Saturday, November 17, 2018

Modernity and Disenchantment

Art by FrodoK (Leszek Kostuj)
The discourse of modernity as disenchantment: empiricists and positivists from David Hume to Auguste Comte to James Frazer argued that knowledge is based on sensation and thus is limited to the material world, or that history progresses from the superstitions of folk and organized religions to science and to what Max Weber called the rationalization of society, that is, the triumph of instrumental reason and the organization of everything according to the ego-driven principle that the environment can and should be controlled. Thus, the bureaucratic state ascends with what Thomas Frank calls the professional class of liberal technocrats, and with the neoliberal ideology that market forces should be socially omnipotent. Once we understand that the real world is only natural, we’re free (thanks to the secular state) to learn how indifferent, natural processes work so that we might advance our interests by controlling those processes. We, too, are natural beings and so we either control ourselves or are controlled by others.

The world we experience, then, is disenchanted, which means that life has lost its charm. We who are informed about the philosophical upshot of the last few centuries of scientific discoveries or who at least live in the “modern” world created by the technological and ideological applications of science suffer from ennui, angst, apathy, depression, cynicism. This is the so-called postmodern fallout of early-modern optimism about Reason. Romantics reminded the disenchanters that nature is vastly larger than we can likely comprehend and that we yearn on the contrary to experience the world as carefree children do, gleeful and awed as they are by the mysteries that surround them. Charles Taylor argues in The Secular Age that this progress of instrumental reason doesn’t entail the subtraction of mystery and religion, after all; instead, what humanism and the separation of church and state made possible was cultural pluralism. John Grey, Erik Davis, and Yuval Harari show that secular humanism and liberalism are rooted in old theologies, religious values, or mystical aspirations, and so we have the ironic prospect of modern re-enchantment. Nietzsche was a modern prophet who called for such a return of wonder in the face of nature’s power. The psychologically and historically advanced person seeks union with mighty nature by accepting the harshness of the world’s indifference to our preferences. More recently, Josephson-Storm argues in The Myth of Disenchantment that, contrary to the Frankfurt School, for example, reason only appears to drain mystery from the world, since modern history’s champions and theorists of disenchanted reason, from Kant and Freud to Weber and Carnap were steeped in mysticism and the esoteric. 

The Charmed Life

Those are some themes of “modern enchantment,” but to understand them we need to be clear on the nature of an enchanted life. Patrick Curry clarifies the concept well in Enlightenment and Modernity, when he quotes J.R.R. Tolkien’s distinction between magic and enchantment. Magic, says Tolkien, “produces, or pretends to produce, an alteration in the Primary World....it is not an art but a technique; its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills.” By contrast, the “primal desire at the heart of Faërie [that is, enchantment]” is “the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder.” So science grows out of magic, both being forms of instrumental reason, whereas an experience of enchantment requires an admission of powerlessness, as in the case of the audience that can’t fathom how a magic trick was pulled off. According to Curry, enchantment “partakes of a non-anthropocentric animism, or what Plumwood called ‘active intentionality’, in which subjectivity (the quality of being a subject) manifests in ways which transgress the official boundaries between human/ non-human, animate/ inanimate, as well as spiritual/ material.” Moreover,
enchantment is irredeemably wild; as such, unbiddable; and as such again, unusable. This is not at all to say enchantment has no effects, of course; they can be life-changing. But they cannot be controlled. By the same token, enchantment can be invited but not commanded. (Artists know this; the best materials, the most skilled writer, painter or musician, a stellar cast – none of this guarantees a performance that truly enchants.) In contrast to anything that can, at least apparently, be manipulated mechanically, enchantment entails not mastery but existential equality; not dictation but negotiation; not programme but discovery. It follows that any attempt at a programmatic use of enchantment necessarily converts it into something else, no matter how similar that may appear to be, and its handlers want it to be, to the original.
Because enchantment is wild, it’s associated with the wilderness or nature, although the two aren’t identical, says Curry, since we can experience wonder and enchantment in cities.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Pointing


