Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Karl Jaspers and the Horror of our Cognitive Limits

Karl Jaspers’ existential philosophy is similar to Sartre’s, the main differences being their starting points and styles of writing. The early Sartre presupposed a literary version of phenomenology as a way of doing metaphysics, whereas Jaspers starts from science (psychology) and Kantian philosophy. Both end up with existential conclusions about the need to persevere despite the ultimate futility of thinking or living, but Jaspers’ psychology background gave objectivity a more prominent role in his philosophy, which in turn lends even more readily to a cosmicist interpretation of Jaspers.

Jaspers’ Existential Take on Transcendent Knowledge

Karl Jaspers
Whereas ancient and medieval philosophers in the West naively engaged in metaphysical speculation, early-modern philosophers realized there’s a problem about rational skepticism: how can we rationally justify such far-flung generalizations about the nature of reality, when the Scientific Revolution demonstrated that even the ordinary empirical claims we took for granted, such as that the Earth is at the center of the universe or that stones fall faster than feathers were bogus? Skeptical scientists or “natural philosophers” debunked many dogmas, so philosophers (as distinct from scientists) were tasked with distancing their discipline from theology, that is, from the main rationalization of our intuitions.

Descartes attempted to reestablish the foundation of philosophy on the bedrock of self-consciousness, but instead of venturing down the intensely personal, existentialist path—which had to wait until Kierkegaard (although Saint Augustine’s Confessions anticipated that development)—he compromised with dogmas, resorting to the gambit of validating personal experience by appealing to dubious proofs of God’s existence. David Hume brought the problem of unchained skepticism back into the philosophical mix, showing that we can’t be sure even about something as commonsensical as our concept of causality. This prompted Kant to concede that although metaphysical generalizations are groundless, we can investigate the transcendental space, as it were, of how our minds would have to be structured to generate the human form of experience. Analogously, biologists would later theorize that although the evolution of life is largely accidental, there is what Daniel Dennett called the “design space” which natural selection “discovers” and which accounts for convergence in the evolution of certain traits across species. Physics and chemistry constrain the workable solutions of evolutionary problems, by providing the possible niches that species can exploit. For example, there may be a niche for highly intelligent species, in which case if our mammalian ancestors hadn’t evolved intelligence or self-consciousness, perhaps a reptile, bird, or mollusk might have done so and there would have been octopus high-tech cityscapes instead of human ones. There may, then, be meta-laws about the body-types that will tend to evolve, due to the niches made possible by lower-level natural regularities.

Kant thus effectively redefined foundational philosophy as an analysis of the conditions of possible experience. He argued that there are “transcendental” conditions not of body-types but of forms of experience. For example, the concepts of space and of time are supposedly fundamental to our ways of sensing the world, and so while we shouldn’t be confident in generalizations about the nature of external reality, we can be certain about what Kant called “synthetic a priori” knowledge, meaning broad knowledge about ourselves—but specifically about how the human mind must be structured to generate the universal features of human experience. Kant thus posited certain categories that determine how we generally process sensory input, and he maintained that necessary truths that aren’t mere tautologies or word games apply only to that proto-psychological level of analysis. We do seek to transcend those limits, such as when we devise speculative ontologies about God, the immortal soul or the nature of being, but these ideas mislead us if we think we have direct access to such subject matters. Our knowledge necessarily passes through our most general modes of understanding and thus we inevitably project the image of human mentality, as it were, onto any subject of our inquiry.

