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 to 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. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

American Voter Turnout shrinks to Six People in 2028

In the year 2028, voter turnout fell in the United States to such an extent that only six people voted in that year’s presidential election.

The winner, Republican Lee Dumbluck, received three of the six votes, while the Democrat received two and the sixth went to a third party candidate.

Most Americans still consider their country democratic, because most Americans have the opportunity to vote.

However, some political pseudoscientists believe there’s another reason why Americans continue to accept the result of their elections in which the winner receives a share of the votes that reflects the will of only a small minority of the total population.

Billy Wallaby, researcher at the Machiavelli Institute, maintains that after each election, the hundreds of millions of Americans who didn’t vote in 2028 were rendered invisible to the mass media, due to an electrochemical effect in the journalists’ brains.

According to Wallaby, “Most Americans can still call their president the leader of the free world, without falling to the floor and laughing for an uncomfortably long period of time, because the horde of nonvoters gets forgotten. Somehow, journalists literally can’t see the nonvoters, so they can’t report on the phenomenon. All that matters is counting the precious votes that are actually cast, so if only five votes are cast, those five voters are all that matter. The rest of the country might as well be living on Mars.

“If only we could pinpoint the neural effect at work, perhaps the blinders might be lifted and journalists could begin to do the elementary math needed to understand that our elections are jokes. Once that happens, Americans might find themselves reading in the news that if ‘democracy’ means rule by the majority, and only a minority of people show up to vote, the winner democratically represents only that small slice of the population, not the whole country, state, or county.

“If a large majority of the eligible voters vote, as happens in most democratic countries, the nonvoters can be written off, but when half the population or more doesn’t vote and yet the election result is heralded as a model for democracies everywhere, something’s rotten in Denmark.”

Marsha Thickglasses, historian at Harvard, has written extensively about American elections. “For many decades,” she said, “voter turnout in the US has been shockingly low. After 1908, turnout in midterm elections has always been below 50 percent of eligible voters, and often below 40 percent. That means the winning senator or congressperson might have garnered a voting share of less than a quarter of the total population of eligible voters in that part of the country. In the twentieth century, turnout in presidential elections has usually been around 55 percent, so again the winner is democratically supported by little more than a quarter of eligible voters, because the vote is often evenly split in the two-party system.”

Professor Thickglasses pointed out that after the Trump debacle, when Americans lost all hope and faith in their founding myths, voter turnout “dropped off a cliff.” “Now in 2028, when only a handful of persons bothered to show up to vote, you’d think that the thundering silence from the nonvoters would itself have some sort of political impact. Specifically, you’d figure it would discredit the result of the bogus election. But that never happens here.”

In European countries that have numerous political parties which split the vote, the winners share power proportionally with those who received smaller shares of the votes. But in the United States, the winner takes all. According to the professor, “That quantum leap from receiving perhaps only 20 percent of the vote from eligible voters, to going on to hold political power over both the rival voters and the many nonvoters is obviously undemocratic.”

One nonvoter, Marcus Appleby, would prefer for the nation to pay less attention to the American government. “Remember in high school,” he said, “when there was a silly students council, and the most popular, go-getting, good-looking kids ran in a farcical ‘election’ to be student representative, and only their eight or nine closest friends voted? And then nobody heard about the student council afterward until the next year’s phony election, but that popular kid got to add a line to his or her resume, and that was the end of it?

“Why can’t American elections be more like that? If our government’s a fraud, why can’t we at least keep it out of sight and mind? That’s what we nonvoters try to do, but the media insist on smothering us with stories about those spoiled, busy-body joiners, the politicians who need to flatter themselves and puff up their self-esteem with the illusion that the majority approves of them, when in fact most people couldn’t care less.”

A shrewd American nonvoter, Gong Li, has started the Nonvoters Party. “Our goal,” he said, “is to represent the nonvoters and to change the Constitution to account for our constituency. So if the Democratic and Republican candidates each get around 25 percent support from the eligible voters, and our candidate implicitly gets closer to 50 percent from the nonvoters, the Nonvoters Party should win. Our sole use of that democratic power then would be to declare the election null and void, in addition to being a sham. And Americans would be back at square one.”

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Russian Intelligence Operative reveals why Putin helped Elect Donald Trump

Dateline: MOSCOW—Russian intelligence operative admitted to meeting with Donald Trump and with members of his inner circle during the 2016 presidential campaign, to explain to the Americans that Putin wanted Trump to beat Hillary Clinton because Trump is a colossal fuckup and would surely sink the United States.

