AI won't be conscious, and here is why (A reply to Susan Schneider)

I have just participated—literally 10 minutes ago as I write these words—in an online debate organized by the IAI, in which Donald Hoffman, Susan Schneider and I discussed the possibility that computers become conscious in the future, with the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI). My position is that they won’t. Susan’s position is that they very well may, and Don’s position is that this isn’t the right question to ask.

If you watched the debate live, you know that, at the very end, I wanted to reply to a point made by Susan but couldn’t, since we ran out of time. The goal of this essay is to put my reply on the record in writing, so to take it out of my system. Before I do that, however, I need to give some context to those who didn’t watch the debate live and don’t have a subscription to the IAI to watch it before reading this essay. If you did watch the debate, you can skip ahead to the section ‘My missing reply.”


In a nutshell, my position is that we have no reason to believe that silicon computers will ever become conscious. I cannot refute the hypothesis categorically, but then again, I cannot categorically refute the hypothesis of the Flying Spaghetti Monster either, as the latter is logically coherent. Appeals to logical coherence mean as little in the conscious AI debate as they do in the Flying Spaghetti Monster context. The important point is not what is logically coherent or what can be categorically refuted, but what hypothesis we have good reasons to entertain.

Those who take the hypothesis of conscious AI seriously do so based on an appallingly biased notion of isomorphism—a correspondence of form, or a similarity—between how humans think and AI computers process data. To find that similarity, however, one has to take several steps of abstraction away from concrete reality. After all, if you put an actual human brain and an actual silicon computer on a table before you, there is no correspondence of form or functional similarity between the two at all; much to the contrary. A living brain is based on carbon, burns ATP for energy, metabolizes for function, processes data through neurotransmitter releases, is moist, etc., while a computer is based on silicon, uses a differential in electrical potential for energy, moves electric charges around for function, processes data through opening and closing electrical switches called transistors, is dry, etc. They are utterly different.

The isomorphism between AI computers and biological brains is only found at very high levels of purely conceptual abstraction, far away from empirical reality, in which disembodied—i.e. medium-independent—patterns of information flow are compared. Therefore, to believe in conscious AI one has to arbitrarily dismiss all the dissimilarities at more concrete levels, and then—equally arbitrarily—choose to take into account only a very high level of abstraction where some vague similarities can be found. To me, this constitutes an expression of mere wishful thinking, ungrounded in reason or evidence.

Towards the end of the debate I touched on an analogy. Those who believe in conscious AI tend to ask the following rhetorical question to make their point: “If brains can produce consciousness, why can’t computers do so as well?” As an idealist, I reject the claim that brains produce consciousness to begin with but, for the sake of focusing on the point in contention, I choose to interpret the question in the following way: “If brains are correlated with private conscious inner life, why can’t computers be so as well?” The question I raised towards the end of the debate was an answer to the aforementioned rhetoric: if birds can fly by flapping their upper limbs, why can’t humans fly by doing so as well? The point of this equally rhetorical question, of course, is to highlight the fact that two dissimilar things—birds and humans—simply do not share every property or function (why should they?). So why should brains and computers do?

Susan then took my analogy and gave it a different spin, taking it beyond the intended context and limits (which is the perennial problem with analogies): she pointed out that, if the Wright brothers had believed that only birds can fly, they wouldn’t have bothered to try and build an airplane, which is itself different from a bird. Her point was that one phenomenon—in this case, flight—can have multiple instantiations in nature, in different substrates—namely, a bird and an airplane. So although silicon computers are different from biology, in principle both could instantiate the phenomenon of private conscious inner life. This is a point of logic that I wanted to react to at the end of the debate, but didn’t have time to.

My missing reply

Here’s what I wanted to say at the end of the debate: indeed, we are not logically forced to limit the instantiations of private conscious inner life to a biological substrate alone. But this isn’t the point, as there are a great many silly hypotheses that are also logically—and even physically—coherent, yet obviously shouldn’t be entertained at all (such as the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or that there is a 19th-century teapot in the orbit of Saturn). The real point is whether we have good reasons to take seriously the hypothesis that private consciousness can correlate with silicon computers. Does the analogy of flight—namely, that airplanes and birds are different but nonetheless can both fly, so private consciousness could in principle be instantiated on both biological and non-biological substrates—provide us with good reasons to think that AI computers can become conscious in the future?

It may sound perfectly reasonable to say that it does, but—and here is the important point—if so, then the same reasoning applies to non-AI computers that exist already today, for the underlying substrate (namely, conducting metal, dielectric oxide and doped semiconducting silicon) and basic functional principles (data processing through electric charge movement) are the same in all cases. There is no fundamental difference between today's 'dumb' computers and the complex AI projected for the future. AI algorithms run on parallel information processing cores of the kind we have had for many years in our PCs (specifically, in the graphics cards therein), just more, faster, more interconnected cores, executing instructions in different orders (i.e. different software). As per the so-called ‘hard problem of consciousness,’ it is at least very difficult to see what miracle could make instructions executed in different orders, or more and faster components of the same kind, lead to the extraordinary and intrinsically discontinuous jump from unconsciousness to consciousness. The onus of argument here is on the believers, not the skeptics.

Even new, emerging computer architectures, such as neuromorphic processors, are essentially CMOS (or similar, using philosophically equivalent process technologies) devices moving electric charges around, just like their predecessors. To point out that these new architectures are analog, instead of digital, doesn’t help either: digital computers move charges around just like their analog counterparts; the only difference is in how information arising from those charge movements is interpreted. Namely, the microswitches in digital computers apply a threshold to the amount of charge before deciding its meaning, while analog computers don’t. But beyond this interpretational step—trivial for the purposes of the point in contention—both analog and digital computers embody essentially the same substrate. Moreover, the operation of both is based on the flow of electric charges along metal traces and the storage of charges in charge-holding circuits (i.e. memories).

So, if you grant Susan’s point that there can be instantiations of private consciousness on different substrates, and that one of these substrates is a silicon computer, then you must grant that today’s ‘dumb’ computers are already conscious (including the computer or phone you are using to read these words). The reason is two-fold: first, the substrate of today’s ‘dumb’ computers is the same as that of advanced AI computers (in both cases, charges move around in metal and silicon substrates); second, whatever change in organization or functionality happens in future CMOS or similar devices, such changes are philosophically trivial for the point in contention, as they cannot in themselves account for the emergence of consciousness from unconsciousness (vis a vis the hard problem). If you are prepared to go this far in your fantastical hypothesizing, then turning off your phone may already be an act of murder.

Alternatively, if today’s computers aren’t plausibly conscious, then neither do we have good reasons to believe that future, advanced AI computers will be, even if Susan’s flight analogy holds. For the point here is not one of logical—or even physical—possibility, but of natural plausibility instead. A 19th-century teapot in the orbit of Saturn is both logically and physically possible (aliens could have come to Earth in the 19th-century, stolen the teapot from someone’s dining room, and then dumped it in the vicinity of Saturn on their way back home, after which the unfortunate teapot got captured by Saturn’s gravity field), but naturally implausible to the point of being dismissible.

Are water pipes conscious too?

You see, everything a computer does can, in principle, be done with pipes, pressure valves and water. The pipes play the role of electrical conduits, or traces; the pressure valves play the role of switches, or transistors; and the water plays the role of electricity. Ohm’s Law—the fundamental rule for determining the behavior of electric circuits—maps one-on-one to water pressure and flow relations. Indeed, the reason why we build computers with silicon and electricity, instead of PVC pipes and water, is that the former are much, much smaller and cheaper to make. Present-day computer chips have tens of billions of transistors, and an even greater number of individual traces. Can you imagine the size and cost of a water-based computer comprising tens of billions of pipes and pressure valves? Can you imagine the amount of energy required to pump water through it? You wouldn't be able to afford it or carry it in your pocket. That’s the sole reason why we compute with electricity, instead of water (it also helps that silicon is one of the most abundant elements on Earth, found in the form of sand). There is nothing fundamentally different between a pipe-valve-water computer and an electronic one, from the perspective of computation. Electricity is not a magical or unique substrate for computation, but merely a convenient one. A wooden tool called an 'abacus' also computes.

With this in mind, ask yourself: do we have good reasons to believe that a system made of pipes, valves and water correlates with private conscious inner life the way your brain does? Is there something it is like to be the pipes, valves and water put together? If you answer ‘yes’ to this question, then logic forces you to start wondering if your house’s sanitation system—with its pipes, valves and water—is conscious, and whether it is murder to turn off the mains valve when you go on vacation. For the only difference between your house’s sanitation system and my imaginary water-based computer is one of number—namely, how many pipes, how many valves, how many liters of water—not of kind or essence. As a matter of fact, the typical home sanitation system implements the functionality of about 5 to 10 transistors.