In some aerie a fabled library soars;
On its myriad scrolls each truth is told,
The secrets behind all hidden doors,
Knowledge dearer than mountains of gold;
Intricate curves and dots and lines
Conspire to trap the facts as signs.
So dreams the world-weary sage,
Wasting his best years with books;
The farce playing out on stage
Pales next to ink on yellowed page.
He points to the exit and a dog looks
But sees no ghostly cue in the hand;
Staring dumbly the beast sits still,
The gesture lost like a diamond in sand.
None follows too the inky trail of his quill:
In their trendy charades the thinker’s ignored;
He haunts the town below like a wraith;
Only the deaf and blind are adored
Who know nothing but keep the faith.
To deathless atoms learning’s a sideshow,
A gilded map to nowhere,
Pointless as a severed big toe.
When he awakens to the nightmare
He sets the sorted scrolls ablaze,
The rising smoke offending no one;
His protest fades like the guru in the maze
That has no welcome or escape:
Until exhausted he may run
Before collapsing in a daze,
As one in dying with the landscape.



Saturday, November 10, 2018

What Leads the Empty Suits?

In high school as a teenaged peasant
I watched the young aristos from afar,
But down a locker hall a young rock star
Once offered the crowd a present.
Like Conan he carried the wench
On his shoulder, urging the nobodies
To squeeze her denim-clad rear;
She laughed and didn’t clench,
I saw, when they drew near,
Though I could only hold back like Socrates
Muttering an awkward doubt:
Was this some twisted Robin Hood
Stealing the secrets of girlhood,
Lavishing riches on the washout?
Or were these young aristocrats—
Rich envied beauties that they were—
More like brazen vampire bats
Shaming the lowly poseur
With their backhanded gift,
Feeding off of awe and the spotlight?
While most at that age are adrift
One clique had the comfort of a birthright,
Dionysian orgies to attend,
Sports cars to drive and drugs to smoke,
Social ladders to ascend,
Demonic powers to invoke.
They padded their résumés, practiced fitting in
At student council, seeing nothing amiss
When only three votes were cast
To send them into low office;
Because it paid off a win is a win.
Meanwhile I mastered being an outcast:
With a dozen others I stood on stage as a prop,
As a tool and living backdrop
For a faint acquaintance to run 
In one such farce and be someone;
She pledged to deliver each a new desktop;
I heard the audience groan,
Since no one cares for a stepping stone.

At university the joiners played
As they had as privileged teens;
Now six not three students were swayed
To vote in these kings and queens.
Balding at twenty-five, philosophy nerd
Going nowhere with the herd,
I volunteered as student rep
To watch the apex wonders in the wild.
After hours we pretended we had power,
Careful to avoid any verbal misstep
Since a petty tyrant had beguiled
The others into following his lead;
As a gay student he ruled over the drama
Taking advantage of the liberal creed,
Interrupting and berating at will;
After all no mock trauma
Can compare to a gay man’s plight;
Our measly business was at a standstill
As the rivals carried on out of spite.

After my academic years
I took an interest in real politics;
The spoiled teens and politicos are peers,
I found, with the same bag of tricks;
Fully grown, they uphold the story
That democracy deserves respect,
That today’s empty suits reflect
The will of saintly common folk,
Since the Free World beat Hitler with Old Glory—
As if the West hadn’t risen through gun smoke,
Boundless hypocrisy and greed.
How could the free world still stand
With monstrous Trump freed
(Twenty-three percent gave him the lead)
If the state weren’t already unmanned?
Garland’s robbed of his seat at the court;
In goes a weaselly fake-Christian hack;
Republicans unite to troll and thwart
A black president and take back
The memory of his name
Because he’d mocked Donald’s fame.
Wealth matters, not the vote;
As always the boys’ club reigns;
The seasoned leader’s cutthroat
But phony if he feigns
To stand for something more than the fun
Of reveling in evil with impunity,
Of burning central as the sun,
Hoisting her and daring the community
To resist and think of the long run.

What hyperobject did I glimpse that day?
What genetic bond drives elites to prance
While dupes and loners betray
Themselves with a crippling trance?


