Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Nature of Sympathy

Recently, at the end of a work day, I parked the company car at a public parking lot. When I exited the car I happened to notice, just in front of the left rear wheel, a curled-up baby mouse. I knelt down and saw that its eyes were closed and it was periodically shivering. I wondered whether I’d struck the mouse with the car, but there was no sign of blood. Perhaps the mouse was cowering before the giant vehicle, as I had only nearly crushed it. More likely the mouse had been abandoned by its mother, since there were no other mice I could see nearby. I wondered whether there was anything I could do to help. But I quickly realized I might do more harm than good, since as soon as I left with the baby, its mother might return to fetch it. Cynically, I reminded myself that the world is cruel, that untold millions of animals everywhere suffer unspeakably, that the mouse might carry some disease, that even if I did somehow rescue it, I’d thereby be depriving some other hungry creature of an easy meal. In any case, I didn’t have the time during the day and night to care for a baby mouse. Later, I checked the internet and there are indeed steps that could be taken to rescue an abandoned mouse, one of which is to drop it off at an animal shelter, which I didn’t think of at the time. In any case, I left the shivering baby to its devices, my rationalizations overcoming a pang of anguish I suffered on the mouse’s behalf. 

The next day, I returned to the car, expecting to see a tiny corpse in front of the wheel, but there was none. Had its mother returned? Had a raccoon gobbled it up during the night? I’d never know.

This raises several issues, but I want to focus on the nature of that spasm of pity that provided the backdrop for my musings on what to do as I stared at the helpless rodent. What exactly is sympathy? The least helpful answer is the rationalist’s, which is that sympathy is in recognition of the golden rule that we feel for others in need because we fear to contradict ourselves. Ethics in that case would be a matter of logic. We ought to help others, because we’re no better than they and we would want to be aided in return or if the situation were reversed. All of this may be so, except that it has nothing to do with logic. Instead, it’s based on the implicit social contract: if I scratch your back, you scratch mine; otherwise, society breaks down and we all lose out. But the free-rider, who takes that chance, violating social expectations such as by accepting a favour but failing to return the good deed, hasn’t acted irrationally by gambling, since the odds are indeed in his or her favour. Society likely won’t crumble as long as the majority dutifully respects the social contract while only a minority has the audacity to be selfish. Indeed, in so far as logic is at issue, unethical behaviour has the merit of being supported by that probabilistic inference. The free-rider (the con artist, sociopath, or criminal) who excels at pretending to care about others or who is protected from the victim’s reprisals, by wealth or social connections, can have the best of both worlds, including society’s protection from the elements and the benefits of enriching herself at everyone else’s expense. Life is short and so a pragmatic decision might well be in favour of selfishness, in which case the Golden Rule is for dupes who are merely lacking in self-confidence.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Democrats begin Impeachment Proceedings on the Grounds that Donald Trump is an Old Man

Dateline: WASHINGTON, D.C.—After the 2018 U.S. congressional election, Democrats won back enough seats to bring impeachment proceedings, but they decided to simplify their case against Donald Trump, citing only the undeniable fact, as the reason for the urgent need for Trump’s immediate removal from office, that Trump is “an old man.”

There are hundreds of scandals, crimes, conflicts of interests, gaffes, inadequacies, or other embarrassments that can be attributed to Trump’s presidency, but leading Democrats believe they can avoid getting into the details by reminding everyone that, after all, Trump is just an old man and thus is obviously unfit for high office.

“There’s something that happens to you when you get old,” said Senator Al Franken. “You go downhill, as they say. That means your brain doesn’t work as well as it used to. Why should your brain stay the same when the rest of your body is clearly deteriorating? I mean, your skin sags and gets full of wrinkles, you lose muscle mass and bone density.

“You go downhill. At the bottom of that hill is the sort of old guy ridiculed in The Simpsons. You get to be like Homer’s dad who babbles incoherently and can’t take care of himself anymore because, you know, he’s gotten, like, really, really old. That’s what’s happened to Donald Trump: he got old, far too old to run a country.”

Democrats contend that, although he’s always been a boor, Trump’s senility is responsible for the outlandish scope of his incompetence. Thus, there’s no reason “to get into the weeds,” as one Democrat put it. “You just go with what’s obvious and can’t be denied. Trump is super old and he acts like it. So he needs to be pushed into retirement.”

Republicans have accused Democrats, in turn, of being hypocritical, since numerous top Democrats are over seventy years old, including Bernie Sanders, Barbara Boxer, Pat Leahy, Harry Reid, Carl Levin, and Dianne Feinstein.

Franken replied that while many Democrats may likewise technically be far too old to be entrusted with driving a car, let alone with the enormous responsibilities of holding high political office, they’re “functional old fogies,” whereas Trump is “off his rocker and off his meds.”

Sociologist Millie Hildebrand credited the PR firm Old Folks Rule for conspiring to generate the misplaced confidence most people have in the elderly, which is why, she said, the elderly are often reelected.

“In an election,” Hildebrand said, “voters see the old man or woman next to the fresh-faced challenger, and the young gun doesn’t stand a chance because he or she lacks experience. That’s what most voters think; they go with the greater experience.

“What these voters forget is that the more experience you have, the older you must be, and after a certain number of years you suddenly become simply an old man or an old woman. When that happens, it becomes absurd for others to expect much in the way of competence from you.

“For example, an old politician won’t be able to keep to a tight schedule, because he or she will be in the bathroom all day and all night. How are you going to talk tough to dictators on the phone when you’re always sitting on the toilet?”

Jay Wackadoodle, a political pseudoscientist at the Machiavelli Institute, offered a different explanation for old people’s success in politics, pointing to the fact that most American voters are themselves elderly, given the shockingly-low voter turnout in all U.S. elections over many decades.

“We vote for people like us,” he said. “Bald guys are more likely to vote for baldies. Blondes vote for blondes, racists vote for racists, and the elderly vote for the elderly.

“That’s how narcissism works, and we’re self-obsessed because our materialistic culture drives us to be consumers, first and foremost. We have to attend to all our needs and wants, and so we have to buy all these products; we think the world revolves around us. Naturally, then, we presume we ought to run the country, but because we’re too fat and lazy to do so, we vote for the next best thing, someone who reminds us of ourselves.” 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Reason, Faith, and the Authentic Self

In a society dependent on technoscientific progress, the conflict between faith and reason is liable to be underestimated, due to a rationalist bias. Faith or intuition will be interpreted as an inferior form of cognition, the assumption being that knowledge is the ultimate goal of both science and religion or art. But this rationalist interpretation understates the magnitude of the conflict.

