Monday, December 31, 2012

The Vileness of Guns and "Just Wars"

The Newtown school massacre has already begun to fade from North American news, as the NRA had anticipated. There’s probably a satanic magic number of child shootings in a single massacre that would galvanize Americans to ride the NRA out of town, but apparently twenty doesn’t rise to that level. As it stands, though, American gun enthusiasts are more passionate than American gun control advocates, and so there likely won’t be meaningful restriction of gun ownership in that country. One reason for the asymmetry is that guns work so well whereas laws alone don’t. If you pick up a gun, you have the power of God to take a life in the blink of an eye. Only if the gun jams or is very old and it no longer works may you miss that frisson from holding godlike power in the palm of your hand. By contrast, outlawing some practice on paper may or may not succeed, depending on the strength of the demand for that practice. Thus, prohibition of alcohol failed in the US and gun control would surely fare no better, because alcohol and guns are so potent; if outlawed, they flourish underground. Like guns, alcohol works immediately and universally: anyone can get drunk from just a few shots or several beers, and anyone can kill or maim with nearly any gun. The demand for those products can’t be curtailed just with legislation.

The deep question, then, is why Americans love guns more than do, say, Canadians, Europeans, or the Japanese. Gun control works in those other countries because the demand there isn’t off the chart; nevertheless, guns obviously work just as well there as they do in the US. One well-known reason for the differences in demand is historical, and it’s just the one I give elsewhere, that the US has a bloody anarchical history, which bred Americans to value individualism and self-reliance. Americans love guns for the same reason they love cars, because these technologies empower the individual.

But that reason is insufficient, because lots of other countries have violent pasts, and individualism also has a genetic and thus a universal basis. I think a more complete reason emerges when we consider the dubious but oft heard platitude that guns are morally neutral instruments, that guns by themselves don’t kill people and can be used for good or for ill depending on the user’s intention. On the contrary, Marshal McLuhan was right: technologies have unexpected background effects rather than just the obvious foreground ones. Of course guns don’t pick themselves up, walk around, and shoot people; guns aren’t artificially intelligent (yet). But to contrast this wild scenario with the moral neutrality of guns is to set up a false dichotomy.

Why Guns are for Sissies

To see the background effect of guns on users and nonusers alike, compare projectile weapons with nonprojectile ones like the sword, club, or axe. These latter weapons are armaments in the strict sense that they’re extensions of the arm; they’re limited by the human arm’s strength and length. As a consequence, to kill with a sword, for example, you have to put yourself in danger since you have to get close to your enemy. Of course, if that enemy is unarmed, the person with the sword has the advantage, but even such a fight is more equal than that between a shooter and an unarmed person. A bow can kill from a greater distance than the sword, ensuring the killer’s safety even when the bow threatens the targeted person. The point is that you can’t kill with a sword without putting yourself at some risk, whereas there’s at least a possibility of killing with a projectile weapon from a position of complete safety.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Now You Can Download this Blog as an E-Book!

I've put together an e-book version of Rants Within the Undead God, which you can now download. The e-book is located here, hosted at Scribd. (Blogger doesn't let you directly upload a pdf file.) You can also download the e-book at the upper right of this blog (or on the bottom, if you're using a mobile device). I'll add supplementary pdf files as I add more rants.

I've also added a PayPal Donate button in case you'd like to pay me a little something for the e-book.

Happy Holidays (but don't be too happy)! 

P.S. Stay tuned for a novel I'm writing that's set in the philosophical universe of this blog. I'm aiming to write the mother of all zombie apocalypses! The novel should be finished in a few months (and it's intended as the first in a series).

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Helpful Strangeness of Religious Fundamentalism

How should the atheist respond to the religious fundamentalist? The atheist’s inclination is to flood the theist with arguments proving the manifest irrationality of that worldview. I’ve attempted to do this many times over the years, entering into long debates and dialogues especially with committed Christians. Moreover, I believe that all forms of exoteric (literalistic, inerrantist) theism are in fact irrational. The problem is that this irrationality is all too obvious; atheists miss the point when we prepare an exhaustive treatment of the theist’s fallacies and indeed when we pretend that philosophical naturalism or secular humanism is a matter purely of observation and logic. We forget that a rationalist too has certain epistemic values that mark even the secular worldview as partly a matter of choice and artistry. I’ll show what I mean by considering the rational and the existential responses to a particular Evangelical Christian’s sermon.

The True Believer Speaks!

Joel C. Rosenberg is an Evangelical Christian and author of several novels about how modern terrorism is prophesied in the Bible. In one of his recent blog posts, he offers his readers insight into why there’s so much gun violence in the US:

‘How is it possible,’ he asks, “that violent crime in the United States has surged by more than 460 percent since 1960?

‘The answer is as painful as it is simple: the further we turn away from God in our nation--the further we drive Him out of our society, out of our schools and courts, and out of our media, and out of our homes; or the more we give mere lip service to religion; the more men are ”holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power” (2 Timothy 3:5)--the worse things are getting….

‘The Lord God Almighty is a gentleman. He won’t force us to accept His great love and many blessings. If a nation tells Him to leave, He will leave. But what are we reaping as a result of a society that increasingly ignores God and hates or dismisses Jesus Christ? We are witnessing a horrifying explosion of murder. We are witnessing a gruesome crime wave unprecedented in American history….

