Saturday, July 20, 2019

Is Donald Trump Authentic?

Is Donald Trump the most personally authentic public figure in America? Tens of millions of Americans would praise his authenticity, and a cottage industry has sprouted up to explain how a nonstop liar and psychopath, with no higher cognitive functions or inner life beyond the reptilian instinct for dominating everyone else could have co-opted what for centuries—long before existentialism—was a profound, spiritual ideal. From Scientific American and American Interest, to Forbes and Newsweek, to CNN and Medium, pundits have puzzled over the concept of authenticity, studied the social scientific research, and rehashed recent history to explain how something like Donald Trump could be deemed authentic.

Vulgarity versus Authenticity

One of their key findings is that the cooptation happened decades before Trump, when corporations tempted the hippie generation to sell-out its values. WWII and the Cold War forced Americans to adopt the British attitude of “keeping a stiff upper lip,” of repressing their inner self for the sake of appearances. The implicit advice was to resist showing fear of the enemy or doubt about the prevailing social systems; instead, you were to obey the proffered conventions blindly to the point of attempting to escape a nuclear bomb blast by hiding under a desk, as the government instructed. After the repression of the “conservative” 1950s came the let-it-all-hang-out attitude and the rocking-and-rolling of the 1960s, which ended in tears as the hippies’ socialist utopia failed to materialize. Minorities won some civil rights, the Vietnam War eventually ended, and Nixon left in disgrace, but the dark side of hippie culture was apparent from the disaster at the Altamont Music Festival and from the cult of Charles Manson. Still, the wave of psychedelic drug use popularized an ideal of personal authenticity, since the drugs rebooted the psyche and encouraged skepticism towards the conventional roles that had to be occupied by your persona. After the leftist takedown of “the System” or “the Man,” there would be no need to split your personality into your private and public selves.

By the 1980s, corporations had absorbed that subculture of resistance. Advertisements exploited the value placed on finding your true self, by manufacturing interest in unnecessary products that were vaguely associated with your fundamental desires. Politicians learned they could appear “authentic” by acting as though they weren’t upper-class power elites. By rolling up their sleeves at a campaign speech or by organizing a photo op of them sitting in a diner eating a slice of pizza, politicians could impress the gullible, narcissistic, slow-witted and uninformed masses, by mastering the use of certain symbols. Personal authenticity became a shallow performance and thus a paradox.

Friday, July 12, 2019

The Source of Christian Audacity

Mysteries abound for the curious, from the counterintuitive behaviour of subatomic particles, to the origins of life and the nature of consciousness. One enigma which few would consider as profound as those, but which is no less baffling is the source of Christian audacity, especially in the United States. Most Christians living in poverty in underdeveloped countries are only ignorant, at worst, but the US is an outlier since most Americans, by comparison, are well-off, educated, and also religious. While that mismatch between the fruits of secular modernity and the clinging to obsolete traditions has perplexed sociologists, that isn’t exactly the mystery I have in mind. Perhaps even many religious middleclass Americans are ignorant of philosophy and lacking in the critical thinking skills needed to lay bare the stark incoherence of their worldviews.

The mystery, rather, is the obnoxiousness that’s palpable especially on the side of right-wing American Christians, who not only pretend that there’s no conflict between Christianity and the Age of Reason (science, capitalism, and democracy), otherwise known as “modernity,” but who luxuriate in their form of incoherence. That form is aptly called “Americanism,” and that’s the surface of the enigma in question, where the Christian aspect of Americanism is the blithe flaunting of theocratic or dominionist pretensions, using such instruments as the Republican Party, Fox News, talk radio networks, and Evangelical churches, together with this Christian’s obliviousness to the historical, theological, and philosophical gratuitousness of those pretensions. Americanism is partly a case study in the Dunning-Kruger effect, but the mystery can’t be resolved just by saying as much. The psychological causes of Americanism, of the gross contradictions in many Americans’ worldview, may be apparent, but what of the historical origin? Is the conservative Christian’s effrontery just a malady akin to a personality defect or is the Christian religion fertile ground for the sprouting of such a poisonous tree? Follow me on this journey down a path of dishonour, as we wend our way to the heart of the mystery.