Reason versus Faith

Reason has mostly been a weapon we’ve deployed against obstacles in the social and natural environments: we devise hypothetical models and test them to discover regularities we can exploit. The problem is that the regularities we find in most of the world are perfectly inhuman. The more we exercised reason to know what nature is and how it works, the more we had to doubt our intuitions and our comforting self-image. To take the most glaring example, the natural world we observed, measured and modeled got larger and older, the more objectively we examined it. We once thought we were at the center of a universe that consisted only of our solar system, and that the universe began only “days” before our arrival in the animal kingdom, just several thousand years ago, as the biblical Creation myth speculates. Now we know the universe is unimaginably larger and older than that, consisting of trillions of galaxies and having begun billions of years ago. And that’s just the observable universe. Natural reality includes dark energy and matter, which dwarf the universe as we experience it. Plus, there may be a multiverse which dwarfs even that vaster universe.  

In fact, the smart money is on meta-cynicism. Anthropocentrism has been proven wrong at every turn, and so we can induce that the end of human knowledge will be some supremely negative form of self-effacing anti-humanism. If you want to picture the most rational worldview, you should begin by imagining a monstrous form of objectivity, such as the kind we attribute to the baddies in science fiction, to the indifferent aliens or to the cold and calculating robots. This objectivity devours every precious illusion, including all the life-preserving myths and fairytales that nurture our pride in the human enterprise. But objectivity doesn’t stop there, as indicated by its postmodern, deconstructive phase. Reason embarrasses the life-affirming emotions and intuitions, but it eventually turns on itself so that science and knowledge in general become de-sentimentalized. Knowledge turns out not to be a tool or a weapon, after all, but something like a black hole that negates everything in its path, finally devouring itself. Reason is for understanding the world, but in standing under or apart from phenomena, as we learn to detach from them to see them as they really are, we learn to do the same for ourselves. As a result, the Cartesian divide is undone and the posthuman vision is of a natural universe of amoral, inhuman processes that can’t exactly be affirmed as such, since reason ultimately reveals the world to be indifferent to meaning, truth, value, and other such anthropocentric illusions. The universe as we objectively present it to ourselves is utterly inhospitable, a source of horror or anxiety for enlightened creatures. 

The honourary saint of Reason is thus the devil, beginning with Prometheus or the serpent of Eden whom the Gnostics revered as the first skeptic and truth-teller, because he subverted the shaky divine order as it was naively intuited by the animal slaves that adhered to Yahweh’s commandments. The serpent warned Adam and Eve that their creator was tricking them and holding them back, whereas they had the power to investigate and to exploit natural processes to their advantage. But Reason as symbolized by the nay-saying serpent turned out to be cursed, since the cost of knowledge is death, the banishment from the paradise that the world seemed to be when we encountered it in our innocence as a young species. (We still perceive the world to be a magical paradise when we’re children and don’t know better.) The mythical character Satan became the cynic who challenged Yahweh with doubts as to whether Creation was as magnificent as it seemed, as in the Book of Job. In the New Testament, the devil is demonized, because Christianity began as a barbaric, anti-intellectual form of Judaism that obliged everyone not only to moderate our behaviour but to think as children and to banish ungodly thoughts, to avoid everlasting punishment. Failing those superhuman feats, believers merely had to worship Jesus in a cult of personality to be saved from original sin and from the other flaws of Creation, in a new world to come at the cataclysmic end of time.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Man unable to apply a Lifetime’s Research into Self-Improvement, dies wholly Unsuccessful in Life

Dateline: NEW YORK CITY—A connoisseur of self-help books has died alone and impoverished after having spent years locked in his apartment, practicing to be a better person.

Albert Dunderhead had an impressive collection of self-help manuals, as attested by the landlord who found Albert’s body. “Albert once showed me his library,” said the landlord, “and he boasted he was learning everything there is to know about techniques for increasing your confidence, winning friends and succeeding in business and romance.

“‘One day,’ Albert told me, ‘I’ll have learned enough to put my knowledge into practice, to apply the lessons in real life. And then nothing will stop me. I’ll finally have a job and a family and a life I can be proud of. Until then, I’ve got to keep hitting the books.’”

Albert’s body was found in front of a mirror, his hand on an open book turned to a passage about mastering your fears by reciting mantras in front of a mirror.

Having no friends or family, living on a small inheritance from his grandmother, Albert ventured out of his apartment only to purchase groceries and to peruse the self-help section of bookstores.

Albert’s neighbours sometimes complained about the noise from his apartment, when Albert practiced his lessons by holding conversations with imaginary employers, coworkers, and romantic prospects.

“The conversations went on for hours on end,” said one neighbour, “but it wasn’t the volume that bothered me so much as the annoying repetition. He tried out every conceivable variation on a job interview, for example, playing both parts himself.

“Or he’d imagine he was trying to pick up a girl at a grocery store, and he’d say, ‘I see you’re interested in avocados.’ ‘Why, yes I am,’ he’d say in response. And then he’d launch into a disquisition about the merits of different recipes for guacamole.

“But that wasn’t the end of it—not by a long shot. He’d carry on the same conversation over and over again, but switching from avocados to bananas, and then to spinach and watermelons and every other fruit or vegetable in turn. It was really, really annoying having to hear that blather through the wall throughout the evening and night.”

Albert received a posthumous award for “Most Ironic Life” from the Irony Association of America.

“Ironically,” said the Association’s founder, “our awards have no cash value, nor do we publicize them. Had Mr. Dunderhead been alive, he wouldn’t have been eligible for the award, since his life would have been ongoing. But even if he would have been eligible, he wouldn’t have known he’d won, because no one would have told him. And even if he found out about us and our awards, he may not have cared, because, as I said, our awards have zero prestige. There’s nothing to them, not even a little statue or anything. 

"All we do is whisper about the winner for a while, maybe writing up a certificate and then quickly burning it so as not to spoil the irony of the self-effacing honours.” 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Prophets of Woe

Woe to men, for you shall be replaced by machines and shall lose your manhood.

Woe to women, for you shall have no men to shelter and comfort you in the wasteland to come.

Woe to children, for their cuteness promotes their self-love, and they lack the reason to see that love is a puppet string.

Woe to consumers, for you’ve sucked the earth almost dry.

Woe to advertisers, for you’ve made an art of deception and manipulation, and are cursed to wander as cynics in a herd of dupes. 

Woe to movers and shakers, for you’ve moved to outer space, making aliens of yourselves, and have shaken the peasants from their slumber, endangering your material foundations to which they tend.

Woe to environmentalists, for you love wild animals that wouldn’t hesitate to eat you for breakfast.

Woe to Americans, for your time has nearly come to join the legions of peasants in other lands whom you’ve squeezed and exploited since the end of the Second World War.

And woe to anti-Americans, for your sanctimonious rage betrays the ugly American within you.

Woe to liberals, for there’s no longer faith in your worn-out myths, and you’ve become scholastics idling until the next renaissance.