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Psychedelic Basis of Theism

Why is there now, just as there has always been, anything as outlandish as a theistic religion? Why have most people always believed there are immaterial spirits and a perfect mind at the root of reality? Why the angels and demons and the all-importance of morality as the condition of an afterlife in heaven or in hell? How did our species become sidetracked with such apparently crazy beliefs? The lazy answer is that most people are not so smart and are prone to fallacies and superstitions and are themselves lazy, which is to say gullible; thus, the bigger the lie, such as the one told by corrupt rulers throughout the ages, the more likely the masses will believe it. But there’s a more interesting answer, one that addresses the fact of religious experience which indirectly challenges the alternative, nontheistic worldview.

From the Brain to the Immortal Spirit

Let’s begin with some elementary facts of the human brain and its thought processes. The higher-level thinking that distinguishes us as a species takes place in the cerebral cortex which is our brain’s thin outer layer and most recent evolutionary addition. This part of our brain is responsible for our special, top-down control over our internal processes, which we take for free-will and which is in some ways illusory but which is nevertheless more pronounced in our species than in others. Instead of always acting automatically on instinct, we can search our memories and evaluate our abilities, concocting elaborate plans to succeed in our environment. Because the brain evolved largely by natural selection, though, there were severe constraints on how the brain developed, so that the central nervous system we inherit is inevitably flawed, from a design viewpoint. For example, our top-down access to our mental states and thus to the brain activity that generates them is limited by our finite memory; thus, we can’t access all our brain activities at once. Moreover, since the brain was an adaptation that enabled us to survive in the wild, we evolved skills at making snap judgments, based on intuitions as opposed to exhaustive considerations of evidence. Thus again, instead of having total access to our thought processes, we think in highly simplified ways, relative to the amount of brain activity associated with each thought. These simplifications take the form of biases, heuristics (mental shortcuts based on rules of thumb rather than logic or all available evidence), stereotypes, or models of our environment. There’s a sort of competition between neurons as they transmit information across their synapses in response to some internal or external stimuli, and we become aware only of the winners so that our conscious self can be compared to the top of an iceberg that pokes out of the water of our unconsciousness.

Additionally, our thinking is distinguished by our sophisticated form of communication, by language, which is processed in the cerebral cortex (in Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas). We think largely in words which we use as labels for concepts, allowing us to organize and search for our ideas as though we were thumbing through a labeled file system. Just as we have a simplified way of thinking about everything, thanks to our abstract concepts and top-down self-control, we have a commonsense, simplistic feel for how language works. We think of language as consisting of systematic relationships (syntax) between meaningful units (symbols). Words bear intentional relations to what they’re about, and so we map the world in our head. This linguistic nature of our thinking further sets the stage for human misery, as will become clear in a moment.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Rant Within the Undead God

I’m very happy to report that I’ll be doing some guest blogging at R. Scott Bakker’s blog, Three Pound Brain (TPB), and that my first article there has been posted. This article is called “The Rant within the Undead God,” because it summarizes much of what I’ve written so far in my own blog (RWTUG). Scott is the author of the fantasy series known as The Second Apocalypse, but his blog, TPB, explores one of his other interests, which is philosophy, specifically the philosophical implications of cognitive science for laypeople’s intuitions about how our mind works. Scott’s blog can get a little technical in his discussions of cognitive science, but because he’s also a fiction writer I find that he does an exceptional job of clarifying his jargon with creative and lucid explanations of some complicated subject matters. For example, he’s written an entertaining dialogue between a super-intelligent alien and a materialist about where progress in cognitive science truly leads. 

Currently, Scott and I are debating an issue that’s of great interest to each of us, namely that of how subversive cognitive scientific discoveries are for the nonscientific, “folk” conception of ourselves. In other words, the question is to what extent the traditional view of the mind as having freedom, consciousness, meaningful beliefs, and desires that are right or wrong is exposed as so much pablum by recent biology, psychology, and by the other relevant sciences that collectively make up what’s called cognitive science. As radical as I think I’ve been in saying repeatedly that science shows we’re not as rational, conscious, or as free as we usually think we are, I find myself resisting, to some extent, Scott’s more radical--or perhaps just more informed!--understanding of the philosophical implications. At any rate, we agree that modern societies would do well to prepare now for the upheavals of a catastrophic shift in self-understanding, due to what I’ve been calling the curse of reason. I hope eventually to post our email discussion on this blog.

Here, though, are the first few paragraphs of my introductory, greatly-hyperlinked post at TBP:

Some centuries before the Common Era, in a sweltering outskirt of the ancient Roman Empire, a nameless wanderer, unkempt and covered in rags, climbed atop a boulder in the midst of a bustling market, cleared his throat and began shouting for no apparent reason:

“Mark my harangue, monstrous abode of the damned and you denizens of this godforsaken place! I have only my stern words to give you, though most of you don’t recognize the existential struggle you’re in; so I’ll cry foul, slink off into the approaching night, and we’ll see if my rant festers in your mind, clearing the way for alien flowers to bloom. How many poor outcasts, deranged victims of heredity, and forlorn drifters have shouted doom from the rooftops? In how many lands and ages have fools kept the faith from the sidelines of decadent courts, the aristocrats mocking us as we point our finger at a thousand vices and leave no stone unturned? And centuries from now, many more artists, outsiders, and mystics will make their chorus heard in barely imaginable ways, sending their subversive message, I foresee, from one land to the next in an instant, through a vast ethereal web called the internet. Those philosophers will look like me, unwashed and ill-fed, but they’ll rant from the privacy of their lairs or from public terminals linked by the invisible information highway. Instead of glaring at the accused in person, they’ll mock in secret, parasitically turning the technological power of a global empire against itself.

