A Journal for Western Man
Undaunted Adherence to
Personal Conviction in the
Spreading of Ideas
G. Stolyarov II
Issue LVII- May 9, 2006
Recently on The Rational Argumentator’s Forum, my policy in promoting and presenting the ideas to which I adhere was challenged by a discussion participant, N. Cannell. Mr. Cannell’s remarks were made respectfully and in the spirit of constructive criticism. However, I consider them mistaken. They are arguments that require a response, and I hope that the present article shall furnish a justification for The Rational Argumentator’s commitment to an undaunted, uncompromising presentation of the right ideas, while allowing their discussion, evaluation, and criticism.
Mr. Cannell challenged my approach on numerous separate points, and it would be fitting to address him on each separate issue.
The Religion Debate
Mr. Cannell’s criticism arose from an ongoing discussion of my avowed atheism and perception of logical and moral flaws with the very idea of a God. As a precursor to Mr. Cannell’s comment, I had argued that a god simultaneously omnipotent and omnibenevolent is a contradiction in terms, for innocent human beings have been ruthlessly slaughtered in the past—while such a God could have easily intervened. I wrote:
The life of the innocent individual is the absolute good; only living, volitional entities (i.e., human beings) can value, and therefore their lives are the precondition and root of all value. Any rational value system must be grounded on the life of the individual as the absolute, fundamental, indivisible, and unsurpassable goal. Whenever some guilty party (like the Nazis, the Communist dictatorships, or common criminals) violates this moral law and kills an innocent human being or many innocent human beings, that party has forfeited its humanity and its right to live. Any just enforcer of moral law would by definition have to annihilate such violators as soon as their designs were clear. Because God (if he exists) did not strike down the Nazis, the Stalinists, and the Islamist dictatorships and theocracies before they murdered innocent people, God did not enforce the most fundamental, most absolute moral law. Because (for the sake of this argument) God is omnipotent, he could have enforced this law; therefore, he must have chosen not to, which renders him evil.
Of course, there are other contradictions with the concept of God which lead me to hold that reality exhibits no God rather than an evil and perverse God. I have enunciated these on TRA’s Forum and elsewhere. The object of the article is not to fully articulate or to defend these points, but rather to analyze the errors contained in Mr. Cannell’s immediate response to my above statement. Mr. Cannell wrote:
So, you are saying that your argument only holds any ground if the person reading it already does not believe in the soul (the immaterial self), which happens to be the core of most religious teachings. I would venture to state that the number of people who believe in God, but do not believe in the soul, is slim enough that making the argument of God's non-existence to them is simply inconsequential. Now, how would you defend this assertion against God's existence to someone who does believe in the soul, someone who believes that our material existence is only a transient state, in which the sum total of each of our lives ultimately adds up to nothing when compared with the eternity ahead of us?
Mr. Cannell presumes that my object is to persuade people who believe in the immortality of the soul that God does not exist and could not have been moral even if he did exist. However, I hold no such objective, for I do not see the validity in fully accepting the premises of the system I wish to refute. My atheism challenges all of the fundamental metaphysical tenets of religion, including the idea that the soul and body are separable and that the soul continues to exist after the body has perished. I view the soul-body separability as empirically unobserved and logically contradictory: in my view, the “soul”—or, identically, the mind—is a relationship among the physical parts of the brain and the nervous system. A relationship is a relationship of entities, and it ceases when its participant entities cease to exist in the arrangement which renders the relationship possible. If I wish to convince people of my atheism, I wish to convince them of all ideas entailed in said atheism. I wish to convince them not only that God cannot be both omnipotent and omnibenelovent—but also that the mind dies with the body and no other life but the individual’s present one is conceivable.
It is true that someone who believes in an afterlife might find my argument as to God’s immorality to be unpersuasive, but this is because he holds an erroneous belief devoid of and refuted by all evidence. My object, then, should be to convince him that his erroneous belief (the soul-body separability) ought to be reexamined and rejected.