"Vote for Summer!" from "Napoleon Dynamite"

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Centrism and the Search for a Worthy Social Order

In Politics Made Simple, I reduce politics to the age-old struggle between weaklings and bullies. In the comment section, a reader suggests that there’s a third category: the rational maximizer of civil peace who deals in “moderation, prudence and foresight.” At his Rally to Restore Sanity, the comedian Jon Stewart represented what some call this silent majority of rationalists when he recommended only the kind of “reasonable compromises” in politics that citizens make in their daily interactions with strangers. Obama’s presidency likewise stood for rationality and for what Thomas Frank calls the technocratic meritocracy of the liberal professional class. “No drama” Obama was compared to Abraham Lincoln because of his effort to assemble a team of rivals in his cabinet, presumably so that Obama could stand above the fray and make wise decisions like Solon. In short, the suggestion is that American political conflicts should be less sensational or spectacular (in the pejorative senses), and more grown-up as in Canada, Australia, parts of Europe, and perhaps China. American pundits label this alternative to the culture war between left and right “centrism.” A centrist is someone who swoops into a screaming match between extremists who crave a civil war based on manufactured wedge issues like abortion, immigration, and gun control, and says, “Yes, but what are the relevant bipartisan facts?” or “What would count as a reasonable compromise so we could all get along and live in peace?”

Realism and Centrism

The commenter points out that this centrism is compatible with political realism, with what is essentially the application of philosophical naturalism to politics, but if we follow Hobbes there seems a stronger connection between them. That is, if we interpret social problems from a naturalistic standpoint, we should be realistic or indeed fatalistic about our chances for happiness. We should concede that the default social situation is the dreaded state of nature in which each person is forced to war against everyone else so that the average life under such anarchy is “nasty, brutish and short.” The social contract therefore ought to bestow absolute, unaccountable authority to the sovereign, because that’s the only guarantee of peace as the alternative to our natural, lethal condition of being in charge of ourselves. Only when we voluntarily surrender our liberty and obey the edicts of government are we rescued from the appalling scenario in which our species consists of billions of sovereigns, each at war with the other. When the monopoly on the use of force is granted only to aristocrats, politicians, or oligarchs, we quarantine the obscenity of nature’s godlessness, as it were; that is, we minimize the state of nature to construct the alternative of civilized society.

The centrist, then, would become an implement of this sovereign power, a technocrat whose judgment is confined to the quantitative issues that rationality can solve, but who carries out the sovereign’s will with respect to the larger qualitative, normative ones. The centrist would be a bean counter who splits the difference. The arbitrariness of centrist judgments is comparable to the legend of Alexander the Great’s cutting of the Gordian knot. According to one version of the story, the knot was so tangled that it couldn’t be undone in the ordinary way, but Alexander realized that it didn’t matter how the knot was untangled—all that mattered was achieving the goal, there being no rules that constrained the means of achieving it—and so he cut the knot with his sword. The difference, of course, is that Alexander’s technique symbolized his military prowess, whereas Reason is the centrist’s weapon. But both are instrumentalists who disregard the idealist’s commitment to certain values. The political centrist is thus more closely related to the judge who's fond of pointing out that solving a legal dispute has little to do with applying a moral principle. What’s right in an ideal world doesn’t concern the judge who must render a verdict under imperfect conditions, and so the judge often splits the difference even if this rational (morally arbitrary) compromise is bound to leave both sides unsatisfied. To return to Hobbes, this humbling result would be the best we could expect once we realize we emerge from the indifferent wilderness. There are no miracles to save us from the hell of anarchy, and we should welcome whatever kludge the technocrat, legal expert, or centrist can cobble together with bumbling, blind reason to enforce the social contract.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Seeing through the Matrix of Christian Discourse

Yvonne Conte seems like an average Christian. She wrote an article for the Christian Examiner, called God and the Atheist in which she explains why she’s a Christian and why she’s baffled that “logical, sane, good people” can be atheists. Inadvertently, she demonstrates why almost all communication on any subject is pointless.

Her article is full of confusions, fallacies, contradictions, and errors, but none of them matters. No part of her article uncovers the real source of her religious beliefs. None of what she says will convert any skeptic or even much strengthen the belief of her fellow Christian readers. Her article is for show, but what’s the real message? What led her to write it? Alas, to glimpse the code of the matrix, we need to wade through the muck.