“But how else shall we resist in this world in which we’re thrown? No one was there to hurl us here where as a species we’re born, where we pass our days and lay down to die--not we, who might have been asked and might have refused the offer of incarnation, and not a personal God who might be blamed. Nevertheless, we’re thrown here, because the world isn’t idle; natural forces stir, they complexify and evolve; this mindless cosmos is neither living nor dead, but undead, a monstrous abomination that mocks the comforting myths we take for granted, about our supernatural inner essence. No spirit is needed to make a trillion worlds and creatures; the undead forces of the cosmos do so daily, creating and destroying with no rational plan, but still manifesting a natural pattern. What is this pattern, sewn into the fabric of reality? What is the simulated agenda of this headless horseman that drags us behind the mud-soaked hooves of its prancing beast? Just this: to create everything and then to destroy everything! Let that sink in, gentle folk. The universe opens up the book of all possibilities, has a glance at every page with its undead, glazed-over eyes, and assembles miniscule machines--atoms and molecules--to make each possibility an actuality somewhere in space and time, in this universe or the next, until each configuration is exhausted and then all will fly apart until not one iota of reality remains to carry out such blasphemous work. How many ways can a nonexistent God be shown up, I ask you? Everything a loving God might have made, the undead leviathan creates instead, demonstrating spirit’s superfluity, and then that monster, the magically animated carcass we inhabit will finally reveal its headlessness, the void at the center of all things, and nothing shall be left after the Big Rip.  

“I ask again, how else to resist the abominable inhumanity of our world, but to make a show of detaching from some natural processes of cosmic putrefaction, to register our denunciation in all existential authenticity, and yet to cling to the bowels of this beast like the parasites we nonetheless are? And how else to rebel against our false humanity, against our comforting delusions, other than by replacing old, worn-out myths with new ones? For ours is a war on two fronts: we’re faced with a horrifying natural reality, which causes us to flee like children into a world of make-believe, whereupon we outgrow some bedtime stories and need others to help us sleep.”

The Perversity of the Sexual Norm

Two curious facts surrounding sex are that those who are virgins even after their teens and twenties are deemed pathetic by virtually everyone else, while those who make a living in the sex industry, whether as prostitutes or as porn stars are likewise despised by most people. But not all is what it seems…

Virgins and Sex Workers

There are a number of pretty obvious reasons for each of those attitudes. Most people assume that older involuntary virgins can’t find a sex partner because there’s something wrong with them: they’re physically unattractive, impoverished, and/or mentally ill. Thus, virginity would only be a symptom of the underlying cause of people’s disdain for these dregs of society. Those who want sex but are unsuccessful in their efforts to attract a mate seem to have lost out in life so badly that their loss becomes offensive. This is because sex seems such an obvious good while also being relatively easy to have. After all, animals--including humans--are compelled to want sex, so all people have to do is go with the genetic flow. If someone finds a perverse way to paddle upstream, against this force of nature, that failure seems almost miraculous and so certainly worthy of ridicule. Moreover, for the same reason, those who claim they prefer not to have sex, whether for religious reasons or because they’re opposed to sex in general, are suspected of hiding some personal defect that’s the true cause of their virginity. The genetic floodwaters flow so freely, as it were, that virginity in an older person, say one in his or her twenties or thirties, is more likely caused by a monumental personal failure or character defect, as opposed to being a choice.

Thus, screwball comedy movies, featuring young people possessed by their sex hormones, typically ridicule the pathetic loser who emerges from puberty with no sexual accomplishments. The movie The 40 Year Old Virgin is exceptional in being more sympathetic to the older virgin, criticizing the characters who mock the virgin, Andy, for the deficiency of their sexual relationships. The movie explains Andy’s plight as being the result partly of his decision to wait for the right partner to come along, meaning one to whom he feels an emotional connection. But Andy develops into someone who’s unlikely to find a partner without help; he’s depicted as being frozen in his teenage years, collecting comic books and action figures, and of course he’s unskilled in the art of wooing women.

These movies typify Western society’s attitude towards those who should but don't have sex. Whether on a street corner, in a restaurant, an office, or anywhere else, were an older virgin to admit his or her sexual status, the virgin would be either immediately ridiculed, shunned, or pitied, depending on the situation. Even those who have some sympathy for the weaknesses that cause the virgin’s failure will condescend to the virgin, treating that person as inferior and perhaps even as literally beneath contempt. The feeling is that someone who’s lost out so tremendously can no longer be taken seriously as a competitor in any walk of life.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Life of Pi’s Argument for Theism

The story in the novel The Life of Pi (LP) is framed as an argument for God’s existence. The argument is made explicit near the novel’s end and it can be paraphrased as follows. In our postmodern time, we’re properly skeptical of appeals to absolute truth; instead of grand theories or systematic treatises, we’re left with stories. With regard to philosophical as opposed to scientific matters, at least, reason is not the final arbiter. The question of whether God exists is such a philosophical matter, and atheism and theism tell us different stories. Theism is the better story and so we postmodernists should be theists.

This argument is a postmodernist mix of William James’ pragmatic argument about the will to believe, Kierkegaard’s argument about the need for an irrational leap of faith, and Pascal’s Wager. I’ll outline these prior arguments here. James assumes a pragmatic theory of truth, according to which truth is what’s useful to believe, given a conceptual scheme. James then argues that some beliefs are more useful than others; in particular, theistic belief would be useful in that, according to the belief, sufficient evidence in its favour is granted only to those who first accept the belief without that evidence. On pragmatic grounds, then, theism would be epistemically justified. One problem with this argument is that it doesn’t discount the possibility of self-reinforcing delusion. Once you entertain certain dangerous beliefs, you change your conceptual scheme until you acquire the ability to interpret all conceivable countervailing evidence in a way that favours your new way of thinking. Thus, instead of finding evidence that really points to God’s existence, after you choose to believe, you might gain instead an invincible hermeneutic facility, a sort of infinite creativity in interpreting evidence, so that you read theism into everything with which you’re confronted.

