Thursday, March 29, 2018

Video: The Heartless Vision of Nature



Here's a movie I made based on Stultified by Reason: The Heartless Vision of Nature. Unfortunately, the movie may not play on some devices (maybe mobile phones and video consoles), because it was flagged for copyrighted content; I used excerpts from some well-known movies to make my points, which is supposed to be allowed under fair-use laws. This is evidently some corporate-friendly compromise I didn't know about. 

Anyway, from now on the movies I'll make will be shorter and won't use clips from major motion pictures. The next one will be based on Opposing Nature: Life's Meaning in a Monstrous Universe.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Dennis Prager’s Jewish "Wisdom"

Dennis Prager is an American syndicated radio host and is known for his zealous defense of conservatism and Judaism. He often admits that he doesn’t think God’s existence can be proven, although he adds that he doesn’t think atheism can be proven either, and yet he likes to say that he comes to his religious beliefs through toxic effects of secularism, such as the moral bankruptcy of liberalism and postmodern philosophy. He also likes to say that while atheists can be knowledgeable and intellectual, they tend to lack wisdom, because wisdom derives from God. His radio-quality baritone and Jewish affiliation lends him a wise man’s aura, but reading through some of his articles and listening to some of his debates and Prager University videos makes for a letdown. His is meant to be the Machiavellian “wisdom” of a secularized Jew who is too busy making money in business, idolizing Americanism, and sucking up to American “Christian” conservatives to demonstrate any concern for philosophical depth or rigor.  

Prager’s Two Questions for Atheists

Let’s examine some of Prager’s arguments. He often poses two questions to atheists, which he thinks are the most important to ask: “Do you hope you are right or wrong [about whether God exists]?” and “Do you ever doubt your atheism?” While he debates the philosophical issues with atheists, he says, what really interests him “are the answers to these two questions.” This is ‘Because only if the atheist responds, “I hope I am wrong” and “Yes, there have been occasions when I have wondered whether there really might be a God”—do I believe that I have encountered an individual who has really thought through his or her atheism. I also believe that I have probably met a truly decent person.’

If the atheist says she doesn’t hope there’s a God, she’s revealed that she has a “cold soul,” and so Prager writes, “I respect atheists who answer that they hope they are wrong. It tells me that they understand the terrible consequences of atheism: that all existence is random; that there is no ultimate meaning to life; that there is no objective morality—right and wrong are subjective personal or societal constructs; that when we die, there is nothing but eternal oblivion, meaning, among other things, that one is never reconnected with any loved ones; and there is no ultimate justice in the universe—murderers, torturers and their victims have identical fates: nothing.”

And if she doesn’t ever doubt her atheism, Prager says, the atheist shows she’s more dogmatic than theists who frequently doubt some of their religious beliefs. Thus Prager writes, “When experiencing, seeing or reading about terrible human suffering, all of us who believe in God have on occasion doubted our faith. So, I asked the atheists, how is it that when you see a baby born or a spectacular sunset, or hear a Mozart symphony, or read about the infinite complexity of the human brain—none of these has ever prompted you to wonder whether there really might be a God?”

Prager is right, more or less, about the dire implications of philosophical naturalism, but he hasn’t thought through the implications of theism if he thinks that positing God remedies our existential situation—as Kierkegaard and the other religious existentialists would have pointed out to him. To begin with, Prager’s notion that “all existence is random,” given atheism, is a strawman, since atheists are typically naturalists and naturalists posit natural order, patterns, and even invariances or nomic relations. There’s randomness in nature, but there are also regularities subject to rational explanations. If reality were ultimately mental rather than some living-dead flow of matter and physicality, that is, were God the metaphysically primary cause of everything else, there would be no reason why existence shouldn’t be fundamentally random, since God could always change his mind or act on a whim. Mindless matter has no freedom or emotional impulse to unfold against its nature or to reverse course out of spite or jealousy. Only credulity and superstitious deference to orthodox interpretations of scriptures, based on taking human autocrats as models of the supernatural boss in the sky, would lead theists to presume that if God exists, the universe is secure and we have nothing to worry about as long as we follow certain Iron Age commandments. What would stop God from creating infinite universes and disposing of them at will or as inspired by an alien aesthetics, as depicted in Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker? What could prevent God from doing absolutely anything he wants for no reason we could possibly understand, as is the lesson of the Book of Job? Only were we naively anthropocentric would we think that God’s logic should align with our mammalian reasoning, that we’re “made in God’s image.” Only a sanctimonious blowhard would boast that her interpretation of poetic scripture and thus of God’s alleged intentions is the only valid one. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Unmasking of Misanthropy: Jordan Peterson and David Benatar on Antinatalism

There’s a YouTube audio recording of a debate between psychologist Jordan Peterson and philosopher David Benatar about Benatar’s antinatalist arguments, a debate which I recommend to anyone interested in antinatalism or pessimism. Instead of discussing all their points and counterpoints, I want to focus on a key moment that happens after Peterson had raised numerous interesting objections which Benatar rebutted.