The Gall of Christian Family Values

But let’s begin with a current example. Conservative American Christians pontificate about the necessity of family values. Meanwhile, Jesus and Paul taught the opposite, that Christians should flee their families and their jobs and practice asceticism, and that, should they prove too weak to devote themselves fully to God in that fashion, they should be chaste even within their marriage. The reason Jesus and Paul taught such a radical, subversive, utterly anti-conservative message is that they also apparently believed the world was going to end soon, that the signs were then impossible to ignore (namely Jesus’s resurrection and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE), so that was the time to cease all compromises and perfect oneself with absolute commitment to the highest possible ethical standards. No children or long-term social planning were needed, because God was about to break through the natural universe and establish a divine kingdom.

Conservative Christians can’t be easily forgiven for doubting that the New Testament’s message on those subjects is so one-sided, because the reason for the lack of clarity only deepens the mystery by adding to the Christian’s shamelessness. As Elaine Pagels points out in Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, the Gospels include the radical message, but they also soften it as time wore on, the end never came, and churches had to begin to think strategically and practically about how best to organize long-term communities. For example, as Pagels writes, ‘Matthew juxtaposes Jesus’ promise of great rewards to “every one that has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for my name’s sake” (19:29), with Jesus’ reaffirmation of the traditional commandment “Honour your father and mother” (19:19),’ as though there were no blatant contradiction between them. Matthew also softens Mark’s uncompromising prohibition of divorce, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her” (Mark 10:11), by having Jesus say, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matt.19:9, my emphasis).

Friday, July 5, 2019

Tragic Heroes in Fiction and Reality

Aristotle defined the “tragic hero” in fiction as a fallible, morally-upright protagonist who provokes pity or fear in the audience because even this character’s strengths are finite and so they’re accompanied by a fatal flaw or limitation, which leads to his or her downfall. Whereas a god would have no such flaw, we can be only imperfectly moral even at our best, in which case we’re subject to the rule of irony: we can be trapped by our success, corrupted by power or good fortune, and led astray not because we’re unable to cope with adversities but because the moral enterprise itself is somehow cursed. The tragic perspective amounts to a critique of the ancient Greek conceit that nature is “cosmic,” that the universe is so ordered that everything fulfills a purpose, from the so-called four material elements to human beings. To be sure, for the ancient Greeks the universe isn’t the best of all possible ones, since they thought the gods are only doing their best to hold back the opposing forces of chaos. Still, the question raised by tragic narratives is whether the compromised cosmos is good enough for a wise person to place her trust wholeheartedly in the traditions and inspirations that are meant to guide us. The horror in tragedy is that life may not be worth living if even heroes can be doomed, because the project of heroism itself is poorly realized in the flawed cosmos.

At least, that’s a question raised for late-modern philosophers who have gone beyond the Greek vision, to entertain the deeper, existential fear known as “angst,” that being the general suspicion that the whole world is indeed operating other than for the best. If there are no natural purposes, because the concept of purpose is “subjective,” as we learned to say especially after the cogitations of Descartes, Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche, we risk being alienated from nature and perpetrating harebrained gambits to extract us from that predicament. We know, for example, that the heliocentric model of the universe is invalid because it’s unapologetically human-centered. To go on trusting our intuitions after learning that the universe’s scope in time and in space is inhuman seems foolish.

Or is there greater folly in presuming we can stand apart from nature and seek to improve on the world as we find it? Is there anything still heroic in the tragic hero, given the cosmicist view of nature as being an inhuman wilderness that necessarily appalls the lover of knowledge? Again, to say that Everyman in the Age of Reason is estranged from the world in so far as the latter is scientifically explained is to say not just that we automatically question the “wisdom” of natural processes, since we presume they’re not the product of benevolent intelligence but are accidents and readily at odds with our preferences. In addition to such outwards doubts there are the inward ones since we, too, are natural beings. How wise, then, is the wisest person? How honourable or beautiful or industrious? What is the merit of human virtues if we’re flawed creatures in a universe in which none of us, not even the universe as a whole was meant to be?