There would be no legitimate purpose for me to concede to someone an idea I know to be wrong for the purposes of persuading that person; this would contradict entirely the proper function of argumentation and discussion. This proper function is the discernment of truth, not conformity to other people’s preexisting notions, whether they be logical or illogical. Belief in an idea, true or false, does not constitute objective verification of that idea.
I would be quite an ineffectual argumentator were I to say to anyone who disagreed with me, “Well, I suppose I see how you can believe what you believe because of what you believe. My arguments are thus not relevant to you, because you believe in something else.” As one who recognizes an objective reality and an objective truth, my natural and proper response to such a person is, “What you believe is incorrect. Let me show you why.”
My point in challenging this assertion was not, in fact, simply to refute you, but was to challenge your mode of thinking from the mindset of those whom you yourself are trying to refute with this assertion. My greatest criticism of you always has been, and still is, that you focus so much on what you believe to be the ultimate perfection of your ideals, that you actually disable yourself from helping those ideals come about.
Mr. Cannell assumes that my foremost intent is to “help my ideals come about.” Yet this is not the first step in any intellectual endeavor. The first step is to discover what the truth actually is: what exists, what is good, and what ought to be done. The facts of reality and the proper goals of human action ought to be already determined before one even begins to act on them. Otherwise, any action would not be guided by these truths and would be tantamount to stumbling purposelessly in the dark.
Persuading other people who disagree with one’s own understanding of the truth ought not be one’s foremost endeavor. One’s foremost endeavor should be to understand of the truth. What is true about reality and morality? What are the fundamental ideas one holds about reality and morality? Why does one hold them? Do they correspond to truth? This was the purpose, in my mind, of the Religion thread on TRA’s forum. I sought to elucidate why I consider myself an atheist and why I personally reject the existence of any sort of deity. In achieving this understanding of the truth, one should welcome questions and criticisms from others; the questions need to be answered and the criticisms either refuted or used to modify one’s views.
In this step, perfection is the goal: a perfection of understanding. The objective is to obtain an understanding of reality as integrated, logically consistent, and irrefutable as possible. The objective is certainly not to meet other people halfway, granting validity to their ideas simply because they hold them and not on the basis of an absolute standard of truth. The objective is always to craft and present as perfect a theory as possible, which comprehensively grasps the aspects of reality in question.
Only once one has the correct ideas can one legitimately ponder about questions of persuasion and implementation. In the realm of asking oneself, “What should I think?” the determining criterion ought to always be, “Is this idea absolutely right or absolutely wrong?” In the realm of asking oneself, “What should I do?”, the standard is a comparative rather than a perfectionist one. The legitimate question here is, “Does my action make reality better or worse off than if I had not acted?” Of course, persuasion of others is action. Before one can legitimately try to persuade others of the validity of one’s ideas, one ought to clearly enunciate the ideas one is trying to persuade others of.
Only upon an immutable standard of absolute truth can relative progress be judged. Progress is a movement from worse to better; it entails a greater consistency in the implementation of the correct ideas, though perhaps not a full consistency. Reality sometimes exhibits material and attitudinal forces opposing one’s design. One’s goal should be not to try to somehow alter one’s design on the basis of these opposing forces. Rather, one ought only to alter one’s actions—not the integrity of one’s ideas and designs—to adjust to external realities. The rational man acts on perfect ideas and attempts to realize them in an imperfect world so as to bring about progress.
So, there is not and cannot be any inherent dichotomy between focusing on the perfection of one’s ideals and helping them come about. Because, absent perfect ideals, one does not know what it is one is helping to come about! My goal and that of The Rational Argumentator is to develop perfect ideas and implement them imperfectly but to the best of my abilities. Yet if one gives up the task of relentlessly perfecting one’s understanding of reality, then one also gives up trying to improve reality in practice; one merely conforms to others’ preexisting mindsets and prejudices.
