John Rawls on Value and Justification

After reading the comments on a previous post, it has become apparent to me that some people who take seriously the subjectivity of value and the incoherence of free will are led to the position of moral nihilism, or at least something very close.  While I do believe that value is subjective and that free will is incoherent, I am not a moral nihilist.  Moreover, I do not think that the validity of either of the aforementioned positions commits one to moral nihilism.  In the comments on my last post I recommended that someone read John Rawls’ first published paper, "Outline of a Decision Procedure for Ethics" because I think Rawls’ theory of justification is neither contingent upon the objectivity of value nor upon the possibility of free will.   I do not expect that I will convince any reader of this blog to become a Rawlsian by reviewing the paper, but I do hope to make the case here that a coherent account of moral justification is not contingent upon the objectivity of value.  I plan to follow this post with a subsequent account of how contractualism is coherent even conceding the problem of free will.

Ethicists often cash out different moral theories in terms of the "right" and the "good."  The standard view is that in deontological systems (e.g. Kantian moral theory) the right is logically prior to the good because the consequences of an action can only be considered to have positive value (good) insofar as the action itself was right, meaning that the agent complied with a moral maxim (most commonly Kant’s categorical imperative), had the proper moral motivation, etc.  In consequentialist systems (e.g. J.S. Mill’s utililitarianism), the reverse is true:  The good is logically prior to the right, meaning that the rightness of an action can only be determined in light of the value (good), that the action is expected to promote.  The thesis that value is subjective- that nothing is intrinsically or objectively valuable- poses two problems for consequentialism.  First, if value is subjective, then any particular value is unlikely to be universally held.  If a value is not universally held, a rule to promote that value cannot be justified on the grounds that it promotes a "common good" because there is no such common good.  Second, even in those rare cases in which each individual values the same or some similar object, the universality of a value does not translate into the intrinsic value of an object.  For example, it may be universal that each of us values our own happiness, but this does not make happiness itself an intrinsic good- it is perfectly compatible with me valuing my own happiness and you valuing your own happiness that we wish each other extreme despair.

Most contemporary philosophers* consider Rawlsian contractualism to be a type of deontological moral theory,  not a form of consequentialism.  This would arguably insulate contractualism from the threat of value subjectivity, however it still begs the question of how to ground a system of moral right objectively.   In the Decision Procedure paper, Rawls concedes the problem of value subjectivity and sets his sights on finding an alternative route to grounding objective moral principles.  He explains his project as follows:

"the objectivity or the subjectivity of moral knowledge turns not on the question whether ideal value entities exist or whether moral judgments are caused by emotions or whether there is a variety of moral codes the world over, but simply on the question:  does there exist a reasonable method for validating and invalidating given or proposed moral rules and those decisions made on the basis of them?"

Rawls, of course, thinks the answer to this question is yes, and he spends most of the rest of the paper articulating the method for validating and invalidating moral claims.  It isn’t an elegant work, but the decision procedure he develops in the paper is the seed of arguably the greatest work in metaethics of the 20th century.  One fundamental feature of the decision procedure is Rawls’ description of moral reason and moral reasonableness because, in the contractualist view, the principles of justice are those rules which a group of reasonable judges would consistently determine under specified conditions* of deliberation and reflection.  What is striking about this view, much more than Rawls’ specific conclusions, is the argument that Rawls uses for the validity of appealing to the "reasonableness" of a hypothetical judge.  The argument turns on an analogy drawn between the empirical sciences and moral inquiry.  Rawls says:

"the present method of evidencing the reasonableness of ethical principles is analogous to the method used to establish the reasonableness of the criteria of inductive logic.  In the latter study what we attempt to do is to explicate the full variety of our intuitive judgments of credibility which we make in daily life and in science in connection with a proposition, or theory, given the evidence for it.  In this way we hope to discover the principles of weighing evidence which are actually used and which seem to be capable of winning the assent of competent investigators."