You can, of course, choose to believe that the numbers actually matter. In other words, you may entertain the hypothesis that although a simple, small home sanitation system is unconscious, if you keep on adding pipes, valves and water to it, at some point the system will suddenly make the jump to being conscious. But this is magical thinking. You'd have to ask yourself the question: how, precisely, does the mere addition of more of the same pipes, valves and water, lead to the magical jump to conscious inner life? Unless you have an explicit and coherent answer to this question, you are merely engaging in hand waving, self-deception, and hiding behind vague complexity.


That there can logically be instantiations of private conscious inner life on different substrates does not provide reason to believe that, although ‘dumb’ computers aren’t conscious, more complex computers in the future, with more transistors and running more complex software, will become conscious. The key problem for those who believe in conscious AI is how and why this transition from unconsciousness to consciousness should ever take place. Susan’s flight analogy does not help here, as it merely argues for the logical possibility of such transition, without saying anything about its natural plausibility.

If, like me, you believe that ‘dumb’ computers today—automata that mechanically follow a list of commands—aren’t conscious, then Susan’s flight analogy gives you no reason to take seriously the hypothesis that future computers—equally made of silicon and moving electric charges around—will become conscious. That they will run more sophisticated AI software only means that they will execute, just as blindly and mechanically as before, a different list of commands. What those computers will be able to do can be done with pipes, pressure valves and water, even though the latter isn't practical.

It is very difficult—if at all possible—to definitely refute someone whose view is agnosticism, or a wait-and-see attitude, since that isn’t a definite position to begin with. So what is there to argue against? “Well, we just don’t know, do we?” is a catch-all reply that can be issued in face of any criticism, regardless of how well articulated it is, for what can we humans—monkeys running around a space rock for less than 300 thousand years—know for sure to begin with? Yet, I feel that I should nonetheless keep on trying to argue against this form of open-mindedness, for there is a point where it opens the doors to utter and pernicious nonsense.

You see, I could coherently pronounce my open-mindedness about the Flying Spaghetti Monster, for we just don’t know for sure whether it exists, do we? For all I know, there is a noodly monster floating around in space, in a higher dimension invisible to us, moving the planets around their orbits with its—invisible—noodly appendages. The evidence is surely consistent with this hypothesis: the planets do move around their orbits, even though no force is imparted on them through visible physical contact. Even stronger, the hypothesis does seem to even explain our observations of planetary movements. And there is nothing logically wrong, or even physically refutable, with it either. So, what do we know? Maybe the hypothesis is right, and thus we should remain open-minded and not arbitrarily dismiss the Monster. Let us all wear an upside-down pasta strainer on our heads! Do you see the point?

No, we have no good reason to believe in conscious AI. This is a fantasy unsupported by reason or evidence. Epistemically, it’s right up there in the general vicinity of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Entertaining conscious AI seriously is counterproductive; it legitimizes the expenditure of scarce human resources—including tax-payer money—on problems that do not exist, such as the ethics and rights of AI entities. It contaminates our culture by distorting our natural sense of plausibility and conflating reality with (bad) fiction. AIs are complex tools, like a nuclear power plant is a complex tool. We should take safety precautions about AIs just as we take safety precautions about nuclear power plants, without having ethics discussions about the rights of power plants. Anything beyond this is just fantastical nonsense and should be treated as such.

Allow me to vent a little more…

I believe one of the unfortunate factors that contribute to the pernicious fiction of conscious AI today is the utter lack of familiarity, even—well, particularly—among highly educated computer scientists, with what computers actually are, how they actually work, and how they are actually built. Generations have now come out of computer science school knowing how to use a voluminous hierarchy of pre-built software libraries and tooling—meant precisely to insulate them from the dirty details we call reality—but not having the faintest clue about how to design and build a computer. These are our ‘computer experts’ today: they are mere power users of computers, knowing precious little about the latter's inner workings. They think entirely in a realm of conceptual abstraction, enabled by tooling and disconnected from the (electrical) reality of integrated circuits (ICs) and hardware. For them, since the CPU—the Central Processing Unit, the computer's 'brain'—is a mysterious black box anyway, it's easy to project all their fantasies onto it, thereby filling the vacuum left open by a lack of understanding with wishful, magical thinking. The psychology at play here has been so common throughout human history that we can consider it banal. On the other hand, those who do know how to build a CPU and a computer as a whole, such as Federico Faggin, father of the microprocessor and inventor of silicon gate technology, pooh-pooh ‘conscious AI’ every bit as much as I do.

Having worked on the design and manufacture of computer ICs for over two decades, I estimate that perhaps only about 2000 people alive today know how to start from sand and end up with a working computer. This is extremely worrisome, for if a cataclysm wipes out our technical literature together with those 2000 people tomorrow, we will not know how to re-boot our technological infrastructure. It is also worrisome in that it opens the door to the foolishness of conscious AI, which is now being actively peddled by computer science lunatics with the letters ‘PhD’ suffixing their names. After all, a PhD in conceptual abstraction is far from a PhD in reality. (On an aside, PhD lunacy is much more dangerous than garden-variety lunacy, for the average person on the streets takes the former, but not the latter, seriously. With two PhDs myself, I may know a thing or two about how lunatics can get PhDs.)

But instead of just criticizing and pointing to problems, I’ve decided to try and do something about it, modest and insignificant as my contributions may be. For almost three years now, I have been designing—entirely from scratch—one complete and working computer per year. I put all the plans, documentation and software up online, fully open source, for anyone to peruse. I hope this makes a contribution to educating people about computers; particularly those computer scientists who have achieved lift-off and now work without friction with reality. Anyone can download those plans—which include gate-level details for how to build the associated custom ICs—and build their computers from scratch. The designs were made to not only work properly, but to also be easy to understand and follow. If I can bring one or two computer scientists back to the solid ground of reality with those designs, I’ll consider my efforts successful.


The silver lining of a terrible year

I don't recall ever feeling so consistently angry and frustrated, for so long, as I have felt in 2022. I thought large-scale war was a 20th century thing, but here we are again, with large parts of Europe gutted by criminal, unjustified, heinous warfare. I have been having a very hard time contemplating this desecration of our continent and the brutalisation of one of our peoples with equanimity. I feel angry from the moment I wake up to the moment I fall asleep.

I also feel betrayed by a country and a people I used to love, and secretly still do; a country that now openly calls me a satanic, decadent, immoral, depraved, drug-using scumbag; that openly belittles and threatens my people; that makes a point of alienating me and of reminding me that it is pointing nuclear weapons at my backyard. And I feel frustrated with myself, for having been so wrong about this land and, to some extent, this people I used to love and still do.

So, as an exercise to help myself out of this horrific mental space, I will now try to discern the good in an otherwise disastrous year. And I will share this exercise with you in the hope that it might be helpful to you too.

This year has seen the free world go over the hump of the first truly global pandemic. Five years ago we were talking about the catastrophe we would face if a new virus, for which we'd have little immunity, were to quickly spread around the globe through air travel. Many thought of it as a likely scenario for the end of civilisation, and Hollywood portrayed it as such. Ominously enough, in the beginning the pandemic seemed to fit that bill perfectly: it was the nightmare coming true before our terrified eyes.

But governments in the free world, although initially slow to react decisively, quickly stepped up, developed and implemented what has proven to be largely effective strategies. Most importantly, the immense, overwhelming challenge of developing and distributing an effective vaccine for a completely new virus was met in an unbelievably short time. New messenger RNA (mRNA for short) vaccine technology came from idea to global rollout within just months. And the vaccines worked surprisingly well, with very few side-effects, statistically speaking, if compared to the roll-outs of previous vaccines and drugs (I and my partner have had zero side-effects after three doses, with the fourth coming soon). Over a dozen billion vaccine doses have now been administered, which has allowed the free world to reemerge from the worst of the pandemic in 2022. Millions of lives were saved, at the cost of statistically very few collateral losses.

If you had described these events to me three years ago, as a hypothetical scenario, I'd have said that you've been smoking too much weed. What Western societies have accomplished during this pandemic, as our normal lives in 2022 prove, is nothing short of extraordinary. And now, mRNA technology, having been overwhelmingly proven effective and statistically safe at an unprecedented global level, offers amazing new possibilities for fighting many other diseases, including cancer. This is deeply promising news. Out of the misery of the pandemic comes a brand new, uncannily effective weapon against our physical ills. Our governments and companies often get things wrong; sometimes even criminally wrong. But let us celebrate and recognise them when they come through for us like this.

Still on the theme of cancer research, this year has seen two other breakthroughs in effective new therapies. They use the patient's own immune system to attack the cancer, without the poison and side-effects of chemotherapy, radiation, and even surgery. With one of these new therapies, "All 14 patients [of rectal cancer] who were given the new drug ... were found after six months to have no trace of cancer. Researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering cancer center in New York could find no sign of the disease through physical examination, endoscopies, MRIs or other scans." With the other therapy, "A teenage girl's incurable cancer has been cleared from her body in the first use of a revolutionary new type of medicine." For the first time in my adult life, I truly believe we're beginning to unravel the puzzle of cancer and may, still in my life time, find true cures for many common types of cancer, without chemotherapy, surgery or radiation.

