Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Nature of Creativity

There are two kinds of creativity, the impersonal and the personal. Personal creativity arises as a cosmic joke from the impersonal. Indeed, the universe’s impersonal creativity is the source of bathos, a staple of comedy. In any situation, the ever-present potential for anticlimax is fulfilled when we recognize that underlying what we’re proud of is nature’s dumb indifference. Let’s explore, then, the relations between these two forms of creativity.

The Monstrous Creator

In informed circles, nature is infamous for creating all that populates its dimensions and orders with no plan or purpose in view. The universe’s natural, scientifically-explainable order arises from the evolution of particles and forces which are born in turn from the quantum foam of potentiality. The universe complexifies from atoms to elements to molecules and compounds and much larger-scale forms such as nebulas, stars and galaxies. Alternatively, the greatest complexity lies in the minutest of subatomic shenanigans, and the larger forms are so many tempting misapprehensions of the pointlessness found in quantum events. The universe also evolves through time and not just at the macro level, which gives rise to organic phenomena and to personal creativity, but in the entropic decay of systems.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett popularized the concept of impersonal creativity, by drawing from Conway’s Game of Life, which is a computer simulation of how organic patterns can emerge under the pseudo-guidance of very simple rules. I came across a simpler demonstration while using the software AutoCAD, which can produce elaborate mandalas by dumbly following simple rules of repetition, rotation, mirroring, and attraction to center points. Here’s an example of what I mean.


A simple shape
After rotating and merging a copy of the prior stage
Notice the changing newly-created pattern in the
center, between the two copies as they merge
After rotating and merging a copy of the previous stage

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Homelessness and the Trumpocalypse: A Rant by Rashad the Cackler

[The homeless old man, Rashad the Cackler has returned with another diatribe. Gather round as he spills his guts to passersby on a big city street corner.]

Did you know, passersby, that there are homeless people? You may think you understand but you don’t, because the truth is hiding in plain sight. Ours is the age of futile investigation, when the establishment expends every effort in all manner of empirical inquiries, as though the horrors that need no introduction could be so easily dispelled.

Take, for example, the catastrophe of Donald Trump’s presidency. Currently there are seventeen investigations into Trump’s treachery and galaxy of frauds. You might as well research whether grass is green or 100 is a larger number than 2. Say you’re on the Titanic and the ship starts to sink. Instead of recognizing the direness of your situation, why not debate endlessly whether the ship is sinking or what it means to be on a sinking ship? And as the ship goes under and the frigid waters are up to your eyeballs, why not carry on the investigation right up to when you’ve reached your watery grave?

Add up the significance of all the scientific discoveries over the last century; their importance pales next to that of what we’ve learned about history and human nature from Trump’s presidency. But Trump has done us the service of hiding his monstrosity in plain sight, so no investigations are needed to understand what has thusly befallen believers in American ideals. This isn’t an appeal to common sense, which is often prejudiced in hindsight. No, the audacity of Trump’s mental disorders is revelatory and apocalyptic in the religious sense, meaning that we learn from Trump in the same way we’d learn from an angel or an extraterrestrial that descends to our material plain. You don’t have regular communications with such an interloper; rather, the newfound radical truth washes over you, because the message is conveyed at all levels of the experience. You don’t listen to what an angel from beyond says, since the real message is embedded in the medium, in the angel’s sheer existence on earth which falsifies consensual reality, ramifying throughout the rest of your life now that that theophany has reprogrammed your perspective.

To be sure, Donald Trump isn’t an angel or an advanced alien, but he is a transformative figure. Barack Obama was too feminized by the millennial constraints of late-modern liberalism to reshape the American mindset after the 2008 financial crisis called for a charismatic religious saviour to shepherd Americans to a new self-understanding or to reintroduce them to the New Deal. Inadvertently, Donald Trump is the false hero Americans and other individualists deserve but not the one they need (to paraphrase The Dark Knight). Trump is a demonic harbinger from beyond the political sphere. What his election, his character, and his power on the political stage teach us is both everything and nothing. His existence proves that human life is absurd and that while Donald Trump may be the world’s single greatest con artist, American culture itself is the greatest modern fraud.