Rawls’ notion of  "moral reasonableness" in ethics is analogous to epistemologists’ notion of epistemic virtue.  In both cases, the substance of the view- actual moral values or views about what constitutes knowledge- is much less important than identifying those who are committed to justifying their beliefs and actions, moral or otherwise.  A commitment to reasonableness may, of course, be seen as a value itself, but contractualism does not hinge upon the objectivity of this value any more than epistemology hinges upon the objective value of truth.  This is because the moral rules themselves do not derive from a foundation that specificies that reasonablenss is objectively valuable, only from a foundation that specifies that reasonableness is a prerequisite for for determining moral principles.  This is analogous to the observation that certain sensory perceptions may be a prerequisite for having knowledge about the external world but having these sensory perceptions does not, by itself, constitute knowledge.  This opens the possibility of grounding objective moral principles (rules) without postulating the existence of any objective moral value.

*I feel compelled to note here that some critics of Rawls have argued that his Theory of Justice amounts to a consequentialist political theory because certain political (property) rights are justified on the grounds that they are likely to promote a certain outcome.  I think the substantive conclusions of Rawls’ theory are much less important than the metaethical project of contractualism, but I leave it to the reader to research right-wing criticisms of the Difference Principle.

**Over the course of Rawls’ work, these conditions eventually evolve into what is known as "the original position."

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All Epistemologies Are Not Created Equal

Recently, a couple in Australia allowed their nine-month old daughter to die by shunning standard, science-based medical treatment in favor of a treatment based upon homeopathy and so-called “natural” medicine.  The father, a seemingly reasonable college graduate who made a living by lecturing about homeopathy at colleges, refused to take his daughter to a dermatologist even after being told that she suffered from an unusually bad case of eczema, a skin disorder that is manageable with medication and which never need be the cause of death for anyone.  By relying on homeopathy, a pseudoscience based upon woo and superstition, the parents of young Gloria Sam allowed their daughter to needlessly suffer and eventually perish, because they believed their position was just as legitimate as that coming out of science-based medicine.

This is relevant as there has been a good deal of discussion on the justification and rationale of science as opposed to other frameworks used to explain and understand the world on this very blog.  The fact is that, contrary to Stanley Fish, all epistemologies are not created equal, and the case above is a prime example of this.

In a recent article, Fish again attempts to demonstrate that there is little reason for choosing a scientific explanation over a religious one.  There he uses an analogy to hammer home his position that religious and scientific are, epistemologically, equal.  In his article Fish talks about the distinction between those who believe that there is genuine authorship for particular pieces of writing and those of a post-modern bent who think that authorship is a mere fiction, that there is no genuine author of any piece of writing.  Without getting into the details of why someone might hold the latter position, the take-home message that Fish wants to convey is clear enough:  unless someone buys into a framework that actually allows for authorship to be a genuine feature of writing, any debate over the author of any particular piece is moot.  It just turns out that if you are talking to someone who doesn’t believe that authorship makes sense, then there is no way to debate about who the author of a piece of writing might be.  Fish goes on to generalize this as a point about the distinction between science and religious-based beliefs (I want to use “faith-based” here, but, as Fish thinks both positions are, at bottom, faith-based, doing so could be seen as begging the question).  Fish writes, “Evidence, understood as something that can be pointed to, is never an independent feature of the world. Rather, evidence comes into view (or doesn’t) in the light of assumptions…”  Fish’s point is that one can’t claim that evidence is the sort of thing that is brute, that is an independent feature of the world that doesn’t require some conceptual framework to be apprehended.  As this is the case, any attempt to distinguish between science and religious-based beliefs on the basis of the evidence presented is wrong-headed as what counts as evidence will vary depending on what framework is used.

And Fish’s point about authorship is right (assuming, of course, you don’t value writing style, content, use of a particular kind of evidence, or any of the other things that relying on authorship to determine what you want to read delivers). 

