Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Pragmatism and Pantheism: a Match made in Nature

I begin with the zeitgeist, with where our species is at in the early twenty-first century. Philosophical questions can be more or less responsible, depending on the extent to which they grapple with the background assumptions of the prevailing culture. Thousands of years ago, theocracy of one form or another amounted to the conventional wisdom. An empire governed the land and dictated the official myths, although underground folklore flourished in villages due to the lack of mass education. Today, though, we still live in the Age of Reason that began several centuries ago in Europe, in that science and technology are now the chief sources of human power. The respectable thinker today must therefore grapple with ideas that arise out of this “modern” milieu, and so we should begin with the naturalistic dismissal of miracle claims and of traditional religious myths. We start our philosophical questioning by deferring, to some extent, to scientists and engineers who have largely created the postindustrial world we take for granted.

From Naturalism to Pragmatism

Naturalism entails pragmatism in that one of the core assumptions of the myths that should be dismissed is anthropocentrism. Humility should be the most celebrated virtue, although technological progress and capitalistic self-centeredness are more likely to infantilize us. As we learn in High School science or philosophy classes, Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin removed us from our presumed central position in the universe, by showing literally that Earth isn’t geometrically central, that our planet revolves around one of trillions of stars and that we evolved along with all the other species that crawl, swim or fly. Once we absorb that humiliating lesson, we can no longer in good conscience take at face value foundational knowledge claims. In short, we enter the postmodern phase of hyperskepticism. In particular, we should doubt not just obsolete religious traditions, but the hang-over dogma of the correspondence theory of truth.

As the British say, we fancy that when we know something we’re in possession of an absolutely adequate re-presentation of the fact. If I know that the daytime sky is blue, my belief is supposed to agree with the fact. But that’s a dogma that’s every bit as silly as theism. Whether it’s implemented in a brain state or in a written or spoken statement, my “representation” of the blue sky is nothing of the sort. “The sky is blue” presents again the factual properties of the daytime sky just as much as a xylophone embodies a weed whacker. Granted, anything can carry information about something else in that if you read the tea leaves with enough of a detective’s ingenuity, you can learn useful tidbits about a cause from its effect. So if a brand of weed whackers happens to be manufactured by a company that also sells xylophones, the one might indirectly tell us something about the other. Likewise, having seen daytime skies many times and having retained memories of those experiences, the sky has a causal impact on my thoughts. Playing the role of detective, I can infer that the sky has such and such properties, based on the traces the sky leaves in my brain. But that doesn’t mean those traces are objectively adequate to the entirety of the facts, that my thoughts or statements about the sky capture the essence of what the sky is so that the latter is present once again in the representation. On the contrary, my folk conceptions are parochial and even a scientific explanation of the sky’s colour is all-too human for having the ulterior motive of instrumentalism. Scientific theories are formulated to empower our species at nature’s expense, the goal being to learn enough about natural causality for us to pacify the universe’s inhumanity. Our concepts carve up the world into digestible morsels, but just because we can’t fathom the sky in its noumenal aspect or understand what the sky is in relation to everything else in the universe doesn’t mean there’s no such inhuman fact that mocks the claim that our knowledge is empirically adequate.

So we should be pragmatic about human knowledge, because the Scientific Revolution should have taught us all to be humble and skeptical. This pragmatism means we should recognize that as far as we can tell, knowledge is part of an animalistic process: knowledge comes in the form of a map or model that’s used to achieve some goal. This is why scientism should be dismissed along with exoteric religions, because the possibility of nonscientific (noninstrumentalist or non-power-driven) goals makes for the possibility of nonscientific knowledge, given a pragmatic interpretation of knowledge. To say that knowledge is just a tool in the fulfillment of some goal needn’t then be taken as a betrayal of pragmatism, since the pragmatic picture of knowledge would likewise be just a tool. We needn’t presuppose a realist view of what it means to say so and so is real. As long as we remain humble, we can be tentative even in our philosophical generalizations, and so although language may push us to affirm what we propose to be true, we should remind ourselves that all our beliefs and statements are likely wildly biased descriptions.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Are all Americans Guilty of Hate Crimes against President Trump?

Dateline: D.C.— Under federal hate crime laws, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has targeted both critics and supporters of President Trump, for “abusing a mentally incompetent old man,” according to a spokesperson for Mr. Mueller’s office.

“If you saw a physically disabled person and instead of helping her out, you berated her ruthlessly or else lured into making a fool of herself, you could easily foul afoul of hate speech laws,” said the spokesperson.

These laws are designed to prevent crimes committed on the basis of a person’s protected characteristics such as her race, religion or gender—but also her disability.

Taking for granted that President Trump is mentally incompetent, that the president suffers from a host of personality disorders including malignant narcissism, as well as from senility and other cognitive dysfunctions associated with old age and gluttony, Mr. Mueller’s office “is appalled by the reckless abandon with which both critics and supporters of the president” have “taken advantage of Trump's disabilities.”