But before I discuss antinatalism itself, I want to applaud the quality of their discussion. If there are inflammatory topics that are bound to tempt interested parties to forget that they have intellectual faculties, antinatalism is among them since it implies that no one ought ever to have been born, considering that harms always outweigh benefits in life. This means that antinatalism invites anyone with children or with nieces or nephews to consider whether those very children would have been better off not coming into the world. Even those adults who have no personal connections to any child would be forced to reflect on their memories of when they were children, and since we’re emotionally attached to ourselves and especially to when we were relatively innocent in our childhood, antinatalism should be profoundly disturbing to everyone who’s not suicidal. Yet Peterson and Benatar maintain philosophical poise, by engaging in a constructive dialogue. Their discussion isn’t dry and academic, which means that the relevant emotions do rise to the surface, although Benatar is especially keen to keep track of which of his points were or weren’t addressed. But instead of resorting to personal attacks or to partisan talking points, they articulate their differences with integrity.

The reason I bring this up is that the quality of their discussion contrasts strikingly with the political infotainment that’s commonplace in the corporate mass media. First of all, the length of Peterson’s and Benatar’s discussion (around ninety minutes) allows the truth to have at least the potential to emerge in the responsible back-and-forth that took place between them, whereas the miniscule airtime devoted to any topic on television news, for example, in any particular “segment,” precludes that happy outcome, especially if the subject matter is complex enough to deserve being debated in the first place. What’s important here is that news junkies can get in the habit of thinking there’s no alternative to how CNN or talk radio, for example, deals so treacherously with important topics, and the discussion between Peterson and Benatar, which you’re free to listen to, disproves that presumption for all time. An alternative is possible—not that such philosophical virtues will ever be demanded by mainstream audiences. And not that their discussion of antinatalism is the only worthy dialogue that’s ever occurred, of course. Philosophical dialogues are standard in remote, academic circles and have been since the dawn of Western philosophy. But it’s crucial that non-academics be exposed at least once to civil, worthwhile discourse so that they can compare it with the prattle that passes for serious engagement with ideas in popular media. Once you see the difference for yourself, you can’t help but be alarmed that the corporate sources of information and analysis are systematically dumbing-down their audiences and that we ought to consider the discussions that occur on television, the radio, and increasingly in (short-form) print journalism as mere entertainments, or as infotainments, which are entertainments disguised as real contemplation of issues.

Indeed, even laying philosophy aside, on a purely stylistic level, I was shocked to discover, some years ago when I picked up a newspaper on a train in Liverpool, that the quality of English that’s common in North American mass media is dreadfully poor. The vocabulary and syntactic complexity of the sentences used even to describe the weather in England were obviously more sophisticated than the average level of English you’ll find in sources of North American news. If anything, the childishness of “President” Trump’s diction has exacerbated this deficit, as has the prevalence of SEO algorithms on the internet. For example, the Yoast SEO uses the Flesch reading ease score, which would reduce the level of discourse to that which could easily be digested by teenagers or preteens. The highest scores on the Flesch test are earned by texts which can be read easily by someone between 11 and 15 years old. The lowest scores, which can reduce your text’s visibility to search engines, reflect the need for a university-level comprehension. The point of these algorithms, then, is to encourage writers to write on a popular level, by simplifying their ideas and thus by eschewing the sort of rigorous but still passionate examination of issues that Peterson and Benatar engaged in.