Now whereas Kant’s writings were highly technical and abstract, Jaspers the psychologist-turned-philosopher saw that Kant’s transcendentalism could be given a more human face or brought further down to Earth, by delving into what it’s like actually to attempt to transcend the limits of human experience. While Kant denied that it makes sense even to speak about the noumenon (the mind-independent source of sensations, or the things in-themselves), as opposed to things in so far as they’re processed by a type of mind, Jaspers argued that our insatiable curiosity and our yearning to see our way past apparent limits give us an experience of transcendence, if not rigorous knowledge of any such thing. For example, Jaspers mapped out the steps in neo-Hegelian progress from an empiricist/objective/scientific approach to the world, to an existentialist/subjective/self-reflective one, to a religious/metaphysical/mystical outlook. At each stage, we’re confronted with the limits of that approach, which compels us to raise questions that push us towards the next stage. The empiricist is faced with the radical doubts voiced classically by such philosophers as Descartes, Berkeley, Hume, and Nietzsche. We’re forced to look within ourselves for answers as to how we can trust what we think we know about the external world. That interior line of inquiry leads us to what would later be called the postmodern malaise, to relativism, nihilism, or to the self-destructive solipsism of hyper-consumption—unless we jump yet again to a more encompassing conceptual framework.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Is Infamous YouTube Pessimist “Inmendham” Hero or Villain?

Dateline: NEW JERSEY—The YouTuber known as Gary “Inmendham” has tormented viewers since 2007, by uploading thousands of hostile, deranged videos to that platform, making a bizarre philosophical case against the continuation of life on the basis of what he calls the preciousness of life. 

YouTube is known mostly as a playground for cute, young people to prance and preen, but the website is also part of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web on which cynics and misanthropes proffer their subversive philosophies.

There’s an urban legend that Matthew McConaughey’s character Rust Cohle, from Season One of True Detective was based on the surly, scornful, long-haired Inmendham.

At any rate, Gary argues in over four thousand videos—many of which are well over an hour long—that the evolution of life is a system for torturing animals, including us, and that our excessive suffering is wasted since no good comes from life. Having children only adds victims to this natural system of abuse and exploitation, and thus is wrong.

He calls his philosophy “Efilism” (“Life” spelled backwards), which indicates that his views are more extreme than antinatalism. Antinatalists say that having children is wrong, because the world is harsh and no one consents to being born, but the point of Efilism is that life generally ought to be reversed (like the word) or ended, which is to say destroyed.

Paradoxically, this is supposed to be because the ability to feel pleasure and pain is the most precious thing in the world; in Gary’s words, living things are “precious commodities controlled by crude forces.” Yet in practice, pain always outweighs pleasure, according to Gary, and so the ideal would be for life to be painlessly eradicated, leaving the universe with no more victims to torture.

Instead of pitying all living things or feeling sad about their plight, however, Gary is infamous for his sadistic style of viciously insulting and berating everyone who disagrees with him. Unlike the sorrowful and philosophical Cohle character or a detached and tranquil Buddhist monk, Gary spews invective at everyone from meat-eaters to those who defend the continuation of our species through procreation.

Many YouTubers have attempted to explain the Inmendham phenomenon.

Rust Cohle
One whose nickname is Lazyboy Filosopher and who has suffered Inmendham’s wrath said, “He’s like a bitter, unhinged hippie. His hostility, though, is part of a tough-guy act. When he deigns to argue, as opposed to shouting insults like a psychotic hobo, he always does so with maximum smugness and condescension, accusing those who approve of life of being ‘too insanely stupid’ to understand the brilliant and self-evident revelations from the saintly and wise Inmendham.

“But really Gary’s possibly the world’s biggest pussy. I mean, here’s a guy who honestly believes that because no one should have to suck it up even for two minutes, all life ought to go extinct. Did the little girl drop her lollipop? That alone proves that the world’s unfair and rigged against us in the end, which means for Gary that it’s wrong to accept life under such conditions. Thus, Gary’s living proof that radical left-wingers can be just as insane and belligerent as the far-right fringe.”

Monday, May 21, 2018

CNN Lobbied Oxford Dictionary to Add the Word “Russianoligarch”

Dateline: ATLANTA—CNN has lobbied Oxford Dictionary to add “Russianoligarch” to the English language.

Many viewers of cable news are perplexed that CNN’s analysts and commentators seem incapable of applying the word “oligarch” to any wealthy and influential non-Russian, but insist on speaking as though oligarchs are by definition Russian.