The mass media have luxuriated in the profits to be gained from gossiping over Trump’s every word and deed, and so the public drowns in knowledge we weren’t meant to have. In his campaign for president, Trump boasted he alone could fix America and make that country great again, since the globalists had exploited Americans’ good will and ended their dominance in manufacturing. Never mind that the globalists in question were amoral capitalists like Donald Trump who would sell their grandmother to make a buck. Or that relatively rich Americans obviously couldn’t compete in manufacturing with machines and slave labourers in more oppressed parts of the world. At face value, nothing Trump says is worthy of attention, because he’s plainly an epic bullshitter and con artist. What’s historically monumental, though, is that a useful idiot of an international crime syndicate could come to rule the world’s most powerful democracy.

But rather than ponder the philosophical and religious importance of the Trumpocalypse, Americans are busy paradoxically burying their head in the sand, delaying their reckoning with horrific reality by investigating the causes of the catastrophe, and they’ll still be investigating long after the damage has been done and the chance to benefit by learning from this fiasco has been lost. 

Saturday, March 2, 2019

The False Synthesis of Hinduism

Besides its great age, what distinguishes Hinduism is its inclusivity by way of its systematic, comprehensive approach to the question of how best to live. Rather than being narrow-minded or dogmatic, the Hindu has multiple spiritual paths available, each of which finds its proper place in the sprawling edifice of religious and philosophical thinking from ancient India. In pop cultural form, you find the New Age writer and speaker Deepak Chopra, for example, tackling spiritual questions like a businessman or a politician, with a 12-point plan, appealing to various stages and hierarchies and principles. That approach derives from Hindu scriptures, according to which there are, for example, the four purusarthas or main goals in life: ethical action (dharma), wealth, pleasure, and liberation or spiritual release (moksha). Likewise, there are four ashramas or stages of life: student, householder, retirement, and renunciation. Of course, there are also the varnas, the proper social classes, as well as a god for every occasion, in the Hindu pantheon. No part of life is left out of the Hindu analysis.

What can seem like its greatest strength and sign of maturity, however, namely this eclectic, practical approach to life may instead be a profound weakness.

Historically, what scholars call “the Hindu synthesis” was meant to reconcile the ancient Vedic scriptures and principles with the Sramana or renouncer religions, among other Indian cultures and traditions. In the Vedic period of Indian history, dating from around 1,500–500 BCE, Indo-Aryans fled from the demise of the Indus-valley civilization, which had flourished for over a thousand years in the Bronze Age in South Asia, and migrated to the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent. The Vedic culture was priestly, ritualistic and hierarchical, and developed into Brahmanic orthodoxy.

Key Hindu concepts such as dharma and karma derive from the Vedic ideas of satya and rta (rita), of the underlying, absolute order of all things, and of the natural process of organizing everything to be in line with that order. These two foundational concepts are found in numerous ancient religions and philosophies. In Greece, the similar concepts are telos and logos, inherent purpose and rational organization. In Confucianism, there’s li, a system of ritual norms that establishes harmony with the laws of Heaven, while in Taoism there are tao, and te, the proper flow or way of nature, and how an individual cultivates and expresses that flow. All such teleological concepts hearken back to animistic prehistory, when there was likely no rigid distinction drawn between subject and object, when the human experience was childlike and magical on account of the intuitiveness of the animists’ free-flowing anthropocentrism and of their projection of social categories onto nature.

Vedic culture faded during the Second urbanization, between 600-200 BCE when a reform movement gained prominence in Magadha, in the Central Ganges Plain. These reformers were the Sramana, the ascetics who rejected Brahmin political authority as well as the spiritual authority of the Vedic texts such as the Rigveda. Jainism and Buddhism grew out of this independent religious and philosophical counterculture in ancient India. Whereas Vedic religious concepts were liable to be political, since they had to regulate a social order, the ascetics (rather like the Gnostics) put individual spiritual liberation ahead of all other undertakings. Ascetics who renounced wealth and pleasure, politics and violence were omegas (last in the social hierarchy) and social outsiders. Their commitment to spiritual enlightenment must have provided for a devastating juxtaposition with the ulterior motives of the Brahmins, whose scriptures and rituals could have seemed like so many convenient rationalizations of a corruptible, arbitrary political regime.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Howling in the Void: Second RWUG Paperback Anthology

I have another paperback anthology edition of my RWUG articles available now on Amazon. It's called Howling in the Void, and there's no overlap between its contents and those of the first one, Cosmic Horror for Clever Animals

The new anthology is 574 pages and it includes a previously unpublished introduction called "The Anthropocene: When the Universe Disgusts Itself," but otherwise the articles are all drawn from my blog. The eBook edition is also available here on Amazon. 

