Mill on Freedom of Thought and Expression

A summary of John Stuart Mill’s four reasons for allowing others to freely express their views even when those views are almost universally rejected and reviled.

Among the many fine accomplishments of the British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was his authorship1 of the classic defense of freedom: On Liberty. In the second chapter of the book, Mill makes a case for allowing others to freely express their views even when those views are almost universally rejected and reviled. Here, in summary, are the four reasons Mill offers:

1. Unpopular opinions may be right

Sometimes the things that we and nearly everyone around us take for granted are flat-out wrong. If this happens to be the case, but we do not permit people to openly state their disagreement and make a case for it, then there is much less of a chance that we ever will realize our errors. “To deny this,” says Mill, “is to assume our own infallibility” (p. 64).

2. Even opinions that are mostly wrong are often partly right

Rarely are our opinions completely right, even when nearly everyone around us agrees with us about them. In Mill’s words, “the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth” (p.64). Being presented with contrary opinions, even when they are mostly in the wrong, often helps us to notice what isn’t quite right about what we believe, which we can then work on fixing.

3. Even opinions that are completely wrong challenge dogmatism…

Even when our views happen to be completely right, that doesn’t mean that the reasons we have for holding them are good; sometimes, in fact, we are not able to articulate reasons for our views at all. But in such cases our beliefs are not justified. Clashing with contrary views, even completely wrong ones, forces us to search for and articulate good reasons for why we are right and our opponents are wrong. Without this clash, most of us will hold our views “in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds” (p. 64).

4. … and prevent our beliefs from turning into empty affirmations.

Without any challenge, our opinions—even if they are correct—will become dogmatic, and our affirmation of them will in turn become a “mere formal profession” (p. 64) that we recite with no understanding. But this strips truth of the power to actually benefit the character of those who affirm it. It is only in understanding why particular things are true that we make them our own and feel their full force. Having to argue against contrary views, even when those views are completely wrong, ensures that we assent by reason rather than rote, with all of the benefits that brings.

Questions and complications

1. The reasons above support permitting open argument for deeply unpopular views, but how much do they support allowing the mere assertion of unpopular views without argument? Do Mill’s four reasons apply in such cases, or does one need to look for other reasons?

2. Even Mill doesn’t advocate protecting expression that causes or instigates harm to another person without adequate justification (see pp. 67-68). But there are people who claim to be so sensitive to certain opinions (or even words) that simply hearing them expressed results in deep emotional trauma. Assuming that what such people state is true—and this does seem to be the case in at least some instances—can such cases override Mill’s four reasons?

3. Since Mill’s reasons trade on the idea that it benefits us to hear arguments for views contrary to our own, this suggests that merely allowing free expression is not enough, since opinions can be permitted and yet heard by few. Do Mill’s reasons entail that society is obligated to actively seek out and broadcast arguments for unpopular views, to ensure that they are as widely heard as possible?

Notes

1 Possibly together with Harriet Taylor. The evidence, including what Mill himself says about the matter, is equivocal. There is no question that Taylor influenced Mill, but the question of actual co-authorship is not settled.

References

Mill JS. 1997. On Liberty. Upper-Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. Edited by Curran V. Shields. Original published 1859.

Why Do Atheists Bother?

“If there is no god, then why do you bother?” So ask many religious interlocutors, seemingly frustrated that mobs of atheists do not riot in the streets and murder people when someone draws an unflattering caricature of Richard Dawkins.

One criticism of religion that is popular among atheists is that religion encourages much behavior that civilized people reject, from the concealment and protection of child-rapists to the piloting of commuter airplanes into skyscrapers. This kind of moral critique typically does not function as an argument for the truth of atheism, and usually is not offered as such,1 but atheists tend to be the most high-profile purveyors of said critique. For their troubles, they often are met with the following riposte: “If you are an atheist, why do you bother? If there is no god, then nothing is right or wrong, so why do you bother?” So ask many religious interlocutors, seemingly frustrated that Sam Harris is not Osama bin Laden, that Christopher Hitchens is not Bernard Law, and that mobs of atheists do not riot in the streets and murder people when someone draws an unflattering caricature of Richard Dawkins.

