Monday, September 17, 2018

Yuval Harari on Freewill and Liberalism

In an article that returns to his theme from Homo Deus, Yuval Harari argues that a great flaw of liberalism is its assumption that people have free will. The classic liberal is progressive and revolutionary in insisting that political and economic power should be diffuse, not centralized as in aristocratic or dictatorial society in which a minority rules over the majority. This is because the justification of our power to rule flows not from our bloodline or even from our particular accomplishments, but from human nature which we all share. We have the right to attempt to overcome obstacles to our happiness because of the miracle of our being at liberty to understand and to conquer them. Unlike the other animal species, we have the capacity for self-control, says the liberal; we can think about our actions and plan for the future instead of just reacting instinctively to circumstances. As Harari writes, “Liberalism tells us that the voter knows best, that the customer is always right, and that we should think for ourselves and follow our hearts.”

Freewill and Liberalism

But Harari points out—following, perhaps, John Gray’s account in Black Mass—that this secular story about human nature derives from Christian theology and is thus dubious on its face. Christians needed to believe we deserve to be punished in hell, because they were saddled with the New Testament and with the moral overtones of Jewish monotheism, which in turn were inherited from Zoroastrianism. If we don’t deserve to be rewarded or punished by God, monotheistic religion is a monstrous lie and Western society lapses into anarchy. Thus, God implants in the human body an immaterial spirit which is free to choose between good and evil, which is free, that is, from natural forces to serve as a spark of divinity in the darkness of the material wilderness. That spirit is the source of our moral responsibility. Alas, cognitive scientists discovered no such spirit in their explorations of the brain and in their untangling of our evolutionary programming. It turns out not just that we’re animals, after all, says Harari, but that we’re “hackable” ones. “Every choice depends on a lot of biological, social and personal conditions that you cannot determine for yourself. I can choose what to eat, whom to marry and whom to vote for, but these choices are determined in part by my genes, my biochemistry, my gender, my family background, my national culture, etc—and I didn’t choose which genes or family to have.” 

Harari supports this by appealing to his Buddhist practice of meditation. We can confirm that we’re not free merely by paying close attention to the source of our thoughts that pop into our head. We don’t choose what to think or to feel, because there is no comprehensive self, no central agency in the mind deciding on the contents of our conscious awareness. Rather, these mental states bubble up by way of the brain’s attempt to reach equilibrium despite the quasi-evolutionary competition between its neural fluctuations. Just as the appearance of intelligent design in biological forms is an illusion—there’s no top-down designer, but only bottom-up struggles and mutations—there’s no homunculus in our skull that’s unbound by external chains of cause and effect, implies Harari. This means it’s possible that engineers and technocrats, politicians and salespeople can know us better than we know ourselves. All that’s needed are “a good understanding of biology, and a lot of computing power,” writes Harari. Corporations and governments might eventually have both, as they harvest terabytes of data from our addictions to social media and the internet, “and once they can hack you, they can not only predict your choices, but also reengineer your feelings.”

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Trump Voters Smarter than Liberals, study shows

Dateline: D.C.—The Machiavelli Institute of Political Pseudoscience shocked the world when it revealed the results of its study that compared the intelligence level of President Trump’s diehard supporters to that of his critics on the left and the right, including “the Resistance” and “Never Trumpers.”

The study found that whereas Trump’s supporters “know their ass from their elbow,” anti-Trump Americans “have their head in the clouds.” Trump’s supporters are mostly members of the hard-pressed working class and thus have street smarts, whereas the critics excel in abstract, academic book-learning. His supporters are “intellectually unsophisticated,” while the critics are more “professional” in presenting their opinions.

But what the supporters learned, along with members of the left-wing insurgency who had supported Bernie Sanders, is that the efficient, licensed elites of the neoliberal class in America had unwittingly betrayed the majority of Americans by not understanding the full consequences of the unfettered capitalism they had championed since the 1980s under Ronald Reagan.

Recognizing that the United States is currently a failed democracy, Mr. Trump’s supporters differ from the millions upon millions of Americans who didn’t vote in 2016 and throughout the twentieth century only in one respect, according to the pseudoscientific study. The Trump voters and the non-voters agree that their political and economic systems are rigged by plutocrats, and that voting for either Democrats or Republicans is thus fruitless for progressive purposes.

“Whereas President Trump may be a useful idiot of Russia,” the study points out, “the American professional classes of liberals and moderate Republicans consist of useful idiots of the sociopathic top one percent who alone can thrive under the amoral conditions of corporate capitalism.”  