Mr. Cannell continued his critique with another argument:
For example, elsewhere in this forum there is a critique of your substituting the letters "ph" in certain case with "f" (which you never responded to). Two main points of the critique are that 1.) This substitution makes you appear like a total crackpot to anyone new to this website, and 2.) This substitution alienates anyone reading something on this site, as it interrupts their train of thought and somewhat de-values the word. I can tell that (and I mean this in a purely reactionary sense, not as a personal attack) on both counts this critique is correct. Using "f" instead of "ph" really does give the impression that you don't live in the "real world," and it really is damaging to the readers’ train-of-thought; in fact, I can personally testify that I will not allow myself to read any large amount of what you have written at any given time, because I find that doing so is very much damaging to my ability to spell words correctly.
For the record, the critique Mr. Cannell referred to was posted on another thread by a user who called himself “onetimeonlyposter.” I have not yet had time to respond to onetimeonlyposter’s critique in print, though I have ascertained in my own mind the reasons why it is objectively incorrect. One aspect of the critique that has hitherto disinclined me toward responding to it was its informality; onetimeonlyposter did not give his actual name or any means by which I could contact him with a reply. He admitted, “it's extremely unlikely that I will ever return to this board to see your reply, so it's not necessary that you do so in any detail (unless you wish to for other future readers). I simply ask that you re-consider your position.” That is, onetimeonlyposter did not have any intention to debate or discuss his views; he merely wished to state them, and I did not prevent him from doing so. I focused my subsequent argumentative writings on responding to the ideas of those who would actually care about what I might say in response.
Yet it seems that others, like Mr. Cannell, have found said critique persuasive, even though I had not. Thus, at least those aspects that Mr. Cannell addressed deserve a response, point by point, so as to offer all concerned readers a suitable refutation of this critique.
Assertion 1: “This substitution makes you appear like a total crackpot to anyone new to this website.”
If certain individuals are so bigoted, intolerant, and narrow-minded as to dismiss a person’s entire set of ideas just because that person does not wholeheartedly and unconditionally accept present orthografic conventions as they are—without giving that person a chance to justify himself, without recognizing that they might disagree with him on orthografy but agree on many other issues—then those people do not deserve the expenditure of a self-respecting intellectual argumentator’s time. They are too far-gone to recognize or apply the truth. The only people worth persuading are those who render themselves open to rational discourse, who do not form instantaneous prejudicially negative opinions of those different from them.
A request to conform to the opinions of such brutes is a request to conform for the sake of conformity, to change one’s ways simply because someone else might reflexively disapprove of them and not give the practitioner a chance to justify them. I say, such people cannot be appeased; they ought to be opposed at every step, for they are the enemies of rational discourse.
Anyone genuinely curious about why I spell certain words differently will be interested to read “An Objective Filosofy of Linguistics—Installment I.” If he disagrees with the ideas therein, that is his prerogative, though he will only be rational if he knows exactly why he disagrees. Dismissing my other ideas on the basis of this one is, however, a logical non sequitur and an act of wanton prejudice.
Assertion 2: “This substitution alienates anyone reading something on this site, as it interrupts their train of thought and somewhat de-values the word.”
This argument presumes that it is impossible for people to learn anything new in the area of language. Certainly, a new spelling initially requires time to internalize and adjust to. Yet so does every new word one learns. Should I abstain from using complex words that others might not know, for fear that it might interrupt their trains of thought and lead them to look these words up in a dictionary? Certainly, the examination of even an online dictionary requires far more time than the second or so it takes to register an unconventional spelling of an already known word.
Learning is good, and new learning does not undo prior learning. I, for example, am able to comfortably utilize and comprehend both orthografies: the conventional one and the one in which “ph” is replaced by “f.” I know which contexts are proper for one and for the other, and I have never confused the two. In the time it took me to write “An Objective Filosofy of Linguistics,” I had already become proficient in my newly proposed orthografy. My rational readers will not lose their grasp of the conventional orthografy while adjusting to mine. They will simply become adept at understanding both systems and their minute differences. The man who declines the minimal effort of recognizing a familiar word alternately spelled will also reject the more substantial effort of learning new words as he encounters them and the far more laborious task of internalizing new and original ideas. Since my writing focuses on the spread of new and original ideas, do I want such a man in my audience?
