A Lethal Lack of Logic

How Lazy Logic is Making the Covid-19 Pandemic Worse

In the early days of the coming Coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis, I  saw a meme on Facebook that listed all the “end of the world crises” that the poster had survived. It looked something like the meme below: 

The implication of the person who posted this—let’s call him Bob—is that the current Coronavirus (Covid-19) is nothing to worry about. “It’s just the latest in an endless list of doomsday scenarios that amounted to nothing.” Bob is suggesting. “It’s all just media hype. There is no reason to cancel events, shut down the NBA, close schools, or even to wash your hands more often. We all need to calm down and stop overreacting.”

In a certain (very limited) way, I’m somewhat sympathetic to this kind of argument. Why?

Well, first, of all…I teach a course on “the end of the world” and one of the assignments I give is to read a list of all the failed “end of the world” predictions for the last 5000 years. Single spaced and 10 font, it’s 24 pages long! To the students, the lesson is clear: There is no reason to take any prophet’s prediction of the “end times” seriously; religious zealots have been saying “the end is near” for millennia. According to the Bible (Matthew 24), Jesus even said the end was near…and yet here we still are.

Second of all…Yes, the media sometimes blows things out of proportion. (Contrary to the crack reporting at the Globe, the world is not being “destroyed,” and they do not have a cure.) And we do need to stop overreacting. You don’t need to hoard toilet paper or bulk buy hand sanitizer (you are not going to be quarantined for months), and you don’t need to stock up on bottled water and batteries (Covid-19 is not going to affect our water or power supply).

Nevertheless, the logic of the above meme is fundamentally flawed. And the flaw it commits feeds a cognitive mistake that threatens to make the Covid-19 outbreak much, much worse.

What’s that mistake? It’s a false analogy, or a “false equivalence,” where you suggest that two things are alike, or equivalent, but they are actually different in very important ways. 

There is a huge difference, for example, between the Mayan 2012 “end of the world” prediction, and the Ebola outbreak of 2014. Yes, neither one of them killed Bob. But the Mayan 2012 calendar prediction was complete cockamamie nutbar pseudoscience from the beginning. But the Ebola outbreak of 2014 was a real thing—a real threat. Lots of people died, and it very well could have spread worldwide. But the reason Bob was never put in danger by Ebola in 2014 wasn’t because it was joke, or because it was over hyped. It was because the federal government took science-based actions to stop its spread at the source, overseas.

But we really have done nothing of the kind with Covid-19. Funding to the CDC’s overseas pandemic response team was cut, in 2018, in 39 of 49 counties, and never re-established. Given the nature of the disease, its spread to the US was thus inevitable. And so the fact that Bob didn’t get Ebola in 2014 (or SARS in 2004, or Swine Flu in 2010, etc.) is no reason to think that he won’t get Covid-19 in 2020. Not only were those viruses different (with different infection rates, etc.), but the US government actually took those seriously. Covid-19, it did not. 

It’s almost like all the pseudoscience/religious “end of the world” predictions were someone crying “wolf” when there was no wolf, and then all the previous disease outbreaks were someone crying wolf when there was a wolf–but since Bob didn’t have to go kill it, Bob convinced himself that there wasn’t one. But now Bob is in charge of the village’s wolf response. When someone called wolf again, he  didn’t go try to catch it–and now there’s a wolf lose in the village.

Now, to be fair: There was a ban of travel from China (the original source of Covid-19), and it did likely buy us some extra time. But there was no way it was going to keep Covid-19 from ever reaching our shores.  (And given that it is already here, additional travel bans will do very little to help mitigate the spread of Covid-19. That would be like the revesre of closing the barn door after the horse has bolted…like building a levee during a flood.) If we had used the extra time to get testing kits and centers ready, we could have slowed the spread and made it manageable. But we didn’t. Indeed, the U.S. trails the developed world when it comes to the availability of Covid-19 testing kits.

Of course, there may fewer cases right now in the U.S. than the seasonal flu, but the trajectory of the spread of Covid-19 in the U.S. looks like it did early on in Italy and Iran. Hopefully our recent social distancing efforts (e.g., canceling large events, moving schools online) will help. But if things get out of hand in the U.S., like they did in Italy and Iran, and too many people get the virus all at once, hospitals could completely fill up. As a result, millions of people, even without Covid-19, will not be able to get the medical treatments they need, and die unnecessarily as a result.

And what has fueled this under-reaction is essentially the logical flaw in the meme. We’ve treated Covid as if it is analogous to the Mayan 2012 prediction—as a joke, a hoax—as something to not take seriously. I mean, it’s one thing for individual U.S. citizens to not have been worried in the early days of the outbreak, back in December; after all, our government has stepped up and taken care of such things in the past. But for the government to not take it seriously–well, that’s why were in the situation we are now.

It’s like the government was (and too many of us were) like Rudy Gobert, the NBA player who made fun of all the concern and precautions that the NBA was taking (like keeping reporters far away during player interviews) by making a point of wiping his bare hands on all the reporter’s mics and recording devices, before he left the room. Two days later, it was confirmed Gobert had Covid-19 and the NBA canceled its season. I hope no reporters in the room were infected as a result of Gobert’s reckless and irresponsible actions. But unfortunately, when it comes to our friends and the federal government not taking the COVID-19 threat seriously, we will likely not be so lucky.

Copyright 2020, David Kyle Johnson

Dear Loyal Readers of Christianity Today: It’s Time to Leave (Evangelical) Christianity, Today.

[Note: I’ve submitted the following to be published in Christianity Today.]

Christianity Today’s Mark Galli recently argued that “Trump Should Be Removed from Office” because “[n]one of his positives” outweigh his “grossly immoral character.” Galli is worried that, if evangelicals continue to support Trump, they’ll lose their moral authority.

Now, in all honestly, that ship has probably already sailed. As one of my former religious professors told me, if he wanted evangelicalism to preserve its moral credibility, he should have written an article calling evangelicals to abandon Trump after the “grab ‘em by the p*ssy” revelation. As a former evangelical myself, I can tell you: not many outside evangelicalism could still take its moral pronouncements seriously when it continued to support him after that.

Still, according to Christianity Today’s president Timothy Dalrymple, many evangelicals were encouraged by the letter because it made it seem as if they were not alone in their opposition to Trump. In reality, however, they practically are. Evangelical support for Trump hangs around 75%. And given the way that 75% has responded to Galli’s article, I believe it’s time for “the 25%” (those evangelicals who see Trump for what he is) to leave evangelical Christianity altogether—and to do so, today. Why?

I overviewed the logical mistakes of evangelical Trump supporters Franklin Graham and Eric Mataxas in my Psychology Today blog “A Logical Take,” but the mistake that should make the 25% ready to leave was theological. It occurred in an open letter response to Galli, signed by over 200 evangelical leaders, when the only thing it actually said in direct response to Galli’s concerns was this:

“We are proud to be numbered among those in history who, like Jesus, have been pretentiously accused of having too much grace for tax collectors and sinners…”

So, in response to Galli’s charge that Trump should be removed from office because he has committed impeachable offenses, and that evangelicalism is losing its moral credibility because it has aligned with and unquestionably excused away the behavior of a man who “is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused,” the evangelical leaders of today have simply said “it’s all good, because Jesus associated with and forgave sinners.”

Is this what it’s come to? We now have to explain why Jesus’ concern for poor social outcasts doesn’t entail that Donald Trump should be president? Jesus showed concern for people like Mary Magdalene (a prostitute) because they were given a poor lot in life and treated unfairly. He forgave their sins because they were repentant. Trump is literally, by his own admission, none of these things. Not only was he born into privilege and wealth, but he famously says he is never wrong, sorry, or responsible for anything. He is not repentant; he has not “changed his ways.” He doesn’t even go to church. And even if he had, Jesus showing “grace” to sinners did not include recommending them for high office.