Why the Antinatalist should be Misanthropic

I think the most important part of their antinatalism discussion occurs at around the 1:12:30 minute mark, when Peterson lays out the basis of his fundamental objection to antinatalism, which is that antinatalism is “antihuman” and “existentially cowardly.” But the key disagreement that begins to emerge at that precise moment in the conversation is that Peterson gets Benatar to affirm that it would be best if our species ceased to exist—albeit not by some violent cataclysm but by our voluntary decision no longer to produce future generations. (Benatar affirms this also in Chapter Six of Better Never to have Been.) Indeed, at 1:16:26, Benatar says, “I think that it will be good when there are no sentient beings left.” He says he’s not naïve about the influence of antinatalist arguments, which means he doesn’t think it’s realistic to assume he personally will have a hand in the extinction of our species, since most people will ignore or dismiss his pessimistic views. But he affirms that he believes not just that our species will eventually cease to exist, but that that outcome will be good. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Horror of Life’s Meaning: from Eastern and Western Religions to Liberal Humanism

Are you doing what you should be doing? Not just right now, but in general? How about your family, your town, your whole country? How about the human species throughout its history? Are we living as we should be living? Is there a profound, perhaps even secret purpose or a meaning of life which we can miss out on? Most creatures can’t conceive of such questions, because they’re locked into their biological rhythms and life cycle. We can imagine abnormalities and can learn to make fictions real, to change the world drastically to suit not just our needs but our whims, and thus to divert ourselves from our genetically preordained path. The existential question of whether a way of life is fundamentally in the right, then, is reserved for brainy creatures like us.

Even most people, however, almost never ponder the deep questions, because they take their practices for granted. For tens of thousands of years, people were forced by the exigencies of surviving in the wild, to hunt and gather food and supplies. Only when large groups turned to farming and organized religion, settled territories, and established civilizations did the philosophical questions begin to arise, because that’s when the upper class elites, at least, were provided the luxury to entertain subversive and even self-destructive doubts. For most of history, the old, theocratic answer satisfied the bulk of the populations, so that most people were spared the anxiety of feeling potentially out of place and could focus on more productive prospects than philosophizing. The most common ancient answer, of course, was that we should live as the gods decide is best for us. And who were the gods? They were thinly-disguised mouthpieces for the human rulers who materially benefited the most from the imperial systems that were driven by the rhetoric of the major religions. Fear of irresistible, miraculous powers kept everyone in line, and their longing for the promised immortality compelled countless believers to sacrifice themselves in wars of conquest.   

Arguably, that god-centered way of life was fatally undermined by the Scientific Revolution, as was recognized by the Enlightenment philosophers that led up to Nietzsche who, far from taking religious worship for granted, could presuppose that God was “dead” so that we had to face the postreligious question of what to do without God. The problem wasn’t that scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin made this or that discovery which contradicted some scriptural passage, since scriptures are typically poetic and can be reinterpreted to accommodate almost any new evidence; after all, that’s largely how a religion can have lasted for centuries in the first place. No, the problem was that scientists after the European Renaissance were humanists who came to trust more in people than in gods. The problem was the rise of the imperative to share knowledge as well as the benefits of technological progress with the masses. The problem was the palpability of human-made progress after the advent of modern science, which seemed to render the old religions superfluous. We found we could save ourselves or at least greatly improve our standard of living, not by praying and hoping for the best or by relying on dogmatic institutions, but by investigating matters for ourselves. So the problem was that the religious answers to the great questions could no longer be taken for granted, once enlightened humans took charge and—crucially—shared the enlightenment: through free-thinking, free trade, and democracy, we created a new world order that gave us all godlike powers. The old gods, then, seemed to be obsolete.

And yet for various reasons, modernity hasn’t made the question of life’s meaning a rhetorical one, as though the answer were obviously that we should be free merely to do whatever we want as long as we respect the same right of everyone else. For one thing, this freedom may be more of a curse than a blessing, a way of talking that reconciles us to nature’s inhumanity which undercuts all myths, even those of our godless, civic religions.

Here, then, I’ll critique some common approaches to the meaning of life. Eastern mystical and humanistic religions, Western monotheisms, and liberal humanism all divide us into higher and lower groups or accentuate natural divisions, so that the masses end up being exploited by the elites. Also, the answers from these religions and philosophies often call for an escape from the horror of what is mistaken for reality or from reality itself. The meanings of life they hold out aren’t always what they seem, and just to notice there’s room to ask deep questions may be to fall into a trap, the trap of enlightenment.

Eastern Religions

Let’s begin our search for answers with how East Asian religions are likely to handle the question of the meaning of life. These religions differ significantly from Western ones. The Chinese and Indian religions of Daoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, for example, are polytheistic, pantheistic, or atheistic. Their practitioners aren’t so concerned with evangelism, with converting foreigners to their beliefs and practices. Moreover, Eastern religions are more practical and philosophical than the monotheistic systems.