Furthermore, Mr. Cannell claims that unconventional orthografy suggests to readers that I do not live in the “real world.” Well, what other world is there? By altering the visual representation of a single foneme in certain words, do I magically generate an entire “imaginary world” containing my entire existence? It would be interesting to possess such an extraordinary power (and I would put it to good use). Yet logic rules it out. Reality is whatever exists, and the texts I offer are just as real as anybody else’s. It is true that through offering unconventional orthografy, I seek to change aspects of reality in ways that are and historically have been wholly changeable. Living in the real world does not imply accepting the status quo exactly as it is.
A fact of reality is that every acquisition requires effort. You are expending effort in reading and trying to understand this article right now. I would not begrudge this effort to anybody honest and decent, and I expect the same of my readers. No matter how hard I try to make my ideas presentable, a yellow-press magazine of vulgar tripe will always be more “accessible” to the vast majority of readers. Does this mean I ought to give up in my endeavor to pursue all things noble, elevating, and sublime and descend to the lowest common denominator of a yellow-press publication? If you have read this far, you would certainly answer in the negative.
Are Positive Reviews Negative Reviews?
Mr. Cannell continued thus:
Another point of conflict with the general public can be found in your treatment of Eden against the Colossus (at this point I will state for clarification purposes that, no, I have not read the book). While narrative stands as a wonderful vehicle by which to convey an idea, the two reviews on which are present on this website seemed to be aimed more at keeping the book from being read than anything. Both of the two reviews (and once again, I do not mean anything I say as personal attacks, but only as honest reaction and perception) reek with being overtly biased in your favor, to the point that it is near-impossible to imagine that either of the reviews' authors was not both heavily familiar with your ideas and heavily in agreement with your ideas, long before they actually read the book. This does a good deal to discredit the reviews (and thus your book to any prospective reader), which is only added to by one of the reviews making your book ultimately sound more like "Star Trek" (or any sci-fi show) than a series work of literature; while the other review is almost impossible to take serious at all, as its author fails to be critical of any part of the book (her only complaint actually turning out to be her discrediting her own bias) and being so overtly positive that you couldn't have written a less-critical review of the book if you decided to purposely write a fake review yourself.
To recognize the incorrectness of this criticism, the reader ought to simply examine the nature of Mr. Cannell’s claim. He is saying that my book is poorly presented in the reviews because the reviews say overwhelmingly good things about it! That is, the reviews speak badly of my book by speaking well of it. This clearly violates the law of non-contradiction.
There is nothing inherently wrong with other people liking what one writes. Mr. Cannell’s critique seems to find fault with my approach whether it leads people to disapproval (as with my orthografy) or to approval (as with the reviews of my novel). If his arguments are taken as a whole, I am to be criticized no matter what I do or what the effects of my actions are; that in itself should suffice to render the criticism void.
Could it possibly be that the people who read my book and chose to review it genuinely enjoyed it and agreed with its principles? Could it be that the book actually enhanced their understanding of these principles? Mr. Cannell seems to rule out that very possibility. Either, according to him, all possible reviewers are already “overtly biased in [my] favor” before they even began reading, or they would review my book negatively. He presumes at the onset that it is impossible for a reader to come to objectively judge my book as good after reading it and independently evaluating it on its own merits. It is unfair for Mr. Cannell to attribute any positive reviews of my work to some presumably inappropriate “bias” while assuming—without ever having read my book, I must note—that all “honest” reviews would be loaded with criticism.
I can cite from personal experience as a book reviewer that Mr. Cannell is wrong; honest and glowing book reviews are not only possible but likely if one chooses the books one reviews so as to maximize enjoyment and valuable knowledge gained. The overwhelming majority of my own reviews of other authors’ work is overwhelmingly positive, despite my rather discriminating personality and immensely high standards. I do not praise these books to do favors to their authors—many of whom I do not even know. Rather, I praise them because I find them replete with objectively good content.