Using Jesus’ ministry to the poor and sinners as an excuse to ignore Trump’s impeachable offenses, to excuse away his “immoral actions in business and his relationship with women, about which he remains proud… [his] habitual string[s] of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders” is a perversion of the gospel so repugnant and offensive, condemnation of its should be universal. If evangelicals opposed to Trump were in the majority, I would say they were morally obligated to kick those who embrace this idea out. But since they are in the minority, they are morally obligated to leave evangelicalism—and to be vocal to their friends and family about why.

I know it won’t be easy. I did it myself long ago when I saw the early warning signs of Trumpism coming. But for the good of their souls, the gospel, and even the good of the nation, it must be done. Maybe, just maybe, a mass exodus of Christians of good conscious from the evangelical churches of the nation, all saying that they are leaving because evangelicalism has made Trump a golden idol, could break the spell Trump has on it.

About That Open Letter to *Christianity Today*

Since I wrote my article about Franklin Graham’s response to Mark Galli’s Christianity Today article, which called for the president to be removed from office, the response from the evangelical community has skyrocketed.  Sunday, over 200 evangelical leaders signed an open letter condemning Galli’s article and sent it to Timothy Dalrymple, the president of Christianity Today. And this, it turns out, provides yet another perfect opportunity for identifying and addressing logical fallacies.

To see them, it will be useful to look at what one of the signatories, conservative radio host Eric Metaxas, tweeted before signing the letter.

“What makes the @CTmagazine editorial odd (if not preposterous) is that it implies those like Biden or Pelosi, who use the power of their offices to promote the murder of the unborn & the demonization of a biblical sexual ethic, less “morally troubling” than Trump & his tweets.”

The main mistake here is a strawman fallacy; Metaxas is recasting Galli’s argument, suggesting it says something it doesn’t say, to make it easier to attack. How so? 

First, Galli doesn’t imply anything about the democratic candidates; he doesn’t mention them at all and says nothing about their moral standing. He’s just saying that, given his impeachable offenses and “grossly immoral character,” evangelicals shouldn’t support Trump anymore. Notice that, if Trump was removed from office now, Mike Pence would replace him as president and evangelicals could support him in 2020 instead. In a way, Metaxes strawmans Galli by presenting another fallacy: a false dichotomy (saying there are only two options when there are more). “It’s either Trump or the Democrats.” Clearly there are other options.

The second way Metaxas strawmans Galli’s argument is by minimalizing Galli’s concerns about Trump and exaggerating (what he sees as) the moral offenses of democrats. Thinking that abortion should be legal is not equivalent to “promot[ing[ the murder of the unborn.” Whether abortion is murder is a matter of philosophic debate (which cannot be settled scientifically) scientifically), and many religious groups advocate against choosing abortion while still maintaining that it should be legal. (Some even argue that keeping it legal is part of the most effective way to reduce its frequency.) Something similar could be said about the democrats’ position on homosexual marriage; it is not demonizing “biblical sexual ethics.” (Note that most biblical marriages do not involve just one man and one woman.) Further, Galli is not just concerned about “Trump & his tweets.” Galli mentions Trump’s impeachable offenses, the fact that he hires criminals (many of which are now in jail), his immoral action in business (e.g., Trump stole money from a children’s cancer charity), and the fact that he brags about his sexual misconduct.

But Metaxes also commits a version of the confusingly named “tu quoque” fallacy. The phrase essentially translates as “you also” or “you too.” In class, I call it the “two wrongs don’t make a right” fallacy. Usually people use it to excuse away their own failings by pointing to some failing of their accuser. For example, if your doctor says you need to quit smoking, then you probably do—even if your doctor smokes himself. The fact that you need to quit smoking is determined by facts about your health, not someone else’s habits. Your doctor might be a hypocrite, but that doesn’t change the fact that you need to stop smoking. So if you say “I don’t need to quit smoking beacuse you smoke too,” you commit the “you too” fallacy.

But one also commits this fallacy when one tries to excuse away another person’s moral failings by pointing to the moral failings of someone else. And this is essentially what Metaxes is doing by pointing to the moral failings of democrats. Even if (as Metaxes assumes) the democrats are morally worse than Trump, it wouldn’t follow that Trump is morally upstanding enough to deserve evangelical support. It wouldn’t alleviate Galli’s worry that evangelicals are losing their moral credibility by making excuses for Trump’s behavior. If your friend belongs to a cult that worships Charlie Manson, you can’t morally defend them by saying “Well, at least they don’t worship Jim Jones or David Koresh.”

I chose to bring all this up because all of Metaxes’ mistakes can be found in the open letter signed by evangelical leaders that I mentioned at the opening of this article. In fact, it essentially does all three in one line:

As one of our signatories said to the press, “I hope Christianity Today will now tell us who they will support for president among the 2020 Democrat field?”

This strawmans Galli argument (suggesting he is saying evangelicals should support a democrat), presents a false dichotomy (other republicans, independents, and political neutrality are still an option), and even implies that the sins of democrats excuse away Trump’s moral failings.

But the letter also commits other mistakes. For one, as we used to say in debate, it “drops” Galli’s argument; it doesn’t engage with it. In defense of their support of Trump, the letter states that its signatories “are simply grateful” that Trump has “advanced policies” that they agree with (on issues from abortion to Israel). But Galli acknowledges this specifically.

“Trump’s evangelical supporters have pointed to his Supreme Court nominees, his defense of religious liberty, and his stewardship of the economy, among other things, as achievements that justify their support of the president.  …[but]… None of the president’s positives can balance the moral and political danger we face under a leader of such grossly immoral character.”

Galli knows this is why they support him. He is arguing it is not a good enough reason. The letter doesn’t address this argument at all. They just say, “Yep, that’s why we support him.” In debate, this kind of mistake would be enough to make you lose the round.

But perhaps most egregiously, the open letter commits a false analogy. It doesn’t defend Trump’s behavior or character, essentially admitting that Galli is right about that. Instead, it defends its signatories’ embrace of Trump by citing the way that Jesus embraced tax collectors and sinners.

“We are proud to be numbered among those in history who, like Jesus, have been pretentiously accused of having too much grace for tax collectors and sinners, and we take deeply our personal responsibility to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s — our public service.”

Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov/wikimedia commons

Christ’s Appearance to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection

Source: Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov/wikimedia commons

While I am no biblical scholar, I have had my share of theology and bible courses…and I know that Jesus would not have recommended putting Mary Magdalene (a prostitute with whom he associated) in charge of the Roman government. Jesus ministered to social outcacts because he cared about the them; he granted sinners “grace” because they were repentant. Trump, by his own admission, is neither. The example of the Biblical Jesus does call evangelicals to minster to sinners, to not cast them aside like socieity has, to forgive them if they are repentant. It does not, however, call evangelicals to put unrepentent sinners in charge of the government, or to ignore or make excuses for their sinful behavior. The analogy simply does not hold.

None of this, of course, will heal the divie that is now happening within the evangelical movement. But it should help us all identify these kinds of logical fallacies when we see them. 

It’s Time to Leave Christianity Today

Christianity Today’s Mark Galli recently argued that “Trump Should Be Removed from Office” because “[n]one of his positives” outweigh his “grossly immoral character.” Galli is worried that, if evangelicals continue to support Trump, they’ll lose their moral credibility. While some might be thrilled at this development, it’s too little, too late. Galli should have written this article after “grab ‘em by the p*ssy.” One imagines he didn’t because he thought Trump was going to lose anyway and wanted to avoid alienating the vast majority of his readers. But the fact that he didn’t, and that evangelicals have continued to support Trump despite his obvious moral failings, means that no one takes the moral authority of Galli, or evangelicals, seriously anymore. 