Notice the difference between calling nature “flawed” and calling it “inhuman.” A flawed universe approximates some ideal, in which case we could speak of natural rights and purposes without resorting to a self-centered metaphor. By contrast, an inhuman universe is a terrifying monster, namely that which is other than anything we could feel comfortable with by way of intuitive understanding of it. By intuition we know ourselves best of all and so we’re most at ease thinking about people or about living things. We quail at the prospect of being logical and objective, of putting aside our self-serving biases and trying to understand reality as it is, because as Kant explained, there’s no such understanding. Objectivity leads us to horror in the face of the noumenon, to the sobering conclusion that we don’t really know anything at all, since the methods we employ to understand things inevitably humanize them to some extent, and humanization of the inhuman is falsification. So if the world is alien to us, if the closer we are to us, the further we are to nature, we can’t trust our anthropomorphic models and should confess that the natural world has nothing to do with any explanation of its patterns that could conceivably be a relief to us. But we’re led to doubt both the world around us and our efforts since as strange as the emergence of intelligence may be in nature, our thoughts and actions have animal origins and so they may be counterproductive.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Liberals and Conservatives, Humanists and Animalists

Are you a liberal or a conservative? Progressive or traditionalist? Leftist or right-winger? If you think that aligning with some of those categories is of ultimate political concern, you may have been taken in by the central pseudoproblem of Western politics.

The main deficiency of those categories lies not in their overuse, although the hackneyed formulations of much political punditry deadens our sensibilities, preventing us from understanding much of what’s been happening before our eyes. Neither is the underlying problem that our political discourse is fragmented and tribal, as we scramble to identify with a political party or with our favourite celebrity, news personality, or podcaster to feel like we belong to something that will outlast our meager self.

The chief embarrassment, rather, is that the categories in question obscure a deeper, unspeakable division, even while the conventional distinctions we draw in politics are acceptable because they’re irrelevant. Allow me, then, to outline the real division, to help you come to know where you really stand on the political front.

The Origin of Politics

A long time ago, humans separated from the other animals by acquiring what philosophers and psychologists call “personhood.” A person enjoys greater autonomy, intelligence, and creativity than the animals do, which is why our kind has dominated the planet in spite of the comparative weakness of our body type (although our mental talents in turn have given us physical prowess in the form of technological control). Animals are defined by their conformity to their biological life cycle, whereas we have more and more godlike freedom from our evolutionary role.

Rather than being angels or saints that have wholly transcended our animal nature, however, we often regress. After all, it’s hard to know what to do with godlike power, given life’s humble origin from water and dust. Thus, for a few million years in the Paleolithic Age, nomadic bands of wise apes wandered the plains as hunter-gatherers. Eventually they formed civilizations and learned the benefits and drawbacks of a sedentary way of life. There were artistic revolutions, culminating early on in the cave paintings, as well as spiritual and philosophical revolutions such as those of the Axial Age, from the eighth to the third centuries BCE.

These exciting advances in learning to cope with our personhood, with our existential divide from the rest of nature, on account of our unparalleled knowledge of our mortality and of the scope of the universe met with setbacks when we sometimes fell back into ignorance. After dark ages there were rebirths as we recaptured old insights and social frameworks. But even the social progress we take for granted, including advances in farming, medicine, and civil rights has no absolute legitimacy, because all such advances are experiments in personhood, in the creativity of clever mammals that have to look to themselves and to their cherished fictions to decide what to do with a superabundance of knowledge and freedom. What’s good for our species or for some generations, at least, may be disastrous for life in general; our progress may have tragic unintended consequences, because that progress is an accident on top of an accident, a social development resting on the natural selection of our species’ brain power.   

Friday, June 21, 2019

Clash of Worldviews: The Moral Argument for God

MODERATOR: Welcome to our program, where we fling worldviews into each other without mercy to see which comes out on top. Our floor here is littered with the detritus of a thousand inferior ideologies. It’s a sort of Darwinian struggle for survival in which the weaker ideas are swallowed whole and excreted, the victor being heralded forever, like mighty Galactus, as a devourer of worldviews.

LINDSEY: Are you going to introduce us or just spout more nonsense?

MODERATOR: Ah, yes, apologies for getting carried away. With us this evening are Lindsey Rowe, Catholic extraordinaire; Adam Garnett, noted secular humanist; and Heather Fogarty, infamous cynic and pessimist. They’re here to discuss the moral argument for God’s existence. Lindsey, I take it you mean to defend that argument, so why don’t you begin by presenting it for us?

Theistic Morality

LINDSEY: Not only do I defend the moral argument, but I’m sure it’s one of the strongest theistic proofs. In a nutshell, the argument is that there could be no morality without God. The best, or indeed the only good explanation of why there is such a thing as morality in the universe is that there’s something holy and good which transcends nature, which we call “God.” Morality doesn’t really belong in this world, which is to say the absolute rightness or wrongness of certain actions is itself proof of a higher reality. Morality can’t be reduced to subjective opinions, matters of taste, or to natural phenomena such as the pursuit of power or even the need to cooperate to sustain a society. Moral laws are themselves supernatural and so they testify to a supernatural source. If you accept that there are facts of moral right and wrong, that morality is therefore objective or absolute, and if you want to understand how such morality could be possible in nature, you’ve got to believe in God.