But now CNN has gone a step further in seeking to formalize its misunderstanding by adjusting the Oxford Dictionary to reflect its questionable usage.

According to political pseudoscientist Julio Cabrera, “It could be that CNN is reflexively anti-Russian or pro-American, since by implication, the CNN pundits are united in pretending that the United States isn’t a plutocracy even though America has by far the most billionaires in the world, and the American ones dwarf the wealthiest Russians.”

An alternative explanation is that “CNN’s journalists are lazy and fall into the habit of resorting to memes to avoid having to think much before they speak.”

In the same manner, said Mr. Cabrera, CNN will “chant the clichés” of a “grilling” on Capitol Hill, a “bombshell” report, or a “dumpster fire” or “firestorm” of a problem.

“When you come down to it,” said Christian Science Monitor reporter Lilly Grindstone, “it’s just bad writing. You’re not supposed to speak or write in clichés and memes. George Orwell pointed out decades ago that when you rely on prepackaged phrases, you stop thinking, which leaves you vulnerable to towing some company line.”

Historians agree that Russia did convert to an oligarchy or a kleptocracy soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, because Russia under former-President Boris Yeltsin leaped in the opposite direction towards crony capitalism, privatizing Russian assets and allowing Russian millionaires to buy up most of the Russian Federation at bargain prices.

But Russia isn’t the only country that’s arguably controlled by a powerful minority—and that’s all the word “oligarchy” means: rule by a few. Indeed, said Mr. Cabrera, “besides the egalitarian Scandinavian democracies, most countries are oligarchies: directly or indirectly, from monarchies to democratic republics, the wealthiest one percent of the population tends to have a disproportionate share of political power.”

A spokesperson for the Oxford Dictionary dismissed CNN’s lobbying efforts as futile. “The dictionary reflects the language’s natural evolution, not some arrogant, misbegotten scheme to dictate how the world should be, from some privileged position. Indeed, CNN seems to have learned such maneuvers from the American oligarchs who control the legislative output of that country’s ‘democracy’ from K Street.” 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Dark Naturalism and Sartrean Freedom

On the basis of his once popular lecture and short book, “Existentialism as a Humanism,” in which he attempted to define “existentialism” as the thesis that our existence precedes our essence, Sartre has been effectively related to Heidegger as A.J. Ayer was to Carnap. Heidegger and Carnap wrote dry, highly technical works in laying out forms of existentialism and logical empiricism, respectively, while Sartre and Ayer popularized the movements by bringing them down to earth with some simpler, introductory texts. But Sartre also wrote Being and Nothingness, a tome that’s as systematic, monumental, and difficult as Heidegger’s Being and Time, so that analogy is imperfect at best.

In any case, I want to consider here where Sartre’s early philosophy stands in relation to cosmicism (dark, unpleasant naturalism), to science-based, philosophical horror. Can and should some of Sartre’s insights be naturalized for the sake of adding to an unflinching philosophy of natural life?

Some Elements of Being and Nothingness

Sartre derives his early ontology, psychology, and ethics from Husserl’s principle that intentionality is central to consciousness. Intentionality is being meaningfully directed towards something else, as in a thought’s being about a chair. Sartre uses the phenomenological method of building his analysis on how things intuitively seem in ordinary experience, but he proceeds from that starting point of intentionality to some very different conclusions than Heidegger’s. Heidegger’s ontotheology of Being relieves the weary, alienated existentialist who yearns for a deeper sense of belonging than what’s available in the “fallen,” instrumental world of our pet projects. As in Gnosticism, Heidegger’s version of transcendent Being, the metaphysical ground of all particular beings gallops in to rescue us from the automatism of materialistic culture, awarding the authentic individual a heroic portion of angst as he or she realizes our true, temporal nature, which should put death at the forefront of our thoughts. The authentic individual is alienated from the illusions of the fallen world which mask our tragic nature, from the conventional world in which we identify with our social roles. But once she grasps the truth that she can identify with Being, with the fundamental whatness of things that distinguishes them from nothingness, her human suffering is dignified by her understanding that its part of a nobler story than the kitsch and propaganda of the Machiavellian, materialistic culture.