The key difference is that those who voted for Trump get their entertainment primarily from politics and the daily news.

By contrast, the nonvoters are opioid junkies or gambling or porn addicts, not news junkies. Thus, Trump’s supporters demonstrated their superior practical intelligence by understanding the hopelessness of their country’s situation, and by insisting, as one Trump voter put it, “that if the American middle class is bound to lose out when the American empire contracts, American consumers can at least attempt to arrange things so that we’ll be amused along our way to certain destruction.”

The entertainment value of President Trump’s antics towers over that of any other politician’s in American history. Even Mr. Trump’s opponents are fascinated by the spectacle of his inhumanity. According to the study, Mr. Trump’s die-hard supporters cast their votes for him not because they expected him to make America great again, contrary to his 2016 campaign slogan, but to avenge themselves against the neoliberal, professional class.

“The vengeance is achieved,” said a spokesperson for the team of pseudoscientists, “when the more realistic voters who brought about the appalling reality of Trump’s presidency force the benighted liberals to realize that the American way of life is precisely as absurd as that reality.” As liberals and deep-state Republican bureaucrats are sickened by the reflection of their Jungian shadow in Trump’s monstrosity, they may become as demoralized as the victims of global free trade and of social-Darwinian capitalism.

Together, then, the majority of Americans can comfort themselves in knowing that while their system can’t be reformed, like any organization run by a cabal of self-destructive psychopaths, such as Lehman Brothers or Enron, the American establishment will collapse of its own accord. Moreover, to compensate for the ruination of their country and of their dreams for a better tomorrow, Americans have at least the prospect of premium entertainmentas long as they continue to vote Republican.

According to the Democratic brand, government works and can get stuff done. But the American working class understand, given their superior wherewithal, that the “stuff” the American systems have gotten done has been the screwing over of the majority of Americans, who haven’t seen their real wages improve in decades and who lost their industrial jobs to hordes of slave labourers in China, India, and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the Republican brand is effectively to entertain Americans on their way out, with that party’s displays of unsurpassed villainy. Even many non-Americans are hooked on the reality TV of American politics, whereas the average American could never even conceive of attending, for example, to a moment of Canadian politics.

“That asymmetry brought Donald Trump to power,” said the team’s spokesperson, “because the majority of Americans aren’t as stupid as many cynical liberals believe. Most Americans either don’t vote at all or vote purely to entertain themselves, knowing that their country has already been debased beyond repair.”  

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Power and the Abuse of Language: A Rant by Rashad the Cackler

[The homeless old man, Rashad the Cackler is back with another rant. Enjoy as he spills his guts to passersby on a big city street corner.]
We’ve got these democratic, capitalistic societies we’re so proud of. That’s how we “progress,” right? By voting and making money and buying stuff we don’t need.

I’ve been trying to figure out, though, why politicians and pundits make a fetish out of the word “appropriate.” I saw it once on CNN: it was a typical American political negotiation. President Trump had dragged a Democratic senator’s wife into the Oval Office and ordered his henchmen to gang rape her right in front of the senator and his children. They went to town on her, because it was televised so they had to make it a spectacle. I saw a Taser and a cat o’ nine tails and a flaming trident. A donkey got in on the action, and in the end they cut her up into ribbons and vacuumed her remains off the carpet.

The press turned to the senator for comment and all he could say was, “Mr. President, that was inappropriate.”

Why are the world’s most powerful English speakers so averse to telling us what they really think? Does power make you hostile to the prospect of looking up some words in a thesaurus? Do you go to law or business school to learn to have contempt for genuine communication?

It’s like the time that politician went on a psychotic rampage in the streets, stabbing folks left and right, and when the press caught up with him, he confessed only that he’d “made a mistake.”

Did you think a Western politician is capable of evil? No, only of “inappropriate” conduct, meaning an action not currently sanctioned by some body of bureaucratic regulations. Our leaders can be guilty only of a “mistake,” of something like putting their left sock on their right foot or like dialing the wrong phone number. Their language has made evil impossible at the highest levels of our technocracies, because capitalism and democracy can do no wrong, by definition. Anyway, morality is religious or philosophical, so it’s for losers.