Woe to conservatives, for your talk of old-fashioned utopia is a smokescreen for a return to the primitive state wherein the dominators succumb to the temptations of godhood, are swiftly corrupted by their power, and drag their slaves down with them.

Woe to you professional philosophers, for your title is an oxymoron: a lover of knowledge must cower in angst rather than adjust to the horrors of nature to make of philosophy an academic field of study for charlatans, pseudoscientists, and bored young transients in colleges that have turned into mere businesses.

Woe to the gods, for they’ve failed to grace us with their existence.

Woe to monotheists, for you have poor taste in fiction.

Woe to optimists, for you dishonour the multitudes that have fallen.

Woe to pessimists, for you waste your life in grief.

Woe to Hollywood, for your creativity is as bankrupt as that of the Chinese market you seek to plunder with remakes and superheroic trivialities, which market is a giant, ravenous copying machine.

Woe to the computer, for digitization drains the value from that which is encoded, and the internet and the smartphone erase the humanity from their addicted users.

Woe to pornography, for it proves that sex is a ridiculous spectacle.

Woe to sex, for its pleasures must be kept secret to preserve the sophisticate’s illusion of superiority.

Woe to the large, for it is comprised of myriad small things and is at their mercy.

Woe to the small, for it is confined within the behemoth and is blind to the latter’s grandeur.

Woe unto the earth, for once it has killed off the wise apes, there shall be none to cry foul at its monstrosity.

And woe to dabblers in prophecy who pilfer the language of the fictional Jesus, which has become a cliché.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Delaware Man Masters Martial Arts, using only Initial Free Lessons

Dateline: NEW JERSEY—A man from Delaware earned the equivalent of a black belt in Taekwondo, Karate, Jiu-jitsu and several other martial arts, by exploiting the free initial first lesson offered by hundreds of martial arts schools across North America.

Johnny Mayhew began his martial arts training in 1997, having been invited by his friend and martial arts enthusiast to attend a trial lesson at Tiger Kicks Taekwondo, in Wilmington.

“The first lesson’s free,” Mayhew remembers his friend telling him. “After that, once you get hooked on how wonderful taekwondo is, you’ll of course need to pay for the yearly membership.”

After that first lesson, Mayhew was indeed hooked, he said, but he conceived of an alternative to paying the membership. “The next day,” Mayhew said, “instead of returning to Tiger Kicks Taekwondo, where I would have had to pay hundreds of dollars in advance for a year’s worth of classes, I went down the street to Master Myung’s Taekwondo Academy and enjoyed their free lesson, since Master Myung also offered the first lesson for free.

What Mayhew realized is that since every martial arts school offers its first lesson for free, he could master the martial arts without having to pay the schools any money, just by travelling from one school to the next, never attending the same dojo twice.

“So I moved into a motorhome and travelled the country,” he said, “visiting each town’s assortment of martial arts schools and making the most of the free classes. At first, I was a novice, so the lessons were arduous.

“But eventually, as I became fitter and more practiced in striking and grappling, the instructors became puzzled and even suspicious of my skills. I must not have seemed like a novice who needed a free hour’s instruction from some backwoods karate school, because I was kicking the daylights out of the heavy bag and hurling my sparring partners across the mat.”

Mayhew still remembers one evening in Yonkers, at Fuck ‘em Up Karate Academy, when Master Moo confronted him. “You no fight like beginner,” Master Moo told him. “You kicking the ass of my best students. Why you here? The free lesson for beginners.”

Mayhew reminded him that he was a beginner, since he had never before been to Fuck ‘em Up Karate Academy. “But Master Moo was having none of it,” said Mayhew. “He kicked me out, and I only got half a free lesson that day. After that, I vowed I would get the full free lesson at each martial arts academy I visited, by feigning ignorance and secretly absorbing the advanced techniques.”

At Dragon Tail Karate School, Mayhew pretended not to know how to throw a punch, while he carefully observed the master and his top students, picking up ways of improving his skills. “That way I made the most of each free lesson, whether it was at Big Butt Brazilian Jiu Jitsu School, in New York, Paint the Fence Karate Academy, in Dallas, or Eagle Claw Kung Fu, in Los Angeles.

Mayhew studied each of several martial arts in turn, from Karate to Aikido, only switching from one to the next when he had successfully beaten the pants off of the master during one of the free lessons. “I’d pretend to be a novice, begging the master near the end of the free hour to take pity on my ignorance and favour me with a sparring match. Then I’d unleash all I’d learned from the hundreds of free lessons, and beat him down six ways from Sunday. That’s when I knew I’d have to move on to a different fighting tradition, just to keep it fresh.”

While Mayhew is unapologetic about his approach to martial arts, some instructors are indignant. “What he’s doing may not be illegal,” said Master Li, of Muay Thai Kick Ass Academy, “but I fear something’s gone wrong somewhere. Why doesn’t he just pay his instructors, instead of paying the gas companies for all the fuel he’s used exploiting the trial lessons?”

“Martial arts training isn’t just about self-defense,” said Master Kwon, of Warrior Way Academy. “We train for honour. There’s no honour in what this Mayhew creep is doing.”  

In response to this criticism, Mayhew said, “What did honour do for the fatheaded samurai, when the ninja killed them in their sleep? I may not have honour, but I can kick ass, beeyatch!”

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Republicans and al Qaeda face Conundrum of how to Continue their Escalating Evil

Dateline: WASHINGTON, D.C.—With its escalating insanity in the choice of its presidential nominees, from Reagan to George W. Bush to Donald Trump, the Republican Party has borrowed a strategy from al Qaeda to maximize terror in the American public, according to some political experts.

After bin Ladin declared war on the United States in 1996, al Qaeda began attacking the US with its bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. Then came the more deadly and spectacular attacks of 911.

According to Ron Suskind’s book, The One Percent Doctrine, “Al Qaeda wouldn't want to act [in the US after 2001] unless it could top the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with something even more devastating, creating an upward arc of rising and terrible expectation as to what, then, would follow.”

Suskind’s view is that the terrorists are trying to maximize Americans’ fear, by leaving them to wonder whether, given the pattern of attacks leading up to 911, Americans could now expect a biological or nuclear attack—and after that: Armageddon, the end of the world.

Some political pseudoscientists believe Republicans are pursuing a similar strategy. Tommy Whataninny, political pseudoscientist at the University of Chicago, said, “The strategy would have begun with Ronald Reagan’s moderate lunacy, as revealed by his interest in astrology, the Iran-Contra scandal, his declining mental health due to Alzheimer’s, and his governing more or less like a neoliberal Democrat—which would have seemed crazy, at least, to twenty-first century Republicans.”

