Neutral Monism vs. Simulation

Philosopher Nick Bostrom, Oxford

Popular internet philosophy has recently focused upon Nick Bostrom’s argument that we could be living in a computer simulation. A New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik suggested that a fiasco at the Oscars and other anomalies in popular culture lend evidence that we might be. This inspired a video by A.J. Rocca that went viral on Reddit about Bostrom’s simulation argument. This was followed by a Vox video by Chang, Posner, and Barton about the fact that Elon Musk buys into the simulation argument. These recent examples are in addition to a fair amount of other internet material. 

This article provides brief argumentation against Bostrom’s simulation argument. The gist of what I am arguing is that Bostrom’s simulation argument gives rise to classic problems in metaphysics that are best avoided by adopting a neutral monist position. My difference from Bostrom is epistemological: there may be other worlds upon which we have supervened, but they are not important or interesting unless one can find a theoretical way of interfacing with them.  Here, I give a brief sketch of what neutral monism is and how it relates to the idea that we are living in a computer simulation.

Neutral Monism

Neutral monism as a theory has been attributed in the literature to a number of historical philosophers including Anaximander and Spinoza, but the father of our contemporary concept of neutral monism was the physicist, psychologist, and mathematician Ernst Mach. Einstein was introduced to Mach’s writings by his friend Michel Besso and used Mach’s ideas profitably in his thinking about physics.

Historically, Bertrand Russell adopted neutral monism as his final thinking in metaphysics.

Neutral monism amounts to a high point in thinking about metaphysics, followed by the sophisticated philosophical analysis of later analytic thinkers in semantics, cognitive science, and so on.

How might one define neutral monism? Quite simply, it resolves the Cartesian mind-body problem and other dualisms under a monism of the object. Objects are neither entirely physical or psychological, but every object is a blend of both. To adopt a neutral monist position requires that one change one’s way of thinking about the problem of metaphysics. For the neutral monist, the aim of metaphysics is to eliminate dualisms and the multiplications of reality altogether. In that sense, it is a logical and methodological position, which provides a robust theory of metaphysics that does not place itself in opposition to scientific thinking. Reducing reality to individual dualistic units applies nicely to both quantum uncertainty and relativity, although Einstein famously attempted to subvert of the former.

In neutral monism, dream objects are nevertheless objects. A materialistic explanation will argue roughly that dreams exist upon a neural network and are not connected to the external world. This results in what has been called a brain paradox, which can be revealed by asking the question: If I realize in a dream that my cognitive states are the result of brain states, am I then referring to a dream brain or a real brain? This reveals that a materialistic explanation of dream states results in an uncertainty about the reference of the term “brain.” In other words, whenever one reduces phenomena to a neural network, there is an uncertainty about whether the neural network that one is referring to exists upon another neural network that one is implicitly not referring to.

Incidentally, there is a better way of describing the difference between a dream state and being awake. Waking life is causally connected. The same problems that were there when you went to sleep will be there waiting for you when you wake up. This is not the case with dream states.

The neutral monist does not argue that it is impossible that experienced reality exists upon some “other” substratum (ideas, god, matter, simulation, etc.) For the neutral monist, the substratum is described as units of meaning, and, from this, one can deduce rules about meaning. Most importantly: a sentence will be meaningless if it explicitly removes any and all knowing subjects. The neutral monist is basically saying that any underlying reality would have to be encountered in the same way that we encounter experienced reality.

The neutral monist is basically saying that “there may be other worlds upon which we have supervened, but they are not important unless one can find a theoretical way of interfacing with them.”

Contra Bostrom

Bostrom begins his argument with his largest concession: the assumption of so-called substrate-independence. This is the idea that consciousness could theoretically supervene upon another substratum besides the biological one upon which it has supervened.

Bostrom uses a number of sources to support the notion that theoretically neural networks could be perfectly replicated by use of computing power.

But, why exactly would consciousness arise within the simulation? However sophisticated the machine and program were, what would make consciousness arise within it?

One can imagine two scenarios here. In the one case, a sophisticated simulation is operating that is as fine grained as what I presently consider reality to be, but it does not contain consciousness. It is, instead, like a virtual television reality with no viewer. In the other case, that same reality has actual conscious beings in it.

A fundamental question here is Turing’s. How do I know that another being is conscious? I can only know that it is conscious by interfacing with it. If it shows all of the signs of consciousness, I assume that it is conscious. So, here we see that Bostrom’s argument implies that computers will reach a level of sophistication, a genuine artificial intelligence that will pass the Turing test. While these beings can be assumed to be conscious, their being so is not necessary.

In a recent article, Metzinger argues that our sense of self is inextricably connected to our biological bodies. If a human being were to be transferred into a computer simulation, what would be transferred? There would be nothing other to transfer than one’s physical body. A virtual reality program capable of doing so would have to have not only fine grained computing power, but a fine grained interface between a biological body and the computer interface.

How does one define the “sense of self” that the individual has and that the computer interface lacks? Metzinger argues that the sense of self could only arise through biological evolution, and could not arise in a simulation. One does not even have to go that far. One could argue that a sense of self requires a physical substrate that cannot be replicated in computer code.

Fundamentally, the computing power problem arises again. The computing power of all possible machines would not be capable of a human’s robust sense of self and the world, because every conscious being has a fine grained view of the world for itself. Machines can be made, but one could not make a machine in which conscious beings exist. It would require computing power as fine grained as the world itself, which is impossible. In this sense, the electron microscope is the counter argument against simulation theory.

Another argument would come from information theory. If reality were a computer simulation, one would expect many, many more errors.

The Subject

There is a faulty paradigm in philosophy which may or my not be adopted by the simulation argument, but is present in many similar classic positions in metaphysics which attempt to define the individual by some kernel of personality, an identity, a consciousness.

The neutral monist defines the individual as a relation between objects. A person that does not hold a relation to objects in the world is not a person. The world is made up of precisely these sorts of dualistic units. The individual cannot properly be said to exist, but the certainty of the individual’s existence is the same as the certainty of the existence of objects.


Simulation theory is an interesting and fruitful concept in metaphysics. Information theory might be capable of showing that if simulation were the case, then one could expect more errors, and that the computing power necessary to run such fine grained simulations would have to match that of the real world, which would be impossible. In any case, neutral monism suggests that simulation would need to provide a theoretical interface in order to be interesting.


Edits: Grammar (3)




Towards a Critique of Race

“Don’t you see? We’re just halfbreeds  Rebecca!” [1]

Must a person of mixed race necessarily have a different view of race than a person who is of only one race? For that to be the case, one would presumably have to know that one was of a mixed race. (For a case study, see the excellent documentary Little White Lie.)

Where do racial stereotypes originate? Is it in the media and popular culture? Do these myths come from the environment in-which one was raised? Are these myths innate to a human way of thinking? Would an alien life form necessarily believe in the myth of race? (Of course, I am using the term ‘myth’ loosely here.) It would seem plausible that racism is a learned behavior.

One would presume that race exists on a genetic level. On that presumption, one would attempt to define race by alluding to the fact that people of a certain race are more similar to one another on a genetic level than they are to a foreign race. A “halfbreed,” is both a description and a mathematical representation of a person’s being composed of two races. A “halfbreed” cannot be defined except in relation to two races.

If we suppose for a moment that the idea of race is innate, then the alteration of the worldview of a “halfbreed” necessarily follows, provided that one knows that one is a “halfbreed” and is aware of the idea of race.

This is reminiscent of an interview of the rapper Lil Wayne in which he takes the presumably extreme stance of denying the existence of racism. The interview is a propos to our current discussion.