Even when speaking of the social progress we’re supposed to be capable of, politicians fall back on platitudes. When they have no idea how to solve a problem, they’ll say, “We’ve got to move forward.” That’s how you make things better when no one has a clue. You’ve just got to step forwards, never backwards. Because history lessons are anathema, I guess, for businessmen and politicians who need consumers and voters to be as dumb as possible, to enable the sociopathy that always rises to the top.

“Appropriate,” “mistake,” “forward”—these are magic words in so-called advanced industrial societies, for folks who are supposed to have outgrown the need for superstitions. We surrender to managerial platitudes and banalities. And those who care about English and authentic communication? They write books which hardly anyone reads anymore. Writers make a pittance, because Amazon siphons most of the profits. Is that the secret of capitalism? Not that in business you should profit by alienating your workers who don’t control the means of production, as Marx said. No, that’s only for old-school manufacturers. In postindustrial societies, where everyone’s a middleman, the trick is to convince society that your brand of uselessness is actually indispensible. If you’re one of a thousand administrators or vice presidents in your company, you’ve got to “lean in,” since only in a society where everyone’s mass-hallucinating and nothing truly important is happening would the mere effort of leaning in be a sure sign that you’re one of the good ones.

Progress is supposed to be about the maximization of pleasure or some such Enlightenment promise. But real progress is all about perfecting the use of power. The tyrants of old were more bloodthirsty than modern captains of industry, but that’s because we’ve made a science out of domination and exploitation. We don’t waste subordinate populations by slaughtering the males. We put them to work as wage slaves, conquering lesser societies with banking regulations and neoliberal tomfoolery. We don’t trivialize life by publicly torturing criminals, like they did in the medieval period; instead, we sustain the myth that life is precious so that consumers will become so full of themselves that they’ll buy all the garbage we’re selling.

We’ve taken to the next level the sociopathy that accompanies the concentration of power: witness the advent of the machine, the perfect vehicle for cruel logic. This is how we think of progress: poor countries are worse off because they can barely afford the necessities of life; rich countries can afford not just the necessities but the luxuries no one needs, until the rich people themselves can be dispensed with, and the whole postindustrial utopia runs on autopilot. By using our smart phones 24/7, we’re training the machines that will replace human workers and consumers; we’re ensuring our obsolescence, but that’s still progress because the machines will be the more perfect dominators—calculating, remorseless minds running superhuman bodies, ravaging the earth before heading to outer space. 

Monday, September 3, 2018

Clash of Worldviews: Ego and Enlightenment

MODERATOR: Welcome to Clash of Worldviews, the show that subjects conventional wisdom to rude philosophical scrutiny. This evening we have with us in-studio famed spiritual teacher, motivational speaker and author, Ludwig Toll. And joining us by phone from an undisclosed location is escaped mental patient, underground philosopher, and secret society leader, Jurgen Schulze. Our topic is the role of the ego in enlightening ourselves. Ludwig, perhaps you could start us off by telling us what the ego is.

TOLL: Well, the ego is the illusion of our personal self, otherwise known as the mind which is distinct from awareness or consciousness. Awareness is the space in which the mind’s thoughts happen, and the real world is always happening Now in each moment of selfless awareness. The ego is built on delusions of self-control sustained by the ceaseless chatter that goes on in our head, by that noisy monkey on our back which psychologists call our “narrative self.” We think we’re isolated, liberated beings who dominate the world by our powers of reason. We plan for the future and we flee to our memories of the past, but as even physicists tell us, time exists only in our mind’s limited perspective. Moreover, we’re burdened by our emotional attachment to a host of unpleasant memories. Our ego traumatizes us by basing our pride in ourselves on how we’ve managed to overcome past failures or disasters. As unenlightened creatures, we cling to flattering stories that explain away the pain we feel from our attachment to the ego, where the ego consists of all our mental constructions, including our memories and plans. This “pain body,” as I call it, is like a constant weight on our backs. Instead of deceiving ourselves for fleeting moments of comfort, we should learn to identify with background consciousness, to end our fascination with our thoughts of the past and the future, and to awaken to the stillness of the Now.

MODERATOR: So you’d say we should dissolve our ego?

TOLL: That’s what enlightenment is, according to the world’s spiritual traditions—although organized religions often betray those traditions and promote personal attachments as the institutions compete for earthly power. But yes, as Stoics and Buddhists teach, for example, seeing through the illusion of the ego is how we can end our suffering. We become happy when we cease craving that which can’t be, because our personal plans arise from the delusion of our autonomy and mental greatness, and we cease our cravings when we step outside the confines of our mind, as it were, and into the Now of holistic conscious awareness. When we discern that our personal self is a mere construct of consciousness that coexists with everything else in our field of awareness, from a cricket’s chirping to the light glinting off a leaf, we’re no longer trapped in a myopic viewpoint that’s bound to disappoint.