Stage-Setting with Fallacies and Cheap Shots

Yvonne Conte
She begins speciously by saying that the biggest reason for atheists’ “collective lack of faith, is a lack of evidence, which is hysterical to me since believing in God without any solid tangible proof would be the very definition of faith.” What she means to say is that lacking evidence in support of Christian claims is consistent with having religious faith in them. Later on she contradicts herself by presenting what she calls “overwhelming proof” for Christianity from the New Testament. But her fallacy here is to slide from referring to a necessary condition of one kind of religious faith (the blind kind) to speaking of “the very definition of faith.” Just believing there’s no compelling evidence backing up a creed doesn’t amount to faith in the creed. What you have to add, of course, is the affirmative belief that happens in spite of the lack of evidence. The reason for the withholding of religious belief isn’t just the realization that there’s no good evidence; rather, the skeptic or atheist is also convinced there’s no compelling reason to believe in the absence of such evidence. In other words, there’s no reason to have theistic faith.

Indeed, being consistent about such faith is impossible, since there’s insufficient evidence for a myriad of truth claims, and to believe in all manner of nonsense would be the very definition of madness. Why is the Christian partial to her religion while she gives short shrift to the other religions, not to mention to all the cults, pseudosciences, and random gibberish spouted by lazy thinkers at all hours of every day? The reason why we don’t automatically accept every weakly supported proposition that crosses our path is, as a Christian herself might put it, because her god gave us a brain to think with. If we didn’t think critically at least about important matters, we wouldn’t be long for this world. On most issues we don’t think critically but rely on our intuition and other biases, and we manage to survive because of the widening of our collective margin for error that’s created by historical progress. We can defer to the experts who do much of our thinking for us and we can try out a dubious hypothesis and fail on its basis without always suffering disaster, because we’ve built ourselves the welfare state of civilization that can pick us up and dust us off when we fall down. For example, there are bankruptcy protection laws. But if we automatically accepted every random notion we ever heard (as in the Jim Carrey movie “Yes Man”), we’d eventually fail beyond anyone’s capacity for recovery. For example, we’d be easy prey for con artists.

Conte then sets the stage, presenting herself as a skeptic who examined the arguments against religion and found them wanting. She “dove head first into the Bible and several hundred other books about the Bible along with articles that argued there was no God at all.” But when she later turns to her hackneyed version of Pascal’s wager, she writes, “If what I'm saying is wrong and you believe me, you will loose absolutely nothing, but, if what I say is right, and you don't believe me, you will loose everything. You've got nothing to loose and everything to gain…You've got nothing to loose, try it” (my emphasis). Sounds like a book lover to me! This trope of hers, though, is performance art. The average reader of the Christian Examiner is likely Christian, and this reader will be amused to hear that skepticism folds like a cheap suit. Never mind that the average Christian who claims to have been an informed atheist is highly motivated to be lying or exaggerating about that part of her personal background. And never mind that even if that biographical detail were accurate, it would be an anecdote that carries little weight and can be countered with tales of Christians who converted to atheism or to other religions. More importantly, such anecdotes run up against the fact that the religion of most so-called Western Christians counts for virtually nothing since these Christians don’t live in a Christ-like manner. That is, their claim to have passed through a skeptical, nonreligious phase and embraced Christianity is only superficial, since they behave as if their religion meant nothing to them. 

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Consciousness as the Seed of Artificiality

Consciousness is the feeling of having a thought, and the form of consciousness that distinguishes our species from the other animal species, namely self-awareness, is the feeling of having abstract, higher-order thoughts, or thoughts about thoughts. However, what distinguishes thoughts or feelings from everything else is that the mental states are supposed to carry meaning in the sense of being about that to which they’re somehow directed. Philosophers have puzzled over what that semantic meaning could be, especially since a thought could be intended to refer to something that doesn’t exist such as a fictional character.