ADAM: Well, where to start! How about with the fact that appealing to a supernatural cause couldn’t amount to an adequate explanation of anything, including morality. Even if morality were mysterious, it would do no good to attempt to solve that mystery by positing God. You don’t deal adequately with a mystery by replacing it with a much bigger mystery. As an argument, then, this moral proof doesn’t get off the ground.

LINDSEY: You understand well enough what I mean by “God,” Adam, just as you know that there are moral facts. You can pretend it’s all mysterious, to avoid facing up to the incompleteness of your naturalistic worldview, but that won’t stop others from seeing that the evidence for God has been staring us in the face all along.

ADAM: I know what people mean when they talk about Darth Vader, too, but that doesn’t mean I’d accept that you could explain why my coffee cup fell off the table by saying that Darth Vader knocked it off. In talking about fictional characters, we suspend our disbelief, perhaps so as not to offend fans of the story. But understanding make-believe at that happy level doesn’t amount to understanding in the empirical sense, since no one understands how a fiction could directly impact the real world. I’m afraid your God character is fictional in that respect, so there again you have the difference between a superficial level of understanding, the level at which, on the one hand, we skip over philosophical difficulties to get on well together in society by accepting certain myths or the level at which we have fun dwelling mentally in a fantasy world, and on the other, the rational kind of understanding of real-world causes and effects.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Capitalism and Conservative Christianity: the Biblical Roots of the Fraud

What led from the New Testament’s tales of the earliest Christians sacrificing their lives to establish a socialist paradise in preparation for humankind’s imminent judgment by God, to the late-modern Christian’s celebration of the dehumanizing hierarchies entrenched by capitalism?

The Bible mocks the disciples for misunderstanding Jesus’s message and for failing to see why he had to die on the cross. Once they saw Jesus in his resurrected form, they realized Rome’s occupation of the Jews and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE served the divine purpose of creating a new covenant with God, one that opened up the best of Judaism to the gentile, as Paul explained in his epistles. Jesus’s defeat at the hands of Rome was only an illusion, since God used the crucifixion as the means by which sin and death could be overcome for humanity. So the earliest Christians kept alive their faith in Jesus and the dualistic message: natural injustice is only apparent, and we should adopt the transcendent ideal that inspired Jesus to sacrifice his life. Eventually, the Christian dualism that was inherited from Eastern spirituality (from Hinduism and Zoroastrianism) was watered down when the failing Roman Empire co-opted Christianity in the fourth century and the so-called Catholics drove out the anticosmic Gnostics. Many centuries later, after presiding over the Crusades and Inquisitions, Christianity congealed into the American perversions—Fundamentalist, Southern Baptist, and Evangelical—that idolize monstrous Trumpism and tout Nazi-like social Darwinism. Thus we have the absurdity, made infamous by Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas?, that poor and middle-class “conservative Christians” in the United States beg the Republicans to make life harder for themselves by transferring political and economic power from the public to the private sector.   

Rendering unto Caesar

There are two biblical justifications the phony Christians use to conceal their hypocrisy. The first is the story of Jesus’s shrewdness in answering opponents who tried to trap him into denying that Jews should pay taxes to the Romans. Jesus ducks the question by asking the foes to find a coin, notice that the coin bears the image and name of Caesar and not of God (since there are no images of God in Judaism), and to pay to Caesar and to God what they’re each due (Mark 12:17). The coin evidently belongs to Caesar, but the coin can be made to stand for the whole earthly domain, as the Gnostics especially would have emphasized. Thus, Christians could run with that dualism as an excuse to compromise their spiritual aspirations and to submit to secular expectations and authorities. Not only should those who would prefer to live in God’s kingdom pay their taxes and follow their earthly nation’s laws, but they should divide their loyalties between Jesus, for example, and the pursuit of fame, money, or political power. Although Jesus reserved his harshest rebukes for hypocrites, so-called Christians could pay lip service to Jesus and the Bible, while acting as though they were concerned only with succeeding in secular terms. After all, Jesus appears to grant that there are two masters, two domains, and two loyalties.