So, what’s the problem with Fish’s position, then?  The problem is this:  this isn’t a case where the two positions in question are relying on radically different conceptions as to what counts as evidence.  Evidence isn’t the problem here.  We can see this as apologists for virtually all non-scientific positions are constantly trying to win over converts by offering up as evidence exactly the kind of thing that science considers relevant, namely explanatory and predictive power that allow for successful navigation of the world.  It just isn’t the case that Christians, Muslims, the anti-vaccination movement, proponents of homeopathy, or anyone else is attempting to suggest that such things aren’t relevant.  In fact, they use such things as the basis for their arguments as to why they’re right.  Cosmological (first cause) and teleological (design) arguments are by far the most popular arguments used as evidence for God’s existence, and both types of arguments rely on the uniformity of nature, causality, and everything else that science uses as its basis.  Anti-vaccination proponents are constantly attempting to refute their opponents by referencing scientific studies, as are those pushing homeopathy, ear-candling, and a host of other woo-based nonsense.  The issue isn’t that they are relying on some different notion of “evidence.”  It’s that the evidence for their positions simply isn’t there.  Why, then, they continue to believe such garbage is beyond me, but it isn’t the result of some radically different notion of what counts as evidence.*  Rather, the issue is that even though they use the same criteria for what counts as evidence, they still believe things that are unjustified given their own notion of that very thing.  That is why the charge of their beliefs being faith-based is levied against them.  Even within the bounds of their own system they hold positions which are unjustified given the standard of evidence they accept.  As such, they believe things without good reason, and that is the core of believing by faith.

Getting back to the story of Gloria Sam, we can now examine why it is that her parents have done something wrong.  They believed that treating their daughter’s illness through homeopathy would bring about the result of healing her.  They valued navigating the world successfully, here cashed out as their daughter continuing to live, but, rather than relying upon science-based medicine, they chose a method for which they had no justification.  The result is that a nine-month old girl is dead.  And that is why relying on these religious-based beliefs is something we should not do.  We should not do so because such beliefs do not give us the results we hope to achieve, thus there is evidence that they are wrong, and thus we are unjustified in using such methods.

Fish is wrong:  all epistemologies are not created equal.


*This isn’t to suggest that there isn’t someone who does just that.  The point here is that such isn’t the typical position taken by those defending religious-based beliefs.

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What is the Virtue of Tolerance?

This opinion piece from the Prospect has me reconsidering one of the classic debates of political philosophy.  Concisely put, the question raised is whether a just society tolerates the intolerance of its citizens, or, to couch it more explicitly in moral terms, do I have an obligation to tolerate others and, if so, does this obligation extend to the intolerant?  This question begs other important questions, specifically, “What is tolerance?” and, “what is the virtue of tolerance?”  I don’t think that I have adequate answers to these questions, but I think that they are important, so I want to discuss them anyway.  Comments and counter-arguments are welcome.

To those who consider tolerance a virtue, the notion is often broadly defined to include an open-minded attitude toward difference of background and difference of opinion.  On this account, the tolerant person is characterized as the political liberal who opens himself up to the possibility that his is not the only or best way to live. He embraces diversity in his community because he believes it is an in-road to a more broad-minded, and therefore more enlightened, world-view.  A more narrow definition of tolerance is that it is the ability to endure others peaceably.  On this account, the tolerant person may have a strong distaste for those who do not share his race, religion, or predilection for reading the Wall Street Journal, but he refrains from outward hostility toward them which allows him to live or work comfortably in their proximity.

As nice as it may be to consider oneself the broad-minded and enlightened liberal, I think this definition of tolerance ultimately falls apart.  The problem here is not that the liberal accepts the possibility that his way of thinking might be in error, the problem is that values are not the type of thing about which one can truly be agnostic.  In other words, I can accept that my background is responsible for some of the values which I hold, and that these values may influence and prejudice my judgments about how others live their lives, but I cannot escape the values themselves.  I cannot, for example, choose to feel reverence for the clerics of religions that other people believe are supernaturally inspired, nor can I accept as justice the corporal punishment executed against fornicators and homosexuals in some parts of the world.  Though the enlightened person acknowledges that some values are basic* and therefore groundless, he cannot escape a conflict in holding the value of tolerance while, at the same time, believing that tolerance demands that he accept the values of the intolerant as equally morally justified.  I cannot, for example, take seriously my moral obligation to permit others to believe and practice according to their own moral values when my neighbor’s moral values compel him to kill his wife or daughter because he believes that she has practiced sexual immorality.

