Occam's Blog

Brand Blanshard Quote

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“The [person] who has the least to regret, who does most for the community, whose judgment carries the most weight and is the most trusted, is the [one] who is steadfastly and on principle reasonable. I do not mean the ‘intellectual’, who is often an impractical bore. I mean the person who, both in matters of belief and matters of action, takes as his principle: Adjust your belief or decision to the evidence.”

Credit: https://the-1000-year-view.com/2019/07/28/wise-paths-to-happiness/


Written by William

September 6, 2019 at 9:19 am

The “Ask and Listen” Method of Persuasion

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Betsy Speicher is an Objectivist author. I’ve tried her “Ask and Listen” method a few times, and it seems to work more often than other methods of persuasion.

The premise of the method is that the person you’re talking to has some set of concerns leading them to hold their position, and these concerns have to be addressed to get them to change their mind. Accordingly, the method has two steps: (1) Ask a lot of questions and listen carefully to the answers until you fully understand the concerns leading the other person to hold their position. (2) At that point, present a response that directly addresses all of the person’s concerns.

This doesn’t work if the other person doesn’t hold their position honestly. You can tell that someone doesn’t hold their position honestly in part by whether they evade when you make a point they can’t answer. (The method also doesn’t work if the person has concerns you can’t address, obviously.)

Written by William

August 31, 2019 at 7:56 am

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The standard of proof for a religion should be very high.

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Most religions ask their followers to live by their tenets, make large personal sacrifices on the basis of their truth, and pass laws that affect other people. The standard of proof for a claim, before we do all of that on the assumption that it is true, needs to be very high.

Could we be able to show that a religion is merely plausible, rather than demonstrable to a high degree of certainty? In principle, sure, but it would just be an intellectual curiosity. “Plausibility” wouldn’t warrant a reasonable person in committing their life to the religion, or passing laws that affect other people who hold to different religions or no religion at all.

For example, take the recent abortion ban in Alabama. If we’re going to send a doctor to prison for 99 years for performing an abortion, our grounds for doing so need to meet a very high standard of cogency. You can’t send a doctor to prison for 99 years based on a personal surmise, you have to know that you are doing the right thing. So if our grounds for passing this law are religious, then they need to be up to that standard.

So I think atheists are entitled to hold religious people to a very high standard of proof.

Written by William

June 3, 2019 at 8:07 am

Posted in religion and atheism

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New Avatar

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I changed my avatar to a nice simple black dollar sign on a white background.


This is a better representation of my values than my old avatar. If you want to understand those values better, you should read Ayn Rand’s novels, particularly the so-called “money speech” from Atlas Shrugged which has been reproduced in various places online and in print.

A couple of excerpts:

“So you think that money is the root of all evil?” said Francisco d.‘Anconia. “Have you ever asked what is the root of money? Money is a tool of exchange, which can’t exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them. Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value.”


“Money demands that you sell, not your weakness to men’s stupidity, but your talent to their reason; it demands that you buy, not the shoddiest they offer, but the best that your money can find. And when men live by trade—with reason, not force, as their final arbiter—it is the best product that wins, the best performance, the man of best judgment and highest ability—and the degree of a man’s productiveness is the degree of his reward. This is the code of existence whose tool and symbol is money. Is this what you consider evil?”

Finally, I’m not going to ruin the plot or even give the full sentence, but the last five words of Atlas Shrugged are “the sign of the dollar.” Rand had a good reason for ending the novel on those words.

(Believe it or not, I’m still around. I visit this blog nearly every day for at least a few minutes. I just haven’t been posting much.)

Written by William

April 6, 2019 at 6:54 pm

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Plotinus’ System

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I just took notes on something about Plotinus. I’m going to summarize it here, because that helps me remember what I read. I do not believe any of this, I am just summarizing Plotinus for my own benefit. I’ll add my own comments at the end.


In Plotinus’ system, everything emanates necessarily from the Divine and strives to return there. The Divinity is a graded Triad consisting of three hypostases:

  1. The One,
  2. The Divine Mind, and
  3. The All-Soul.

I’ll go over each of these in turn.

The One is unknowable, because it transcends the knowable. It negates all quality, including qualities like goodness and existence. We can still refer to it as “the Good,” in the sense that it is the goal everything strives toward. We can also refer to it as “existing” if we keep in mind that this only means it does not have the quality of nonexistence.