MODERATOR: Jurgen, how do you understand the ego?

SCHULZE: Good question! But why don’t you ask Mr. Toll if he understands the ego.

MODERATOR: Uh, alright. Ludwig Toll, how about it? Do you understand the ego?

TOLL: Mr. Schulze evidently means to trap me. You see, understanding something is a mental activity, so if I say I understand what the ego is, I’m contradicting myself by identifying with my rational processes.

SCHULZE: So you admit that you don’t understand what you’re talking about. 

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Sex is Ridiculous: A Rant by Rashad the Cackler

[The homeless old man, Rashad the Cackler is back with another rant. Enjoy as he spills his guts to passersby on a big city street corner.]
Politics and business are cesspools, right? But family, that’s our sacred cow. I wonder why, though, we still get married with all the pomp and circumstance when we don’t believe in the religious or romantic myths anymore. Yeah, finding someone who’s attracted to your bullshit is a miracle and an excuse to throw a party and celebrate with friends and family, but that’s not why we still go through the weird rituals of telling public vows and wearing expensive rings, and indulging the priest or rabbi or secular administrator as he issues his magic blessings. What is it about marriage that’s still sacrosanct, that calls for such solemnity?

I’m pretty sure it’s the sex. Marriage is a license to have guilt-free sex. It’s like a driver’s license: only you are legally entitled to drive your car, because you have the special piece of paper, and if someone else drives it without your permission, they’re stealing your car. If someone else has sex with your husband or wife, they’re stealing what’s yours.

They used to think that sex before marriage is sinful because God’s watching, but that’s silly because God’s supposed to be like an uptight Jew, Christian, or Muslim, not a pervert who pays close attention to whom we’re having sex with. The gods of organized religions would avert their eyes while we’re fucking each other, so religion can’t be the reason we still take marriage so seriously.

What’s so dreadful about sex outside of wedlock? How about this for a fancy hypothesis: what’s missing from that sex is freedom from being blackmailed. Hear me out! Even if you’re going steady, without all the symbols and rituals of the wedding ceremony, you still feel at liberty to change your mind and see someone else. And once that happens, you’re free to cheat in the worst way imaginable, not just by having sex with someone else but by spreading rumours about what sex was like with the person you were once supposed to be faithful to. And not just rumours, but photos and videos. And if your partner or ex found out, he or she would of course die of embarrassment.

So why are we so afraid of being cheated on? Why in high school does the cheerleader go into seclusion or slit her wrists because the jock who banged her and then dumped her spreads rumours about how her nipples are cockeyed? Why are we so desperate to keep our partner monogamous that we put our faith in the obsolete marriage ceremony?

It’s because sex is ridiculous.

Sex is shameful not because God’s watching, but because we look pathetic while we’re having sex. That’s why we have to keep our sex acts secret. That’s why we’d be mortified if word got out what perverted things we do with our sex partner-in-crime. And that’s why we fear being blackmailed by our partner if he or she should go rogue. So we put a ring on their finger to make them feel guilty of even thinking of telling their friends that we have our partner pretend they’re Angela Merkel or Donald Trump while we’re screwing them. The vows and the rings don’t guarantee anything, of course, but we love drinking Coca-Cola’s shit water, so what do we know?

I know, I know, monogamy is also about protecting the bloodline and making sure we’re not being cuckolded, but that’s only the animal reason for human families. Ask a biologist what the evolutionary explanation is of adult spanking or Japanese sex robots or any of the thousands of other unnatural human fetishes. You won’t stump the biologist, because the biologist’s imagination is infinite. She can guess at an evolutionary reason for why you prefer one kind of shit water to another. But that’s the point: we can think of everything, but animals can hardly think of anything.