If thoughts are supposed to have meanings that add up to a proposition that’s aimed towards getting at a truth, by forming a relation of agreement with a factual arrangement of things, that account runs up against the cosmicist upshot of scientific knowledge, which is that knowledge reveals the extent to which we clever apes are out of alignment with the rest of nature. Far from uniting us with facts, knowledge promotes Faustian arrogance which belies the existential despair that’s the more authentic reaction to scientific understanding. Science itself doesn’t establish a correspondence between thoughts and facts; on the contrary, science is about our instrumental power over nature. Joined with psychopathic pseudo-capitalism (otherwise known as “unfettered” capitalism which, by way of boom and bust cycles, degenerates into kleptocracy (rule by thieves) or kakocracy (rule by the worst of the population) until the aristocrats are overthrown by a wave of populist savagery), science is unsustainable since it opens up paths to our self-destruction, thus again pushing us profoundly out of alignment with the given facts. Talk of the so-called truth of theories that are supposed to be in agreement with facts becomes meaningless. When the facts wipe out the critters that presumed to be lords of the planet, some other, more awesome and horrific process must have been occurring about which even the enlightened haven’t a clue. In that case, our best models must be superficial, at best, but on top of that, our epistemology must be flawed: our distinction between truth and falsehood, between agreeing and disagreeing with objective facts must be wrongheaded.

But if thoughts aren’t meaningful in the way we usually think they are, and the conscious self is defined by the complexity of its thought processes, we must be mysterious; our conventional self-understanding is an illusion. There is, however, a better handle on what’s going on. The notion that a thought reaches out with an invisible hand to touch its referent, as though it were playing a game of tag is only a crude metaphor for the way thoughts actually relate to the world. A thought is a program for causing some behaviour, a conception or a model that leads the creature to align part of the world with the thought. Plato got to the mythic essence of this process with his distinction between the ideal world of Forms, that is, the world of general terms such as the stereotypical or otherwise simplified conceptions of things, and the less perfect material world, which he considered to be a mere copy of the pre-existing ideals. Plato got the order wrong: ideal conceptions or visions of more perfect archetypes emerge from the pre-existent, mindless but living-dead flow of matter. Moreover, our thoughts or ideal forms aren’t mere pictures of things; rather, the way we think of things consists of information and instructions that program us to raise part of the world to the level of our thinking.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Politics Made Simple

Are you confused by politics and the incessant squabbles between the left and the right? Mystified why politicians bother to speak at all in public when everyone expects them to be constantly lying? And why all the political deception in the first place? Now you can end your confusion with this handy primer.

Liberals and Conservatives, Victims and Bullies

Virtually every political disagreement boils down to a difference in how people answer the following question: Whom do you side with in a conflict, the underdog or the bully? Do you care about the happiness of strangers? Feel bad when they’re mistreated and wish there was some way to help them? In that case, congratulations: you’re a sentimental leftist!

Or do you think those who suffer deserve it because they’re too weak or lazy or stupid to avoid the abuse? Do you find yourself cheering for the aggressor and wondering why the bully got all soft and stopped pummeling the nerd just because the nerd started crying? Well, then, welcome to the club and hail Satan: you’re a right-winger!

The political continuum is divided along these main lines, between those on the left and those on the right or roughly between liberals and conservatives. However, politically-active people have a vested interest in obfuscating what politics is all about, as I’ll soon explain, so the conventional labels are fraught with misleading connotations. Thus, to clarify the situation, we should understand that “liberal” refers to a sissy, a groveling or resentful loser, while “conservative” means someone who surrenders the burdens of humanity to revert to a state of animal selfishness.

If you’re relatively weak, either physically or mentally, you feel bad when other weak people suffer, because you can easily imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes. And weak people suffer because the world is impersonal and unfair, and so weaklings are ground up and spit out of nature’s maw. If you were strong rather than weak, you’d be tempted to abuse your advantage and become the bully, in which case you’d stop identifying with victims.