Democrats and other harsh critics of the president have demonized Donald Trump, whereas they should have given him “special consideration for his inability to think or to behave at an adult level,” according to Mr. Mueller’s office.

Said the spokesperson, “You don’t expect a blind man to excel at seeing, nor a deaf woman to excel at hearing. Yet a world-class bullshitter, con artist, egotist, and sadist with as maniacal a mind as Donald Trump’s is expected to lead a nation in anything like a responsible fashion? No sir, that’s discrimination: that’s the insane lack of a double standard when the need for an exception is obvious.”

On the other side, Mr. Trump’s fervent supporters are just as culpable, according to Mr. Mueller’s office. Instead of demonizing the president for failing to be normal, despite his mental disabilities, the supporters have egged on the president to ever more self-destructive provocations.

“The president’s rallies are typically interpreted as revealing the extent to which the president craves validation,” said the spokesperson. “But what’s not widely noted is that the supporters are resentful trolls who likewise crave something, namely vengeance against the establishment. They’re using Mr. Trump as a bull in the China shop, exploiting his mental inadequacies. So they too are arguably guilty of hate crimes—not just against Jews or Mexicans, but against their so-called cult leader.”

Rather than being a Svengali who dictates what his base of supporters should do or say, president Trump is “the helpless victim of these trolls,” according to Mr. Mueller’s office. “The president has lost all contact with reality and can’t control himself, so how could he be expected to mastermind the antics of millions of Republicans?”

Rumours have circulated in Washington that after Mr. Mueller has indicted the president, his family, his businesses, and his enablers in Russia, the Middle East, and the Republican Party for committing an astonishing assortment of crimes, he’ll proceed with the next phase of his investigation and indict “all remaining Americans for hate crimes against the subhuman president,” as one legal analyst put it.

“Bob Mueller is the straightest arrow in the nation’s quiver,” said the analyst. “As he sees it, if the whole country is guilty of crimes, then lock up the nation! We’re a nation of laws. The citizens are secondary.”

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Does Cognitive Science Undermine Democracy?

Did you know there’s a straightforward cognitive scientific argument against democracy? Here it is:

(1) People are inherently irrational (as shown by cognitive science).
(2) Unless somehow corrected, this irrationality is bound to manifest in a population on average or in the aggregate. 
(3) Irrational government is ill-equipped to recognize or address, let alone to solve, large-scale, complex problems such as those that arise in a globalized world. 
(4) Therefore, giving political power even indirectly to the majority of citizens in a society (rather than to individuals who may be exceptions to the rule of irrationality and who thus comprise some minority) is unwise.
Cognitive science has confirmed that logic and science are counterintuitive, that we’re biased against reason. See, for example, this summary of twenty-four of our cognitive biases. To name just a few, there’s the Sunk-Cost Fallacy, according to which we irrationally cling to things that have already cost us. This is how gambling addictions work. Or there’s the Barnum Effect of our seeing personal specifics in vague statements, by our filling in the gaps, which is how astrology and Tarot readings work. There’s the Dunning-Kruger Effect: the more you know, the less confident you’re likely to be, and conversely (and disastrously) the less you know, the more confident you’re likely to be. So the most ignorant and least qualified are likely the loudest voices in the room. This, of course, explains Trumpism. Or there’s Declinism, according to which we remember the past as better than it was, and expect the future to be worse than it will likely be. This explains the popularity both of the Garden of Eden myth and of future-oriented, apocalyptic narratives, as well as the conservative appeal to traditions. And so on and so forth.

Then there’s this list of ten politically incorrect psychological findings about the immorality of human nature. For example, “We view minorities and the vulnerable as less than human.” Moreover, “We believe in karma—assuming that the downtrodden of the world deserve their fate.” We’re “blinkered and dogmatic,” since “we see opposing facts as undermining our sense of identity.” Moreover, we’re “vain and overconfident” in that “most of us walk about with inflated views of our abilities and qualities, such as our driving skills, intelligence and attractiveness.” Also, “We favour ineffective leaders with psychopathic traits,” since these traits “are more common than average among leaders.” And “men and women are sexually attracted, at least in the short term, to people displaying the so-called ‘dark triad’ of traits—narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism—thus risking further propagating these traits.”