Leaving aside George H.W. Bush, “the madness would have ramped up with his son, George W. Bush, as evidenced by Bush’s verbal incoherence, his embarrassing ignorance about world affairs, his spending more than 500 days on vacation while in office, his stealing the election from Al Gore, his religious mania, his being a tool for neocons, his fiasco of attacking the wrong Middle Eastern country after 911, his lying about Iraq’s WMD, and his elitism that resulted in the Hurricane Katrina debacle.

“Then came the psycho clown Trump whose incompetence, mendacity, and narcissism ‘trump’ even the grotesque vices of his predecessors combined, resulting in an escalation of terror much like al Qaeda’s. The questions Americans are left with are, ‘How can Republicans top themselves? Who can be worse than Trump? Are Republicans and Islamist terrorists for some reason playing similar roles in trying to end the civilized world?’”

As to how George W. Bush’s father fits into this picture, Professor Margaret Smoot, of the Machiavelli Institute, concedes that “the Republican who served as president between Reagan and Clinton was arguably more professional than Reagan, let alone the catastrophic Bush who came after Clinton.” But Smoot surmises that there are different factions within the Republican establishment and that while some favour the apocalyptic al Qaeda approach, others “prefer an even keel, the sort of social stability that benefits Wall Street.”

In response to this political hypothesis, Gallup polled ordinary Americans, asking them how they figure Republicans might try to top themselves with respect to their increasingly insane choices of leaders. Some answered Republicans would next attempt to elect Vladimir Putin directly, although legal technicalities might hamper that effort. Others apparently believe the GOP would select a wild animal of some sort, such as a monkey or an elephant, “to create chaos and humiliation and to sink the US for good,” said the Gallup summary of the poll’s results. Still others thought an inanimate object might suffice, such as a lunchbox or a handgun.

For his part, Whataninny criticized the latter two options for failing to trump Trump’s villainy, since animals are morally neutral and inanimate objects would “just sit there rather than wreaking havoc.” He added, “Sure, a chimpanzee as president would do a lot of damage. For starters, he’d physically mess up the White House. And his advisors’ recommendations would fall on deaf ears. But that could also serve the country well, assuming the advisors were corrupt, which they typically are. Likewise, if Republicans elected a lunchbox as president, the lunchbox could take neither constructive nor destructive actions.

“No, what Republicans would seem to need is a demon or some other supernaturally evil entity. Perhaps only the devil could complete this pattern and secure Republican’s evident fantasy of an apocalyptic end of the American experiment.”

Friday, May 5, 2017

Lonely Single Man seeks someone just to Laugh at his Jokes

Dateline: OMAHA—A lonely Nebraskan man is wistful about the many years he’s spent with no life partner to marvel at his witty remarks.

Douglas Cunningham, aged 53, is single and has lived alone in a small apartment in Omaha for decades. In all that time, he attests to having made countless amusing gibes while watching all manner of TV shows and movies.

“The worst part about living alone,” he said, “isn’t the lack of love or sex in my life. It’s that I’ve got no audience to appreciate my brilliance. I mean, I’m watching Wolf Blitzer and in any given ten seconds I’ll have fired off wisecracks left and right at his expense. But there’s no one else in the room to hear them.

“Sure, I can make myself laugh, but what sort of comedian laughs at his own jokes?

“Or I’ll be watching an episode of some sitcom and at the end I’ll have analyzed the whole show, I’ll have it all wrapped up in my mind, but there’s no one else there to nod in amazement at the keenness of my insights.

“It’s a travesty!” he added. “And as the saying goes, if no one hears a tree fall in the forest, does it really make a sound?”

For Cunningham, the most important duty a romantic partner can perform is to serve as a captive audience to placate the other’s sense of comedic entitlement.

“Sure, most men want sex or a family,” he said, “but I’m getting old and I don’t care about those things. The world’s overpopulated as it is, but there’s never enough masterful pop cultural commentary. Meanwhile, I’m firing off cutting-edge gems of criticism and they’re all going to waste.

“It’s not even a ‘pearls before swine’ situation, because I don’t have the swine! I’d take a sow as a partner if only she’d sit quietly and bask in the glow of my analytical deconstructions of pop cultural discourse.

“So many wasted bon mots, I can’t even count them all. They just drift into the ether and now that I’ve forgotten half of them, they’re gone forever. That’s the real tragedy here.”

Cunningham has attempted to recruit a mate by posting profiles on online dating services, but to no avail. “I can’t fathom,” he said, “why no woman seems interested in being my life partner just to help me relax after a long day’s work, sitting in amazement by the TV with me as I serve up one dazzling observation after another.”

Asked why he doesn’t try his hand at stand-up comedy or publishing a book of jokes, Cunningham said, “No, it’s got to be in front of the TV and my audience can’t be just perfect strangers. I’m not interested in making money off of my talent. That’s how selfless I am.

“I just think it would have been swell to have had a special someone who chooses to sit there with me to laugh along with my grasp of the depth of the world’s idiocy. But it seems my comedic genius will go unrequited.” 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Canadians Obsessed with American Politics, seek to Vote as Honourary Americans

Dateline: TORONTO—Thousands of Canadians are lobbying the United States government to allow them to vote as honourary Americans in US elections, despite their lacking US citizenship, because they know more about the United States than Canada.

According to their lobbyist, Hughie Sketcher, these Canadians “yearn to be politically active, but they lament the fact that Canada isn’t interesting enough to hold their attention even for a moment.”

Most of these “practically disenfranchised” Canadians live in Ontario, confirmed Sketcher, but that province “might as well be a crater on the moon, for all the rest of the world is concerned.”

One of the Ontarians seeking the right to vote in the US is John Smith. “No one outside of Canada knows where Ontario is,” said Smith. “No one else even knows that Ontario is a place. It’s richer and more populous than numerous whole countries, but because it’s objectively dull, no one cares, not even most Ontarians. So how am I supposed to summon the energy to study Ontarian politics? Do I look superhuman?”

By contrast, American politics is “infinitely amusing,” said Smith, “like a slapstick comedy or a Hollywood thriller in which there’s a sinister turn of events every two minutes.” American politics is thus irresistible to bored Canadians who just want to feel like they’re engaged citizens and who don’t want to “fall asleep at the voting booth.”

These Canadians admit to “studying American political shenanigans religiously,” said Sketcher. They follow the scandals on CNN and Fox News. “Meanwhile, nothing ever happens in Canada. It’s all in stasis there to maintain the peace in that multicultural society.”

“We talk about American politics all the time in Canada,” said Smith. “On the bus, waiting in line at the movies, at the water cooler, at a restaurant—the latest American political travesty is typically the hottest topic of conversation.” 

Asked why these Canadians don’t leave Canada and become American citizens, Smith said, “We don’t want to actually live there and get shot in the streets or take a chance of dying as homeless bums with the rest of the bottom seventy percent. We’re not lunatics.

