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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Saturday, February 26, 2011

What's your explosive idea?

What's your terrible truth - your explosive idea? More formally, what would you put forward as a proposition that is, you believe, true, but too dangerous to present to the general public? Or if that sounds too elitist, at least something that you'd want to present to the public very carefully, so as not to give misleading impressions that might be disastrous when they play out?

This has become an issue in my little corner of the blogosphere over the last few days, and I am open to the idea that such truths exist. At my prompting, Jean Kazez offered some on her long blog thread - in addition to truths (if such they are) relating to moral error theory.

I'm open to the idea that some truths should at least be handled carefully. Among them are truths that debunk or deflate the authority of moral judgments. If I were to write a book that is my equivalent of, say, The Moral Landscape, I'd be presenting anti-realist truths about the nature of morality, and these might be more disconcerting than realist claims. But I'd be doing so carefully - not just writing, "All yoar morals iz rong" or "Ur moraliteh sux."

On the other hand, human societies have had to absorb many ideas that were once considered dangerous, even explosive. These range from heliocentrism to the well-supported claim that our species descended from apelike creatures, to the unavailability of divine punishment and reward to ensure that cosmic justice is done, to the revelation that most of us constantly over-estimate our own talents and abilities (not to mention such things as the gniceness of our friends, relative to other people). So far, we've survived as a species, and even developed increasingly peaceful and healthy societies in the privileged West, despite the widespread promulgation of these various claims, all of which I believe to be true.

Again, what's your explosive idea? And why?


Russell Blackford said...

I should, of course, add that my friends really are of above-average gniceness.

Paul W. said...


I'm not proposing an explosive idea at the moment, though maybe what I'm about to say is implosive.

Recently you said that you're maybe only an error theorist in a minimal sense.

Can you be an error theorist in a minimal sense, and still be an "error theorist"?

My impression is that everybody reasonable is an "error theorist" in a (very) minimal sense---we all know that many moral claims, as people naively think of them, do embody false presuppositions and are problematic in some sense.

But that's not Error Theory, is it? Isn't Error Theory the idea that all or very nearly all moral claims embody presuppositions that are so false, and so crucially important to the claim, that the claim itself is automatically false, or at least not true?

Suppose we take a non-moral Error Theory stance to claims about, say, money.

Suppose some people assume that money is the same thing as physical currency, and that they don't "get" what money really is. They don't understand that money isn't necessarily physical objects, and that most money actually isn't.

If such a person asks "how much does Bill Gates's money weigh?" and another says "I don't know exactly, but it weighs thousands of times what mine weighs," they're clearly making a major category mistake. Not only are they deeply mistaken about money, but that deep mistake is fatal to the discussion at hand---the question they're pondering hinges on precisely that mistake, rendering the question erroneous and the answer false.

But suppose one of these people simply asks, "Does Bill Gates have thousands of times as much money as the average person?" and the other answers "yes."

In that case, the false presuppositions are not fatal---there are many things you can say about money that are true or false, while being profoundly mistaken about the actual nature of money. Both of these people may mistakenly assume that Bill Gates has enormous vaults somewhere, storing all his money, but they are nonetheless not in error when they agree that Bill Gates has thousands of times more money than most other people.

Chris Lawson said...


I can't think of a single thing that I believe to be true and important but needs to be hidden from the general public. If an idea is true and important, then not talking to people about it is doing everyone a disservice -- it means your important ideas don't get disseminated; it means people who might change their minds never get to hear the arguments; it means people who already agree with you feel marginalised; and above all, the "they can't handle the truth" attitude patronises everybody.

Tom Clark said...

The idea that we're fully natural creatures, completely embedded in space-time is pretty explosive, since it challenges the widespread assumption in the West that human beings have supernatural souls with contra-causal free will (CCFW). The naturalist (as opposed to supernaturalist) view of ourselves is directly at odds with the libertarian idea that we're causally privileged over our surroundings, that we’re first causes, little gods that could have done otherwise in an actual situation as it arose. The CCFW assumption arguably brings out the worst in us since it helps justify unbridled egoism, pride, guilt, shame, blame, anger and contempt, which then gets translated into behavior and social policy, for instance the conservative embrace of laissez-faire, social inequality and retributive punishment. Plus it disempowers us by blinding us to the actual causes of human behavior.

To challenge CCFW - to naturalize the self - therefore has considerable practical and moral significance so is a project well worth pursuing. The Center for Naturalism has taken this on and I hope other atheist, humanist and skeptic organizations will get involved.

When naturalizing agency we have to make sure that people don’t conclude that just because we’re not ultimately self-caused we therefore don’t have causal powers ourselves, can’t be held responsible, and aren’t moral agents. Those dire conclusions don’t follow, but showing they don’t requires a good deal of careful explaining to those who’ve always assumed they have CCFW, http://www.naturalism.org/freewill.htm

Btw, the 2006 Edge.org question was "what's your dangerous idea" see http://www.edge.org/q2006/q06_index.html

setAD7 said...