Yet the challenges we face go way beyond health care alone. Human-induced climate change, together with nuclear war, are the two greatest threats to civilisation today. Key to resolving the former is the development of an overwhelmingly abundant, practically free, non-polluting source of energy. For not only do we have to stop polluting the atmosphere while burning fossil fuels to produce the energy we currently consume, we need to produce much more energy yet, to enable recycling across the entire value chain, urban vertical farming and water desalination. I discussed this in a previous post.

And so it happens that, in 2022, a major breakthrough in clean energy production has taken place. For the first time, after 70 years trying, scientists have been able to induce nuclear fusion in a laboratory, thereby producing more energy than they had to use to start and maintain the fusion process. Yes, this doesn't mean that there will be a fusion reactor producing your home electricity tomorrow, but the significance of the accomplishment cannot be overestimated. Scientists have now proven the principle, which is usually the most challenging part. From now on it's a matter of engineering: scaling, cost reduction, deployment, distribution, etc. Make no mistake, these are still formidable challenges. But history has shown, again and again, that once we have a proof of principle, the engineering steps follow in surprisingly rapid succession to make the technology economically viable. We've seen it with airplanes, semiconductors, the Internet, mobile telephony, and so forth. So I, for one, do not dismiss the possibility, raised by the US government, that fusion reactors will be deployed in a decade. And even if it turns out to be three decades, we may still be just in time. The holy grail of clean, abundant, cheap energy production and sustainable living has never been so tangible.

These are epoch-making breakthroughs, and would by themselves make 2022 a year that future generations will celebrate as seminal to human wellbeing. But there's something yet more significant: the free world's outstanding reaction to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Who would have imagined, just 12 months ago, that a notoriously dysfunctional European Union, a rusty and defunded NATO, and an American government facing historic levels of domestic unrest, would close ranks and rise to the challenge so quickly, and so effectively? The magnitude of what has been achieved is nothing short of seismic.

Let's take one example: for 30 years Germany had believed that the best way to deal with Russia was to establish so many links of economic cross-dependence that conflict would become impossible, due to overwhelming shared interests. Their industrial base, the biggest in Europe, thus became willingly dependent on cheap Russian gas and oil. Their military spending was notoriously low, since economic cross-dependencies were supposed to have circumvented any conceivable military threat from the East. And Russia was also a major export destination for many German goods, not the least of which were cars.

In 2022, within a few short months, German geopolitical and economic doctrine and infrastructure were turned on their heads. As I write this, Germany and Europe as a whole are importing no more gas from Russia. Alternative sources of LNG have been found and set up, and the associated logistics put in place. Germany's military budget shot up above 2% of GDP, as per NATO norms. Germany also came through and is now exporting weapons to help Ukraine defend itself, despite 80 years of a pacifist policy and cultural consensus that precluded that. These are seismic shifts for Germany, downright unbelievable in such a short span of time. And they represent an enormous economic sacrifice that the German people and government were overwhelmingly willing to make, in the name of freedom. How remarkable.

But what happened goes much beyond Germany. The West has come together in a manner very few of us would have thought possible. The speed and coordination with which the economic, political, military and logistic challenges of helping Ukraine and deterring Russia have been collectively addressed is awe-inspiring. For instance, despite fears that Europe wouldn't have enough gas to warm our homes, our gas reserves are now above average level. Our governments have, somehow, performed the miracle of radically restructuring our entire energy infrastructure within months, while helping one of our peoples fight a brutal war against a terrorist aggressor. And it's not just governments: the private sector, too, made the voluntary choice to write off tens of billions of investment capital to leave Russia, instead of helping their economy fuel a criminal invasion. Let the cynics digest that.

We got so used to normality in the West that we may have difficulty seeing just how extraordinarily... well, difficult it has been to secure that normality today. I'm still saving energy at home for moral reasons, but if I wanted to, I could run my thermostat at its usual level. Nothing collapsed. Even the energy price increases are now capped by the Dutch government. And despite not having applied for it, even I, who can afford the current prices, am getting money back from the government to help offset expenses. Moreover, inflation in other sectors of the economy is, somehow, declining, despite a large-scale war in our continent upsetting just about every conceivable cog in the value chain. This is extraordinary. What our governments have managed to secure is worthy of at least a sincere round of applause and gratitude.

2022 has shown the world that democracies not only work, they work better. Free governments work better. The peoples of the free world come together when things get serious. International cooperation among them is truly effective. And let's not forget: our militaries and military industrial complexes, which were much maligned before this year's war (something I admit to have been guilty of myself), have proven their worth and ability to defend our values against even the biggest foes. I am deeply thankful we have them.

Yet, none of the above is truly the greatest silver lining of 2022. That honour has got to go to the baptism of fire, the coming of age of the free world's newest, probably most vibrant and strongest democracy: Ukraine. The Ukrainian nation, its unique character, founding story, values and cultural cohesion have now been forged in the crucible of war. They can never be undone. Ukraine is a flower of freedom blossoming in the fires of hell. What the Ukrainians are doing is a formidable lesson to all of us in the free world: they remind us of the true worth and price of freedom, which many of us take for granted (I did, too, only a few months ago). Their struggle is awe-inspiring and epoch-defining; their light, the shiniest beacon of the free world, which will project its illuminating power forward for many decades to come. Their blue and yellow will reinvigorate Europe's flag for generations.

May 2023 bring them victory and an end to their suffering. And may all of us, myself included, never lose the capacity to discern the silver lining of history through the brutal fog of war.


Free speech must have limits, lest democracy is doomed

Since Elon Musk's chaotic takeover of Twitter, influential voices have called for a form of "free-speech absolutism," a term coined by Musk himself. Influential podcaster Lex Fridman, for instance, recently tweeted: "Trump is back. Freedom of speech in action." The idea here is that we must have the right to say just about anything we want, and that no crime can be committed by speech alone. Patrick Brauckmann went as far as to state to me, publicly, that "Freedom of speech does include & mean the freedom to call for the end of freedom" (my emphasis). In other words, our beloved freedom of speech is so invaluable that one must have the right to use it so to end, well, our invaluable freedom of speech.

(The statement, in the tweet above, that I claimed to be the arbiter of law and truth is a flat-out lie, ostensibly protected by free speech.)

The first thing to notice about this surprising trend is that it seems, at first sight, to be the ultimate reification of freedom: we must stick to freedom even if it means putting freedom itself at considerable risk. And I believe that the intentions of some of the (naive) people calling for this are, in fact, sincere. But the flawed reasoning behind it is so severe it borders on insanity.

To see why, simply consider the following few things that, under free-speech absolutism, would be protected by law: the freedom to lie, mislead, subvert, threaten, intimidate, to call for the bullying of vulnerable individuals or groups, to call for genocide, for crimes, libel, sedition, and so on. Should these be protected by freedom of speech?

In a democracy, every freedom comes hand-in-hand with responsibility. The freedom to speak—a motor action like walking or pulling a trigger—is no different. It is as insane to make speech legally untouchable as it would be to do so for pulling a trigger; for the consequences can be entirely equivalent. As a matter of fact, historically speaking, speech is considerably more dangerous than pulling a trigger, as it can potentially affect many more lives.

Clearly, crimes and morally indefensible actions can be carried out by speech alone; they should never fall under the umbrella of protection provided by freedom of speech. This is why most civilised countries have laws against, e.g., false advertising, online bullying, intimidation, libel, sedition, and so on. It is absolutely nonsensical and supremely dangerous to over-interpret freedom of speech in such a manner that demagogic propaganda, public misinformation, intimidation and sedition become rights.

Even when freedom of speech does apply, one's freedom to speak their mind does not translate into another's obligation to amplify or provide a platform for it. Even if toxic individuals using a social media platform have the right to say some of the things they say, such right does not translate into the social media platform's obligation to host their speech. And here, ethics and moral values come into play.

But many of the free-speech absolutists out there interpret the right to speak so broadly that it translates into the obligation by others to amplify morally and legally unacceptable nonsense. They do exactly that when they consider e.g. Twitter's original decision to exclude some toxic individuals from its platform a form of censorship. This is itself dangerous misinformation, for no private individual or organisation is required by law to host, amplify or provide a platform for everything everyone wants to say. Instead, individuals and organisations have the freedom to follow their own priorities and moral compass when deciding who they want to collaborate with or give a voice to. And that is protected by the law.

In his book, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper discusses the 'paradox of tolerance': if a society is tolerant without limits, thereby not curtailing the actions of the intolerant in its midst, its ability to be tolerant is eventually hijacked, subverted, and ultimately destroyed by the intolerant. In other words, tolerant societies must not tolerate the intolerant, or tolerance will die. The same can be said of freedom in general, and freedom of speech in particular: an absolutist form of free speech will lead to the end of freedom.