“We just want to vote in the US for our fifteen minutes of fame, to participate in the greatest show on Earth.”

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Walter White’s Special Love for his Baby Blue

Here are two incongruous statements from the Wikipedia article on the television show Breaking Bad:Breaking Bad is widely regarded as one of the greatest television series of all time. By the time the series finale aired, the series was among the most-watched cable shows on American television.” Typically, when anything is extremely high in quality, it’s consumed or even known about only by a small minority. Quality and quantity thus have a zero-sum relationship, at least in a “free” society: the greater the quality of some consumer good, the lower the quantity of consumers who might enjoy it, and the larger the mass of consumers who circle around something, the lower that thing’s expected quality. This is because the less a society is regulated, the greater is its economic inequality and so the finer things in life happen only for the upper class. For example, while sex may occur even in slums, the finest bodies and minds will flock to each other within walled-off mansions. Even in the case of television, which used to be a low-brow medium but which has been elevated in its current golden age, thanks to HBO, AMC, and other premium outlets, most viewers don’t watch the premium channels, just as most movie viewers don’t watch the Oscar contenders. But Breaking Bad was an exception—at least in part, since the viewership was relatively low for most of the show’s episodes. This is still especially surprising because the show’s message is subversive.

What, then, is the meaning of the award-winning and thus strangely popular television show Breaking Bad? (Spoilers follow.)

The show is about a character named Walter White who begins as a beta male high-school chemistry teacher, but who decides to “break bad” or go rogue when he contracts lung cancer. He uses his expertise to cook and sell the illicit drug methamphetamine, to make a fortune and to leave something of value behind for his family in the short time he has left before his presumed imminent death. His cancer, however, goes into remission, which allows him to pursue his ambition, but the tragedy is that the further he ventures into the dark side, as it were, the more his character must transform to suit the criminal underworld. He comes to prefer his alter ego, whom he calls Heisenberg, the criminal mastermind and supervillain who even has a costume (the black brimmed hat and sunglasses).

The final episode includes the revelation that while Walter repeatedly told himself and his wife and child, Skyler and Flynn, that the end justified his criminal means, because he meant to steal and murder altruistically, to sacrifice himself for his family’s benefit, he learned to face the truth that he did it all for himself, because he preferred the dark side. He tells his wife, just prior to his last hurrah, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really—I was alive.” Walter then performs his final “sacrificial” acts, by massacring the neo-Nazi gang that stole most of the money he made as the drug kingpin and that posed a threat to his family, and by saving his wayward partner Jesse Pinkman, whom the gang kept as their slave to cook high-quality crystal meth for them. In the process Walter is hit by shrapnel in his side, and just before he dies (or perhaps is arrested, treated, and imprisoned) he visits the gang’s meth lab, smiling as he admires the labequipment, the police arriving in the background. Walter collapses, leaving a symbolic blood stain on the apparatus, and the song “Baby Blue” plays, sending him off. That song by Badfinger is actually about a young woman named Dixie, but the first two stanzas take on exquisite double meanings, because Walter’s brand of crystal meth features a blue colour that’s a byproduct of his ingenious method of producing it. The lyrics of the song the show ends with read:

Guess I got what I deserved
Kept you waiting there too long, my love
All that time without a word
Didn't know you'd think that I'd forget or I'd regret
The special love I had for you, my baby blue 

All the days became so long
Did you really think, I'd do you wrong?
Dixie, when I let you go
Thought you'd realize that I would know
I would show the special love I have for you, my baby blue

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Freud and Nietzsche: Psychiatry between Existentialism and Scientism

Art by Andrew Baines
In The Denial of Death, the anthropologist Ernest Becker defends and broadens Otto Rank’s view of psychotherapy. Rank was one of Freud’s colleagues who broke with Freud, like Jung. Jung and Rank both interpreted psychological problems in spiritual and philosophical terms, whereas Freud clung to a narrower, sexual theory of mental dynamics. For Rank, the human mind is torn between opposite tendencies, towards separation and greater individuation, on the one hand, and towards union with a collectivity, on the other. This is an absurd, dangerous foundation for personal growth, because it threatens the person with the fate of being forever internally conflicted and with the anxiety of oscillating blindly back and forth between the poles. For example, a person might demonstrate her ego’s distinctiveness with displays of conspicuous consumption, while pretending to worship a deity that demands humility and submission to its greater power. The opportunity for what Becker called “heroism” is found in creative solutions to this existential predicament of having an unstable mental structure, stemming from the trauma of separation at birth, and of being propelled by the fear of the final separation at death. Art, love, and a mystical hope for cosmic reunion with a divine being that somehow encompasses all natural things are Rank’s recommendations for avoiding the stalemate of neurosis, of failing to learn how to unlearn past experience or to find a balance between the desire to stand out and to fit into a greater whole.

Freud from Nietzsche

Becker’s presentation of this theory emphasizes its existential aspect, and indeed Rank’s ideas are much more plausibly universal than Freud’s positing of infantile sexuality. But Becker’s criticism of Freud neglects Freud’s direct connection with existentialism. Freud, after all, was aware of Nietzsche’s writings, although he professed to having avoided reading them in depth, even while Freud’s work betrays his familiarity with several Nietzschean themes (as well as with Darwinism). As a relevant Wikipedia article says, “in the 1890s, Freud, whose education at the University of Vienna in the 1870s had included a strong relationship with Franz Brentano, his teacher in philosophy, from whom he had acquired an enthusiasm for Aristotle and Ludwig Feuerbach, was acutely aware of the possibility of convergence of his own ideas with those of Nietzsche and doggedly refused to read the philosopher as a result.” However this may be, Nietzsche must have rubbed off on Freud. This study, for example, summarizes what the two approaches share:
(a) the concept of the unconscious mind; (b) the idea that repression pushes unacceptable feelings and thoughts into the unconscious and thus makes the individual emotionally more comfortable and effective; (c) the conception that repressed emotions and instinctual drives later are expressed in disguised ways (for example, hostile feelings and ideas may be expressed as altruistic sentiments and acts); (d) the concept of dreams as complex, symbolic "illusions of illusions" and dreaming itself as a cathartic process which has healthy properties; and (e) the suggestion that the projection of hostile, unconscious feelings onto others, who are then perceived as persecutors of the individual, is the basis of paranoid thinking. Some of Freud's basic terms are identical to those used by Nietzsche.
The Christian psyche famously provided Nietzsche with his case study in repression and paranoia, just as Nietzsche demonstrated his “genealogical” form of explanation in his account of master-slave morality. Instead of dictating principles or arguing systematically, Nietzsche sought to undermine various philosophies and perspectives by purporting to trace their psychological causes back to either “noble” virtues or to unheroic, “weak” acts of self-deception. For example, instead of celebrating the will to power, a Christian might passive-aggressively cloak her predatory instincts with a show of false humility. Logicians typically regard Nietzsche’s whole approach as resting on the genetic fallacy. Moreover, his philosophy seems self-contradictory, since he presupposes the universal truth of his metaphysics of power, even while he maintains that knowledge depends on perspective and that all truth-claims are surreptitious attempts to overpower others. All living things are beasts, for Nietzsche, and beasts have no sound basis for believing they’re in touch with objective, nonpragmatically-construed reality. Reasoning is a sham, and displays of power are the only demonstrations that matter in that they testify to the greatness of heroic individuals who distinguish themselves from the prosaicness of the herd mentality.