Confucianism is ancient Chinese humanism, and with respect to his thinking on ethics and society, Confucius can be called the Chinese Aristotle. For Confucius, we have to look not to the gods but to our potential, to figure out how we should live. We should cultivate virtues, beginning with compassion, and then regulate them by adhering to strict duties that ensure we don’t go off track. In some respects Confucianism is egalitarian, since everyone can learn to be virtuous and take part in at least the basic conventions that hold society together, such as education and respect for your parents. The capacity for virtue is essential to human nature, and Confucianism is mainly about the techniques for efficiently fulfilling that potential. Confucian humanism is founded on the conviction that our primary social obligation is to enable everyone to fulfill their potential for compassion, by educating them in a way that focuses on that moral calling. By contrast, an upbringing that’s loaded with technical training to excel at some profession, without any regard to our moral purpose is dehumanizing, according to Confucians, because our ethical responsibility to love others is essential to our species. Early Confucianism, then, isn’t a religion so much as a philosophy of social engineering. 

The Horror of Life’s Meaning: from Eastern and Western Religions to Liberal Humanism; Part Three

Islam

We shouldn’t be surprised to discover that Islam’s origin persists in the Judeo-Christian pattern of building on often contrary cultures. No Muslim would speak this way about Islam’s historical origin, but this sanctification, too, is part of the pattern. There’s always a chasm between a major religion’s propaganda and the facts of how the religion has operated. The Torah boasts that there was a united kingdom of Israel and Judah under Saul, David, and Solomon between 1050 to 930 BCE, but the archeological record shows there was no such unity. Instead, as the authors of The Bible Unearthed write, these biblical wishes were “creative expressions of a powerful religious reform movement”; specifically, what was longed for was projected into the past as a rhetorical device to shame Jews for allegedly falling short of what had earlier been achieved. Likewise, for centuries Christians maintained that the gospel authors were eye witnesses to the events they described. But when critical historians examined the sources, they determined that the gospels were likely written too late to have been the works of eye witnesses, and in any case, the three, synoptic Gospels are interdependent. Whoever Matthew and Luke were, they likely had Mark’s gospel in front of them when they wrote their narratives. Almost all of Mark is duplicated in Matthew and Luke, often word-for-word, which wouldn’t make sense if Matthew and Luke were eye witnesses with their own stories to tell. And Muslims, too, will insist that their religion began with the miracle of Muhammad receiving revelation from the Archangel Gabriel, which he dutifully recorded to form the Koran. Needless to say, my account of Islam won’t depend on any such propaganda that accretes to religious institutions.

Before turning to Islam, then, let’s consider why this chasm deepens between the propaganda and the historical reality. Notice that the modern transnational corporation likewise purveys self-serving messages which cast the most benign interpretation possible on its business practices. You’d have thought Coca-Cola sells sunshine and happiness, not fattening sugar water, judging from its advertisements that beatify that company. And of course, most large companies leave out of their propaganda any acknowledgement of the ecological damage for which they’re inevitably responsible. Here, though, is a thought experiment that might clarify the matter: imagine growing physically into a giant who towers over the land. Would you still notice the impact you have as you stomp on forests and villages, wreaking havoc for the little people whom you can’t even see anymore because your head is so far removed from the ground-floor reality? Likewise, do we actually notice when we squash tiny bugs in our daily activities, which we can’t see or sympathize with? Our self-image is based on our point of view, and the representative of a transnational corporation or of a major religion that’s existed for millennia can’t be expected to think like any individual person. Great power almost always corrupts, and when you speak as a functionary for a large organization, you tend to flatter the group you serve even if you end up having to spin, obfuscate, and deflect, because that’s just what your job entails. When those distortions accumulate over the centuries, you’re left with a body of self-serving myths. However, those who aren’t caught up in the hype are free to descend to the ground floor to determine what’s really been going on.

Which takes us to the origin of Islam. The intermingling of religions in early seventh century CE Arabia is straightforward but also intriguing because, with some irony, the new religion that would grow from that soil does return to and thus reveal the essence of Western monotheistic traditions. The dominant pre-Islamic religions of the Arabian Peninsula were those of the Bedouins, who were Arab nomads, and of the sedentary Arabs who lived in cities such as Mecca. Bedouin religion was what a member of an organized religion would call “pagan,” which is a euphemism for “primitive.” The Bedouins believed that certain objects have magical properties, including the power to control other people. This fetishism, however, isn’t primitive as much as universal. Fetishism in modern societies is found, for example, in reverence for gravesites and in sexual kinks, or attraction to body parts instead of people. In any case, Bedouins also practiced totemism, the use of spiritual emblems of a society, and veneration of the death. By contrast, sedentary Arabs posited elaborate hierarchies of gods. Their polytheism was henotheistic, Hubal being the lead deity and Allah perhaps being a rain or sky god or else just a way of designating that Hubal was the chief god of the pantheon, since “Allah” is a contraction of “al-illah” which means “the god” as opposed to being a proper name. The ancient building called the Kaaba and its surrounding area, located in the center of what is now Islam’s most holy Mosque, in Mecca, features idols of 360 pre-Islamic deities.