But why do atheists bother with moral critique? One way to respond to this challenge is to construct, present, and defend a secular foundation of ethics; many have been offered, to the extent that they are the standard in the modern academy. I won’t take that approach, though, because the question admits of a much simpler answer which requires no forays into metaethics. Let me speak directly to those of you who pose the question, and ask you to pause for a moment to reflect on what the question commits you to, if you take it seriously.

If you really do believe—as virtually no atheist does—that the nonexistence of god can leave one with no motivation at all to, for instance, oppose murder, then you are committed to saying that if you did not believe in a god, then you would not care whether anyone were murdered. I know that you likely have been coached to make precisely that claim, but think it through. I ask you: imagine there is no god. Now, visualize someone you love. Do you have a clear image? Good—now visualize someone eviscerating your beloved with a knife. Imagine the screams, the terror, the agony. Suppose you have a chance to interdict the thrusts of the knife. Do you step in front of your wife, your husband, your child, your friend, to take the blade into your own body (or at least curse yourself for being too afraid to do so)? Or do you just shrug your shoulders and watch dispassionately because, after all, there is no god? Situate the torturous murder of your beloved back into a world that contains your god. Asked to explain your own anguish, do you really name as the source your belief that the bloody deed is contrary to some god’s will—that, this aside, you don’t mind at all, and feel not the slightest impulse to intervene? Finally, are your answers much different if you substitute for your loved one a stranger—someone else’s wife, husband, child, or friend—who has never done anyone harm?

Be honest with yourself about the above, and you quickly will realize how silly and hypocritical it is to ask why atheists bother. Atheists bother for exactly the same reason you do—a reason which has absolutely nothing to do with belief in gods.

Notes

1 See, however, William Lobdell’s thoughtful Losing My Religion, in which Lobdell makes a compelling argument that the corrupt behavior of believers actually is evidence against the standard conception of God.

Are There Atheists in Foxholes?

One often hears the claim thrown around that “there are no atheists in foxholes.” What can one say about this?

One often hears the claim thrown around that “there are no atheists in foxholes.” The claim is common, but the intent behind it varies. Sometimes the intent is to assert quite literally that there are no atheists in the military, or that atheists never put themselves in harm’s way for others. Other times, the intent seems to be just to claim that atheists sometimes turn briefly to religion in moments of terror, and that this undermines the truth of atheism.

Atheist Dog Tags

What can one say about the first claim; namely, that atheists never join the armed forces or put themselves at risk for others? That claim is, of course, sheer nonsense—a comforting fairy-tale for pompous bigots. My own four years with the United States Marine Corps included two tours in Iraq, in both of which my primary role was to drive ahead of convoys and dig through old blast craters and suspicious roadside rubbish with my bare hands, so that any hidden IEDs would, at worst, kill me instead of some other Marine in the convoy; I was completely defenseless, but not once did my atheism waver.

I knew a fair number of other religious skeptics among my colleagues in the Marine Corps, and even most of the believers knew where to draw the line. For instance, I was once sitting in the back of a seven-ton with a group of fellow Marines after a training exercise, when one of them passed news alleging that Bush said that God had told him to invade Iraq. I expected to provoke a fight with my reply that this sounded the same as Osama bin Laden, but instead of throwing me out of the back of the seven-ton, everyone actually laughed out loud and nodded their heads. Although there certainly are some religious bigots among the Marines—like a stupid Sergeant Major who proselytized us at the end of a battalion safety brief, and sagely informed us that atheists pray to rocks they carry around in their pockets—there are enough atheists in the Marine Corps that most others would not insult them: they know there’s a decent chance that the brother who takes shrapnel for them tomorrow will be an atheist.

How about the second claim, that some atheists may briefly turn to religion when faced with the threat of imminent death? Although there are enough examples like my own to show that this contention expresses something far from a universal truth, I’m sure it often is true. My advantage in the field was that I had already reflected seriously on death, and made peace with my own mortality, long before I joined the Marines. Not everyone does so, and I find it easy to understand that one might grasp at comforting metaphysical straws when the threat of death catches one unprepared. The thing is, the flight from reason in moments of desperation does not at all undermine the truth of atheism—it supports it, because it lends support to the view that much religious belief ultimately is driven by fear, especially the fear of death.

What If You’re Wrong?

Many believers think that atheism is a risky bet, because atheism risks infinite suffering for a minor payoff, while belief risks finite loss for an infinite payoff. Are they right?