Franklin Graham claimed that two democrats (from Trump districts) voting against impeachment means that Trump didn’t commit impeachable offenses. It doesn’t. Eric Metaxas and Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II invoked the democrat’s positions on abortion and homosexuality. That’s irrelevant. Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell Jr. and megachurch pastor Jack Graham just engaged in tribalism; Christianity Today is in the “liberal evangelical…social gospel” camp. None condemned or even addressed Trump’s moral failings, and they’re being echoed across social media by evangelicals everywhere.

But this kind of reaction from evangelicals to Galli’s article also means it’s time for Galli, and all evangelicals like him who see Trump for who he is, to leave evangelical Christianity—and to do so, today. Why?

Belonging to a group comes with risk. If someone does something you know is wrong in the name of a group you voluntarily belong to, you are morally to blame for their actions—at least to some extent. If you attend Westborough Baptist Church, for example, you are partly moral culpable for the immorality of their “God Hates Fags” protests of military funerals—even if you don’t participate in the protests yourself. The group couldn’t do what it does unless it exists, and you help it exist by just belonging—even more so if you tithe. You are not as guilty as the protesters themselves, but you still share in their guilt. And the longer you stay, the more you risk being convinced to do the actions yourself.

In the same way, if you attend a church that is pro-Trump—where you know the vast majority of the people in the congregation are pro-Trump and the pastor is preaching (either implicitly or explicitly) pro-Trump messages—you are guilty of their sins. Indeed, if you still claim to even be in the evangelical camp, you are in the same predicament. Evangelical support for Trump has become so widespread and unimpeachable, it’s become a cult. Only in cults do you see these kinds of efforts to excuse, explain away, and dismiss the obvious and blatant immoral behavior of a leader.

This is essentially why people, like lifelong conservative George Will, have left the GOP. He, along with cult expert Steven Hassan, has called it a cult. But it’s so much more worrisome when cult like behavior comes from the religious. In any other circumstance, if you were standing in a building and realized that the vast majority of the people standing around you facing the same direction were in a cult, you’d get out—that very day. That very second. Not only by staying would you be guilty of supporting the cult’s existence, but you would be in danger of being drawn into the cult yourself.

Let me be clear. I’m not talking to people who are already in the cult. I’m a philosopher. I present arguments, and arguments can’t deprogram cultists. If you could reason with people in a cult, they wouldn’t be in the cult. Of course, I think they should get out. But nothing I could say would convince them.

Who I am talking to is evangelicals, like Galli, and those who appreciated his article—those who are fully aware of what Trump is and does. If that’s you, I’m asking you to leave your evangelical church and be vocal to your friends and family about why. I know it won’t be easy. (I did it myself long ago when I saw the early warning signs of Trumpism coming.) But for your sanity, your safety, and the good of the nation, it must be done. Only a mass exodus of Christians of good conscience from the churches of the nation, all saying that they are leaving because evangelicalism has made Trump a golden idol, could possibly break the spell.

When is a Joke, not a Joke? When it’s Told by a Politician.

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Seen here: Mike Huckabee, not telling a joke. Source: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Last Thursday, Mike Huckabee tweeted that he was going on Hannity to 

“explain how @realDonaldTrump will be eligible for a 3rd term due to the illegal attempts by Comey, Dems, and media , et al attempting to oust him as @POTUS so that’s why I was named to head up the 2024 re-election.”

Many (including myself, Susan Rice, and members of the media) believed him and collectively freaked out. Any president defying the constitution to run for a third term is horrifying. Then Huckabee went on Hannity and said that he was only joking. Well, not exactly. Hannity made fun of “liberals” for being “triggered” and having “a meltdown over a joke”; Huckabee laughed as he said he wasn’t joking and explained why Trump would be eligible to run in 2024…but then Huckabee made fun of Susan Rice for “taking the bait.” (You can see the exchange here.)

Two philosophers I highly respect chastised me for not seeing through the ruse and taking Huckabee seriously. My kind of reaction, they argued, was what he was trying to provoke—to make me seem unhinged and unreasonable. About that, they were undoubtably right. And I probably should have waited for his apperence on Hannity to react. But this got me thinking—was it really unreasonable to believe Huckabee? Is it completely absurd to believe that Huckabee would think that a legal argument could be made that a president’s first term “doesn’t count” because of “illegal attempts” to oust him? Or might the joke be on them, my philosopher friends, for believing Hannity and Huckabee when they said his tweet was only a joke? Indeed, when, if ever, can you believe a politician when they claim that the absurd thing they said was a joke? This, it seemed, was a perfect logical puzzle to break down on my logic blog.

Now, to be clear, if I did make a logical mistake, it was not the kind I usually warn against. I did not fall for a fake news story; I double checked Hannity’s twitter account to make sure he actually said what people were saying he said. I also didn’t fail to recognize a satirical news site; this wasn’t a case of The Onion running an article saying “Huckabee says ‘Impeachment means Trump can legally run for third term’.” If I made a mistake, it was in not recognizing something that was obviously a joke, as a joke.

But such a statement is obviously a joke only if what it implies is obviously absurd—and it’s not clear to me that it implies anything obviously absurd. Now, let me be clear: it is absurd to think that it would be legal or constitutional for any president to run for a third term; no reason for doing so, including “illegal attempts” to oust him, have any legal standing. The 22nd amendment clearly prohibits such a thing. But that’s not what Huckabee’s tweet implies. His tweet implies that Huckabee thinks there is a legal case to be made for something that is obviously illegal. And, in my view, in no way is it absurd to believe that Huckabee thinks such a thing. 

Why? Because it is not unprecedented. Many politicians believe that a president not divesting themselves from their family business doesn’t run afoul of the constitution’s emoluments clauses. It does. Many think it is legal for a president to hold up congressionally approved military aid to extort a forgiven country for political favors. It is not. So it’s not a stretch at all to believe that a politician (e.g., Huckabee) thinks that something which is plainly illegal actually is legal. Indeed, since the law is only as powerful as the efforts of those who (re)interpret and enforce it, and the people involved have so far gotten away with all of the things mentioned above, it might even be reasonable to believe that Huckabee thinks attempts to grant the president a third term could succeed.

Something else that indicates that the Huckabee tweet wasn’t a joke is that it had no punch line; its not structred to illicit a laugh. Now, one might laugh at how people reacted to it; Huckabee certainly did. But that makes it a prank, not a joke. Indeed, Huckabee himself never said it was a joke; he only delighted in watching “liberals’ heads explode” and Susan Rice taking “the bait.” But jokes do not have bait. Pranks do. When you pull a prank, you trick or “bait” someone into believing something is true and then laugh at how they react—perhaps even making fun of the fact that they believed it was true. But, of course, if it was not unreasonable to believe the thing they tricked you into believing, the criticism “I can’t believe you fell for it” doesn’t hold water.

Consider how the Urban Dictionary defines prank:

A prank used to mean a practical joke, but the definition has slightly changed in the age of the youtube ‘prank’ video. Nowadays a prank means saying provocative sh[*]t to someone, while secretly recording them, and then screaming “it’s a prank, bro, it’s a prank” when you elicit a violent response.

(Youtube Prankster approaches a girl walking with her boyfriend)
YP: DAMNNNNNN! Look at those melons. Can I please put my face in those melons?
Random girl: What the f[*]ck?
(The expected happens and the girl and/or her boyfriend react violently to this sexual harrassment) [sic]
YP (after getting a slap in the face): It’s a prank, bro, it’s a prank. Look there’s a camera right there! It’s not sexual harassment if the camera’s on.

Notice that, since such happenings are common, it’s completely unjustified to laugh at the “random girl” for believing that the prankster wanted to do exactly what he said he wanted to do. And it certainly would be wrong to chastise her for getting upset at, or “triggered” by, what he said.  