In his book No God but God, Reza Aslan makes what seems the crucial point about the Bedouins, which is that “the nomadic lifestyle is one that requires a religion to address immediate concerns: Which god can lead us to water? Which god can heal our illnesses?” This contrasts with the religion of a sedentary population which has more free time and tends to become decadent, which is to say spoiled by its luxuries. The polytheistic religion, then, reflects the social hierarchy that emerges in a city or a kingdom, as in the Canaanite origin of Judaism, and so the elites in big cities end up worshipping images of themselves. The Bedouins who seem indirectly honoured as the Fremen in George Herbert’s science fiction classic Dune, are hunter-gatherers of the desert and are forced to be pragmatic on pain of perishing in the wasteland. This isn’t to say the ancient Arab nomads were strictly rational. Superstition can be useful, if only for maintaining self-confidence, just as atheists have a habit of converting in fox holes, at least in so far as they involuntarily cry out, “Oh, God,” when under duress. But a nomad would be expected to scoff at the baroque extravagance of city folks, regarding the luxuries as wasteful and the complex pantheon as a sign of corruption. Like prehistoric hunter-gatherers, Bedouins would need to simplify their culture since it had to be portable, but they also needed to be rigid and exacting in their practices, since to err in the slightest regard was often fatal. After all, the desert is an unforgiving place. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Horror of Life’s Meaning: from Eastern and Western Religions to Liberal Humanism; Part Two

Christianity

The paradox of Christianity is that Christians identified their God with a lowly, subversive Jew who lived in Judea at a time when that region was occupied by the Roman Empire, but this religion became that empire’s official religion in the fourth century. Jews had been awaiting a messiah in the Davidic line to defeat their foreign rulers and usher in the Kingdom of God on earth. The Maccabees, a group of Jewish warriors, revolted against the Seleucid Empire from 167-160 BCE, to end the influence of Hellenism on Jewish culture, and after the Romans conquered Judea in 63 CE, which had been run by the Hasmonean dynasty, Jews formed the political movement of the Zealots to foment rebellion against Rome. Their opposition culminated in the first Jewish-Roman War from 66-73 CE and in the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Although those events scattered the surviving Jews across the Mediterranean—at least those who weren’t captured and sold into slavery—Judaism, the underdog, arguably defeated Rome in the end—but through selfless Christianity rather than by Jewish force. 

The paradox is solved not by positing Christianity’s truth and thus a supernatural explanation of its success, but by attending to the historical context and to the continuation of Jewish syncretism. Christianity combined Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures. Judaism itself was divided at the time between Pharisees, Sadducees and various smaller, apocalyptic and ascetic cults collectively called the Essenes. The Pharisees supplemented the Jewish scriptures with theological interpretations deriving from Zoroastrianism, such as the principles of freewill, resurrection of the dead, and heaven and hell issuing from a divine judgment. Indeed, the name “Pharisee,” often taken to have meant “set apart,” as in the Pharisees weren’t real Jews because of the Persian influence on them, may instead have derived from the Aramaic “Parsah,” meaning “Persian” or “Persianizer.” The Sadducees were less Zoroastrian and confined their thinking to the written Jewish Law. Both groups were secular compared to the Essenes who congregated in caves, took vows of poverty, led a strictly communal life, practiced daily baptism, and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Jewish side of Christianity, apparent from the Gospel narratives, is eclectic, combining elements of Pharisaic, Sadducee, Essenic, and Zealot beliefs and practices. Thus, the compromising function of Christianity begins at the outset even within the Jewish side of the synthesis with paganism. Like a Pharisee or an Essene, the character Jesus speaks at great length of heaven and hell and of the coming judgment at the End Times, but he also argues over interpretations of the Torah with legalistic Jews like a Sadducee, and called Pharisees hypocrites, as an Essene would have done. Moreover, Jesus spent a long time in the wilderness and lauded the poor like an Essene, but he also selflessly went about healing the sick and helping feed the poor instead of shutting himself away in a cave. Like a mystical Essene, Jesus taught in parable form and he said his teachings contained esoteric meanings that only insiders would understand. He’s baptized by the Essene John the Baptist who prostrates himself before Jesus. And Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers and told his followers to carry swords, like a Zealot.