And that’s why sex is so humiliating and traumatic, because it’s what all the animals do. Those are the same animals we’ve slaughtered or conquered, the same ones we own as living machines or livestock; the same ones we keep on leashes as our pets or slaves; the same animals we run over and leave to rot on the side of the road, with no thought of burying them—these are the creatures that are also happy to fuck each other in broad daylight. We’re the arrogant animals who imagine we have the dignity of being something miraculous: we’re people, not just animals. So why are we still so eager to touch each other’s private parts? If you have audiovisual evidence of your partner having sex, you better keep it secret, because if you can prove he or she is an animal, someone might just come along and run your partner over with their car and call it road kill.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Humanists, Technocrats, and a World of Babies

In Oh, the Humanities! NY Times columnist and Christian apologist, Ross Douthat, looks at the triumph of technocrats over humanists in American culture. He writes of “the motley humanists against the efficient technocrats, the aesthetes and poets and philosophers and theologians against the managers and scientists and financiers and bureaucrats,” and of how “neither a Christian humanism nor any other has been able to withstand the spirit of Conant [former president of Harvard], the spirit of technocratic ambition, the spirit of truth-replaced-by-useful-knowledge, that rules today not just in Washington and Silicon Valley but in much of academia as well.”

Humanism and Technocracy

For Douthat, humanism should be preserved as a buffer between the toxic outgrowths of secularism and his cherished religious traditions. These outgrowths would include not just the technocratic mindset, but nihilism, moral relativism, postmodern cynicism and apathy, and the hopelessness resulting from what Nietzsche diagnosed as the death of God, meaning the obsolescence of theological concepts. Much of the humanist outlook is thus a means to an end for Douthat. He’s not interested so much in human nature, since unlike more mystical theists such as those you’ll find in greater abundance in East Asia, he regards human beings as subservient to a transcendent deity. By contrast, many Hindus, Daoists, and Buddhists identify some level of our nature with God. As a conventional Catholic, Douthat must think that while God gifted us with reason and freedom, we’ve abused God’s generosity and are “fallen” creatures. Thus, for him our inherent qualities should be lamented rather than celebrated, since we’re tainted by the original sin precisely of taking pride in ourselves as though we could run our affairs as mature adults without kowtowing to an all-knowing father figure in the sky. In short, religious humanism rests precariously on a slippery slope that passes through secular humanism, which in turn leads to those apparent valleys of technocracy and so-called postmodernity.  

But Douthat’s finding that the humanities are in trouble is corroborated by Thomas Frank’s more comprehensive treatment of the matter. For example, Frank connects student indebtedness and the “de-professionalization of the faculty” with the ballooning of the class of college administrators. As he points out, “teaching college students” has steadily become “an occupation for people with no tenure, no benefits, and no job security. These lumpen-profs, who have spent many years earning advanced degrees but sometimes make less than minimum wage, now account for more than three-quarters of the teaching that is done at our insanely expensive, oh-so-excellent American universities.” Tuition has increased and put students in debt, largely to pay for the salaries of the true “masters of academia.” Following Ginsberg’s 2011 book, The Fall of the Faculty, Frank says that “what has really fueled the student’s ever-growing indebtedness, as anyone with a connection to academia can tell you, is the insane proliferation of university administrators.” Whereas the American university used to be run by professors, today “the business side of the university has been captured by a class of professionals who have nothing to do with the pedagogical enterprise itself.” Today, administrators and staffers may even outnumber the teachers, and so there’s a culture war between those who fulfill the original function of higher education—the educators—and those who fulfill the new one—the pencil pushers. According to Frank, the new function is to earn a profit as a business. Thus, humanism has been defeated by economic forces: American culture has been overtaken by a capitalist ethos that has reshaped not just the country’s education systems, but its democracy, religions, and arts.

As for humanistic values, these go back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Cicero, for example, wrote of humanitas, the love of human potential that thrives with education, as crucial to the ideal orator. Such an orator would have studied literature and poetry to inculcate him (or her) with virtues suitable for public service and a fulfilling private life. Revived by the European Renaissance, the original point of familiarizing the young person with value-laden subject matters derives ultimately from the virtue ethics of Plato and Aristotle—which are similar to those of Confucian philosophy. The assumption was that when we’re young we’re innocent and malleable creatures, but that as individuals and collectives we have the potential to reach a certain ideal stature if our character and behaviour have been properly cultivated. For those Greek philosophers who appealed most to the medieval Church (namely Plato and Aristotle), our ideal development is objectively determined by the teleological fabric of nature. Just as a rock ought to head lower and lower, towards the earth, because that’s the rock’s natural tendency, a person should demonstrate rational self-control because that’s what’s good for creatures with our potential. Christians merely added the myth that natural forms were intelligently designed by God and that they were somehow corrupted. (Notice, again, that the classical concept of humanitas or philanthrôpía, that is, the assumption that our fundamental goodness is revealed when we fulfill our potential, conflicts with the Pauline contention that Christ had to sacrifice his life for humanity, because our nature is otherwise irredeemable and so we can’t save ourselves from God’s wrath.) In any case, higher education was meant to instill students with virtues that enable them to succeed not just in narrow economic terms, but as civilized people and as free, responsible citizens of a democratic republic.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Eldritch Revelations: Why Truth is Never Personal