In any case, Freud does add much to the structure of Nietzschean thought: whereas Nietzsche’s arch concept is power, Freud’s is sex. But while Nietzsche’s corresponding image of people as animals led him to write only aphoristic or literary appraisals, Freud’s single-minded interpretations were in the service of his drive to pioneer a science of the mind. Freud reduced every desire or impulse, every conscious or unconscious image, every mental or social event to a sexual cause originating in the Oedipal or castration complex. Whereas power is vague and can take myriad forms, sex is concrete and objective. The Id or unconscious may be irrational, but if it desires sex with the mother, expressions of that desire can theoretically be confirmed, because the sex act provides a benchmark for comparisons. Thus, in a dream a cigar might unconsciously symbolize a penis. Likewise, had Nietzsche identified a particular powerful act as all-important in human relations, as Freud had done in Chapter Four of Totem and Taboo (a prehistoric killing of a father figure, or alpha male), Nietzsche’s thought might have taken on the power of a science. However, like the phony spirituality of Christian religion, psychoanalysis is only pseudoscientific in the Popperian sense of being unfalsifiable. You can posit an infantile, unconscious sexual urge to explain any action, but the merit of that explanation isn’t tested in practice. Indeed, in so far as the applications of psychoanalysis testify to its power, the theory fails the test of being technoscientific, because the analyst-analysand relationship is typically endless. The talking never ends, because the imagination can always conjure new sexual fantasies and interpretations of events in the person’s formative years. Moreover, the theory is awkwardly implausible: sexual impulses are hormonal and the relevant hormones are released in puberty; thus, children have no sexual desires. 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Hotheads’ Violence caused by Hot Climates, Study finds

Dateline: GREENLAND—A sociobiological study from Bigwig University in Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland shows that the areas around the world with the hottest temperatures tend to be inhabited by more aggressive, bellicose peoples, or “hotheads,” as the study calls them, while colder zones are home to more peaceful, even timid populations. 

The team of scientists concludes that collective belligerence is a form of literal hot-headedness in which a screaming-hot environment transfers its heat to the human head and turns the mind into a stew of animal reactions, bypassing the brain’s rational faculties and driving the population as a whole to childish displays of wonton irrationality and brutality.

The deserts of the Middle East and Africa, along with Southeast Asia, Central America, Mexico, and the southern (Republican) United States are marked by dictatorships, perennial civil wars, gang wars, coups, chaos, rampant crime, riots, bloody uprisings, bigotry or fundamentalist lunacy. 

By contrast, Canada, Alaska, the northern (Democratic) United States, and Europe are known for being sober, peaceful, and stable to the point of being infamously dull.

“It’s hard to stir up trouble,” said the team’s lead researcher, Professor Francesca Bobbins, “or to get all offended and hot-headed when there’s a foot of snow outside your door or when you know the snow will come in a matter of weeks or months. I mean literally, it’s hard to heat your head enough to sustain animal rage when it’s often super-cold out.

“But just imagine living in a desert that fries and scrambles your brains. How can you stop to think when you’re always stinking and soaking wet with sweat? Haven’t you got to take your rage out on someone, like the government or a rival sect or some other scapegoat? Mustn’t the excess heat that bubbles up in the heads of those dwelling in a humid environment be vented back into the world by some series of violent outbursts to prevent those heads from exploding?”

The researchers tested their hypothesis by observing the facial expressions and by measuring the heat steaming off of the heads of subjects who agreed just to stand for hours in the streets of altogether too-hot places, including San Antonio, Mexico City, Khartoum, Riyadh, and Bangkok. Invariably, the test subjects became increasingly agitated as the sweat streamed down their faces, dampening their shirts and messing up their underwear.

Subjects reported feeling their blood boil when strangers stopped merely to say “Hello” and were unable to concentrate when the researchers posed simple problems to them to determine whether heat negatively affects cognition.

“The sociobiologist asked me, ‘What’s two times four?’ and I swear I blanked,” recalled one test subject. “Back home in Halifax, Canada, I could have answered that with no problem, but standing there in Riyadh in that dreadful heat, my fevered brain was racing from one impulse and nonsensical notion to the next, as if the desert were boiling my neurons. All I could think was: ‘Get me the fuck out of this oppressive heat!’ And failing that, ‘Whom can I take out this aggression on?’” 

As one of the researchers explained, “It’s like the difference between cold and boiling water. When water is very cold it’s frozen and so it tends to stay put, going nowhere; but when it boils, it spills out and bubbles up everywhere from the transfer of energy.”

Critics point out that the experiment was conducted in large cities, which suggests that the aggression may have been caused not by the blazing heat, but by the nearby presence of way too many people, the principle being as Sartre said, that “Hell is other people.”

The researchers replied that there are large cities in peaceful nations too, such as Toronto, Canada. What turns one large population into “placid, mousey little nobodies” and another into “a horde of raging orcs and barbarians” is largely the climate, said Professor Bobbins. “For example, the infusion of Middle Eastern immigrants into France and the UK and the conflicts this has stirred up there can be interpreted thermodynamically. The immigrants’ heads store the excess heat from their native lands and disperse it in the cooler climates of Western Europe. That transfer of heat causes social chaos.”

The report has also been criticized for failing to take into account the counterexample of Australia. Australians are known for being friendly and laid back, and yet much of that continent is as hot as anywhere else on the planet.

The researchers credit this apparent discrepancy to Australia’s British heritage. Like Canada, modern Australia was colonized by the United Kingdom. The team theorized that abundant rain can function like snow in dissuading a population from wanting to go outdoors to kick up a mighty ruckus.

“The rain-soaked temperament of Brits was passed onto Australian culture, making Aussies as tranquil and bloodless as Canadians,” said Professor Bobbins. 

“As for Russia,” she continued, “while it’s true that Russians have historically preferred authoritarian rulers and been as brutal as all get-out, as in their laying waste to the Nazis, it’s notable that the soviets saw their ideology as being especially rational, even scientific. The Nazis, too, looked to science to support their social Darwinian prejudices.