In a candid interview with CNN’s Jenny Manjaws, Russian intelligence officer Sergei Waxonandov conceded that during the campaign he secretly met with Trump, Sessions, Flynn, Kushner, and with others who worked for the candidate.

But Waxonandov denied there was any quid pro quo. Said Waxonandov, “Putin doesn’t expect Trump will intentionally return the favour of our helping to get him elected by releasing the emails we stole from the DNC. The favour will be returned, though, unintentionally, because Trump will mire his country in ignorance and in chaos so that regardless of Trump’s plans, America will be unable to coherently affect world affairs.

“We told this directly to Trump’s entourage,” continued Waxonandov. “I told Kushner, ‘You know and I know that Trump is a farce as a human being—just a complete, cartoonish farce. And that’s why we want him to be president. We don’t want a competent, rational foe like another Clinton to prevent Russia from regaining its imperial power. We want Trump to discredit democracy, the free market, materialism, and all liberal, Western values. We want the rest of the world to look up to Russia, not the United States, to associate America with the vulgar, blustering ignoramus who is your father-in-law. We want Trump to humiliate the US so that Americans will lose faith in their culture and institutions, so that the shell of their society will crumble like the Soviet Union’s did. We want revenge against America, to reduce that country to ashes without our having to fire a single shot on American soil. Trump is our man, because he’s nothing more than an agent of destruction.’”

According to Waxonandov, Jared Kusher replied, “I’m fine with that.”

Waxonandov revealed that he met also with Ivanka Trump and told her, “Russia will do everything in its power to help your father win the presidency. Donald Trump is a blessing to enemies of America everywhere. All he can be counted on doing is to destroy his country the way he bankrupted his companies, or to turn American culture into a vulgar comedy like his brand and his television show.”

Ivanka Trump replied, “Sounds super-awesome. I’m all on board with that. Where do I sign?”

The forthright Russian intelligence operative told Trump to his face, “We thank God that you decided to run, Mr. Trump. When you embarrass your nation with scandal after scandal, when Bannon’s juvenile policies sap the strength of your nation’s economy, when your manifest psychopathy taints the American Dream for all time, be assured that we’ll honour you in the halls of the Kremlin. You’re welcome to drink vodka with Putin anytime, day or night. We wish you Godspeed in ravaging your motherland.” 

Trump, who would go on to become president, replied, “I’m humbled by your confidence in my abilities.”

Some Democrats have evinced skepticism that Trump would have been thankful for Russia’s involvement in the US election, if Waxonandov laid out the reasons for that meddling only by savaging Trump’s character. “Putin must have flattered Trump instead,” said one Democratic senator, “and Trump must have promised to aid Russia in return. Or else Russia blackmailed Trump.”

But Waxonandov rejected those interpretations. “We could indeed have blackmailed Trump, but to what end? Trump will make a fortune after he leaves office, regardless of whether his presidency benefits or wrecks his country. That’s just the natural order of things over there: Trump will capitalize on his increased brand recognition. So the facts that Russian oligarchs loaned him hundreds of millions of dollars over the last couple of decades, and Putin could forgive that debt, hold no leverage over Trump.

“And while the narcissist Trump obviously loves to be flattered, Putin isn’t one for sucking up to anyone.

“No, the only reason we would have met with Trump and his team, to discuss how we colluded to hand him victory over Clinton, was to boast that with Trump as president, Russia would come out on top, no matter what Trump tries to do as president.”

Saturday, March 4, 2017

United States Successfully Imprisons All its Citizens

In the year 2024, the United States perfected its prison industry by imprisoning all of its citizens, including the judges, lawyers, and police.

Trials thereafter occurred within prison cells, as did all other business and family matters.

Judge Leo Flaherty recalled rendering a guilty verdict while sitting on the top bunk, dressed in his orange prison uniform. He used a plastic ruler as a gavel, and the prosecutors and defense lawyers had to shout to be heard from an adjacent cell.

Flaherty was later interviewed by a journalist across the hall, who took notes while questioning the judge from behind bars.

When asked whether the American judicial system is perhaps overzealous in locking up American citizens, Flaherty said, “Nonsense! We’re a nation of laws, and criminals belong behind bars. Some decades ago, loopholes were added to the law by special interests to avoid being found guilty of white collar crimes. While those loopholes may have been eliminated because the prison industry lobbied Washington out of self-interest, the result is an unintentional triumph for morality. And we have the invisible hand of the market to thank for that.