Kierkegaard emphasized the need for passion in theistic faith. Contrary to the philosopher Hegel, who thought we could reason our way to theism by means of an elaborate metaphysical system, Kierkegaard took a more mystical position, according to which God, as far as atheists and theists alike are concerned, is the possibility of a transcendent mystery at the heart of reality. The Christian God, at least, is the absurdity and the paradox of God made into a human or of the deity that commanded Abraham to kill his son. The theistic argument that’s implicit in Kierkegaard’s writings is that we ought to be existentially authentic, and that an authentic Christian who has blind theistic faith exhibits virtues of an inner struggle, indicated by bouts of angst and dread. Likewise, Pascal assumed the mystical premise that God is rationally unknowable, or infinite. Thus, reason won’t settle the issue since the evidence and the arguments will be ambiguous. Nevertheless, because the question of theism is so philosophically important, we must choose what to believe, and since we can gain more by choosing theism than we can by choosing atheism, and we can lose more by choosing atheism than we can by choosing theism, we should choose theism.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Question of Antinatalism

Picture a barren winter landscape with not a person in sight. You might find it hard not to mitigate the desolation by imagining, perhaps on the outskirts of that expanse of snow and bare trees, a cabin with smoke emanating from its chimney, thus indicating that this hypothetical absence of humanity is only partial, that all is not lost for us. We recoil from the thought of a universe with absolutely no human beings in it; more precisely, what bothers us is the thought that there might be a time after humankind. This is to say that we can tolerate reflecting on the time before human history and even on the age of Earth before the rise of mammals, since we know in the back of our minds that those ancient periods laid out the conditions for our emergence; moreover, we can even ponder the lifeless void, the billions upon billions of star systems that currently have no inhabited planets, because we know that simultaneously there’s this one planet that we call home. But try imagining our universe as it would have been had humans never evolved or else picture our planet after the apocalyptic end of our species. No cabin on the outskirts and no potential for our reemergence; no hope for our eventual triumph, but just the final end, the last breath and the last heartbeat before the universe soldiers on without us and the tree still falls with no one to hear it.

There’s a group of people who, for moral reasons, would actually prefer a world with no people in it. They even have a strategy for bringing that world about: we should cease procreating so that we intentionally die out as a species. These grim folks are called antinatalists, “antinatalism” meaning the opposition to human birth. There are roughly two kinds of antinatalism (AN), what I’ll call the misanthropic and the compassionate kinds. Both kinds prescribe the termination of human life by stopping the procreative replenishment of our species. But while the misanthropic antinatalist is motivated by contempt for human nature, the compassionate sort is opposed to suffering and thus takes the suicide of our species to be only a dire means towards the elimination of that mental state. (Compassionate antinatalists are often called “philanthropic,” but this is a confusing name, since although the Greek roots of that word mean love of people, the English word implies a concern for human advancement, whereas an antinatalist’s compassion is perfectly tragic.) Moreover, both kinds of AN have a moral defense: the misanthrope wants to extinguish humans because of our wickedness or our morally significant deficiencies, while the lover of people wants to eliminate, once and for all, the evil of human suffering.

An Arch-Villain’s Doomsday Scheme

You’re likely already familiar with the outlook of misanthropic AN, from comic books and pulp science fiction: the cartoon super-villain is a classic misanthrope, or hater of humans, often building a doomsday weapon to destroy humankind, leaving himself as the planet’s sole possessor. But the cartoon villain typically allows his plan to be foiled, whether by hiring buffoons for henchmen or by giving away the details of his plan to the hero in a gratuitous monologue, to fulfill the subtextual logic of sadomasochism: the dominator needs victims to satisfy his sadistic impulses, so to finally kill off all weaklings and rivals, by way of a sadistic frenzy, is to err on sadistic grounds. Sadism is a form of parasitism. But the misanthropic antinatalist isn’t sadistic; instead, she’s opposed to human nature and thus to all people including herself. Thus, the misanthrope would participate in her scheme by not sexually reproducing, as opposed to hiding her children in the last generation so that they could inherit the world. Mind you, the sadist too, after cleansing the planet of everyone else, would likely commit suicide for having foolishly failed to maintain the parasitic ideal of sadism. Indeed, the misanthrope and the cartoon villain have much else in common, especially if the super-villain justifies his actions by regarding himself as superhuman: both have contempt for humans in general, both have a plan for our extinction, and although the misanthropic antinatalist’s plan isn’t particularly invasive, the misanthrope needn’t be merely an antinatalist. That is, if you think all human beings are depraved and worthy of death, you needn’t tiptoe around the issue by, say, writing pamphlets to convince people to hate themselves, to doubt the chance of human progress, and thus to refrain from procreating; instead, you might take the bull by the horns and devise a coercive doomsday scenario. After all, if people are evil or so myopic that we lack the right to propagate our species, our freedom and rationality needn’t be respected.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Emptiness of Postmodern Art (and of its Consumers)

The social critic Camille Paglia has lamented in a recent radio interview that there’s currently a dearth of great, nourishing art in the West. After their predecessors killed God, she says, postmodern secular humanists have failed to replace theistic religion with a high culture featuring worthwhile art. On the contrary, modern rationalism, with its paeans to technoscientific progress towards utopia, gave way to postmodern cynicism, irony, and sneering at all ideals, myths and faiths, including the longing for atheistic spirituality. Current Western art tends to be trash, Paglia says, because postmodernists have no conviction that any work can be a testament for all times.  

