies show that when we debate, we end up only believing more strongly in what we originally believed.  In other words, what is the point?  Those that believe need to be entertained.

ii) The Predator was a remotely piloted aircraft by General Atomics.  I am pretty sure it was in combat for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  It was something to be proud of, but no one would dare talk about the casualties that it left behind.

iii) The Four Horsemen is from the Apocalypse and means impending doom.  It’s a metaphor for what status your marriage is in if you are using contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling.  It is empirically validated by the Gottmans with over 30 years worth of research.

“Know Your Place”

People don’t always tell you what they are thinking. They just see to it that you don’t advance in life.

It comes in the form of subtle messages that can leave us feeling inferior, inadequate, and resentful.  It can be the kind where nothing is said but felt.  It is a kind that erodes confidence and leaves us in a state of wonder as to what others really think.  It can keep us “in our place” at work and in life and make us the subject of dismissal or ridicule.  It is contempt, hate, and hubris.

Racism, ableism, and sexism come from contempt, hate, and hubris.  I have two challenges for liberals: one, we are exclusive in our use of fairness and, two, we use contempt on our enemies.  Why focus on some—race, ethnicity, and sex—but not on others?  As feeble and soft as it sounds, the theme that makes liberalism what it is is caring for others.

Contempt Explained

We here at freethought blogs love to use contempt.  From comments to our posts, it is always present.  Contempt is the feeling that a person or idea is not worthy of our respect because it or they are beneath us.  It works by us finding negative characteristics in ideas and in people and then attributing the whole idea or person to being inferior.  It is a form of stereotype since it generalizes.

Contempt is at the heart of racism and sexism since we feel above them and generalize their “inferior” qualities to be what defines them.  Hate, by contrast, is when others pose a threat to our status, which is our need to advance in the eyes of others, or to our wellbeing.  Contempt and hate involve social hierarchy, that is, who is above us and who is below us, but do so in different ways.

Someone can feel contempt for a very lazy person, but not hate him, because he poses no threat.  Similarly, someone can feel hate for a rival, as they pose a threat, but not feel contempt, because they are not seen as inferior.
If we care about others, then should we limit its use?  When is it justified and effective, other than to inflate ego?  I argued that “bullying the bullies” is moral, but I must be a wimp because I struggle with it.  I am, however, guilty of using it on my enemies.

The Forgotten Persons

For me, there is nothing more disturbing than when Trump ridiculed and mocked the reporter from the New York Times.  If we define ableism to mean the ability to accomplish things effectively and efficiently, then there are a lot of people in trouble.  There are thirteen million people in the United States that have intellectual disabilities.  But at best we pity them and at worst we ridicule them.

If we define social value as what another person has to “offer us”, which boils down to our appearances, likability, and capabilities, then this class of people is at risk of being dismissed and ridiculed.  But these people have been underrepresented up until the 1970s.  In fact, we actually had “ugly laws” at one time that barred “undesirables” from making appearances.  I am speechless.

Think about the movies “Unhinged” and “The Joker“.  What “drives” these hypothetical characters is that they were “dismissed” in life and no matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t compete and cooperate.  This class of people, let’s call them the “Losers”, decided to not “take it”, “it” being their subordinated role in life, and “do something about it”.  But it was at the cost of the well-being of others.