While I'm at it I might as well mention my philosophical zombie apocalypse novel, God Decays

Monday, February 18, 2019

What is Enlightenment for?

If enlightenment is the acquiring of profound knowledge, what is enlightenment truly for? There’s an esoteric interpretation based on the literal meaning of the word (the bringing of light), which traces enlightenment to the myth of Prometheus’s gift of fire to early humans. Knowledge is thus intellectual or spiritual illumination, so that we become lights in the greater darkness. Intellectual illumination would amount to our potential for mental power. Specifically, a mind can learn how nature works and can imagine ideals to motivate the creation of artificial alternatives. To that extent, enlightenment is empowerment. In the Greek myth, Prometheus empowered our species in defiance of the gods and was punished for his transgression. Christians demonized the promethean symbol, believing that our role isn’t to defy God out of satanic arrogance, to attempt to rival God’s creation with technoscientific mastery, but to preoccupy ourselves with moral constraints as we await the deus ex machina of the arrival of God’s kingdom. The result of such Christian stultification was the Dark Age in Europe, a time not just of ignorance left after the collapse of the Roman Empire, but one in which ignorance was rationalized and alternative ways of life were feared. Then came the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the American Revolution. Again, were the esoteric interpretation confined to the bringing of intellectual light, the historical point would be that the early-modern Europeans succumbed to the temptation to teach themselves to be independent, to empower themselves as individuals at the expense of the Christian theocracies, to seek to become gods through progress in know-how.

In the wider sense, though, in which the potential for illumination is spiritual rather than intellectual, what’s at issue isn’t just the mind but the existential significance of consciousness. In that case, even the stars are dark, as it were, in that they occupy a lower form of being. Like everything else in nature, stars are absurd without an interpreter to supply them with value and purpose. Consciousness is the light in which all beings are beheld and appreciated. Together with mental illumination, a conscious, knowing creature has the capacity to transform all things, including stars, and to do so according to anti-natural and thus virtually miraculous conceptions of how nature should be.

The Historical Variety of Enlightenments

Either way, the point of acquiring knowledge isn’t obvious. In most societies, there’s an even more esoteric or hidden path for the enlightened, which is to withdraw from society, to suffer in silence or to sacrifice himself or herself for the tragic love of knowledge. In the prehistory of religion, shamans who used entheogens to gain wisdom through a skewed perspective and who acted as mediators between the spiritual and material world were thereby condemned to standing somewhat apart from their tribe. Similarly, in one philosophical form of Hinduism, self-knowledge leads ultimately to the conviction that animal and social interests are delusory, that there’s an underlying reality discovered through intensive self-awareness, which is that consciousness and matter, the inner and the outer worlds are identical. After the student and the householder stages of life, the enlightened Hindu retreats to the forest to endure as an ascetic.

In Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths are triumphs of intellectual wisdom. We learn that the nature of unenlightened life is to suffer, but we discover also why that’s so and how suffering can be alleviated by following the Noble Eightfold Path. The difference between the Four Truths and the Eightfold Path reflects the difference between intellectual and spiritual illumination (betterment). We acquire a theory or a mental map of the main problem in life, but then we’re given a procedure of self-transformation which is supposed to solve that problem. We can perfect our consciousness to end our suffering. Indeed, for Buddhists, perfecting consciousness requires curtailing the personal mind and its intellectual conceits of illumination. Thus, according to that tradition, spiritual betterment, the enhancement of consciousness, is antithetical to the intellectual kind, to the ego’s empowerment.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Is there Something rather than Nothing?

Elsewhere I discussed the celebrated question of why there is something rather than nothing. I talked about the cosmological argument for God’s existence, and brought up the mystical, cosmicist context. But I think I failed to address the question’s immediate meaning that generates the peculiar jitters you should feel when you ponder why there’s anything. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” means: “Why is there anything specific when there could conceivably have been nothing at all?” We know that the current crop of specific things in the universe was caused by the previous one, but the initial transition, at the universe’s beginning, from X to the first specific, finite thing seems baffling.