This is different than a prank designed to, say, fool someone into thinking that I have the power of the Force from Star Wars (maybe with a hidden hardness and a rope). Generally people should know better, so “I can’t believe you fell for it” seems to apply. So the answer to my question boils down to this: was Huckabee’s prank more like my “Force” prank or the Urban dictionary example?

Apparently, if you follow him on Twitter, the prank nature of the tweet might have been more clear; he apparently tells “jokes” all the time. So in the context of his twitter feed, perhaps it’s obvious. (Although it appears that the “jokes” he tells are usuaully more obvious.) The idea that he was already appointed to head the 2024 campiagn was perhaps the giveaway.

But in the context of our current political climate, to those who don’t follow Huckabee on Twitter, it’s not obvious. So the fact that so many people took Huckabee seriously is not a testament to their gullibility or outlandishness–to them being unhidged and unreasonable. It’s a testament to how absurd our politics has become. “The President should get a third term; his first done didn’t count” is an argument that is only one step removed from arguments we have already heard.

Indeed, making legally outrageous non-funny statements, and then later dismissing them as “jokes” and making fun of those who “fall for it” by getting upset, may simply be a doorway to normalize such ideas—a kind of gaslighting (a way to make people unable to tell truth from fiction). Pretty soon, we’ll be living in a disoptian nightare where you won’t be able to tell whether the outrageous non-sense a politician says is a joke or not …until it’s too late.

In fact, while I’m now confident that Huckabee hasn’t already been appointed to head Trump’s 2024 campaign, I’m not so sure he doesn’t think Trump’s first term shouldn’t count. The former may have been the only thing Huckabee was “kidding” about. The latter may be the an idea he’s trying to get us used to. How sure you are about what Huckabee actually thinks? The distopian nightmare might already be real. 

Can God Be Disproven?

Can God’s Existence Be Disproven?

In 2013, I published an article for the journal Think entitled “Do Souls Exist.” In 2016, it was “Does Free Will Exist.” Now, in 2019, I’m working to complete the trilogy with “Does God Exist?” In it, I will lay out the most popular arguments for and against God’s existence. I show why attempts to prove God exists fail, but argue that there is good evidence that God does not exist. But evidence is one thing; hard 100% proof is another. So, this had got me thinking: It is possible to prove that God doesn’t exist?

In debates about the existence of God, the question “Can you prove that God doesn’t exist?” is often asked. Now, as an attempt to provide a reason for believing God exists, this move simply commits the appeal to ignorance fallacy. The fact that you can’t prove something is false is not a reason to think it is true; likewise, not being able to prove that something doesn’t exist is not a reason to believe that it does. After all, I can’t prove that unicorns don’t exist; one could be hiding somewhere I can’t look—the universe is a big place. But that doesn’t mean unicorns exist or that it is rational to believe so. When it comes to existential matters (questions regarding what exists and doesn’t) the burden of proof is on the believer. Until evidence is provided that some thing exists, believing that thing doesn’t exist is the rational position.

A Legitimate Question

            But the question “Can you prove that God doesn’t exist?” is also asked legitimately. What do I mean by that? Well….

It’s often said that “you can’t prove a negative,” as in “you can’t prove that something doesn’t exist.” And usually, this is true. Like with unicorns, the thing in question could always be somewhere you can’t look. But you can prove that something doesn’t exist by showing the very concept of it to be logically impossible. I can, for example, prove that there are no square-circles by showing the very concept of a “square-circle” to be a contradiction in terms. There cannot be a “four-sided object with no sides.” Because it contradicts itself, that string of words it not meaningful in the English language. I can know “there is a square-circle” is necessarily false just like I can know that “Bay egg jump top” is necessarily false, and for the same reason: it’s non-sense. It’s meaningless.

The reason that it might be possible to prove that God does not exist is that, upon examination, it seems that the very concept of God is logically contradictory; it’s non-sense. “There is a God” might be as much non-sense as “there is a square circle.” How so?

Although God has not always been conceived of as a perfect being, and biblical scholars agree that the God of the Bible is not perfect, God has been defined by theists as perfect since about the time that Augustine incorporated Plato’s ideas about a demiurge (a perfect being that ordered the universe according to the Platonic forms) into his Christian theology.[1] Today, theists think that God’s perfection entails that he is (among other things) omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscience (all-knowing), omnibenevolent (all-good), omni-present (fully-everywhere), immutable (unchanging), perfectly-just, perfectly merciful, and perfectly free.

            The worry, however, is that it is not logically possible for a being to have all these properties. Some of the properties, by themselves, might be incoherent. (What does it even mean for something to be “fully-everywhere”?) But others seem to contradict one another; if you are one, you can’t be the other.

The most common worry along this latter line is “Can God create a bolder so big that he cannot lift it?” If he can’t then he’s not all-powerful, but if he can then his power can be limited (so he’s not all powerful). A seeming paradox. A similar worry is whether God can be all-powerful but also all-good. If he is all-good then, by definition, he cannot do evil; but if he is all-powerful then, by definition, he can do anything including evil. Paradox! The very concept of a perfect being seems logically contradictory.[2]

Atheist William Rowe argues that these paradoxes can be solved. And to do so, he doesn’t just say “God is beyond us; we can’t understand how God can have the properties he must.” For one, this just begs the question; it assumes the truth of what it is trying to prove: that a being with such properties exists. More importantly, however, Rowe understands that logical contradictions can’t be true. So, Rowe would admit, if the concept of a perfect being where logically contradictory, one could not exist. Rowe argues, however, that such a concept is not logically contradictory—at least, not for these reasons.

To understand his argument, however, we need to understand why philosophers agree that God could not do anything that is logically impossible (and yet still be omnipotent). In short, to be omnipotent is to have the power to make any proposition true. But sentences that express logical contradictions—like there is a square circle—are not really propositions. Why? Because they are contradictory and thus don’t make sense. So God can’t make them true, because they literally can’t be true—but that doesn’t mean that God is not all-powerful. (Think of it this way. God can’t make “Bay egg jump top” true, or “he-ba-ge-ba-bling-bling-blah” true either, but this doesn’t mean that he’s not all powerful. God can do anything, but those aren’t really things. Likewise, a square circle is not really a thing.)

Well, Rowe argues that wondering whether God could rob himself of an essential property—like omnipotence or omni-benevolence[3]–is like wondering whether he can make a square circle. Of course he can’t, Rowe argues, but that doesn’t mean he is not all-powerful. Of course a being with unlimited power can’t limit his own power (by making a bolder he can’t life). That like asking if he can make a square circle. And God can be all-powerful, without having the ability to do evil, because “There is an all-good being that can do evil” is just as logically contradictory as “there is a four sided object with no sides.”[4]

Why a Perfect Being is Impossible

Not everyone finds Rowe’s argument convincing, however. If God is all powerful, he should be able to do anything that I can do; and since I can do evil (believe me!), God’s being all-powerful must entail he can too. Now, Rowe is right that “there is an all-good being that can do evil” is logically contradictory, just like “there is a four sided object with no sides.” But “there is an all-good being that can do evil” is what must be true if there is a being that is both all-good and all powerful. Thus the very concept of a perfect being is logically contradictory, like a square circle—or so the argument goes.

But here’s the thing: even if you don’t like that counter-argument, and think that Rowe is right—even if Rowe is right, and God being unable to rob himself of an essential property does not rob him of omnipotence—God still can’t exist by definition. Why? Because, as Rowe himself argues, if God cannot rob himself of an essential property, then he cannot rob himself of omni-benevolence. And if he can’t do that, he can do nothing but what he must do: the absolute best and perfect thing, in every circumstance. If creating the universe is best, then God must create. Indeed, he must create the best possible world. If saving a drowning baby is morally best, he must do that. He cannot act otherwise. But (as I argued in “Does Free Will Exist”), freewill requires the ability to do otherwise.[5] God cannot be free without it.[6] So if God, by definition, must be both all-good and perfectly free, then God, by definition, cannot exist.