If it were a requirement for a position in government or in public service (GoP) to have university level knowledge in mathematics/natural sciences or computing (and perhaps knowledge of critical thinking/scepticism) the following things would happen.

* GoP would increase it's efficiency by several orders of magnitude
* There would be no wars
* All people would have food and water and a place to live
* Resources would be shared better across the globe, and ultimately evenly
* Scientific progress would increase

The explosiveness of course being that:
1 it can be done
2 the general public would not want it (unless we spend several generations on continued improvement of basic education)

setAD7 said...

Also, I just increased the number of eyes on this post by several orders of magnitude, and if all bloggers knew how to do that there would be hell on earth, so I'm keeping that information for my self. ;)

Anonymous said...

My explosive idea is actually dangerous. In the current economic and political climate it would cause massive disruption. It would allow the average citizens to reclaim power from the corrupt polititions and the wealthy who pull their strings. It is legal, peacefull and proven to work (it has been done pre-internet under different political conditions).
It forces even the rich, powerful and the apathetic to help, but it does have a few major drawbacks.

Once it is started it can't be stopped, it gains momentum. Though it has a great potential to change the status quo, it is not without hardship for the common man.
To start, it only requires that someone publishes a document. I have recently been debating if I should publish it but I really think it may be too dangerous for society. I don't want to take responsability for the 5-10 years of unrest it would cause. The problem is, if I thought of this then someone else will eventually come accross a similar idea, it is only a matter of time.

Research types of documents released at the turn of the 19th century - think about how they would affect the world today with the advent of social media and the internet.

stevec said...

That free will doesn't exist, and is an incoherent concept.

Unknown said...

I would put forward that democracy doesn't really work that well without an educated populace and an independent media that actually wants to explore issues. Neither of these are true in the US.

Charles Sullivan said...

As a corollary to an anti-realist view of morality, an explosive idea would be that moral rights (human rights) are a fiction, useful but a fiction.

tb said...

The problem of "explosive ideas" in a world in which the word "explosion" cannot help but refer to the industries of explosive devices, to say the very least, is the problem that pervades our society at large and its great literatures and traditions. What I am about to say is "explosive" in the manner in which it stands outside of the world you describe, in its radical effect on morality and tradition, but it is no Nietzschean dynamite, and it is one explosion that should have "ignited" long ago, one that is as sequestered off as the ones you invite here, sotto voce, one that should be more openly declared as an all-out war, written into the veins and fissures of morality, ideology and creed, and which in fact already infuses your own caution in this "dangerous" area. What is it?

Nonviolence. Ahimsa. More "explosively", or "enplosively", if you like, is the idea that one should draw a line between those writings, practices, ideologies, creeds, etc., that have an explicit, thematic and substantive engagement with/treatment off nonviolence and those which do not. The history of the Jain religion is the single most important datum in the history of humankind. If the splitting of the atom was the most explosive accomplishment in physics, perhaps, this other datum, so "explosively non-explosive", is a great mushroom cloud that materializes only one one gives thouht in the right way.

The most explosive thought here is the idea that this understanding, that develops itself and unfolds this "innocuous, barely noticed datum" of the simple effect of nonviolence as such, is to be found and, so found, founded and founding reveals a kind of revolution that is to come, that unleashes in something that is the opposite of an explosion, yet is not implosion either. It is the unleashing of a new era that pivots on your very caution in which you are invited to come to your senses, but to realize that you may have been in the abyss all along and may be ready to step out of it for the first time.

Russell Blackford said...

Hard to say, Paul. But Mackie himself didn't have as his big idea, "All first-order moral claims are false." The big idea was more like, "Morality is something we invent (and we can modify it over time to meet our changing needs)."

Now, to the extent that a first-order moral claim includes a claim to be objectively binding or some such thing, these claims are, indeed, false. But as far as I can see, Mackie recognises that moral semantics is messy. I think he's committed to no more than "all thin, first-order moral claims" contain an element of falsity" - or something like that.

More generally, I think you can take the view that there are no objective values and that nothing is objectively forbidden or required, while thinking that it's actually quite messy how far moral language - and which moral language - is committed to, or permeated by, the opposite errors. If in doing so you cease to be an error theorist, then so be it.

I think that Mackie's thought often gets over-simplified, so much so that he might not count as an error theorist on some accounts! In which case, something has gone wrong. But of course he does think that moral discourse is full of the error and so do I. But in my case, and seemingly Mackie's, we don't deny that there are truths in the vicinity or that truths do get stated in moral discussions, and so on. E.g. I think that Mackie is pretty clear that thick moral judgments can be true and that moral judgments may include claims that are true within an institution such as the institution of promising. E.g. Mackie would think that the following is true insofar as it states a claim made within the institution of promising (which the speaker and listener both accept) but false insofar as it makes a claim of an objective, institution-transcending requirement: "You promised to return the books you borrowed from me, so you should do so."