The mystery, then, is that there could be any kind of thing, and the reason the question is so useful is that it seems like a shortcut to a mystical experience, since everyone’s familiar with the existence of things as such. Perhaps you don’t have to lock yourself in a cave for decades to learn how to penetrate the deep mystery of being, when all you have to do is use your five senses to notice the specificity of any old thing such as this table, that dog, or that leaf over by the mailbox. What’s strange is that there seem only two possible explanations of why there’s something rather than nothing, and both are mind-blowing. Either there’s an infinite series of specific things, each stage of which is responsible for the next, or all finite and contingent things come from “something” supernatural, which is to say from some infinite, unspecific “thing” that’s radically unlike anything we’ve ever perceived or are even capable of imagining, which supernatural X is as good as nothing (no thing). Those seem like the only possibilities that make any kind of sense, and again the choice between them is necessitated by the fact that there’s such a thing as things in the first place.

It’s not the quantity or the variety of finite things that makes the mystical difference, since that’s explained by ordinary causality; rather, what’s palpably strange is that there’s at least one finite thing, namely the first in the natural series. When we turn to this table, that dog, or that leaf over there, and we marvel at the strangeness of its having come to be when there could instead have been nothing—or rather when there should have been nothing, since the other two possibilities, of an infinite series of finite things or a transition from infinity to finitude both seem bizarre—that specific thing substitutes for the first thing in the natural chain of cause and effect. What’s strange about finitude isn’t really this table, that dog, or that leaf, since we have a plausible explanation of everything we actually encounter: the table was manufactured by some furniture company, the dog was birthed by its mother, and the leaf fell from that tree over by the curb, the seed of which was planted by that fellow over there. What we do when we think metaphysically or mystically about any old thing is that we wonder about the apparent miracle of finitude in general. We wonder how anything at all could have come from nothing or from “something” infinite, or how there could be a bottomless, infinite series of particular things. No answer seems able to alleviate the strangeness of being, and so the question of why there’s something rather than nothing opens the door to a mystifying suspicion that we’re somehow in the wrong when we’re overly familiar with anything.

All Things are Human-made

Some progress can be made, however, by recognizing the vanity implicit in the question. When we speak of finite things, we’re really praising ourselves for our conceptions of them, since it’s we who bind things in the act of understanding them. The limits of finite things are our cognitive limits. This is why the metaphysical or mystical sense of the question amounts to cosmicism, to an appreciation that being transcends the limits we impose by our senses and concepts and ulterior motives. In reality, there is no table, dog, or leaf, since all such conceptions are at least partly pragmatic and thus arbitrary or self-serving (and therefore dishonourable). Thus, the irony the question brings to bear is that we’re already and always in the midst of the strangeness of being. It’s not that some transcendent entity somehow created the first finite thing long ago and fled the scene, since the whole natural series of finite things is incomprehensible in its totality.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Why Bosses become Loathsome

There are many reasons to admire the upper class. The rich are successful, sometimes famous, and they live in enviable luxury. The well-off often acquire their credentials from an Ivy League education to become the employers around the world who manage positions of authority and responsibility in a business empire, navigating the tumultuous waters of capitalist competition and governmental hounding. These business elites have the best medical care, vacations, clothing, houses, and legal defenses. They beautify themselves and live in what might as well be heaven on earth.

All of which is undermined by the unsettling axiom that, contrary to the Spider Man fantasy, with power comes not responsibility but what John Stewart used to call dickishness. It’s no accident that bosses are generally known to be assholes, so that Hollywood could make two comedies on the subject, called Horrible Bosses. Everyone’s had their run-ins with the ugly effects of privilege and social control on the fragile animal psyches of their bosses, and even if you’re a boss yourself, chances are you too have a higher-up whom you privately revile.

Fear, Envy, and Objectification: Mechanisms of Corruption

The reasons why power corrupts are not hard to understand. To occupy a higher position in a chain of command means you have the right to exert your will against the interests of your subordinates. In a free society, the workers choose to serve under the boss’s command and are entitled to leave if they wish, but if they value their jobs they must submit to their “superiors.” The executives have higher-level goals that are “above the pay grade” of most of the workers, and so there’s often conflict between those wearing the boots on the ground and the elites who make the big decisions. This conflict was highlighted in the movie Working Girl, but more serious and paradigmatic cases are found in WWI and the Vietnam War. The elites pursue their rarified objectives while the subordinates are paid relatively paltry sums to serve at the pleasure of their bosses. The workers quickly learn, then, to fear their bosses who not only have the ability to terminate their employment, but to inflict what soldiers and the police call a “shit detail” on them, to use the workers as a means of achieving some menial task.