[In his published monograph, Eldritch Revelations, the psychiatrist of the infamous thinker Jurgen Schulz wrote that only short fragments of Schulz’s philosophical journal survived his escape from Borsa Castle. But following the psychiatrist’s mysterious death shortly after publication, longer fragments were discovered in his office, locked in a drawer. Here is another of those longer fragments, which the publisher has recently had translated.]
When I’m me, I can only think I know the truth. When I’m me, my thoughts are swaddled in background assumptions and feelings. The rising tide of those meta-thoughts lends associative meaning to the thoughts that occupy my full attention. When I wonder whether some notion is really true, my reflections are motivated by the notion’s weightiness that’s sustained by its connotations, by the relevance of the lessons I draw from my memories. That background knowledge, in turn, amounts to my personal identity. Thus, when I identify with the contents of my mind, when I take for granted the importance of “my” thoughts and feelings which I don’t exactly possess, but which I can nevertheless distance “myself” from in a way that’s yet to be determined, the truth of any of my ideas is largely a matter of the idea’s coherence within my worldview. The idea will seem true if it fits into the world picture I’ve been building, which picture is the mental home I bring with me wherever I go. Imagine a crab stripped of its shell, rendered naked in the ocean’s oppressive vastness. My mind is my true home, furnished as I like it, with my comforting interpretations of everything I’ve ever thought or done that I can recall, and it’s furnished to protect me from feeling cognitive dissonance, embarrassment, or any other discomfort. I feel good about myself, because the self I live with is the mind that shelters me from the storm of alien reality.

The truth of my thoughts, therefore, is largely subjective: the thoughts are true for me in that they’re dependent on my background conceptions which are included in the full content of whatever I’m thinking or intending, which content no one else can share because everyone’s mental home is unique to their experience. That subjective kind of truth isn’t really truth at all; it’s fitness, coherence, or comfort level; it’s the degree of probability that’s just the thought’s familiarity to my way of conceiving of things. When I’m me, when I’m at home in the mental repository that my life built, when I’m ensconced in my mind, I can only think my thoughts are true or false, because to that extent they can be true only for me or, more generally, for the society of which I’m a part.

In addition to coherence, subjective pseudo-truth is effectiveness. My thoughts enable me to act efficiently in the world, because my thoughts and plans have some degree of inductive strength, based as they are on my past successes and failures. Thus, you might say if you believe it’s nighttime and the hour for you to go to sleep, your belief is true because your belief increases your chance of succeeding: if you act on that belief about the time of day, you’ll go to bed at the right time rather than staying up all night and being tired during the workday. But effectiveness isn’t the same as truth. Truth depends on the meaning of our symbols, so you might still question your belief about nighttime, by asking what you mean by “nighttime” and “sleep.” Are your conceptions of those things narrow-minded? Do the concepts of which your belief consists express only your individual experience or the collective experience of your cultural or biological kind, and if so, why think that those concepts are adequate to the ultimate reality of nighttime or sleep? Our mental powers may enable us to succeed in our interactions with the world, according to the conventional understanding—but to succeed at doing what exactly? At “going to sleep”? And what is it really to go to sleep, in the long view of the geological or galactic timescale in which our personal experience and the entire history of our species are insignificant? That long view escapes us in so far as we’re persons beholden to our mental safety nets. 

Sunday, August 5, 2018

The Savior and his Diabolical Master

[The following is a long-lost Gnostic gospel or apocryphon discovered in 2013 in a corner of the Vatican library and translated by Mildred Wilmington, Professor of Antiquities at Miskatonic University.]
Chapter One

Our Savior Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

And the devil answered him in turn, “Were you half asleep when you read that passage of Deuteronomy? Did you fail to notice that one word you just told me, ‘alone’? Man shall not live on bread alone, it says. So you concede that even a higher animal that walks the earth requires food. Why not, then, as I said, command the stones to feed you? You’re exhausted and famished from your sojourn in the wilderness, and it’s for that reason I’ll let such intellectual weakness pass and won’t abandon you here on the spot, depriving you of the honour of my demonic challenge. But do try to refrain from wasting my time with further specious reasoning. My patience isn’t infinite. Remember, when they call me the father of lies, that’s the foolish sheep talking. What they should say is that I tell the Truth that God prefers to be kept hidden from his enthralled worshippers.”