Anonymous said...

Orgasms are a basic bodily function. They are as necessary to proper human health as sleeping, eating, etc. In fact, like sleeping, your body will force you to have an orgasm if you are so neurotic as to have avoided pursuing one for awhile. Fetuses have been observed masturbating in the womb, and the need for orgasms exists from birth and persists until death.

How's that for explosive? Essentially every single tenet of child-rearing we've developed since 1990 is not just false, but it is actively harming children. Why don't we declare that children are 'non-somnulary creatures' and force them to stay awake 24/7?

Also, the human brain develops neural networks through experience. This doesn't seem explosive, but given that our strategy of child-rearing for the past 20 years has been aimed specifically at eliminating every single kind of experience a child or teenager can possibly have, it has serious consequences. Added together with the known limitations of neuroplasticity after the early 20s, it spells some bad things. And if we have 'critical periods' during which the brain is specially able to gain new capabilities and, if missed, is afterwards prevented from gaining those... what is emotional complexity and maturity are one of those capabilities?

Why is the divorce rate so high? Most people say 'because it used to be illegal and now its legal'. That doesn't answer the question. It doesn't even address it. Why is the divorce rate so high? Why are more than half of human beings incapable of choosing and judging a relationship with another human being that will last for a long while? Because they suck at it. They mostly don't have hardly any experience with it. Not romantic relationships, not platonic ones, not anything any longer. Any relationship developed under the watchful eye of your mom is not a real relationship. And children today have no other kind.

Anonymous said...

This is uncomfortable and I seldom discuss it at length. Here I hope people will understand what I am (and am not) saying.

The explosive idea is the realization that after decades fighting the forces of racism and bigotry, struggling to 'level the playing field' and eliminate discrimination, that there is one fact that will not completely go away: Equal opportunity does not produce equal outcomes. That poverty and crime cannot be eliminated by social programs. That no matter how noble our aims, there will be winners and losers and it's not just a matter of luck.

We know races and nationalities are far to variable to make generalizations about. However, in many cases on the individual and and familial level, we are products of our genes and gene pools. That poor performance in low income schools is not entirely a matter of misplaced budgets or bigoted officials, that the distribution of poor will include the unlucky and discrimination victms, but will also include a disproportionate proportion of the lazy, the dishonest and the less intelligent. And their offspring will not be unlike their parents. By comparison wealthy schools will be populated more heavily by people who actually successfully acquired wealth. Of course some may have gotten it by luck, or by family connections, but also a significant proportion are people who became wealthy because they were ambitious and intelligent. It's simply a matter of statistics that a school populated by people who were successful will have higher scores than a school populated by people who were not.

Research has confirmed again and again through studies of siblings, twins and adopted people that who their biological parents are is more significant to their life course than how they were raised. Not only does evolution allow for this, evolution requires this. The human species could not have evolved the intellectual and moral capacity it has if these characteristics were not significantly heritable. And if they are heritable, then it means that we are all starting off with different potential, as are our children

This is the dangerous part: this same sober realization is also fodder for the racist and the sexist. To the extent that in a lot of conversations, one can't simply bring this up without being condemned by the well meaning and (sadly) endorsed by the bigots.

But that's the challenge. It's time to stand up for reality, to understand that legal equality is not the same thing as personal equality. That some people (and their children) will be better suited, more clever, more successful, and perhaps even more moral, than others.

Quantum Skeptic said...

There is an old idea that the Flavian Roman imperials commissioned Christianity as a replacement religion for militant Judaism, in the aftermath of a terribly expensive Jewish rebellion. This idea is not implausible on its face, and seems to have considerable explanatory power, but has not been directly supported by any compelling evidence, until recently.

Joseph Atwill discovered that the canonical gospels are apparently constructed to follow and satirically commemorate the Judean military campaign of Titus Flavius, the unique individual of history who "fulfilled" the Son of Man prophecy of the biblical Jesus.

The overlooked idea here is that the Christian religion, begun as a cruel jest, contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction.

Naturally religionists, and not just Christianists, ridicule and dismiss such a claim, but why are many outspoken atheists quick to do the same, often without actually reading the thesis in full?

My idea is for New Atheists to give the thesis, as put forward in Atwill's book, "Caesar's Messiah," a proper airing out. I believe it makes many claims, for example that the Empty Tomb story in separate parts can be decoded into a rather complicated choreographed comedy of errors, that make it easily falsifiable if specious. If not falsifiable on this and certain other claims, then it must certainly be broadly correct, seems to me.