“Temperature is only one factor in determining a population’s passivity or aggression, not the only one,” she conceded. “But while European and North Asian forms of violence are couched in rational or pseudoscientific terms, those forms that break out in scorching-hot zones are chaotic or primitive, showing similarities to the sort of genetic tribalism we see in other species.

“This is because the sweltering heat shuts down the cerebral cortex, leaving mainly the older, emotional and reactionary parts of the brain to steer the ship—and to pick up the pieces when those primitive forms of thinking crash the ship into a cliff.”

The team’s research has also been criticized for being flat-out racist. Professor Bobbins said in response that she “doesn’t care about skin colour. It’s not about innate differences between people, since even an annoyingly-polite Canadian will start to act like a jihadist nut job if he’s forced to live for years in a desert. Like they say in real estate, it’s ‘location, location, location.’”

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Man with Skin Cancer loathes Doctors, Dies without Medical Treatment

Dateline: NEW JERSEY—Morris Berbowski, a 53 year-old man, died from skin cancer after refusing to be treated by any doctor for seven years, because he couldn’t find one who wasn’t “a condescending douchebag.”

Seven years ago, Berbowski did show a doctor an embarrassing rash that had developed on his legs and backside, but was traumatized by the experience.

Speaking to a film crew shortly before his death, who produced a documentary about his conflict with doctors, called “Is there a Non-Obnoxious Doctor in the House?” Berbowski said that that doctor—the last he would ever be treated by—used him as “a guinea pig.”

“He was a skin specialist,” said Berboski, “who needed to be summoned by a referral from a general practitioner. The field of doctors is split into a hierarchy, don’t you know. That’s what feeds their god complex, and they inflict that mental disorder onto the rest of us who just want to be given the treatment for our illness, without having to be entangled in the doctor’s power games.

“So I got the referral, waited in line for an hour and a half, and was finally shown to the specialist. He was middle-aged but in flawless physical condition. That was because he was rich, of course, and that too feeds their god complex, the fact that doctors are always overpaid.

“Anyway, there was also an attractive young lady who sat beside the specialist. It turned out she was a medical student who was being trained by the expert. When the doctor told me to lower my pants to show him my skin condition, I felt humiliated because I’d have to show her my naked rear end which was covered in rashes and blisters. But because the doctor spoke with authority and I felt I had no choice, I did as I was told, and the pair of them proceeded to investigate my buttocks, chatting and chuckling as they did so. He used my painful skin condition to illustrate to her the finer points of the textbook definition of my ailment.

“When they had their fill of schadenfreude and no doubt felt sufficiently superior to me, he told me to raise my pants. I did so and when I turned around to face them, they were both smiling like nothing untoward had happened. He wrote out a prescription for an ointment he said might relieve the symptoms for a while. But there are dozens of expensive skin creams out there and I would have to keep purchasing them to find one that works best. The scams in the medical profession are never-ending.

“I left humiliated and vowed I would never again let an arrogant doctor gratify his vanity at my expense.”

Some months later, Berbowski contracted skin cancer. He went to a doctor but as soon as he detected that the doctor had an unbearable attitude, Berbowski left in great haste without receiving treatment.

“That first doctor I saw to treat my cancer began talking to me about his sports car. Instantly I was out the door. And so began my odyssey to find a doctor in North America who isn’t insufferable. I drove all across the continent and left empty-handed.”

The cancer-ridden victim spoke of how “most doctors don’t even want to see you. You have to beg and plead just to be accepted by a general practitioner, before you can get the golden ticket to be shown into the hallowed halls of a specialist. That’s how the medical system trains patients to be passive and to overlook the hubris and haughtiness of these experts.”

Berbowski visited a doctor in Ontario, Canada and watched as the trim and physically fit doctor flirted with a secretary before the secretary commanded Berbowski to wait in another room, without bothering to look at Berbowski.

“First you wait in the general waiting area,” explained Berbowski, “typically for an hour, because doctors are always behind in their work. Then they send you to an isolated waiting room, ostensibly because it affords the patient some privacy. But in practice, you end up waiting there alone for another fifteen minutes or so, and that also trains you to be compliant and to accept your lowly position of being at the doctor’s beck and call. He’s in charge and he’ll see you only when he’s good and ready.

“When I discovered that that Canadian doctor's underling wouldn’t even look at me when she ordered me into the other waiting room, I took that as a bad sign: if I had stayed longer I would have been subjected to the offshoots of his syndrome, of his god complex. So I just turned around and left, without even relishing what must have been the puzzled look on his face.”

Berbowski maintained that doctors and psychiatrists suffer from the delusion that they’re gods, because they hold other people’s lives in their hands. The feeling that they have godlike power corrupts them, and so instead of doing no harm, as required by their professional oath, they inflict their patients with their character flaws, specifically with “condescension, obnoxious displays of vanity, and an overbearing attitude.”

After “crisscrossing the land for three years,” without finding a pleasant physician, Berboswki gave up and resigned himself to his fate. “I’ll likely die from skin cancer,” he said just days before he did die, “but my dignity matters more to me than increasing the number of years I have to live.”

The documentary ends with Berbowski cursing the medical profession for its hypocrisy and for adding to the high price of medical care the cost of having to suffer being near doctors. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Life as a Dream: The Secular Myth of Objective Truth

Art by Erik Johansson
Is life is but a dream, as the nineteenth century nursery rhyme assures us? Liberals, humanists, and naturalists insist that now more than ever, with the rise of fascism in Europe, Russia, and America; with the strange convergence of alt-right grievances with postmodern cynicism; and while demagogues, charlatans, and agnotologists in politics, advertising, and the corporate media are spreading doubt, spin, and propaganda, we should stand up for truth. However, this conflict between so-called rationalists or critical thinkers, on the one hand, and hillbillies and con artists, on the other, is a tempest in a teapot. Those who take the long view are invited to understand how truth died with God shortly after the Scientific Revolution, several centuries ago.

The concept of truth had already been suspect for millennia, when divine reality was thought to transcend human comprehension. What we took to be mundane, worldly truths, such as that the desert is hot during the day or that a normal human face has two eyes, a nose and a mouth, were mere illusions compared to mystical “truth,” the latter being ineffable and at best experienced as awe in moments of heightened awareness. Gods were only posited by our imagination, based on a lack of data (and on a noble lie developed by psychopathic power elites for the sake of pacifying the human herd of betas). Scientists collected the data, thanks to advances in technology, mathematics, and epistemology, and the gods were accordingly replaced with atoms and physical forces. Natural reality is measurable whereas the gods weren’t, but atoms and forces are likewise beyond our understanding in that they’re wildly counterintuitive.