The One is not Creator or the First Cause – the Creator falls lower in the Divine hierarchy. It has Supra-Existence, and acts in an eternal Super-Act. Nothing could exist without it. Language drives us to speak of it as a cause, meaning its perfection implies an act of producing something else. The most perfect thing is a mind, so it produces the Divine Mind.

The Divine Mind or Intellectual-Principle, unlike the One, is something that existence may be affirmed of. It is an Intelligence, and a mediation to us of the One. It is the beginning of plurality and complexity, and it contains the Divine Thoughts (these are Plato’s Forms – Plotinus is heavily influenced by Plato). The Divine Ideas are the archetypes of everything that exists in the lower spheres.

The Divine Mind contains all particular minds, which are “shadows” of the Divine Mind. It cannot be unproductive, because its Act of Thought comes with an Act of Act. Therefore, the Divine Thinking creates the All-Soul.

The All-Soul is an eternal emanation of the the Divine Mind. The Divine Mind has two Acts: it contemplates the One, and it generates that which is lower in the hierarchy. Likewise, the All-Soul has two Acts: It contemplates the Divine Mind, and it generates the lower realms upon the model of the Divine Ideas. We can verbally partition these two aspects or acts of the All-Soul by referring to them as the Leading Principle of the Soul and the Lower Soul, respectively.

The All-Soul is the Logos or ordering principle of the universe, the mobile cause of movement and form, and the Creator of everything lower. As its name suggests, it includes all souls.


This is very weird stuff. My understanding is that Plotinus claimed to know all of this through mystical experience, which explains the apparent arbitrariness of his worldview. Nevertheless, he does offer arguments for some aspects of it, and I may cover those arguments later.

Written by William

March 22, 2018 at 2:56 pm

“The Lessons of History” by Will and Ariel Durant

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I just finished this book, and I thought I would recommend it here. Will Durant is a famous historian who wrote an eleven volume series on the history of the world, together with Ariel Durant, who I assume is his daughter. The Durants are known for having a beautiful writing style.

The Lessons of History is a summary of what Durant learned about human nature over the fifty years he spent assembling his massive series on the history of civilization, distilled down to about 100 pages. As you would expect, it is a fascinating book. I think a historian could choose almost any individual sentence in this book and write a whole book explaining the evidence for that sentence, and that book would still be quite interesting in its own right.

If you’re interested in potentially buying the book or borrowing it from a library, there is a free preview on Amazon.

Written by William

September 10, 2017 at 11:08 am

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Swinburne’s Concept of Omniscience

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I’ve long been an advocate of the omniscience – free will paradox as an objection to the existence of God.

Briefly, the argument goes like this:

  1. If God is omniscient, then he already knows what I will do next.
  2. If God already knows what I will do next, then I do not have free will.
  3. Therefore, if God is omniscient, I do not have free will.

A naive response to this argument is that God’s knowing what I will do next does not cause me to do what I will do next. However, this can be overcome with a simple revision or clarification of the argument.

  1. If God is omniscient, then he already knows what I will do next.
  2. If God already knows what I will do next, then there is already a fact about what I will do next.
  3. If there is already a fact about what I will do next, then I do not have free will.
  4. Therefore, if God is omniscient, then I do not have free will.

This revision illustrates clearly that the paradox does not depend on a causal connection between God’s knowledge and my next action, but only on the existence of a fact about what I will do next, which is a precondition of anyone’s knowing with certainty what I will do next.

Swinburne’s response to the paradox is more sophisticated. He responds by redefining omniscience as knowing everything that it is logically possible to know. On this view, God does not in fact know what we will do next, but this is only because it is not logically possible to know what an agent with free will will do next. Swinburne makes an exception for actions which the agent has overwhelming reason to perform, which he does think can be known ahead of time.

However, the problem with this account of omniscience is that it leaves God knowing little, if anything, due to the fact that he himself has free will on Swinburne’s view. God has no way of predicting with certainty whether he will decide whether to perform a miracle in the future, altering the course of history. The only way of responding to this that is consistent with Swinburne’s position is to say that God has overwhelming reason not to perform miracles, but as an orthodox Christian Swinburne cannot say that.

What do you think about the omniscience – free will paradox? Let me know in the comments!

Written by William

September 9, 2017 at 10:33 am

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