I've been arguing with people about this for five years now and I have never encountered any objections that seem a significant problem for the thesis. Yet I can hardly get anyone of influence to read it in detail, in spite of a lot of emails and even hardcopy book mailings.

Dr. Blackford if you will commit to reading the book I will send you my last hardcopy of the out-of-print first edition.

I have mailed or given many copies of this book to people I admire, including Matt Dillihunty, Dan Barker, Daniel Dennett, James Morrow, P. Z. Myers, Ophelia Benson, and (mailed day before yesterday) Jerry Coyne. Matt Dillihunty (thanks Matt) is the only one of my victims who has directly reported back to me to have read it in entirety. (He didn't accept it, but I think the objection he offered, that Pauline literature is reliably dated to the 50s CE and so refutes it, is easily seen to be invalid.)

Joseph Atwill has just recently electronically published (on scribd dot com) a second edition, containing a new chapter about something he calls "The Flavian Sgnature." He says it will "end Christianity." I have believed since I first read Caesar's Messiah five years ago that it could do just that. So have many others. Read the reviews on amazon. I think it deserves a fair airing out, at least, and by people who have read it in entirety.

I want to mention that Daniel Dennett and PZ have both expressed to me interest and an intent to read it. I know they have projects and demands on their time aplenty. James Morrow said he was going to read it and I expect he already has. I didn't ask him to report back, in his case I just wanted him to know of it. I haven't tried to place anybody under any obligation to report back to me or publicly. Until now, that is, because I'm down to my last copy and they are no longer readily available.

Quantum Skeptic said...

I was going to sign that but I accidentally hit publish.

Yours sincerely,
Dave Lush

Russell Blackford said...

Sorry, but I don't find this very plausible. You'd be better off giving it to someone else.

Quantum Skeptic said...

Thank you for your consideration, Dr. Blackford. Feel free to change your mind.

Jared Halterman said...

Using advertisement and competition for the goodwill of the people.

Svlad Cjelli said...

On the other hand, would it actually be in some way dangerous to write "All yoar morals iz rong"?

I picture "the folk" reading that book and exclaiming in unison, "Oh, I had no idea! Let's go murdering!"

setAD7 said...

Here are some more contributions to the discussion.


Kirth Gersen said...

Some of the things I might say, Andrew Vachss has already said a lot better... and publicly, too.

Check out The Zero, at vachss.com

GTChristie said...

I do have some explosive suggestions (come to my blog and read Freedom is Radical), but for now I will settle for a microburst (and thanks for the opportunity):

I believe that creationism (and its contrast with evolutionism) belongs in philosophy class, not science class.

If we want well-educated students, schools should not confuse young minds with the mistaken notion that science is merely a matter of opinion. There are diverse opinions among scientists even within their own specialties, of course, but the scientific endeavor is not intended to improve opinions, but to constantly improve our knowledge.

That work is hard enough to do — facts are elusive enough — without undermining in the science classroom the discipline known as “scientific method.”

To avoid confusing students about what science is and what it's not, schools should let science be science in its own context within the science classroom. Its relative merits (and alternatives) should be discussed elsewhere in school. If we “must” teach creationism for its equal-time value in the wider context of society, then let it be taught, but not in science class.

I ask anyone who sees the wisdom in this clear, logical solution to the problem “what to teach” by adjusting “where to teach it” to propose this solution wherever these issues are discussed.

James Sweet said...

So this is not quite what you are asking, but I think it is related:

In regards to same-sex marriage, I think the most philosophically pure and constitutionally sound position is that the government should not recognize anything by the word "marriage" -- since this is a historically religious matter -- and that only "civil unions" should be recognized, with of course no regard to the gender of the participants.

However, I believe that at present it is inappropriate to advocate for this position. Before same-sex marriage was seriously on the table in American political discourse, I did advocate for this position. But at this point, there is a real opportunity to address a serious civil rights issue (the lack of equality in "marriage" legislation, regardless of what you call it) and I think the position outlined above only creates smoke which obscures a very real and very immediate and very achievable goal, which would bring immense amounts of joy and happiness to uncountable real people. This is all much more valuable than some pie-in-the-sky idea about constitutional purity that will never fly in American politics in a million years anyway.

It's not really an "explosive idea" per se, but it is something that I believe to be true and accurate, yet for which I believe discussion in the public square is inadvisable at present.

Anonymous said...

James Sweet:

I don't think marriage is historically primarily religious. In many cultures it is primarily social, historically it had more to do with legitimacy, inheritance, and declaring onself attached exclusively to a mate, none of which are religious in nature.

In the west, the church mostly got into the marriage business in the middle ages when they were pretty much the only organization with sufficient record keeping capacity.


Anonymous said...

Trailer for Caesar's Messiah eBook :


It's well worth reading.