The plot thickens with Scott Timberg’s Salon articles on the hard economic times for culture producers in the creative industries, including the fine arts and publishing. (See The Creative Class is a Lie and No Sympathy for the Creative Class.) In the United States, most painters, musicians, dancers, novelists, and actors barely scrape by, working multiple jobs or freelancing if they can find any work at all in their fields. The internet was supposed to be a gift to the creative class, giving artists direct access to their audience; indeed, there are some success stories, but they’re in a tiny minority and the oddity is that the artist’s plight is virtually a secret in the culture at large. “Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen,” Timberg says, “write anthems about the travails of the working man; we line up for the revival of ‘Death of a Salesman.’ John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson hold festivals and fundraisers when farmers suffer. Taxpayers bail out the auto industry and Wall Street and the banks. There’s a sense that manufacturing, or the agrarian economy, is what this country is really about. But culture was, for a while, what America did best: We produce and export creativity around the world. So why aren’t we lamenting the plight of its practitioners?”

Timberg points to numerous causes in the US. Pragmatists and puritans object to art’s uselessness or idolatry; the public worships celebrities and so has a distorted view of the creative class; there’s a culture war fought between liberals and so-called anti-elitists, and artists are on the losing side with the intellectuals; the technological revolution has democratized the production of culture, leading people to err in inferring that there’s likewise a democratization of talent, which in turn leads to resentment towards successful artists since we assume that anyone can produce great art. Finally, there’s socially Darwinian economics and the scientistic assumption that only what can be measured is real and worthwhile; hence, many assume that if art can’t pay its own way in the so-called free market, the artists ought to starve.

There are a number of fascinating questions here. First, is there such a thing as great art, and if so, what is it? Second, is there currently any such art in the West, and if so does that art matter? Third, is there a deeper cause of the creative class’s hardship, one that’s tied to the function of art?

Monday, November 12, 2012

God and Science: The Ironic Theophany

What has science done to God? Atheists would like to think that science has made not just theism but all myths obsolete. But neither atheists nor scientists need be such philistines. What scientific discoveries have done is to turn the page on theistic fictions, leaving us with just blank pages. Postmodernists could use a good story, one that gives meaning to the world science has shown us and that leads us in a worthwhile direction. I think this postmodern myth can be found in a certain unsettling vision of the death of God. Before I come to that, however, I’d like to go over some highlights of the Western history of science’s relationship to God.

Medieval Animism

Let’s begin with the medieval picture of God. The fall of the Roman Empire brought to medieval Europe chaos, ignorance, disease, and thus infantilized the desperate masses. The socialism of feudal society, in the lower classes’ dependence on the largesse of the decadent aristocrats, was pragmatic as opposed to arising out of adherence to the New Testament. Oligarchies were needed to maintain a fragile social order, and the desperation to avoid the complete removal of the social barriers against the wilderness, that is, against the natural forces that are opposed to life, led also to an ironic self-indulgence. The masses that lived in squalor, eating gruel and owning practically nothing nevertheless compensated for their poverty by settling on a naïvely anthropocentric worldview.

The Church comforted medieval Christians with children’s tales, springing from Aquinas’s synthesis of Aristotelianism and paganized Judaism (Catholic Christianity). Aquinas replaced Aristotle’s impersonal Prime Mover with the Christian God, and thus simplified Aristotle’s teleological metaphors. According to Aristotle, every event has a purpose, a so-called final cause, and thus nature can be explained as though it were intelligently designed even though it’s not; instead, everything in nature has a destiny given its way of being attracted to the Prime Mover, to a sort of cosmic magnet that starts and ends all natural processes. Aristotle’s naturalism thus anticipated Darwin’s zombification of nature. Aquinas literalized and personified Aristotle’s undead teleology, since the Christian God is not just a person but literally a particular human being named Jesus. Aquinas thus enchanted the undead leviathan, infusing the undying corpse--which displays signs of monstrous pseudolife--with actual life. In the medieval view, instead of the mere appearance of mind throughout nature’s evolution of patterns, there are good and evil spirits animating all changes so that the cosmos becomes a super-organism, a colossal living body made up of a host of other living things.

And thus the fear of the wilderness was neutralized by rampant animism, by literalistic Christianity’s bastardization of Aristotelian naturalism. Medieval Europe lacked the economic prosperity that generates the arrogance needed to study nature objectively, because naturalism opens the floodgates to horror and angst, which are the authentic emotional responses to our real position in nature. The peasants were like homeless children who needed reassurance that even though the pax romana was no more, God was still with them--through Jesus and the Church, to be sure, but also throughout the whole world: even when a peasant is forced daily to trudge through mud, a sorry spectacle depicted so vividly in the movie, Monty Python and The Holy Grail, God is present in the purpose of that filth. In medieval Christianity, God is omnipresent, not directing from afar but animating everything from within by means of spiritual extensions of himself. It’s hard to see how this animism could have comforted anyone during the Black Death, but the alternative was surely worse: at least if there are demonic forces that cause the evil in the world, those forces can be overcome in familiar ways, by social alliances and negotiations through prayer. Evil creatures can be reasoned with and thus rehabilitated or else punished.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Closely-Divided United States: A Case Study of the Matrix

The so-called great political horse race is finally over: Obama has won reelection. For months now, the mainstream media have cited polls showing that the country is split 50-50, that most of the states are solidly Democratic or Repubican, leaving around ten battleground states that would be decided by a narrow slice of “undecided independents.” Endlessly, media pundits return to this theme, that the US is a narrowly divided country in cultural and political terms. And sure enough, when the election finally happened, the votes in Florida, Virginia, Ohio, and elsewhere were very evenly split (51% to 49%, etc).