Of course, the Gospel narratives were written decades after Jesus was thought to have lived and were canonized only much later, in the fourth century but officially at the Council of Trent in 1546. But by either point the Second Temple Jewish sects were no more and Christianity had already split from rabbinical Judaism, so there would have been no interest in casting a wide scriptural net to attract different kinds of Jews to Christianity. Instead, the Jesus depicted in the gospels that feature his Jewishness isn’t placed squarely in any one Jewish faction. The point of Jesus’s Jewishness in the Gospels, then, is that Jesus was the perfect Jew who transcended such squabbles and beat the Jewish sects at their own games.

Between Judaism and paganism there already stood Gnosticism in the first century CE, a Jewish-Platonist movement and a more philosophical, anti-natural and even Eastern rival of the universal, ever-compromising form of Christianity that would become known as “Catholic.” Gnostic Christianity was influenced by Plato through Philo of Alexandria, the first century Jewish philosopher who read the Jewish scriptures allegorically to adapt them to Platonic metaphysics. Later, in the third century, the philosopher Plotinus created Neo-Platonism, a religion combining Plato’s philosophy with the Hindu idea of an impersonal source of all being, which Plotinus called the One and which is found in our true self through asceticism and ecstatic meditation. Gnostics were metaphysical dualists who thought that nature was created by an evil or ignorant deity, and that we’re imprisoned in a domain of corrupting material forms unless we obtain secret knowledge to save ourselves, knowledge supplied by a higher, transcendent and benevolent God. Aspects of Gnosticism are apparent in the Pauline epistles, which display little interest in the historical Jesus and in which Paul proclaims that he received gnosis, of saving knowledge, from a vision of the risen Christ. Gnosticism is found also in the Gospel of John in which Jesus is depicted as a heavenly revealer, a representative of the divine light against the darkness of godless nature. In the third century, Manicheanism, too, represented a rival form of universal religion, combining Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Christianity. According to Jennifer Hecht’s book Doubt, while Manicheanism was eventually condemned as heresy, this religion’s enormous popularity, in Persia, the Roman Empire, India, and China astonished Christians, forcing the Church to adopt Eastern ideals of asceticism to meet the public demand for otherworldly spirituality. 

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Horror of Life’s Meaning: from Eastern and Western Religions to Liberal Humanism; Part One

Are you doing what you should be doing? Not just right now, but in general? How about your family, your town, your whole country? How about the human species throughout its history? Are we living as we should be living? Is there a profound, perhaps even secret purpose or a meaning of life which we can miss out on? Most creatures can’t conceive of such questions, because they’re locked into their biological rhythms and life cycle. We can imagine abnormalities and can learn to make fictions real, to change the world drastically to suit not just our needs but our whims, and thus to divert ourselves from our genetically preordained path. The existential question of whether a way of life is fundamentally in the right, then, is reserved for brainy creatures like us.

Even most people, however, almost never ponder the deep questions, because they take their practices for granted. For tens of thousands of years, people were forced by the exigencies of surviving in the wild, to hunt and gather food and supplies. Only when large groups turned to farming and organized religion, settled territories, and established civilizations did the philosophical questions begin to arise, because that’s when the upper class elites, at least, were provided the luxury to entertain subversive and even self-destructive doubts. For most of history, the old, theocratic answer satisfied the bulk of the populations, so that most people were spared the anxiety of feeling potentially out of place and could focus on more productive prospects than philosophizing. The most common ancient answer, of course, was that we should live as the gods decide is best for us. And who were the gods? They were thinly-disguised mouthpieces for the human rulers who materially benefited the most from the imperial systems that were driven by the rhetoric of the major religions. Fear of irresistible, miraculous powers kept everyone in line, and their longing for the promised immortality compelled countless believers to sacrifice themselves in wars of conquest.   