A detailed analysis of this interview could be continued at length. One could analyze the interview, for example, as a strategic continuation of the discussion of race or as an exposition of the “millenial” approach to race. One could also speculate that Wayne’s experience of having his life saved by a white police officer (referred to elsewhere as Uncle Bob) has influenced his views on race. But, for our present purposes, the interesting feature is Wayne’s outright denial of any first-hand experience of racism and the seeming declaration of a post-racial world.

“I have been nothing but blessed . . . But I have never dealt with racism, and I’m glad I didn’t have to. And I don’t know if it’s because of my blessings, but it is my reality.  Not only did I thought [sic] it was over, but I still believe it’s over, but obviously it isn’t.”

Later, when referring to an anecdote about him and Skip Bayless, Wayne reiterates his disavowal of the existence of racism in the most powerful statement of the interview.

“I thought that was a message that there was no such thing as racism.”

Throughout the interview, Wayne wants to and does admit of the existence of racism, while disavowing any personal knowledge of it. If we take Wayne at his word, it gives rise to theoretical possibility of a post-racist society. In such a society, all of the living members will not have experienced racism first hand. It would be a situation in which racism were generally considered to no longer exist.

I would like to argue here that this theoretical possibility could not exist if it were not for the fact that the existence of race itself is of a questionable nature. If race were part of the nature of reality, one would expect it to exist in other parts of the animal kingdom, and not merely in human beings. Would race exist at all if it went entirely unnoticed?

These questions require a definition of race. Can it be defined genetically? If race exists in a strictly genetic sense, the existence of halfbreeds, quarterbreeds, and so on, would indicate that the whole is connected by degree, and an image emerges of a more blended humanity. The fact that genetics leads us to a common ancestor only supports this view. Whether this implies a denial of race or a more subtle view of it is an open question, but it is clear that to define race genetically is not a simple matter.

For example, to argue that, ‘since “halfbreeds” exist, then race necessarily exists,’ would be to beg the question. One could say that “halfbreeds” only exist on account of an arbitrary determination of two races.

If one takes the route of denying the existence of race as an objective entity, then how does one define the sociological/political/statistical problems formerly racially defined? If race did not exist, then presumably there would be no criterion by which one could make a statistical analysis and determine problems current.

On the other hand, one might attempt to define race as a strictly subjective entity. One could argue that it would be impossible for human beings not to notice race, and therefore race does exist in a sort of Kantian or inter-subjective sense.

Lastly, if one adopted the stance that we live in a post-racial world, one might attempt to define racism as a strictly historical concept.

It would seem important to note here that one can one admit of differences between people in appearance, while denying the existence of race. One could presumably also deny it on scientific grounds as a misunderstanding, like misinterpreting a cultural difference for a physical one, or misunderstanding a fashion for a cultural difference. Presumably, racism could exist without the existence of race, and so whether or not race exists remains an open question.


[1] This quote does not come from any popular source. It comes from a story related to me by a friend, and all but the most basic details have been forgotten.

Subjectivity and Kripke

This article has to do with certain claims Saul Kripke makes in “Naming and Necessity.” The latter is a transcript of a series of three lectures that logician Saul Kripke gave at Princeton in 1970. As Kripke acknowledges at the outset, the editing of the published manuscript is not very good, but he prefers to just let it be. It is considered by some to be an important event in analytic philosophy, and I am assuming that others think it is some sort of scandal.

Kripke begins his series of lectures by discussing the nature of proper names. A view that a proper name can be taken as the equivalent of a number of accidental qualities or descriptions is attributed to Frege-Russell and embodied in the “theory of descriptions.” Kripke argues against this view explicitly and at length, showing that descriptions, whether numerous or singular, cannot hold an equivalence relation to proper names. Descriptions or accidental qualities are used instead to “fix the reference” and not as an equivalence relation. An oft used example, “Aristotle was the teacher of Alexander the Great,” is employed. Aristotle could still have been Aristotle but have not taught Alexander the Great.

One of the interesting things Kripke does in the second lecture is to introduce a fictional term “schmidentical” to indicate the equivalence of something with itself as opposed to its descriptions, which could often turn out to be faulty. Instead, proper names are referred to as “rigid designators” of an object, and the characteristic of rigid designators is that they share an identity in possible worlds and the “actual” world.

The concept of a possible world is used repeatedly in Kripke’s argumentation to show where the theory of descriptions breaks down and the necessity of the concept of a “rigid designator.”

One of the highlights of the lecture is when Kripke extends his discussion to the use of a non-proper noun, and discusses the concept of a “meter.” He uses Wittgenstein to show the plausibility of his proposal, but we cannot get into this at this time.

In lecture two we see that just because there is no equivalence relation does not mean that the relation of necessity does not necessarily hold between a subject and a description. “A cat is an animal” would be an example of this type of description, which brings us towards an Aristotelian essentialist view. The argument is that if a particular cat were found not to be an animal, and instead say a demon or a robot, we would not say that “cats are not animals”, but that “Those are not cats.” I am assuming that Kripke would bite the bullet to say that, if we found out that no cats were animals, then we would have to say that “cats do not exist,” and we would be required to call them something else.

As Kripke performs his analysis, he also brings to bear the important discussion of the relationship between a priori knowledge and necessity. Not everything presumed to be a priori is actually so, but could be considered a posteriori in disguise. Kripke uses possible worlds to explore this as well. He uses Kant’s example of “gold is a yellow metal” as an example of this, arguing that if one were to find a “blue” gold, one would not say that “gold does not exist”, but something like “gold is not as we thought it was.”

Perhaps most interestingly, Kripke tries to extend the argument to indicate that certain claims that are made a posteriori can, in fact, hold a relation of necessity. This concept is explored in the third lecture. This ought to be considered the most controversial of the lectures because here Kripke attempts to lay the foundation for a robust scientific realism, arguing that certain a posteriori scientific descriptions are necessary. Examples such as “the atomic number of gold is 79” and “heat is molecular motion” are used. Kripke argues that these relations are necessary and hold for all possible worlds.

This is where I have to disagree with Kripke, and I would like to give a short, but roundabout argument against Kripke’s claim of necessity. Subjectivity does not merely impinge on our view of reality, but ultimately has to hold an equivalence relation in the sense that “my” view of the world must always ultimately be considered as coextensive with the world. This can be shown quite simply. Anything that happens in the world can be construed as occurring in a dream. But, in a dream state, gold would presumably not be gold, but dream gold. Paradoxically, in this dream state, dream gold could be found to have the atomic number of 79, but that would not mean that the relation was necessary, because presumably whatever holds for gold does not necessarily hold for dream gold. This becomes clearer when we consider the example “heat is molecular motion.” In a dream, heat could be found to be molecular motion, but that would not mean that heat was molecular motion, but that dream heat was molecular motion.

Kripke on Wittgenstein


Logician Saul Kripke

[The following is an excerpt from Kripke’s Naming an Necessity (1972).  Minor grammatical edits have been made to the original, with a focus on clarity.]

Above I said that the Frege-Russell view–that names are introduced by description–could be taken either as a theory of the meaning of names or merely as a theory of their reference. Let me give an example not involving what would be called a ‘proper name’ to stipulate this. Suppose someone states that 100 degrees centigrade is the temperature at which water boils at sea level. Of course, historically, a more precise definition was given later, but let’s suppose that this were the definition.

Another sort of example in the literature is that one meter is of a certain length S where S is a certain stick or bar in Paris.