A similar problem is raised by God’s omniscience. There is some debate about whether God knowing what you will do before you do it limits your ability to do otherwise and thus your free will. (I have argued, elsewhere, that it clearly does.[7]) But no one can argue that if you knew, infallibly, what you were going to do before you did it, that you could still do what you do freely. If you infallibly know what you are going to do before you even do it, how could you even deliberate? How could you even choose? Even if you are a compatibilist about free will, and don’t think that alternate possibilities are required for free will, you would have to agree that to freely choose something you have to be able to deliberate, decide, or choose. You can’t freely choose to do something that you already knew you were going to do. But, of course, if God is all-knowing, he infallibly knows what he will do before he does it; thus, by definition, God cannot be free.

Granted, some will argue that God does not know what he does before he does it because he is a transcendent immutable timeless being. But the concept of such a being making free choices is just as problematic; the very action of choosing (which must include a process of deliberation) is a timed process. Indeed, such a being would be unable to do most of the things that theists traditionally think a perfect being must do: love (which includes being moved by suffering), answer prayers (which includes responding to requests), be a person (which arguably requires a body), or even forgive sins.[8]

Speaking of the latter, there is one more paradox worth mentioning: the logical incompatibility of perfect-mercy and perfect-justice. Justice requires someone getting what they deserve; being perfectly just, thus, is making sure everyone gets what they deserve. Mercy, by contrast, requires someone not getting what they deserve; being perfectly merciful, therefore, is to ensure that no one gets what they deserve. Clearly, then, no being can be both. One could give justice to some, and mercy to others. But it is logically impossible to ensure that everyone gets what they deserve, and that no one gets what they deserve.

Christians, of course, insists that God accomplished this feat through the crucifixion of Jesus. This, they argue, was perfectly-merciful because it allowed everyone to be forgiven, but also accomplished perfect justice by ensuring that the proper punishment for all sins was doled out. But justice requires more than just the doling out of punishment; the punishment must be inflicted upon the person who deserves it. And, as Christians willfully admit, Jesus did not deserve it; indeed, he was the most undeserving of punishment. If a judge found someone guilty, but decided to punish the victim instead, we would not think that justice has been served. The person who does the crime, must do the time. And the same would follow, even if the judge decided to punish himself. That would be merciful; but by definition, it would not be just. 

Unless these paradoxes are solved (and I have yet to see a satisfactory answer to any of them) it does seem that one can prove that God (i.e., a perfect being) does not exist. One can’t 100% prove unicorns don’t exist because on can’t look everywhere. But one can show the concept of a perfect being to be logically incoherent.

The Response of Mythical Faith

In reply, some academics would argue that I am taking belief in God (and religious belief in general) too literally.  Susan Armstrong, for example, thinks it wrongheaded to think of God as a being with properties; she instead thinks of God as an ultimate reality that all religions attempt to appreciate and worship, and emphasizes what can’t be said or known about the divine. Indeed, according to Armstrong, one of the biggest mistakes of modern religion is (what we might call) science envy—thinking that it can define, set forth, and defend the existence of God like a scientific doctrine. It cannot. Instead, she thinks religious language is largely non-literal, and sees religions as a set of practices, rather than a set of doctrines.[9] Arguing that Karen Armstrong’s God doesn’t exist (because he has contradictory properties) would be like arguing that Santa Claus doesn’t exist (because physics wouldn’t allow him to visit every home in one night). Of course he doesn’t, but it doesn’t matter because his literal existence isn’t the point. It’s the practices that surround him (including people pretending and acting like he exists) that matter.

As a reply to the arguments I presented, however, this falls short. Why? Because pretty much only Armstrong (and a handful of academics and theologians like her) embrace this kind of non-literal view of religious language and doctrines. And by pointing this out, I am not committing an “appeal to the masses” fallacy, where one thinks that a majority of people believing something is what makes it true. Why? Because Armstrong’s thesis is about the nature of religious language; she thinks it is non-literal. This cannot be true if the vast majority of religious believers use religious language literally. And that they do is undeniably the case. The vast majority of Christians believe that Jesus literally existed, that he literally performed miracles, and literally rose from the dead. Devout Jews literally believe that God parted the Red Sea, and Muslims literally believe that Mohamad rode a horse named Buraq up to heaven. And they all literally believe that God literally exists.[10] This seems undeniable; indeed, I believe it is this common view of religious language that Armstrong is trying to combat with her arguments. But until she is successful, arguments which suggest that literal belief in a perfect being is logically incoherent—that a perfect being cannot literally exist—are appropriate. They are not wrongheaded; they do not commit the straw-man fallacy. These arguments are simply meeting people where they are at.

            Indeed, even though Armstrong would likely answer “yes” to the question “Does God exist?”, I believe that most theists (if they knew Armstrong’s views regarding religious language) would actually consider her to be an atheist. She’s like John Caputo, who says that God doesn’t exist, but insists— even though God doesn’t literally exist, the concept of God is still relevant and “calls upon us, lures us, solicits us” to act a certain way. Or consider Tamar Szabó Gendler, who contrasts beliefs with aliefs—belief-like attitudes one takes that causes one to act like something is true even though one knows that it is actually, literally, false. Isn’t that, essentially, what Armstrong is doing with God? She doesn’t believe God exists. She alieves God exists.

Such belief is not faith in the traditional sense—literal belief in something in the absence of evidence or despite evidence to the contrary. It’s what I call “mythical faith.” It is to treat, for example, the stories of the Bible like fans treat the stories of The Lord of the Rings: as stories that one knows are actually literally false but that contain moral lessons that affect one’s lives—that call us to live a certain kind of way.

I’m not here arguing that there is anything wrong with mythical faith.[11] I’m just saying that people like Armstrong embracing non-literal belief cannot save the common literal belief in God from the paradoxes I articulated in my previous posts. Yes, those arguments do not apply to the beliefs of people like Armstrong, who do not take religious language literally. But since theirs is the minority view, it is not a mistake to present arguments against the literal view, as I have done here and elsewhere.


[1] His brief history of the concept of God is, of course, oversimplified. For the full story, see Daniel Dombrowski’s book A History of the Concept of God: A Process Approach (SUNY Press, 2018). See also Karen Armstrong’s Book A History of God (Ballantine, 1993).

[2] For more on such paradoxes see Martin, Michael and Monnier, Ricki. “The Impossibility of God”. Prometheus Books, 2003.

[3] Asking whether he can “make a bolder so big that he cannot lift it” is like asking whether he can make “There is a limitless being that has limits” true. Asking whether God has the power to do evil is like asking whether he can make “there is an all-good being who does evil” true. Each, Rowe argues, is a contradiction in terms.

[4] Rowe, William. The problem of divine perfection and freedom. In Reasoned Faith, edited by E. Stump, 223-333. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.

[5] Of course, one might try to embrace compatibilism of some sort to get out of this problem, but most theists are not compatibilists. Indeed, they are staunch libertarians; so this “way out” of this problem will not be palatable for most theists.

[6] It important to note that, if God can’t be free, he also can’t get moral credit for what he does. As I will mention later, one can only receive moral credit for doing what one was free to do (or not do). So the very concept of omni-benevolence seems self-contradictory. Being all-good means that one is not free; being free is necessary for being all-good. So being all-good is logically impossible. 

[7] “God, fatalism and temporal ontology.”  Religious Studies, 45(4): 435–54 (2009).

[8] See Drange, Theodore M. “Incompatible-properties Arguments: A Survey.” In The Impossibility of God, edited by Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier. 185-197. Amherst, New York: Prometheus books, 2003.