Many believers think that atheism is a risky bet. “If you’re right,” they say, “you don’t gain much, if anything. But if you’re wrong, then you will end up being tortured in Hell for all eternity.” Believers don’t share the same risks: if they’re wrong, the worst that happens is that they have wasted a finite life in error; but if they’re right, then they get eternal bliss. Atheism risks infinite suffering for a minor payoff; belief risks finite loss for an infinite payoff. With this setup, no sensible gambler would have any question about how to bet. So, should atheists be afraid? Should we use any means possible to deceive ourselves into believing in a god, simply because a cost-benefit analysis appears to favor belief over atheism?

The answer is no, because proponents of this argument have the cost-benefit analysis wrong. They assume that there is only one particular kind of god on the table: a god who rewards belief (for any reason) with eternal bliss, and punishes atheism (for any reason) with eternal torture. But this is, in fact, not the only god on the table. All gods are on the table. Who is to say that there might not be a god who rewards atheism, and punishes belief? Or that there might not be a god who rewards honesty and sincerity, and punishes those who deceive themselves into believing simply because of a cost-benefit analysis?

Believers who suggest that atheism is a risky bet tend to assume unreflectively that the only kind of god that could exist is the kind of god they believe in. If this were so, then the cost-benefit analysis would favor belief in that kind of god. But to justify such an analysis, they need first to show that no other kind of god is possible. And this has not been done.

Thus, we are all faced with the same situation: in order to make an informed choice, even an informed wager, all we can do is follow the evidence, make an honest assessment, and hope that there is no arbitrary tyrant in the sky who rewards credulity and punishes integrity. Hence, since the evidence favors atheism, the best choice is the honest one: atheism. No worries.

Is Religion the Enemy?

Should atheists regard religion as the enemy?

I care about truth, so I would like others to believe only that which is true. Since I believe religion to be false, it follows that I think an ideal world would contain no religion. One of the many ways a utopia would differ from the current world is that in a utopia, all will have decided, of their own accord, to convert their places of worship into places of learning: on every corner of every city, libraries rather than churches. To the extent that I believe this to be a positive vision, and to that extent alone, I may rightly be counted an adversary of all religion.

However, there are worse things than false beliefs—suffering and injustice, for instance. Many atheists are quick to point out that religion often is a cause of both; thus do we have a thread of eloquent moral critique all the way from the Baron d’Holbach to Christopher Hitchens. These atheists are right: eliminate religion, and you often eliminate the sole rationale for a familiar manifestation of injustice or oppression.

But there is a line to be drawn. Religion sometimes is a force for good, its vacuous foundations notwithstanding. Likewise, and more importantly, religion is not by any means the only source of problems in the world. Human corruption runs far deeper than that. There are, of course, particular problems in the here and now that would vanish into smoke were religion to cease to exist, but what other problems would then appear to the fill the void? People need few excuses to hate one another, and religion is only one excuse—take it away, and you may be assured that people will find others.

This is why I do not think religion is the enemy. The best possible world might not contain religion, but the next best one easily might. I believe the true battle lines are drawn not between the religious and the nonreligious, but between the humanistic and the anti-humanistic, the noble and the corrupt. These qualities cut across the full religious spectrum: good people come equally from both ends, though they are always rare.

When you are trying to gauge whether others are your enemies, do not ask them what they believe about gods and spirits. Ask them, rather, which is more important: that everyone believe as they do, or that everyone live in happiness, with justice? If they say that their doctrine is important, but far more important is whether one is good to others, then, whatever else they believe, these are your friends. But, if they say that being good to others is secondary; or, if they say that life is not meant for happiness; or, if they say that we will have peace and justice only once all have been made to kneel to right doctrine—if they say these things, then, whatever else they believe, these are your enemies.

Where Did the Universe Come From?

What do atheists say about the origin of the universe?

Right now, I think the best answer anyone can give to the question of where the universe came from is “I don’t know.” Science has traced the history of the universe back about 13.8 billion years, and has revealed many things about it undreamt of by any religious creation myth, but ultimate questions about the exact origin of the universe are still an open subject of investigation. Cosmologists are not even sure it is coherent to ask where the universe came from, since modern physics understands space and time themselves to be inseparable parts of the universe: does it make any sense to ask “where” the universe “came from” if there is no such thing as “outside of” the universe or “before” its origin? Progress in the scientific understanding of the origin of the universe depends on the resolution of deep and complex issues in fundamental physics, to which only a handful of people in the world are qualified to make an informed contribution.