Arguably, that god-centered way of life was fatally undermined by the Scientific Revolution, as was recognized by the Enlightenment philosophers that led up to Nietzsche who, far from taking religious worship for granted, could presuppose that God was “dead” so that we had to face the postreligious question of what to do without God. The problem wasn’t that scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin made this or that discovery which contradicted some scriptural passage, since scriptures are typically poetic and can be reinterpreted to accommodate almost any new evidence; after all, that’s largely how a religion can have lasted for centuries in the first place. No, the problem was that scientists after the European Renaissance were humanists who came to trust more in people than in gods. The problem was the rise of the imperative to share knowledge as well as the benefits of technological progress with the masses. The problem was the palpability of human-made progress after the advent of modern science, which seemed to render the old religions superfluous. We found we could save ourselves or at least greatly improve our standard of living, not by praying and hoping for the best or by relying on dogmatic institutions, but by investigating matters for ourselves. So the problem was that the religious answers to the great questions could no longer be taken for granted, once enlightened humans took charge and—crucially—shared the enlightenment: through free-thinking, free trade, and democracy, we created a new world order that gave us all godlike powers. The old gods, then, seemed to be obsolete.

And yet for various reasons, modernity hasn’t made the question of life’s meaning a rhetorical one, as though the answer were obviously that we should be free merely to do whatever we want as long as we respect the same right of everyone else. For one thing, this freedom may be more of a curse than a blessing, a way of talking that reconciles us to nature’s inhumanity which undercuts all myths, even those of our godless, civic religions.

Here, then, I’ll critique some common approaches to the meaning of life. Eastern mystical and humanistic religions, Western monotheisms, and liberal humanism all divide us into higher and lower groups or accentuate natural divisions, so that the masses end up being exploited by the elites. Also, the answers from these religions and philosophies often call for an escape from the horror of what is mistaken for reality or from reality itself. The meanings of life they hold out aren’t always what they seem, and just to notice there’s room to ask deep questions may be to fall into a trap, the trap of enlightenment.

Eastern Religions

Let’s begin our search for answers with how East Asian religions are likely to handle the question of the meaning of life. These religions differ significantly from Western ones. The Chinese and Indian religions of Daoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, for example, are polytheistic, pantheistic, or atheistic. Their practitioners aren’t so concerned with evangelism, with converting foreigners to their beliefs and practices. Moreover, Eastern religions are more practical and philosophical than the monotheistic systems.

Confucianism is ancient Chinese humanism, and with respect to his thinking on ethics and society, Confucius can be called the Chinese Aristotle. For Confucius, we have to look not to the gods but to our potential, to figure out how we should live. We should cultivate virtues, beginning with compassion, and then regulate them by adhering to strict duties that ensure we don’t go off track. In some respects Confucianism is egalitarian, since everyone can learn to be virtuous and take part in at least the basic conventions that hold society together, such as education and respect for your parents. The capacity for virtue is essential to human nature, and Confucianism is mainly about the techniques for efficiently fulfilling that potential. Confucian humanism is founded on the conviction that our primary social obligation is to enable everyone to fulfill their potential for compassion, by educating them in a way that focuses on that moral calling. By contrast, an upbringing that’s loaded with technical training to excel at some profession, without any regard to our moral purpose is dehumanizing, according to Confucians, because our ethical responsibility to love others is essential to our species. Early Confucianism, then, isn’t a religion so much as a philosophy of social engineering. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

President Trump’s Audacity Awarded Democrats Political Immunity for Two Centuries, said Political Pseudoscientist

Dateline: LICK SKILLET, TN—Democrats should be grateful for Donald Trump’s presidency, because his smorgasbord of scandals and villainies could theoretically enable them to get away with murder for centuries to come, according to Professor Marco Snodgrass, political pseudoscientist as the Machiavellian Institute, in Tennessee.

“For every Democratic embarrassment or crime,” said the professor, “Trump is guilty of a hundred much more egregious ones, so the ratio is a hundred to one. For every Democratic lie or sex scandal or dereliction, Trump has done a hundred times worse.

“But the hidden beauty of this for Democrats is that nearly the entire Republican Party has stood behind their president, shielding him from responsibility for his conduct as much as they could, such as with the bogus House investigation of the Russia connections to his campaign or by not being proactive and bringing impeachment proceedings.”

What this means, according to the professor, is that should the Democrats stumble in the future, such as by getting caught in a big lie, they can “immunize themselves from any political fallout” merely by reminding the public that Trump got away with much worse.

“‘Okay, so I lied just now,’ a Democratic politician might say to the American people. ‘You caught me red-handed. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll just go ahead and move to Trumpify the situation, by pointing out that Republicans were fine with Trump’s lies which spattered the nation like water drops from a hurricane. So you can forget my lie.’”

According to the professor’s calculations, the silver lining of the superhuman scale of President Trump’s boorishness and venality is that the President and the Republicans have effectively provided the Democrats with thousands of get-out-of-jail-free cards, which should insulate the Democrats from culpability for their scandals until the year 2246, although Trump’s scandals are ongoing, which pushes that expiration of Democratic immunity ever further into the distant future.