[9] Karren Armstrong, “The Case for God.” https://www.amazon.com/Case-God-Karen-Armstrong/dp/0307389804

[10] I should add that this is also true of religious believers in the past. Although Armstrong is right that Biblical Literalism (the idea that the Bible is literally true cover to cover) is a recent modern post-Darwin invention, it is undeniable that religious belief in general is and always has been largely literal. Christians have never taken the gospels to be as mythical as Lord of the Rings, or to believed that “God exists” is a useful fiction.  

[11] Although, for a good review of Armstrong’s book, which explains why the theistic masses find Armstrong’s kind of religious belief unsatisfying, see https://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/04/books/review/Douthat-t.html  

Black Mirror and the 2020 Election

We might be about to live through the worst Black Mirror episode yet.

In the wake of editing Wiley/Blackwell’s new book Black Mirror and Philosophy: Dark Reflections, this semester I taught a course at King’s College on the famous Netflix series Black Mirror. The course consisted primarily of having the students watch the episodes, discusses them, and then read and discuss chapters from the book devoted to those episodes. We talked about everything from criminal punishment, digital dating, and dealing with death to the abuse of social media, artificial intelligence, and the dangers of technology. Black Mirror is, top to bottom, an outstanding series.

But one episode stood out to me this semester; and it was the episode that, oddly enough, was originally panned as the worst by my students (and critics): Season 2, Episode 3: “The Waldo Moment.” It tells the story of a blue cartoon comedy bear (named Waldo) that decides to run for political office as a publicity stunt. His campaign gains traction and, although he doesn’t win, he ends up with enough support that, at the announcement ceremony when he offers “500 quid” for someone to throw a shoe at the winner, someone does and a riot starts. The show ends with Jamie, the original voice of Waldo who quit the campaign when he realized its danger, being beaten by gestapo-type police for throwing a brick at a screen displaying Waldo’s image. 

One of my goals for the book, and the course, was to identify the question raised and/or the moral of each episode. For this episode, in the book, Greg Littman does an excellent job exploring the question raised by this episode: to what extent should disrespect and incivility play a role in political discourse; it’s one of my favorites in the book. But my conversation with my students about the episode made me want to probe deeper and try to figure out the moral message of the episode. It’s not easy to figure out. Indeed, it might actually have a couple.

Where’s Waldo’s Moral Message?

A first viewing might make one think that the episode is a criticism of how politicians are fake. When Waldo appears alongside the other candidates on a talk show, the only point he makes (among fart jokes and swearing) is that all the candidates are “fake.” “[You’re] less real than me, and I can do this” Waldo says, as he pulls of his cartoon head and juggles it around. “That’s what you said that really hit home,” his producer Jack later says. “[Waldo’s] not real, but he’s realer than all the others.” Indeed, Waldo himself seems to simply be a satire of how politicians operate. “All the other MPs have got teams, we’re just more honest about it.” What we see from politicians is a front, a persona, created by a team—focus group tested, researched, and polished. The only difference, one might argue, between them and Waldo is the fact Waldo’s fakery is obvious and up front.

But the message can’t be that simple. First, that’s a bit sophomoric. Of course politicians have a persona; we all put on personas and social masks in daily life. You behave different at work than you do at home. But second, the end of the episode has Jamie living in a world ruled by Waldo. You see him on every billboard, in classrooms, on military planes, and used as a mascot (with vague promises like “hope,” “change,” “future,” and “believe”). It’s not clear whether the world is united under Waldo, or whether different political parties in different nations have used Waldo to rise to power. But when the police taser and then beat Jamie up and just walk away (they don’t even arrest him), you get the impression that the world is universally fascist. Neither Waldo nor his message was a force for good.

The clue to the episode’s first moral message, I think, lies in the scene that explains how Waldo made this fascist world possible.  Jamie and Jack (the producer who owns Waldo), meet with Jeff Carter, an American from “The Agency.” He explains why Waldo is the “perfect political figurehead.”

“The bear, people like. The fact he’s a bear is an assist….You look at human politicians, you’re instinctively like, “brrrr” – uncanny, right? Like the girls in porn. You know something’s wrong, cos why else are they doing it? It’s usually daddy issues, eh? Just like politics. Waldo bypasses that. You already know he’s not real, so no personal flaws….He’s a team, and you’re open about that, which is fantastic. The honesty thing works. Waldo is a construct people [don’t] just accept but embrace. At the moment he’s anti-politics, which is a political stance itself, right? But he could deliver any brand of political content, minus the potential downsides of a human messenger. In a debate, your team could Google every word the other guy says, then let Waldo hit him with debunk stats and spit a Twitter-ready zinger into the next sentence. He’s the perfect assassin….”

The final episode of Black Mirror gives you Big Brother for the social  media age

If we stopped there, one might think that the message of the episode is about the dangers of technology—a warning about the rise of digital animation technology, that could allow for a cartoon to run for office and participate in discussion and debate in real time (and be the best candidate on the stage because people can be googling the right response behind the scenes). And maybe that is a warning the episode calls out. But Brooker (the show’s creator) has said that (despite common opinion) the dangers of technology is not what Black Mirror is about.

Occasionally it’s irritating when people miss the point of the show and think it’s more po-faced [humorless or dissaproving] than I think it is. Or when they characterize it as a show warning about the dangers of technology. That slightly confuses and annoys me, because it’s like saying [Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic] Psycho is a move warning about the danger of silverware. Black Mirror is not really about that…“[I]t’s not a technological problem [we have], it’s a human one.”[1]

In other words, Black Mirror is about human foibles. The technology in the show just amplifies them so that they are obvious for all to see. And if we continue with Agent Jeff Carter’s quote, we can see the human foible that Waldo magnifies.

“…of course he won’t win. You started out too coarse off the bat. There’s no substantial basis to what you offer, and the whole nihilist “democracy sucks” thing, yeah, is kind of wack-a-doo. But with a targeted, hopeful message, which we can provide, energizing the disenfranchised without spooking the middle via your new platform, you got a global political-entertainment product people actually want. You could roll this out worldwide.”

That is what makes Waldo so dangerous. People like his anti-establishment-fuck-the-status-quo stance, but he doesn’t stand for any specific alternative. He has no plan. He has no position. He offers no fix. As Gwendolyn (his labor party opponent put it), “if you were preaching revolution, well that’d be something. But you’re not because that would require courage and a mindset. …what have you got? Who are you? What are you for?” A lot of people are, rightly, fed up with the system as it stands; they are the disenfranchised Jeff speaks of. They are anti-establishment. And so they like Waldo. But in what direction do you go after the establishment has been overturned? You could go anywhere, even straight into fascism. And since Waldo stands for nothing else, even fascists could use him to rise to power.

And so, at least as I now read the episode, its main moral message is this: a person with political mindset that only goes as deep as “fuck the establishment” is monumentally dangerous. That’s the human foible. Such a person could be manipulated into voting for any candidate; all a candidate has to do is declare themselves to be “anti-establishment.” And the same would be true of those who say, like Jamie, that they “aren’t interested” in politics. Not only does democracy require an informed electorate, and not only does low voter turnout usually hand an advantage to the worst candidates, but dissatisfaction with the status-quo is usually the reason such people give for their lack of disengagement. And even if they aren’t tricked into voting for the wrong person (because they don’t vote), such disengagement will lead them to be complicit when a fascist uses an anti-establishment platform to rise to power. They can’t be bothered to worry about the concentration camps, and the illegal behavior, and the lifting of environmental regulations—because ‘It’s boring” or because “all politicians are corrupt anyway, so what does it matter?”