Democracy and Subjugation

All of which will have some evolutionary advantage or other that’s no longer relevant to an awakened species that can recognize nature’s absurdity. But the point is that the broader something’s appeal to us, the more we turn to our average behaviour and choices which express the flaws of our nature, the more irrational the eventual outcome. Democracy empowers the majority and is thus liable to be an engine of irrationality in the political sphere. When we vote in an election, the idiosyncratic reasons for our choice in a politician are discounted. All that matters is the total of votes received, and in a sufficiently large population the idiosyncrasies average out, leaving the deficiencies of our nature as the culprits in accounting for the winners and losers. Thus, any notion of popular wisdom is oxymoronic. That is, there’s no such thing as wisdom that emerges generally across a large population. If such a population happens to act wisely or for the best, that will be accidental because the average reasons for the popular embrace of the policy will be irrational. The synoptic view of human affairs is therefore harrowing because at that sociological level of explanation, there’s no rhyme or reason for what's observed; instead, mob behaviour is farcical and disappointing in its animalism.  

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Inhuman Surprises: Karl Friston’s Theory of (Normal) Life

Neuroscientist Karl Friston
Wired Magazine calls Karl Friston “the genius neuroscientist who might hold the key to true AI.” Friston, a psychiatrist and authority on neuroimaging, has written dozens of papers on his theory of everything related to life. The heart of the theory is the free energy principle, otherwise known as the principle of active inference, the idea being a generalization of Bayes’ Theorem. All organisms, says Friston, strive to maintain the health of their internal order by modeling the unobservable causes of their sensory states, so as to minimize “free energy” or surprise. This is done not just by making predictions and testing representational models, but by active inference, a type of embodied cognition whereby the organism selectively samples the environment and works to make the world less surprising by modifying it, thus providing evidence that the world isn’t so scary after all. The more energy is allowed to roam free, beyond the creature’s control, the more entropy wins out against the creature’s internal order. With this theory, Friston means to explain all aspects of life.

In a co-written paper, called The Markov blankets of life:autonomy, active inference and the free energy principle, Friston incorporates the machine learning concept of a Markov blanket. This “blanket” is that which “defines the boundaries of a system in a statistical sense,” the authors write. The states that make up the blanket can be “partitioned into active and sensory states,” meaning the states that occur spontaneously inside the organism, such as its interpretations or its voluntary bodily movements, and those states impressed upon the organism from the outer world, such as its sensations. Thus, the trick in life is to infer or control the unknown causes of the sensory states, by employing the active states. When this is done poorly, the organism is bound to be surprised by the world which makes for wear and tear, including ill-health and eventually death. We can control circumstances only for so long, of course, before the universe of unknowns nullifies our feeble schemes for holding them back or transforming them.

Here, though, is how Friston and his cowriters lay out some of the ideas:
Active inference, in its simplest formulation, describes the tendency of random dynamical systems to minimize (on average) their free energy, where free energy is an upper bound on (negative) marginal likelihood or evidence (i.e. the probability of finding the system in a particular state, given the system in question). This implies that the kind of self-organization of Markov blankets we consider results in processes that work entirely to optimize evidence, namely self-evidencing dynamics underlying the autonomous organization of life, as we know it. In Bayesian statistics, the evidence is known as ‘model’ evidence, where we can associate the internal states with a model of the external states.
The writers clarify that
any system that minimizes entropy by acting to minimize uncertainty about the hidden causes of its sensations must have a model of the kind of regularities it expects to encounter in its environment. This means that, over (phylogenetic and ontogenetic) time, an organism will become a model of its environment…In other words, it suggests that regularities in the environment of an organism become embodied in the organism—if the organism or species persists. Under the free energy principle, this implies that organisms are close to optimal models of their local surroundings, i.e. their niche. Organisms become close to optimal models by minimizing variational free energy, which bounds the evidence for each phenotype or individual model [25]. This does not imply that an agent must (somehow) construct an internal model (i.e. representation) of its outer environment. It simply means that an agent becomes a statistical model of its niche in the sense of coming to embody statistical regularities of its world in its physical and functional composition.
Applying these biological concepts to the evolution of culture and of people would amount to a Theory of Everything—for Normies. The goal in human life, too, would be to map and to control the unknown, and the complete elimination of surprise would be dystopian. Friston’s theory arises from the pretense of hyperrationality and so evinces the lunacy that’s commonly mistaken for neutral sanity.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Unique "Strengths" of Christianity

One trope you’ll find in Christian writings is that their religion is unique because of the life and teachings of Jesus. Invariably, these apologists take their scriptures at face value and rattle off a list of Jesus’ miracles, from his virgin birth to his curing of diseases to his resurrection and ascension. Amusingly, one such article compares Christianity to other religions, summarizing the teachings of Hinduism and adding by way of refutation, “Hinduism as it is actually practiced consists largely of superstition, legendary stories about the gods, occult practices, and demon worship.” There is, of course, no way to take that response seriously without casting an equally skeptical eye on Christianity. The palpable double standard shows that the trope of laying out a case for Christianity’s unique reliability is mere pretense and sales technique.