Notice that Paul’s monism steps all over that rationale. Paul agrees that Christians should pay taxes and respect “thrones” and “principalities,” but the reason he supplies differs from Jesus’s. Jesus appears to concede that part of the world doesn’t belong to God, when he holds out the possibility of rendering unto Caesar what’s his and not God’s, whereas Paul affirms that God owns everything. Col.1:16: “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” Thus, says Paul, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which is from God. The authorities that exist have been appointed by God. Consequently, the one who resists authority is opposing what God has set in place, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves…This is also why you pay taxes. For the authorities are God’s servants, who devote themselves to their work” (Rom.13:1-6).

If we interpret Jesus’s statement on taxes in the Gnostic manner, Jesus is saying the natural realm is ruled by profane powers, such as by empires like the Roman one. That semi-Gnosticism would provide the Christian the maximum excuse to effectively ignore Christianity until the end of earthly life, as Homer from The Simpsons once proposed, and to recant on his or her deathbed to live as a follower of Jesus only in the afterlife. The Christian could say that God’s kingdom hasn’t yet arrived, that nature is presently ruled by demonic powers, and that those powers should serve as our earthly models in the interim. Along with war and other blasphemies and atrocities, capitalism, the selfish, unsustainable struggle for profit and domination that reflects the animal’s red-in-tooth-and-claw fight for survival is a more fitting plan of action, given God’s absence, than any quixotic quest for socialist utopia or for heaven on earth. A Christian kingdom would require the miracle of God’s divine judgment of humankind, but until that happens Christians are obliged to give the devil his due, to follow suboptimal standards set, for example, by Caesar or by Trump, who may be the demonic powers’ agents or slaves. For example, if nature is governed not by God but by blind or evil forces that favour psychopaths and con artists, Christians had better compete on that unchristian terrain rather than pretend the moral, transcendent God has direct control over his creation.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

President Trump is our Punishment

In 2019 all people of good will are tormented by the same burning question: “When will Donald Trump get his comeuppance?” Will he ever be punished for his flagrant villainy or will the injustice prove not just that there’s no God but that all our lives are sickening jokes? The shamelessness, vulgarity, childishness, psychopathy, narcissism, financial corruption, and con artistry—his list of depravities is long and familiar.

But notice that the easiest job in the world belongs to the destroyer, because through entropy the universe naturally flows towards dissolution, whereas creating something new and sustainable is practically miraculous, especially when there’s no intelligent creator. As such, Republicans, the proverbial foxes guarding the hen house, have had it easy since at least 1980. Their effrontery lies in the fact that they serve nominally as politicians who are supposed to govern, whereas their true agenda—not even kept hidden any longer—is to sabotage all functions of the government that benefit especially the majority of Americans. Republicans since Reagan serve only the richest of the rich, especially the top one percent, and those wealthy individuals live in their own gated worlds and needn’t rely on the government. With President Trump’s chaos and treachery, Republicans have removed the mask and stomped on it: theirs is the party now of apocalyptic anarchy for the duped masses and of kleptocracy for the scheming, monstrous upper class. Effectively, their motto is to steal what you can from the empire in its state of moral decay.

What if, for that reason, though, we’ve been preoccupied with the wrong question? What if Donald Trump can’t and shouldn’t be punished, because his mental disorders and senility render him subhuman so that holding Trump accountable for the damages he’s done to American values would be like punishing a rampaging donkey? Instead of tearing our hair out wondering whether this season of the reality TV show of American politics will end with Trump impeached, indicted or somehow disgraced, perhaps we should reflect on the possibility that Trump’s reign is a punishment—for everyone but Trump. It’s not Trump who deserves to be punished, but Americans in general, together with the “free” peoples that have followed the American example, and our punishment has finally arrived in the hideous form of a troglodyte’s holding the highest office on the planet.

Americans generally are culpable for leading the world, with China, in carbon emissions and for their ecological deficit, as their ecological footprint greatly exceeds their biodiversity. (As the Global Footprint Network explains, “A national ecological deficit means that the nation is importing biocapacity through trade, liquidating national ecological assets or emitting carbon dioxide waste into the atmosphere.”) China, parts of Europe, the Middle East, and some developing countries are also debtors in that regard, but no country cheers for consumerism like the United States. Americans generally allowed their culture and political systems to degrade to the point where Trump could be and was actually elected president. Perhaps we do always get the leader we deserve.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Is the Cynical Intellectual a Parasite?