And this is why free-speech absolutism is internally contradictory. Those calling for it are effectively calling for the end of free speech itself. History has an overwhelming precedent for it: on the 5th of March of 1933, the nazi party took part in free, democratic, multi-party federal elections in Germany. Through a combination of what was then highly-innovative propaganda methods, intimidation campaigns carried out through publicly-spoken threats, and endless misleading and false public statements—that is, the criminal subversion of free speech—the nazi party came to power. The next multi-party federal elections in Germany took place only in 1990. In the interim, tens of millions of people were murdered worldwide as a direct result of the 1933 election, Stalinism unfolded, half of Europe lost its freedom for decades, and the cold war was fought at great expense for all parties involved. That is what you get with absolutist freedom of speech.

The very call for absolutist free speech is a subversion of freedom. If anything can be publicly said without legal consequences or ethical oversight—whether it is true or false, productive or criminal—then nothing that is ever said can ever count; nothing can ever be taken seriously or relied upon. Public discourse and debate become meaningless, eventually die, and, with them, democracy. As a matter of fact, this is precisely what modern Russian propaganda tries to achieve, as explained by political scientist Dr. Vlad Vexler in this extremely important video. And just like in Russia, doing this may be a deliberate attempt by some interests in the West (and abroad) to lay the groundwork for an authoritarian take-over of Western societies, under the guise of—of all things—defending freedom. The perniciousness and vileness of such an attempt is sickening.

We must not be naive, lest we lose our way of life. We must not allow free speech to be subverted. An often unspoken truth at the present historical juncture is that democracy has become a threat to many established interests within the West itself, for cultural and demographic trends mean that groups who have always had their hands in the levers of power may no longer do so in the near future. What better way to avoid this than to undermine democracy from within, by subverting the democratic process itself, while shouting to the four winds the limitless applicability of free speech? So the next time you hear a call for absolutist free speech, ask yourself whether it really is a defence of freedom, or perhaps precisely the opposite; a wolf dressed in sheep's clothes.

Why the West needs Ukraine

With the geopolitical discourse in the West revolving around how much Ukraine needs our weapons and economic support, it becomes increasingly clear to me that the other half of this relationship is just as pressing, just as urgent, and just as vital: the West's very survival may depend on what Ukraine is inadvertently teaching us. This may sound counterintuitive at first, but it's compelling once you see it.

The world today is almost incommensurable with what it was only three years ago, prior to the pandemic's start. Back then, globalisation was taken for granted; Russia and China were so economically intertwined with the West that a hot conflict seemed remote and implausible; working from home was an exceptional luxury granted to very few; economic activity was tightly tied to commutes and air travel. Who would have imagined that, only three years later, Europe would be buying no gas or oil from Russia, business would routinely be conducted remotely, globalisation would come to an end, geopolitics would regain centre stage, and the spectre of nuclear holocaust would once again loom large?

In that ancient world of 2019 and earlier, the advantages of a democratic system of government based on individual freedom were being questioned. The four years of government-by-tweet during the Trump administration, with its eccentricities and unpredictability, and the chaos surrounding Brexit left many wondering if peoples could be trusted with choosing governments. Democracies looked disorderly, weak and unstable. By contrast, the clinical and sanitised veneer of authoritarian systems, such as the Chinese and Russian, looked dependable, efficient and trustworthy. Putin had brought an end to the chaotic Yeltsin years, delivering stability to a resurgent Russia, while Xi presided over perennial economic growth and ever flashier mega-projects.

And so it was that many in the West—painful as it is to admit it, myself included—began to wonder if democracies weren't too unreliable to be sustainable on the long run; whether populations at large—as opposed to experts—really could be trusted to make reasonable choices for their future. A political minority sensed opportunity and openly began to schmooze with authoritarian regimes. On the extreme of this spectrum, immature demagogues—such as Trump in the USA, Le Pen in France and Baudet in the Netherlands—lavished praise on the strongmen of Russia, China and—incredibly enough—even North Korea. Sycophancy towards dictators wasn't shameful or disgraceful; it even looked fashionable and avant-garde.

And then it happened: Russia actually invaded a neighbouring country in the most heinous way imaginable; war crimes started promptly; civilian populations were routinely targeted; and Europe descended once again into the darkness of large-scale warfare. Sympathetic as I originally was to Russia's case against NATO expansion, I still was caught off-guard by the invasion, for I could never have imagined that a seemingly rational dictator, such as Putin, would put geopolitical abstraction above the well-being of the people of Ukraine, let alone the Russian-speaking amongst them.

As the war raged in Europe, China's traditional system of leadership rotation every eight years—meant to prevent a cult of personality, or the dominance of personal agendas over the prosperity of the country as a whole—seamlessly came to an end. Xi now amasses more power than any of his predecessors, bringing China in-line with the likes of Iran, Saudi Arabia and North Korea; what a cheerful club.

Suddenly, in the space of only a few months, what had been unthinkable became a palpable and undeniable reality: Russia proved itself to indeed be willing to invade European countries, and China proved itself to be just a vile dictatorship threatening its vibrant democratic neighbour, Taiwan. In addition, the sanitised veneer of the Russian and Chinese systems was eaten away by the acid of war: instead of the "3D-chess player" he was thought to be, Vladimir Putin turns out to be an extremely incompetent leader; a true loser. Throughout 2022, he has not missed a single chance to make the worst possible decision for himself and Russia. And Xi hasn't exactly demonstrated astuteness with his major economic and public health mismanagements.

The Russian army, far from the sleek image of modernisation it has cultivated for years, turns out to be a bottomless pit of near-comical levels of incompetence and corruption. Their hardware doesn't work. Their industry is incapable of mobilising, to the point that mighty Russia now buys armaments from the likes of North Korea and Iran (and re-sells consumer robots bought from AliExpress as high-tech military gear). We've always known that, aside from extraction (that is, pulling things from the ground and then selling them), the only thing Russia could make were arms; what we didn't know is that even that they can't do properly.

China didn't fare much better over the past few months. As it turns out, the chaotic Western response to COVID was far, far superior to China's prompt and high-resolve approach based on the curtailment of individual freedoms. The West is now largely out of the pandemic, while China is still stuck in endless lockdowns and economic meltdown. Their vaccines don't work, and neither do their public health policies. Their unwillingness to support Russia betrays profound fear that, if the West were to impose on China the same sanctions it has imposed on Russia, China's economy would collapse. And indeed it would, for China is entirely dependent on the system of globalisation hitherto maintained by the West (particularly the USA). Without it, China simply cannot exist in its present form.

So much for the inferiority of the 'chaotic' and 'unstable' democratic system. And so much for our trust that autocratic states, such as Russia and China, could perhaps still be reliable partners. Nonetheless, the virus of dictator-sycophancy and wanna-be totalitarianism, planted in the West by the likes of Trump, Le Pen and Baudet, continues to fester. These immature demagogues have their public images invested in their 'strong-hand' affinities, and they lead large movements. That is what constitutes the greatest threat to the West; not Russia or China. The threat is an infection festering within, not an outside enemy. And here is where we need Ukraine.

Ukraine has been teaching us not only that freedom can win, even in the face of long odds, but—and more importantly—that freedom can never be taken for granted; that we have to nurture and defend it, if we want to live as we do; that, although divided in our particular political positions, we must be united, as a society, in our resolve to preserve democracy, our institutions, values and the rule of law, and never tolerate those who try to undermine them. Perhaps most importantly, Ukraine is showing us how desirable freedom is, that a price of the magnitude they are paying for it is still worth paying. They are a beacon of light we dismiss at our own peril.

We have forgotten how important freedom is. We now take it for granted, having no memory of what it is like to live without it. This is thus a moment and a place of great danger in our collective psyche. Three generations after the end of the Second World War—a war started by a criminal dictatorial regime that devastated the European continent—Europeans and Americans have grown lax and complacent. Three generations have now come of age in an environment where personal freedom is as common as the air we breath. Extraordinarily, we're no longer alarmed enough when a Trump lavishes praise on a Putin, and then takes home top secret nuclear documents after his term (for what purpose?); when parts of the Western news media defend Russia even after the latter's repeated war crimes are splashed on television screens every evening, for months on end; when apologetics toward Europe's fascist and nazi past become normalised; when the argument that prosperity and efficiency can only be realised at the cost of individual freedom starts to sound reasonable. We have lost touch with what it feels like to lose freedom, and what it takes to preserve it.