Obviously, if Hindus engaged in occult practices, why not say the same about Jesus’s magic healings? Or if Hindu stories of gods are legendary, Christianity’s could be the same. As demonstrated in just the last few centuries when critical scholars finally studied the Bible in an objective manner, the case for Christianity’s historicity was never as strong as the official presentation of the scriptures misled the world to believe. The four gospel narratives, for example, aren’t independent of each other, no one knows who wrote them, and they appear to have been written several decades or more after the events in question. Moreover, these narratives find fault with each other as the authors edit unwanted parts of the rival gospel. The earliest New Testament writings, Paul’s letters, hardly ever refer to Jesus as an historical person. Meanwhile, early non-Christian references to Jesus are now infamous for being forgeries (the Josephus passage), confused and irrelevant (Suetonius’ reference to the Roman expulsion of Jews who had been agitated by “Chrestus”), or of otherwise dubious evidentiary value (the second-hand references which show only that there were early Christian practices, not that the Christians’ beliefs about Jesus are accurate). 

If we should take partisan ravings for granted and mistake fiction or myth for history, why not accept that every cult leader was the greatest person to have ever lived or that Hercules was the strongest man because of his epic labours?

Jesus’s Moral Revolution

Leaving aside, then, the preposterous appeals to evidence for Jesus’s supernatural uniqueness, there’s still the question whether the religion’s natural aspects, such as its teachings and historical impact are unique. In particular, says the theologian David Bentley Hart, Christianity improved on the pagan world in that Jesus introduced the concept of the universality of personhood, bestowing on all humans the right to dignity. Originally, writes Hart,
at least in many very crucial contexts, “persons” were something of a rarity in nature. At least, as far as ancient Roman legal usage, one’s person was the status one held before the law, and this was anything but an invariable property among all individuals…To “have a person”—habere personam—was to have a face before the eyes of the law, to possess the rights of a free and propertied citizen, to be entrusted to offer testimony on the strength of one’s own word, to be capable before a magistrate of appeal to higher authority. At the far opposite end of the social scale, however, was that far greater number of individuals who could be classed as “non habentes personas,” “not having persons”—not, as it were, having faces before the law or, for that matter, before society. The principal occupants of this category were, of course, slaves.
To slaves we might add women, since they too were second-class citizens in patriarchal societies.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Absurdity of Faith and Reason

Art by Stephen Gibb
If you confine yourself to the internet’s secular byways, you’d likely be reassured to read that theistic religions are preposterous. For example, suppose I say that having faith in wild ideas about an afterlife, books written by gods, and anthropocentric miracles is degrading, since as the universe’s only known highly-rational creatures, we’re obligated to live well with the harsh apparent truths of nature. Regardless of religion’s social benefits, faith in silly ideas is for children or for childlike adults who are exploited by the sociopaths that tend to operate at the apex of those very societies in which religion is deemed so useful. To function in civilized society, you need to strive to be happy, and religious faith makes you happy by disposing of existential fears of death and life’s underlying pointlessness and unfairness.

Again, if you’re already convinced of atheism, you’ll likely nod your head in agreement with the thrust of those remarks. Of course religion is a childish hangover from ignorant times long past! Progress in scientific understanding and in technological control over our environment has shown that while religion persists despite the rash hopes of certain prominent atheists, mass religious faith is awkward in this milieu. Like the man-child suffering a midlife crisis who attempts to regain his youth by divorcing his wife, buying a sports car and attempting to date young women, whose antics his friends and coworkers can only tolerate but not respect, theistic beliefs and practices are flat-out embarrassing. If you live in what is euphemistically called a technologically-undeveloped part of the world, including a rural area of an advanced, wealthy country like the United States, your “clinging to your guns and religion,” as President Obama put it, may be required for you to fit in, but your way of life is nonetheless a disgrace according to higher standards for humanity.

All of which, again, can be taken more or less for granted, assuming you’ve travelled the intellectual dark web to arrive at this article. Religion’s a folly for the most embarrassing kind of clown: the kind that’s unaware he or she is covered in nutty attire. Would it surprise you, however, to learn that rationality, logic and science, philosophy and skepticism are just as preposterous and clownish? That there are very few non-clowns inhabiting the circus tents of our societies? Reason, too, is foolish because rational people suffer from delusions that are just as gratuitous, albeit not as anachronistic as those that discredit the religious masses. When we reason, we think we’re in control of circumstances because we’re in agreement with reality. We think the world itself is rational, that there’s a natural order which we can approximate with our models and theories and worldviews. We think we’re progressing, maturing beyond the childhood phase of our species, by leaving behind myths and fairytales and dealing with the facts we discover through the hard work of rational investigation. In short, we subscribe to the ideology of humanism. Reason isn’t merely a tool we pick up and apply instinctively like an animal with no delusions of grandeur. No, we idolize reason and replace theistic religion with a civic one that derives from early-modern fanfare.

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:
For 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.