When the bosses discover that their subordinates fear—or to use the euphemism, “respect”—them, the fear triggers the animal response in the bosses, of feeling proud of their higher status. A subordinate’s fear signals the difference in status in the dominance hierarchy. For example, the subordinates show “signs of respect” when their superiors are present. They’ll rush out to get coffee or donuts, they’ll avoid making eye contact or they’ll be sure to laugh at all of the boss’s jokes. Perhaps the female workers will submit to their boss’s sexual advances or at least be sure to pay the boss regular compliments to keep him in good spirits. At a minimum, the subordinates will avoid upsetting their managers, for fear of losing their job, especially in a “free market” in which private profits matter more than social welfare.

Just as the masochist’s show of submission excites the sadist’s lust to dominate, the fear displayed by the subordinate in business invites the superior to prove why he or she deserves to be feared—not to mention why the superior ought to be the one driving the Porsche or flying off to vacation in a private jet. The superior does this not so much by making sound business decisions which benefit the company and the world at large, since such socialist logic pertains only to the theory of capitalism (in which social welfare is ironically secured in the midst of maximum individual selfishness, by “an invisible hand”), not to the reality. In reality, a weakly-regulated market empowers managers to think much more narrowly as parasites that hoodwink sheepish consumers and conned shareholders, before resorting to their golden parachutes. No, the managers and executives, the bosses and leaders of all stripes demonstrate their “superiority” by participating in the vicious circle of the master-slave dynamic. The slave demonstrates his or her comparative meekness, causing the master to complete the circle with the complementary display of domination. That way, the hierarchy as a whole is reaffirmed, since the difference between its levels of authority is clarified by the asymmetric behaviours. Everyone knows their place and can feel at ease in the unified group, even if the subordinates know only that their function is to submit.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

What’s so Wrong with Vast Inequality?

Oxfam reports that the richest 26 billionaires currently own $1.4 trillion, which is as much as 3.8 billion of the world’s poorest people. So a couple dozen have as much as half of humanity. Interestingly, only liberals, progressives, and socialists are horrified by such vast economic inequality, whereas conservatives and libertarians are more inclined to celebrate it. Why is that so?

The Injustice of Staggering Economic Inequality

You’d think one of the more obvious objections to the inequality would be just as compelling to those on the right as to those on the left. The objection is just that no one ever earns billions of dollars, so the inequality is always actually unjust. Granted, I can conceive of a world in which someone deserves billions of dollars whereas most other people deserve to be poor. Suppose someone invents the cure for cancer all by himself, having relied on help neither from the government nor from colleagues or from Lady Luck (such as from having inherited genes that make this inventor a genius), and suppose that the cure goes on singlehandedly to change the world for the better for centuries. Suppose also that most other people accomplish nothing of comparable significance. In that case, because of the colossal difference in the achievements, the inventor might deserve to live as a god while the majority should only languish until they die.

Notice, though, that even in this imaginary scenario, we run up against the contradiction that no one who would invent the cure for cancer and distribute it to humanity’s benefit (by selling it at an affordable price) would choose to horde those billions of dollars rather than use them to further aid the very people he meant to serve with the cure. Only if keeping the wealth were needed to fund additional breakthroughs could we imagine the genius choosing to keep his wealth, although even here the inequality would have to be temporary since the additional breakthroughs would eventually have to benefit the rest of the world in such a way that the masses are dragged out of poverty. For suppose this genius invents only inconsequential advances that don’t affect the quality of life of most of the world’s population. Suppose that after curing cancer, he creates only the equivalents of fidget spinners. Then we’d be right to think the genius has squandered his wealth and no longer deserves it, that his wealth has corrupted him so that he’s no longer interested in substantially improving the world. The scenario would no longer be incoherent only because the genius’ character would have shifted from being heroic to parasitic.   