“After all, there can be no doubt now that Americans have regained the moral high ground in the global context, because we can hardly be accused of being soft on wrongdoing. True, we’re all in prison, but there’s always the hope that when released, an American will last more than five minutes on the outside without committing a crime in this, one of the world’s most litigious and Puritanical societies. Now, with marijuana, financial fraud, mental disorders, and coarse language illegal around these parts, no one is safe, not even children.”

Foreigners wonder how a country can function when all of its citizens operate behind bars. A Frenchman asks, “How do they catch criminals on the outside when the rest are all in prison?” The answer is that robots patrol the mostly empty neighborhoods on behalf of the prison industry.

An Australian asks why the shareholders of prison companies would lobby for such a stringent judicial system, when they too would likely be found guilty of something. “What’s the point of making millions when you have to spend it in a prison cell?”

Jeannette Claudette, CEO of Prisons R Us, a large company that runs dozens of prisons across the United States, says she has no regrets. Lying on her cot while being raped by her cellmate, her silk uniform having been torn to shreds, she was interviewed by a robot jailer.

“I merely followed capitalistic logic,” she said while sobbing, “to maximize profit. If the market dictates that by rewriting the laws and pressuring the enforcement agencies to automate themselves and show no leniency, thus enriching my company, I too was bound to wind up in prison, so be it. The free market is infallible. In fact, the market is now the only free thing remaining in this country.”

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Gods are our Imaginary Friends

What are gods, assuming they don’t exist? They have many social functions as well as aesthetic values. They're tools for subjugating gullible hordes of uncritical thinkers; mirrors reflecting our vanity or perhaps harbingers of what we expect to become; fictions that inure us to the inevitability of our bodily demise. One aspect of the gods, though, that should be better understood follows when we reflect on two unsettling facts.

The High Likelihood of our Cosmic Aloneness

The first is that the probability is extremely low that any human will encounter intelligent extraterrestrial life, and that’s so even if the universe is teeming with life beyond the solar system. This is because the universe is so mind-bogglingly vast that the time needed to travel between galaxies or stars would make even a light speed journey unfeasible. Some parts of the universe are more star-dense than others, such as the areas closer to the center of a spiral galaxy, but our solar system happens not to be in such an area. The nearest stars to the sun are in the Alpha Centauri system and are about 4.3 light years away. Travel there by conventional rocket would take tens of thousands of years, and unconventional means such as warp drive are highly speculative. Moreover, by the time aliens could travel here or we could reach them, both their civilization and ours would likely have become extinct. That is, technologically-advanced civilizations likely don’t survive for the tens or hundreds of thousands of years needed to travel between stars, because power is naturally corrupting, corruption detaches the powerful from reality, but reality always has the last word and so the deluded are effectively punished by their downfall. Thus, just as creatures throughout the universe would be separated in space, they would also be divided by time: the chance that two species originating from different stars would be near enough that they could reach each other, while also evolving at roughly the same time is extremely remote, because the natural duration of each species must be infinitesimal compared to the life of each star. That is, a star lasts hundreds of millions or billions of years, while a technologically-advanced species probably lasts no more than some thousands of years, so species from planets orbiting different stars will more likely evolve before or after each other rather than in the same era.

In summary, we may be the only intelligent creatures to have evolved in any part of the universe that we could realistically reach throughout the lifespan of our species. But even if there are others, we will likely never communicate with them, both because of the vast distances between stars and the barrier of light speed, and because of the self-destructiveness of the technologically-advanced societies needed to undertake the venture of interstellar travel in the first place, which makes for the relative narrowness of the window of opportunity for communicating with alien life.

The second curious fact is that the average human brain prefers social contact to total isolation, and copes with solitary confinement by undergoing forms of mental derangement rather than suffering outright anxiety and despair. Mountaineers, solo explorers, marooned sailors, and prisoners who are isolated for most of the day in a maximum security facility cope by hallucinating, anthropomorphizing their indifferent environment, or by devising obscure problems to occupy the rational side of their mind; otherwise, they can succumb to psychosis. “Without social interaction, supermax prisoners have no way to test the appropriateness of their emotions or their fantastical thinking,” and so their interpretations become distorted. Lone adventurers attempt to transcend their situation by treating the natural environment itself as a surrogate for a companion, wondering at its grandeur instead of dwelling on their preference for social interaction. “A similar psychological mechanism could explain why shipwrecked mariners marooned on islands have been known to anthropomorphise inanimate objects, in some cases creating a cabal of imaginary companions with whom to share the solitude.” 