Wittgenstein says something very puzzling about this. He says:

There is one thing of which one can say neither that it is one meter long nor that it is not one meter long, and that is the standard meter in Paris. But, this is of course not to ascribe any extraordinary property to it, but only to mark its peculiar role in the language game of measuring with a meter rule.

This seems to be a very extraordinary property, actually, for any stick to have. If the stick is a stick, for example, 39.37 inches long (I assume we have some different standard for inches), why isn’t it one meter long? Anyway, lets just assume that it is a meter long, either way.

Part of the problem which is bothering Wittgenstein is, of course, that this stick serves as a standard of length and so we can’t attribute length to it. Be this as it may (or may not) be, is the statement ‘S is one meter long,’ a necessary truth? Of course, its length might vary in time. Someone who thinks that everything one knows a priori is necessary might think: ‘This is the definition of a meter: By definition, stick S is one meter long at t0. That’s a necessary truth.’ But, there seems to me to be no reason to conclude this, even for a man who uses the stated definition of ‘one meter.’ For, he’s not using this definition to ‘give the meaning’ of what he called ‘a meter,’ but to ‘fix the reference.’

There is a certain length which he wants to mark out. He marks it out by an accidental property, namely, that there is a stick of that length. Someone else might mark out the same reference by another accidental property.

But, in any case, even though he uses this to fix the reference of his standard of length, a meter, he can still say: ‘If heat had been applied to stick S at t0, then at t0 stick S would not have been one meter long.’

Mencken on Nietzsche: A Critical Review



H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) was an American intellectual force active in the first half of the 20th century. Born in Baltimore, where he would spend his whole life, he was the son of German immigrants. His father was a conservative, a self-made man, a cigar factory owner, whom Mencken relates as having been opposed to the 8 hour work day and who spent his own money to cause a union of cigar factory workers to go bankrupt. Mencken’s chief literary contribution is considered to be The American Language, a study of how the English language is used in the United States, but he was much more than that to Americans in the early 20th century. His syndicated columns for the Baltimore Sun were read across the United States, and he was regarded as one of the preeminent intellectuals of his time. He was friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis, and he was an early advocate of Ayn Rand. Like Gore Vidal, Mencken was self-educated, did not attend university, and had decided at an early age that he wanted to be a writer.

Like Nietzsche, Mencken was an iconoclast. There are clear cut examples of racism towards Jews and blacks in Mencken’s work, but, at least in the case of Jews, Mencken is conveyed by Vidal as being sympathetic to the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany, and having promoted the cause of Jewish refugees. He was also a famous early champion of teaching evolution over creationism, having covered the Scopes Monkey Trial (1925). Mencken’s coverage of that trial was fictionalized into the play and eventual film Inherit the Wind, in which he was portrayed by Gene Kelley.

The Good

The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1907) was Mencken’s second book, his first being a summary and commentary on the plays of George Bernard Shaw. It was written during a time in which most of Nietzsche’s work had not been translated into English, and Mencken’s pedantry and fluency in German placed him in a good position to write a book on Nietzsche. It is clear from the book that Mencken had read everything (or almost everything) Nietzsche had written (that was available at the time) and had his own early, tolerably good understanding of it. At about 200 pages, it is a short and inexpensive book. Published only seven years after the death of Nietzsche, Mencken’s interpretation is an early interpretation, and one likely to be dismissed by modern scholars as being simple and archaic. But, in my view, the earliness of Mencken’s book makes it rather the best available introduction to Nietzsche, because it is short, to the point, and not influenced at all by modern scholarship. It is simply the work of a near contemporary who is capable of understanding Nietzsche on his own terms, who enjoys Nietzsche on his own terms, and who can formulate his own opinions of the man. Had Mencken met Nietzsche, they probably would have become friends.

There is a tendency in modern scholarship to reinterpret taboo doctrines that are available in the original as not meaning what they originally meant. Since Mencken’s book comes from a previous era, one predating even World War I, its position in history makes the book incapable of such revisions. In it we have a clear, brief summary of Nietzsche’s thought, which includes the good, the bad, and the ugly, all of which Mencken accept wholeheartedly. In fact, Mencken’s exuberant Nietzscheanism is likely the key to understanding Mencken’s intellectualism as it develops throughout his life.

In Mencken’s work, Nietzsche comes across first and foremost as a critic of morals. Nietzsche’s revolt against morals was a revolt against his childhood, having been raised in a devoutly religious home, and having been the son of a pastor. When Nietzsche came of intellectual age, early doubts kindled a raging, unquenchable desire for truth. Nietzsche’s philosophy is driven by a desire to know the truth about moral propositions, and his approach is historical/genealogical, having been influenced by his  training in philology.

Nietzsche’s earliest work is The Birth of Tragedy, in which Nietzsche traces the origin of Greek tragedy to the conflict between two primordial forces: the Apollonian and the Dionysian: “the life contemplative and the life strenuous . . . law and outlaw . . . the devil and the seraphim” (Mencken 17). Apollo is the force of reason, harmony, law and order, a force that divides the world logically. Dionysus represents a more primordial force. He is associated with drinking and revelry, and the unity felt when a group comes together in a festival. The Dionysian festivals were essentially large drinking orgies, in which the constraints of society were thrown off altogether.

This strain of thought continues and is transformed throughout Nietzsche’s work. As one who does not obey the laws or morals that have been handed down, the so-called superman is an exemplar of the Dionysian instinct. He is governed by a force that comes from within, and that force is a modification of Schopenhauer’s will to live, which Nietzsche calls the will to power. Mencken has been accused of mistaking Schopenhauer’s will too live for Nietzsche’s will to power, but the accusation is not fair.

Later, Nietzsche provides what is and ought to be considered the most insightful critique of morals in general and of Christianity in particular. Morals arise when what is expedient for a society (e.g. “thou shalt not kill”) is attributed to God or a god. This is the common way that morals arise. The problem with this is that as a society changes, unlike scientific ideas, morals ideas bring with them an absoluteness and rigidity. What is expedient for one generation is no longer expedient for the next, so that the morals become cumbersome and a hindrance to progress. It may seem strange and even fascist to throw out morals for the sake of progress. In the view of both Mencken and Nietzsche progress is like a tide that will cause all ships to rise, but it cannot occur if it is encumbered by weaklings and outdated moral precepts, which leads us to the Bad.

The Bad

One cannot help when reading Nietzsche or Mencken but to picture at times an insane person with delusions of grandeur, perhaps influenced by some or other substance, hiding behind a pen. Far from being a dig, that is what I often consider the best and most charitable interpretation to be of things that are said commonly by both Mencken and Nietzsche. Of the two, Mencken would be more likely to step on his own foot, and Mencken had more racist tendencies, but both Mencken and Nietzsche take their elitism to an absurd level. Here, is Mencken in such form.

It is apparent, on brief reflection, that the negro, no matter how much he is educated, must remain, as a race, in a condition of subservience; that he must remain the inferior of the stronger and more intelligent white man so long as he retains racial differentiation. Therefore, the effort to educate him has awakened in his mind ambitions and aspirations which, in the very nature of things, must go unrealized, and so, while gaining nothing whatever materially, he has lost all his old contentment, peace of mind, and happiness. Indeed, it is a commonplace of observation in the United States that the educated and refined negro is invariably a hopeless, melancholy, embittered, and despairing man (Mencken 117).

Overall, Nietzsche and Mencken are both apparently extremely elitist, in word if not in deed. They have no sympathy for the “slave” class, and, in one way or another, justify their being there. Mencken continues.