When individual freedom—individual life itself—is not valued, men with wives, children and careers are sent untrained, unarmed, unclothed and unfed to the frontline, to serve as cannon fodder; people with families and dreams are locked down at home—or, worse, at their work places—like criminals, for three years, because their government chose that as the most cost-effective way to deal with a pandemic; ethnic minorities in their millions are forced into labour camps for crimes they might commit in the future. When geopolitical abstraction and the power agenda of dictators win over personal freedom, we become numbers, statistics, insects in an ant or termite colony. Life becomes banal and cheap. Not only can this happen, it is happening right now, to people just like you and me, a mere 18-hour drive away from the place where I am writing this essay. Do we want to live like that?

Ukraine has woken me up. And I'm sure they have awakened many others to the threats to our values and way of life in our midst. But much still needs to be done to curb the sleek and sanitised image of authoritarianism that continues to seduce Western populations; much still needs to be done to reveal its true, ugly, treasonous face. We need Ukrainians to constantly remind us of both the desirability and cost of freedom, and to prevent us from ever taking it for granted. We need them to remind us of who we are, and the price we paid to get here. They know what it takes to be free, and what it feels like to lose one's freedom; they know the traps and pitfalls. And thus we need them as the custodians of freedom in the collective Western mind. We need their stories, their examples, their memories, their articles, essays and books, their plays, their art, their speeches, their very presence in the midst of Western society. And we may need them more than they need us at this point.

Glory to Ukraine; Glory to the heroes.

And glory to freedom; Glory to those who defend it.


Identity: the hysteria of both the left and the right

Identity has become a contentious topic on both sides of the political and social divide in Western societies. Much of the contention arises from completely irrational, hysterical straw-manning of the other side's positions and intentions, giving rise to a situation in which both sides are, by and large, fighting self-invented ghosts. And although there surely are a few toxic people on both sides, who truly take extreme and unacceptable positions, they are just that: a few individuals who aren't representative of any significant social group.

In this essay, I'll try to address the topic of identity in a way that, to me, seems to be balanced and informed by calm reason, as opposed to hysterical emotions and prejudices. In the process of doing so, I'll deliberately give voice to both sides of the divide, alternately, so to illustrate how I think both incur in irrational straw-manning. I believe doing this is important, because our societies are eating themselves alive due to the bellicose psychological energy constantly mobilised by straw-manning. We are dehumanising one another, in a process that poses more danger to Western societies than even the deranged barking of that loser called Vladimir Putin. This essay is my personal attempt to contribute something to resolving this dangerous and unnecessary internal conflict.

The key tenet of the Western social value-system is this: you are entitled to be who you are, love who you love, and live the way you want to live, as long as you don't interfere with my right to be and do the same. This is the Golden Rule of Western social life. Admittedly, there are nuanced situations in which this rule doesn't lead to immediate and unambiguous solutions to social conflicts, but it goes much farther than those indulging in hysterical straw-manning believe it to go.

Take the question of LGBTIQ+ rights, for instance: even Christian fundamentalists will grant that God has given people free will, otherwise the concept of 'sin' would have no meaning. In other words, God—although He could—did not make it impossible for us to sin. There is thus a very important sense, even under fundamentalist Christianity, in which we have been given the freedom to sin by the Divinity Itself. Therefore, if being an LGBTIQ+ person is a sin, who are we to take away their freedom to sin, given that God Himself didn't? Even under the premises of fundamentalist Christianity, the Golden Rule of Western societies still applies: LGBTIQ+ people must have the right to be who they are, love who they love, and live as they wish to live, as long as they don't interfere with the freedom of others to be and do the same.

However, the right often straw-mans the issue to ludicrous extents, insofar as they think that LGBTIQ+ rights—which, frankly, are just human rights—infringe on the personal liberties of non-LGBTIQ+ people. Take the following fragment of a comment recently posted on this blog (which I, of course, deleted), referring to LGBTIQ+ rights as "the rights of sexual deviants to force us to jump through whatever hoops their sick minds can come up" with. The vast, vast majority of LGBTIQ+ people don't want to force anybody to do anything, let alone jump through hoops; they just want the basic human right to be who they are and love who they love. It is a completely hysterical straw-man to portray them as essentially fascists. It dehumanises a vast, vast majority of decent, good people who stand to contribute perhaps disproportionate amounts of creativity and valiance to our culture. And that there may be some truly toxic people among them, who do constitute a danger to society, isn't surprising either: toxicity is a general human potential present in all social groups, and thus it stands to reason that the LGBTIQ+ community will also have their statistical fair share. That only makes them as human as the rest of us. To portray them—the oppressed—as oppressors borders on the criminal.

Which is not to say that hysteria doesn't plague the pro-LGBTIQ+ left also. In the well-justified drive to protect the basic human rights of all members of our society, some overlook very concrete, practical and important issues, such as how well-meaning laws can be abused.

In my country, a new law is being debated in parliament this week. It is meant to protect the right of transgender people to be treated for who they truly are from within: all Dutch citizens may soon be allowed to change the sex assignment in their identity cards, as well as all official registration records, simply by going to the city hall and saying whether they identify as male or female. No sex reassignment surgery is required; no psychiatric evaluation is required; no hormonal treatment is required; the person doesn't even need to dress according to the chosen sex. I—facial hair and all—would be able go to the city hall and change all my records to 'female,' if I so wished.

Before I point out the problems with this, let me first acknowledge the most important thing: for the vast majority of people who would use this potential new law, the law would be a good and fair thing. Non-transgender people don't need sex reassignment surgery, hormone treatment or psychiatric evaluations to have their registration records reflect who they are from within; why should it be different for transgender people? In an ideal world, I would support this law. That I might feel confused and uncomfortable about what pronoun to use when talking to a transgender person is my problem, not theirs.

But we don't live in an ideal world. As discussed above, transgender people are a normal demographic in any society (even those that pretend it doesn't exist). And any demographic has its statistical share of toxic, dangerous individuals; as humans, transgender people are no exception. In this context, the problem of a law that allows sex assignment to be changed based purely on subjective feeling—important as the latter is—is that it conflates gender with sex, thereby rendering objective identification more difficult. And that does infringe the Golden Rule, in that it can affect all of us, not just transgender people.

To make my point clear, I will exaggerate: imagine that the law allowed me to change not only my sex, but other identification parameters related to my biology, such as age and height. Both age and height also have inner, subjective counterparts that may not agree with biological externalities: some small people feel tall (I bet Volodymyr Zelenskyy is one of them), some old people feel young, and so on. How they feel is very important, and I, for one, am perfectly willing to treat them for how they feel from within, not their outer biology. But if every small person who feels tall, and every old person who feels young, could legally change their records to reflect their subjective age and height, we would have a serious social problem, in that the records would become meaningless for being disconnected from recognisable outer appearances.

Imagine that a crime were committed and the criminal were described by witnesses as a small old man. Imagine also that the actual criminal had legally changed their official records to say that they are, in fact, a tall young girl. How would police find the culprit? Yes, this is an exaggerated and implausible hypothetical, but it does illustrate the problem of conflating subjective inner reality with objective, biological, recognisable outer characteristics.

Problems can still occur even if we take the exaggeration out of the picture. Once one's sex is legally changed, everything has to legally unfold consistently with that. So all government statistics pertaining to, say, heart disease prevalence in males and females, would be skewed; and so would insurance costs based on such statistics. And since the sex change is legally binding, public bathrooms in Dutch swimming pools, gyms, clubs, etc., may soon have biologically male individuals, who didn't undergo hormone treatment or sex reassignment surgery, showering naked next to my naked female partner. I don't think that's a good idea. Insofar as my partner is directly affected by this, allowing it does violate the Golden Rule. I could go further and discuss how similar situations could bring children under risk from pedophiles, who could cynically regard this law as a fantastic opportunity to do harm under the cover of the fair sex. But I am sure you understand the point already.

A well-meaning attempt to cater to the rights of all of us becomes a problem the moment it overlooks the practicalities and implications of its implementation. It gives those who were already opposed to transgender rights, due to hysterical straw-manning, a legitimate reason to become entrenched in their position. It feeds polarisation. The person who wrote that deleted comment on this blog would now gain some legitimacy in stating that transgender people "force us to jump through hoops." Everybody looses with this, particularly transgender people. Even the best intentions can constitute a form of hysteria when they careen out of control, ignoring reason and level-headed judgment. And it's difficult to absolve the left of this offence.

Unfortunately, the situation is yet more nuanced and complicated than it may appear from the above. What our culture needs to do is to disassociate gender from sex. The former is a psychological inner fact, while the latter is a biological outer fact. But such a disassociation will take decades, even generations, to fully happen. In the meantime, honest and good transgender people will effectively be discriminated against, for the sex assignment in their documents will still be taken, by the culture, as their gender. Is this fair? Clearly not. What is clear is that the problem is a very difficult one, and that hysteria and straw-manning only make the situation even more difficult than it already is by nature.