Monday, February 20, 2017

“Inappropriate,” the Power Elite's Ubiquitous Euphemism

Dateline: WASHINGTON, D.C.—Experts discover that American politicians, pundits, and journalists frequently say “That’s not appropriate” when they really mean, “I want to tear out your intestines and strangle you with them for doing that.”

Leslie Montague, psychologist at Pick Your Brains Medical Center in Scranton, began researching the euphemism when she saw CNN correspondent Jim Acosta at President Trump’s news conference.

Acosta attempted to ask the president a question, but Trump denied CNN the opportunity, calling CNN “fake news.” When Acosta persisted, Trump berated him with sarcastic remarks before sending his bodyguards to beat Acosta to a pulp. Still Acosta attempted to pose his question, and Trump dragged Acosta’s wife onto the stage and whipped her until she was screaming and crying for God to make it stop.

Said Montague, “That’s when Jim Acosta turned to look at Trump squarely in the eye, and he said weakly, blood dripping from his mouth, ‘Mr. President, that’s not appropriate.’

Montague studied the recording of that encounter and found that in between the blows and Taser assaults Acosta received at the hands of the bodyguards, the reporter kept meekly uttering the same phrase, “Not appropriate.”

“Acosta was smashed in the face by a baton and he muttered only, ‘This is inappropriate.’ A bodyguard kicked him in the groin, Acosta sank to the floor and he croaked, ‘Not appropriate, Mr. President.’ They beat his wife in front of the world, but Acosta knew his place. All he could do was to squeak like a mouse, saying the magic word: ‘Inappropriate.’”

Montague hypothesized that Acosta was using that word as a euphemism. “Clearly, Acosta would rather have said or done something else in response to the abuse and humiliation, but he seemed to realize that only his reference to what is or isn’t appropriate in Washington would allow him to fly under the radar, as it were.”

Politicians also resort to using that phrase. After George W. Bush accidentally launched nuclear missiles at Canada, wiping that country from the face of the Earth, Barack Obama said in his campaign for change, “That was most inappropriate. We need new leadership.”

A political pseudoscientist at the Machiavelli Institute interprets the euphemism as an inside joke among establishment figures. She said, “When politicians or other powerful persons condemn something with such an understatement, saying merely that it’s inappropriate, they’re thumbing their nose at the English language. The implication is that these power elites are too busy to think of a more fitting description of the matter, and anyway they’re too macho to want to get revenge just with words. These are men of action, so when they call something inappropriate, what they mean is that they’ll respond later by some underhanded means. They don’t want to call attention to their plan, so they employ the most innocuous expression they can think of.”

Wallace Wallaby, political pseudoscientist at the Class Warfare Academy, has a different interpretation. “The constant references you hear in D.C. and in other corridors of power to how this or that is inappropriate are actually quasi-religious expressions,” he said. “These powerful individuals are really functionaries in a system that they worship. It’s the system and the deep state that decide what’s appropriate, or what’s fitting for an assigned purpose. So saying that something is appropriate is like saying it’s in God’s hands. Calling something inappropriate is the secular equivalent of saying, ‘God damn it!’”

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Comedians Replace Democrats to Oppose Psycho Clown Republicans

To address the challenge presented by the new Republican Party, the Democratic Party has been replaced by a bevy of comedians.

The challenge began in 2017 when President Donald Trump made psychopathy cool. Henceforth the Republicans became informally known as the Psycho Clown Posse. Trump capitalized on the press’s bad press, further demonizing journalists whom the American public already trusted less than lawyers and politicians.

Trump’s real enemy, however, was the truth about reality. The press was only the messenger, and because the President’s narcissism detached him from external reality, the press was always the bearer of bad news about how Trump’s grandiose schemes crashed on the shores of a world that’s naturally indifferent to him.    

Declaring war on that world for the unforgivable sin of not loving Trump as much as he loves himself, the President created an alternative reality, using Fox News, Alex Jones’ conspiracy theories, shameless advisors and spokespeople, and his personal Twitter account to create a carnival culture that captured the public’s imagination.