The wisest policy for those of us who do not have that kind of expertise, believer and nonbeliever alike, is to wait for science to come closer to settling the issue. In the meantime, we can note that the trend in every branch of science has been to discover that more and more can be explained adequately without reference to the activity of magical or supernatural beings, and that there is no reason to expect this trend to reverse itself in the future. But as far as the details of the origin of the universe go, we must simply wait. Although this may not be enough for those who hate uncertainty enough to prefer a leap of blind faith, there is in fact nothing wrong with acknowledging the limits of our current understanding, and waiting, with patience and humility, for science to complete its work.

Science aside, is there any philosophical reason to suspect that a god must have played a role in the origin of the universe? Surely not. Apologists will argue that the universe must have been caused by something itself uncaused, or by something timeless, or by something which exists necessarily. Perhaps any one of these must be so, perhaps not. Most modern philosophers think not, but perhaps they are mistaken. But even if there had to have been an uncaused cause, a timeless cause, or a necessary cause, why should anyone suppose any such cause to have been intelligent? Why should anyone suppose the cause of the universe to have just happened to have all of the characteristics of a god, instead of merely those bare characteristics that allow it to cause a universe and itself to exist uncaused? When we push so far into the realm of speculation, atheists can match the extravagant theistic speculations about gods and creators with far simpler speculations of their own about far simpler causes.

To summarize, we just do not yet know where the universe came from, or, for that matter, whether it even makes sense to ask that question. But were it to turn out that the universe must indeed have come from something, there still would be no reason to believe that it must have come from a god. In fact, something as horrendously complex and unlikely as a god is the last explanation anyone should reach for.

Is Atheism a Religion?

Critics of atheism sometimes assert that atheism is a religion. Are they right?

Critics of atheism sometimes assert that atheism is a religion. Given that the critics nearly always are themselves religious, it is strange that the assertion tends to emerge from their mouths in the form of an accusation, as though they believe they have uncovered some scandalous crime. But never mind the peculiarity of the rhetoric; it is a legitimate question, which admits of a dispassionate answer: is atheism a religion?

The answer is no, atheism is not a religion. Atheism is not comprehensive enough to be a religion. Atheists have no credo, no priesthood, no holy books, no objects of worship—none of the things that normally are associated with religions. To call atheism a religion when it lacks such things, is to stretch the word religion to the point of vacuity. Likewise, the predictable responses that university professors are the atheist priesthood, that On the Origin of Species is the atheist holy book, that atheists worship themselves, and similar such nonsense, are no more than crude (though convenient) equivocations on the terms priesthood, holy book, and worship. One might as well assert that the term child abuse means god, and then argue on that basis that all believers love child abuse.

Atheism can, of course, be incorporated into various secular ideologies, some of which are sufficiently cultish to bear analogy to religion—certain strains of Marxism, for instance, being the most commonly cited example—and it is possible to find minor atheistic schools in some of the major world religions, which perhaps retain enough of their ancestry to continue to qualify as religions. However, this does not mean that atheism is itself a religion, or that any particular atheist must accept any of the ideologies or schools above. Just as belief in an immaterial soul can be a component of a religion, but is not itself a religion, so with atheism. Even in the context of a cultish worldview that incorporates atheism, atheism is no more a religion than a library book is a library, an atom of hydrogen is a water molecule, or a cup of flour is a chocolate cake.

In the end, calling atheism a religion is akin to calling capitalism, or pacifism, or too much time in front of the television, a religion—it is just a way certain people have of pointing at something they don’t like, and implying that everyone associated with that something is a fanatic. In short, the claim is mere rhetoric, after all. In the normal sense of what it takes for something to be a religion, atheism doesn’t qualify.

Why Atheism?

A brief description, in the most general terms possible, of why I am an atheist.

When Pierre-Simon Laplace presented a copy of his Celestial Mechanics to Napoleon, and Napoleon asked him why such a large book about the universe made no mention of a Creator, Laplace is purported to have replied, “I had no need of that hypothesis.” This response encapsulates, in the simplest, most general terms, why I am an atheist: I am an atheist because the hypothesis of a god is completely unnecessary.