According to Professor Snodgrass, this immunity applies also to anyone castigated by American Evangelicals who likewise squandered their moral authority by supporting the anti-Christian President Trump.

If an Evangelical Christian wants to condescend to someone having an abortion, for example, “the liberal is free to select one of her thousands of get-out-of-jail-free cards to silence that phony arbiter of moral judgment.”

The professor conceded that most elected Republicans don’t personally approve of Mr. Trump’s behaviour, but are only putting up with it to pass their big-business agenda.

“Trump is their useful idiot, to use Stalin’s phrase,” said Professor Snodgrass. “Still, the amorality that party is displaying by thinking only instrumentally about Trump, instead of ousting him from office in a peak of righteous indignation on behalf of God and country, is itself a failing which enters into the moral asymmetry between the two parties.”
  
By putting their “biased and destructive” economic policies ahead of the damage the president has done to the nation, the Republicans effectively sided with Donald Trump, which means they too must “answer for Trump’s many, many, many failings.” 

Saturday, March 3, 2018

My Return to YouTube! Trump and 9/11



I've decided not to go ahead with the long documentary, "The Horror of Life's Meaning, that I've been working on. That movie would be over three hours and I don't think there are many intrepid folks on YouTube who would be inclined to watch it. Plus, in the time it would take to complete the documentary, I could make several shorter Adam Curtis-style movies out of my blog articles. Also, the script has long stretches on ancient history which would be hard to illustrate from archival footage.  

So instead I turned Will Trump's Presidency be more Traumatic than 9/11? into the above movie. I'll post the forty-page script for the documentary at some point, perhaps in stages, and maybe I'll be make a YouTube video out of part of it at some point. I can also post the introduction to the documentary. For now, I think I'll make some more movies out of my previous blog articles. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Outer and Inner Gods: The Encroachment of the Inhuman

Historically speaking, there have been three types of gods. First, there are natural forces and processes, which the ancients experienced as wonders or as miracles. The sun, in particular, was the model of the ultimate God in some henotheistic or Gnostic systems, as in Plato’s Cave analogy, while Yahweh was originally identified with the power of storms. But the animists worshipped all of nature, because they personalized what were actually just the living-dead natural transformations (complexifications and emergence of higher-order regularities), and so they felt free to socialize with what they took to be a universal community of spirits. That way, too, they were able to explain away potential accidents and so eliminate absurdity from the world as they experienced it. Alas, nature has lost its divinity, thanks to scientific disenchantment, although cosmicist pantheism is waiting in the wings for existentialists who have reckoned with the philosophical implications of a science-centered worldview.

Second, there were the human psychopathic rulers of large populations throughout the Neolithic period, who were worshipped as gods and who served as models for deities in polytheistic and monotheistic myths. The indifference of natural powers provided for relatively weak subject matter, aesthetically speaking, and to treat natural events as intelligently controlled, the animists had to project themselves onto the rest of the world, which would have made their myths predictable. The revolution in religious fictions happened when small, egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers turned into large-scale, sedentary societies riven by social classes. Only in the context of civilization did the “gods” stand apart from the masses as terrifying, alien characters whose epic, amoral exploits inflamed the poetic imagination, giving rise to the world’s theistic scriptures. Myths were no longer covert autobiographies about mere archetypes from the collective unconscious, but were inspired by the manifest inhumanity of the supervillains in charge of the megamachines. The latter were the civilizations that featured mass slaughter, domestication of other species and of the human (beta) masses, and enslavement of foreigners for the enrichment and aggrandizement of the ruling psychopaths whose effective divinity made the talk of an immaterial, personal deity superfluous.

Third, there’s the god within each of us, according to mystical, esoteric traditions which identify God with an underlying state of consciousness. The roots of worshipping this inner god go back to the shamans’ use of entheogens to access altered mental states, but the notion of this God’s oneness derives from the convergence in ancient India of the Indo-Aryan and Dravidian cultures, which gave rise to attempts to systematize and simplify the many gods, rituals, and teachings of Hinduism. The Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, for example, analyzed the sprawling diversity of Hindu speculations and reduced them to monotheistic principles, by identifying the many gods with elements of Self and World, Atman and Brahman, and then by collapsing that final dichotomy so that the divinity that underlies all mental and material phenomena could be contacted internally, by meditation or other Tantric practices.