By contrast, Sartre’s philosophy is antifoundational: for Sartre, life is absurd and tragic and there’s no hope for salvation. If consciousness is always directed away from itself towards something else, the attempt to consciously know the self is futile, since each conscious state is necessarily about something else. Whereas unconscious things are solid and self-identical, complete and candid, as it were, in revealing themselves, consciousness is translucent, relational, and shifty. The ontological mode of mindless objects like chairs or rocks is that they’re “in-itself,” meaning that they are just what they would appear to be if a conscious observer of them weren’t bound by a partial perspective and could take their entirety in at a glance; even if things which exist in themselves have a hidden dimension, such as at the chemical or quantum levels, they nevertheless exist as what you find at those levels. A conscious being, however, has no such plain, stable nature, but is condemned to search desperately to find itself by creating itself in various life projects. The self, then, lives for itself, since there’s nothing in the self by way of a given nature. Indeed, whereas Heidegger identifies perfected human nature with Being, Sartre says we’re essentially nothing. Hence, the title of his major book: Being and Nothingness.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Mueller passes Ongoing Investigation to Granddaughter, years after Trump finished Second Term

Dateline: D.C., Year 2031—Special Counsel Robert Mueller passed away on March 10, 2031, but shortly before he died he handed to his granddaughter the ongoing investigation into former President Trump’s 2016 campaign and financial connections with Russia. At a press conference she vowed to continue the investigation until her death and to carry on her grandfather’s policy of not telling anyone what the investigation has uncovered.

For his part, Donald Trump was reelected in 2020 and served the full eight years as president, leaving much of the United States in ruins.

After the Second American Civil War led to the destruction of FBI headquarters shortly after Mr. Trump’s reelection, Mr. Mueller carried on the investigation from his home’s barricaded garage.

In 2020, roughly 204 million Americans signed a petition demanding that Mr. Mueller “hurry the fuck up” with his investigation, but the special council refused to “speed up his legal process.”

The fact that Mr. Mueller persisted with the investigation even after Donald Trump completed his second term and then after the former president died in 2028 led surviving legal experts, political pseudoscientists, and media personalities to speculate as to what the unseemly cause might be of Mr. Mueller’s absurd obsession with secrecy.

“I can understand if an ultra-meticulous lawyer wants to build the perfect case,” said law professor Raymond Legalese. “And if you’re going up against the president, you’ve obviously got to ensure your case satisfies the most rigorous legal standard.

“But there was never any realistic expectation that the legal case against Trump mattered more than the political one. The Republican-led Senate was never going to convict President Trump even were he to have been impeached, and Donald Trump had millions of dollars to spend on delaying any subsequent criminal or civil cases against him, until his death would have made such cases moot. Therefore, all that ever mattered was the court of public opinion, which the shameless demagogue Trump managed far better than the conscientious Democrats ever could.”

The mystery, then, was why under those circumstances Mr. Mueller would not only carry on and take so seriously an impractical investigation, but keep his findings secret long past the point when the investigation had lost even its theoretical significance. Why did Mr. Mueller pass the investigation to his granddaughter who has likewise sworn to keep the findings secret?

According to Mr. Legalese, “the answer can be found in an old book by John Ralston Saul, called Voltaire’s Bastards. Saul argued that in a modern, rationalist, neoliberal society, everyone’s importance depends on his or her place within the system, because the system and its often inhuman rules come to matter more than the citizens who are ruled by them.

“Saul wrote, ‘The measurement of our power is based upon the knowledge which either passes through our position or is produced by it,’ and so ‘the individual can most easily exercise power by retaining the knowledge which is in his hands. Thus, he blocks the flow of paper or of information or of instructions through his intersection to the next’ in the social system.