Do yourself a favour, though: the next time you hear someone repeat the meme that the US electorate is politically split down the middle, with half the country being Democrat and the other half Republican, pinch that person’s arm in an earnest effort to awaken him from his slumber in the pod that evidently feeds him his daily dose of virtual reality. The fact is that the country is not so split; only the likely and actual voters are. Half of the country doesn’t vote and hasn’t voted in large numbers since the nineteenth century, when the average turnout percentage in presidential elections was in the high 70s. In 1904 it dropped to 65%, in 1912 to 59%. In 1920 it fell below 50% for the first time in US history. It stayed mostly in the 40s and 50s until 1952 when it hit 63% and stayed in the 60s until 1972, when it fell back to the 50s where it’s been ever since, falling again to 49% in 1996. (For the numbers, see here.) According to a report from the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, the voter turnout in the 2012 US presidential election was 57.5% of all eligible voters.

What does this mean, you ask? Well, how can the recent closely-fought elections be taken to represent the state of the electorate when some half of the country consistently doesn’t participate in those elections? Sure, some of those who don’t vote in one election might vote in the next one, so the non-voters don’t comprise a monolithic group; no group so large is homogenous in its outlook or in its reasons or causes, in this case, for not voting. Obviously, the Great Depression and the World Wars impacted the voting. But there is a pattern here, nonetheless: throughout its history the US president has usually garnered roughly half of the popular vote, sometimes as much as 60% but more often just below 50%, and since the beginning of the last century, only around half of the country has been voting at all in those elections. Granted, there’s sometimes been a third party, and the voters were evenly divided a century before voter turnout tended to drop below 60%. Still, for the last hundred years, there’s been no reason to say that the electorate as a whole is evenly divided. This is because the electorate includes those who are eligible to vote but who don’t do so, and for decades this portion of the electorate has been quite sizable. Thus, for a century now, the even splits in the election results haven’t reflected the state of the country.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Philosophy of Existential Cosmicism

I’d like to show how a modern form of asceticism which springs from what I call existential cosmicism relates to some basic philosophical questions about the natures of fact, meaning, and value.

Fact, Meaning, and Value

What’s the difference between truths and facts? Truth requires living things whereas facts don’t. There could be a universe of facts even with no intelligent creatures to appreciate them, but there would be no truth in a lifeless universe, because truth is a relationship between facts and what are called symbols or representations of those facts, and symbols are tools used by living things. To see the difference, suppose there’s a lifeless world in a distant galaxy, and on that world there’s a range of mountains and also a lake with waves that lap against a sandy beach. Now suppose that by chance, as the froth is deposited onto the beach, the froth creates the spitting image of those mountains, picturing their peaks and valleys as they would have been seen were someone standing on that beach. In this case, there would be physical facts of how the mountains are arranged and of their different sizes, but there would be no truth in the froth’s accidental map of those facts, because the froth wouldn’t be a tool used by any creature in its dealings with the world.

Now, from a highly objective perspective, the difference between the froth’s picture of the mountains, and a person’s thought that one mountain is larger than another vanishes; in each case, we might say, there’s just a pair of patterns that happen to match in some respects. The information in the waves can be mapped onto the information in the mountains, just as the neural activity in the viewer’s brain could be mapped onto what she’d view, were she standing on that beach. So maybe neither a fact nor a truth needs any living user of information, after all; maybe truth is just a certain abstract correspondence between patterns. This is how some philosophers think of truth, as an isomorphism between certain sets of data. And indeed, when this match between patterns is lacking, you don’t have truth and you may even have falsehood, but this match alone isn’t enough: one of the patterns must be made up of symbols, and to have symbols you need meaning.

A pattern, like a picture of mountains or the sentence, “One of those mountains is larger than the other,” carries meaning in relation to the mountains if that pattern is directed towards them. But what is it for one thing to be thusly about something? I think we can answer this by comparing symbols to something like guidelines on the tarmac used by a pilot to land the plane. The lines hook up with the pilot in the cockpit (through his eyes and his brain) and direct the plane to its landing position, which is where the pilot wants to go. In the same way, mental symbols--our thoughts, feelings, images, and other mental states--facilitate our negotiations with the outside world. They do this by their useful associations with other mental states, as in a train of thought, and by their access to our motor responses, so that we can intelligently move our body, guided by that inner map. Mental symbols have those features because they’re made up of highly interconnected brain states which, of course, have executive control over the body.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Varieties of Mysticism

Mysticism is the doctrine that the hidden wisdom of monistic theology, according to which all souls are united with God, can be proved by direct experience of that unity, through meditation or an altered state of consciousness. If we define “God” loosely, to cover the pantheism that identifies God with nature’s impersonal creativity, we see that atheistic mysticism is possible; indeed, Buddhism is another kind of atheistic mysticism. But besides the difference between theistic and atheistic mystics, there’s that between what I’ll call optimistic and pessimistic ones. The former promises a happy ending for all, while the latter laments the fact that our time on the stage of life is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” and that our grand finale is ignominious extinction along with the clueless animal species. I’ll explore here the ramifications of this latter distinction.
Optimistic Mystics

Mystics claim to have secret knowledge of the world’s unity. Buddhists, for example, say that everything is interdependent and thus united, from an enlightened perspective, whereas without that perspective, everything appears independent and that illusory disunity is the overall cause of suffering. When we recognize that what seems a highly heterogeneous world is actually united by causal and logical relations, for example, we no longer draw absolute distinctions between the self and the rest of the world, or between selves. Those apparent differences are mere illusions, and when the mystic replaces that naive perception with an experience of reality’s oneness, she feels bliss instead of disappointment, alienation, or the many other forms of suffering.