If instead you are a bully, you feel sickened by weakness, because you’re secretly afraid to admit that even if you’re strong and callous enough to dominate other people, you’re an ant in the larger scheme of things. So you refuse to identify with losers. But you can’t afford to bond with fellow bullies, because they could turn on you at any moment. You’re in competition with your fellow aggressors, so you find yourself all alone with your capacity for empathy atrophied.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Theistic Proofs in an Echo Chamber

The atheist philosopher Simon Blackburn reviewed two books on atheism and theism, John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism and Edward Feser’s Five Proofs. The essence of Blackburn’s reply lies in this passage:
These principles [of the five proofs] are scholastic, both as a matter of history, and in the sense that they work in highly abstract terms that have little or no place in physical science. So in spite of Feser’s admirable industry the whole enterprise does little more than suggest Kant’s description of a dazzling and deceptive illusion. If reason did get us this far, it could only be because it had trespassed against its proper limits, suggesting, for instance, that we understand phrases like “subsistent existence itself”, or “purely actual actualizer”, giving them more content than a vacant “something-we-know-not-what”.
Feser replies to Blackburn that the Humean stance of skepticism is an impossible balancing act, since the skeptic has to doubt there’s any such thing as an ultimate explanation while not doubting our rational capacity to such an extent that philosophy and science become as dubious as scholastic theology. After all, writes Feser, the existence and nature of a divine first cause follows, according to the Scholastics, “precisely from an analysis of what it would be to be an ultimate explanation.” The scholastic “principle of sufficient reason,” for example, guarantees that the whole world is intelligible to humans. If you grant our rational powers such scope, you’re led to credit the most satisfying and comprehensive explanation we’re driven to propose as being grounded in reality rather than, say, in politically-motivated speculation or evolved intuitions. To give philosophical, a priori Reason its druthers is to anticipate an exhaustive, airtight explanation of all reality that presupposes nothing and rests only on axioms and logically proven conclusions. God is what you posit when you want a metaphysically complete, intellectually and morally satisfying explanation of everything. (The explanation turns out not to be complete or satisfying, since the concept of God is incoherent and a tool for our enslavement, but that’s another story.)

Otherwise, if you’re content with naturalistic cosmology, for example, you’ll say with the physicist Lawrence Krauss that the universe came from “nothing,” where “nothing” is really the highly-energetic something that follows from the laws of quantum mechanics, and you’ll leave those laws themselves unexplained. In short, you’ll be pragmatic about reason, accepting not the grandiose ambitions of conservative Christian theology but just methodological naturalism; you’ll say we should deploy reason where we can, without assuming the success of our investigations is preordained. So we may be able to explain the Big Bang with quantum mechanics without being able to explain quantum mechanics; we may have to presuppose some ideas in our theories much as an engineer needs tools to build machines. Science may be incomplete even in the end because it explains something by naturalizing it, and a natural creature needn’t be equipped to mentally encompass everything that exists; on the contrary, that uncompromising optimism would be bizarre since natural phenomena are largely accidental, limited, and—in the case of living things—biased towards their goals of surviving and being happy.

There’s a problem with Feser’s scholastic proofs, however. They’re not proofs at all in the sense of being demonstrations of the truth of some proposition based only on its logical connections to some other propositions. Blackburn hints at this point when he reminds the reader that scholastic discourse is so abstract that it’s inapplicable to the apparent world, and if that’s so the theistic “proofs” are misnomers since they could be neither true nor false. If Scholastics aren’t talking directly about the real world, what are they doing with what they call their “proofs”? The answer is that the proofs are myths for smug or disenchanted intellectuals who aren’t content with the soap operas of animistic folk religion. These pseudo-argumentative proofs are comforting analyses that are stripped of all drama and that describe how the world looks from a Christian perspective. To say that a Harry Potter novel is false is to miss the point of the story. The novel isn’t meant to prove that the real world has such and such properties; rather, the fiction provides a conceptual space for us to test our beliefs and our attitudes which do pertain to the actual world. We read stories to learn about foreign experiences and perspectives and thus to improve our character, avoiding the pitfalls of living in an echo chamber. Likewise, at their best, theological “arguments” lay bare certain religious assumptions so the theist can look in the mirror and ask whether she really believes that. Not sharing the background assumptions, the atheist dismisses the "proof" as preposterous. 

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Bearing Witness to an Inhuman World

In our mad rushing hither and thither, in all the teeming metropolises and the deep time of our machinations as clever mammals on this earth, has anyone ever given up because he or she deserved better in life? Has even a single child, man or woman been betrayed and brought low, been shafted by powers in high places, been crushed or torn asunder by natural forces, and forced to reckon with the manifest unfairness of it all? Has any victim recognized the injustice or the absurd abuse of power and chosen to denounce the inhumanity by turning her agency against herself and snuffing the flame of her consciousness?