Generally speaking, free societies draw a line of distinction between free thought (and those things which are generally assumed to fall into the realm of free thought- free speech, free association, free worship) and free action.  The mantra of the liberal state is “Believe whatever you wish to believe, but you must act in accordance with our laws or face the threat of violent coercion.”  Those who advocate the “peaceable endurance” view of tolerance hold a position similar to this, and therefore I do not think their view implodes with internal contradiction.  I can consistently believe that I should try to live peaceably with you despite the fact that I don’t like your religion, ethnicity, or personal disposition, and, at the same time, reserve the right to intervene and compel you to do something differently if I find your actions to be morally impermissible.  The problem here is that if my definition of tolerance allows that I can and should intervene when a person violates a moral rule that I believe is compelling, then the prescription to be tolerant doesn’t seem to have the strength to compel me to change my actions for the sake of tolerance.  In fact, I have difficulty imagining a scenario when it would be morally obligatory for me to tolerate another person who acts in accordance with any value that I do not share.  I am tempted to say that this version of tolerance requires only that we respect others’ right to tastes that differ from our own, but the line between taste and moral value is itself quite blurry.  After all, one person’s preference for braised pig belly and Catholic iconography is another person’s violation of kosher law and idolatry.

If we are to make any sense out of the moral imperative to tolerate others then we must identify some non-arbitrary dividing line between what we ought to tolerate and what we ought not to tolerate in others.  This is the only way to avoid the implosion of relativism endemic to the broad account of tolerance and the whimper of ineffectuality endemic to the narrow account.  Most Western states have pragmatic laws in place to distinguish between permissible private actions and impermissible public actions, but the pragmatic justification** for laws like this does not have an obvious moral corollary.   What I mean is, there is no obvious moral principle which can explain why I should intervene if my neighbor burns a cross on my lawn or rapes his daughter, but why I should tolerate it when my neighbor goes to meetings wearing a white robe and hood or teaches his daughter that the world is only 6,000 years old, though the law clearly distinguishes between the former and the latter.

So, what is the virtue of tolerance?

*The assertion that, all other things being equal, it is better for innocent people to be happy rather than suffering is an example of one of these groundless, basic values.

**Cynically, I think mostly this justification is grounded in the way these laws accommodate the marketplace and the distribution of private property.

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A Quick Note on How Science Works

I don’t intend for this to be lengthy, so if you’re interested in this kind of thing, I would strongly suggest that you get a book on philosophy of science to get a better idea of how these ideas cash out in more detail.

First, some people are of the opinion that science proves things, that it can provide absolute certainty.  This is not the case.  The explanations provided by science are to be judged on how successful the predictions made by such explanations turn out to be.  However, even very successful explanations merely provide corroboration.  This is because there is always the possibility that the next set of events predicted by some scientific theory could turn out to be wrong.  Even worse, there are always hypothetical counterfactuals that can never be tested but which are thought to conform to scientific laws.  Think of it this way.  Imagine that someone holds up a piece of plastic and claims “If this were made of copper, it would conduct electricity.”  This is considered true because within the theory of electricity there is a law that says that copper conducts electricity.  However, this is, in principle, not the kind of thing that can ever be tested.  Because the piece of plastic in the above example isn’t, in fact, copper, it doesn’t conduct electricity.  This does not, however, prevent us from believing that it is true that, were it copper rather than plastic, it would do just that.  The ability to test every conceivable instance that needs to be true in order to demonstrate absolute certainty is, in principle, not possible, and, for this reason, science cannot “prove” anything.

What makes something scientific is that it makes predictions that are falsifiable.  That is, there must be some test that would show the theory in consideration to be false.  If the theory does not have this property, if any failure to have the expected outcome is explained away in terms of the theory, then the theory is not falsifiable, and, as such, is not scientific.  A classic example of this is psychoanalysis.  While proponents of the position hoped for the method to be scientific, it is fraught with issues, the biggest being that there is no way to falsify it.  Within the theory, any failure by an individual to exhibit expected behaviors is always explained by an appeal to hidden beliefs or desires.  As such hidden variables are always imaginable, there is no way, in principle, to show psychoanalysis to be incorrect by judging the success of its predictions.  As such, it is not science.  There are several current theories that are hotly debated as to their status as science or non-science.  Examples of such would be string theory and evolutionary psychology, both of which are debated to be unfalsifiable.

It is important to note that a debate over what may or may not count as legitimate evidence for any theory is not the same as suggesting that there is some issue about the kind of thing that qualifies as evidence.  Such evidence must be predictive and falsifiable in order to count as evidence for a scientifically credible position.  Debates over evidence center around whether or not something qualifies as such, not whether or not such is the appropriate type of evidence.