The only thing we can fully understand is ourselves. Everything else must be simplified in the telling of them with concepts and models which idealize and which rest on falsifying metaphors that would humanize the inhuman. The proper subjects of knowledge are us and our societies; reason evolved to enable us to understand only minds and cultures with which we’re intimately familiar since we identify with them. The stories we tell about ourselves aren’t simplifications, since we’re identical with the subjects of those narratives, not with our brains as such. When we seek to understand the wider world, however, we either project human categories onto nature, as occurs in theistic religions and in folk conceptions, or else we effectively exchange the pursuit of truth with that of power.

In the epistemic context, anthropomorphism is philosophically unforgivable, however socially useful might be the gratuitous shrinking of outer reality so that it seems to fit within the human scale. Socrates sacrificed his life for the principle that truth matters more than our comfort. Instead of flattering ourselves with delusions that hold society together at the cost of confining us to an animal mode of life, we should search for a higher calling according to our position in the ultimate, metaphysical scheme. Unfortunately, Plato’s teleological picture of nature is a rehashing of the folk prejudices, losing the human interest of the transparent personifications in popular religion, in exchange for pseudoscientific respectability afforded by the philosophical discourse. Instead of angelic or monstrous spirits flitting about and deciding how events unfold, there are supposedly levels of being, including Forms and their material copies. In any case, scientific naturalism renders such interim philosophical tales obsolete. What isn’t well-appreciated, though, is that the very notion of truth is also outdated. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Eldritch Revelations: The Mystery of Consciousness and the Fear of Death

[In his published monograph, Eldritch Revelations (One, Two, Three), the psychiatrist of the infamous Jurgen Schulz wrote that only short fragments of Schulz’s philosophical journal survived his escape from Borsa Castle. But after the psychiatrist’s mysterious death shortly after publication, longer fragments were discovered in the psychiatrist’s office, locked in a drawer. The publisher of ER herewith appends these longer fragments as they’re made available by the translator, beginning with this passage on the problem of consciousness.] 

***

Perhaps the oldest fiction is that there are two worlds instead of one, the timeless, invisible, spiritual heaven that directs the material realm in which things come and go. And our unique dignity as enlightened beings is supposed to lie in our having a foothold in both worlds. Our consciousness belongs to the unseen utopia, to the hidden source of truth and beauty, while our body is plainly a physical object that emerges, evolves, and decays along with everything else in nature. But as physiologists learned how the body operates, the mystery deepened as to how ethereal consciousness, which used to be known as the spirit, could arise from matter. Our inner domain which seems like a sliver of supernature is full of mental contents, including tastes, smells, emotions, and thoughts, which are utterly unlike the stuff in which our body, including our brain consists. When you taste an exquisite dessert, you wouldn’t thereby be tempted to eat the neurons that are associated with that sensation, since the two tastes would be altogether different. There’s a philosophical mystery of consciousness, then, because there’s a mental blockage in our attempt to conceive of how a physical thing could have an interior point of view, a private world of meaningful mental states.

Less well known is that this problem of the apparent duality of matter and mind has two equivalent formulations, one of which proves more enlightening than the other. The common formulation is the evolutionary one, according to which we have difficulty explaining how mind emerges from matter. Notice, though, that the explanatory relationship can be reversed, in which case we might wonder how mind can be dissolved into matter. This latter formulation is just an abstract statement of the problem of death, as opposed to the question of how consciousness is created in the first place. How material compounds can cohere in such a way that they take on a conscious viewpoint which allows the material aggregate to act knowingly and creatively in what is mostly a lifeless void is one mystery. An equivalent mystery begins with the datum of consciousness and proceeds to the question of how consciousness fades away with the body’s eventual demise.

The second way of putting the problem shows why both mysteries appear to have no solution. The heart of the conundrum isn’t intellectual, but emotional. It’s not that we lack the brainpower to conceive of how mind can be merged with a material body; rather, we can’t bear to pursue the issue forthrightly, because we’re innately horrified by the inevitability of our personal death. Indeed, we’d prefer to live forever, but are confronted by the impermanence of all natural things. Thus, we’re blocked from understanding how a material thing can be conscious, because we’re disgusted by our future in which we’ll be no more, as our body deteriorates and expires. Were we presented with a theory that specifies the mechanics of how consciousness interacts with or inheres in matter, we would refuse to accept the implications as long as we still feared death.

That fear is in turn a consequence of our love of life. Every cell of our being drives us to live more and better, which is why the contemplation of death is morbid and taboo. To ponder what your death will be like is to betray the genetic compulsion and hormones and cultural conditioning that establish the norm of living with blinders to certain dark realities. Biologically, we perceive only that fraction of the universe which is useful to our survival, although science has entered us into the infamous Faustian bargain in which we dare to see further than is recommended to maintain our sanity. Death is despicable because we’re naturally driven to prolong our life at all costs, and this instinct is at least a precondition of the mind-body problem. Of course, the theoretical problem is agonized over by living creatures, by clever animals that figured out not just how to be self-aware, but that the self will apparently be extinguished at the end of a process of material dying. The certainty of death is apparent only to highly intelligent creatures that have learned to wrestle with complexities and abstractions that are unknown to lesser organisms. Nevertheless, the will to survive is universal in the animal kingdom and thus the terror of death persists even in the philosopher.

True, we can be depressive and suicidal, but even should we relinquish the zest for life and embark upon a plot to kill ourselves, we can experience only the act of dying, never the end of death. As long as we live, we live in bodies that evolved to protect themselves, to preserve and to transmit their genetic code. Once we die, the emotional component of the problem of how mind relates to the body is of course undone, since we then no longer exist and thus can no longer fear death or be compelled to endure. Suppose, though, that someone were somehow to have no fear of death and thus no love of life. Such a being would contemplate the prospect of dying with perfect neutrality. Were she biologically programmed to defend her life, she would be alienated from her body, since by hypothesis she would have no emotional attachment to her life. At most she would observe herself going through the motions of breathing, eating, and generally of preserving her life, say, by checking that the way is clear before she crosses the street, but she wouldn’t care about the outcome. However, these life-preserving instincts would be less effective without their emotive component. So such a being would more likely act neither for nor against her benefit. She would be as indifferent towards her life as would be the rest of the universe. To that extent, she would be an object rather than a living thing. What this indicates is that the mind-body problem arises only for a creature that’s at least minimally self-interested, who prefers to live and who thus loathes the thought of her passing into nothingness.

Fear of death isn’t just a precondition of the mystery of how a material body can be conscious; rather, that fear is what renders that identity a problem. Again, the problem isn’t that we can’t understand how material things can come together to form a subject, since at the subatomic level matter itself is as ethereal as any ghost. No, the problem is that we don’t want to be bodies that face the certainty of losing everything we once had. We refuse to dwell on this agonizing certainty, since we’re intrinsically disgusted by it, and so we’re mentally blocked from picking up the problem from the other end, from imagining how a material thing can become conscious, since the two statements of the problem are philosophically equivalent.