Stefan Molyneux has no idea how to do Philosophy

You have probably watched one of those TV shows in which someone is convinced they can sing because they’ve only ever had positive encouragement from the small set of people who have heard them sing. The Stefan Molyneux phenomenon reminds me of that. Molyneux operates inside a bubble of his own making that suppresses negative feedback. He runs a community and charges a fee for full access. Discussions there are moderated. You know, to preserve the freedom. For example, there was a huge discussion on free will. Molyneux declared the subject off limits because he found it boring.

I found the embedded video mirrored on someone else’s youtube account:

He begins the video by introducing his podcast as the biggest philosophy podcast in the world. I think it would be more accurate to describe it as “the biggest podcast that tagged itself philosophy”. Now, I could spend a lot of time explaining all the ways I disagree with Molyneux. There are ways in which I agree with him but those aspects of his ideas are so intwined with such grotesque perversions of reason that it’s hard to find common ground even when I’m standing on it. Instead I will try to narrow my disagreement down to something fundamental. The video illustrates.

So he begins by telling us what his conclusion is: “there is no such thing as mental illness”. He then follows his standard format: bombards the viewer with a torrent of factoids without even explaining why they are relevant, let alone providing a common thread of reason. What I dislike about what he does is that: He has no idea how to do philosophy. He listed some facts about the number of people affected by what is called mental illness, none of which is relevant to his assertion. Further, the number of people affected by mental health issues is an empirical measure i.e. science, not philosophy. Not only is it all off topic but it demonstrates his lack of understanding of what philosophy really is. Further, his approach seems to amount to a kind of emotional pleading by throwing lots of facts around that are apparently significant for some reason and letting the viewer join the dots. All of which allows him to arrogantly begin a lot of his video titles with “The Truth About…” because his videos are often mostly factoid dumps.

He defines mental illness as “a chemical imbalance in the brain” then cites some people saying that cases of mental illnesses rarely involve a detectable “chemical imbalance”. He makes the rough argument that no-one has ever found a “chemical imbalance” underlying a mental illness [2]. But, again, that is an empirical argument about the existence of chemical imbalances not a philosophical argument about the nature of mental illness. He makes a big deal of the fact that mental illness diagnoses make use of behaviour measures, and picks out psychiatry as if it is the only field that discusses mental health (conveniently sidestepping neuroscience, which is the thing that he is criticising psychiatry for not being) [6].

There are two things that he needs to realise:

1) The fact that mental illnesses are detected and categorised based on behaviour is irrelevant as to whether they are a reality [7]. An illness is a situation that fulfills two criteria, firstly, it is out of the ordinary and secondly it negatively affects quality of life. That’s it. If we happen to be able to directly observe a physical process causing it that’s helpful for treatment but not necessary when it comes to actually recognizing it’s reality. Take an example, you have an infection that causes nausea. You are ill because throwing up all of the time is unusual and negatively affects your quality of life. In that case we can probably observe the offending bacteria. What if you simply believe you feel sick? Someone who is literally convinced they feel sick, by definition, is ill. To assert that the fact that we can’t find a physical correlate proves there is no physical correlate is a simple breach of logic. You can argue that it is false to claim we have seen the illness… but that is an (obvious) empirical statement, not a philosophical one [5]. If a million people just started throwing up one day, and doctors couldn’t find any offending physical cause, would that mean we should just stop looking for a cause? By Molyneux’s reasoning medical science is at fault for ever imagining that there was any physical cause for any illness.

2) People profiting off the illusion of something doesn’t mean it isn’t real. I am sure there are plenty of huge companies in the US profiting of people thinking they are in need of drugs and that is terrible. So what? If someone convinced people in the US that they need insurance against tornadoes and, as a result, sold huge insurance policies and made a killing, would that lend any weight either way to whether tornadoes are real? No, obviously. So why dedicate so much time to it?

Perhaps what he meant to say was “there are people lying about what is or isn’t mental illness in order to profit” [1]. If so he should be precise because philosophy demands precision at the very least.

It’s ironic because he seems to have positioned himself as someone who is out to rid the world of statism, which he seems to regard as perfectly analogous to a mental illness. I vaguely remember him calling religion a virus of the mind in one of his videos.

Molyneux seems to have so effectively protected himself from criticism[4] that he has become convinced that he is an important philosopher with lots of indisputable arguments[3] that have, somehow, gone undiscovered for thousands of years before he showed up.

[1] I suspect he can’t actually allow himself to argue this because he espouses so called “free market” societies in which lying to people to sell drugs is perfectly acceptable.

[2] Actually he imposed this definition. His argument is analogous to arguing tornados are defined as “things caused be imbalance of chi” and concluding tornadoes don’t exist.

[3] One of his gems is the argument that if you disagree with him about whether free will is real you have already proved it is real.

[4] I think he at least partially rationalises this by applying the ideas of the “free market” to knowledge: He is providing a service and others are paying him to provide his trash. Which might be why he feels he has the right to censor, his customers could just leave. Or he is just a terrible human being.

[5] “We can’t find unicorns therefor no-one has found a unicorn”: a valid, but banal, deductive statement deduced from empirical findings. “We can’t find unicorns therefor unicorns don’t exist”: an empirical statement derived in an invalid way from another empirical statement.

[6] He also proves himself wrong halfway through the video and doesn’t realise. He pointed out that children with ADHD could have it as a result of the drugs they are given… which would be an example of a physical cause of a mental illness. Of course it would be an artificially induced but lots of non-metal illnesses are artificially induced. And if we were having a properly philosophical discussion the distinction between artificially induced illness and naturally occurring illnesses would be a point of contention in of itself. A sign of someone who has no idea how to do philosophy is that they take ideas like that distinction as solved because they don’t realise that philosophy is about debating the possibility that they aren’t solved.

[7] This is hard for people who haven’t studied epistemology to grasp but science doesn’t deal with reality. Science delivers models that can be used to predict. It is for this reason that the reality of a disease is formally irrelevant (it has to be because it is actually impossible to know). Science simply says “If we pretend that X is true, we can make the following predictions.” X is not the reality of a phenomenon it is a model. Science is a methodology for building such models. You can model a thing without knowing what it is as a reality, which is why science is possible because if we had direct access to reality we wouldn’t need science.

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