Of course, the idea that all politicians are equally corrupt—that those who are opposed to fascism are just as corrupt as the fascists themselves—is a lie told by fascists to trick people into political complacency. The fallacy it invokes is called “false equivalence,” thinking two things are equivalent when they are not. Every political party has faults and scandals, but pointing out some of “their” mistakes doesn’t mean yours aren’t worse or more numerous. But not caring about politics is a privilege that can only last as long as one is not being affected by political decisions. Early in the episode, Jamie says he doesn’t care about politics; but I guarantee he cares at the end of the episode when he’s living in a fascist state and being tasered for throwing a brick at a screen with Waldo’s image. But by the time you are homeless on the streets, or the lead is in your water, or your schools are being deprived of funding or shot up by a gunman, or the members of your ethnic and religious group are being killed by police or rounded up, it’s too late.

What Are You For?

When it comes to dangerous political disengagement, Brooker may have had a particular audience in mind. As Jack puts it:

Waldo has got the attention of the young, and the young don’t give a shit about anything except trainers and pirating films….[but] they care about Waldo. They’ll vote for Waldo.

Indeed, according to Roksolana Suchowerska, political disengagement is more common among young people than in any other age group.[2] Part of rectifying this might be an “increased flexibility in the practice of politics” that makes it easier for young people to be engaged; but the solution also has to come from young people themselves. One might think it’s hard to keep up with politics these days, but it’s actually never been easier. It’s all at your fingertips; it’s on your phone. One good half hour podcast once a week, for example, would be enough to at least keep current. Part of the reason King’s College requires its students to take philosophy is to make them into better persons; to give them the kind of mind worth making up, to make them valued contributing members of society with informed positions on important topics. But one can’t be that unless one is, at least to a minimum degree, politically informed and engaged.

Graphic: Earth's temperature record – Climate Change: Vital Signs of the  Planet

That’s not to say that there isn’t good reason for young people to feel disillusioned and disenfranchised. There is a lot of corruption in politics, and some politicians don’t behave well or have their best interests in mind. The world is literally burning and young people know that climate change poses a direct threat their continued existence. By the time they are adults, food shortages and extreme weather may make it impossible to not only live comfortably, but to live at all. Nevertheless, the leader of the political party in power now is pulling us out of the Paris Climate Agreement, moved to eliminate lower polluting cars because he says they are less safe (they aren’t), moved to repeal clean water standards because they hurt economic development (they don’t), moved to eliminate energy efficient lights bulbs because he says they make him look orange (that’s not why), and said there is nothing to worry about because climate change is a Chinese hoax. You can’t blame the youth for being frustrated.

The Dangers of Democracy

But this is not a reason to think all politicians are all that way. (That would commit a fallacy called “hasty generalization,” extrapolating to a whole population based on too small a sample size.) And it’s not a reason to think that politicians should be eliminated from the political process, or that it’s not worth figuring out which one is the best. Jamie actually hits on why in the above conversation with Jack.

Jack: Look we don’t need politicians, we’ve all got iPhones and computers, right? So any decision that has to be made, any policy, we just put it online. Let the people vote thumbs up, thumbs down, the majority wins. That’s a democracy. That’s a that’s an actual democracy.

Jamie: So is YouTube and I don’t know if you’ve seen it but the most popular video is a dog farting the theme tune to Happy Days.

Jacke: Well, today it’s Waldo.

Jamie: No. It’s still the dog.

Since democracy was first conceived, it’s been known that pure democracy—where everyone gets exactly one vote and everything is decided by the majority opinion of the entire populace—is dangerous. To borrow and modify a thought experiment from Plato’s Republic, if you owned a ship, how would you rather its navigation be directed? By a majority vote of the people who happen to be upon it? Or would you hire a navigational and sailing expert, who understands the science of sailing and navigation? Obviously the latter. This is why America’s founding fathers did not establish a pure democracy, but a representative democracy. They didn’t want a dictatorship; but they also recognized that the average person doesn’t have the relevant expertise to know which laws should be enacted or how governments should be run. The middle ground solution was to have the people, by majority vote, elect representatives who, at least ideally, would have the relevant expertise and know how to accomplish that which was the best for everyone.

The Ship of State: Ship of Fools | DumpDC

Of course, we don’t live in an ideal world; and there is nothing wrong with being unhappy with the current political leadership of either party. It’s not bad to be anti-establishment. There’s plenty wrong with things as they stand. But merely being anti-establishment isn’t’ enough. You need plans. You need a vision of how things should be changed, and a working argument for why those changes would be for the better. Tearing down the system is one thing, but not building another in its place would be even more disastrous than keeping the status quo.  As Monroe, Waldo’s Tory party opponent puts it, “If [Waldo] is the main opposition then the whole system looks absurd. Which it may well be. But it built these roads.”

Are We Living In The Waldo Moment?

Just think of how different the world would be if the American public had been more wary of those who said they would “drain the swamp” and “make America great again” without being specific about what those phrases meant in practice. Notice that both are slogans that appeal to dissatisfaction with status quo. Those who are in office now are “swampy.” America is not great now. But notice also that they tell us nothing about what comes next. To what era of American history are we going to return? If you drain the swamp, who are you going to fill it back up with?

When politicians say such vague things, people will just assume that the politician is going to do what they want–to return America to the era they want, and install the people they like; but that leaves the politician free to do whatever they want, once they are elected. It’s a bit like the “secret plan” that Trump said he had to defeat ISIS in 2015 but that he couldn’t tell us about. “I don’t want the enemy to know what I’m doing  [but] I have an absolute way of defeating ISIS….I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me.” In reality, of course, he had no such plan; he just continued Obama’s plan; and when he finally deviated from it, his actions ended up helping ISIS.[3]­

It turns out, however, the episode was not inspired by Trump. It aired in 2013 after all, two years before Trump announced his candidacy. “The Waldo Moment” was actually inspired by the election of Boris Johnson as Mayor of London in 2008. “It was that whole notion of cartoon Boris,” Brooker said. “He goes on some TV Panel show like Have I Got News for You and everyone think he’s a legend.” “And it doesn’t matter what Boris says,” Producer Annabel Jones adds, “as long as he’s entertaining. We’ll forgive you [for] anything if you make us laugh.”[4]

Indeed, even if Jamie did something wrong, Waldo would be blameless. People loved Waldo, not Jamie; Waldo is the one that makes them laugh. In the same way, Boris has created a cartoon version of himself—with disheveled hair and outrageous outfits—at which it’s almost impossible not to laugh. As a result, it’s almost impossible to make any criticism of Boris stick—even when he outright lies or disbands parliament. It’s almost like people separate the figurehead, or the politician, from the person. (This is why Johnson muffs his hair BEFORE interviews; he is getting into character.)

And the same, arguably, goes for Trump. This is why evangelicals like Trump the politician, despite the fact that Trump the person is a twice divorced philander who paid a porn star to keep secret their affair—the affair he had with her right after his current wife had his youngest son. And this is why no scandal, no matter how severe, ever sticks to him. Trump illegally funneled money from a charity, regionally intended to help kids with cancer, into the coffers of the Trump Organization. [5] The revelation of that fact would have forced any other president to resign. But not Trump. Why? Because, for his fans, the man behind the mask doesn’t matter.

The Dangers of Political Fandom

And that brings us to the second moral or “meaning” of the episode: It’s a warning against political fandom, and how it might lead to fascism. But what is political fandom?

At the end of “The Waldo Moment” Jamie finds himself living in a fascist dystopia. Apparently, by using Waldo and his anti-establishment message, fascists were able to rise to power. But ask yourself: when the fascists, using Waldo as a front, started doing fascist things – why didn’t anyone stand up and stop it? Why didn’t anyone object?

Now, one possible answer is that it was too little too late. People tried, but there was nothing they could do. Once in power, fascists tend to subvert the political and electoral process, either by using their existing political power to silence the opposition and rig elections, or by suspending elections and/or casting doubt on them so as to dismiss their results. When that happens, there is very little “standing up” one can do.