Gender identity is not the only identity issue that is plagued by hysteria and straw-manning. Another one is cultural identity. Peculiarly, the left and the right swap roles here: as I've just discussed, while insisting on their own cultural identity, the right denies the LGBTIQ+ community their right to gender identity. However, not to be outdone, while the left goes out of its way to defend LGBTIQ+ and immigrant identity, it seems to completely disregardeven actively attack—our own cultural identity. Here is a comment recently published on my Facebook page, in the context of a discussion about the European Union: "National identities have no future." Really?

A salient characteristic of the left's ethos is the pretence that we are born in a kind of vacuum, without a past, without a history, without traditions, merely as fully mouldable creatures—tabula rasa—which somehow pop out of nowhere, as if by magic. Not only is this factually untrue, it raises the question: Why? Why try to deny the obvious fact that we do have a history, a past, ancestors, traditions, roots, all of which give context and meaning to our lives? It is our roots and traditions that allow us to understand our role in the development of human civilisation (in the Hegelian sense), provide us with contextual references, and anchor us in a form of temporal transcendence that seems to be entirely lost in the left. What makes the left insist on gender identity on the one hand while, strangely, denying cultural identity on the other? Why this flagrant inconsistency?

I think the answer is not maliciousness—in my experience, very little human nonsense is malicious—but a fear that cultural identity may be misused to curtail the rights of minorities, such as the LGBTIQ+ community, ethnic groups and immigrants. After all, it is also a fact that some of what we inherit from the past is toxic, obnoxious, dangerous and even criminal. For instance, insofar as racism is a cultural inheritance in some parts of the world, it isn't an acceptable one.

But to recognise that we must revise some of our inheritance—for, after all, we do learn a thing or two over time—doesn't entail or imply that we have to get rid of all of it. Doing so cuts the anchors that keep us rooted in meaning and significance; it imbues life with the "unbearable lightness of being" that Milan Kundera wrote about: a ghostly weightlessness that renders life insignificant and pointless, like a fallen leaf in the wind; a situation we desperately seek to alleviate through addictive patterns of consumerist behaviour (this, in turn, may be a clue to why the liberal media seems to foment uprootedness).

Even in the European Project, national identity—as long as not driven to nationalist extremes—is what gives colour and life to Europe. Entities can only meaningfully contribute to a collective project when they bring something of their own—their particular character—to that project. So national identity is not only not antithetical to Europe, but in fact crucial to the success of the European Project. Europe is a rainbow only when each country brings its own colour to it. Otherwise, we would turn the glorious cultural richness of Europe into a drab, uniform, unremarkable and ultimately lifeless sea of grey. How dull. How undesirable.

love Europe, with all my heart. Born a son of European emigrants in a far away tropical land, I never took it for granted. But what I love most about Europe is precisely its cultural diversity. Going from country to country, experiencing the various local traditions, festivals, values, foods, music, etc., is beyond enriching to me. I want Austria to remain Austria; Italy to remain Italy; Germany to remain Germany; Denmark and Portugal to remain Denmark and Portugal; and, above all, The Netherlands to remain The Netherlands. Otherwise, I would feel literally robbed of something very dear to me.

Although there are many things I don't like about my biology—such as my pale skin and big head—I delight in knowing that Iberian and Northern European colours flow through me, and are culturally reflected in my active presence in the world. Surely enough, out of all the national diversity that constitutes the European nations, we can still distill what is common to all of us Europeans. But as this commonality is the glue that binds the European Project together, so what distinguishes us from one another are its colours.

As long as not driven to nationalist extremes, cultural identity is no threat to anyone or anything. On the contrary: it is the lifeblood of civilised humanity; it's our anchor, our root, our life-giving context, our compass. To acknowledge and nurture our roots precisely reduces the threat we may pose to minorities and guests among us, for when a culture feels strong in its roots and traditions, it doesn't perceive other cultures in its midst as threatening.

Moreover, as a child of immigrants born in a distant land, I know one thing very well: immigrants hold on to, and nurture, their own cultural identity more than those who stay behind in their original countries (I can still fondly remember a cousin of mine sweating buckets while dressed in a full Scandinavian Santa Claus suit, in a 42-degree Celsius December 24th evening in Rio de Janeiro's tropical summer). So why shouldn't the host culture also hold on to, and nurture, its own cultural inheritance? Why should we drift away from our roots and references, into the sterile vacuum of no-identity, like a fallen leaf in the wind, just to see our insecurities increase as a result, to the point that we begin to regard our guests as threats?

Instead of thinking through the issues of identity in a rational, clear-headed way, both the left and the right now fall prey to Hallucinated Implications Creep and replace reality with straw-men. We give our worst prejudices free rein and not only marginalise, but also dehumanise one another. Our societies fill up with imagined ghosts and enemies, projections of our own hysteria onto other human beings just like us. And as a result, we forget the Golden Rule that holds the fabric of Western societies together. What a tragedy. What an immense existential risk.


Putin is not the biggest threat: A critical juncture for the West

As the Kremlin takes the major step of national mobilisation to fight a war of aggression against a nascent Western democracy, and once again repeats nuclear threats against the West as a whole, it would seem that our values and way of life are under threat from an outside actor. And sure enough, we are threatened. But the biggest threat we face at this perilous and delicate historical juncture is not external. Vladimir Putin is a mouse in comparison to what threatens our way of life from within, ostensibly in the name of our very Western values.

Before I begin elaborating on what I have to say, it is important that you understand what I mean by 'the West': despite the name, it's not a geographical location or even an ethnicity, but a system of fundamental values and way of life. For historical and bio-evolutionary reasons, these values and way of life still correlate with particular geographies and ethnicities, but to me this is entirely circumstantial. For instance, one of the most unambiguously Western voices in the media today is Fareed Zakaria. And a disproportionate number of those who threaten the Western way of life today are caucasians born in the Western hemisphere. So no, to be Western is not an ethnicity or a domicile; it is to espouse a system of fundamental values and a way of life.

But what way of life? What fundamental values? It is almost inevitably unfair and inaccurate to summarise the answer to these questions in a simple statement. Yet, with that in mind, I will try: to be Western is to hold the uniqueness of individual expression in the highest regard. For us, people are not mere numbers, anonymous drones or cogs in a sociopolitical machine; people are unique individuals who must be allowed to express themselves in their own way, for each and everyone has something unique and valuable to contribute. And by 'expression' I mean much more than just freedom of speech, although the latter is entailed by it as well: individual expression is about being in the world in our own unique ways. This individual expression is as much embodied in speech as it is in art, philosophy, science, profession, hobbies, relationships, and behaviour in general. Westerners hold as sacred our right to be who we are, and to live life in our own unique ways—as determined by our muses, daimons, souls, or whatever you want to call it—as long as doing so does not infringe on the rights of other individuals to do the same.

Notice that this high regard for individual expression has two corollaries: individual liberty and social tolerance. To be able to express ourselves in our own unique ways we must have the freedom, enshrined in laws and institutions, to do so. And because others have the same right to express their unique selves as we do, it is incumbent on all of us to tolerate the choices of others (again, as long as they don't infringe on our own liberties).

As such, the fundamental value of individual expression, when shared in a society, implies tolerance for another's tastes, preferences, dispositions, and so forth. For to argue against another's right to self-expression is to argue against one's own right. This way, one overarching, shared value unfolds into a fertile field for the growth of a variety of divergent peculiarities. I may be a heterosexual man disposed to philosophy and science, who enjoys baroque music, but my freedom to express myself in these ways implies tolerance to, say, a homosexual woman who does art for a living and likes to listen to heavy metal (as long as her freedom to be herself does not infringe on my freedom to be myself). This is how the Western way of life works. We celebrate and encourage our differences, for in their complementarities lies our collective strength, and in their variety lies our richness. The sum-total of our innate natural drives—of what our muses, daimons, souls, inspirations, aspirations, etc., lead us to do in life—produces our culture, our economy, our science, our technology, our art, and everything that makes us a significant force in the world.

Arguably, no country in the world is fully Western, just as no country is fully non-Western. Even the two major nations today that seem to embody the very antithesis of Western values—Russia and China—do grant limited individual freedoms to their citizens. What I am trying to get across is a matter of degree, not of black-and-white pigeonholing.

In this spirit, the important thing to realise is that, in order to properly uphold the fundamental value of individual expression, Western societies must ensure that government is never driven by individual agendas. This may sound contradictory at first, but it surely isn't: when government becomes about one or a few individuals, who then enforce their peculiar dispositions and views on the entire population, liberty and tolerance die; the vibrant colours of individual expression disappear into a dull and grey background of artificial conformity, without the life-force of nature to propel them. The governments of Western societies must, instead, be driven by institutions and the rule of law, which channel and harmonise our distinct individual drives.

And this is why nations like Russia and China, in which one individual becomes the perennial face and driver of government, above institutions and the rule of law, are by and large incompatible with Western values and ways of life. This doesn't necessarily mean that they are a threat to us: it would be supremely arrogant to think that Western values should rule the entire world. Different peoples are entitled to their own value systems; to inherit and shape their own cultures and ways of life, just as we are entitled to ours. But when a sovereign people that chose the Western path—as Ukraine explicitly and overwhelmingly did in 2013 and 2014—is cowardly assaulted by a foreign power, then that foreign power does become a threat to all of us, Westerners.