In any case, in the real world there’s never such stark, asymmetric heroism, contrary to egotists like Ayn Rand. Wealth is either old or new, as they say, meaning it’s inherited or personally acquired. If it’s old, the wealth is tainted by the palpable injustices perpetrated in the less progressive past. For example, George W. Bush’s family money derives in part from his grandfather’s connection to a German banker, Fritz Thyssen, who helped Hitler rise to power. Men’s old money generally is attributable to patriarchal advantages, and white men’s to past imperialism and slave-holding from Europe.

If the wealthy raise themselves from having no money to having billions of dollars, that wealth is bound to be acquired immorally even when no laws are broken. Two frequent immoralities stand out: the fraud inherent in the propaganda that sells most products and the devastation of the biosphere caused by most business practices. Beyond those two, there’s the monopolist’s dynamic whereby the rising company lies or undercuts competitors to gain an edge that puts the rivals out of business (typically by resorting to slave labour), whereupon the monopolist exploits the situation by lowering the quality of its products and gouging the consumers. See, for example, Walmart and Amazon. This kind of wealth is obtained by a war of attrition, and because the motive isn’t saintly (as it’s supposed to be in the above thought experiment), if the scheme works, the dominance corrupts the executives and the shareholders, leading to a degenerative system rather than elevating the living standard.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Brawl of Masculinities

The stirring of a men’s movement on the intellectual dark web, the vengeance of the #MeToo backlash, the lame posturing of the Gillette ad, and the American Psychological Association’s warning that toxic masculinity is bad for mental health—these have all raised the question of the nature of masculinity. Is there an ideal way to be a man? Is that question politically loaded or otherwise socially constructed? Or is there a more philosophical perspective that enables us to see through the political games and illuminate the larger problem?

Conservative and Liberal Masculinities

George Monbiot takes up the question of toxic masculinity in a Guardian article, arguing against the conventional wisdom on the right that ‘a “grown man” requires “oppressive” discipline, aggression and risk-taking.’ On the contrary, writes Monbiot, “growing up—whether as a man or a woman— means abandoning anger, aggression and the need to dominate. It means learning to talk about fear, loss, joy and love. It means learning both to listen and to share, to name your troubles and engage with other people’s.” Far from being tougher than the average liberal softy, the macho right-winger is especially vulnerable, says Monbiot, because he often hides some unresolved emotional trauma that threatens to undo his accomplishments. “What sort of a man are you if you have to go to such lengths to prove your masculinity? The confident construction of identity does not require crude cultural markers, but emotional literacy and honest self-appraisal. The more we proclaim our strength and dominance, the weaker we reveal ourselves to be.”

The problem with these discussions is that there’s no such thing as men, psychologically speaking. Most men have the same biological traits, but in large societies men organize themselves into hierarchies, and men at the top are mentally unlike men at the bottom. Our social position impacts our personality, so the differences aren’t subjective. Broadly speaking, men fall into three groups: leaders, followers, and outsiders. The first two groups are part of a larger group which is opposed to outsiders, so that there’s an even broader distinction between winners and losers. The former three categories correspond to the ethological terms, “alpha,” “beta,” and “omega,” although that terminology is tainted by its association with the alt right. In any case, just as there are classes of men with distinct ideals befitting their social station, there are masculinities rather than an overarching value system that ought self-evidently to be adopted by all men.

Male leaders idolize the psychopath, because what distinguishes these men is the social power that naturally corrupts their character, sapping them of their capacities for empathy, compassion and humour. The set of psychopathic traits that characterizes the action movie star, for example, is the traditional kind of masculinity favoured by “conservatives,” since the tradition they wish to conserve or reestablish is monarchism, slavery to the ultra-ruler or tyrant. Conservatism is thus a social movement that prizes bullying, at a minimum, if not a totalitarian dictatorship, and so conservatives seek to preserve the social systems that enable bullies to emerge and prosper. A bully is just a leader whose dominance is recognized by his followers, because the leader has demonstrated his greater share of social power by conspicuous acts of belittling others in the group. The bully’s psychopathic traits, in turn, evolved out of desperation when long ago hunters needed to psych themselves up to bring down big game. Psyching themselves up to stalk dangerous prey or to guard the tribe against fellow predators meant turning themselves at least temporarily into psychos, that is, into fearless, amoral killers. Once our kind succeeded in lording it over the animal kingdoms, our “leaders” trained their psychopathic traits onto the rest of us, and so they became hunters of men and women—not of their fellow humans, mind you, but of subordinate ranks of human creatures that only outwardly resemble them.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Bitter End of “Christian Thinking”