In practice, though, optimistic mysticism takes two forms, depending on whether the oneness of reality is identified with the individual ego or with the underlying state of the unconscious. In the former case, mystical monism becomes a kind of obnoxious solipsism, such as we find in feel-good, materialistic New Age ideologies. Oprah Winfrey’s cult, for example, based as it is on the alleged spiritual law of attraction, according to which we get what we most want (because our desires are like magnets that attract what complements them), is individualistic in the Western, American sense. In this comedic mysticism, reality consists of the infantile ego and its toys, all else being illusory nuisances. So the chief virtue is Ayn Randian selfishness and this pseudo-spirituality becomes propaganda in the service of the beastly economic competition that naturally produces oligarchy.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Science and the Matrix Metaphor

When the Matrix movies were at the height of their popularity some years ago, philosophers were ecstatic because those movies popularized some canonical Western philosophical ideas, reaching back to Descartes’ handling of the evil genius form of skepticism, and to Plato’s Cave metaphor. Those films also have Gnostic and other religious themes. Less well-known, I think, is that The Matrix is useful as a way of popularizing what are now becoming scientific conventions, especially in biology and cognitive science. In fact, the core idea of The Matrix, as opposed to the movie’s plot, is shown to be almost literally true by those sciences. I’ve alluded a few times in this blog to The Matrix, and so I’ll explore here the relevance of especially the first of the three movies to Rants Within the Undead God.

First, I need to summarize the movie’s premise. The movie supposes that what most people perceive of the world is actually a mass hallucination, a virtual reality constructed by anti-human, artificially intelligent machines and employed to keep most people docile so that the machines can use their dormant organic bodies for fuel. The hero, Neo, wakes up from the dream world, into the harsher reality and fights the machines, eventually sacrificing himself and rescuing his fellow liberated, enlightened allies.

Genes and Mental Models

Now, there are two scientific theories that The Matrix seems to popularize, one from biology, the other from psychology. The former is Richard Dawkins’ gene’s-eye perspective on natural selection, and the latter is the theory of the self as the brain’s model of its inner processes. To begin with Dawkins, he went as far as to resort to science fiction tropes in pushing his point that natural selection can benefit the replicators at the expense of their “vehicles” or “hosts.” On this view, that which is primarily selected by the environment is a genetic lineage, and the phenotype--with all of its physical and mental adaptations--piggybacks on the fitness of the genes, much as Ayn Rand and plutocrats maintain that relatively poor people survive and enjoy many privileges only because of the greatness of their financial superiors who create civilization in the first place.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Darwinism and Nature’s Undeadness

Following the principle called Occam’s Razor, scientists seek simple explanations of phenomena, meaning explanations that refer to as few theoretical entities as possible. So instead of thinking of the Earth as somehow special and separate from the rest of the universe, Newton unified the two by positing the universal force of gravity, a force that works the same everywhere. Maxwell unified magnetism, electricity, and light, showing that they’re manifestations of a single force (the electromagnetic field). And Einstein unified space, time, and gravity with his theory of spacetime. In each of these unifications, a complex way of speaking is reduced to a simpler way, and depending on the complex discourse's mix of strengths and weaknesses, the reduction may entail the elimination of that discourse’s frame of reference so that the simpler theory alone is thought to correspond to reality.   

I think Darwin’s theory of natural selection is another case of unification, but some of this theory's philosophical implications aren’t as well appreciated. What Darwin showed is that nature can do the work of an intelligent designer, in creating species of living things. Prior to Darwin, the difference between life and death was usually explained in dualistic terms: natural life derives from God who is separate from all of nature and who implants a spirit, or transcendent, immaterial essence, within certain material bodies, while nonliving matter lacks any supernatural core. Here we had an absolute distinction between life and death, much like Newton’s sharp distinction between space and time. But after Darwin, scientists no longer regard the source of an organism’s distinguishing features--its consciousness, agency, pleasures and pains--as supernatural, which is to say that Darwinian biology is monistic with respect to the difference between the living and the nonliving. Darwin’s theory of how members of a species come to possess their traits is simpler than the theistic, dualistic explanation. Instead of having to refer to two types of things, a Creator God and the created material form, we need refer only to material forms, such as the environment, genes, and simple physical bodies which reproduce themselves from one generation to the next, migrating, occupying other niches, and becoming more complex and specialized in the process.