Have you ever startled yourself while driving a car, snapping out of your second-nature skill as you realize you’re sitting in a hunk of metal, hurtling down a stretch of asphalt, surrounded by other speeding blocks of metal? To say that driving becomes second nature is to say that you can suppress those doubts and unite mentally with the car—just as a practiced horseback rider must feel while straddling the horse. The more familiar we are with something, the lower we drop our guard until we identify with the thing. At first while wearing braces, the metal on your teeth feels strange, but eventually you get used to it and the braces feel like part of your teeth.

It’s the same with language: from an early age we learn how to speak so that when we hear or read sentences we don’t regard the letters as peculiar sounds or squiggles, but identify them immediately as carriers of meaning. But every now and then, we might snap out of that familiarity, forget for a moment the word’s conventional meaning, and marvel at the letters’ strangeness. In short, we can exit the pragmatic mode and look at our tools objectively from outside the standard use. Assuming we can adopt the aesthetic stance in interpreting anything at all, including our bodies, family members, and nature in general, we’re only ever a moment’s abstraction away from an encounter with the uncanny.

With respect to the standard use of language, we transmit meanings bound up in our mind and we do so by suspending our disbelief in the inherent strangeness of linguistic communication. Again, from the aesthetic perspective, which is just the anti-perspective of objectivity that ignores technoscience’s instrumental motives, everything will seem strange, because to adopt that lack of perspective we must treat ourselves as the insignificant nothings we are from the universe’s vantage point. We must become inhuman to perceive the world as it really is, without the input of our personal and social interests. The real world at large is, of course, inhuman since human interests are incidental byproducts that don’t agree or harmonize with reality. Life in general will mean nothing when universal processes extinguish all living things on this planet eons from now, as the universe evolves for no reason, and so life presently only seems superficially to have a purpose from our subjective standpoints. We can set aside those standpoints and glimpse the noumenal essence of anything by attending to its mere aesthetic characteristics. What we can call, then, the “enlightened” treatment of language would amount to the standard use together with an act of mental negation, an unsaying of what’s said as we’re humiliated by the deeper pointlessness of speaking.

The long-term act of living a life likewise has conventional and enlightened modes. Exoterically, we’re supposed to be confident in ourselves so that the day-to-day acts of living become second-nature. We engage in our daily routines, eschewing any meta-perspective or philosophical questions as being counterproductive and depressing. By contrast, an elevated, transhuman outlook would call for just such doubts. When we understand that we’re all ridiculous in the big picture, that even our knowing, rebellious acts are small-minded and futile, we ought to lose some confidence in our abilities and trained reactions. As with the shell of language, the justification of our automated, civilized self can seem self-evident, because when we identify with our personality and with our socially-acceptable behaviours, our mind operates on autopilot to get the job done. The enlightened self, then, is a layer of mental activity that judges the encultured self and even the person’s character which has accrued from countless minor performances. This liberated self loses confidence in the artificial construct of the persona, as she beholds the strangeness of her behavioural patterns in their aesthetic dimension. Indeed, the “twilight zone” from pop culture seems like just how the world would be were we to misplace our familiar perceptual and cognitive filters and witness the world as so much indifferent art.  

Sunday, May 26, 2019

The Incoherence of Meritocracy

Who should rule? Perhaps you think the answer is spelled out in the concept of a meritocracy, of a society run by those who excel on account of their ability and talent. The elites in a meritocracy are meant to be the opposite of plutocrats who buy power and of aristocrats who inherit power regardless of their aptitude.

“Meritocracy,” though, is a curious concept. Even in an aristocracy, the rulers do excel—at being selfish, spoiled, aloof, and indolent. An aristocrat would be incompetent at improving the lives of the peasants and slave labourers who support the empire, if that were the empire’s purpose, but a royal can inspire as a symbol of how arbitrary power corrupts character. Or take the kleptocracy, the society in which political power is stolen. The thieves in charge still excel—at conning the masses and wasting the natural resources. Or take an even more obvious case of a society supposedly run by impostors who don’t deserve their power, the kakistocracy which, by definition, is a society run by the worst persons. Again, these rulers would be abysmal, morally speaking, but that’s not to say they would be bereft of any talent. Con artists, for example, excel at selling, which is to say at deceiving and at restricting their perspective to their primitive, selfish urges as a result of their lack of empathy.