Nietzsche, to resume, regarded it as absolutely essential that there be a class of laborers or slaves–his “third caste”–and was of the opinion that such a class would exist upon the earth so long as the human race survived. Its condition, compared to that of the ruling class, would vary but slightly, he thought, with the progress of the years. As man’s mastery of nature increased, the laborer would find his task less and less painful, but he would always remain a fixed distance behind those who ruled him. Therefore, Nietzsche, in his philosophy, gave no thought to the desires and aspirations of the laboring class, because, as we have just seen, he held that a man could not properly belong to this class unless his desires and aspirations were so faint or so well under the control of the ruling class that they might be neglected. All of the Nietzschean doctrines and ideas apply only to the ruling class. It was at the top, he argued, that mankind grew. It was only in the ideas of those capable of original thought that progress had its source (Mencken 117).


Mencken’s work on Nietzsche is arguably the best introduction to Nietzsche because nothing is sugar coated. Mencken cannot be blamed for his praise of the work of Nietzsche’s sister Frau Forster-Nietzsche as a Nietzsche caretaker and advocate, even though it was later discovered that the latter altered some of Nietzsche’s work to make it more amenable to Nazism (cf. Kaufmann: Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist). Overall, Mencken comes across as a young Nietzschean fanboy, eager to please, who held many of Nietzsche’s tenets for better or worse throughout his life. Nietzsche comes across as an elitist, moral genealogist, intellectual, madman, and literary artist (not necessarily in that order). There is plenty to relish and abhor in both Mencken and Nietzsche, and Mencken provides a unique insight. A worthwhile read.


Leibniz’s Metaphysics

This essay on Leibniz’s metaphysics is from Chapter 13 of Metaphysics and the Meaning of Life (2010), reprinted here with permission. 

Leibniz, with his encyclopedic knowledge, is influenced in his metaphysics by more concerns than your average philosophical specialist who is not a polymath, and I want to begin by listing six such concerns.

1.) If one strictly adopts Cartesian metaphysics, then the ancient problem of universals comes in the back door.  This problem is one and the same as the problem of how reality is capable of being understood or comprehended.  Leibniz thus tries to find a synthesis between the ancient knowledge of Aristotle, which states that reality is fundamentally made of particulars, and the modern, scientifically fruitful analysis of Descartes, which attempts to analyze reality simply into extension and motion.  These concerns turn out to be logical in nature, and are perhaps the most important influences on Leibniz’s metaphysical thinking.

2.) Another set of related concerns has to do with physics.  These can be grouped under two major headings: the nature of matter and the nature of motion.  Can Descartes’ analysis of matter as extension hold in the physical world?  What other attributes besides extension must the units of reality consist in?  On the other hand, if reality were to consist in extended objects, motion would then have to be explained by some other principle or principles.  A proper theory of metaphysics will, in Leibniz’s view, fit nicely with a theory of physics.

3.) A third problem that goes all the way back to Zeno is that of the continuum or of motion itself.  How can it be possible for motion to occur at all, since space is infinitely divisible?  Furthermore, how can substance consist in mere “extension” since the latter is admittedly divisible into infinity?  What would that mean for the nature of substance?

4.) Contemporary concerns over mind-body causation and causation in general, upon which the occasionalists first bring emphasis.  We must recall that Leibniz was intimately aware of these problems from his correspondence with occasionalists such as Malebranche.

5.) Problems that have to do with Spinoza, whom Leibniz had also met. If one first accepts the Cartesian project, then the logical rigor of Spinoza’s system seems to make his system the only plausible conclusion.  Leibniz wants to find a better alternative that is not contradictory.  This can be no easy task.

6.)  Finally, there are a series of problems that correspond roughly to theological issues.  How does one reconcile divine omnipotence and omniscience with human freedom?  This problem goes all the way back to Augustine and the Pelagians.  In theological works, Leibniz also demonstrates how his metaphysics can be applied to theological problems such as transubstantiation and miracles such as resurrection.

What results from these concerns—and certainly others as well—is a very important and elaborate system of metaphysics that may in fact better explain quantum physics than any other theory.  We follow Nicholas Jolley in thinking the best way of beginning to understand this abstract system is with something more concrete: an image or metaphor.[2]

The Monad

The core of Leibniz’s metaphysics is the monad.  Monads are said to be characterized by perception and appetite, something that can correspond roughly to our two qualities of the effection as being data and emotion.  Monads are variously described as individuals, simple substances, souls, active, non-extended, and unique.  We can start out with a mental image.  Each monad should be pictured as a sphere that reflects everything around it, and the world is made up of an infinite number of these reflective spheres.  In this sense, every individual monad is a microcosm of the entire universe.

We can find a similar metaphor in Eastern philosophy in Indra’s Net, described as follows.

Indra’s Net [is] a cosmic web laced with jewels at every intersection.  Each jewel reflects the others, together with all the reflections in the others.  In the deepest analysis, each “jewel” is but the reflection of other reflections.  Likewise, every thing and every person in the world, like every jewel in Indra’s Net, because dependently arisen, is empty-of-own-being (lacking in self-existence).[3]

Leibniz may not agree with all of the details of this metaphor, but, since a picture is said to be worth a thousand words, placing a sort of picture of reflective spheres in the reader’s mind will be far more helpful than starting with an extended logical analysis.  Indra’s net is to be compared with the following important passage in Leibniz.

Each substance is like a whole world, and like a mirror of God, or indeed the whole universe, which each one expresses in its own fashion—rather as the same city is differently represented according to the different situations of the person who looks at it.  In a way, then, the universe is multiplied as many times as there are substances, and in the same way the glory of God is redoubled by so many quite different representations of his work.  In fact, we can say that each substance carries the imprint of the infinite wisdom and omnipotence of God, and imitates them as far as it is capable of it.[4]

Why would Leibniz come up with such a scheme?  The basic reasoning, I believe, is in response to the first “problem” listed above: a tension between Aristotelian and Cartesian metaphysics on the nature of substances.  Aristotle proves that substances must be particulars.  Descartes wants to reject this conception in order to advance the more scientifically profitable analysis of substances as mere “extension.”


Let us consider Aristotle first of all.  According to Aristotle, this chair that I am sitting in exists in a fundamental way.  What the chair is will be explained by causes, of which there are four.  To rightfully identify this chair as a chair consists in expressing the “formal” cause of what it is.  This might also consist in giving the precise dimensions of the chair, since “form” and “shape” are described by the same Greek word morphe.  There is also a material basis for what this chair is, i.e. that it is made of wood.  Explaining that it is made of wood, and even what kind of wood it is, consists in giving the “material” cause.  Insight as to what the chair is for in the eye of the builder of the chair would consist in the “final” or “teleological” cause.  Finally, the actual steps that took place in the building of the chair would consist in giving the “efficient” causation of the chair.

Here, it seems that Aristotle has all of his bases covered in his explanation.  The problem with this, for Descartes, is that this “chair” cannot be a fundamental unit of reality because to have it thus would not be conducive to the scientific ideals that Descartes has in mind.  Physics does not deal with tables and chairs, but merely with objects of certain sizes, dimensions, and masses.  Descartes the scientist is only interested in the measurable qualities of the chair, that is to say, what about the chair can be quantified.  Accordingly, Descartes views the chair as “extension.”

Here, then, we have a conflict over the fundamental units of reality (substances), and Leibniz is interested to solve it.  Leibniz is dissatisfied with both explanations, and this is largely what makes Leibniz a seminal thinker in metaphysics.