“Get behind me, Satan! I don’t transform the stones because I’m not so hungry at present.”

“So you mean to admit that you have the power to reshape the earth, but you choose not to use it? Is God’s power so finite that it must be kept under wraps lest it dwindles to nothing and the world shall go without moral guidance?”

“I care more about others than myself. I’d gladly die for God’s chosen creatures. I’d sooner feed them than me.”

“Then why not command the stones to turn to bread to feed the hungry who aren’t as selfless as you? Or why not perform a miracle of feeding a multitude with only five loaves and two small fishes?”

“That would be a cavalier display of power.”

“So you’re saying God doesn’t want to be praised for being almighty? Haven’t you noticed your fellow Jews groveling before the jealous Lord whom they say made all the heavens and the earth?—and in only six days and nights! If power means nothing to God, why do your Jewish scriptures boast over and over that God isn’t the master merely of your small tribe or of this or that force of nature, but of the whole universe? Or why does the Lord silence Job by treating him like a worm that doesn’t deserve even to complain about his unjust suffering, because the Lord’s greater power makes him right?” 

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Philosophy in the Wasteland

The later, more systematic existentialists often began their analysis with some form of metaphysical dualism, since they wanted to say that people have a special obligation in life, and so people must be fundamentally different from everything else. They spoke, then, of the crucial difference between, on the one hand, being mindless things devoid of purpose or freedom (being “in-itself” or “present-to-hand”), and on the other, being an autonomous creature, a source of value, or a tool caught up in that creature’s field of interests (being “for-itself” or “ready-to-hand”). Existentialism should, however, give way to cosmicism, which raises the question of philosophy’s worth.

From Existentialism to Cosmicism

Existential dualisms are oversimplifications since they ignore the strangeness of matter. A semi-facetious but still better starting point for existentialist purposes would be to posit mindless things, or things in so far as they’re scientifically objectified and explained as beings neither-here-nor-there, or neither this-nor-that, meaning things that occupy a baffling twilight in which they’re neither fully dead nor fully alive. The neither-here-nor-there is a being that acts as though it had some creative purpose, since it has energy or inertia and participates in vast cycles of complexification and evolution, but that does so with no capacity for intention or reason. Most of the universe is neither-here-nor-there in that sense.

Note that the idiom, “That’s neither here nor there” denotes the thing’s irrelevance, its being “beside the point,” where the point is determined by the speaker’s interests. To say, then, that the universe generally is neither here nor there is to say, on one level, that the universe is irrelevant to us, since we prefer the artificial world we create that supplants the wilderness and answers directly to our interests. The existential point is that this idiom is easily flipped, since if the universe is irrelevant to us from our parochial perspectives, so too must we be irrelevant to the universe from the objective, existential perspective which sides with the universe, as it were, having become detached from our personal concerns.  

In any case, what the humanistic dualisms of Heidegger and Sartre, for example, miss is nature’s impersonal but still energetic component. Thus, nature’s metaphysical status isn’t just that it’s like a dumb lump of matter; instead, while most of nature isn’t alive, self-conscious, or rational, nature also isn’t generally inert, uncreative, or chaotic. This strange twilight is what compelled us throughout history to invest nature with personhood, to shut out the more enlightened dualism. We explained natural order and creativity by deifying natural processes. Our naivety was only to be so liberal with the category we’re most familiar with, to assume that since people are alive, self-conscious, and rational, and yet everything else in the world is creative like we are, the rest of the world must be human-like in those other respects. Thus, we imagined that the universe is full of spirits or minds responsible for all the physical activity we experience. Nevertheless, what wasn’t naïve was the experience of nature as an enchanted place. Along with the Romantic critics of the Enlightenment, the sociologist Max Weber spoke of scientific objectification as ridding nature of its magic, in that the more impersonal our stance towards the world, the more we’re able to discard animism or theism in exchange for an instrumental outlook that enables us to dominate natural processes. This has the unintended consequence of depriving life generally of its meaning, because we who idolize science and lust after the benefits of capitalism and technology are liable to objectify each other and ourselves too. Ennui, apathy, and nihilism are the results, which spur the existentialist renewal. 

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Clash of Worldviews: Is Trump’s Presidency Good for the World?