In the tales of the farcical Western religions of monotheism there was such a victim. His name is Job, and the Bible reinforces its totalitarian logic at that character’s expense, by appealing to an unknowable divine plan that supposedly rectifies all wrongdoings, rendering any resistance to God or any loss of faith the only injustice—which God allows to occur out of his boundless generosity. Thus we have perhaps the most famous example of the fallacy in which the tyrant endures by blaming the victim for that victim’s weakness. The hidden meaning of the Book of Job is satirical: not even the tyrannical Lord God is comfortable with the true reason for Job’s torments, which is why instead of revealing that he’d merely made a bet with Satan to test Job’s faith, the Lord changes the subject, buffeting Job with a litany of irrelevant boasts. The tyrant has no justification because he, too, is trapped by an unsavory script, corrupted as he inevitably is by his excessive power. Thus, although Job learns to despise himself and to “repent in dust and ashes,” the reader can see through the Lord’s bluster and wonder at the fact that while Job can’t answer the Lord, neither can the Lord answer Job. True, Job is weak and ignorant by comparison with God, but God is so morally impaired by his supremacy that like the myriad spoiled, mad kings from history, he may not even recall his last whim, the bet with the cynical angel, and so when challenged by Job to defend the apparent injustice of that man’s suffering, the Lord can only further inflate his swollen ego by testifying to his awesome might.

Religion, then, is no help in the matter. Everyone knows that there’s certainly been at least one person who has suffered unfairly, who has been broken by that suffering and forced to give up on life. Of course, instead of just one such sufferer there have been tens of billions throughout the Anthropocene. But even one is enough. If just a single person has lost everything through no fault of hers, such a monstrous system failure taints any winner’s victory and should subvert the victor’s pride. Every pleasure must henceforth be enjoyed under a banner that points to the world’s metaphysical flaws. All of us are called, then, to withdraw in shame, to be embarrassed at the thought of participating in any endeavour with an open, glad heart. We’re obliged instead to bear witness to the casualties of existence, to cease fooling ourselves and to prevent our being dazzled by the tyrant’s distractions. At a minimum we should be humble in all our thoughts and actions, not merely for any psychological benefit of that virtue, but to demonstrate that we understand the philosophical stakes, that we’re on the right side in the struggle.

Unlike our civilized games, there’s no prize awaiting the existential victor, the noble mind that “fights the good fight, finishes the race, and keeps the faith.” When we train ourselves to forget that life is a joke and not a blessing, when we betray our knowledge of the world’s obvious unfairness, by consigning ourselves to the daily grind in the hope of reaping some petty reward, we become grotesque clowns, silly little pawns of amoral systems and programs. By contrast, when we renounce these games or when we at least play them half-heartedly, knowing in the back of our mind that they’re obscene for excusing a world that creates so many runners only to ruin them with no moral end in view, we win nothing but a shadow or a whisper of honour. On the contrary, the Janus-faced runners are more likely to be ruined in turn, to resemble the crushed and the fallen whose burdens they can’t help but reflect on.

The proper place for a jaded existential outsider is indeed beyond the tent in the forest, apart from the glare of the city lights, adrift at sea with the island of traitors only barely visible in the distance. The voluntary loser should be shunned by the masses that applaud the world, ignoring as they do the axiom that nature is fundamentally hideous. The tragic hero has no wholesome business with the herd, not even as shepherd, since the shepherd is doomed to become the callous avatar of monstrous evolution, the zealous player-of-civilized-games that ravages foreign herds. Thus, that hero has worm-ridden dirt for treasure and cricket song for applause; instead of being adorned with a sparkling medal, the outsider is crowned with a void of twinkling alien stars.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Fools' God: A Rant by Rashad the Cackler

[The homeless old man, Rashad the Cackler is back with another rant. Enjoy as he spills his guts to passersby on a big city street corner.]