I’ve decided to post the rest of my debate—such as it was—with the “thinking Christian,” Tom Gilson, and with some of his more capable Christian readers, because of the intriguing way the debate appears to have ended. What follows, again, are mostly highlights just from my side of the exchange since my opponents said little that would pique a philosopher’s interest. But near the end I do post Gilson’s angry sign-off, followed by the aftermath and an afterward where I present some lessons I drew from the discussion. Again I include a few explanatory comments in square brackets, and here’s the link to the entire thread on Gilson’s blog, which contains both sides of the commentary. Also, for convenience, here’s my presentation of the first half of this debate, and here’s the first run-in I had with Gilson a year ago.

***

Tom Gilson,
I said my “Christian” comments “demonstrated I have more than a working knowledge of Christianity,” meaning that I have more than general knowledge of the religion. I’m not saying I know everything there is to know about Christianity since no one does, least of all a non-Christian. There’s no one Christian answer to any question of Christian theology. “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” comes from a Charles Wesley hymnal.

You say, ‘I’m opposed to you speaking as if we should accept it as the same, with no argument, with only a story and with “given that…” ’

But I did argue for it when questioned about it—at great length, remember? If you’re looking for stories, with plainly fictional characters and fantastic deeds, read the Bible. You see how easy it is to argue by assertion, like you do? I demonstrated that the criticism of Yahweh’s personality isn’t an arbitrary whim of new atheists, but ironically goes back to Job, Gnosticism, and so on. Then I gave you a logically independent explanation of why we should expect Yahweh’s character to be rigidly tyrannical (it’s due to the nature of syncretism in that part of the ancient world, etc), and I based that explanation on the standard critical historical account of the rise of Jewish monotheism. And I distinguished between assuming awareness of a criticism and assuming general agreement with it.

It’s just baffling that you say I haven’t argued for my position, when I’ve done so at great length and you’ve argued here only by assertion. You’ve even conceded you “didnt specify where your account went wrong because that was never my purpose here,” and that “I suspect you must think me unreasonable for not answering more of your questions.” You say “Bare assertions, stories, and pronouncements are not arguments.” The thing is: you have to know what an argument is to be able to identify one. As I showed in comment #13, you mixed up those two, logically separate arguments and took at most only 24 minutes to digest that long post. Pearls before swine, I suppose.

By the way, I just noticed that in your censored posting of my comment #3, you posted it twice. 

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Second Debate with a “Thinking Christian”

It’s been a year since my exchange with the “Thinking Christian,” so over the holidays I dipped back into that blog and found an article called, The Death of God, the Descent of Man, the Death of Humanity, in which Tom Gilson argues that ironically, instead of killing God, naturalism kills humanity by explaining away our godlike traits of consciousness, freedom, and reason, and by obscuring our God-given purpose in life. I posted a response and we had an interesting discussion until Gilson derailed it by posting an article about the incuriosity and hubris of atheists like me who dare to attack God’s character as though even Christians had to accept that criticism.

Here, then, is a record of my side of the exchange. If you enjoy reading debates, do check out the threads on his blog for both sides and for the full context. Honestly, though, Gilson didn’t put much effort into his comments and this post will be long enough as it is. It’s best, then, to focus here on the more interesting part of the discussion, which happened to be supplied by me. Note that I add a few explanatory notes within square brackets. Note also that the exchange has continued, but these are the highlights.

***

We “know” Nietzsche’s atheism and reductive naturalism are false, because of “undeniable self-awareness and experience”? Is that the same intuitive basis that led us to believe Earth is geometrically central to the universe, because just look: even the sun revolves around us! Or are those intuitions of human freedom, purpose, and cosmic worth associated with the dozens of cognitive biases and fallacies we inherently perpetrate, as shown by cognitive science? We “know” we’re meant for something greater, because we feel that that should be so. And we should go with our gut, because truthiness matters more than truth.