Leibniz follows Aristotle in his proof that the fundamental units of reality must be individuals or particulars, but would deny that “this chair” is a particular.  According to Leibniz, “this chair” is actually an aggregate of more simple substances. [5]  The suggestion that aggregates cannot be fundamental substances can be considered as an important stipulation to Aristotelian philosophical logic.  For, if (as we have suggested above) proper nouns describe individuals, there is no reason why, say, the “Fifth Infantry” could not be considered to be a fundamental unit of reality.  The latter would indeed seem to satisfy Aristotle’s linguistic tests which pertain to predication.[6]  But, on the other hand, the “Fifth Infantry” is actually just an aggregate of individual men.  If we claimed that it were a fundamental unit of reality, a paradox would result in which each individual soldier were numbered among real items, and then the “Fifth Infantry” were also numbered, as if it had its own independent existence.  The same would be true of a particular flock of sheep, gaggle of geese, posse of cowboys, or any group of individuals: they would all be numbered as their individuals plus one.  It is still evident, according to Aristotle’s analysis, that the fundamental units of reality must be particulars or individuals, but the question then comes to be what the nature of these must consist in.  This, I take it, is how the monad originates.  The monad is the name Leibniz gives to whatever these true individuals must be.

For Leibniz, every perceived body is actually an aggregate.  In a letter to Arnauld, he gives deep and persuasive argument to this end.

I think that a block of marble is, perhaps, only like a pile of stones, and thus cannot pass as a single substance, but as an assemblage of many.  Suppose there were two stones, for example, the diamond of the Great Duke and that of the Great Mogul.  One could impose the same collective name for the two, and one could say that they constitute a pair of diamonds, although they are far apart from one another; but one would not say that these two diamonds constitute a substance.  More and less do not make a difference here.  Even if they were brought nearer together and made to touch, they would not be substantially united to any greater extent.  And if, after they had touched, one joined to them another body capable of preventing their separation—for example, if they had been set in the same ring—all this would make only what is called an unum per accidens [accidental unity].  For it is by accident that they are required to perform the same motion.  Therefore, I hold that a block of marble is not a complete single substance, any more than the water in a pond together with all the fish it contains would be, even if all the water and all the fish were frozen, any more than a flock of sheep would be, even if these sheep were tied together so that they could only walk in step and so that tone could not be touched without all the others crying out.  There is as much difference between a substance and such a being as there is between a man and a community, such as a people, an army, a society, or a college; these are moral beings, beings in which there is something imaginary and dependent on the fabrication of our mind.  A substantial unity requires a thoroughly indivisible and naturally indestructible being, since its notion includes everything that will happen to it, something that can be found neither in shape nor in motion (both of which involve something imaginary, as I could demonstrate), but which can be found in a soul or substantial form, on the model of what is called me.  These are the only thoroughly real beings.[7]

This being the case, one then wants to know how it is that these monads relate to the objects that we perceive all around us.  Leibniz’s response is definitely open to debate.  We recall that the existence of the monad is very much the result of logical considerations, and is thus quite certain.  But the relation between what must be the case and what we experience to be the case is a grey area that requires speculation.

Experience as Phenomenal

Leibniz clearly believes that the objects of perception need not have substantial existence, but may be merely phenomenal, and uses the metaphor of a “rainbow” being the result of light reflecting off of water droplets.  Here is where the metaphor of the reflective spheres, Indra’s net, or, as Jolley calls it, the “mirrors of God” comes into play.  The simple substances necessarily exist because perceived substances, which are aggregates, exist, although the particulars of how the former compose the latter are still in question.  Notice in the passage above that a version of the cogito seems to be employed, the “I” indicating our only accessible example of a genuine unity.

If I am asked in particular what I say about the sun, the earthly globe, the moon, trees, and other similar bodies, and even about beasts, I cannot be absolutely certain whether they are animated, or even whether they are substances, or, indeed, whether they are simply machines or aggregates of several substances.  But at least I can say that if there are no corporeal substances such as I claim, it follows that bodies would only be true phenomena, like the rainbow.  For the continuum is not merely divisible into infinity, but every part of matter is actually divided into other parts as different among themselves as the two aforementioned diamonds.  And since we can always go in this way, we would never reach anything about which we could say, here is truly a being, unless we found animated machines whose soul or substantial form produced a substantial unity independent of the external union arising from contact.  And if there were none, with the exception of man, there is nothing substantial in the visible world.

We now find ourselves at the crux of the problem, and we are also discussing something crucial to the science of metaphysics as a whole, which is the nature of substance, and its relation to our knowledge.  I believe that this question should not be considered a historical artifact, but rather a question that is very much alive.  If one goes one way on this topic, the result is a certain system of metaphysics.  If one goes the other way, the end result is something quite different.

If we follow Leibniz’s reasoning and we grant that the substances we perceive are not the fundamental units of reality, then it would seem there are a few options, of which Leibniz was quite aware.

We must then come down either to mathematical points of which some authors constitute extension, or to the atoms of Epicurus, or Cordemoy (which things you reject along with me), or else we must admit that we do not find any reality in bodies; or finally we must recognize some substances that have a true unity.[8]

Physical atomism, which we shall treat in more detail later, is rejected along with Descartes’ “mathematical points.”  The former is rejected for logical reasons and on account of the problem of the continuum.  The latter are rejected for physical reasons and also on account of the problem of the continuum.[9]  The monad is the alternative, and exhibits a genuine logical unity that is even more rigorous than that ascribed by Aristotle to real objects.

The only remaining problem, it would seem, would be the difficulty of actually imagining a monad.  Monads are said to be non-extended substances.  One then wants to ask: how many monads are there in a certain space?  To employ an oft-quoted theological allusion: how many monads can fit on the head of a pin?

But just because the monad boggles the imagination does not make it problematic from the perspective of knowledge. As Stephen Hawking points out, four-dimensional space-time is difficult (if not impossible) to imagine, but this does not mean that it does not make for a good scientific theory.  Indeed, there is a sense in which to even ask the questions given above is not-to-the-point.  This, because of Leibniz’s expressed doctrine that space and time are merely phenomenal entities.

[S]pace and time belong to the realm of appearances only; they have no place at the ground floor of Leibniz’s metaphysics, the level of monads.  Here of course it is important not to be misled by Leibniz’s claim that monads have points of view.  This claim should not be interpreted literally as implying that they are in space.  Rather, the picture that Leibniz wishes to defend is that, in modern jargon, space is a logical construction out of the points of view of monads where these are analyzed in terms of the distribution of clarity and distinctness over perceptual states.  That is to say, the system of special relations of physical objects in the phenomenal world can in principle be derived from the properties of monads.  The point can be made in theological terms.  By knowing all the facts about the relevant monads, God can read off, for example, how the desk in front of me is spatially related to the other physical objects in my study.[10]

In all, Leibniz provides us with an excellent philosophical system, in many ways the flowering and crowning point of the rationalism.  Logic, science, philosophy, and theology are all in ways satisfied by Leibniz’s system.  I have strived to give an accurate depiction of the monad along with some of the major reasoning behind it, but we can hardly do him justice without dedicating a full volume to the man.  I will conclude here with some final thoughts on Leibniz, and I will give some problems with his system in the following chapter.

In the Categories, Aristotle describes substances as “unities” that are “able to receive contraries.”

 It seems most distinctive of substance that what is numerically one and the same is able to receive contraries.  In no other case could one bring forward anything, numerically one, which is able to receive contraries.  For example, a color which is numerically one and the same will not be black and white, nor will numerically one and the same action be bad and good; and similarly with everything else that is not substance.  A substance, however, numerically one and the same, is able to receive contraries.  For example, and individual man—one and the same—becomes pale at one time and dark at another, and hot and cold, and bad and good. Nothing like this is to be seen in any other case . . . .[11]

There is a sense in which Leibniz never strays from this sort of doctrine.  Each individual can say to himself: “I am a monad, and I receive perceptions and I have appetites; the latter change from time to time according to the will of God, but I am a genuine substance.”