The Democrats were caught flatfooted by this turn of events. Liberal pundits assumed they could counter Republican fantasies merely by pointing out the facts. When the public preferred to believe the fantasies, such as that Barak Obama is a Muslim communist, that Trump had the largest inauguration audience, that millions voted illegally for Hillary Clinton, or that the press is the enemy of the American people, Democrats startled Republicans by searching for the switch on the back of their necks which they believed must have got stuck in the wrong position.

As one Democratic senator explained, “We’re all robots, of course, so the Republicans’ logic circuits must be broken. All we have to do is reset their software so they can appreciate the value of facts, statistics, and other forms of accurate information.”

When in 2018 it turned out there’s no such switch on the back of Americans’ necks, and people are more like irrational animals than logic-loving Vulcans or robots, the Democrats fell out of favour, losing seats in that year’s congressional election.

Comedians came to the rescue, using satire and parody rather than history or science to unsettle Americans about the embarrassing state of their society. As one of the leaders of the Comedian Party explained, “Our philosophy is simple: when you’re dealing with an insane opponent, stop playing by the old rules and pretending you can appeal to reality to trump his fantasy. Instead, you take for granted that the truth is on your side, and you ridicule the daylights out of the psycho clowns until they can no longer be taken seriously and their circus becomes a sideshow.”

In 2019 Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway continued to practice the political clown’s art of agnotology, which is the spreading of disinformation and doubt for the purpose of gaslighting the public, of persuading them to accept a world of “alternative facts,” as Conway inadvertently called it. The Comedians responded by mocking the Psycho Clown Party for the banality of its lies.

“The trick is to switch from epistemology to aesthetics,” said one comedian. “You don’t tackle a psychopathic clown’s self-congratulatory rants as if they were rational statements. You go after them as works of fiction. And the thing about psycho clowns and hack agnotologists is that their fiction stinks—on purely literary grounds.”   

When in early 2019 Stephen Miller declared on Fox News that Americans should call Trump their emperor and stop questioning his motives or policies, Comedian Senator Bill Maher said Trump is “the boy emperor with no clothes. He’s a fat orangutan running naked in the streets, but you still need a magnifying glass to find his tiny pecker.”  

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Psychiatrists reach Opposite Conclusions about President Trump’s Mental Health

Dateline: NEW YORK CITY—On Monday, Feb 15, the New York Times published a letter signed by 37 psychiatrists who expressed severe doubts about President Trump’s mental health.

Trump “appears to have had the fragile mind of a two-year old implanted into his 70 year-old brain,” said the psychiatrists. “Our expert medical opinion is that President Trump is off his rocker. More specifically, he’s fallen off his rocker, landed on the floor, rolled off the floor and out the front door, down the steps and down the mountain side, splashed into the ocean and sank into a volcano at the bottom of the sea.”

Thanks to the technological services of an anonymous group of hackers, 200 million Americans were able to simultaneously pipe their response to the letter directly into the bedrooms of all 37 psychiatrists. Transmitted at a deafening decibel, the response was, “No shit, Captain Obvious!”

Two days later, the NY Times published a letter signed by 37 different psychiatrists who reached the opposite conclusion, that Trump’s mental state is as healthy as anyone’s can be.

Curiously, both letters were signed by 20 men and 17 women. One of the male psychiatrists who signed the first letter is a little person, and one who signed the second is also a little person.

Three of the men who signed the first letter, and three of the different men who signed the second all have 9 inch-long scraggly beards that have the same mixed shades of brown and grey.

Two of the women who signed the first letter, and two of the different women who signed the second have had mastectomies.

This has led one physicist to blame the mirroring effect on spillover from other universes in the multiverse. 

Another physicist, Eugene Nerdopolous, has posited what he calls the “Of Course Principle” to explain the puzzling phenomenon of professionals who cancel each other out in psychiatry and in several other sciences.

“To paraphrase Isaac Newton,” he says, “for every psychiatrist there’s an equal and opposite psychiatrist.

“And the same holds in any scientific field in which a lot of money is at stake for the scientist. If one blood spatter expert is willing to testify that the blood left at the crime scene was caused by a gruesome act of murder, of course another will testify that the red fluid isn’t blood at all, but raspberry filling from a squashed donut.”