But the answer the episode seems to suggest is that people simply let him do it; they didn’t object because it was Waldo, and they were fans of Waldo. Think of how many people we see in the episode, wearing Waldo T-shirts, sporting stickers, or otherwise adulating him. They didn’t like Waldo because of his policies, or his ideas. They were just his fans. But they were willing to support and vote for him based on that alone. That is political fandom. And in the episode, it turned ugly pretty fast. Think of how quickly Waldo’s fans became willing to beat Jamie in the street, or start lobbing shoes at his opponents.

But how could fandom turn into a defense of fascism?   

Consider the well-known backfire effect, which tells us that presenting facts and evidence to correct someone’s misinformed belief won’t get them to change their mind, but instead will cause them to embrace their false belief even more fervently. Now it turns out that this doesn’t always happen; if the issue is mundane—like about E. coli in romaine lettuce—then presenting the correct scientific information will usually change the misinformed person’s mind. But if the issue at hand is emotional, or if the misinformed person sees their false belief as a part of their identity, then you’ll get the backfire effect. Then evidence to the contrary will cause them to double down on their false belief.

Compare this to how most people today engage in politics. Rather than being concerned about platforms and policies, they are more concerned with seeing that their team wins. They will often wait to decide what they think on a topic until they find out what their political party thinks about it—or they will change what they think based on what their party’s platform is. Worse still, they will simply be fans of a particular political figure, and will even see their fandom of that political figure as part of their identity. (Compare “I am an X supporter” to “I support X.”) Consequently, they will be more likely to tie themselves in logical and/or moral knots to defend and/or embrace whatever that political figure says and does, no matter how horrendous or ludicrous it may be.

As a prime example of this, consider a short comedy piece recently done by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (the real world’s closest analog to Waldo) in which he showed a collection of Trump supporters fake political ads where (a person they believed was) “Trump” made ridiculous statements and suggestions.

  • We should electrify statues to kill protesters that try to topple them.
  • We should solve the economic crisis caused by coronavirus by making children grocery store clerks, firefighters, and police officers.
  • We should hold “playoff elections” that will extend Trump’s first term to 2024.
  • We should test to see if we can cure coronavirus with microwaves by putting immigrants (“not people”) into giant person-sized microwaves.

In a similar segment, in 2016, Trump supports backed plans to deport Mexicans by locking them in porta-potties, and lowering the IQ of the Chinese by “injecting their water with various paints and solvents.”

In both cases, the supporters objected to very little; and when they did, they tied themselves into knots trying to make the suggestion seem as if it was not crazy. But none of these Trump supporters, even though they all believed Trump actually said these things, thought any of them were a convincing reason to not vote for him.

To be clear, this is not a phenomenon unique to Trump supporters or the Republican Party. When Stanford student Sam Cady first (as far as I can tell) used the term “political fandom” to refer to the phenomena in question, he not only used a Tea Party rally to illustrate the idea, but also the Democratic National Convention where Barack Obama was nominated. (Sam did so just a few months after “The Waldo Moment” aired in 2013; apparently, something was in the air.)

Obviously, “Berniebros” are fans of Bernie Sanders, and could likely be tricked by Triumph into defending some outlandish things that (they were led to believe) “Bernie” said. Like Waldo, political fandom can occur in any political party. But I don’t think one would be honest if one claimed that this phenomenon is equally common in both parties.

When Fandom Goes Really Wrong

Political fandom is bad enough; but when a political leader realizes that their base is behaving this way — that he could murder someone in broad daylight and not lose their support— and decides to encourage and exploit it, things can go really wrong. If the leader creates catastrophes and then claims he is the only one that can solve them – if he tells them reality is not as it actually appears to their own eyes – that everyone else is out to deceive them and only he tells the truth – if the fans declare that the political figure is a savior, and those on the other side are Satan-worshiping pedophiles — then we are beyond “political fandom,” and instead are dealing with a cult. And that’s even more dangerous.

It’s not clear that “The Waldo Moment” suggests that those who used Waldo to rise to power ever took it that far; but the fact that they could have, I think, reinforces my conclusion that “The Waldo Moment” is the most important episode of the series.

God knows how the Waldo Moment would have been different had Brooker and Jones known that Trump would be elected president in 2016 or Boris would have spearheaded Brexit and then be elected as Prime Minister in 2019. In the wake of Trump’s election, protesters in the real world held up signs reading “This Episode of Black Mirror Sucks.” And earlier this year, a satirical advertisement for Black Mirror Season 6 appeared in Madrid, Spain; it was simply a (non-black) mirror with the words “6th Season. Live Now, everywhere” at the top.

Extremely clever. But a more accurate advert could have appeared on a bus stop in Washington D.C. and simply read “2020: The Waldo Moment has arrived.”

[1] Bryony Gordon, “Charlie Brooker on Black Mirror: ‘It’s not a technological problem we have, it’s a human one’.” The Telegraph, Dec 16, 2014. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/11260768/Charlie-Brooker-Its-not-a-technological-problem-we-have-its-a-human-one.html

[2] https://www.jstor.org/stable/43496480?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

[3] In 2016, he admitted that his plan was to ask the generals for a plan. “I’m going to convene my top generals and give them a simple instruction…They will have 30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS. We have no choice.” In 2017, after being elected, he just continued to implement Obama’s plan, which he had previously said was “stupid” and “a total failure.” (source: https://www.vox.com/world/2017/7/3/15904646/trump-syria-assad-russia-iran-secret-generals-military-isis-terrorism) And then, of course, in 2019—completely in line with the wishes of Russia and Putin—he pulled troops of Syria; this not only literally handed American military bases over to Russia (with Russian flags flying over bases the U.S. built), but helped reinvigorate ISIS. (source: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/07/trump-handing-syria-to-turkey-is-gift-to-russia-iran-isis-mcgu.html)

[4] Charlie Booker and Annabel Jones with Jason Arnopp, Inside Black Mirror (New York: Crown Archetype, 2018): Chapter 6.

[5] https://www.forbes.com/sites/danalexander/2019/12/23/best-stories-of-the-decade-how-donald-trump-shifted-kids-cancer-charity-money-into-his-business/#6f3770504779

[6] That’s not to say Trump didn’t propose plans during the 2016 campaign. His website did have stated plans for the US-China trade war, for loosening gun regulations, clamping down on immigration, reforming the VA, and lowering taxes on the rich. But those were not the focus of his campaign. What’s more, the plans as stated were so vague that, at the time, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget was unable to estimate most of their economic impacts. The estimated cost of those they could (his plans for the VA and his tax cuts) were between 11 to 15 trillion over 10 years. (source: http://www.crfb.org/papers/adding-up-donald-trumps-campaign-proposals-so-far-archive) Of course, we know their cost now. Trumps trade war with China, for example, has decimated the agricultural industry (and forced Trump to do a bailout that was twice as expensive as the auto bailout (source: https://theweek.com/speedreads/866567/trumps-farmer-bailout-already-more-than-twice-expensive-obamas-automaker-bailout). Trumps loosening of gun regulations (source: https://everytown.org/press/the-facts-trump-administration-has-already-weakened-u-s-gun-laws/) have been followed by an even great number and more deadlier mass shootings than there were before. (Sources: https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-09-01/mass-shooting-data-odessa-midland-increase).  Trump’s VA reforms have cost so much that they are going unfunded, despite the fact that he raised the VA budget to unprecedented degrees. (source: https://www.stripes.com/key-veterans-groups-blast-trump-s-va-budget-proposal-as-falling-short-of-veterans-needs-1.572485) And thanks to Trump’s tax cuts for the rich, despite promising to eliminate the debt during his campaign, the national debt has ballooned more under Trump than any other president in history. (source: http://www.crfb.org/papers/adding-up-donald-trumps-campaign-proposals-so-far-archive). This all highlights, even more, the need to stay politically informed.