For Leibniz, nothing about reality as perceived is sufficient unto itself.  The entirety of our experienced reality—the reality of the senses—is contingent upon the will of God, and can vanish just as easily as He wills it, or ceases to will it, mere images of him, reflected by our selves, the phantom of a dream.  Leibniz’s metaphysics is thus a better framework for understanding the “weirdness” of contemporary physics as opposed to the Newtonian framework, which depicts reality as functioning as regularly as clockwork.

But, this does not mean that Leibniz cannot account for scientific laws.  Indeed, he can.  Jolley puts the point nicely.

 The causality of God and the causality of monads operate on different ontological levels.  We can clarify this picture by means of a familiar analogy.  Imagine an author writing a novel.  Within the framework of the narrative there is a complete story to be told about the causal sequence of events; a character dies in a fire, and the fire is in turn caused by the deplorable state of the wiring in the house, and so on.  But there is also a sense in which the author himself is a cause; it is he or she who made the causes cause.  In this way we might seek to reconcile the causal self-sufficiency of monads with their status as substances conserved and created by God.[12]

Finally, we can describe Leibniz as a response to Spinoza.  While Spinoza is thoroughly monistic, Leibniz is genuinely atomistic, although his atoms are not physical, and nor are they merely logical.  They are simple substances, and they are real.  God created each individual monad, and each individual monad reflects His attributes, “as the same city is differently represented according to the different situations of the person who looks at it.  In a way, then, the universe is multiplied as many times as there are substances, and in the same way the glory of God is redoubled by so many quite different representations of his work.”

All in all, Leibniz’s system is heavily influenced by philosophical logic; it strains metaphors, and our only direct apprehension of the monad is actually our apprehension of our very selves as unified, subjective beings.  Thus, for Leibniz, in contrast to Spinoza and in agreement with Descartes, we exist, even if the whole world of experience were to slip away like a dream.  For Leibniz, this is the way God made reality, and He fashioned it in the best possible way.

The philosophy of Leibniz is unique in the history of western philosophy, and, logical though it is, it is not without mystical appeal.  For something similar, one might have to look to the single greatest philosopher of the east. I am speaking here of Gautama Buddha.

Within this body, six feet long, endowed with perception and cognition, is contained the world, the origin of the world and the end of the world, and the path leading toward the end of the world.

[1] Cf. p. 78 of this volume.

[2]Cf.  Nicholas Jolley.  Leibniz.  2-5. Jolley draws attention to this sort of metaphor at the start of his book, and calls it aptly the “mirrors of God” metaphor.

[3] Hudson Smith and Philip Novak.  Buddhism: A Concise Introduction. 61-62.

[4] Discourse on Metaphysics, section 9.

[5] Cf. Nicholas Jolley.  Leibniz. pp. 39-41.

[6] Cf. pp. 55-56 above.

[7] Letter to Arnauld, November 28, 1686.

[8] Letter to Arnauld, April 30, 1687.

[9] Cf. Daniel Garber.  “Leibniz: Physics and Philosophy.”  The Cambridge Companion to Leibniz.

[10] Nicholas Jolley.  Leibniz. 87-88.

[11] Categories, section 5.

[12] Nicholas Jolley.  Leibniz. p. 73.

Since veganism will not prevent environmental catastrophe, we need to look to population control

Charles and David Koch as featured in Jane Mayer's book "Dark Money"

Charles and David Koch as featured in Jane Mayer’s book “Dark Money”

Many ethical movements in recent years have wittingly or unwittingly adopted an ethical stance that I will here call “passing the buck downwards.” This is the idea that the solution to a problem or crisis–be it economic, environmental, or otherwise–requires small changes to be made by a large number of individuals without necessarily making any changes to the law. “Passing the buck upwards” is the opposite stance. It places the onus of solving a problem or crisis upon the elite/moneyed/privileged/ruling class. Here, I suggest that a realistic solution to the social, political, and environmental crises facing our generation will require more than the voluntary incremental change of individuals. In a word, it will require passing the buck upwards.

A Case study: Plastics

It has been widely known for perhaps the last ten years that plastics are more harmful to the environment than we had previously suspected. Essentially, plastics end up in oceans and waterways where they eventually break down but do not decompose. Once they have broken down into tiny bits, they are consumed by fish and other sea life that mistake them for plankton.

Once inside the body of the fish, the plastics can chemically imitate the role of estrogen, leading to mutations such as hermaphroditic fish. In turn, the sea life is consumed by human beings, where, one can assume, it also has ill health effects. Larger plastics are to be found in the bellies of wild sea birds.

Juvenile Herring Gull, Larus Argentatus with plastic rubbish in its beak, Newquay, Cornwall, UK. (Photo By: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

Juvenile Herring Gull, Larus Argentatus with plastic rubbish in its beak, Newquay, Cornwall, UK. (Photo By: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

One study found that in 1960, fewer than five percent of sea birds had traces of plastic in them, and the number had jumped to 80 percent by 1980. The production of plastic has risen and continues to rise exponentially. By now it is likely that plastic can be found in almost all seabirds. The large plastics they consume often kill them by filling their guts and/or puncturing internal organs.

A solution that passes the buck downwards would place the onus of the solution upon the mass of individuals to no longer purchase or use disposable, non-biodegradable plastics like plastic bags, bottles, and lighters. A solution that passes the buck upwards would come in the form of legislation outlawing disposable plastics.

Examples can be seen of both. A number of cities and states have enacted legislation that either prohibits or places a tax on the use of disposable plastic bags, and other states have passed legislation that does the opposite: protecting plastics from legislation. A company like Trader Joes or Whole Foods that takes it upon themselves to not use plastic bags has found a rare happy medium between the two: the idea of an ecologically conscious corporation. The corporation sees that the consumers want a less “guilty” purchasing experience; the corporation has made a policy to reflect that; and the customers have voluntarily agreed to go along with it. But, it must be noted that these efforts may not be sufficient. Merely eliminating plastic bags at the checkout is a nominal gesture compared to the plastic packaging on other products sold.

In the case of plastics, history has shown the only real solutions to occur when the buck is passed upwards. To place the onus upon individuals simply does not work. If the plastics are available, there will always be a few consumers that voluntarily forgo the plastics, but a larger number that opt for convenience over altruism.

This point becomes more obvious in the example of plastic microbeads. Plastic microbeads are currently used in soaps, toothpaste, and other products. These beads are easily replaced with ecologically friendly biodegradable substitutes such as pulverized walnut shells.


Plastic microbeads are used in soaps and toothpastes.

Lets say I am a mechanic that knows of the ill effects of plastics in the water, and therefore I forego using the microbead laden soap at the shop to clean my hands. While no one can fault my altruistic efforts, in the face of the number of greasy hands that need to be cleaned in shops around the country and world, these efforts will not be enough.

In 2015 federal legislation was passed to phase out microbeads in personal care products by 2017. In this case, the legislation accomplished what would in fact never be accomplished by individuals acting altruistically.

The Argument for Passing the Buck Downwards

Perhaps the most explicit popular argument for passing the buck downwards is to be found in a documentary written and directed by Pete McGrain and starring Woody Harrelson: Ethos: Time to Unslave Humanity.  At the start of the documentary, Harrelson begins with a sort of mission statement.