Laugh at the homeless wreck of a man who stands before you! Wrinkle your nose in disgust at the rags I wear, coated as they are in weeks-old urine, vomit and body odour. Mock me for my failure to lie for a living in your warped rat race. Here I am with no family to weigh me down or bind me to your monstrous society. Look at me and see the outsider, the scapegoat hurled into the wilderness who survives the void and returns to you with unpleasant news.

Mock me, will you? You upstanding believers in imaginary gods? Have you really no inkling that your pride rests on a laughable jumble of errors? You presume the common wickedness in your barbaric nation is excused because your gods permit it as a means to a greater end. That the secular progress which depended for decades on Third World slavery, which is creating legions of bitter anti-globalists who’ve lost their jobs to more productive machines, and which is busy killing the planet—that this marvel of neoliberal ingenuity is only leading more swiftly to the second coming of Jesus, who can now no longer tarry since only supernatural wisdom can extract you from this mess you’ve made. That only God can heal the world you’ve polluted with your sins.

You imagine that a Jewish hippie who supposedly was executed two thousand years ago was really God in disguise, and that that puritanical anarchist, mystic, and pacifist who failed to stop Rome’s oppression of the Jews, because he thought love could conquer the planet—you’re actually convinced that that deluded victim of imperial brutality would reward you champions of American imperialism? Have you forgotten that the American hippies became disillusioned and drug-addled before selling out their ideals as the yuppies of the 1980s? Would you really be astonished to learn that had Jesus been allowed to grow up, he too would have sold out the ideals of his youthful naiveté, succumbing to the temptations of social power like any other cult leader? Or are you truly unaware that Jesus is, in any case, just a fictional character in a work of blatant propaganda for the Christian religion that effectively sold out Jesus’s values on his behalf? The meek little lamb of Jesus: mascot for the Church that spread its good news by the sword.

This is the God you Western fools claim to worship, the one who couldn’t stand the sight of us wayward mortals proceeding headlong to disaster in hell, and so he clothed himself in human flesh to show that he wasn’t some monotheistic abstraction, that he could understand our plight firsthand. Only instead of thanking God for going that extra mile, the Jewish and Roman powers hounded him, spat on him, and nailed him to a cross as a common criminal. What’s the lesson, then, of Christianity? That after we demonstrated the corruptness of our souls, by failing to recognize God’s humility and love for us, we should follow the lead of those first Christians and proclaim Jesus our lord and saviour? That we should be thankful for God’s unconditional love? What, I ask, is the value of such love that holds up Adolph Hitler as being inherently equal to Mahatma Gandhi? If nothing we do matters, because God can forgive all, how can it be just for him to punish unrepentant sinners for eternity? How can our actions be simultaneously meaningless and all-important? And wouldn’t Jesus, in any case, resent our having spurned him in Judea? Isn’t that the point of Christianity’s unforgivable innovation, the doctrine of hellfire? How can God be so loving as to be able to forgive even the sins of Hitler, and so vengeful as to punish nonbelievers forever in hell?

I’ll tell you the true meaning of your religion’s evident grotesqueness. This great religion of humanity that boasts over two billion followers was literally cobbled together by various political committees that, for example, canonized certain texts and anathematized the Christian Gnostic ones. And your religion was tainted from its inception, since its primary purpose has always been to make excuses for the absurdity of its founding narrative. The gospel’s implicit message is that Jesus’s values have no place in this world and that God’s love of humanity is a sham, which is why enlightened Christians feel no shame in compromising with every ugly secular expectation. You ignore God with your selfish behaviour just as God’s refused to return like he supposedly said he would, centuries ago.

And you wear the cross around your neck as a symbol, as though Jesus would want to be reminded of our failure to have risen to the occasion of his incarnation as a man. All parents make excuses for their children’s imperfections, but show me a parent who would reward her child in heaven for having murdered her with a gun and for having gone as far as to celebrate the make and model of that weapon, to wear a carving of it on a necklace and to hand down the hallowed tale of that child’s evil so that billions in the future could wonder at the alienness of that parent for having had such a depraved child in the first place. Show me such an inhuman parent and I’ll show you one who deserves to have her children taken from her by the state. 

Monday, September 17, 2018

Yuval Harari on Freewill and Liberalism

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

Freewill and Liberalism

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

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

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Trump Voters Smarter than Liberals, study shows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 9, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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