MODERATOR: Welcome to another episode of Clash of Worldviews, the show that features hard-hitting philosophical dialogues. This evening we have with us self-described postmodern pessimist and cynic, Heather Fogarty, and radical alt right blogger Fred Gulpa. And they’re here to discuss whether Donald Trump’s presidency is proving to be good or bad for the world. Heather, would you like to get us started? I take it you’re not a fan of Trump.

HEATHER: A “fan” of Trump? No, I’m not one of his suicidal cultists. Trump has the distinction of being a foreign agent twice over. He was a Siberian candidate, as is now obvious from Trump’s attacks on America’s closest allies, such as Canada, Germany, and Britain, combined with his servility towards Putin. But in the fictions, the foreign agent isn’t supposed to win the presidency, since that’s unthinkable from a conventional standpoint. So the evil conspiracy of installing a rival country’s intelligence asset in the seat of American power is supposed to stop at the candidacy. The dupe is thus known idiomatically only as a “candidate,” as in “the Manchurian candidate,” since the presumption is that the scheme would be foiled in the world’s leading nation. But Russia’s useful idiot went on to become the American president! This return of the Cold War ought to be more traumatic to Americans than the 911 terrorist attacks.

Yet the unthinkable doesn’t end there with Trump. Trump is a bona fide foreign agent—albeit an untrained and incompetent one—in the guise of a democratically elected president, but he’s also obviously a wealthy paleoconservative. The American oligarchs used to run the GOP from a distance to sustain the façade of the party’s national legitimacy. The wealthy social Darwinians—otherwise known as sociopaths—controlled Republican politicians through lobbying and the flawed electoral system, but not so transparently as to run directly for president while flaunting their aristocratic values. Trump lacks upper-class manners, of course, but he’s realigning the GOP towards the oldest and perhaps purist conservative ideal: what should be protected, according to Trump and the monarchs of old isn’t classic liberalism or any other modern ideology or institution, but just the social distribution that arises from prehuman, animal dynamics. Nature is the arbiter of justice and so might makes right. What this means is that once the alphas triumph in a rigged competition—that being the only kind of competition that mindless nature can produce—the winners ought to dominate the losers by conning and bullying them, holding onto power like the autocrats Trump reveres. In short, Trump is cutting out the neoliberal middlemen and returning American conservatism to monarchical pseudo-elitism. Needless to say, Trump is thereby profoundly un-American. Whether Trump’s presidency is good for the world depends, though, on whether, for example, you think liberalism is progressive.

FRED: I actually agree with much of that. Trump is part of a global backlash against liberalism. He may indeed be compromised by Russia, since we know that American banks stopped lending him money after his multiple bankruptcies, and Russia looks for useful idiots and bailed him out of his business ventures over the last couple of decades. That shocking conspiracy is indeed only a detail, however, since Trump acts on behalf not just of Russia but of the principles of autocracy. I agree also that this is a paleoconservative revolution against the liberal aspects of globalization and thus against democracy and free trade capitalism in general. Trump’s aid and comfort to Russia is almost incidental since he’s interested mainly in recreating power structures in the West that protect those he considers natural winners, such as sociopathic plutocrats and white, male gung-ho Anglo-Americans as opposed to women, foreigners, or feminized liberals. The problem with the liberal notion of equality is that it threatens to erase cultural differences, to rob nations of their sovereignty and to drown them in the sappy bromides of a feel-good monoculture.

HEATHER: The irony here is appalling, of course. Globalization was the principle mechanism of America’s strategy for maintaining its hegemony as the lone superpower after the Cold War. The liberalization of economies meant in practice that foreign markets would have to open themselves to exploitation by American corporations. Liberalism always operated on the presupposition of a double standard, since America was militarily the indispensible nation and liberals couldn’t conceive of the scenario in which the United States would lose in fair economic competition with foreign powers. Still less did liberals contemplate the possibility that women and dark-skinned immigrants could be educated and could take middleclass jobs from whites in the United States, with the whites being reduced to tranquilizing themselves with opioids and trolling the world with the Trump fiascos, to avoid having to admit that they weren’t good enough, that they failed because they felt entitled and didn’t work hard to better themselves, because their cultures was built on Christian and early-modern lies. This is indeed the problem with aristocratic values: absolute, unchallenged power inevitably corrupts the elites and so they lose their right to rule. They either take their enterprises down with them or there’s an ugly revolt, as in the American or French Revolution.