Yet, neither Russia nor China are the greatest threats to Western values today. That dishonour goes to those among us who, through to the very freedoms granted to them by Western political systems, seek to undermine our values. Those among us who admire and pander to foreign dictators, who seek to emulate the slick, sanitised veneer of authoritarian regimes, who misuse our open political systems for personal gain, who see themselves as being above institutions and the rule of law: those are the true enemies within. Their approach to public service is acid to the Western way of life. They must not be tolerated, for—as philosopher Karl Popper once observed—the one thing that tolerant societies must never tolerate is intolerance itself.

Ironically, these demagogues claim to want to protect our Western values: think of how the extreme right—embodied in e.g. Marie le Pen in France, the Trump/MAGA movement in the USA, and the Hungarian regime of Victor Orbán—leverage precisely their people's anxieties about threats to their traditions and way of life. Yet, the extreme right's attitudes and actions embody the very antithesis of the values they claim to protect: cults of personality taking precedence over institutions and the rule of law; disregard for the personal liberties and rights of minorities; adopting lies as a matter-of-course way of government (which is precisely what the Russian and Chinese governments do); disregard for objectivity, facts, reason, evidence and coherent argumentation; and so on. How can the West be protected by a psychopathological Trump, who idolises a criminal Putin, and even a deranged Kim? Who repeatedly lies through his teeth without a shimmer of shame? Who uses the (often legitimate) grievances of his base solely to advance his own egomaniacal personal agenda? How can European ways of life be safeguarded by those who want to acquiesce to Russian expansionism? How can the West be protected by elements who regard facts, science, tolerance and thoughtfulness as weaknesses, and who argue by puerile, reason-free, knee-jerk emotionality? These elements are the greatest threats to the West, for—unlike Putin or Xi—they pray on us from within, disguised as one of us.

But I am an equal-opportunities critic, and so I don't give the so-called 'left' (I use scare quotes here because it is ludicrous to think that everything in politics can be pigeonholed in one of only two categories) a free pass either. For we must try to understand how demagogues in our midst, who constitute the biggest threat to Western values today, have come to gather support precisely from those who are anxious about losing their Western way of life. How on Earth could this happen?

I won't pretend to know the full answer to this question, but I will risk a partial hypothesis: when the legitimate grievances and anxieties of a large segment of the population are systematically dismissed, and even pooh-poohed, by urban elites, people are left with no psychologically tenable alternative but to lend their support to anti-elite demagogues (who, ironically, are often themselves members of the urban elite). This seems to be particularly the case in the USA, where so-called 'liberals' seem to be quick to dismiss and alienate what I will describe as traditional, heartland mentality. The deplorable views of a very few (they are always there, aren't they?) motivate quick and utterly irresponsible generalisations, reflected in the labelling of almost half the country as 'deplorable.' Is this a Western attitude? Does this reflect social tolerance? Reason? Thoughtfulness? Respect for individual expression?

I live in a country where almost half the land is under sea level. These so-called 'polders' are kept dry by the continuous running of pumps—originally powered by windmills—and various other water defences, which are erected and maintained by the collective effort of the population. As such, the Netherlands is a nation where a failure to respect your neighbour's views and reach some form of consensus would swiftly lead to the literal loss of half the country. If we start fighting each other and fail to cooperate, the pumps stop running and we get more than just our feet wet. Western values here are a matter of life and death; literally.

Yet, isn't this also the case across Western societies today? Flooding is just one of many ways a country can be lost. If respect for individual differences isn't achievable, what is the way forward for, say, the USA? Another civil war? Secession? The Russian and Chinese governments would love it, wouldn't they? How do you think they would react to an opportunity like that? Nonetheless, the mere attempt to understand the other side in one's own society seems to be seen today as weakness, even a betrayal of the cause! This is perilous, for it can quickly make the pumps stop running.

We tend to screw things up by going too far in our well-meaning attempts to correct the ills of our time. History is bursting full of examples. For instance, Martin Luther correctly diagnosed the many ills of the Catholic Church of his time and tried to fix them. But soon enough protestantism went so far as to reduce religious service to some form of legal audience. Even priests started dressing like judges. And when the Catholic Church reacted to it and tried to revitalise religion in the form of the counter reformation, we got the Inquisition. How adorable.

Similarly, we go too far in recognising the ills of our society when this recognition leads to generalisations, alienation, and even hate. There is nothing shameful about trying to understand where the other side is coming from. There is nothing treacherous about engaging in dialogue. Maybe new vistas will open, to the surprise of all parties involved. For even the urban literati may have something to learn from rooted heartland mentality. After all, we are never born in a vacuum, without a past and a historical context, without traditions and ancestors, without a relationship with the land under our feet. Realising this for the first time, after years indulging in the superficiality, uprootedness and lack of teleological context of so-called 'liberal' thinking, can be a sobering and very healthy experience.

Let me try to make my point more concrete with a couple of very polemical examples. Like many urbanites, having pondered the question of abortion for a while, I've come to the conclusion that, on final balance, women must have the right to choose. If abortion ultimately proves to be a sin, then it is their responsibility whether to commit the sin, not lawmakers'; for sovereignty over our own bodies must be the red line. However, I do not dismiss the question lightly as a slam dunk, as some of my urbanite peers do; no, an embryo is a life. The day we take lightly the decision to end a life is the day of our doom as a civilised society. The pro-life movement, even if ultimately wrong, is not baseless or deserving of unexamined contempt. Recognising it as such is a precondition to a sane dialogue under the values of a truly Western society.

Immigration is another polemical example. As an urban literati, I am keenly aware of the tremendous boost in value and injection of vitality that our societies and economies stand to gain from motivated, law-abiding, hard-working immigrants. I am also keenly aware of the population bomb that will soon explode under the feet of our affluent Western societies, for the simple reason that—for decades now—we haven't been making enough babies to continue to live as before. As our population ages, we will run out of younger people to nurse us in hospitals when we get sick, deliver our groceries, maintain our houses, and so on. Technology hasn't yet advanced enough for us to replace people with machines for everything that matters. And so I understand the opportunity former German Chancellor Angela Merkel spotted in 2015, when suddenly a million young and healthy Syrians, many of whom well educated, showed up at the gates of Germany (alongside Japan, Germany stands to suffer the most from its coming population implosion). It must have felt like Christmas.

Yet, I was there during that fateful new-year's-eve in 2015, when the behaviour of young male immigrants towards German women scandalised German society. Hence, I take seriously a real, concrete problem that 'liberals' often dismiss, underestimate or overlook: cultural compatibility.

Societies evolve their mechanisms based on the characteristics of the prevailing local culture. In northern Europe—the culture I am most familiar with—social mechanisms are largely based on very high social trust. In Denmark, for instance, it's usual for farmers to build wooden huts next to the nearest road, and then load them with farm produce. They hang a little board showing the prices and place a little cash box on a counter, so people can come and pick up what they need, leaving the proper amount of money behind. The huts are not manned: the whole thing is based on the trust that nobody will steal the money or the produce, and everybody will pay the proper amount.

Another example: until about 20 years ago, Dutch train stations had no gates. You could enter the station from the street, proceed to a platform and then board a train, with nobody checking if you have a ticket. Even during the train trip itself, only very seldom would a conductor ask to see your ticket. And if you didn't have one (because, of course, you just forgot to buy one, or you didn't have time to do it before the train's departure), they would charge you just twice the normal amount for one.

Predictably, changes in the prevailing culture, partly caused by immigration, have led to a new prevailing calculus: it's more economical to never buy a ticket, and pay twice the price in the rare occasions you would be asked for one. And thus, today, Dutch train stations are filled with electronic gates, surveillance and ticket checks.

People used to a traditional culture of social trust profoundly resent these changes. They are robbed of the feeling they previously had, that they live among people they can trust and count on, even if they don't know them personally; and that they are themselves trusted. An impersonal and alienating ethos of suspicion, isolation and antagonism takes over. It violates one's core values, traditions, ancestral ways of life in a manner that hits one hard and deep, for it robs one of social cohesion and coziness. It makes one feel like an alien in one's own country.

The 'liberal' urban literati are often blind to these psychological facts. Liberalisation by the defacement of culture and traditions is hard on heartland people—damn, it's hard on me—and understandably so. We ignore their grievances at our own peril, for a demagogue like Trump will know exactly how to appeal to, and manipulate, precisely those grievances.

Snob elitism, contempt for heartland mentality and tradition, generalisation and alienation, are every bit as antithetical to Western values—to the respect we owe to other people's liberties and peculiarities—as Trumpism and the criminalisation of abortion. The day we collectively realise this, is the day we will cut the lifeline of demagogues like Trump, le Pen, Orbán, and countless others. And as bonus, it will also be the day the Putin's and Xi's of this world will understand that they can't win.