Our understanding of the world at least since the Scientific Revolution has moved steadily in the direction of increasing naturalism: with each passing year, science has brought under the provenance of natural law more and more phenomena formerly attributed to the activity of spooks, leprechauns, vital forces, and gods. With each passing year, science has given ever greater indication of the sufficiency of nature unto itself and its operation as an unbroken system. So strong has this trend been that naturalism now justly is the default position of the informed.

I do not, by any means, claim that science is finished, or that there are no phenomena that are deeply resistant to scientific inquiry. However, where questions or anomalies still exist, supernaturalism does no better a job than naturalism at answering those questions or explaining those anomalies. Investigate for a moment how the introduction of a god or leprechaun is supposed to provide an explanation for the gaps that still exist in our knowledge, and one quickly finds vacuity covered with a thin veneer of special pleading. To summarize: what we understand of the world requires no god, and what we do not understand of the world is not helped by positing one. The hypothesis of a god is utterly superfluous.

Of course, those who are familiar with the tale of Laplace and Napoleon will know the sequel: when informed by Napoleon of the exchange, Joseph-Louis Lagrange opined that the hypothesis of a god was a very fine hypothesis, and explained much. I mention this simply to state the obvious: that what I have offered here is intended only as the first word on the matter, not the last.

What is Atheism?

A brief overview of atheism, describing what it is and what it is not.

Here is how I define atheism: atheism is the belief that there is no god. Now for the fine print:

1. The most common misperception people have about atheism is that atheism is certainty that there is no god. Although those who profess certainty that there is no god do indeed qualify as atheists, they are only a subset of atheists. Most atheists believe there is no god, but do not profess certainty about the matter. How can one be an atheist and still admit the possibility of being mistaken? In exactly the same way that a person can be a believer and still harbor doubts.

2. There is a special kind of person, called a noncognitivist, who technically does not believe that there is no god, yet still qualifies as an atheist. Noncognitivists argue that the word god is meaningless, such that to profess belief that there is, or is not, a god is to utter literal nonsense, on par with saying that you believe that there is, or is not, a blawdjaskid. Noncognitivists are relatively few and far between these days, so I think it best simply to understand them as a qualification to the definition I offered.

3. Among those who defend atheism by name, there are many who argue that atheism should be understood not as the belief that there is no god, but as lack of belief that there is a god. I think the real motivation here is to try explicitly to incorporate noncognitivists under the name of atheism. There are two problems with this: (1) such a definition ends up incorporating agnostics (those who just have no idea whether or not there is a god), most of whom do not consider themselves atheists; (2) very few people who call themselves atheists have a simple lack of belief that there is a god—on the contrary, virtually all believe that there are good reasons to actively deny that there is a god. Given this, I think it better to define atheism narrowly and then qualify it with noncognitivism, than to define it so broadly that it encompasses agnostics against their will.

4. Some people try to split the difference by calling those who believe that there is no god strong or positive atheists, and those who merely lack a belief in god weak or negative atheists. I think this distinction creates more problems than it solves. I prefer to reserve the title of atheist for those who believe that there is no god (and noncognitivists), and use the more generic term nonbeliever as the umbrella term for atheists and agnostics combined.

5. Since atheism simply is a stance on whether or not there is a god, it does not require any particular ethical or political views, or any broader beliefs about what does and does not exist. Atheism does not even require rejection of the transcendent or the supernatural in general. Atheism is not a worldview, but merely one element that may fit into many different worldviews.

6. With this said, modern atheists—at least those who openly identify themselves as such—tend also to be naturalists and skeptics, rejecting entirely the supernatural and even the paranormal.

7. Those who wish to define atheism differently than I have are, of course, free to do so. I think my definition best captures actual usage, but nothing critical turns on purely semantic debates; all that matters in a discussion is that everyone understand how everyone else uses their terms, so misunderstanding can be avoided. All I claim about my definition is that it captures what is atheistic about people who actually call themselves atheists.

How Do We Know Anything About the Future?