This is an argument from unpleasant consequences. To be up-front and honest about your argument, you should identify as a pragmatist and say—along the lines of Pascal’s Wager—that we’d much prefer for there to be a God, an afterlife, and perfect justice, and that that preference is all that matters because utility outweighs considerations of objective truth. But that would be crass, wouldn’t it? You’d rather have it both ways: the pretense that Christians alone care about truth and reality, and the shameless appeal to intuition and to what feels right even when that feeling flies in the face of naturalistic science (of Darwin, cosmology, cognitive science, etc).

You’re also strawmanning Nietzsche. He understood perfectly well that atheism is horrific, that unpleasant reality is too much to bear for most people and that the truth could indeed destroy humanity. That was the whole point of Thus Spoke Zaruthustra. People aren’t ready for the atheistic prophet’s message. Most people aren’t strong enough to stomach the natural truth, which is why, for example, the “Last Men” will distract themselves with superficial pleasures to avoid facing the harsh facts (that there’s no god, afterlife, or cosmic purpose or justice, and that it’s up to us alone to create meaning). This is the problem of nihilism, which Nietzsche said atheism (i.e. natural reality) threatens us with.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Mental Health: A Rant by Rashad the Cackler

Art by Alex Cherry
[The homeless old man, Rashad the Cackler has returned with another diatribe. Enjoy as he spills his guts to passersby on a big city street corner.]

How I relish the looks of derision on your faces, you calm and collected pedestrians! “Look at the homeless wreck of a man,” you’re thinking. “See how repulsive he is, with his long, matted hair and beard, his blotchy, wrinkled skin, his hunched back and bony arms! Hear as he spews his venom, how he’s nothing left to lose, not even his sanity!” The bitter madman, haranguing harmless middle class normies at the crossroads. What a cliché you’d make of me. But before you silence me with sedatives and a straightjacket, shall I disclose the secret of how you reward me with your sneers and scowls?

You sane ones, do you know what “sanity” means? Mental health is fitting in. The psychiatrists’ textbooks call this “social functionality.” You’re considered mentally unwell if you’re suffering from an inability to perform your social obligations. You have to want to fit into society and yet be mentally prevented from doing so to be the victim of a mental illness.

So congratulations, you joiners and normies, you who’ve adapted so well to social conventions! You’re esteemed as healthy because of your normality. But have you stopped to wonder what you’re fitting into? What are these functions you perform so efficiently? What’s the total effect of normal human effort? What do human functions as a whole accomplish?

Would it surprise you to learn that your health is supremely ironic? You belong to that which is most alien in the universe, not just to life but to a godlike species that rises above nature and the animal kingdom, surveys the vastness of space and time, and creates a contrary world of culture and technology. As you play your assigned roles as worker or family member, as friend or foe, bully or clown, you submerge yourself in that which most stands out. You’re part of a titanic monstrosity.

Let’s not pretend your happiness is innocent, you spinning cogs. You relax or rejoice in your success at fitting in, but you only outsource the horror and agony that any monster can be expected to inflict. You raise your living standard at the cost of perpetrating a holocaust against all other animal species, which you don’t think twice about enslaving, torturing, or exterminating. And the wealth of you middleclass busybodies depended on the drudgery of human slaves or of impoverished toilers languishing in Western-backed dictatorships—until the advent of the machine, whereupon you’ll be made obsolete and will inherit the pain.

So you bright and shining sane ones, my compliments! You’re one with the savage Anthropocene. You’ve thrown in your lot with the tyrannical overlord of savage evolution, threatening all life with extinction because of your hubris. You’ve sidled up to a starry-eyed little boy who carries an oversized shotgun in either hand and plays at being God; you submit to the whims of this child as he pretends he knows what he’s doing. And if you perform your functions so smoothly that you disappear as an individual, you fit right in with that vicious abomination, as those billions of duties and conventions add up to mammoth barbarity, to ironies so absurd they mustn’t even be whispered. To tell this secret is to be in danger of being locked up as a madman.

A curious title I wear: “madman.” For what have I to be mad about? Only my standing apart from the behemoth of humanity, from the bumbling pack of mini despots, as I’m condemned to witness the grotesque drama and to be ignored even as I hurl rotten tomatoes onto the stage. And what kind of man am I, abnormal and dysfunctional in my inability to hold down a job, own any property, or start a family? No, no madman am I—only one estranged subhuman beholding the antics of alien humanity from my perch on Mount Nowhere.