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

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Pointing

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

Saturday, November 10, 2018

What Leads the Empty Suits?

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

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

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

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

"Vote for Summer!" from "Napoleon Dynamite"

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Centrism and the Search for a Worthy Social Order

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

Realism and Centrism

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

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