An introduction to the problem of induction

Suppose I made you the following wager: “I am going to take a brick, hold it out in front of me, and release it. If the brick falls, I will give you a thousand dollars. If the brick stays suspended in midair, you will give me a thousand dollars.” Would you accept the bet?

The first thing that would occur to you, of course, is that I must be trying to con you. Perhaps I will try to fool you with sleight of hand, or use wires or glue or magnets to keep the brick from falling. Perhaps I might even set the brick on a table, and appeal to some lame semantic quibble about what “suspended in midair” means. But let’s suppose there is no trick, and that you can know this for sure; let’s suppose I am actually betting you that gravity simply will cease to affect the brick the moment I release it, and that it literally will hover in midair in front of the two of us, no tricks involved.

Well, if that’s what I proposed, of course you would take the bet. You would take it even if I bet only ten dollars against your thousand: what an easy, risk-free way to make ten dollars!

But your response raises a problem: what justifies your confidence?

Fine! you say. If you don’t think my confidence is justified, go ahead and bet against me!

But that doesn’t answer the question. I feel the same level of confidence as you do. I would never, in actuality, make such a bet against you. But this agreement in feeling does nothing, in itself, to justify our confidence.

Let’s grant, at least, that absolute confidence is unreasonable. Ask yourself whether it is possible, for all you know, that gravity could cease to apply to the brick the moment I release it?

But, you ask, why would it?

But that’s not the question. No one is claiming that there is good reason to think it will. The question is, is it possible, for all you know? And the answer to that, surely, is yes. You don’t think it will happen, but nothing you are aware of rules out the bare possibility.

But no one has ever seen something like that happen!

No, indeed not. Let’s even go further: let’s grant—what in practice cannot be verified—that it actually never has happened. Even this does not prove that it won’t happen the next time. Maybe such events are so rare that they occur only once every twenty billion years.

But the laws of nature forbid something like that from happening!

It may be that our current best account of the laws of nature forbid the local suspension of gravity, but how do we know that this account reflects the actual laws of nature? Isn’t our best account based upon generalization from what we have seen? If this is so, then appealing to the laws of nature is just a roundabout way of saying that no one has ever seen something like this happen—which we just realized that is not a good reason for saying that it never will happen. For all we know, the true laws of nature allow for occasional deviations from the usual way things happen. In fact, for all we know, there could be a built-in time limit to all of the actual laws of nature, so that everything will change tomorrow.

But there are mechanisms underlying the laws of nature, that make them work!

Let’s suppose we have access to these mechanisms. How do we know the mechanisms will continue to work the same in the future? Suppose, for instance, that we demonstrate that gravity is driven by the exchange of gluons. How do we know that gluon exchange will not, all of the sudden, have a different effect on the brick I am holding once I release it? Presumably, we have to appeal to the alleged constancy of the laws of nature, at the gluon level, and this ultimately brings us back to square one.

But this kind of reasoning has always worked for me in the past!

Has it really? Have your expectations about the future, based upon rigid patterns in the past, never turned out wrong? But put that aside. Even if that kind of reasoning has always worked for you in the past, to try to justify its future application on the basis of past success is to argue in a circle: you’re still extrapolating from the past to the future. Since the legitimacy of such extrapolation is precisely what’s at issue here in the first place, you can’t make this move.

It seems, at this point, that we have no way to justify absolute confidence that, for instance, the brick I release actually will fall.

Fine! But we can still reasonably be confident, even if we can’t reasonably be sure.

Is this true? Again, it is not that I would bet against you; I am just as confident as you are. The question is, what makes our confidence reasonable? Our reasoning seems to go back to the same set of reasons we gave above. But none of those reasons underwrites anything about the future, with any probability.

But one can’t live one’s life like that, believing it just as likely as not that gravity will cease to work in the next minute!

One probably can’t. But, again, that doesn’t answer the question. David Hume, who forcefully presented this problem (now known as the problem of induction), agreed that human nature compels us both to generalize from our experiences in certain ways, and to have confidence in those generalizations, the moment we set aside our philosopher’s caps. This makes life livable despite the skeptical riddles of philosophy, but Hume also realized that it no more resolves these problems than closing your eyes makes the world disappear.

It appears that we have no reason, on the basis of evidence, to believe, with any confidence, that the brick I release will not hover in the air. This is insane. Surely, there must be a solution, mustn’t there?