“Saul concludes that ‘the encouragement of such retention has become a religion of constipation’ in the puritanical West.

“This is the heart of the matter. Mr. Mueller appeared to have suffered from a severe case of spiritual constipation. He kept the investigation going and he kept it secret because he felt that doing so gave him power.

“Even when that power was lost, after the investigation’s legal and political window of opportunity was closed when Mr. Trump served his full two terms, having dragged the country into civil war and wholly discredited the American political and legal systems, Robert Mueller pursued the investigation because he couldn’t let it go; he was constipated.”   

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Incels and the Call for Omega Enlightenment

On April 23, 2018, 25-year old Alek Minassian attacked bystanders by hitting them with a rented van, killing 10 and injuring 16. The attack happened in northern Toronto, ten minutes from where I live. Minassian was apprehended and a bystander recorded his showdown with the police. Perhaps because of Canada’s strict gun laws, Minassian was reduced to attempting to provoke the policeman into shooting him, by pointing his cellphone at him as though it were a gun, because apparently Minassian had no gun.

As to the attack’s motive, the general suspicion is that Minassian identifies as a militant incel, an involuntary celibate who sought revenge against the sexually active for having humiliated him by rejecting him. Shortly before the attack, Minassian posted this message on Facebook: “Private (Recruit) Minassian Infantry 00010, wishing to speak to Sgt 4chan please. C23249161. The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!” Minassian had enrolled in the Canadian Armed Forces, but dropped out after 16 days of training. “Chads and Stacys” is incel code for popular, physically attractive and altogether successful, sexually active men and women. Elliot Rodger is a 22-year old incel who in 2014 killed 6 and injured 14 fellow students in Isla Vista, California, by shooting them and hitting them with his car. In the middle of the attack, he uploaded a video to YouTube called “Elliot Rodger’s Retribution,” in which he explained that he wanted to punish women for rejecting him, and punish men for making him envy them. He also uploaded his manifesto, which reads more like an autobiography. After the attack, he killed himself.

The Cult of Involuntary Celibacy

Incel cultists describe themselves as going their own way and as having downed “the black pill,” which alludes to The Matrix movie but more specifically to the “red pill” of pickup culture. That culture combs through evolutionary psychology for techniques to exploit women’s biological weaknesses, effectively hoping to con them into having sex with them. But when the techniques fail and the would-be seducer is revealed as “having no game,” he may opt to swallow the black pill, as it were, meaning that he exchanges evolutionary psychology for a more pessimistic worldview. Wikipedia notes that “A 2001 Georgia State University study found that people who self-identified as incels tended to feel frustrated, depressed, and angry regardless of why they felt they were involuntarily celibate. These researchers found that involuntary celibacy was often correlated with depression, neuroticism, anxiety, and autistic disorders.”

Another researcher, Debrah Soh, argues that the militant incels who advocate or fantasize about raping or murdering sexually-satisfied people suffer from more than just toxic masculinity, the latter being a set of repressed masculine traits that eventually explode in disastrous ways, as in Fight Club. Instead, she writes, “these crimes are instances of antisociality manifesting as hatred toward women.” In other words, Rodger, Minassian, and the worst of the goons on 4Chan or incel discussion boards are sociopaths who happen to be involuntarily celibate. The key point is that “Even if those in the incel community were sexually active, they would still harbour resentment toward women.” Moreover, ‘Most men do not behave like this, including men who are sexually frustrated. Those blaming “toxic masculinity” and “rape culture” are missing the mark—this isn’t an issue about gender and it shouldn’t be made into one.’ 