Science was once thought to be an example of inductive reasoning.  Simply put, this is moving from the particular to the general.  For example, under induction, one is justified in believing that water (assuming a lack of impurities, a certain pressure, etc) will freeze at 32 degrees Fahrenheit because one has observed water doing just that repeatedly in the past.  However, for some time now it has been recognized that science is an abductive process.  This is also known as reasoning to the best explanation.  This works by taking some set of facts and looking for the explanation that would best fit those facts.  This, then, becomes a theory, a model which allows for deep explanation and for the generation of novel predictions based upon that model.  It is worth noting that science cannot be an inductive process, and it is easy to demonstrate why this is the case.  The way that scientific theories are tested is by making novel predictions and seeing whether or not those predictions are true.  If they are, the theory is corroborated (though never proven).  If they are not, the theory is falsified.  It is the fact that novel predictions are made by the theory, things for which there is no past experience, that the theory is excluded from being an inductive process.  One thing that must be pointed out here is that, as science is reasoning to the best explanation, there is always the possibility that some new explanation will turn out to be better than the one currently used.  At that point the old theory is displaced by the new one which is used until some new, better theory comes along.  This is, again, an example of how science doesn’t prove anything.  There is always room for some new, better theory to come along and show the current theory to be in error.  No amount of corroborating evidence for any theory grants it absolute certainty or makes it logically necessary.

Looking at the above it should be clear that the justification for believing in the conclusions of science comes from the predictive success of the the theory in question.  As long as a scientific theory produces accurate and testable predictions, we have good reason to believe that such conclusions are true.  It is the radical success of science that grants us confidence in the process as a whole.  No other method in the history of of humanity has produced anything like what science has.  Every person reading this necessarily relies upon the products of science as this communicative medium is wholly a product of the scientific process.  The fact that no other method has consistently produced clean water, abundant food, medicine, the contemporary marvels of transportation and communication, protection from the elements, or innumerable other benefits shows the stark contrast between other such methods and the scientific method.

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A Post About Not Posting

My grandfather is having open-heart surgery in a couple of days, and I am visiting him.  As such, I do not have time to make an actual post.  I just want to be clear that my intent is to update this blog regularly.  The length of time between my posts at this time should not be taken to reflect a pattern for future updates.

Religion vs Philosophy or Why is Stanley Fish paid to blog for the New York Times?

I am an atheist, and I spend most of my time asking questions about value, or, for lack of a better term, meaning, in my life.  This tends to be the disposition of people who are attracted to philosophy.  Perhaps this is why I am so puzzled that another purported philosopher, Stanley Fish, has taken it upon himself to attack the so-called “new atheists”* in his weekly New York Times blog.   Fish’s straw-man charge, which he makes second-hand, via his review of a book with an identical thesis, is that the new atheists (people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) have somehow failed to take seriously the fact-value distinction.   He correctly observes that science alone cannot answer questions of value, then quotes a number of annoying platitudes about the purpose of theology, before coming to the unremarkable conclusion that reason alone still leaves us in want for the meaning of life.

Fish’s blog begs for a defense of prescriptive philosophy as a legitimate place to describe meaning in a world of descriptive calculations, but, instead, he limp-wristedly defends God.  Without ever offering any positive defense of superstition or religious dogmatism, he dismisses the weight of these charges by groundlessly asserting that science is its own type of superstition and scientists their own type of dogmatist.   I find this kind of equivocation appalling, especially coming from a philosopher, because it is exactly this sort of bad scholarship that leaves impressionable people believing that all opinions are equally valid, that truth is relative, or that appeal to “reason” is just a manipulation of the powerful upon the weak.  It is ludicrous, and it is sophistry.

As a corrective, I want to make the case that there are many of us “new atheists” who are concerned with the questions that Fish credits as being “theological” in nature.  For example, anyone who has ever studied Kant (and there are many atheists among us) has worried about the question, “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?”  It turns out that this is a fundamental question in epistemology and metaphysics, and the fact that we are not quick to settle on an opaque and ultimately useless answer like “God did it” does not say anything about theological intuitions.  It just suggests that we are intellectually honest.   The same goes for questions such as “Why is there anything in the first place?”  Here, the postulations of atheist philosophers are as equally legitimate as the postulations of theologians, but philosophers are quicker to catch on to the fact that neither reason nor evidence will give us the kind of answers we want for that question.  Again, the only difference here is that philosophers don’t just make up the answer they want.