For liberty is not only more vibrant, it is stronger than authoritarianism, as Ukraine is now demonstrating to anyone who cares to watch. It is a geopolitical myth to think of China's or Russia's governing and economic systems as, in any sense whatsoever, stronger than those of 'messy' democracies. China, in fact, has an incredibly fragile economy dependent on massive imports of oil, food and know-how; all of which, in turn, depend on the West (yes, even China's oil imports depend directly on the USA's ability to secure shipping lanes from the middle east to Shanghai and Beijing). Russia, in turn, makes essentially nothing; they have so little economically-relevant know-how that we can dismiss it altogether. All they can do is extract stuff from their ground, most of which (i.e. gas) is shipped through pipelines (made by Germans), for they don't even have the required infrastructure to liquefy gas. All of Russia's cutting-edge wonder weapons, supersonic missiles and the like, depend on imports of Western technology: integrated circuits, software, electronic systems, machinery, etc. And so do China's (even though to a lesser extent). China's and Russia's economic output rests, through the links of globalisation, on the hard-earned products of Western creativity enabled by freedom.

Our noisy external rivals are paper tigers, for authoritarianism can never hope to match the strength of a free society's sum-total of individual creativity and drive. They are not the real threats. The real ones are within, internal parasites of the strength nurtured by liberty. Luckily for us, the way to neutralise this threat is to double-down on our values: respect for individual expression and tolerance for the dispositions of others. Should we do this through the mighty tool we call a 'vote,' our way of life will survive.


Hallucinated Implications Creep (HIC): A bane of our time


Let me invite you to a thought experiment that you can conduct in the privacy of your own mind. Carefully observe your own inner reaction to the following statement of mine, which truthfully reflects my opinion on the matter: 

Donald Trump is a pathologically narcissistic, dangerously manipulative, clinically sociopathic and conspicuously unintelligent individual whose sole priority is himself, and who has no scruples about lying through his teeth so to deceive and use millions of people for the sole sake of his own personal agenda.

I've chosen my words so to deliberately evoke a strong emotional response in you. Now that you are aware of my opinion, you can conduct the thought experiment—whose results only you will ever know—by checking which of the statements below you now think apply to me:

  1. Bernardo would have voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
  2. Bernardo is a liberal/lefty/democrat.
  3. Bernardo likes Joe Biden.
  4. Bernardo doesn't espouse conservative values.
  5. Bernardo is a manipulative elitist.
Make a mental note of how many of the 5 statements above you are inclined to think are applicable to me, because of my opinion about Trump. Now let's try another sincere opinion of mine:

Consuming red meat regularly is something that we, at an individual level, should stop doing for our collective sake.

Don't overanalyse it, just check which of the following statements you feel apply to me, given my sincere opinion above:

  1. Bernardo is ignorant of the nutritional value of red meat.
  2. Bernardo doesn't understand that meat consumption is entirely natural for predatory primates such as ourselves.
  3. Bernardo is too romantic and naive about animal suffering, for nature is ruthless anyway.
  4. Bernardo is trying to take away my personal right to choose my own diet and life style.
  5. Bernardo is not sympathetic to the economic needs of animal farmers.
You, of course, know where I am going with this, given the title of this essay. Therefore, you are more-than-likely analysing all this with much more attention than usual, so to find whatever trap I might be laying for you. That's fine, but keep in mind that, under normal circumstances, you would be judging my opinions much more spontaneously and unthinkingly than in the context of this essay, and that is what I am trying to get at.

In this spirit, here is another sincere opinion of mine:

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is unjustified, criminal and completely unacceptable. It should be opposed economically, politically and militarily by the West.

Now, what do you think applies to me, given my opinion above?

  1. Bernardo doesn't understand that NATO's eastwards expansion was provocative towards Russia.
  2. Bernardo is ignorant of the plight of Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the Donbas and Crimea.
  3. Bernardo is a hypocrite, for Western powers have carried out criminal military interventions in other countries.
  4. Bernardo is a hypocrite, for the West supports authoritarian regimes in the middle east.
  5. Bernardo wants World War 3 and nuclear apocalypse.
Now go back and look more carefully at each of these three opinions of mine. This time, avoid the emotional knee-jerk reaction and analyse objectively what follows from my opinions and what doesn't; what I did say and what I didn't. If you do it carefully, you will see that none of the five seeming implications listed below each opinion is actually entailed or implied by the respective opinion. If you think any of them is, you are suffering from what I shall call 'Hallucinated Implications Creep,' or HIC, a very common bane of these troubled times.

Let us now review all this together, starting from my third opinion expressed above: it is perfectly coherent to both agree that NATO's expansion was a needlessly provocative step and believe that such a provocation doesn't justify—not even remotely—the barbaric invasion of another country. It is perfectly coherent to both think that the Ukrainian government has neglected the needs and rights of its Russian-speaking citizens—which it probably did—and believe that a barbaric invasion that indiscriminately kills and maims all Ukrainians, Russian-speaking and otherwise, is not the way to address the issue. To acknowledge that the West is guilty of criminal military actions does not mean that it is OK for Russia to do so now, let alone at a much greater scale; two wrongs don't make a right. The regretful Western support for totalitarian regimes elsewhere in the world doesn't mean that the West should overlook Russia's ravaging of another country in Europe; compounding a problem doesn't solve it. And finally, it doesn't follow from any of the above that I want a nuclear apocalypse; I just think that we shouldn't surrender to criminal totalitarian regimes such as Russia's because of a remote risk of wider confrontation. Otherwise, we might as well hand over everything we have to North Korea tomorrow. If the risk of nuclear confrontation justifies cowardly surrender, where does the surrendering then stop?

Notice that the key error here has to do with creating false dichotomies.

Now let's shift our attention to my perceived need for dramatically reducing our consumption of red meat. It doesn't occur to many—perhaps not to you either—that such an opinion may be motivated by, and based on, reasons other than the ones you would ordinarily expect. As a matter of fact, my key motivation for urging a reduction of red meat consumption has to do with the extremely inefficient, wasteful use of resources—think of land, energy, water, etc—required by intensive, industrial-scale red meat production (on a side note, only intensive red meat production can satisfy current demand levels, let alone the expected future demand as countries in Asia become more affluent). With the same resources, much more food—calories, proteins, vitamins—can be produced with much less detrimental environmental impact, feeding a lot more people more affordably. To mention only one example, red meat production is driving the destruction of the amazon, both directly—i.e. land clearances for pasture—and indirectly—i.e. land area used for the production of animal feed. As such, my opinion has little to do with the health value of red meat, the naturalness of predation, your personal dietary rights, etc. You may just have projected all that on me, but if so, that was your own hallucination, not anything I said.

Indeed, the error here has to do with assuming certain motivations or justifications for my opinion. In other words, the error is attributing to me something I did not say.

Now on to Trump. My opinion about his character is an opinion about, well, his character; not a global statement of general political positions or sympathies. As a matter of fact, I am largely a conservative, in the sense that I live my life rooted in certain traditions, have a strong sense of historical continuity and context, a relationship with the very land under my feet, have respect—even a feeling of responsibility—towards my ancestors, and a profound appreciation for a truly religious life. I have a deep anti-elitist mentality—which is rather obvious in both my work and interviews—and generally do not sympathise at all with Hillary Clinton. Were I an American citizen, I would have nullified my vote in 2016, as a protest against what I perceive as a profoundly dysfunctional two-party system.

The error here is trying to bin every political opinion in one of only two baskets. So if I am against Trump, I can only be pro Biden, right? If I detest Trump, I can only be a liberal and not a conservative, right? And so on: everything is either black or white—or rather, blue or red. This is, of course, silly. Indeed, it is entirely arbitrary and extraordinarily implausible to imagine that society is so simple as to allow for a binary classification of every position.

Hallucinated Implications Creep (HIC) is characterised by false dichotomies, unjustified assumptions, projections, implausibly simplistic categorisations, failures to recognise what was said and, perhaps even more importantly, what was not said. It renders us blind to every nuance and subtlety, thereby being literally stupefying.

The projections and hallucinations underpinning HIC spread like a web of false inferences and unjustified conclusions, creeping through the entire social dialogue like a virus. Indeed, it has come to characterise what passes for the present social dialogue. It causes us to talk past one another, fail to see what is being said, fail to understand what is and isn't entailed or implied by what is said, and generally make a mess of everything. It makes us argue against mere hallucinations—ghosts, fantasies—like deranged zealots, seeing enemies everywhere. It renders it impossible to find consensus.

HIC is a cognitive plague that social media has amplified to a level never before seen. And it may be our demise.

PS: You probably noticed that I've switched to British spelling. It's just that I have a newly-developed aversion for the letter 'Z' and what it has come to represent in 2022.