Only in a country in which power is handed out randomly would we expect the rulers to have no common skills. An aristocracy comes close to that scenario, because the randomness inherent to sexual reproduction is a factor in the bestowing of political power along a bloodline. That randomness, though, is balanced by the upper-class institutions that rear the royal child and by absolute power’s natural tendency to monstrify the powerful person, so that aristocratic personalities and talents do resemble each other. For example, aristocrats are all rich and they live in castles and have sycophantic servants; they also receive top-notch education, they’re famous from birth and know they won’t face immediate oblivion in the history books, unlike most people who ever lived, so aristocrats have to adapt to that common environment.

Amoral, Moral, and Mixed Meritocracies

These complications point to a more fundamental problem with meritocracy, which is that the concept might be incoherent. After all, ruling or governing implies some degree of coercion, of exercising power over others. If the kind of merit that’s relevant to a meritocracy were determined by moral criteria, the moral elites might be poor candidates for that job since they’d be inclined to avoid committing even the slightest infraction of the citizens’ rights. Depending on which skills are relevant to the task of ruling over the masses, or to speak euphemistically, of “governing the nation’s affairs,” some who’ve earned various merits might be the worst candidates for a political position. This would be the political realist’s perspective, which has recently entered popular culture via the success of “Game of Thrones.” The notion of a meritocracy, then, almost serves as a weasel word for obscuring these preliminary questions of the purpose of government and of which talents are suited to fulfilling that purpose.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Humble Cognition: Dread and Awe from Objectivity

Does scientific practice presuppose a philosophy or any nonscientific belief? As one philosopher, Nicholas Maxwell, points out, the rise of empiricism marked the breaking point between science and philosophy, when scientists began to assume that philosophy is irrelevant to science. Maxwell writes, “It was Newton who inadvertently killed off natural philosophy with his claim, in the third edition of his Principia, to have derived his law of gravitation from the phenomena by induction.”

In Newton’s words, “whatever is not deduced from the phenomena is to be called an hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical…have no place in experimental philosophy [that is, in what today we would call “science”]. In this philosophy [i.e. science], particular propositions are inferred from the phenomena, and afterwards rendered general by induction. Thus it was that…the laws of motion and of gravitation were discovered.” Whereas the standard picture of the scientific method posits the hypothesis, that is, the informed guess, which the scientist tests with experiments, Newton evidently thought that the scientist should bring no presumption to her observations. The scientist is supposed to derive the best explanation from the phenomena themselves, leaving no opportunity for philosophical, religious, or otherwise unempirical interpretations.

Strictly speaking, this empiricism anthropomorphizes nature, which is to say there’s a category error in asserting, as Newton does, that “particular propositions are inferred from the phenomena.” Like the word “imply,” “infer” has to do with unstated communication. The communicator suggests or implies a hidden meaning, while the receiver infers that meaning from what’s been communicated. Thus, a natural phenomenon, such as a planet’s orbit or a property of light waves doesn’t imply anything, nor can you infer any meaning from what isn’t alive and capable of literal communication. Of course, if you were to believe that a deity is behind all of nature, so that God speaks through natural patterns, you could speak well of receiving the meaning of natural messages. Rather than philosophizing about that meaning, you could read nature’s messages, as Galileo said, using the universe’s language of mathematics. Newton’s pseudoscientific occult studies notwithstanding, however, the theistic or deistic basis for this strict empiricism, according to which the scientist only reads off her explanations and theories from the observations, with minimal philosophical, aesthetic, or any other human interpretative contribution isn’t remotely scientific. On the contrary, the self-serving faith that nature originates from an all-powerful intelligent mind (who will happily reward the best of us, being that this god is one of us—only perfected) is the most hackneyed dogma and a classic prejudice which scientific objectivity and skepticism rendered quaint.

If nature doesn’t literally communicate any message to the observer and if “sense data” aren’t given—ready-made—by the phenomena, but are processed, as Kant argued, by the mind and brain, empiricism is erroneous. The mind isn’t a blank slate and nature doesn’t hand explanations to the scientist. Instead, the entire scientific or rational enterprise, together with the articulation of theories and explanations, and even the fundamental concept of truth are human anomalies. Rather than belonging to nature in Daoist fashion, a statement about, say, the orbit of planets is epiphenomenal, a bizarre byproduct to which the natural fact in question must be so indifferent that the most enlightened response to the statement is to appreciate the statement’s absurd futility.