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Cosmicism and Heideggerian Authenticity

Academic philosophers typically regard existential philosophy as an outdated fad. The major texts of existentialism aren’t rigorous enough, according to analytic philosophical standards. In turn, though, continental philosophers and nonphilosophers (nearly all educated persons outside the academy who know something about philosophy) think that analytic philosophy departments and journals are redundant since they’re quasiscientific institutions and add little to actual science, and that the science-centered or naturalistic “philosophers” ignore the real, perennial philosophical issues. These issues have to do with the meaning—as opposed to the empirical truth—of being alive as a person, and as such they touch on the stuff of daily experience which isn’t dictated by reason. The experience of freedom, creativity, purpose, morality, power, anxiety, alienation, and absurdity require intuition and faith to help make sense of them, and those two nonrational elements of cognition, in turn, are welcomed by the arts, not so much by logic, analysis, or experimentation. Existential philosophy ventures more into artistic, literary territory than analytic philosophers are comfortable with and even than some of the great existentialists (such as Heidegger) would be willing to admit. Others, such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre recognized the need for literary provocations to address the deep nonrational problems of human experience.

Still, to what extent can existential ideas be naturalized, that is, applied to a naturalistic worldview that begins not with a neo-Cartesian, phenomenological interpretation of conscious experience, but with the physical world that science explains? Can some bridges be built between existentialism and naturalistic philosophy? This is the first in a series of articles on where some major existential concepts fit into the cosmicist upshot of a science-friendly worldview. By “cosmicism,” I mean not just H.P. Lovecraft’s insight that science is a preeminent source of horror, but the pessimistic philosophy that follows from science’s disenchantment of the world, from its thwarting of our myths and intuitive preferences. Pessimistic philosophy from Schopenhauer to Lovecraft and beyond is, in fact, already a bridge, and to appreciate the relevance of existentialism, we need sometimes only to relax the dogmatic attachment to the phenomenological method or language that obscures the insights. This is the case with Heidegger’s concept of personal authenticity, and so here I’ll try to explain his early philosophy without relying on his jargon.

Heidegger’s Existential Ontology

One way into Heidegger’s thesis in Being and Time is his interest in defending a form of First Philosophy, a privileging of philosophy at the expense of science and naturalistic conceptions of life. Indeed, Heidegger wants to show that almost the entire of history of Western philosophy has been counterproductive in reaching for superficially-rational or objective ways of understanding things, instead of emphasizing the need for an existential foundation. This foundation, says Heidegger, is an appreciation of Being in general, the fundamental whatness of things or how things differ not from each other in their particularities, but from nothingness. Instead of appealing to empirical evidence to support his philosophy, then, Heidegger turns to the method of phenomenological analysis, which he applies not just to the structure of consciousness, but throughout metaphysics. So while Kant defined philosophy as meta-epistemology, or as the search for the transcendental conditions of knowledge, Heidegger practices philosophy as a hyper-formal version of ontology, one rooted, though, in an analysis of human life, which is what makes his philosophy existentialist.

This distinction between naturalistic and ontological methods of inquiry takes us to a fundamental divide in his analysis, between ordinary, inauthentic life and the existentially-elevated kind. The former is debased by preoccupation with the world of material objects and their utilities. Drawing from Christianity, Heidegger calls this the fallen state of human affairs, but contrary to the biblical notion of the fall from Eden, Heidegger’s point isn’t that we regress from a prior state of perfection. We tend to fall into our involvement with our personal projects, but this involvement with objects that are thus “ready-to-hand” and are treated as utensils or as things with familiar uses, is the primary human experience. Scientific descriptions of things that are “present-to-hand” or that have independent objective reality as explained from a scientific standpoint build on that primitive, intuitive experience. Heidegger’s distinction here is similar to Wilfrid Sellars’s between the manifest and the scientific images of the self in the world. The manifest image is how things seem to commonsense: we interpret things as good or bad from a self-interested, normative position, and we act on the basis of our assumption that we have meaningful beliefs and desires as we try to make sense of things and to find some happiness for ourselves. Sellars’s main point was that because the manifest image is inherently normative or value-laden, it can’t be reduced to the scientific world picture even though that latter picture is primary. Heidegger reverses the order of primacy since he rejects naturalism, and he offers a much deeper view of the commonsense experience.