The Pete McGrain documentary Ethos: A Time for Change

Everyday we turn on the TV, and there’s more bad news. Another environmental catastrophe somewhere, or more starving refugees, or innocent victims in war zones. Most of us are trying to make ends meet in our own lives, and we see these images and feel helpless to do anything about it. I think that the deep shame we feel about that is paralyzing, certainly one of the reasons that we turn away. The object of this documentary is to look at the flaws in our systems that allow these things to happen, and the mechanisms that actually work against us, and to show you a very simple, but powerful way that we can actually change the world that we live in.

The documentary goes on to use numerous interviews with politicians, insiders, and intellectuals to paint a picture of the United States as what is essentially a totalitarian regime in which corporations have taken over democracy.  McGrain points to the establishment of the Federal Reserve in 1913 under Woodrow Wilson as a turning point in which government first came under the authority of private capital, and the Great Depression is conveyed as having been deliberately instigated by the banking cartel behind the Federal Reserve, by means of calling in loans all at once, in order to consolidate its power.

Big money is also conveyed as controlling the media.

The media gives the illusion of choice in the political sphere by focusing on non-economic moral differences (e.g. gay marriage, abortion) when, in fact, democratic and republican options are both apiece in their allegiance to big money.

The media is used to control the population and to make them into passive consumers, and employs political and psychological strategies developed by Walter Lippmann,  Reinhold Neibuhr, and Edward Bernays, among others.

Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) , Harvard graduate, famous for his book Public Opinion, in which he coined the term "Public Relations"

Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) , Harvard graduate, famous for his book Public Opinion, in which he coined the term “Public Relations”

McGrain goes on to discuss the development of the military industrial complex, also known as the Iron Triangle, which has as its vertices the military, big business, and politics. McGrain focuses on the Carlyle group as an illustrative example. He goes on to discuss the war on terror as having been the product of this type of infrastructure.

The only answer, according to the documentary, is for the mass of enlightened consumers to use their spending power to control the corporations from below by forgoing the purchase of certain products and preferring others produced by corporations or companies that demonstrate higher ideals. In a word, the buck is passed downwards.

The Argument for Passing the Buck Upwards

In the interest of keeping this article brief, I will not go into potentially lengthy arguments for passing the buck upwards. While McGrain’s picture of the status of the American political situation is influenced by the work of Noam Chomsky, his solution of passing the buck downwards is his own. In place of long argumentation, I will only make a few suggestions here.

First of all, from an ethical perspective, placing added burdens on a class that is already by definition burdened ought to be suspect. The labor of the lower classes already produces the wealth of the upper classes, why should they also carry the guilt of being responsible for the future?

Dwight Eisenhower was the first to warn of the Military-Industrial complex.

Dwight Eisenhower was the first to warn of the Military-Industrial complex.

Secondly, a question of efficacy arises. No one will argue that acting as an enlightened consumer is a bad thing or that it does not bring benefits, but the counterargument is that it simply may not be enough. One’s purchasing decisions largely have to do with one’s own life. Certainly, if we all began buying local, used, and ethical, one would see vast changes. But, the more constrained one is financially, the less power one will have over ones buying decisions. It is also unclear how individual purchasing decisions would dismantle something like the military-industrial complex–the so-called Iron Triangle–which is an economy unto itself, supported by tax dollars. Even if it could work theoretically, it may not be efficient enough in practice to avert disaster.

This leads to the third argument: the concept that the environmental, social, and political future can be secured by virtue of a non-legislated agreement among the ruled is utopian. The more people are involved, the less likely will be a consensus of opinion. The hypothetical agreement among the masses will never be achieved in practice.

These three arguments tie together and lend support to one another. Why is a universal or majority agreement impossible and utopian? It is partly because the laboring class is too constrained for time, money, and education to make such agreement possible.

To these three arguments, one can add a fourth. Placing faith in the concept that the laboring class will secure the social, political, and environmental future of its own volition could have the affect of lessening the urgency of the ruling class to provide solutions. It ought to be in the interest of the ruling class to maintain peaceful conditions, if only to retain their own privileged status. If they believe that changes will be handled by the lower class, it gives them free reign to continue unchanged.

Deconstructing Veganism

Veganism might be considered the example par excellence of passing the buck downward because adopting a vegan lifestyle is conveyed as ethical, environmental, and healthy, and requires no legislation whatsoever. A vegan lifestyle would tie in nicely with the ideals placed by McGrain.

Why this is so should be widely known.  A UN report found that animal agriculture was responsible for more greenhouse gasses than the transportation industry. This finding was bolstered by a 2009 study by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, which concluded that, if everyone went vegan, there would be an approximate 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gasses by 2050, along with a surplus of land. (40 percent of grains raised in the US are used to feed livestock. ) This does not even bring into account the water usage, deforestation, animal suffering, and potential diseases caused by the factory farming of meat. In fact, the UN itself has suggested a global shift towards a vegan diet. In other words, the UN has suggested that the buck be passed downwards.

While veganism renders very real and measurable benefits, the suggestion that veganism take hold of its own accord and avert environmental catastrophe is an extreme form of passing the buck downward, and, as such, it is implausible and utopian. If we consider the consumption of meat to be an evil, it is a recalcitrant evil, like the trade in illegal drugs.

The illegal drug trade/war on drugs is a useful schema by-which to understand the complex relationship between the environmental benefits that we desire of veganism, the law, and the nature of the public. It becomes obvious that, while veganism cannot be legislated, some of the environmental benefits of veganism might be retained by placing constraints upon factory farming.

At the same time that some of the environmental affects of meat consumption can be mitigated through legislation, one can also assume that they cannot and will not be eliminated. Veganism will not prevail, either through legislation or through voluntary means. This realization leads one to focus on what may be perhaps the only solution: focusing on limiting worldwide population growth.

Once we grasp the fact that the entire planet will not go vegan by 2050, or at any point in the foreseeable future, we can begin the process of rational, incremental, top-down change to stabilize environmental situation for future generations. One way of doing so would be to focus on the limitation of the human population itself.

The Way Forward

Throughout this article, I have attempted to emphasize that the efforts of individuals ought not to be discounted. They may be a necessary condition to secure the future, but they will not be sufficient. It is a dire necessity to force both guilt and responsibility upon the privileged few on account of the proven efficacy of the top-down approach. It has not gone beyond notice that Americans in particular have become disillusioned with government, and government is viewed as already having been thoroughly corrupted by capital. As a result, we suffer from a socio-political cognitive dissonance.

If McGrain’s idea is that we detach from politics and vote with our dollars instead, this article suggests that a renewed political vigor is also required. What form that vigor takes is an open question, but ours is a time when achieving enlightened legislation is more important than ever. Given the degree to which politics is already tied to capital, the necessary measures may not even be legal, requiring a form of civil disobedience. Even extreme forms of civil disobedience would be preferable to genuine revolution. Presumably, placing limits on the global population will have to be a part of any workable scenario.

The Portman/Foer Correspondence Revisited


Jonathan Foer

On July 14, Jonathan Safran Foer published an email correspondence between himself and Natalie Portman in the New York Times Magazine.

The correspondence we read is not the private correspondence of Foer and Portman. The email correspondence is essentially meant to take the place of a face to face interview for the magazine, and Foer says as much in the beginning. This leads to an inevitable awkwardness at the start of the correspondence, because the first email is not merely “for” Portman, but it also has to be “for” the reader. There had to be a separate dialogue between Foer and Portman setting up the “interview”. We might say that, in that sense, it lacks the authenticity of a genuine exchange between two people who are speaking in confidence, and it is burdened by the constraint of the knowledge that there is a wider audience of observers. In other words, it does not and cannot begin with a mere “sup?”.