In the contemporary world, the fundamental disagreement between atheists and their detractors is not about the existence of God but about whether propositions premised upon the existence of God can be justifiably used in a public debate.  This translates into debates over creationism, homosexuality, treatment of women, child care, and many other prominent contemporary issues, but the core point for the atheist remains the same:  You need to show me evidence to convince me of your conclusion because your belief in magic is not a reason for me.  It is silly to begin an attack on the new atheism by making generalizations about what atheists don’t care about because that is not a unifying feature of atheism in any way.  What unifies atheists is that we demand reasonable justifications (appeals to empirical evidence, valid arguments) for our positions and for positions that affect us.

Ideas matter.  No group is more aware of that than the deeply religious, and so it should not be surprising that they respond to atheists with ire or incredulity.  It is appropriate that the proponent of creationism feels that he is being attacked because he IS being attacked.  But it is surprising that a figure such as Fish would mock atheism from the sidelines.  If Fish takes himself seriously as an intellectual, he should take the pursuit of truth seriously as well.  Otherwise, he is a step below any person who seriously engages questions about God and meaning, regardless of conclusion.

* As to the distinction between “new atheism” and “old atheism,” my best guess is that we “new” atheists are a bit less scared to come out of the closet and a bit less apologetic when we do.

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Do I “Think too Much”?

There is a kind of criticism that I often hear applied to myself and those I respect.  It comes in many forms, but the most common is that I “think too much.”  This typically is the result of my being unwilling to yield to some issue concerning a particular piece of woo or pseudoscience, though it comes about at other times as well.  The episode that served as the impetus for this particular post was the result of someone asking me a series of questions on a board I frequent.  Specifically, “Why are you so rational all the time? Is it fun being you? Are you a happy person? I was walking my dog today and thinking life has no meaning and at that moment a man walked by and said ‘reptilian’, and it reminded me of the Montauk Project, what do you think of that?”  I responded the best I could, and afterward I was told that I am guilty of the flaw at issue now:  “You think too much.”

It seems important to distinguish the accusation from what it most certainly is not, a different kind of issue that could be described as “thinking too much.”   It does seem possible that someone could spend so much time thinking about some issue that it prevents them from ever acting.  We could think of this as the Hamlet issue.  In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet spends so much time worrying about what he should do that he fails to do anything at all.  This is a standard reading, and, indeed, it seems fair to say that Hamlet thinks too much.  That said, it doesn’t seem that this is the flaw of which I was accused in the above quote, and I don’t think it’s the kind of thing of which so many others who hear similar laments are considered guilty either.  The charge levied against those who demand evidence and good reason in general seems to be of a different sort.

So, what does it mean to suggest that someone thinks too much?  What exactly is the vice in considering issues carefully and weighing out evidence?  Honestly, I can’t see it.  As such, it seems to me that there is something else at issue, and it is now that I’ll suggest that there is a defensive tone to the charge being levied.  In that light, I think the accusing party likely feels under attack from the accused, or they feel some sort of guilt themselves at not wanting to give up ideas for which there is no rational defense.  Along with the particular version of this assertion now under consideration, we often hear questions like “What’s the harm in believing X?”When characterized in that way, it becomes more clear that the issue at hand isn’t “You think too much about this,” but, instead, is “I don’t like that you’re pointing out my irrationality.” 

I want to be explicit about this:  Unless you’re suffering from some Hamlet-like issue, I don’t think there is any way to too carefully consider arguments and issues.  As I have suggested in an earlier post, I think we are morally obligated to believe only those things for which we have good reason.  To that end, we are obligated to seriously and carefully consider the reasons that ground any belief so as to be able to determine which ones are good and which ones fall short of that.  I think I should think long and hard about the arguments presented to me, and, because of this, there is no vice in thinking “too much.”  On the contrary, it is a virtue, and, as such, I will take it as a compliment when the “criticism” is levied against me.


*Though I won’t take the time here, it might be interesting for my readers to check out  This site spell out explicit harms from believing nonsense.  

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