Darwinian Life

Those repercussions of Darwinism are familiar to most educated people. But when we ask again, “What is the difference between the living and the nonliving, given the naturalistic, nontheistic theory of natural selection?” we might be surprised to learn that we’re no longer entitled to the commonsense dualism between spirit and matter. When we understand life scientifically, after Darwin, we can no longer rationally justify any talk of immaterial spiritual essences that derive from a supernatural realm inhabited by a perfect person who somehow precedes the natural universe. But if there are no immaterial spirits, what makes life metaphysically different from nonlife? Moreover, take what are intuitively thought to be nonliving things, like the environment, DNA, proteins, and chemical reactions, and take also relatively nonliving things like bacteria and viruses, which are the precursors to higher organisms. If these elements--and not some supreme living thing, like God--are responsible for the origin and the evolution of life, again, what’s the metaphysical difference between the living and the nonliving?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Subtext of the First Romney-Obama Debate

The consensus of pundit reaction to the first debate between Romney and Obama is that Romney won on “style” if not also on substance. Liberal pundits point out that Romney lied over and over again in the debate, flip-flopping or shaking his Etch A Sketch; these pundits concede, though, that while the Republican nominee was smug, condescending, and arrogant, smirking and squinting at Obama, Romney showed much more enthusiasm. Conservative pundits gloat that Romney stood toe-to-toe with the President and delivered the policy specifics that Americans allegedly requested. Obama was “professorial,” making solid, well-worn points against Romney, but with atrocious delivery: the President didn’t dumb-down or speak in punchy, pithy sound bites, and he kept looking down while writing notes instead of maintaining eye contact with his opponent, as though he were physically submitting to Romney; moreover, Obama missed all sorts of opportunities to go after Romney, to vanquish his unworthy foe, to speak the truth about the abysmal state of the Republican Party. 

Arguably, Romney had more to lose so he came better prepared in addition to having more recent debating experience--albeit with the clown car of the other Republican contenders, like Bachmann, Cain, and Perry. Obama may have been distracted by pressing political matters like Syria or Iran, he may not like debates, and he may have been coached to sit on his lead in the polls and thus to not take any chances. But as psychologist, Drew Westen, pointed out a year ago, Obama’s lack of passion throughout his time in office has been not just disappointing but baffling to liberals. While still a senator, Obama campaigned for the presidency with such fervor that Democrats thought he was the anti-Bush Messiah. In reality, it turns out that anyone with even minimal acting ability can read a teleprompter with a fiery tone; plus, most of Obama’s memorable campaign rhetoric--“Change!” and “Yes, we can!”--was amorphous. Obama wanted to restore bipartisan sanity to Washington and was rewarded with the descent of the GOP into an apocalyptic cult that brooked no compromise with the Democrats, and was bent on annihilating liberalism and ensuring that Obama was a one-term President. Republicans would vote even against legislation they themselves proposed, to deny Obama a legislative victory. 

The biggest lie Republicans now tell is that such vitriolic hatred of liberals is justified by Obama’s socialist extremism. Republican leaders have learned from cognitive science, as well as from the New Testament, that the best way to sell your policies is to couch them in opposition to a mortal enemy, to activate your minions’ fight-or-flight instinct. When Republicans distort Democratic policies, pretending that American liberals want to impose a communist dictatorship on the US, outlawing capitalism, and so forth, they not only demonize their opponents but reinforce an equally stark definition of what it means to be a Republican. This is the underlying reason why Romney was so energized in his first debate with Obama. Even though Romney is personally a moderate, pragmatic centrist, which is to say a nihilistic, Machiavellian sociopath who will say anything to get elected, he’s immersed in a miasma of Republican myths, in the so-called Fox News bubble, which inspires him to pretend that Obama has a diabolic plan to steal from hard-working, job-creating capitalists to further spoil the 47% of do-nothing moochers. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Dictionary of Micro Rants: Beauty

Beauty: in the human form, the biological equivalent of a backhanded compliment.

One of the biological markers of facial beauty is averageness: those faces that stray from the human or from a racial average are considered plain or ugly, while faces that are most average are the most beautiful--and by “average,” I take it, the finding is that a beautiful face is the one whose measurements occupy middle positions and are thus average in the sense of the median rather than the mean or the mode. For example, most noses are either large or small, round or thin, whereas the beautiful nose falls somewhere in between.

Of course, there’s also a qualitative aspect of beauty, which is that the most normal face is commonly identified as the most desirable. This teleological aspect seems strongly influenced by Plato, the point being that normality reflects ideality: the most normal face, for example, stands as an exemplar of the abstract Form of the perfect face, a face that doesn’t exist in nature, like the perfect circle or the perfectly straight line; meanwhile, actual faces strive to embody that ideal, as imperfect copies. Thus, we sometimes say someone is “achingly beautiful,” and the ache is due to the reminder when we behold such a face that the whole natural order is flawed compared to a more ideal realm that taunts most of us with such blatant evidence of our deficiencies.

A similarly curious reaction to a beautiful body occurs when a male sees a curvaceous female and feels compelled to exclaim “Damn!”--short for "God damn that ass!" Often, the man who's struck by those curves is left with his eyes squinting and mouth agape from exasperation, as though he'd been punched in the gut. Why the apparent anger or frustration with such a beautiful sight? There are mundane reasons, such as the fact that seeing a woman’s extreme curves can cause a man to have an uncomfortable erection and may compel him to think, at least, of going through the time-consuming and humiliating rigmarole of wooing her. He may also be jealous of the shapely woman’s boyfriend or husband. 

But there’s a deeper reason for the oddness of any hidden hostility to beauty, which is that we dread the prospect of an alien, supernatural realm that surpasses our understanding. Whereas facial beauty is largely a matter of the face’s abundant normality, the parts of a woman’s body most likely to arouse a curiously mixed reaction from a heterosexual man, which is to say her large and round, or “phat,” buttocks, are recognized for their strangeness. The man’s reaction to a woman’s phat rear is similar to how a person would respond to the sight of an extraterrestrial creature: with shock, incomprehension, and even annoyance that the sight is so apparent even as it defies familiar categories. And so physical beauty can be otherworldly, symbolizing the limits of our understanding and thus the absurdity of our way of life from an objective or foreign perspective that transcends those limits. Thus, beauty can repel even as it attracts, like a backhanded compliment.