Natalie Portman

By taking this unconventional approach to the interview, the interviewer and the interviewee unwittingly or perhaps wittingly put themselves at great risk. If the American public wants anything with the whole of its heart, it is to read a private correspondence between an A-list celebrity like Portman, well known for her intellect and “nerdiness”, and the successful writer of “Everything is Illuminated” that is Foer.

The media fallout was mostly thoughtless, gossipy, and takes the easy, obvious approach of laughter and ridicule. From the generally illiterate social media perspective of Twitter, the most important issue raised was “where are Portman’s pants?”, referring to the fashion magazine type photo shoot of swimwear-clad Portman that accompanies the article. If and when the media trolls take the time to look at the actual words of the article, from their perspective, Portman generally comes off much better than Foer, who can seem obtuse and boring. On the other hand, if viewed more closely, one can see that Foer is making a more strict attempt at Letters with a capital L. Overall, I believe that the correspondence can be seen as an attempt at authenticity.

What is missed in the media coverage is that this is an attempted development in journalism, and it deserves recognition as such, whether it turns out to be a dead end or the first spark of something new. It is an interesting attempt at a more literary approach to the interview. It is an attempt at Letters, and not an easy one, because of the overwhelming constraint of the knowledge that they will be viewed by a large audience. It is all too easy–when anyone attempts something novel–to ridicule, but those ridiculing are quite often on the wrong side of history.

Perusing the letters yet again, I see it. There is both awkwardness and beauty there. The appeal of the letter is its ability to capture something about a relationship that even the relationship itself is oblivious to. One can say that they are good letters or bad letters, but that misses the point. They are letters, damnit, and letters are a good thing.

An Unconventional Argument: Isolationism

In philosophy, argumentation is elevated to being an art form. Arguing for something that might be generally considered absurd can be considered a useful exercise from a philosophical point of view, with a long tradition that dates back at least as far as Socrates. This writing is an example of an unconventional argument.



A protest by the 15M movement in Madrid, 2012

It has been widely commented that, in general, the media does not make us happier as individuals. When we look at social media on our phones, we are immediately inundated with an ugliness that in all likelihood does not exist in our present environment: police brutality, violence against animals, terror attacks, other violent attacks, protests, racism, fights, and so on. I don’t deny that these things happen. I don’t deny that for some unfortunate people, a “volatile” atmosphere is a fact of life, and it’s also true that no life, however seemingly secure, is free of risk. Here I would like to argue something that may at first sound absurd and counter intuitive: you should isolate yourself as much as possible from any and all knowledge of what is going on outside of your immediate sphere of experience and, when new information does enter that sphere, you should try your best to ignore it and not do anything whatsoever about it.

Lets say that you are vegan and, in looking for butter alternatives, earth balanceyou landed upon Earth Balance at Whole Foods. You felt for a while that you were doing the right thing, but then you find out through social media that Earth Balance is made of palm oil, and that palm oil is responsible for the destruction of the native habitat for the endangered orangutan.

My argument here is that, even so, you should still continue to purchase Earth Balance, and only when the crisis is knocking on your front door should you do anything whatsoever to change your behaviors.

This argument of course is difficult to make and flies in the face of ethical theory. My behavior of continuing to purchase Earth Balance cannot be universalized for all, as would be suggested by a Kantian approach, without my also consenting to the destruction of the endangered species of orangutan. It’s equally difficult to justify from a utilitarian perspective. Allowing oneself to contribute to species extinction does not seem to promote happiness for humans or animals. It’s clear that traditional ethical theory does  not bode well for my behavior, much less an environmental ethic.


Yet, there is no real contradiction in it if I am the sort of person who will willingly assent to the destruction of the orangutan. The point was clearly stated by Hume in his devastating critique of moral theory, which concludes concisely: “Since reason alone can never produce any action or give rise to volition . . . . It is in no way contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”

If there were only a dozen people on this planet, that dozen people would pose no environmental threat to this planet whatsoever, however they behaved. They could kill orangutans, lions, fish, really anything that they were capable of killing. They could pour oil into the water, burn tires, spray aerosol cans, and they would simply be incapable of making a dent in the vast well-stocked Eden which they inhabited. Their lives would likely be impoverished and barbaric, equally likely to perish as to survive as a species. Even if they did survive and reproduce, it would be a long while before their descendants were able to bring about the sort of global catastrophes we hear about on the news everyday.

One can view overpopulation as the fundamental problem that is leading to all of the other problems humanity has to face. Why are there factory farms in which innocent animals suffer and die? Why is the wilderness being destroyed for farm land.

If you view it in this light, there is very little you or I can do about it in our lifetimes, whether or not you do have kids. If you already have kids, it’s not like you’re going to kill them off. If you don’t have kids, then I suppose you can pat yourself on the back. I suppose you could decide to “not have” that other kid you were thinking about having. But, all this is in a way beside the point.

This is because even if you live your life as a saint, foregoing Earth Balance, following the Categorical Imperative, and going childless or not having that other kid, some guy down the street who abides by different ideals is going to take three wives, have twelve children, and negate or ruin the Eden that you spent your meager, solitary life trying to build. Not only that, but once you die with your ideals, his children, who are more likely to inherit his ideals, are going to continue to overpopulate the world, and the world will once again find itself in the same situation.

Incidentally, not overpopulating the world is one thing that Americans are good at, with a total fertility rate of 1.84, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. Our increase in population is the result of immigration. Of course, we offset this by our consumption. Our five percent of the world population is said to consume 20 percent of its resources.

It may be argued that this stance is a consequentalist one. If one takes the opposed Kantian/deontological approach, then one can theoretically say that certain acts are wrong/immoral in themselves. Thus, from the Kantian perspective, it’s always wrong to tell a lie, and it may always be wrong to purchase Earth Balance.

I don’t buy it, and I do not believe that it is even possible to construct an ethical theory that does not give a thought to consequences. Kant suggests to us that we universalize the maxim upon which we are acting in order to assess its moral value, and ask ourselves if we could assent to the results. Therefore, according to Kant, my act of telling a lie is wrong because I would not agree that it is ok for everyone else to do it.

One does have to think about consequences in order to apply the Kantian ethic. We always have to ask ourselves: what would happen if everyone acted this way? And this is a good thing. We don’t want an ethic in which we have all behaved in a saintly way, but in which we leave a hell for our children. But we also need to keep in mind that Kantian theory fails to overcome Hume’s critique. Even if everything were to go to hell if everyone lied all the time, it is in no way irrational to assent to it.

This brings another point unconventional point to light. Lets say, in sympathy with an environmentalist ethic, that I do not agree to the destruction of the orangutan or the planet’s environmental degradation (plastics in the water, clear cutting of forest, species extinction, global warming, etc.) It may be the case that the large part of the work that I am capable of doing is determined by whether or not I decide to have children and how many I decide to have.

If I believe that the world is overpopulated already, then my decision to have more than one child is forbidden by the Kantian ethic itself. If I have two children, then I have neither contributed nor helped the problem. If I have more than two, I have made it worse.

If, as I have suggested, we always have to think about consequences when determining our behaviors, it is important for us to think about whether or not little efforts like forgoing Earth Balance, or larger efforts like going vegan will or will not make a difference in the long run given the steady increase of the human population, because it is that increase that is driving the demand that is causing the destruction. If we believe that our efforts will result in no net benefit, then it’s just as well we not trouble ourselves with them. In the words of Shakespeare: “Things without all resolve should be without worry, what’s done is done.”