If Mr. Cannell wishes to read Eden against the Colossus and write a simultaneously honest and critical review, I will publish it on The Rational Argumentator and advertise it along with the others. Mr. Cannell’s views on my novel are welcome on TRA; he should not begrudge me, however, for entertaining other honest views that speak favorably of my work.
How Ought Ideas Spread?
Mr. Cannell concluded his criticism thus:
The unfortunate result of all this [is] that your writings and ideas have a very difficult time finding themselves in the hands of anyone aside from the those who are already dyed-in-the-wool followers of the same set of ideals as you. Ideas are spread by converting and convincing people of them, not by simply circulating the idea amongst a group of people whom you already know to be in general agreement with it.
First is an empirical issue that belies Mr. Cannell’s claims. It is absurd to characterize TRA as a haven only for “dyed-in-the-wool” followers of my particular set of ideals. Religious and secular conservatives and libertarians, Objectivists, extropians, Austrian economists, and even some reasonable moderates and liberals have all had works published in the fifty-six prior issues of TRA. I do not agree with all of the ideas articulated by other TRA contributors, but I find each of their viewpoints valuable and worth sharing. Thus, TRA constitutes a vigorous intellectual exchange among all of these viewpoints—each of which holds a portion of the truth. Even critics of TRA’s basic ideas and approach, like Mr. Cannell, are welcome to participate in order to keep debate vigorous and constantly challenge people to justify their ideas well.
Second, it is not the objective of The Rational Argumentator to obtain a mass following—not at the cost of diluting, distorting, and even sacrificing its fundamental principles. Any ideology—religious or secular—has historically failed dismally when turned into a mass movement. Persuasion of the sort TRA aims at is certainly not at all related to the “conversion” practices of religious or secular mass movements. Rather, it amounts to intelligent individuals seeking out and engaging the ideas TRA has to offer and recognizing their validity. Those individuals do not thereby become part of some centralized nexus or coordinated organization. Rather, they have merely obtained tools to better live their own lives and—through the positive externalities of their actions—benefit others as well. TRA tries to neither control, nor direct, nor convert other people; rather, it exhibits a clear understanding that the individual is the best possible agent for his own improvement. I will improve my own life by developing TRA, and others may use it to improve their lives, if they wish.
Third, it is often useful to associate with individuals of like mind. These individuals, because they all agree on certain basic premises, can spend time exchanging ideas on the more subtle developments, implications, and applications of these premises. Each intellectual system exhibits many levels, and it is often more useful to develop the more advanced levels of a system rather than try to persuade all comers of its basics. Some level of debate, discussion, and disagreement is necessary—but every intellectual publication ought to have its own distinct identity, an identity that implies that some views will be more thoroughly represented than others, and certain absurd or irreconcilable views will not be represented at all. Private property offers to its owners the distinct advantage of determining how it is to be used. A private property that offers “equal access” to all comers indiscriminately is no private property at all; it is a communal free-for-all, with no standards, no goals, and no accountability. Furthermore, it ceases to confer any tangible benefits on its owner—who would like to see some ideas championed over others.
Mr. Cannell’s entire critique is inconsistent with the facts; TRA has not suffered from the methods I have used in promoting the works therein. In spreading its ideas, The Rational Argumentator has steadily obtained greater exposure. TRA visitation has more than doubled during every year of its existence, and it is now increasing at unprecedented rates. TRA is able to spread its ideas because it exercises both tolerance and rationality, a willingness to engage critics and a willingness to declare one side right and another wrong. I will not flinch from seeking to develop perfect ideas and using them to better reality in what ways I can; there is no shame in deliberately acting to bring about progress. There is only the satisfaction of seeing the fruit of one’s labor consistently materialize.
G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent filosofical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to Enter Stage Right, Le Quebecois Libre, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Senior Writer for The Liberal Institute, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. His newest science fiction novel is Eden against the Colossus. His latest non-fiction treatise is A Rational Cosmology. Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA’s Statement of Policy.
Read Mr. Stolyarov's new comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, at http://www.geocities.com/rational_argumentator/rc.html.