The differences aren’t due merely to the ambiguity of the subject matter, which could allow for different rational interpretations. “It’s more a question of the world mocking our vain attempts to understand and control it. When 37 psychiatrists think anyone needs them to state the obvious about Trump, and then the universe throws up 37 equal and opposite psychiatrists, something’s having a laugh at our expense.”

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Civilization requires Myths, and Myths are Absurd

There’s good reason to think that the culture of any mass society depends on myths which are fictions, which is to say lies we’re too polite to identify as such because these lies achieve a higher good. But what are the implications of this hypothesis, for moderns and liberals who flatter themselves that they’re rational and not so credulous?

Myths Define Cultural Identity

Every large society is founded on myths which are fictions that collectively distort the population’s perception of reality to maintain its group cohesion. In his book, Sapiens, Harari sets forth one explanation of how these myths arose, which begins by pointing out that our social instincts were adapted to stabilizing small tribes of around 150 members. In such groups we can use gossip and memory to form social bonds, based on familiarity with each other. But the agricultural revolutions in the Neolithic Period drew masses of thousands and millions of strangers together, which created the problem of unifying these masses to prevent them from splitting into more manageable subgroups. The solution was that although in the actual world a multitude may have many reasons to split due to natural differences of race, gender, character, and opinion, belief in an alternative, fictional world could compel everyone to imagine themselves as having a single, collective identity. This solution was made possible by our large, flexible brains, which allow us to dissociate information, to mentally model possible worlds and to overlay values and counterfactual interpretations onto sense data. For millennia the myths that sustained nations and empires were religious and cosmological, instilling in the citizens their collective values, and constructing theological or philosophical justifications for them in the myth’s narratives.

A second cause of the prevalence of myths is apparent from the Handicap Principle in biology. In a context in which deception is often in creatures’ self-interest, a signal is more reliable if it’s delivered at a cost to the signaler. Thus, an animal may really be formidable if it can afford to squander its strength on ostentatious displays. For example, the male peacock signals to the female that it’s a worthy mate, by finding a way to cope with its gaudy and comically-oversized tail feathers. (This has given rise to the term “peacocking” in the game of pickup artists.) In the same way, conspicuous consumption indicates that the consumer has money to waste on frivolous and often self-destructive entertainments. And whereas our imagination and reasoning may be geared to planning on how to exploit regularities in the natural environment, to increase the chance of our survival under the condition of nature’s indifference towards us, a decadent population finds itself able to squander these mental resources by entertaining outlandish scenarios and having them colour its perception of reality. Thus, the more absurd the myth, the greater the population’s apparent willpower. A foreigner might be led to think, “They can afford to believe the most errant nonsense without dying of embarrassment, so their group cohesion must be superhuman.”

This leads to a third root of our large-scale reality distortion, which is that the more counterfactual the cultural narrative, the greater the test of an individual’s faith in the collective identity. A classic example of this is Tertullian’s boast that he believes the Christian creed because it’s absurd. The fideistic rationalization of that faith would be that a doctrine’s absurdity may be a sign of its supernatural, transcendent origin. Similarly, Saint Paul said that the wisdom of the natural world is foolishness to God, and Jesus is alleged to have said that we must be childlike to enter the kingdom of God. These would be rationalizations, of course, not epistemically worthy justifications of faith, because not every childlike act of avoiding the natural world need be a sign of some connection to a supernatural reality. Even if there were some higher realm that we could access only nonrationally, many nonrational expressions may be merely insane or serving the purpose of a fraud, as in the case of cults, for example.

An unsettling implication of this hypothesis, that every large population holds itself together by suspending disbelief in a cultural fiction, is that even the so-called modern, secular West depends on myths in that respect. As Harari also points out, these secular myths are economic and political rather than explicitly theological or cosmological. Since the Renaissance, Westerners have trusted in science, capitalism, liberalism, and above all in individualism. We believe individuals should be free to decide how they should live, and that scientific exploration and capitalistic struggle for private profit are progressive. In The Age of Insanity, Schumaker distinguishes between modernity in general and the Western, American-led form of it. Modernity after the Scientific Revolution he characterizes as “a postindustrial order whose primary features are commodification, consumption, social marginality, technological encroachment, amplified organizational power, homogenized drives and tastes, deregulation of volition and emotion, incomprehensible abstract systems, simultaneous communication, and the shift toward reflexive knowledge.” The values of the Western form of modernization are “personal autonomy, self-reliance, future orientation, a strong appetite for change, capitalistic heroism, and success-mindedness.”